BATON ROUGE – Lane Kiffin unquestionably would have been the answer to the long suffering, malaise-stricken passing offense of LSU, which has been a Christmas of coal for the most part since the 2008 season.
The only exceptions over that nine-year span of aerial frustration were Jarrett Lee through the first eight games of 2011 when he led the Southeastern Conference in passing efficiency, but “players’” coach Les Miles refused to notice how much better he was than Jordan Jefferson, and 2013 when Zach Mettenberger became the only 3,000-yard passer ever signed by Miles at LSU as he expertly showcased the talent of receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. No other quarterback in LSU history threw to two 1,000-yard receivers in the same season.
The world literally “passed” LSU by in 2014 and ’15 before a glimmer of hope this season with new quarterback Danny Etling, who played steady throughout the season and had his best game in his last game. He completed 20 of 28 passes for 324 yards and two touchdowns in the 54-39 win at No. 22 Texas A&M. The previous 300-yard passing game by an LSU quarterback in a victory over an SEC team was on Oct. 5, 2013, when Mettenberger threw for 340 in a 59-26 win at Mississippi State.
Unfortunately for LSU, Kiffin has taken the Florida Atlantic head coaching job.
Just imagine what Kiffin could have done with Etling, who would have been Kiffin’s first returning starter at quarterback since he returned to the SEC at Alabama in 2014. That year Kiffin turned converted running back Blake Sims, who had never started a game at quarterback, into the No. 4 passer in the nation in Quarterback Rating at 83.7 and the No. 1 quarterback in the SEC in passing efficiency at 157.9 while Sims set a school record for passing yards with 3,487, which would also be the LSU record. A dual threat, Sims finished second in the SEC with 274.1 yards of total offense a game as he rushed for 474 yards. And the Tide reached the College Football Playoff final four.
In 2015, Kiffin took drop back quarterback Jake Coker, a senior transfer from Florida State who had also never started a game, and helped direct the Tide to the national title. Coker finished No. 4 in the SEC in passing efficiency at 147.0 and threw for 3,110 yards.
In 2016, Kiffin took true freshman dual threat quarterback Jalen Hurts and has the Tide back in the College Football Playoff final four. Hurts threw for 2,592 yards and rushed for 841 and is fifth in the SEC in passing efficiency at 146.1 and sixth in total offense with 264.1 a game. His 12 rushing touchdowns are the most ever by a quarterback coached by Nick Saban. Against Mississippi State this season, Hurts became the first Alabama player in history to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 in the same game. He also became the first Alabama quarterback ever to rush for 120 yards or more in multiple games. His 33 touchdowns rushing and passing in 2016 is second in school history to Sims’ 35.
It’s not going to be Kiffin, but it could work with a lesser known offensive coordinator like a Matt Canada, who is a successful offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh who previously was at North Carolina State, or someone else. It does not have to be an established well-known name such as Kiffin, former Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich or former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian.
After the 1983 season, new LSU head coach Bill Arnsparger hired a 34-year-old native of Rayne who had been the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Wake Forest. Ed Zaunbrecher directed some of the best passing games in LSU history – particularly short passing attacks – through the 1980s as offensive coordinator with quarterback Tommy Hodson and wide receiver Wendell Davis. Hodson remains No. 1 in LSU history in career passing yards with 9,115, career touchdowns with 69 and career completions with 674 from 1986-89. Davis remains No. 1 at LSU in career receptions with 183 and is second all-time in three categories – catches in a season with 80 in 1986, receiving yards in a season with 1,244 in 1986 and receiving yards in a career with 2,708 from 1984-87.
Zaunbrecher’s 1989 offense remains No. 2 in LSU history in yards passing per game with 258.1. His offense’s 440.3 yards gained per game in 1987 remains No. 3 in school history. He went on to become the head coach at then-Northeast Louisiana before later coaching at Marshall, Florida, Illinois, Purdue and Rice.
After the 1999 season, new LSU head coach Nick Saban hired a 34-year-old native of Clarksburg, West Virginia, who had been an offensive coordinator for exactly one season at mid-major Cincinnati. Before that, Jimbo Fisher was the quarterbacks coach at Auburn from 1993-98 for Coach Terry Bowden, whom Fisher played quarterback for at Salem College and at Samford. Fisher went on to become the greatest offensive coordinator in LSU history from 2000-06 and is now one of the top head coaches in the nation at Florida State, which he directed to the national championship in 2013.
The top two season yardage passers in LSU history were coached by Fisher – Rohan Davey with 3,347 in 2001 and JaMarcus Russell with 3,129 in 2006. Davey remains No. 1 in passing yards per game in a season with 279.2 in 2001 and in most 300-yard passing games in a season with six in 2001. No quarterback in LSU history has ever finished as high as Russell in 2006 in the virtual-all-encompassing statistic of passing efficiency when he was No. 3 nationally at 167.0. He remains No. 1 in school history in passing efficiency at in season completion percentage at 67.8 in 2006, No. 2 in career completion percentage at 61.9 and No. 3 in LSU history in career yards passing with 6,625 from 2004-06.
Russell is also tied for most touchdown passes in a season at LSU with 28 in 2006. He’s tied with Matt Mauck, who threw 28 in 2003 when LSU won the national championship. Russell and Mauck remain 1 and 2 in the LSU books for completions in a season with 232 in 2006 and 229 in 2003, respectively, and Russell is third all-time in career completions with 493. Fisher also coached quarterback Josh Booty, who remains No. 2 in LSU history in career passing yards per game with 197.5 in 1999-2000.
Fisher has two of the top five offenses in LSU history in yards gained – 5,427 for No. 4 in 2006 and 5,418 for No. 5 in 2001. That 2001 offense is also No. 2 in LSU history in yards gained per game with 451.5. Fisher’s passing games still take up three of the top five in LSU history for yards in a season, including the top two. Those are 3,578 in 2001, 3,272 in 2006 and the No. 4 spot – 3,257 in 2003. Fisher’s passing offense also remains No. 1 and 2 in highest completion percentage in a season in 2006 at .666 and in 2003 at .636.
LSU’s more established offensive coordinator hires over the years did not fare nearly as well as the two off radar selections above, and at times were disastrous. Cam Cameron was a coordinator in the NFL at Baltimore and San Diego and a head coach of the Miami Dolphins and at Indiana. Gary Crowton, Miles’ first hire after Fisher left, was the head coach at BYU and a coordinator at Oregon and with Chicago in the NFL. Both had great success in their first year, but dwindled under bad quarterbacks and were fired.
Morris Watts was the offensive coordinator at Michigan State and had previously coached quarterbacks at Tampa Bay in the NFL when new LSU head coach Gerry DiNardo hired him to be his OC in 1995. LSU never had much of a passing offense under him. Lynn Amedee had been an offensive coordinator at Texas, Texas A&M and Florida and had coached Archie Manning with the Saints before Curley Hallman hired him in 1993. George Haffner had spent most of his career as Georgia’s offensive coordinator before Hallman hired him in 1991. Neither ever did very well, though the head coach and some of the talent left much to be desired.
Cameron and Crowton failed partly because of a lack of talent at quarterback and partly because of a meddling head coach, though more the former as Miles’ meddling didn’t stop Mettenberger and Cameron in 2013.
LSU’s next offensive coordinator – whoever it is – will have a talented, seasoned quarterback in Etling, a decent offensive line (unless it’s playing Alabama), talented, tall and fast receivers, a great tailback in Derrius Guice and better quarterback signees in the future under Orgeron than under Miles.
But most of all, for the first time since Fisher came to LSU in 2000, it will be virtually all his offense. Orgeron will let him go. And that should make a difference.