Tigers enter season with mounting challenges

Eight months removed from its historic national championship season, the herculean force that is LSU football is fighting through a pandemic, defections and unrest as the Tigers brace for their Sept. 26 opener against Mississippi State. For head coach Ed Orgeron, there are clouds in his coffee at every turn as he readies his team for defense of a title that was a storybook odyssey as his galaxy of stars breezed past 15 foes with few wrinkles.

Opening night was intended to be a valedictory salute to the 2019 kings of the college ranks and a pounding of hapless Texas-San Antonio. Instead, the debut at Death Valley is against an SEC rival with a sparse crowd on a blazing hot afternoon as cheers are muffled by protective masks. Most importantly, this team has faced a summer of distraction and soul searching that could produce residual friction.

The road to another championship is a map lined with COVID-19 detours as some top players opt to park their bodies from harm’s way and seek NFL glory based on what they accomplished last year. Orgeron reached a similar decision in the fall of 1979 when he departed the LSU squad as an incoming freshman because the comforts of Broussard Hall lacked the familiar feel of his Lafourche Parish homestead.

Stalwarts Ja’Marr Chase, the best receiver in the country, and Tyler Shelvin, the mammoth anchor to the defensive line, have taken early outs and leave significant holes in the 2020 path to success. With about 70 scholarship players available at press time, Orgeron faces dangerous attrition as he strategizes for a season that is bound to include some Coronavirus casualties.

Orgeron reigned over the best LSU season on record in 2019, and this season was thought to provide a realistic chance for a re-run to a national title that would be unprecedented. In three previous championship encores in 1959, 2004 and 2008, LSU averaged 8.66 wins in seasons following national title runs that produced an average of 12 victories.

LSU plays two fewer games devoid of non-conference cupcakes. Since 1955 when Paul Dietzel started the modern era of Tiger football, 65 seasons have produced 267 wins in the conference against 173 losses, a winning percentage of 60.7 percent against SEC foes.

In the Golden Age of LSU which began at the start of the 21st Century, the Tigers are 113-47 in the league, a percentage of 70.6 percent. The reality is a 7-3 record in this treacherous year may be considered an accomplishment, a thought that was incomprehensible when LSU blew out Clemson 42-25 on Jan. 13 at the Louisiana Superdome.

Ten LSU coaches have traversed the SEC for at least three seasons since Paul Dietzel took the helm in ’55. Their records indicate how imposing the league is to the best of coaches. Here are the conference records of those 10 men, based on total victories in the league.

Coach                           Years                SEC Record                   Percent

Les Miles                      2006-15            62-28                           68.9

Charles McClendon       1962-79            60-41-3                        59.4

Nick Saban                    2000-04            28-12                           70.0

Paul Dietzel                  1955-61            26-16-1                        61.9

Ed Orgeron                   2016-19            23-7                             76.7

Gerry DiNardo              1955-99            18-20-1                         47.4

Mike Archer                  1987-90            15-12                           55.6

Bill Arnsparger              1984-86            13-3-2                          80.3

Curley Hallman             1991-94            10-21                           32.3

Jerry Stovall                  1980-83            9-13-2                          40.9

The opening date is the latest for LSU since 1956 when Dietzel kicked off his second year on Sept. 29, dropping a 9-6 decision to Bear Bryant’s third team at Texas A&M. That close loss was a killer for LSU as the Tigers stumbled to six consecutive losses en route to a 3-7 record in year two under Tall Paul while the Aggies went 9-0-1 under Bryant.

Orgeron is counting on the delayed start not being a harbinger to a long, unproductive and disappointing fall. LSU retains ample talent, but its once invincible swagger is diminished by a shrinking roster and what is likely to be the least vocal contribution from fans since Tiger Stadium opened in 1924.

This season is also affected by national tragedy.

The afternoon of May 25, 2020 provoked a rallying call for Black people across the nation when an African-American citizen of Minneapolis was killed in public view by a police officer who suffocated him with a knee to the neck for nearly nine minutes as George Floyd begged for his life.

Other murderous acts by law enforcement officers in all regions of America have our country on edge and citizens seeking justice.  With an LSU roster of 85 percent Black athletes, the tension was a catalyst for players abruptly leaving a team meeting a few weeks ago and marching across campus in support of justice for all.

Orgeron has thrived as a master communicator and recruiter of young men of all races in a career of big gets. He must demonstrate to athletes in a volatile era that he is not tone deaf to the plight of Black citizens.

Orgeron has not been active in politics and did not register to vote in Louisiana until he was 58 years old. Last year, he supported Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, and he recently told Fox News that he loves President Trump. That remark placed him in an adversarial position with many of his players. There is no experience in his past to adequately prepare for this moment.  

Orgeron will rely on his instincts to navigate a cross current of societal change. He has encountered his share of life challenges.  Coach O transformed himself from an intemperately imbibing bayou brawler in his late 20s to a responsible family guy and tireless assistant. He also rallied from a humiliating firing as head coach at Ole Miss in his 40s and a snub that kept him from being named permanent head coach at USC in 2013.

Orgeron was 52 when he was told he was not the right person to lead USC back to national prominence. This was viewed as a knock-out blow to any future ambition. He rose from the canvas to look down at naysayers as he celebrated a championship that was overpowering in its dimension. His unbridled joy in the winner’s circle at the Superdome only six years after his unceremonious exit from Southern Cal captivated a nation.

Coach O faces a new crisis. The kid from Amos Moses country knows the benefits of courage, perseverance and decency. He must employ those virtues to unite his troops to compete in a season producing obstacles no previous LSU coach has faced. 

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