Oct. 1, 2016 was hardly a historic day for the Missouri football program. The same cannot be said of the Tigers’ opponent that day.
Mizzou was in Baton Rouge, La., for a prime-time showdown against Louisiana State, the first game since the school had fired longtime coach Les Miles. I stopped in the team store at Tiger Stadium a few hours before kickoff and instantly spotted the day’s hottest selling item. All around town folks were wearing this particular purple T-shirt. A few were left on the racks at the team store.
The gold lettering told the story of the day: Geaux Coach Oeaux.
As in Coach Orgeron, Ed Orgeron, LSU’s interim coach who would serve as caretaker for the rest of the season until the school found a permanent replacement for Miles.
The search didn’t last long. After throttling Barry Odom’s Missouri Tigers that day 42-7, LSU went 6-2 under Orgeron, the proud Louisiana native who flopped in his previous SEC head-coaching stop at Ole Miss but by season’s end had won over his bosses in the bayou.
“No idea what LSU does with its head-coaching job, but Ed Orgeron made a strong first impression Saturday. Unless things implode like they did under his watch at Ole Miss, LSU might not have to jump into the Tom Herman sweepstakes. Orgeron would be a bargain compared to the astronomical price Herman will command among possible blue-blood competitors, especially in Austin, Texas. What if LSU hangs onto Coach O then goes out and gives Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin an offer he can't refuse and hand him the keys to the offense? You hire one of the nation's best offensive coaches and recruiters while robbing Nick Saban of his offensive play-caller. All of a sudden LSU has the most interesting staff in the SEC, maybe the country.”
It turns out, LSU stuck with Orgeron, Herman certainly did land in Austin, Texas, but Kiffin-to-Baton Rouge never happened. (Coincidentally, Kiffin’s the new HBC at Ole Miss: Head Bachelor Coach.)
Tonight, Coach Oeaux goes for 15-0 and a national championship. SEC champion LSU is between a 5- and 6-point favorite over ACC champion Clemson, the reigning national champ.
The game is on LSU partisan turf in New Orleans and could feature the next two No. 1 overall picks in the NFL draft, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow this year and Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence in 2021. Both teams are loaded with elite skill at receiver and in the defensive secondary.
Both teams signal in plays from some of the game’s top coordinators: defensive schemers Dave Aranda (LSU) and Brent Venables (Clemson) and offensive tandems Joe Brady and Steve Ensminger (LSU) and Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott (Clemson). Clemson is a ridiculous 70-4 since Elliott and Scott took over as co-coordinators, though tonight’s game will be their last together before Scott leaves for the head-coaching job at South Florida. Brady is the hottest name in coaching and will be running his own program in college or the NFL sooner than later.
As Gorilla Monsoon would say, tonight’s title bout matches the immovable object (Clemson’s defense) against the unstoppable force (LSU’s offense). The only team that’s come close to slowing down LSU this season was Auburn. Only two teams have put up more than 300 yards of offense against Clemson: Virginia with 387 in the ACC title game and Ohio State with 516 in the Fiesta Bowl. Venables’ secondary is loaded with All-ACC talent — but Burrow and his fleet of receivers are accustomed to this kind of elite personnel. Way back in November and December LSU sliced through Alabama and Georgia for nearly 750 passing yards. Clemson will offer similar resistance, i.e., not enough.
LSU’s defense got off to a wobbly start and gave up chunks of yardage against Alabama and Mississippi before restoring order during its final cruise through the SEC schedule, the conference championship game and the Peach Bowl semifinal.
More than 37 percent of the passing yards and 51 percent of the rushing yards LSU allowed this year came when the Tigers were leading by more than 15 points. Opponents scored 36 rushing and passing TDs against LSU this year; 16 came with a two-touchdown lead. In other words, a whole lot of the damage done against LSU came in garbage time.
There’s nothing garbage about the job Orgeron has done in his second act as a head coach. (Third, really, if you count his time as USC’s interim head coach.) The 58-year-old was born for this job and this moment. He’s got the quarterback, the athletes and the coaching wizards to get it done.
A few days before Mizzou visited Baton Rouge for Orgeron's first game as LSU’s head coach, he touched on his first experience at LSU, when as a freshman player in the 1980s he quit the team during training camp.
“After two weeks I got homesick,” he said. “Baton Rouge was a far place from Larose. I left after two weeks and I regretted it ever since. The next day my daddy put me on the side of the road on construction and people were passing by and making comments to me. It was kind of the worst day of my life.”
“I’ve passed through Tiger Stadium and I wonder what it would have been like, and I said to myself, ‘One day I will be back,’” he added. “Second time around is going to be a better time for me.”
Infinitely better after tonight.
Matter’s pick: LSU 41, Clemson 34
Matter’s bowl picks: 10-4 straight up; 7-7 against the spread
All picks straight up: 125-39
Matter vs. the spread: 78-85-1