Immediately after replay officials (correctly) overturned a potential game-winning touchdown Saturday in the LSU at Auburn game, I tweeted that Missouri was going to get an angry pride of fellow Tigers for its first trip to Death Valley.
Mizzou plays at LSU at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, a game that will be televised on the SEC Network, but Saturday’s loss will be old news this week after Sunday’s bombshell dismissal of head coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
But does the turmoil within the LSU football program mean for the game against Mizzou? Let’s examine a few questions arising from the move:
1. How do we assess the new staff?
Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron was promoted to interim coach. He went 6-2 in that capacity at Southern California in 2013 after Lane Kiffin was fired, but landed on Miles’ staff after Steve Sarkisian was hired on a full-time basis.
Orgeron coached at Mississippi for three seasons, going 10-25 overall, including losses to Mizzou in 2006 and 2007, with a 3-21 record in Southeastern Conference play. Assistant coach seems to be his ceiling as a coach, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But he’s not a long-term solution in Baton Rouge, Louisiana — sort of the Chiefs’ equivalent of a 2011 Romeo Crenel.
He makes sense as the interim coach, however, given his familiarity with the conference and previous conference.
Unfortunately for LSU, as a defensive guy, he’s not likely to have solutions for the team’s biggest problem — a terrible offense, especially the passing game.
LSU ranks 110th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in scoring offense (21 points per game), 111th in total offense (339.5 yards) and 119th in passing offense (112.0 yards).
Fixing those issues now fall on the shoulders of LSU tight ends coach Steve Ensminger, a former starting quarterback for the program in the late 1970s. He takes over as interim offensive coordinator.
Ensminger has been LSU’s tight ends coach since 2010 and was a coordinator at several previous stops — including McNeese State, Louisiana Tech, Texas A&M and Clemson — but hasn’t been a collegiate coordinator since 1998 and never lasted more than three seasons in that role at any school.
However, Ensminger’s resume also includes stints as a quarterbacks coach, passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. The R2P2 — run, run, pass, punt — offense Miles and Cameron so often deployed (much to the chagrin of boosters and as a result of the inability to develop a quarterback) is due for an overhaul.
2. So, are changes coming to the offense?
There’s not enough time to remake the offense the entirely. LSU will continue to rely on running back Leonard Fournette, because that’s what they do and also because it would be stupid to do anything else. Fournette is a beast.
Despite the full attention of every defense LSU faces (and an ankle injury that forced him to miss the Sept. 10 game against Jacksonville State), Fournette still ranks 10th nationally with a 128.7-yard average per game — better than Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, Oregon’s Royce Freeman and Georgia’s Nick Chubb among others. The sledding has been tough near the end zone, resulting in only two touchdowns for Fournette so far this season.
A better passing game, one defense’s had to respect and maybe even fear, certainly might open things up for Fournette, who also has nine catches for 69 yards in three games. LSU has talent at wide receiver with senior Travin Dural and junior Malachi Dupree, but the issue remains quarterback. Purdue transfer Danny Etling replaced Brandon Harris after he struggled in a season-opening loss against Wisconsin at Lambeau Field.
Either way, Missouri’s going to have the better quarterback — SEC passing leader Drew Lock — Saturday under the lights in Death Valley, but LSU certainly can tweak some things, emphasize new parts of the playbook and try to stun DeMontie Cross’ defense by mixing things up from the previous four games.
Wholesale changes aren’t possible this week, but that doesn’t mean LSU’s offense won’t seem completely different based on a different play-calling strategy. That’s bound to keep Missouri’s coaches up late this week, trying to guess and decipher what might be coming.
3. How will the players respond?
That, to me, is the central question. If LSU’s players are in shock, it could be a long week capped by a sad-sack performance.
Certainly, the fact that Miles was fired can’t come as a complete shock, given how close LSU came to showing him the door after the 2015 season. Still, he was the guy most of those players signed up to play for and the timing of his dismissal could leave LSU’s players in shock.
Coming off a gutting loss at Auburn, a somber trip home and a restless Saturday night as anger and frustration swirled in their heads, those same kids awake Sunday to new that Miles is out and now have to regroup for class Monday and an uncertain future on the field. If players are angry at how LSU handled Miles’ dismissal, it could portend bad things for the team’s preparation for Missouri.
Then again, Orgeron could use it as a rallying point, beating the us-against-the-world drum to fire up LSU’s players into an emotional frenzy that overwhelms Mizzou. Distraction or pride? Only time will tell which wins out inside that locker room, because I’ve got no way to gauge its temperature.
4. Death Valley at its finest?
The final piece to the puzzle is the fans at Tiger Stadium, one of only eight stadiums in the country with a capacity north of 100,000.
It’s regarded as one of the toughest venues in college football for opposing teams. Built in 1924 with a capacity of 12,000, “Death Valley” has grown to a capacity of 102,321 through a series of four renovations and seven expansions.
Night games at Tiger Stadium, which is regularly cited as the loudest or scariest venue for opposing teams, are the stuff of legend.
At the conclusion of the 2015 season, after LSU knocked off Texas A&M in the regular-season finale, a game many thought would be Miles’ last with the program, a crowd of 101,803 chanted his name as he was carried off the field. Obviously, there were enough boosters and loyal fans who wanted Miles gone, but that sentiment wasn’t universal. Many realize that the grass isn’t always greener with a new coach.
Miles was an ace recruiter and, for all his shortcomings, had LSU in a national championship game only five years ago. The program had been overtaken by Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State in recent seasons and the always-tough SEC West has been especially difficult with the rise of Arkansas, Mississippi and Mississippi State to prominence in recent seasons.
If fans take the Auburn loss and Miles’ firing as a signal all is lost, if LSU’s faithful viewed the year as title-or-bust and decide to check out (at least for a week), will Death Valley live up to the hype on Saturday? Moreover, if Missouri can get an early lead, will that tame Tiger Stadium and turn it into the largest wake in college football history as fans ruminate on the Mad Hatter’s unfortunate end?
Probably not, but first-year coach Barry Odom and Lock and the rest of MU’s Tigers are allowed to dream that dream.