By JIM KLEINPETER | Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
To paraphrase former sports broadcaster Keith Olbermann, “Welcome to the rest of my career.”
On the show launching ESPN2 in 1993, Olbermann’s actually said “end of our careers.” He couldn’t have been more wrong, and I’m happy my 37-year career as a sports writer hasn’t ended quite yet. Many thanks to my friend and publisher Jim Engster and editor Cody Worsham for making that happen with this column opportunity.
It’s an honor to step into a void once filled by my late, dear friend, Marty Mule’. I kind of feel like a No. 8-hole hitter behind the likes of James Moran and Glenn Guilbeau in a magazine I saw rise from its beginning in the late 1970s as a student assistant in LSU Sports Information.
My work has never been heavy on columns. For some strange reason I preferred the daily grind of beat writing and features to telling readers what I thought. The last real column I remember writing in my days as Times-Picayune prep editor so irritated a Baton Rouge prep coach, he would bring it up every time I saw him for years afterward. Now 25 years later, I’m sure he hasn’t forgotten.
So, here I am. I didn’t want to appear out of nowhere. On with the column.
What else to write about than LSU-Alabama, which renews for the 54th year Saturday at 7 p.m. in Tuscaloosa? The series has come full circle in the past six decades from when the teams first became permanent opponents in 1964 to rivals on a national scale. Former LSU coach Nick Saban has turned the Tide program into one of ruthless efficiency, separating itself from the rest of the conference and the rest of the nation in the past few seasons.
In going 5-0, the Tide has scored an average of 47.6 points with an average victory margin of 40. It’s nothing new Alabama has extended its winning streak in league games to 20.
The LSU-Alabama rivalry, specifically, is taking on the look of the stretch from 1971-81 when Bama won 11 in a row as Bear Bryant established himself as college football’s best coach. There is little argument Saban has become Bryant-like with four national titles in his 10 previous seasons. Just like the 1970s, everyone is playing catch-up to Alabama.
The current streak is six games going back to the infamous 21-0 loss in the BCS title game. LSU has scored seven touchdowns in those six games but has lost three of them in the fourth quarter – including last year’s 10-0 loss, which was scoreless after three periods.
In the 11-game streak, LSU scored 11 TDs and three of them came in the 35-21 loss in 1972. I grew up during that stretch, and the Tigers were often close but not close enough. In 1978, Chris Williams’ interception return appeared to give LSU a 14-0 lead, but it was nullified by a clipping penalty on the way to a 31-10 loss. Games like that gave an air of inevitability to every LSU-Alabama game, which ultimately cost Charlie McClendon his job as head coach.
That air is back. Alabama was nearly unanimous as a pre-season favorite and is one second from playing from a third consecutive College Football Playoff title. With a committee picking the four CFP entrants and taking the process out of the hands of a computer program, Alabama’s hand is only strengthened.
The good news for LSU fans is coach Ed Orgeron has righted a ship that appeared to be foundering four games into the season. On top of ugly losses to Mississippi State and non-conference Troy, Orgeron made some un-coachlike remarks about his team, and there was a momentary rift with offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Those remarks were of far more concern than the losses. But it has all been swept away by three consecutive conference victories.
Whatever Orgeron did to address those issues, it worked. Even if none of the three wins could be called dominating, Orgeron appears to have his team’s ear when it comes to getting a full four quarters of effort. The Tigers still have some major weaknesses, most notably an offensive line that looks overwhelmed by every opponent’s pass rush. That can only be addressed through time – time for starters to heal and time to recruit to fill out the depth and create continuity at that position moving forward.
LSU is not likely to beat the Tide on its home field Saturday as a 24-point underdog. The Tigers can’t match up with Bama in the trenches like it has in the recent past and aren’t talented enough at quarterback to make enough big plays to overcome the personnel gap. Getting back to being Bama’s equal will start on the recruiting trail where Orgeron seems to do some of his best work.
There’s another past similarity worth mentioning. This season resembles 1980 when another first-year head coach, Jerry Stovall, took over after Bo Rein’s death in a freak plane crash. That team started 2-2 with an ugly upset loss to Rice, won the next four to get to 6-2 after eight games before finishing 7-4. The program dipped to 3-7-1 the next season, but snapped the Bama streak the following season. The change in the program’s culture led to improved recruiting and set the stage for the success that followed through most of the 1980s.
LSU is undergoing a similar sea change this year. Canada’s offense looks nothing like anything LSU has ever had, and in a subtle way, neither does Dave Aranda’s defense. Orgeron knows he’s got to eventually beat Alabama to keep his job beyond four years. Right now, he’s still on the launching pad.