By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
I don’t know who will be LSU’s head coach come the start of the 2017 season.
I don’t know if it will be Ed Orgeron, who, despite a 10-0 loss to Alabama on Saturday, has acquitted himself well in four games in charge. I don’t know if it will be Jimbo Fisher, Tom Herman, Eric Taylor, or Coach Hines. Maybe Les Miles will somehow coax and flat-hand-clap his way back into the very job from which he was just fired. (If anyone is capable of this, it’s Les Miles.)
I don’t know who is at the top of Joe Alleva’s list right now. I do know, however, what his first order of business after hiring LSU’s next head coach — whoever he ends up being — will be: doing whatever it takes to keep Dave Aranda on his coaching staff.
Matter of fact, were I Alleva, I’d have met with Aranda first thing Monday morning, given him the keys to the LSU vault, and told him to take whatever plunder he required to remain in Baton Rouge for the foreseeable future.
Among a multitude of dark clouds hovering over LSU’s disappointing 2016 season, Aranda is a shining, always-scowling, beautifully-bald ray of optimism for Tiger fans. The 40-year-old first year defensive coordinator by way of Wisconsin could be the best hire a dead-coach-walking has ever made.
Depending on how long it takes LSU to get back to the pinnacle of college football, fans could begrudge Miles for quite some time for the culture of underachievement he left his predecessor.[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#461d7c” class=”width:400px” size=”18″]
Matter of fact, were I Alleva, I’d have met with Aranda first thing Monday morning, given Aranda the keys to the LSU vault, and told him to take whatever plunder he required to remain in Baton Rouge for the foreseeable future.
But if the Tigers return quickly to their preferred place among college football’s elite programs, it will likely be, in large part, due to the last big hire Miles made.
Aranda brought a brief, but impressive resume to Baton Rouge with him this offseason. At Wisconsin, he coordinated the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense in 2015. The Badgers gave up just 13.7 points per game in 13 contests last season, and they ranked second nationally in total defense (268.5 yards per game).
All this with a group of seniors comprising the No. 62 signing class in 2012 by 247Sports. In fact, in Aranda’s three seasons in Madison from 2013-2015, the Badgers brought in classes ranked No. 38, No. 32, and No. 40, respectively, and he still molded a defense ranking first in the nation in total defense over that three-year span, giving up just 289.4 yards per game.
Before that, Aranda powered the defense of perennial power Utah State to No. 7 in the nation in scoring defense. (This year, Utah State ranks 76th in that same category).
Point is, Aranda arrived with plenty of street cred, and high expectations regarding what wonders he could work with talents he’d never had in his previous stops. The only question was if his schemes would translate to the SEC.
In short, they have.
How’s this for a debut season? Through eight games, LSU’s defense has given up just nine touchdowns, the fewest in the nation. The Tigers surrendered just one touchdown in two games against No. 1 Alabama and No. 8 Auburn, who have combined to score 82 touchdowns in all other games. LSU ranks No. 6 nationally in scoring defense (14.4 points per game), No. 13 in total defense (315 yards per game), and No. 7 in yards per carry allowed (3.13), and No. 1 in passing touchdowns allowed (4).
Aranda’s latest masterpiece might have been his finest. Against Alabama, his men held the SEC’s highest-scoring offense 34 points below its season average. Despite the fact his defense spent 23 minutes on the field in the second half, it took 46 minutes, a questionable late hit, and a missed holding call by the officials for Alabama to finally cross the end zone early in the fourth quarter. And that only came after LSU’s defense produced a goalline stand and forced two turnovers, five punts, and five three-and-outs.
LSU has given up 9 touchdowns in 8 games.
Last year, LSU gave up 38 touchdowns in 12 games. #Aranda
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) November 6, 2016
LSU gave up 1 touchdown total in losses to No. 1 Alabama and No. 8 Auburn.
Those teams have scored a combined 82 TDs in all other games.
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) November 6, 2016
Bama quarterback Jalen Hurts entered the game with a passer rating of 142.7. He threw for just 107 yards against LSU and finished the night with an 89.7 passer rating. His game-winning touchdown and 70 fourth-quarter rushing yards had little to do with Aranda’s scheme and more to do with an exhausted Tiger defense that missed a couple of assignments and found itself on the wrong end of a couple calls — or no calls.
The annual post-Alabama collapse that often accompanies LSU throughout November will be easier to fend off this season thanks to the Tiger defense. Arkansas, Florida, and Texas A&M are still formidable foes, but they all look significantly more beatable than they did, say, three weeks ago. Auburn blew out Arkansas last week, Arkansas blew out Florida this week, and A&M fell to Western cellar dweller Mississippi State. By no means are any certain victories, but Aranda will make scoring difficult on all three, and LSU’s offense should have a better chance of finding the endzone than it did on Saturday night.
The key in the long run, though, isn’t the next three games, but the next three seasons. At 5-3, LSU has little, in tangible terms, to play for this year. Yes, there is pride, and bowl prestige, and sending seniors off right, all of which matter in the moment, and Orgeron could still coach his way into a full-time with four wins to close the season. But whether LSU goes 3-0 or 0-3 the rest of November matters less than where the program is next November, and the November after that. The rest of this season is ultimately about building for seasons to come.
That’s why Alleva should invite Aranda over as soon as possible for a Scrooge McDuck inspired swim in the stash of coins he and TAF have tucked away in the LSU safe. Aranda is a must-keep coordinator, a guarantee of defensive dominance who will offset any offensive growing pains next year’s playcaller will surely endure. And, it must be noted, Aranda’s current contract offers little security for LSU in the long term.
Yes, per the terms of his three-year deal signed in January, Aranda has the latest-expiring deal (March 31, 2019) of any coach on staff. Yes, unlike the rest of the assistants, his bears no Les Miles clause, so the six month cutoff from the date of Miles’ firing that applies his colleagues’ paychecks doesn’t apply to him. And yes, at an annual salary scaling up to $1.3 million, he’s safely among the highest paid coordinators in the country, per a 2015 USA Today database.
But if Aranda wants to leave, he can. If he bails on LSU for a head coaching gig — I imagine there will be plenty of suitors this offseason — he owes the school a buyout of exactly $0. I think he can afford that.
He can’t depart for another defensive coordinator job with an SEC program, nor any other FBS program within 500 miles of LSU, without paying back 50 percent of his remaining salary, a steep price, for sure. That number drops to 20 percent if he’s outside the geographic restriction.
I doubt any other defensive coordinator job would be enticing enough to lure Aranda away. The only other place he’d have access to a talent pool of LSU’s depth would be Alabama, and that particular institution employs a head coach who, I’m told, has a few defensive ideas of his own.
It’s the head coaching gigs he will surely be offered that would worry me, were I Joe Alleva. You don’t work your way up the coaching ladder like Aranda has — from Redlands High School linebackers coach to LSU defensive coordinator — without ambition. Accordingly, Aranda has been a bit of a coaching nomad, with 10 stops in 20 years to his name, at places ranging from Thousand Oaks, Calif. to Cleveland, Miss. He’s a genius, but a wandering genius.
And, based on Alleva’s criteria for the hire, don’t look for Aranda to be LSU’s next man in charge. LSU’s athletic director explicitly told The Advocate’s Scott Rabalais his next head coach will have previous head coaching experience. Aranda doesn’t fit that mold.
The one advantage LSU may have is that Aranda, on the surface, appears to be a coordinator at heart. He loves the nuts and bolts of defense. Were he to become a head coach, he’d all but surely have to sacrifice his hands-on approach in favor of a supervisory, delegatory role. I’m not sure that appeals to The Professor, who seems to prefer the classroom to the board room.
Regardless, Alleva needs to ensure Aranda is on board with whatever direction the program takes this offseason. Whatever it takes — a parking spot, a pay raise, an unlimited supply of dry erase markers to play with — LSU needs to provide it as incentive for Aranda to stay. Hiring a head coach is priority number one for LSU this offseason. Keeping its defensive coordinator isn’t far behind.