Honeymoons are supposed to be memorable, even when there are some unexpected twists and turns.
Coming into the 2018 season, it seemed as if second-year LSU coach Ed Orgeron was pretty comfortable in a carefree zone. The Tigers bounced back from a humbling home loss to Troy last September to finish the regular season 9-3 before a loss to Notre Dame in a back-and-forth Citrus Bowl.
Granted, the aftertaste of that Troy defeat didn’t completely fade away. But rolling up six wins in the last seven games after that forgettable day seemed to at least nudge Orgeron onto cozier ground with an LSU fan base that has gotten so accustomed to high-level success.
Then this season began and the Tigers stunned an awful lot of folks by not just beating eighth-ranked Miami, but thumping the Hurricanes convincingly, 33-17.
Orgeron’s poll numbers (hey, everybody else is using them!) began trending pretty well after what was arguably the Tigers’ biggest non-conference victory since they rolled past then-No. 3 Oregon 40-27 in the 2011 season opener.
All of which brings LSU and its gravelly voiced, full-on Cajun coach to the latest crossroads — and maybe as important a juncture as any in his short tenure.
After surging 14 spots in the polls after the Miami rout and now ranked No. 12, the Tigers (2-0) will face a test Saturday into their Southeastern Conference opener, a showdown at seventh-ranked Auburn (2-0).
Under any circumstances, the two SEC West rivals colliding carries a lot of meaning. For the purple-clad Tigers and Orgeron in particular, this one feels a little bigger than usual.
The next challenge that the “can Orgeron really be the guy” crowd in the LSU fan base wants to see is right there, front and center on Saturday. Auburn is a team with legitimate national-championship aspirations, a statement that not that long ago was true for LSU heading into every season.
No matter how you slice it, LSU has slipped a bit from the national elite merry-go-round, which is one big reason why Les Miles was fired and Orgeron landed in the driver’s seat in 2016 — coincidentally, right after a controversial loss at Auburn.
Reclaiming a spot at the powerhouse table is going to require more than the one noteworthy victory that LSU has already notched this season. Most likely, the Tigers need at least a few more of them, and with an as-usual, tough-as-nails schedule ahead, LSU can’t afford to let these kinds of big chances escape.
Big chance No. 2 and the first in the SEC this season is coming against a program the Tigers have taken care of for the most part in recent years. LSU has won eight of the past 11 meetings with Auburn, although the three setbacks all came at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
At first blush, the matchup sets up as a tossup, despite the lukewarm confidence from most national pundits. LSU looms as one of the best in the SEC this season, while Auburn is poised for big things offensively with a veteran quarterback, Jarrett Stidham.
Flip that around, and the pedestrian-so-far LSU offense (last in the SEC at 315.5 yards per game) has to find a way to click more consistently against an Auburn defense that held steady against then-No. 6 Washington in a season-opening victory.
Jumping into league play is a chance for LSU to get a more definitive gauge of what the offense could and should be capable of, and that’s where the spotlight will shine brightest on Saturday.
Remember, Orgeron made a not-so-subtle change at offensive coordinator in the offseason from Matt Canada to Steve Ensminger. The Tigers also lured graduate transfer Joe Burrow from Ohio State to churn up competition at the quarterback spot and he won the starting job.
The residual effect of Burrow’s emergence was that two quarterbacks who had been in the system for one to three years abruptly transferred, leaving only one scholarship in a backup role, highly touted sophomore Brennan Myles.
So this LSU offense is more what Orgeron wanted with the veteran Ensminger and the transfer signal-caller at the controls, and the natural expectation is that the Tigers will show more sizzle.
That hasn’t been the case in two games so far, which has been OK because of some big plays in the running game and because the defense has been opportunistically solid.
The Tigers need to carve out a different level of offensive execution against Auburn and the rest of the SEC if they intend to begin climbing back to the top of the league.
Burrow has shown a handful of hopeful flashes in the first two games, and senior running back Nick Brossette seems ready to fill the shoes of the who’s who of bell cows the Tigers have leaned on for years. What LSU has to unearth is more imagination and some unexpected wrinkles — passes on first downs, misdirection with a speedy set of receivers (a staple early last season under Canada), some deep-throw gambles.
If that process begins Saturday, the Tigers’ chances of nabbing what would be the biggest victory under Orgeron increase.
And that honeymoon would get stretched out a little bit longer.
—By Randy Rosetta, Field Level Media