ARLINGTON, Texas — Ed Orgeron knew what the narrative would be if LSU came up short Sunday night.
Seat gets hotter. Schedule gets tougher. Will he even make it through the season?
After an offseason filled with pejorative references to his job security — the result of a rough 2017 start that included a home loss to Troy, the perception of offensive dysfunction after firing a former offensive coordinator after just a year and the seemingly interminable search for a capable starting quarterback made its latest stop on a guy who wasn’t even on the roster six months ago — there was little doubt what the reaction would’ve been to an LSU loss to No. 8 Miami, despite the Hurricanes’ preseason ranking.
The Tigers, and especially Orgeron, needed this one. Indeed, Orgeron was all smiles following a 33-17 spanking of the Hurricanes in the Advocare Classic at ATT Stadium, drastically flipping the narrative surrounding his team in just a few hours.
Standing between his wife, Kelly, and LSU tight end Foster Moreau, swaying as the LSU alma mater played following the win, the coach smiled, waved and yelled. “We one-and-oh, boys! Yeah! YEAH!”
There will be no such talk Sunday night, or for the immediate future, about his job. Among the questions now surrounding the No. 25 Tigers: Will they be a factor in the SEC West this season? Is Joe Burrow the answer at quarterback? Is Nick Brossette the Tigers’ next 1,000-yard running back?
The answer to all those are to be determined, but for now, it’s looking positive on all fronts. On Sunday, it was the Tigers who looked deserving of the higher ranking and the Hurricanes looking nothing of the sort. While recent seasons have proven it to be unwise to overreact to a Week 1 win, it’s still worth noting: The way LSU played spoke loudly.
“We made a big statement,” All-American cornerback Greedy Williams said. “To everybody that doubted us in each and every way, Coach O has a saying: ‘Block out the noise.’ So we just blocked out the noise and came out and played football.”
There was plenty of news throughout training camp, from arrests and suspensions, player transfers, a pair of players-only meetings and the ongoing quarterback battle, to say nothing of the predictions of a seven-win season or pontifications about Orgeron’s future.
So what about those questions? Let’s take the last one first: Brossette, a senior who has had scarce opportunities while Leonard Fournette, Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams occupied the carries in front of him, shined in his first big opportunity. His 50-yard first-quarter touchdown run — the first of his LSU career — was a sign of things to come as he rolled to a 100-plus yard, two-touchdown night.
“I felt that he was our most physical back,” Orgeron said of the 6-foot, 221-pound Brossette. “He’s been tremendous all camp, and I think that he’s going to have an excellent season.”
The Tigers’ offensive line and some shrewd playcalling by LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger helped open the door for Brossette, who burst right through it emphatically. The Tigers were able to win at the line of scrimmage consistently even after losing starting right tackle Adrian Magee to an injury less than eight minutes into the game (junior Badara Traore filled in admirably). The offensive line was far from a certainty coming into the season, but the unit was impressive Sunday.
Burrow was decent, though not spectacular, in his LSU debut. The graduate transfer from Ohio State — who is inexperienced but arrived with much praise from both his current and former coaches — had a bumpy start but took care of the football, completed a few key downfield passes and generally commanded the offense sufficiently while LSU’s defense carried the load.
If there’s anything Tigers fans should be excited about following Sunday night’s performance, it’s the way the defense performed. The front seven stymied the Hurricanes’ run game, holding Miami to 3.7 yards per carry in the first three quarters while rolling out to a 33-3 lead. The unit also came up with two interceptions of Miami quarterback Malik Rosier, with LSU linebacker Jacob Phillips returning one of them for a 45-yard touchdown (to add insult to injury, Phillips wrapped the towel around his neck and showed it off turnover-chain style to mock the Hurricanes).
Before fans start booking flights and hotels for the College Football Playoff, it’s worth noting that the Tigers were far from perfect or clean in their season-opening performance. The team burned all three of its first-half timeouts in the first quarter, the second of which came after a change of possession, the last of which was the result of chaos in the secondary following a rash of injuries that hit the unit (Orgeron took the blame for the two timeouts on offense).
Burrow was 11-for-24 passing for 140 yards, which still leaves much to be desired in the accuracy and production department and he struggled on downfield throws early, faltering on his first four attempts of 10 or more yards deep. And the LSU offense, while adequate, wasn’t great, compiling only 296 yards.
Orgeron admitted afterward that “we couldn’t” throw the ball “like we wanted to,” but Brossette’s big day eased the burden on the passing game.
From a playcalling and game-management standpoint, Ensminger acquitted himself well in his return to the position (he ran the offense during Orgeron’s interim season in 2016), but the Tigers will certainly need more firepower from that side of the ball if they’re going to win the other big games left on their schedule, of which there are plenty.
Which brings us back to the first question: Will they be a factor in their division this year?
It’s worth asking because, lest we forget, the Tigers were picked fifth in the SEC West in the preseason media poll, for all the reasons already mentioned above. Their schedule was another — LSU must travel to Auburn in less than two weeks, goes to Florida on Oct. 6, hosts Georgia the following week and, of course, hosts Alabama on Nov. 3. As it stands now, the Tigers are likely to be underdogs in three of those four games.
LSU will get closer to an answer on Sept. 15 when it takes on Jarrett Stidham-led Auburn. A loss would undo some of the goodwill earned Sunday night, which is life in the SEC, and Orgeron knows it. It’s why when asked if he thought it was a statement win, as Williams said, Orgeron deflected the question.
“There was no talk about any of that,” Orgeron said. “So if that was happening out there, I don’t know nothing about that. We came to play a game and our goal was to be 1-0. That’s the way we approach every game. Regardless of what’s out there and what people say, we believe in each other in that room and we proved it tonight.”
Orgeron would say later, “It’s never about me. It’s about the Tigers.”
The Tigers’ play did a lot of talking Sunday night, but there’s still a long way to go before we know for certain if they’re for real. For now, they’re 1-0, and that’s better than many believed they would be right now.