— -- When LSU suffered two September losses in 2016, the school dumped coach Les Miles and his 114-34 record, which included a 2007 national title.
Two September losses this season -- more unsightly setbacks, at that -- leaves the Tigers searching for solutions, and there are no easy ones. The Ed Orgeron era is off to an extremely shaky start. Two weeks after a historic loss at Mississippi State, LSU fell 24-21 to Troy on Saturday. The Tigers had won 49 consecutive nonconference home games and had never lost to a Sun Belt team in 16 previous games. Troy's win was no fluke, either. The Trojans jumped ahead 17-0 and converted 10 of 18 third downs (LSU was 0-of-8).
The concerns about LSU's hiring of Orgeron, who went 10-25 at Ole Miss before successful interim head-coaching stints at USC in 2013 and at LSU last year, have been validated. LSU must find its way before it enters a stretch playing three of its next four games on the road.
ESPN reporters Sam Khan and Alex Scarborough joined me to break down the latest crisis in Baton Rouge.
What exactly is the problem?
Alex Scarborough: The most damning part of Saturday night's game is that Troy didn't just beat LSU on the scoreboard. The Trojans beat them in every phase of the game. We're used to seeing an LSU team getting out-physicaled on both sides of the ball, and then just continuing to see the lack of development on offense when you brought in coordinator Matt Canada as the guy to solve the problems. There's a lot that Ed Orgeron has to fix right now, and I don't know, quite frankly, where he should start.
Adam Rittenberg: Several people have pointed out that might be a lack of toughness or physical play. Some of it could be youth, at least on the defensive side. I thought they had to go away from what they had been doing on offense under Les Miles, especially because the quarterback development wasn't there, but has Canada's system, in a sense, taken away those physical advantages that LSU should have?
Sam Khan: I don't think the system has. The main issues are they still haven't decided on a long-term quarterback who will win ballgames. Danny Etling is not that guy. Myles Brennan might be that guy, but he's a true freshman. That's asking a lot. And secondly, the offensive line is just not as deep or as good as it has been in recent years. It's those two issues, combined trying to learn a new system. It's just not come together as quickly as they wanted it to.
Scarborough: As far as the defense goes, that line, for the first time I can remember, is undersized at a lot of different positions. Arden Key is not playing with the same kind of physical nature, and Christian LaCouture in the middle is a good lineman but a little undersized. The argument that they're young, it has never been an argument we're used to hearing with LSU. They've always had talent on that side of the football. It's really surprising to see a Troy offensive line that, while it's good, should not be pushing two or three yards downfield consistently against LSU.
Who's to blame?
Rittenberg: The feeling going into the season was Orgeron did a nice job as the interim coach and he should be given a second chance. Ole Miss (2005-07) was a long time ago. He has grown as a coach since, and he has had two good interim stints. And, at the very least, he has two really good coordinators, including the highest-paid coordinator in the country in DC Dave Aranda. So how much of this is on those coordinators, and how much of it ultimately goes to Orgeron and what he hasn't done to get this team playing at the level it should?
Khan: The coordinators have proven track records. Aranda and Canada have been successful. Orgeron's track record as a full-time head coach is not there. So that's where the buck stops. And you look at last night, where he questioned the very first play call after the game from his offensive coordinator, and then later he says, "Everything goes through me. There's no pointing fingers." It's clear that something's missing. There's a disconnect between what Orgeron wants and what's actually happening.
Scarborough: Everyone has different styles as a head coach, and we need to recognize that, as far as how they deal with coordinators. But I think there's a difference between empowering your coordinators and letting them do whatever they want. Nick Saban is a good example of that. He empowered Lane Kiffin, but at the same time, if there was something wrong in the game to make adjustments, those were being made. I wonder if there's too much being given over to the offense, too much given over to the defense, when really what Orgeron has done well his entire career is being a hands-on position coach. So maybe he needs to play to his strengths, as opposed to being a guy trying to play the CEO role when that's not really his M.O.
Rittenberg: That's interesting, as Orgeron seems to have a lot of faith in Pete Jenkins to handle the defensive line, his old group. Should his approach be to become more involved in the game plan, and less of a CEO, or is it just making better adjustments in the game, to not let that get to be a 17-0 deficit? It just baffles me that they can't score points. I'm a big fan of Canada's scheme. I thought it would produce easier drives and bigger plays. I've seen him do this with average quarterbacks and still produce, and it's not happening right now.
Scarborough: It's bizarre, because you want your coordinator to fit things to your personnel. You'd think they'd at least be able to run the football more effectively in pressure situations. We weren't really seeing that Saturday night. Obviously, the personnel has to catch up, especially the quarterback position, but you don't expect these kinds of struggles from a coordinator who everybody said would be a savior in turning around what has been a poor offense for a long time.
Khan: At the end of the day, the bottom line isn't necessarily speed. It's effort. Devin White, one of the linebackers, told reporters last night, "You could just tell that they wanted it more." So clearly this team is not motivated, and that, to me, ultimately starts with the head coach, who is known as a really good motivator. That's his reputation. Whatever he may have lacked in schemes, he's a rah-rah guy and a motivator, and he has a team out there that doesn't look motivated.
Rittenberg: So you're saying the shirt's going to come off this week? I thought those days were over, but they might be coming back.
What needs to change?
Rittenberg: In the next four games, LSU faces three ranked opponents: Florida in Gainesville, and then Auburn, Ole Miss on the road and Alabama on the road. So three of the next four on the road. This team is not playing well. Its most impressive win is looking less and less impressive, as BYU looks like one of the worst 10 teams in the country. People want to see some type of accountability. I can't imagine Ed Orgeron being fired, but we're in an era in which athletic directors have started to take the fall. You saw it at Nebraska with Shawn Eichorst. There are reports Jay Jacobs could soon be out at Auburn. What do you think happens at LSU? Nothing? AD Joe Alleva getting fired?
Khan: Alleva would be the one to watch early on. Orgeron's buyout is so large. If they fire him this year, it's $12 million, and they're still paying Les Miles' buyout. Alleva is the one who made the hire. That's where you look first. I think they will give Orgeron some time to get it together.
Scarborough: I agree with Sam. I don't think there's any other move to make for an LSU program and really a university that has been in financial troubles for a long time now. I have a hard time seeing them justify paying two coach buyouts at the same time. You more point toward the guy who has made poor decisions at the head-coaching position in a couple of different sports. This isn't a typical situation where you look at a head coach struggling and say, "You have to make changes at coordinator." As we've discussed, that's not the problem. That's why it's a difficult situation, because it doesn't seem like there's an easy remedy with changing scheme or personnel.
Rittenberg: We've talked about finding a spark and maybe Ed has to create it himself. But is there anything else that can be done, such as a quarterback change to get something going? It doesn't seem like they're ready for that, but if this keeps going, I don't know how you can't at least try to shake something up at quarterback.
Khan: Quarterback is one, and lineup changes, in general. If guys aren't playing hard, there's no reason you shouldn't shake up the depth chart. And what do you have to lose at this point? The way LSU has played the past three weeks, no one is expecting them to beat Florida or Auburn. And it's still early enough that you can turn it around. If they can go into Gainesville and get a win, it could bring a renewed energy because they made some big changes. Who knows? Maybe they can clear the tide in time. They've got talent.
Scarborough: My question is can Derrius Guice throw the football? I don't know if he needs a cryotherapy chamber to get him healthy, but that's the guy to me. You have to accept what your personnel is. Brennan doesn't really change the quarterback situation. Maybe if you give him a full week and see what he does, but you have to play to your strengths, and you've got one of the 10 best players in college football in Guice. You need to find a way to get him healthy and feature him in every way you can. That's their best bet of righting the ship.
Rittenberg: I wonder if there's any issue of him seeing what happened with Leonard Fournette last year, realizing that he's also an NFL prospect, and is he really going to push it? I've heard the same thing about Arden Key from coaches in the SEC. This season's already resulting in most likely no championship. Who knows if they'll even get to a bowl game? Is that an issue LSU should be concerned about? You have all these high-level players who may not have that much invested in the rest of the season.
Scarborough: If they lose convincingly at Florida, that becomes a significant problem in a hurry. Both Guice and Key have had injury issues and are recovering from surgery, and they could very easily justify it to themselves. Orgeron already seems to have an issue with effort on this team, and he might have to address it if things turn even worse.
Rittenberg: One thing here goes way beyond Ed Orgeron. I don't understand why this program is so dysfunctional on offense. I get it at some of the SEC programs, but LSU is a program that should always have and usually does have a certain level of talent at wide receiver, running back, offensive line, even quarterback. It just baffles me that, year after year, they can't put together a consistent, balanced, cohesive offense. So can it get fixed? To me, it goes beyond this staff.
Khan: Talent has never been the question. It always has been about scheme and the triggerman. During the Les Miles era, they signed 18 quarterbacks and 13 of them left the program or switched positions. Only two finished their careers at LSU. It's not that they haven't recruited big-time guys, but they haven't worked out. Brandon Harris is the perfect case of a guy who was highly rated but wasn't a system fit for them. Now you're making a change and it's hard to put it on this staff because the system is different from what they've had. They were just so antiquated in what they did. They had big-time receivers and you always felt like if you had someone who could open up the offense, they'd really have something special. I'm not saying you have to run the Air Raid, but you've got to be more spread out.
Scarborough: Recruiting at the quarterback position has really hurt them. This is a program that should have [Oklahoma State's] Mason Rudolph on its roster, and decided to go with Brandon Harris. That's really an indictment. But this goes back further. It's more of an inability or a reluctance to evolve over a number of years offensively under Les Miles. You can't turn that page overnight. You just can't. Not when you've recruited a certain way for a number of years. They were never going to be a program that ran motion and jet sweeps and up-tempo. They weren't built for that. We're seeing the growing pains, and when you don't have the quarterback to effectively run that, and you haven't created that culture of offense, it's really difficult to pull off.