Jim Engster: Coach O is no Gene Chizik

Only two SEC coaches have produced undefeated national championship seasons with Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks.

Gene Chizik of Auburn savored the Triple Crown in 2010 as the War Eagles raced through a 14-0 season directed by Heisman victor Cam Newton. Ed Orgeron followed in 2019 with Joe Burrow guiding LSU in a 15-0 national title run.

After an embarrassing 44-34 opening day defeat to Mississippi State, Orgeron is retreating from all Chizik comparisons. Chizik’s coaching career ended two years after his team won the national championship with a 22-19 triumph over 12-0 Oregon on Jan. 10, 2011. The magical 2010 campaign for Auburn was followed by a pair of seasons with 8-5 and 3-9 records, sending Chizik off the sidelines and into the broadcast studio.

At 58, Chizik has been retired for eight seasons. At 59, Orgeron entered Saturday’s opener as the toast of college football. His persona is so appealing that six days before the opener he was the recipient of impressive puffery from the once hard-hitting journalistic juggernaut known as 60 Minutes.

The adulation from CBS was gone in another 60 minutes as K.J. Costello riddled the LSU defense for an SEC record 623 yards in the air. He silenced O’s victory tour with 36 completions, averaging 17.3 yards.

Bo Pelini’s defense took social distancing to a new level as LSU withered from an aerial assault from a 23-year-old transfer who has NFL scouts salivating.

Orgeron may wince at mentions of him and Chizik, but they have some similar back stories. Chizik snagged the Auburn job after two miserable years at Iowa State that ended with a record of 5-19. His tenure at Auburn enabled him to leave the profession with a 38-38 overall ledger.

Orgeron was no overnight sensation either, going 10-25 at Ole Miss, 6-2 at USC and is 40-10 at LSU for a record of 56-38. Among head coaches in the SEC West, Coach O ranks sixth in college wins behind Nick Saban (244), Leach (140), Jimbo Fisher (101), Gus Malzhan (72) and Lane Kiffin (61). Pelini won 100 games himself as head man at Nebraska and Youngstown State.

Leach celebrated his most significant victory last week as Costello shattered a 27-year-old SEC mark of 544 yards passing from Georgia’s Eric Zeier by 79 yards. As great as Joe Burrow was at LSU, his one-game high for yards passing was 493 against Oklahoma, 130 fewer yards than racked up by Costello against LSU.

The 6-foot-5 quarterback had a regal quality as he stood tall in the pocket, seemingly oblivious to defenders in close pursuit the whole game. Costello was a second team Pac-12 selection in 2018 before losing the starting role in 2019 and bringing his gun for hire to Starkville. Leach admired Costello while the MSU coach was running the show at Washington State.

Costello’s bottom line at Stanford was impressive with 49 touchdowns against 18 interceptions, completing 63-percent of his passes for 6,151 yards. He was good enough at Palo Alto that it makes one wonder why LSU didn’t pursue him. Leach did have first-hand knowledge of his talent, witnessing Costello toss for 323 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 41-38 loss to Washington State Oct. 27, 2018.

The last time Leach coached in Tiger Stadium was on Oct. 17, 1998 as offensive coordinator at Kentucky.

His Wildcats upset LSU 39-36 as Tim Couch passed for 391 yards and three touchdowns, the first road win over a ranked opponent for the Wildcats in 21 seasons.

Before that debacle, Gerry DiNardo’s record as head coach at LSU was a sterling 29-11. With the loss to Hal Mumme’s Wildcats, DiNardo began a downward spiral that saw his team go 3-11 in its next 14 games, resulting in his firing after a 2-8 start in 1999. Hal Hunter coached the final game of the 20th Century for the Tigers.

If LSU had prevailed against Kentucky in 1998, history might have been altered. DiNardo could have lasted into the 21st Century, meaning the fellow with the turtleneck shirt would never have been summoned from East Lansing to kick-start the Golden Age of LSU Football in 2000.

Saban, Les Miles and Orgeron have a string of 20 consecutive seasons of at least eight wins for LSU. That streak is in jeopardy with a ten-game regular season and LSU’s chances of playing in the SEC title game diminished by a woeful performance against State.

Orgeron has faced a grueling 8½ months since leaving the Louisiana Superdome on Jan. 13 with the greatest team in history. The Tiger leader has weathered departures of key players, critical defections, a deadly pandemic, a painful divorce, substantial staff changes and friction with his players.

He must quickly patch up the potholes or 2020 fortunes will crater quickly. The bet from this corner is that we saw the worst of LSU for this season, and the Tigers will start winning.

at Vanderbilt. Dates remaining against Auburn, Florida and Alabama look daunting. If those outings do not go well, LSU is looking at a 6-4 season at best, which would be its worst finish since the 3-8 record in 1999.

Orgeron is under intense scrutiny, but he can relax with a $7 million annual salary and a heavy payout if he is fired. It is not comparable to the pressure endured by Charles McClendon. He was provided a pink slip in 1979 with no buyout and an $85,000 annual salary after 18 mostly successful seasons.

This is LSU, the land of confusion where Jerry Stovall was placed on a game by game evaluation after starting 2-2 in 1983, one season removed from being named National Coach of the Year. Coach O captured the same honor last year.

A week ago, Orgeron was four games short of enjoying the longest winning streak ever for LSU football. Now, he is a loss to Vanderbilt away from the LSU Board of Supervisors assembling for an emergency meeting.

It was bad enough to start defense of a national title with a home loss to a school that has posted just one SEC football championship in 1941. There will be hell to pay if LSU returns from Nashville with another setback to a league member that has not won the conference in 87 years of trying.

Orgeron will field infinitely better athletes against Vanderbilt even with a depleted roster. It should be a game of redemption, though the recruiting master must muster his salesmanship to persuade his troops to get back on track.

A disastrous disappointment will have Orgeron leaving Music City with the words from “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” ringing in his ears.

To quote Hank Williams:

I’ve never seen a night so long

When time goes crawling by

The moon just went behind the clouds

To hide its face and cry

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Jim Engster | President, Tiger Rag

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