The bar in the SEC has been set unfairly high. We’ve seen Georgia fire a very good coach in favor of a Nick Saban assistant with a bad haircut and no head coaching experience simply because they hoped he could be even half as successful as his former boss. That experiment, thus far, has failed. We’ve seen LSU, who flirted with firing Les Miles for the last year, finally pull the trigger after a slow start to the 2016 season despite having easily one of the most talented teams in the country. It seems as though every SEC coach that isn’t in Tuscaloosa is either in the playoff hunt or on the hot seat. That lack of gray area between the two is almost entirely unique, and is causing schools to do baffling things. (South Carolina had months ahead of everyone on last season’s coaching search and hired a former Saban assistant that had already been fired from one SEC school not just in the same conference, but same division.) And while the Tide and the Tigers battle it out, a coaches job security at LSU will most likely be determined, although it’s not at all what anyone would have thought would be the case back in August.
Ed Orgeron has had a band of not-so-quiet supporters ever since he righted the sinking ship that was USC back in 2013. He did so well to change the culture of the program, in fact, that Pat Haden’s decision not to hire him as the full-time head coach for the following season left several of his players in public disarray. But now, with Orgeron replicating that success as LSU’s interim coach, even those who weren’t actively rooting for him before are at least hoping he sticks around now. But despite a 3-0 record under Orgeron, with a chance to take almost total control of their destiny in the SEC West, there’s one monster that the Tigers have to slay if they want to keep Ed on the sidelines for 2017: the Tide.
LSU is in an interesting position right now. Orgeron has them playing at levels previously unforeseen in 2016 with Les Miles at the helm, but of those three games the only win worth much is over 3-5 Ole Miss, who’s last in the divison standings despite having a pretty alright team. And while the Tiger brass could publicly back Orgeron now, that would make getting throttled at the hands of Alabama on Saturday that much worse. (A la Clay Helton against Stanford last season, right after he was given the USC job.) While it isn’t the sole reason for Miles’ firing, not being able to beat Alabama on at least a semi-annual basis played a big factor in his seat being so hot during his final few seasons in Baton Rouge. So, while Ed Orgeron could lead the Tigers to a 9-3 record and respectable bowl game, that likely won’t be to please the LSU boosters into keeping him.
LSU is an entirely different team under Orgeron.
This is incredibly obvious simply based on the huge numbers the Tigers’ offense has put up since he took the helm. His first game against Mizzou, the Tigers broke the school record for total yards in a game. Two games later, Leonard Fournette popped off for a single-game school record 284 yards on just 16 carries, including one in which he baptized a freshman rebel defender. Again, none of the teams the Tigers have played under Orgeron have really been worth much defensively, but LSU is doing what great teams should do against lesser competition. And, while Danny Etling hasn’t looked particularly awesome under center, he’s limited enough mistakes to keep himself from holding back the offense.
While having strong quarterback play is nice, it isn’t like the Tigers have had to lean on it in the past, especially against Alabama. The last time the Tigers beat the Tide (a 9-6 overtime thrill ride), Tigers quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee combined for 94 yards on 9 of 17 throwing for no scores and a pair of interceptions. But, if Etling isn’t going to take this game over, then Fournette needs to. His last two outings against Alabama have been less than memorable, and while he might be the best running back in the country, he can’t afford to disappear for the third-straight in his team’s biggest game.
This ain’t your father’s Alabama.
So that thing about LSU not having to rely on things like quarterback play against Alabama largely came down to have a fantastic defense to slow the Tide down. While LSU’s defense has been pretty good, they’ve yet to play a team with a unit that’s as complete as Alabama’s. Jalen Hurts has grown in a very small timespan to become a fantastic quarterback, back through the air and on the ground, and having players like Calvin Ridley to throw the ball to has helped immensely. Lane Kiffin has done wonders in Saban’s system, evolving the Tide into a much more modern offense that causes all sorts of problems for opposing defenses.
There’s still some classic Alabama feel to this team, though. The defense has played ridiculously through eight games, posting one of the best units in the country that, it seems like, almost single-handedly wins games on their own. If the Tigers really want to stand a chance in this game, offensive mistakes have to be limited to the smallest possible degree. Giving the Tide any chance to capitalize just digs your team into too deep of a hole, and if that happens early, we could see another blowout.
The recipe to beat Alabama is there, but can the Tigers capitalize?
This Alabama team hasn’t looked as unbeatable in the past. They’ve shown some lackluster parts of their game that, if pressed, could keep an opponent in a game. But this year’s Alabama team has also shown an incredible ability to work through those faults and make adjustments that ultimately have lead to an 8-0 start. If Orgeron wants to capitalize on this hot start and out himself in the driver’s seat for the LSU job, he’ll need to pass his biggest test of all.