The importance of beating Alabama on Saturday night hasn’t lessened for LSU just because Ed Orgeron is 3-0 as interim head coach.
But it might not be a one-game referendum on his long-term candidacy.
Let’s be clear: beating Alabama would be monumental for Orgeron. If the Tigers win, athletic director Joe Alleva would be hard pressed to find a better candidate, even with three more SEC games to go.
That’s the equity of beating Alabama.
If, at this moment, LSU were to name its next head coach, Orgeron would be the favorite.
SB Nation has also obtained a list, according to multiple sources around the program, of favored candidates outside of Orgeron. His run in four remaining regular season games largely determines his placement on such a list.
A few things:
- The candidates are ordered by the level of support they’re receiving from LSU boosters and members of the board of supervisors.
- No written list is physically posted on a wall in Alleva’s office.
- Every name is covered by plausible deniability. That’s how head coaching searches work. No, these coaches have not interviewed for the job or expressed public interest.
But these are the outside names LSU influencers are currently most interested in.
1. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State head coach. Fisher has attained a cult status around Baton Rouge since he left for Tallahassee a decade ago, partially because he’s the first of what LSU boosters believe is a string of offensive coordinator casualties under Miles, or play callers who were limited by the former Tigers head coach.
In a vacuum, Fisher makes sense. He’s 73-17 at FSU and won a national title by developing top quarterback talent. He’s connected in the LSU community, familiar with recruiting Louisiana and the Southeast, and a proven manager.
But he’s also gainfully employed at a top program. Luring Fisher would mean paying a huge annual salary (he currently makes more than $5 million) and a large buyout.
And it’s assumed Alleva wants a total refresh in culture, which is less to do with Fisher and more to do with those LSU boosters supporting him.
2. Tom Herman, Houston head coach. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. Since flashing the “UH” hand sign on the field while Ohio State celebrated its 2015 national title, the former Buckeyes OC has been a force of nature at Houston and in the press.
Herman is 20-3 in two seasons with wins over Oklahoma and Fisher’s Florida State. That’s enough to earn attention nationwide. Houston is somewhat an extension of Louisiana, even when it comes to LSU fans and boosters. He’s a California native with Texas coaching roots and a B1G pedigree on the Urban Meyer tree, plus he’s already winning recruiting battles against bigger programs.
But forget all that. Did you know Herman helped beat Nick Saban’s Alabama defense in the Sugar Bowl two seasons ago? LSU boosters do.
The problem from LSU’s vantage is that as Texas goes, so does Herman. If Charlie Strong doesn’t survive 2016, LSU boosters are hesitant to lock into a bidding war with the Longhorns for a two-year AAC head coach with no direct ties to Louisiana.
3. Jim Mora, UCLA head coach. Mora has significantly less buzz with LSU boosters than Fisher or Herman, but there’s interest in a former NFL head coach recruiting Louisiana talent. Mora had back-to-back 10-win seasons at UCLA, but the Bruins finished 8-5 last season and are 3-5 entering Thursday night’s game at surging Colorado.
Mora is the son of former New Orleans Saints head coach Jim E. Mora, and the younger Mora has drawn interest from LSU influencers in New Orleans as a slightly younger contrast to Miles, as one source put it. Recent record aside, Mora’s shown a willingness to change up offensive schemes, can impress boosters with the fact he’s been in the NFL, and has a likely NFL quarterback in injured sophomore Josh Rosen.
That might not translate to the SEC (where he’s never coached) or LSU, but boosters frustrated with their perception of Miles’ player development find it enticing.
4. Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia head coach. The college coaching job market comes at you fast. Holgorsen, 45, was considered a lame duck entering 2016, with a 36-28 record over his five seasons in the Big 12, but after a 6-1 start, he’s back in favor.
A faction of LSU boosters in Houston consider him an offensive mind who’s never been given elite talent to work with. It also helps that of the coaches in the Mike Leach air raid tree, Holgorsen has embraced the run more than others.
That tree, however, was designed in large part to compensate for a lack of five-star talent in places like Lubbock and Morgantown. But points are points, and for his supporters, Holgorsen’s stats feel like an antidote to Miles’ offenses.
5. “A candidate who is young and offense-minded.” Say Fisher is content with FSU and Herman jumps to Texas. There’s a massive gap between No. 2 and 3 on this list, and if it gets to that point, the field is open.
Mora and Holgorsen’s names have been promoted specifically, but they would compete against a growing field.
“The logic for Alleva is: if you don’t go with Orgeron, you go in a strong, opposite direction to rebrand the LSU head coaching job completely. Find youth and an offense you can market, and build support in-state through hires on the staff,” one source said.
In the current window of three wins and two bye weeks, Louisiana loves Orgeron.
There’s a novelty to his native roots, and with three consecutive wins, equity in his aggressive public courtship of fans, media, and former players.
Former LSU lineman T-Bob Hebert, now a radio host in New Orleans, handicaps the field:
“I think he can win the job if he goes 7-1 and doesn’t beat Alabama. If he goes 7-1 with a Bama win, he’s a lock. 6-2 with an Alabama win, I’ll put him at 90 percent. But like 6-2 without Bama, and you’re dipping below 70 percent, probably. And 5-3, you can’t get the job unless there’s a Bama win. With a Bama win at 5-3, maybe you get it. Then it’s a coin flip.”
All of that changes after the first loss. Or rather, how Orgeron and LSU might lose to Alabama.
“I kind of liken it to Mortal Kombat, the story mode, where you go up the ladder of difficulty opponent by opponent. So you had Missouri, then step up and you have Ole Miss, then you prove yourself against Alabama,” Hebert said.
So that makes Saban LSU’s Shang Tsung?
“Exactly!” Herbert said.
When comparing those candidates to LSU’s interim, the consensus among sources is that Orgeron is competing against Fisher on merit. Without argument, Orgeron lacks in head coaching experience vs. Fisher.
But Orgeron can gain more ground, because all politics are local.
The offense is good. And fun. In three games, the Tigers have averaged 41.6 points per game with play-caller Steve Ensminger, with new school records including the most yards in an SEC game and the most rushing yards for one player in a game.
Granted, that’s against Southern Miss (79th in Defensive S&P+), Missouri (70th), and an imploding Ole Miss (60th and dropping), but LSU fans’ No. 1 gripe during the Miles era was a lack of creativity that wasted talent.
“In two of our three games, we’ve had nine different players catch a pass. We’ve had every position possible involved in the passing game. Tight ends catching the football, fullbacks. Our players are excited, because on any given play they could catch a pass,” Ensminger said.
“I would sit with our tight ends in position meetings, and look, they’re a great bunch of guys and they want that team win, but when you think you’re never going to catch a pass, that affects a player.”
Also, that man Leonard Fournette is healthy enough to truck defenses.
“Even watching the film on his runs gets our team as excited as the game,” Ensminger said, “and if you go back and watch the film of him vs. Ole Miss, our guys are absolutely jacked on the sideline.”
The current offense isn’t ideal for Ensminger or Orgeron. Both have emphasized they could only modify and adjust what previous OC Cam Cameron had installed, because of time limitations in-season.
It’s believed that Ensminger, promoted to play caller from tight ends coach after Miles’ firing, would be amenable to remaining on staff if Orgeron hired a major name at OC.
O has a chance to win a game that directly involves his boss. Negotiations between Florida and LSU during the Hurricane Matthew fiasco got really nasty. Thumping the Gators in Baton Rouge wouldn’t be “winning one for Alleva,” necessarily, but there’s legitimate bad blood between the schools.
The recruiting is great. LSU’s currently No. 4 in the 2017 247Sports Composite rankings with 19 commitments. Orgeron is obviously an ace recruiter; including the combination of Dameyune Craig and Corey Raymond — if Orgeron could keep both — would be formidable.
Orgeron could keep key assistants in place. One of Orgeron’s best assets is the staff he’s working with. It’s assumed that he could keep it.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda (LSU’s defense is sixth nationally in Defensive S&P+ and fifth in scoring defense) and strength and conditioning coach Tommy Moffitt would be massive hires for any new head coach. Orgeron already has them.
“If Ed Orgeron came in and interviewed at a program the size of LSU and offered top-level recruiting and this staff running a high-scoring offense, you’d probably hire him,” a source said. “If he’s 7-1 or 6-2, the challenge for him here isn’t whether or not he beat Alabama in one game. It’s where the credit goes, what LSU thinks Ed has done, and what was already in place.”