By now those of our readers who are interested in such topics probably have already heard that LSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada will be moving on after Monday’s Citrus Bowl tilt with Notre Dame. That Canada is leaving isn’t a particular surprise to anyone, as there have been rumors and reports of tension – to put it mildly – between Orgeron and Canada throughout his first and only year at the Ole War Skule.
Orgeron had mentioned Canada was being considered for a number of head coaching jobs and that he was in support of Canada pursuing those opportunities. There was talk he might be a possibility as the new head coach at UL-Lafayette, but that didn’t happen.
And now it looks like Canada is leaving without any particular destination, but with bags full of money.
Canada signed a three-year contract last December paying him $1.5 million per year as the highest-paid offensive coordinator in college football. The school would owe him about $3 million to be paid in monthly installments over the life of the contract, through 2020. That amount is offset by any future compensation Canada earns at another job, according to a copy of his contract.
Canada is accustomed to quick stops during his coaching journey. LSU is his fifth school in the past seven seasons, including Pitt (2016), N.C. State (2013-15), Wisconsin (2012) and Northern Illinois (2011).
The friction between the head coach and the outgoing offensive coordinator reportedly became so bad that it erupted in pugilism after the Troy game, an ignominious 24-21 loss in which LSU fell behind 17-0 after Orgeron stripped Canada’s offense of its signature pre-snap shifting in the first half in an attempt to improve execution. The loss created a furor around the LSU program, as many fans saw it as evidence Orgeron was unsuited and unqualified to be LSU’s head coach, and an emergency meeting was called between Orgeron, Canada, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and athletic director Joe Alleva to sort out some semblance of a working relationship among the staff.
That meeting seemed to produce results, as LSU’s play improved more or less week to week after the Troy loss. There was talk that Orgeron and Canada had stitched up their differences and perhaps he would remain for a second year. But when Canada took no real part in LSU’s postseason recruiting efforts it was a solid sign the change would, after all, be made.
How should LSU fans take the news of Canada’s firing? This is a firing, after all – it might well be more officially a mutual parting of ways but LSU is paying some part of $3 million as a negotiated buyout of Canada’s contract and nobody does that with an employee they want to keep.
Obviously, if the head coach can’t stand the offensive coordinator it’s a problem that needs to be solved – and if those differences can’t be patched then the solution clearly is a new offensive coordinator. And while Canada’s offense is innovative and it absolutely works, he’s not irreplaceable.
You’ll hear lots of trashing of Matt Canada by the Orgeron supporters. Most of that critique doesn’t wash. Yes, LSU’s offense put up, on the whole, better numbers in 2016, when Orgeron was the interim head coach and tight ends coach Steve Ensminger (more on him below) was the stand-in offensive coordinator than Canada did this year. But that isn’t really an apples-to-apples comparison. After all, for much of 2016 LSU had two high first-round draft picks alternating at tailback in Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice; in 2017 Guice wasn’t himself until halfway through the season and while Darrell Williams had a great season this year he’s not Fournette.
What’s more, the 2016 LSU offensive line was rated the best in all of college football by Pro Football Focus, but that line disintegrated in the offseason when Ethan Pocic was drafted by the Seahawks and Maea Teuhema got into disciplinary trouble and had to transfer out of the program. Couple that with the graduation of John Boutte and an injury which cost K.J. Malone the bulk of the 2017 season, throw in the injury/suspension of Donavaughn Campbell, then add the attrition of George Brown, Chidi Okeke, Andy Dodd, Willie Allen and Seth Stewart robbing LSU of depth and Canada was forced to deal with as many as three true freshmen in the lineup along the offensive line.
And then there’s the wide receiver corps, in which LSU never really found replacements for Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural as they departed after the 2016 season. That meant D.J. Chark was the only reliable game-breaking threat LSU had on the flanks, though Russell Gage did a creditable job as the second wide receiver.
This was an LSU offense as limited personnel-wise as any in recent memory, and yet once Guice returned to some degree of health and the offensive line was able to gel a little it performed pretty well. LSU averaged 30.8 points a game in going 5-1 over the last six games, and put up a reasonably solid 426.5 yards per game in total offense over that stretch – a number which was held down a bit by having to play a foul-weather game against Tennessee which greatly limited Canada’s playcalling. In addition, Canada maximized Danny Etling as LSU’s quarterback; Etling’s pass efficiency rating of 155.3 is the best by an LSU starting quarterback since Zach Mettenberger’s 171.4 in 2013 (and Mettenberger had the two best current NFL wide receivers to throw to in Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry); this despite the fact Etling struggled to hit open receivers down the field all season long.
There is a lot you can say in favor of Canada’s offense and about what positives it could generate were he to return for a second season. But in the end LSU finished 7th in the SEC in total offense and averaged less than 30 points per game for the season; on the whole Canada didn’t prove himself indispensable to the Tigers’ future success. Word that the players weren’t huge fans of Canada and reports his wife was a disruptive influence – one story which gained rather wide underground circulation had it getting back to Orgeron that Mrs. Canada didn’t regard him as particularly intelligent, which would certainly serve to poison the relationship between the two – should make LSU fans willing to move on despite the promise of his x’s and o’s. It’s not like LSU is the first place Canada’s made a quick exit from under perplexing circumstances.
But if hiring Canada, who was the flavor of the month among offensive coordinators last year following a Broyles Award finalist designation for his work at Pittsburgh in 2016, without suitable vetting was a $3 million mistake it’s going to make the public a lot less interested in any further griping from LSU that the recently-passed tax reform plan would “devastate” LSU’s athletic budget because the TAF seat licenses are no longer tax deductible. Nobody is going to listen to that kind of talk from athletic director Joe Alleva anymore if he’s going to pay Canada $3 million not to coach under Alleva’s chosen head football man.
The real question is: what now? LSU desperately needs an offensive coordinator who can recruit and develop top-quality SEC quarterbacks, maintain the program’s identity as a physical running offensive team and provide some degree of stability going forward – LSU will now have its fourth offensive coordinator in two years (Cam Cameron, Ensminger, Canada and whoever the new guy will be), and that’s no way to climb out of the offensive doldrums.
Reports have Ensminger as Orgeron’s top choice to replace Canada; word has it Ensminger would keep most of Canada’s x’s and o’s and throw in elements of the West Coast/USC passing game Orgeron learned while coaching for Pete Carroll in Los Angeles. That might not make for a bad schematic mix, but if Orgeron is replacing Canada with Ensminger it’s not going to be met with joy by the fan base at all.
Nothing against Ensminger, but a year ago when Canada was hired he was quoted as saying serving as an offensive coordinator was a “grind” and that he didn’t enjoy it. He’s the oldest coach on LSU’s staff, or will be when Pete Jenkins’ retirement becomes official following the Citrus Bowl, and most people think he’s closer to retirement than leading LSU to the top of the SEC total offense standings. That isn’t to say he can’t do a good job; he did OK last year save for lousy performances in the Alabama and Florida games, but when Orgeron was hired the fans were promised the best offensive coordinator in college football and Ensminger can’t be credibly termed as such. It’s going to look like that was a political promise made solely to paper over Orgeron’s hiring as the head coach; we all know about the lifespan of political promises.
Orgeron has struggled mightily to build momentum and goodwill with the LSU fanbase thus far; he’s careened between disaster and redemption so far, but short of a big win over Notre Dame followed by a monster offensive coordinator hire the fans will likely continue their skepticism about him.
That’s as it should be. Nobody really knows which way LSU’s football program is headed, and nobody ought to feel comfortable with that uncertainty.