LSU drew a lot of outside criticism when Les Miles was fired in September 2016.
All Miles did was win a national championship and play for another and win 114 games and, sure, act a little quirky at times.
But something else Miles did: he routinely failed to develop a big-time quarterback.
Despite battalions of NFL-ready receivers and offensive linemen and running backs, Miles’ LSU teams were noted for their defensive accomplishments — and for their lack of offensive innovation.
In 2015, Miles had brought in Ed Orgeron, a Louisiana native of Cajun descent and a superstar recruiter.
Orgeron, 58, was the Tigers’ defensive line coach, but he had also served as head coach at Ole Miss and USC. When Miles was fired following an early season loss to Auburn, LSU’s passing game ranked 119th in the nation. Orgeron got the interim head coaching job, and he quickly went to work trying to fix Miles’ shortcomings.
LSU officials liked the results enough that they removed Orgeron’s interim tag that November, and he’s continued to raise the program’s stature every year, going 9-4, 10-3 and now 13-0.
Now, three years later, LSU has the best offense in college football — better, even, than Oklahoma, which has paced college football for three straight years.
The No. 1-ranked Tigers and No. 4 Sooners meet in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Dec. 28 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, a College Football Playoff showdown of college football’s two most prolific offenses. LSU leads the nation at 554.4 yards per game, OU is second at 554.2.
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley called his opponent “a tremendous LSU team that’s played very well all season, beaten a lot of really good football teams. Obviously, have a ton of respect for Coach Orgeron, their staff, their players. What a great year that they’ve had.”
So how did Orgeron do it? How did he elevate an offense that featured the nation’s leading rusher in 2015 (Leonard Fournette) but ranked 109th nationally in passing yards?
How did he rebuild a program’s shaken confidence enough to win the rugged SEC West, enough to go undefeated and make the College Football Playoff as the No. 1-ranked team in the land?
Most importantly, the Tigers finally got a quarterback.
Senior Joe Burrow arrived last year as a transfer from Ohio State. He put up pedestrian numbers in 2018 — 2,894 yards, 16 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, a .578 completion percentage — but then this season exploded to national prominence. He’s a prohibitive favorite to win the Heisman Trophy and other national awards after posting one of the best statistical seasons in college football history.
Burrow comes into the Peach Bowl completing 77.9 percent of his passes — that would shatter the old NCAA record of 76.7, set in 2008 by Texas’ Colt McCoy; his lowest completion percentage in any game this year is .711 — but don’t be fooled: he excels at throwing the deep ball, ranking third nationally at 10.74 yards per attempt. He’s also second in the nation in passing yards at 4,715 (362.7 per game, behind Washington State’s Anthony Gordon), second in passer efficiency (201.5, behind Alabama’s injured Tua Tagovailoa) and has thrown a nation-leading 48 touchdowns with just six interceptions.
The 6-foot-4, 216-pound Burrow is a breath of fresh air for a program whose offense had been stale for decades.
“Joe’s one of the most important recruits we’ve had at LSU,” Orgeron said. “With the spread offense, we couldn’t have had success without him. I do believe you have to have a great quarterback, obviously. Most of the teams we’re playing right now have great quarterbacks.”
2019 LSU Tigers schedule/results
Aug. 31: LSU 55, Georgia Southern 3
Sept. 7: LSU 45, Texas 38
Sept. 14: LSU 65, Northwestern State 14
Sept. 21: LSU 66, Vanderbilt 38
Oct. 5: LSU 42, Utah State 6
Oct. 12: LSU 42, Florida 28
Oct. 19: LSU 36, Mississippi State 13
Oct. 26: LSU 23, Auburn 20
Nov. 9: LSU 46, Alabama 41
Nov. 16: LSU 58, Ole Miss 37
Nov. 23: LSU 56, Arkansas 20
Nov. 30: LSU 50, Texas A&M Aggies 7
Dec. 7: * LSU, 37, Georgia 10
* SEC Championship Game, Atlanta
But how did Burrow emerge as the most outstanding college football player in America after he couldn’t win the job at Ohio State and looked like another run-of-the-mill QB in the bayou?
First, there is the usual array of NFL talent around him.
Junior running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, a 5-8, 209-pound firecracker, exploded with 1,290 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns this season. He’s averaging 6.5 yards per rush, but he also caught 50 passes for 399 yards (it was his skills as a receiver that may have been the difference in LSU’s 46-41 victory over Alabama).
The Tigers also have two 1,000-yard receivers this season: 6-1, 200-pound sophomore Ja’Marr Chase was a Fred Biletnikoff Award finalist (alongside OU’s CeeDee Lamb) after catching 73 passes for 1,498 yards and 18 touchdowns. Like Lamb, Chase is a big-play threat deep or underneath, and averages 20.5 yards per catch. And 6-3, 192-pound junior Justin Jefferson led LSU with 88 receptions, gained 1,207 yards and scored 14 touchdowns.
That’s just the stars.
Terrace Marshall is a 6-4, 200-pound sophomore who only caught 37 passes for 545 yards this season but scored 10 touchdowns. Tight end Thaddeus Moss, a 6-3, 249-pound junior, caught 38 passes for 435 yards and a score. And 6-3, 221-pound junior Racey McMath fought injuries and still contributed 16 receptions for 268 yards and three touchdowns as a backup.
Also, the Tigers returned four starters to the offensive line in 2019. This year’s starting five includes three juniors and two seniors, including All-SEC center Lloyd Cushenberry, a 6-4, 315-pound junior. Left guard Adrian McGee (6-4, 343, Sr.) and right guard Damien Lewis (6-3, 332, Sr.) also made second-team All-SEC.
The LSU defense is stocked as usual, especially in the secondary.
Safety Grant Delpit, a 6-3, 203-pound junior, was first-team All-SEC and is regarded as one of the best defensive backs in the country. True freshman Derek Stingley (6-1, 190) made second-team all-conference and leads the Tigers with six interceptions. Strong safety Jacoby Stevens (6-1, 228, Jr.) earned second-team All-SEC.
Outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson (6-4, 250, So.) earned first-team all-conference honors, and defensive end Rashard Lawrence (6-3, 308, Sr.) was named second-team All-SEC.
Despite all that talent, LSU’s defense under coordinator Dave Aranda took a beating in games against Texas (Sam Ehlinger went 31-of-47 for 401 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions) and against Ole Miss (the Rebels rushed for 402 yards and finished with 614 total yards).
The Tigers rank 32nd nationally in total defense at 341.3 yards per game (OU is 24th at 330.6): 24th against the run (119.6 yards per game, just 3.6 per carry) and 56th against the pass (221.7 yards per game).
After going 10-3 last season, LSU started 2019 ranked No. 6 in the Associated Press preseason Top 25. The Tigers have been back and forth for No. 1 with Ohio State since the CFP rankings came out in November.
But LSU always has elite talent, and Burrow was no superstar last year. How did all this come together in 2019?
Start with recruiting, of course. Orgeron’s first two classes in Baton Rouge ranked eighth (2017) and 14th (2018), per Rivals. But this year’s freshman class was the No. 3 class in the nation, according to Rivals, and the 2020 class is currently ranked No. 1.
If there’s one thing Orgeron always knew he could do, it’s recruit.
Ultimately, it took Orgeron rebuilding Miles’ staff to elevate the offense and turn Burrow into a superstar — and it started way back in 2016.
Orgeron knew right away he had to fix the offense that got Miles fired. His first move was to make offensive line coach Steve Ensminger his offensive coordinator. In 2018, Orgeron hired former Nebraska quarterback Mickey Joseph as his wide receivers coach. He also hired six-year NFL assistant James Cregg to coach the offensive line.
And then this year, Orgeron added the final piece of the coaching staff puzzle when he hired 29-year-old Joe Brady as his passing game coordinator.
Brady, now 30, was a graduate assistant at Penn State when the New Orleans Saints hired him as an offensive quality control assistant. He learned quickly under Sean Payton, and he helped the Saints install an RPO element to their offense that nearly produced a Super Bowl trip last year.
Brady — who won the Frank Broyles Award this year as college football’s top assistant — works alongside Ensminger and Joseph, and their partnership has been productive and, by all accounts, harmonious.
Of course, Brady wouldn’t have won the Broyles Award and the Tigers wouldn’t be back in the CFP without the best quarterback in the country behind center. And realistically, Burrow wouldn’t have taken off like he did without Brady’s innovations.
Ultimately, it all comes back to Orgeron.
After some head coaching ups and downs earlier in his career, Orgeron returned to his home state and leaned into LSU’s heritage. He surrounded himself with talented assistants, he kept landing elite recruits, and his devotion and enthusiasm has pumped new life into the program as well as the fan base.
“You know, it says a lot about your team to get in the College Football Playoffs, especially playing in the conference that we play,” Orgeron said. “So obviously, it’s an accomplishment. But it’s not the final destination.”
Formerly co-host of “Further Review” and “The Franchise Drive,” columnist John E. Hoover is a college football insider on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover co-hosts The Franchise “Inside OU” Podcast with Brady Trantham and Rufus Alexander, and the Locked oN Sooners podcast on the Locked oN Podcast Network. He also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/JohnHoover, and his personal page at johnehoover.com.