By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
It wasn’t so much the five consecutive losses to Alabama that put Les Miles’ job status in such perilous jeopardy that two early-season losses earned him a pink slip.
Rather it was the annual emotional letdown that’d followed, usually accompanied by at least one — and in recent years two — lackluster and often lopsided loss to less-talented foes.
The insistence of Miles that such an emphasis be placed on beating Alabama that a loss to the Tide meant a disinterested team and a November tailspin. There’s no shame in losing to a perennial powerhouse in the midst of a dynasty, but allowing it to ruin the season is certainly a friable offense.
Remember that as interim coach Ed Orgeron heads into the final three weeks of his audition to prove that he’s the man to lead LSU into the future.
LSU’s latest loss to Alabama, its sixth straight, came via an instant-classic of a 10-0 defensive struggle in an age of college football where such intense, low-scoring contests are few and far between. It dropped the Tigers to 3-1 in their “new season,” as Orgeron has taken to calling it.
The defense, orchestrated by Dave Aranda, battled valiantly before Jalen Hurts got loose for a game-winning touchdown scamper late in the fourth quarter.
LSU held the highest-scoring offense in the Southeastern Conference to 33 points below its weekly average and forced a pair of takeaways that set the offense up in enemy territory with golden opportunities for the go-ahead score.
Aranda’s defense dominated Alabama’s offense, just as Dwayne Thomas boldly predicted they would a week and a half ago. He talked the talk and walked the walk with a monster stat line (9 tackles, 3 for loss, 2 pass break ups, and 1 QB hurry) to lead the charge defensively.
But then, the popular refrain.
“It just wasn’t a very good performance on offense,” Orgeron said. “I thought we played our butt off on defense, but we lose as a team.”
LSU’s offense couldn’t get anything done. LSU squandered both Alabama giveaways and managed just 125 yards of offense, its lowest total since a brutal showing against Arkansas in 2014 after the previous Bama heartbreak at home.
LSU didn’t have the requisite level of quarterback play to cover up a talent gap in the trenches on Saturday night. Danny Etling struggled and took a beating. Leonard Fournette couldn’t find room to run. The tweaked offense that ran roughshod over three weak defenses ground to a halt.
But to be fair, remember there’s only so much of the Miles/Cam Cameron offense that Steve Ensminger could change in season. Nick Saban’s defense is historically dominant against pro-style attacks.
No matter how many times Orgeron insisted the loss was a result of LSU’s poor execution and not Alabama’s brilliance, the truth remains that the superior team won. LSU probably wouldn’t have scored if the two sides played all night.
Losing to the top-ranked Tide isn’t an indictment on Orgeron or his chances at landing the full-time gig, no matter how many “beating Bama is pivotal for Orgeron’s future” pieces were posted during the last two weeks.
But letting it manifest into another loss to Arkansas would be. Ditto if LSU were to come up short against Florida or Texas A&M.
First things first, the Tigers must end a two-year drought against the Hogs — both coming one week after loses to Alabama – that’ve seen LSU humiliated by a cumulative score of 48-14.
The disparity is in part a result of Bret Bielema treating The Battle for the Boot like a marquee rivalry since he took over while Miles allowed his team to play like they didn’t have much interest in the proceedings.
Orgeron expressed confidence the game-week routine he’s implemented will keep LSU from falling into that emotional pot hole again.
“The emphasis this week has been Game 4,” Orgeron said during his post-game presser. “And it was not win at all cost. I was very cautious of that this and every week. We’re going to move on to Game 5 and we’re going to ‘Tell the Truth Monday’ and we’re going to go back to our regiment and we’re going to get after Arkansas. We’re going to finish strong this season. We have a good football team.”
Those two Hog squads that smashed LSU in the mouth were both playing far better at the time than the present version. However, Arkansas has gotten hot every November under Bielema and is coming off a drubbing of Florida now that quarterback Austin Allen is healthy again.
The actions of Orgeron’s players will ultimately speak louder than his words. The coach did everything in his power to make his team treat Game 4 like it had the previous three, but between the bye-week trash talk from Thomas and a ‘players-only’ meeting on Thursday, it’s unclear if the message resonated.
“Alabama was one on the checklist,” senior center Ethan Pocic said. “We didn’t get it done, but there’s a lot more in this season to play for. My mind is already on to Arkansas.”
By all accounts Oregon would have to win out to keep himself a serious contender for the full-time job. The next week will be telling as to how plausible that is. If LSU rallies around its interim coach and finishes strong, it’s doable. If not, it’s back to the drawing board.
All three remaining games are winnable.
Arkansas lost 56-3 to Auburn just a couple weeks ago and previously suffered blowout losses at the hands of Texas A&M and Alabama.
Florida’s offense melted down in Fayetteville, which makes it hard to predict it will look any more in synch in Baton Rouge. There won’t be any shortage of bad blood, either, in a cross-division rivalry that’s seen LSU win four of the last five meetings.
And Texas A&M, a team that hasn’t beaten LSU since joining the SEC, tackled like a junior varsity club in getting upset by Mississippi State. Fournette and Derrius Guice will be tough on a unit that made Nick Fitzgerald look like Cam Newton.
All three of those games are certainly losable, too.