Instead of firing the guy, Louisiana State University’s brass should be thanking Ed Orgeron for somehow salvaging something out of this 2021 season. Maybe they should welcome him back to run LSU football for as long as he wants.
Sure, LSU’s program turned fat-and-happy following what LSU proclaims its greatest season ever, the Joe Burrow-led 2019 year of 15-0, which joined Paul Dietzel’s perfect 1958 team, the one-loss 2003 Tigers of Nick Saban, and Les Miles’ two-loss national champs in 2007 with national crowns. Orgeron was indeed fat and happy, on the field and off; he’ll say so in his own special, Cajun-inflected way. It was one big Mardi Gras for almost a whole year, until LSU played below average more often than not and went 5-5 in the COVID- and portal-filled 2020 season.
But when that was followed up with accusations of hitting on the wife of an LSU official, not to mention one-sided loss, in Los Angeles that led to a mediocre start to 2021, nearly everyone around LSU said, “I told you 2019 was IN SPITE of Coach O.” The brass and fan base welcomed the news in mid-October that athletic director Scott Woodward and Orgeron agreed he would step down but would coach the remainder of this season.
Most coaches – TCU’s Gary Patterson, for example – hear the news from or reach a decision with their athletic directors and immediately move aside. Most don’t want to be a distraction; there’s nothing left to coach for. Orgeron didn’t see it that way; he loves LSU, and they were willing to let him finish out 2021.
The reason so many of these firings – or urged resignations in a few cases – are happening at midseason is so the program can get its coaching search underway – Texas Tech this week reportedly hired Baylor assistant Joey McGuire, who’s also been a longtime Texas high school coach (shades of Chad Morris?) – and to be prepared for the mid-December national signing date.
December’s signing day, an NCAA move in 2018 from the traditional first-Wednesday-in-February national signing day (which still exists for the few straggling recruits), has completely changed football recruiting, as well as coach hiring.
LSU wanted to let all head coaching candidates and all incoming football recruits and commitments know well in advance that the program would take a new direction. It will be interested to see if LSU can find anyone else who could lead the way Orgeron did in 2019 simply in his great coaching staff hires, or could hold together a program that has endured as much as LSU has over the past two seasons.
It seems that in the grand scheme of things, Orgeron and LSU received a huge bill from the football gods for all that 2019 fun.
Granted, LSU always recruits extraordinarily well, but with Orgeron it’s been especially so in his five-plus years leading the Tigers. There are great, talented players regularly waiting their turn; Orgeron isn’t having to turn to walk-ons or players who had few if any scholarship offers from other D-1 schools. Still, age, size and experience matter, and there are few freshmen outside of the skill-position players who are ready to compete every weekend in the SEC, even at LSU.
Orgeron has seen season-ending injuries to 13 players who started this year. He lost his starting quarterback before the season began. The backup, who has started all of 2021, Max Johnson, could be transferring out at season’s end. LSU is expected to give significant snaps Saturday night against Arkansas at Baton Rouge to the one-time third-stringer, Garrett Nussmeier, a true freshman slinger from Flower Mound, Texas, and Nussmeier is expected to lead the Tigers and their new head coach next year.
Razorbacks Thin in Secondary
Arkansas’s most valuable defensive player, third-year sophomore safety Jalen Catalon, will end up missing the last half this season. Without him, the Hogs’ defense is mostly a sieve when up against a solid quarterback. Last week against Mississippi States quarterback Will Rogers (who gave LSU plenty of problems but couldn’t push enough red zone chances past the goal line in a 28-25 loss back in late September), the Razorbacks gave up more than 400 yards passing. But they did come up with more series stops than expected, particularly in the first half when the Hogs were seconds away from pitching a 13-0 shutout.
MSU’s halftime adjustments led to more creases in the Razorbacks’ zone pass defense, though, even with Arkansas dropping three safeties (none named Catalon) deep most of the game. The Hogs’ best defensive counter was leaving Rogers only 21 seconds after scoring the go-ahead touchdown and two-point conversion.
Outside of Catalon, though, the 2021 Razorbacks have been healthy throughout their lineup, offense or defense, only losing a handful of players for short stints.
Imagine, however, if the Razorbacks were entering Saturday night’s Arkansas vs LSU game with 13 starters from the Sept. 11 Texas game now sidelined, including the top two quarterbacks and the NFL-bound top receiver, as well has its best NFL prospect in the secondary and a few more to boot, and a defensive line star or two.
Most fans reading must realize Arkansas would be unlikely to win a game with its replacements against its demanding schedule, which merely illustrates how far apart the Tigers and Hogs are in talent. LSU can reach deep to find a defensive end who is lightning fast in an NFL sort of way. Arkansas can barely get an average pass rush with the same defensive line it’s played with all season.
Last year’s Arkansas vs LSU game, in which COVID protocol sidelined multiple starting Razorbacks defensive linemen, showed how thin the Arkansas’ depth is.
LSU Football Is Up and Down
Last week at Tuscaloosa, LSU’s defense was still able to find an assortment of players who could execute ferocious blitz packages from all angles, all of which helped limit Alabama to 6 yards rushing and keep LSU in the game to the last play. Arkansas, mostly sticking with its three-man defensive front every week, with just a couple of exceptions, doesn’t dare blitz anyone without another area of the defense being so exposed. Coordinator Barry Odom doesn’t believe it’s worth the gamble.
LSU was a 20-point underdog at Alabama. As a favorite earlier in the season at home, the Tigers scuffed around and let Auburn’s Bo Nix think he was suddenly Johnny Manziel. Auburn scored a late touchdown to pull it out and wreck LSU’s chances. Then LSU went into Lexington, Ky., and were whipped 42-21 by Kentucky, showing little or no offensive success.
Suddenly viewed nationally as a major program in total disarray, Orgeron’s team shocked Florida 49-42 in the afternoon at Baton Rouge the following week. (At least the result seemed shocking then; now we know Florida was a fraud.)
Now with confidence gained from a win and an improved running game against Florida, and with the idea that they could compete with anyone going into Oxford, Miss., the Tigers fought closely for a quarter before being overwhelmed by Matt Corral and the Ole Miss Rebels, losing 31-17.
Then, shoved into the “no chance” category again, the Tigers lost 20-14 to No. 2 Alabama in a game that looked more like some of their past titanic struggles. It may be the first time in LSU football history that Tiger fans have looked at a loss as a “moral” victory.
Orgeron, however, managed to give his biggest critics more ammunition that he is a poor decision-maker when he waved off a field goal attempt early in the first half; it mattered, as LSU would have had chances to tie with another field goal, or even win with later possessions in Alabama territory. (Much more of the case, probably, is that Alabama is vastly overrated this year, and most definitely beaten up in the offensive line and not possessing the enormously talented weapons of 2020.)
The big question for Arkansas is, what LSU team will show up Saturday night? In the case of their road losses to Kentucky and Ole Miss, once the younger and less-experienced Tigers began to sense they couldn’t win, they gave up the ghost early.
At, Tuscaloosa, however, LSU’s players performed like they believed they were as good as the No. 2 team in the nation to the bitter end. At home, they haven’t necessarily quit, but they’re also 50-50 whether they’ll have the fourth-quarter push to rescue a tight game. At home, though, they outran a talented Florida offense for seven touchdowns. After having no running game at Kentucky, they topped 300 yards at home against the Gators. Cue Forrest Gump and the “box of chocolates” saying.
Arkansas needs to jump on LSU the way it took early command against Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas, in September. There, the Hogs zipped to a 17-0 lead, and A&M didn’t have the offensive firepower to make up the difference. LSU may not, either.
Occasionally, the Tigers can throw and catch, even with top receiving talent Kayshon Boutte out for the season since the Kentucky game. At other times, they’ve gone stretches struggling to complete a pass. They’ve gone with Johnson, son of Super Bowl winner Brad Johnson, since the season began, but now they gradually will ease in Nussmeier, another NFL son (dad is Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback coach Doug Nussmeier), who looked good throwing it late against Ole Miss when the game was all but decided.
The Razorbacks had a week off before last week’s thrilling 31-28 win at home over Mississippi State. The time off didn’t include much team polishing, it appears. It didn’t stop Arkansas’s jumpy offensive linemen from drawing flags early, making quarterback K.J. Jefferson’s drives tougher. They did have their best quarter of blocking in unison, though, during last week’s fourth-quarter rally.
With the major defensive penalties from last week added in, the Hogs continued their season-long problem of flags and having lots of yardage to make up. Last week, it was 11 penalties for 84 yards.
What Razorbacks Must Do in Arkansas vs LSU
On the road, against a huge partisan crowd that could be as up, or as down, as their football heroes tend to play, the Hogs must bring their cleanest game of the year: limit the turnovers, draw few if any flags, force a few turnovers for a change, win the kicking game. None of that seems easy for this team.
A win allows head coach Sam Pittman to equal former boss Bret Bielema’s best single-regular-season win total at Arkansas in 2014-15 and 2015-16. The most wins in a single season since then had been four. It allows Arkansas to serve notice to anyone watching nationally that those three SEC defeats in October, after a 4-0 start, were against quality Top 15 programs and Arkansas belongs with them and is an attractive bowl invitee; the Hogs were 25th in this week’s College Football Playoff poll, the first ranking for Arkansas since the CFP began in 2014.
Most college football realists give the Razorbacks on Nov. 20 little chance at Alabama, which is exactly where LSU sat last week. On the other hand, with these two rivals this Saturday, Arkansas has gone from being 43.5-point underdogs to Burrow and LSU in 2019 to 3-point favorites just two years later, a number that loudly defines the wild directions of both programs since interim coach Barry Lunney Jr. led the Hogs and true freshman K.J. Jefferson into a crazy Tiger Stadium.
LSU’s fan base would scream if any of their teams were struggling to reach eight regular-season wins. Meanwhile, Arkansas wraps up the season at home Nov. 26 with struggling Missouri with a chance to finish the regular season with a surprising eight wins and a desirable holiday bowl location in hand.
None of that can happen, however, without a solid road performance at LSU, no matter which Tigers show up.
How to Watch Arkansas vs LSU
- When: Saturday at 6:30 p.m. CT
- Where: Tiger Stadium — Baton Rouge, Louisiana
- TV: SEC Network
- Online streaming: fuboTV (Try for free. Regional restrictions may apply.) Or Click here to watch the game on your computer, phone, tablet, or another streaming device.
Razorbacks vs LSU Notes
- The Arkansas rushing attack is one of the best in the country this season, averaging 243.8 yards per game on the ground to lead the SEC and rank fourth-best nationally. Air Force (301.7), Army (286.0) and Syracuse (247.7) are the only teams in the country averaging more yards on the ground per game than the Hogs.
- The ground attack is headlined by four ball carriers who have each totaled over 400 rushing yards this year in running back Trelon Smith (476), quarterback KJ Jefferson (433) and running backs Raheim Sanders (460) and Dominique Johnson (416).
- Arkansas and Ole Miss are the only two teams in FBS that feature four 400-yard rushers this year. The last time the Hogs had four 400-yard rushers was 1975, Frank Broyles’ second to last season as head coach. Running backs Ike Forte (983), Jerry Eckwood (792) and Rolland Fuchs (618) and quarterback Scott Bull (533) led the way for a team that rushed for 320.3 yards per game, the single-season school record.
- Wide receiver Treylon Burks leads the team in nearly every major receiving category, pacing the team in receptions (47), receiving yards (780), receiving touchdowns (8), and receiving yards per game (88.8). He ranks second in the SEC in receiving touchdowns and third in receiving touchdowns. Burks grabbed a touchdown against Mississippi State, finding the end zone in the fourth straight game and totaling seven scores (six receiving, one rushing). The junior has produced 2,094 career receiving yards, the eighth-most in program history.
- The Razorbacks are 22-42-2 all-time against LSU and in search of their first win in the series since a 31-14 win in Baton Rouge. Last year, the Tigers escaped Donald W. Reynolds Stadium with a 27-24 victory. The Hogs haven’t visited Baton Rouge when the Tigers are unranked for the first time since 2001. (via Razorback Communications)
Jim Harris has covered Arkansas Razorback football since 1976 for a variety of state media organizations, including the Arkansas Gazette and ArkansasSports360.com. He provides commentary each week as part of the team on THV’s “HogZone” Saturdays at 10:30 p.m.
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