Ed Orgeron doesn’t come across as an early adopter of anything. Speaking with ESPN’s Alex Scarborough last month, Orgeron ticked off a list of tags applied to him: “Defensive line coach; dumb; you know, Cajun, can hardly speak; got the raspy voice; a hard-ass at Ole Miss; nobody could work for him; can't be a head coach."
On Monday night, Orgeron’s LSU Tigers — yes, he’s the head coach — are favored to wrest the national title from an opponent that hasn’t lost in two years. It’s not as if LSU hasn’t won big before, but it has never taken such a stage looking like this. On the contrary, LSU was infamous for never looking like this.
When last the Tigers played for a title, they mustered 92 yards, five first downs and no points. Their 21-0 loss to Alabama in the Superdome on Jan. 9, 2012, might have been the worst performance by a No. 1 team in the history of the sport. Critics demanded that Les Miles bring his offense into some century that began with a “2.” Being Les Miles, he did as he pleased, which meant LSU continued to run the ball and play defense.
A year later, LSU faced Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Going into the game, Brent Venables — then as now Clemson’s defensive coordinator — averred that LSU’s notion of a trick play was a play-action pass. Clemson won 25-24 on a field goal at the end. Dabo Swinney’s giddy postgame press conference began shortly after midnight on the first day of 2013 and threatened to continue into 2014.
Clemson and LSU will meet again Monday night (8 p.m., ESPN). Both have changed. LSU has changed so much as to be unrecognizable. Miles was fired in September 2016 after losses to Wisconsin and Auburn, the scores of which were 16-14 and 18-13. Orgeron, then the Tigers D-line coach/recruiting coordinator, replaced Miles on an interim basis, something he’d done at USC when his running buddy Lane Kiffin got fired on a Los Angeles airport tarmac in 2012.
Few considered Orgeron a serious candidate to become LSU’s permanent coach because … well, go back to what he told Scarborough. (Also because he’d gone 10-25 as head coach at Ole Miss.) But LSU bowed to pressure — the players loved Coach O, as did many fans — and made the son of Larose, La., the head ball coach at Louisiana State.
I gave him two years. Not for the first or last time, I was way wrong. I was wrong because I never imagined Coach O, of all people, dragging a dormant program onto the bleeding edge of offense. I give the man the utmost credit: He got geeky when he decided there was no other way to go.
A 10-0 loss to Alabama in 2016 — yep, Bama again — led Orgeron to hire the hottest offensive coordinator he could find, that being Matt Canada, who’d had a big season at Pittsburgh after replacing Jim Chaney, who’d left for Georgia. LSU moved from 59th nationally in total offense in 2016 to 54th under Canada, which wasn’t what Coach O had in mind. Canada was gone by January. Orgeron called his hiring “a mistake.”
He filled the vacancy in-house, promoting Steve Ensminger, the former LSU quarterback who’d been on staff since 2010 without being OC. That didn’t quite work, either. LSU finished 68th in total offense and was again shut out in Tuscaloosa. This blanking would prove a turning point. Said Orgeron, speaking here Saturday: “We got beat 29-0. We did not play well. But adversity makes you better. That’s the time that me and Ensminger decided we were going to the spread. The day after, we said we’re going to the spread.”
Ensminger remains the OC and play-caller, though he’s not exactly a spread guru. Orgeron found someone who was — a then 29-year-old who’d spent two years at Penn State as a grad assistant and a year on staff with the New Orleans Saints.
Orgeron: “I was hoping we could get (Saints head coach) Sean Payton. I think Sean is a genius. We don’t have Sean Payton, but what we have one who is very, very good … We asked (the Saints): ‘Do y’all know anything about the RPOs (run/pass options)?’ They brought in a young guy named Joe Brady.”
Then: “We kept up with Joe, did our research. We had some people at the Saints tell us he was an up-and-coming star. We took him, and they were right.”
A career defensive man, Orgeron didn’t make the mistake many defensive men do. He didn’t see offensive curlicues as frippery to be avoided at all costs. Heck, when he was the D-line coach under Pete Carroll with the USC teams of Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, he’d cast an envious glance across the practice field. “That was the blueprint,” he said. “I thought we had the most prolific offense in the world. I always wanted that offense.”
He has it now. LSU ranks first in scoring, first in yards, first in passing efficiency. Quarterback Joe Burrow won the Heisman. LSU began its season by scoring 45 points at Texas. On Nov. 10, it went to Bryant-Denny Stadium — a place it hadn’t scored since 2015 — and dropped 46 on Nick Saban’s addled noggin. Over December games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against Georgia and Oklahoma, LSU hit 100.
Orgeron: “I never dreamed we would shatter all those records, but it just goes to show you. That's from a pro-style offense into a spread. That’s the reason. We have pro-style guys, but you can’t score enough points in our opinion in the pro-style offense, so we went to the spread. And look what happened.”
A questioner at LSU’s media day broached the old line — defense wins championships. Orgeron’s response: “Well, obviously it helps. I do believe you have to have a great quarterback to win a championship. I think that's the standard. The way offenses are going, you have to score a lot of points. This game may be different, but I think the national championships that are 13-10 are going to be few and far between.”
Now the world wonders: Can LSU keep Brady, who turned 30 in September and whose title is passing game coordinator/receivers coach? Reports hold that the Tigers are prepared to pay Brady $1 million, a ton for a non-coordinator. (Then again, this non-coordinator received the Broyles Award as the nation’s best assistant.)
Orgeron: “I believe in Joe. I believe in Scott (Woodward, LSU’s athletic director). Scott put the plan into place a long time ago. I do believe that we're almost finalized with the plan. I do believe Joe is going to be a Tiger. But you know, as in coaching in football, anything can happen.”
Guess so. Not so long ago, Coach O was viewed as more of a cartoon character than an actual coach. By daring to change, he changed the dynamics on everything — his program, his offense, his life. Those RPOs are a mighty thing.
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