Is Ed Orgeron Coaching His Way Past Interim Status At LSU?

The short answer, obviously, is that it’s simply too soon to tell. But it’s unquestionable that since taking over as the interim head coach for Les Miles a month ago, Orgeron has transformed his candidacy for the permanent head coaching position from that of a token “audition” to something much more substantial.

Saturday night’s 38-21 victory over Ole Miss put a punctuation mark on the improvement LSU’s team, and for that matter, entire program, has made since the coaching change. Orgeron’s previous two outings as the interim head coach, a 42-7 blowout of Missouri and a 45-10 pasting of Southern Miss, had all the aesthetic quality one would look for but were easily dismissable based on the quality of the competition. But on Saturday, Orgeron beat a team which had near-miss losses to Florida State and Alabama early in the season and was ranked in the Top 25 despite entering the game with a 3-3 record.

And more than that, Ole Miss was a team which had humiliated Miles in Oxford last year by a 38-17 score – the second loss in three seasons Miles suffered at the hands of Hugh Freeze’s Rebels. Miles’ ouster was blamed on five straight losses to Alabama, but that wasn’t his problem – his problem was a 2-4 mark in the previous three seasons against Ole Miss and Arkansas, programs with decidedly inferior resources and talent on the field.

No such underachievement was on display Saturday. LSU spotted Ole Miss a 10-0 lead, blew past them on the strength of Leonard Fournette’s triumphant return to the field, bled 11 points on mistakes on the field (when John Battle and Donte’ Jackson collided while both attempted to intercept an errant pass, which cost three points) and on the sidelines (when a suspect play call let Ole Miss get a blindside hit on Danny Etling, resulting in a fumble and a short field that cost a touchdown and a two-point conversion) for a 21-21 tie at the half, and then quickly put the Rebels away in a dominant second half performance. It wasn’t completely clean football, but when LSU was good they were very good.

And most importantly, Orgeron and his coaching staff went into the locker room at halftime for the second week in a row and made adjustments which completely doomed the opponent.

The upshot is LSU no longer has the feel of a team which has been coached down – something that has been a persistent theme in the program since Jan. 9, 2012, when Alabama ruined what should have been a national championship season. The changes Orgeron made after ascending to Miles’ job have unquestionably made a difference. There is more film work to understand opponents, assistant coaches have more freedom to use personnel as they see fit, there is a great deal more balance to the offense and practice sessions during the week have gone from an exercise in endurance to quality preparation for games on Saturday.

Did you know that offensively, LSU is now 8th in the country in yards per offensive play? It’s true. They’re leading the country in that stat since Miles was let go.

And as a result LSU is much closer to the team ranked in the preseason Top 5 to the sloppy and uninspired 2-2 club which earned Miles his pink slip. The Tigers have quickly risen from outside the Top 25 to No. 19 in both polls following the Ole Miss game; with several teams ranked in front of the Tigers having difficult games this coming week it wouldn’t be a surprise if Orgeron found himself taking a team ranked into the Top 15 onto the Tiger Stadium field against No. 1 Alabama in two weeks following Saturday’s open date.

He’s restored the swagger and confidence of the team, as a quote from SEC sack leader Arden Key shows…

“This is the team that everybody in the country thought we would be. And we’re only getting better. That’s the crazy part.”

All of which is merely a predicate for an unknown. Ole Miss is certainly a quality opponent, but the schedule only gets more difficult with Alabama, a road game at Arkansas (who beat Ole Miss, and then turned around and found themselves blown out in a 56-3 humiliation by Auburn), the Florida makeup game and the Thanksgiving date at Texas A&M to close the season. ESPN ranks that as the most difficult November schedule in the country.

For the past few years, a gauntlet such as that would bring on feelings of dread. Last year’s Alabama loss was the first of three ugly defeats which nearly triggered Miles’ ouster, and a 1-2 November in 2014 signaled the coming end of the Miles era.

But this year Key’s optimism isn’t an outlier on campus. There was this as his team was putting Ole Miss away…

It’s entirely possible that reality will set in when the Crimson Tide comes to town. On the other hand, that Ole Miss team Orgeron’s crew dismantled led Alabama most of the game before falling in a 48-43 shootout. Saturday’s effort by LSU would have beaten Bama’s effort against the Rebels, which means a loss can’t be considered a foregone conclusion.

Orgeron neither has the job nor has lost it at this point. How he traverses those final four games will determine the future of his dream to coach the Tigers. But the feel of the program has decidedly changed since he took the reins, and if he maintains it we might never get to the high-profile coaching search that was expected in late September when Miles was let go.

Two Programs, Two Entirely Different Directions

What was noticeable Saturday night, beyond the fireworks of LSU’s offense, was the bad chemistry on display with respect to Ole Miss. TV cameras caught a pair of Rebels fighting on the sidelines after D.J. Chark’s 40-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, and by game’s end it was clear that LSU had largely made the visitors quit – particularly offensively. After left tackle Rod Taylor hurt an ankle and came out of the game and Key proceeded to inflict terror on quarterback Chad Kelly, Ole Miss’ playcalling became very sedate. Almost to the point where it appeared head coach Hugh Freeze was more interested in keeping Kelly alive than trying to win.

They’re now 3-4, which is a bitterly disappointing record for a team picked as a real contender in the SEC West, but things are worse than just the record. The rumor mill says the NCAA investigation into the Ole Miss program could be catastrophic when results are finally released in the next couple of months; what’s already known about the violations committed by the school has prompted Ole Miss to volunteer to surrender 11 scholarships. There is talk which says 11 is a mere starting point; the real numbers could be significantly larger, not to mention something like a three-year bowl ban and additional scholarships and, potentially, an NCAA show-cause ruling for Freeze which would cost him his job.

Meaning this might be the last year before the NCAA destroys the Ole Miss program. Typically players at programs hit with postseason bans are allowed to transfer without having to sit out a year, and in Ole Miss’ case that could be devastating given how many of their better players were highly-rated recruits from outside Mississippi. And if Freeze is bounced from his job by the NCAA amid such sanctions, finding a replacement could be monstrously difficult.

It’s a completely different vibe than the one Orgeron has instilled at LSU in the space of a month. And if Orgeron isn’t able to win the job on a permanent basis, LSU will be choosing from a large number of up-and-coming coaches around the country to find a very marketable replacement for Miles this winter.

So Who Would It Be?

The longstanding consensus since before Miles was fired has been that the two “A-list” potential replacements outside the program were Houston head coach Tom Herman and Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher. Beyond them, there is no obvious candidate quite yet – which is one reason for the growing enthusiasm behind the home-grown Orgeron.

And the Herman-Fisher consensus has frayed in recent weeks. Fisher’s stock took a hit early in the season, when defensive lapses cost him a 63-20 blowout loss to Louisville and a 37-35 stunner to North Carolina; those two losses removed Florida State from contention in the ACC and took the shine off Fisher as a potential hire.

Since then, his defense has gotten considerably better and he’s rebounded to beat Miami and Wake Forest, though neither win was particularly impressive. This isn’t a great Florida State team, and they’ll be a decided underdog next week when Clemson comes to Tallahassee. Beyond that game, though, the rest of FSU’s schedule is less taxing (road games at NC State and Syracuse bracketed around a home game with Boston College, before a home tilt with Florida), and a 9-3 record is quite achievable. Pull an upset of Clemson, who seems to flirt with losses each week, and a 10-2 record is possible.

Should Orgeron finish 2-2 or worse in November and fail to earn the job, the buzz around Fisher is likely to be more intense than it was last year. He seems a more likely fit than Herman, whose stock has dropped precipitously in the last several weeks.

Particularly after Herman’s Houston team dropped a 38-16 stunner at the hands of SMU on Saturday. That was the second loss in the last three games for Houston, and it calls into question in the minds of many whether he’s truly the star coach he’s cracked up to be.

The truth is Herman is still very, very good. He’s potentially the next Nick Saban in college football, just as he was a month ago. But he’s also a young coach and he’s dealing with a difficult set of circumstances many people don’t quite understand.

That Houston laid an egg against SMU isn’t a complete surprise given that the game took place just five days after the Big XII announced it would not be expanding next year. A Big XII expansion which included Houston was a major source of excitement inside that program; there is a reason Herman was set for a $5 million bonus in the event UH was able to join that Power Five conference. In the face of that letdown Herman would naturally have a tough time getting his team fired up to play a team they traditionally have an easy time with.

The Big XII’s rejection opens up another source of distraction for Herman; that being the constant rumors about his impending departure for a bigger job. Were Houston to join the Big XII and that $5 million bonus to kick in, within that program it would make sense that Herman would entertain staying – or at least the hope he’d stay would have some basis in reason. But with no opportunity to join a Power Five conference and with the Texas job clearly coming open after this season just as the LSU job already is, Herman can’t tell his players he’ll be there next year; they know he’s likely to be leaving for greener pastures. Miles was fired on Sept. 25, and on Oct. 1 Texas was drilled 49-31 by Oklahoma State. After a week of Herman’s name being linked to both jobs at the same time Houston lost 46-40 to Navy, and following a struggle to beat Tulsa 38-31 the SMU disaster happened on Saturday.

Lay those distractions on top of the fact that Herman is coaching a team which, thanks to their high national ranking and recent big wins over Florida State and Oklahoma, is now the Super Bowl for all of their opponents inside the American Athletic Conference, and nothing should be a surprise. From watching Houston play in these league games, it’s relatively clear that Herman, who is only in his second year as Houston’s coach, doesn’t have any particular talent advantage over the rest of his conference. He has some good players, but on the whole he has what everybody else in his league has. It might be two or three more recruiting classes before he’ll be able to physically outclass a Memphis, Temple, South Florida or Tulsa on a week-to-week basis.

All of which makes Herman look average lately. He isn’t, but on the other hand if he’s not able to rattle off a string of victories in the second half of the season including a shot at Louisville in mid-November, his stock won’t be high enough to justify LSU’s getting involved in a bidding war with Texas over his services.

Instead, should a deal not be available with Fisher and the Texas job make Herman unattainable, and the LSU administration judges Orgeron to have fallen short of earning the job, there may be some new names entering the LSU coaching search picture. If Herman is no longer the Flavor Of The Month, there are others who look to be growing in their attractiveness.

Take, for example, Bryan Harsin – the coach at Boise State. Harsin fits a lot of what LSU is looking for in a head coach. He’s in his fourth year as a head coach with a 35-11 record, including 28-6 at Boise State (Harsin was 7-5 as the head coach at Arkansas State in 2013), and he’ll have taken his fourth straight team to a bowl game in that time. Boise State is now 7-0 after a hard-fought close win over BYU on Thursday, and they play a fun, pass-happy style of offense which has them averaging 481 yards per game so far this year. Harsin has two Power Five scalps this year to go with the BYU win; he also knocked off Washington State and Oregon State earlier in the season. Last year he was 9-4, with a win over Washington and a blowout victory on the road at Virginia, plus a 55-7 pasting of Northern Illinois in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl. And in 2014 Harsin was 12-2, winning the Mountain West Conference and knocking off then-No. 10 Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl 38-30.

Harsin was the offensive coordinator at Boise State, his alma mater, for most of the time Chris Peterson was having such great success there. In 2010 and 2011 he was co-offensive coordinator at Texas with Major Applewhite before replacing Gus Malzahn at Arkansas State for that one year. With Peterson having such a breakout year at Washington, there are a number of LSU fans who are inquiring as to his availability at LSU – but Harsin, his most notable protege’, could be a much better fit having coached in Texas and Arkansas. He’s 39 years old and makes a reported $1 million per year at Boise.

He’s got a little personality as well. Earlier this month, in the press conference following a victory over Utah State a reporter had his phone set to record Harsin but forgot to set it to airplane mode and thus not take calls – and that reporter’s girlfriend kept calling during the press conference and making the phone emit a distracting vibration. Which led to this…

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