HITHER AND YON: Nothing But LSU Football

We didn’t see any political stuff that we thought was fun enough to include in this week’s installment, so we’re going to stick with a variety of items related to LSU’s suddenly-promising 2016 football season – which now becomes a challenge of epic proportions beginning Saturday night in Tiger Stadium when No. 22 Ole Miss comes to town.

After the Rebels, LSU has: an open date, then a home game with No. 1 Alabama, then a road trip to No. 17 Arkansas, then a home game with No. 12 Florida before finishing on the road at No. 6 Texas A&M.


In the past three years, this is the stretch of the LSU schedule which has ruined the Tigers’ season – and it’s a tougher stretch than it’s been in the past.

The conventional wisdom is that Les Miles was fired because he couldn’t beat Alabama. Which is, frankly, wrong. Miles lost his job for a whole bunch of reasons, but if you’re going to consider losses to specific teams as a factor it’s the fact he couldn’t beat Arkansas and Ole Miss in recent years which is far more damning. Miles had lost two of his last three to Ole Miss, the one victory being a 10-7 close shave in 2014. And Miles had lost his last two against Arkansas in largely uncompetitive fashion; it would have been three in a row but for a miracle 99-yard drive engineered by Anthony Jennings off the bench after Zack Mettenberger’s LSU career-ending knee injury in the 2013 game.

An LSU football coach who can’t beat Ole Miss and Arkansas is an LSU football coach whose employment will soon come to an end. And Miles’ did, though it was a loss to Auburn, a team he usually beat, which proved the final nail.

But the fact that Texas A&M, who Miles consistently got the better of, has what looks like the best team they’ve had at least since Johnny Manziel was there makes this stretch even tougher. Replace South Alabama, which was supposed to be a little bit of a breather, with a Florida team which would have been highly vulnerable had LSU been able to play them two weeks ago, and it’s possibly the toughest five-game stretch in LSU history.

If our readers know of a time LSU has played five straight games against ranked teams to close a season, we’ll stand corrected. We’re going to say this is a first.

But Miles isn’t the coach anymore. Ed Orgeron is. And for Orgeron the gauntlet (or is it gantlet?) he has to navigate is an opportunity rather than an ordeal. Go 5-0 against the remaining schedule and you win the SEC West, you’ll be favored to beat Tennessee (assuming both Tennessee and Florida win out in conference except for Florida losing to LSU) in the conference championship game and if you can survive that game it’s not inconceivable the clouds may part and you could find yourself with a playoff berth.

And the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow is that you’re no longer the interim head coach but you’ve earned the job permanently.

That’s possibly a pie-in-the-sky scenario, but should it develop there is no doubt Orgeron will get the contract to take over the program. What’s in doubt is the question of how close to pie-in-the-sky he has to come in order to get there.

Will 4-1 with a loss only to Alabama get him there? Will 3-2? One imagines 4-1 might, particularly if the loss to Alabama is a close one. 3-2 probably doesn’t.

But some of this might depend on the coaching search itself. Is LSU in a position to hire Tom Herman, the coach at Houston everybody has hailed as the second coming of Nick Saban? Or is Herman destined to take the Texas job after Charlie Strong is fired at the end of the season. Is Jimbo Fisher, the coach LSU was going to bring in had Miles been fired last year, going to listen again this time? Fisher, of the two, appears more likely – there are people at Florida State who will tell you that team’s chemistry looks a little like what one would expect from a squad who knows its coach is on the way out, and there are people at LSU who will tell you it’s Fisher and it’s always been Fisher.

But we don’t know that to be true. We can’t know that to be true. LSU hasn’t hired a coach yet, because Orgeron has to fail to earn the job before it will even come open – and like Fox Sports says, he’s making it difficult. Even if the “fix is in” and there is a secret deal with Fisher, at best that would be conditional on Orgeron not smashing it by running the table with this team. And if Orgeron goes, say, 3-2 against the schedule to come with a pair of hard-fought, tough-luck losses while attempts to hire Herman and Fisher don’t bear fruit, what happens then? Does Orgeron squeeze into the job, or does LSU take a chance on a Larry Fedora (North Carolina), Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia), P.J. Fleck (Western Michigan), Bryan Harsin (Boise State) or Jeff Brohm (Western Kentucky)? Does LSU throw open the bank vault in an effort to buy a David Shaw (Stanford), Kyle Whittingham (Utah), Gary Patterson (TCU) or Bobby Petrino (Louisville)? Does Chip Kelly tell the San Francisco 49ers and that team’s cancer Colin Kaepernick to shove it in favor of a shot at the LSU job?

It all makes for a tremendously interesting home stretch – one which is considerably more dramatic and potentially inspiring than the political campaign trail.

One thing to look forward to on Saturday is the return of Leonard Fournette to the field.

LSU running back Leonard Fournette will return to action Saturday night when the Tigers host SEC West rival Ole Miss, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.

It will be Fournette’s first game action in nearly a month.

In Orgeron’s post-game press conference Saturday night, he said it was expected Fournette would practice on Tuesday and Wednesday and his ankle would be evaluated at that point. If everything is in working order, he’ll play.

Having Fournette, college football’s best running back, available with Derrius Guice, who has been sensational in his stead (17 carries for 163 yards and three touchdowns against Missouri, 16 carries for 162 yards and two more scores against Southern Miss, plus a 19-carry, 155 yard performance earlier against Jacksonville State when Fournette also sat out that game), should make LSU fans salivate. For two reasons.

First, it’s becoming obvious since the coaching change that Orgeron and new offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger are primarily focused on trying to get the ball in the hands of their skill players in order to let those highly-touted athletes make plays. A lack of touches beyond one or two key players and a lack of creativity in providing opportunities was a hallmark of Miles’ offense for the last two seasons especially, but since his ouster we’ve seen a better distribution of the football. What that could mean with Fournette reintroduced into the mix is the potential of Fournette and Guice on the field at the same time – something that could be especially fearsome to opposing defenses.

LSU has played a pair of teams who don’t have a whole lot of defense, but a moribund offense has exploded for over 1,000 yards and 87 points in the past two games, and what’s more LSU has averaged 8.8 yards per play on offense. That’s an astounding number no matter the competition – and while neither of Orgeron’s two vanquished foes are world-beaters they’re a combined 6-7 (6-5 when not playing LSU). They’re not without a pulse.

Which brings us to the second point, which is this week’s opponent. While Ole Miss is certainly a formidable foe – they’re only 3-3 and still ranked in the Top 25, which should give an indication of the national respect for their program – what they don’t do particularly well is play defense or, specifically, stop the run. On Saturday in a 34-30 loss to Arkansas, the Rebels allowed Rawleigh Williams, Arkansas’ better-than-average running back, to rush for 180 yards on 27 carries. They’re 104th in the country in total defense at 446 yards per game and 104th in rushing defense at 213 yards per game.

Ole Miss played against Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, an elite running back who isn’t having a great year, and held him to 91 yards on 23 carries. Against Alabama, quarterback Jalen Hurts (146 yards) and running back Damian Harris (144) both had 100-yard games. They held Georgia’s vaunted tailback duo of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to 67 and 59 yards, respectively, but gave up 230 yards rushing overall in a game that so far has been their most impressive.

And now Ole Miss faces Fournette and Guice? With an LSU offensive line potentially on the mend as it awaits starting tackle Toby Weathersby and guard Will Clapp, both of whom should return to action either this week or the following game against Alabama?

You’ll excuse Orgeron if his game plan for the Rebels looks a little like Miles’ ground-and-pound attack. Keeping the football away from Ole Miss’ star quarterback Chad Kelly makes sense, and he could have a mismatch in his favor by letting his two stud tailbacks tag-team that defense.

One thing which might mitigate in Orgeron’s favor is that whoever LSU’s next head coach might be the administration is going to want to hold on to Dave Aranda as the defensive coordinator as long as it’s possible to do so.

LSU was expected to have a good defense this year, and they have one. But things haven’t come off exactly as scripted.

Of course, the losses of free safety Rickey Jefferson to a broken ankle, defensive tackle Christian Lacouture to a blown knee and linebacker Corey Thompson to a fractured ankle along the way have robbed Aranda of three senior starters. Jefferson at least played five games before going down; the others, Aranda hasn’t had at all.

Then there is the fact that he hasn’t found a dominating nose guard in the middle of his 3-4 defense. Greg Gilmore has done an OK job and freshman Ed Alexander is showing signs of coming on, but what was supposed to happen was the stardom of Travonte Valentine and his 356 pounds of malice in the middle of the line. Instead, Valentine, who Miles brought back to the team after booting him amid a pattern of attitude, disciplinary and academic deficiencies two years ago, has done little. Last week Orgeron benched him for poor effort in practice. Going forward it’s Alexander who looks like the future at that position, not Valentine; at the beginning of the season there were people touting the latter as a one-and-done to the NFL after a dominating season, and to the extent that was ever going to happen he’s turned out to be a bust.

Also, in the secondary Aranda was hoping that he could use star cornerback Tre’Davious White as a nickel back in an effort to use him as a weapon in creating turnovers. That decision would depend on finding two reliable cornerbacks on the outside, and so far he’s found one in Donte’ Jackson. The other was supposed to be Kevin Tolliver, who as a freshman last year looked the part of a future star. Tolliver has lost his job twice now; last week he played only special teams because he violated a team rule, and junior Ed Paris started at that position. Going forward it may be that White and Jackson will play the corners and senior Dwayne Thomas, who has played pretty well both at corner and at the nickel, will man that latter spot. If Tolliver is able to get his head on straight perhaps the original plan might be operative.

But through the trial and error of finding the right personnel, LSU’s defense is just shy of dominant. In the last two weeks they’ve held Missouri and Southern Miss, the No. 22 and No. 24 teams in the country in total offense, to 265 and 242 yards, respectively, and LSU is sitting at No. 13 in the country in total defense, allowing 313 yards per game. LSU is also tied for 4th nationally in scoring defense at 14.0 points per game, and furthermore LSU has allowed only six touchdowns in six games, which leads the country. No one else has allowed less than eight. LSU’s rush defense is also No. 11 in rush defense at 104 yards per game – No. 4 in the country in yards per rush allowed at 2.89. Against the pass, LSU is 44th at 208 yards per game, but 30th in yards per pass attempt at 6.3 and 21st in opponents’ pass efficiency rating at 111.51.

To post those kinds of numbers in the first year of installing a new defense amid some of the injuries and personnel issues he’s dealt with so far is damned impressive, and you can see how holding onto Aranda becomes a priority. As a short-term matter, because the odds are pretty decent that Aranda might become a head coaching candidate somewhere soon, it could be a successful formula to hire a big-name offensive coach who’ll keep the defensive staff together – for example, a Fisher. Interestingly enough, Fisher interviewed LSU defensive backs coach Corey Raymond for his defensive coordinator job at Florida State when Georgia bought Jeremy Pruitt off his staff two years ago; there is reason why he might be induced to come aboard and leave the defense like it is.

Either way, if the coaching change results in the loss of Aranda it will be a bitter pill for LSU fans who are starting to notice this guy is really good.

The controversy over the rescheduling of the LSU-Florida game has heated up the rivalry between the two schools.

On LSU’s side, there is this bit of rumor-mongering from the message boards – whether it’s true or not, we don’t know…

We were just about setup with our tailgate when President Alexander came along and stopped at our tailgate. He was watching our tv and asked if there had been any LSU-Florida talk. He stated LSU offered “10 different options to Florida” but they refused to play. Also said when Sankey came out and stated publicly that Florida had done such a good job with the situation and omitted any mention of Alleva’ s work it pissed him off. He called Sankey Saturday morning and told him if he ever called out one of his guys he would work real hard to vote him out as commissioner.

Also said with a laugh that he invited Sankey to the Bama game. He offered to introduce him to our crowd on the 50 yard line. Said Sankey was just silent.

Last week the SEC Commissioner did everything he could to thank Florida for their forebearance in rescheduling the LSU game while presenting LSU with the opposite treatment. Most in the LSU camp took a great deal of offense to that given that LSU was the one who was proactive about making alternate plans to play the game at a different time or place within the Oct. 8 weekend slot – so that the rest of the schedule wouldn’t be disrupted. Both Florida and the SEC office utterly failed to prevent that disruption by stupid and irresponsible decisions, and both have attempted to mask that failure by blaming LSU for its intransigence.

As a result, LSU might have gotten a home game with Florida out of the situation, at the cost of having to play five SEC road games next year with a new coach trying to break in, but they won’t get a late-season breather against South Alabama. It’s hardly a surprise there would be bad blood in Baton Rouge about the situation, particularly when it’s being spun as though LSU is the bad guy.

And on Florida’s side there is this…

That’s a skeleton of a cat wearing purple and gold Mardi Gras beads, which could be interpreted as a reference to Mike VI’s demise last week. And Florida fans had it on display while their team was dispatching Missouri.

And then this after the game…

And Florida jumped in to do some damage control…

The makings of a grudge match are all there. Try not to punch any Gators on Nov. 19.

This is an LSU-oriented Hither And Yon, but our Today’s Last Thing is a Saints thing.

Because nobody’s funnier than this kid who’s doing the we-must-protect-this-house thing by telling Carolina they can’t dance in his end zone…

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