William Weathers: Can LSU’s 2020 positive season ending jumpstart 2021?

Cade York's school-record 57-yard field goal through the fog helped the Tigers beat sixth-ranked Florida 37-34, giving the team a chance to finish the 2020 season on a positive note. Photo by Brad McClenny, The Gainesville Sun

The catalysts to successful football seasons are not always derived from the same narratives.

Should LSU, which returns 18 of 22 starters, recapture its past glory, contend for a Southeastern Conference championship and return to the College Football Playoff, the Tigers will look back favorably to the way they ended the 2020 season as a major reason why.

“We’re excited about this season,” LSU head football coach Ed Orgeron said during his appearance July 19 at SEC Media Day. “We have a lot of guys returning. We have an experienced team. We have a very good team. A very good coaching staff coming back, and I love the mindset of this football team and the leadership of the football team.”

Orgeron’s optimistic look at the 2021 season was galvanized by the end of the previous year that carried into the second week of the December, concluding with a pair of down-to-the-wire victories for a 5-5 record.

The season, though, was devoid of postseason play when the school instituted a one-year bowl ban in hopes of softening an anticipated blow from the NCAA because of previous rules violations.

Never had simply being average at LSU, a year after a perfect 15-0 record and national championship, appeared to be an accomplishment.

But here’s a program eight months removed from a rain-soaked 53-48 victory over Ole Miss that’s the complete antithesis of itself, evoking enough confidence to start the season just outside the Top 10, projected to win upwards of 9-10 games and play in a New Year’s 6 bowl.

LSU limped through the majority of its COVID-shortened season, a team whose national championship roster gutted by the NFL Draft and a sign of times during the pandemic, opt outs, which eventually resulted in the loss of its top three receivers (Ja’Marr Chase, Terrace Marshall, Arik Gilbert), top defensive lineman (Tyler Shelvin) and productive defensive back (Kary Vincent Jr.).

The culture of the Tigers locker room appeared disjointed, evidenced by a team march Aug. 31 across campus to show support for nationwide movements to end racial inequalities in the wake of a police shooting in Wisconsin.

The noticeable omission from the team’s sign of unity was Oregon who showed up for practice that afternoon and unknowingly found a sparse locker room.

By the end of the third game LSU was 1-2 and without starting quarterback Myles Brennan who encountered a season-ending injury.

That left Orgeron with seven weeks of the year to negotiate and two true freshmen quarterbacks in TJ Finley and Max Johnson to get the Tigers across the finish line in an already very trying season.

LSU dropped back-to-back games to Texas A&M and eventual national champion Alabama, the latter a lopsided home loss, to drop to 3-5 going into a road game at then sixth-ranked Florida before closing with high-scoring Ole Miss.

Most observers had already chalked up the trip to Gainesville as a loss, a point that looked more likely when Orgeron confirmed he had less than 50 scholarship players available, and Johnson would make his first college start in such a vaunted venue.

LSU’s defense forced three first-half turnovers, including a pick-six from freshman cornerback Eli Ricks, and the Tigers showed their mettle in a game that featured six lead changes by driving for a late field goal under adverse circumstances for a memorable 37-34 victory.

Johnson, who accounted for 291 total yards and became the first LSU QB to throw three TDs in The Swamp, directed the game-winning drive that place-kicker Cade York capped with a school-record 57-yard field goal in a dense fog with 23 seconds to play.

LSU closed its season in equally dramatic fashion, having to fend off heavy rains and a determined Ole Miss team to win 53-48.

Johnson passed for 435 yards and three TDs, all to freshman wide out Kayshon Boutte who established an SEC record with 308 receiving yards, include a game-winning 45-yard score with 1:34 left.

York was 4 of 4 in field goals and LSU’s riddled defense got a strip from Ali Gaye and fumble recovery from JaCoby Stevens with 40 seconds left to celebrate not only a hard-fought victory, but also exhale in posting a 5-5 record after what some observers believed could be a 3-7 finish.

It took until the end of the season for LSU to display the kind of character Orgeron was looking for along with determination and togetherness.

He turned that late-season momentum into a boon, going on to put together the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class, convincing a double-digit number of players to return for an additional year of eligibility, got linebacker Mike Jones Jr. of Clemson out of the transfer portal and overhauled his coaching staff with six new, youthful hires – including both of his coordinators.

LSU’s enjoyed a productive Fourth Quarter winter program, spring training and offseason – all of the elements missing in 2020 – with visions of resuming its role as a stable program accustomed to winning at a high level.

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