By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Eight games into the first season of what I’ve been calling LSU Football’s Grand Experiment, the overall outcome – 6-2 overall, 3-1 in the SEC, heading into a road trip to Tuscaloosa with SEC West title hopes faintly glimmering in the foreground – is about what was expected.
How that outcome has unfolded, however, has been a total shock.
The 2017 Tigers looked like a 9-3 or 8-4 team, on paper, in the preseason. There were – and still are – questions along the offensive line and at wide receiver, with a quarterback who can’t overcome those problems by himself and a young defense prone to young mistakes.
That the Tigers would arrive in the first week of November at the circled game on the calendar with two defeats would’ve surprised no one, but few could’ve predicted that those defeats would have come at Mississippi State and home to Troy.
Yet here we are, and somehow, once again, LSU, a month removed from a collapse into the Curley Hallman days, is playing for a shot at an SEC Championship.
Barring another sort of wild twist in the narrative college football often provides, and to do no discredit to the work Ed Orgeron and his staff have done in turning around the season, LSU won’t win that championship. The Tigers head into Tuscaloosa 21.5 point underdogs, and there’s a reason all those tall, shiny buildings keep popping up in the desert. The sharks are usually right.
That doesn’t mean LSU can’t win, of course. Derrius Guice looks back to full health after gashing Ole Miss for 276 yards on the ground. Arden Key has returned to football shape, after an odd offseason that clearly took its toll on him in the early part of the 2017 season. The Tigers’ secondary is playing at DBU levels, and Dave Aranda dialed up a doozy in shutting out the Tide through three quarters a year ago. If Matt Canada can keep squeezing juice out of this offense, LSU could compete.
A win would certainly be a shot in the arm and speed up the catching up process Orgeron inherited upon taking over for Les Miles four games into last season. Nick Saban has a 10-season head start and hasn’t lost to LSU in six. Beat Bama – on national television, in prime time, and with all the narrative context to grab coast-to-coast headlines – and you’ve undone a deal of damage in one fell swoop. It’s amazing how much ground one can make up in 60 minutes.
But, no matter the potential and unlikely benefits, this is not the battle that will determine Ed Orgeron’s fate in Baton Rouge. Those take place in high schools and living rooms across the country, with no cameras around, when Orgeron swaggers in and sells superstars on why his program is better for their future than Nick Saban’s.
The Grand Experiment – hiring Orgeron at a discount rate and paying the top coordinators in the country top dollar – demands, if nothing else, time. It requires multiple recruiting classes, and probably multiple coordinators, too. At the rate he’s on, Aranda will be in the NFL coordinating defenses sooner or later. The jury is still out on Canada, but if the experiment works, he’ll be so successful he’ll land a promotion, too, either as a head coach or in the NFL, too.
That’s the beauty of the experiment, though. Just as you replace a Jamal Adams with a Grant Delpit in the secondary, you, theoretically, replace a Dave Aranda with The Next Dave Aranda – the best defense coordinator in the country we haven’t heard of yet. And he comes to LSU because 1) he’s going to get paid handsomely and 2) he knows he’ll have the freedom to run his defense as he sees fit.
That second portion, of course, is critical, and Orgeron seems to have learned his lesson on interference following the Troy defeat. He stepped on Canada’s toes and lost. All the shifting, motioning, and winning since is evidence Orgeron heeded Joe Alleva’s words at their post-Troy meeting and granted Canada the freedom promised to him when hired in December.
It’s also worth noting in this space that the two names linked to the LSU job last year – Jimbo Fisher and Tom Herman – are a combined 6-9 this season, and they perfectly embody the alternatives every other SEC team has tried, in vain, to take Saban down with.
There’s route one: hire the former Saban assistant, and out-Bama Bama. It didn’t work for Will Muschamp or Jim McElwain at Florida. Tennessee would prefer to forget the Derek Dooley days. The jury is still out on Kirby Smart, though the early returns are good. If Smart pans out, he’d be the first Saban apprentice to truly best his master.
Route two, embodied by Herman, is to hire the young, up-and-coming head coach with an offensive skillset to overcome the Tide’s annually dominant defense. Ask Kevin Sumlin how that’s panned out at Texas A&M. Then pose the same question to Bret Bielema in Fayetteville. Hugh Freeze had a case to make, then flew too close to the sun and dialed one too many escorts from his school-issued cell phone.
So LSU created a route three, this Grand Experiment dependent on out-recruiting and out-coordinating the Tide. Time will tell how it plays out. Florida, meanwhile, would be wise to embark on route four: get Dan Mullen the hell out of Starkville and see what he can do with a Sunshine State full of resources. That’ll be an experiment worth watching, too, if it comes to fruition.
In the meantime, Saban reigns supreme, and LSU’s quest to dethrone him is only just beginning, again. Rome wasn’t built in a day – Saban is a decade into The Process – and it won’t fall in a day either. The triumvirate of Orgeron, Canada, and Aranda gets its first crack to tackle the titan of the SEC, and if it doesn’t happen on the first Saturday in November, it’ll be because of what’s happened on the first Wednesday in February for the past five years. When LSU starts winning on Signing Day, then it can enter Bama week with a bit more optimism.
That’s the first real test of the Grand Experiment. Saturday’s clash is by no means irrelevant. In fact, quite the opposite: it could the very catalyst required to set off a chain of reactions necessary for the experiment to work.
The more likely outcome, for now, is more confirmation of the already accepted hypothesis: Alabama is college football’s king, and LSU’s Orgeron-led efforts to take back the crown are only just beginning.