What's wrong with the LSU Tigers? 'They're soft'

LSU coach Ed Orgeron has long resonated as one of the game’s most endearing characters, a Red Bull guzzling, shirt ripping and Cajun-growling paragon of intensity. The Tigers fan base and administration bit hard after Orgeron rallied LSU’s program to a 6-2 record as interim coach last year. But since Orgeron’s transition to full-time head coach in November, LSU’s storied football program has been an abject disaster.

LSU’s 24-21 loss to Troy University of the Sun Belt on Saturday night provided a new low, as LSU didn’t just lose to a three-touchdown underdog. They got pushed around the field, out-toughed and dominated in the trenches.

The adrenaline shot Orgeron gave LSU as an interim has worn off. LSU officials are adjusting to a dreary day-to-day reality of Orgeron being in charge, chasing an adrenaline high that may never return. Squint and it’s starting to look like Orgeron’s stint at Ole Miss when he went 3-21 in SEC play.

Orgeron is 3-2 through five games this season, with a blowout loss to a mediocre Mississippi State team, its first non-conference home loss since 2000 and a narrow win over sputtering Syracuse. It’s the tenor of the results that are most troubling, as LSU inexplicably lacks the passion, fire and intensity that turned Orgeron into a caricature.

“They don’t play hard,” a veteran college coach texted after watching the Troy debacle on Saturday night. “Troy was more physical!”

Yahoo Sports conducted a half-dozen interviews last week with coaches, scouts and analysts who played LSU or studied them extensively this season. The results came back alarmingly consistent, an ugly autopsy that pinpointed all the things you wouldn’t expect from an Orgeron team: lack of effort, uninspired play at the line of scrimmage and a penchant to quit when things get tough.

No one expected Orgeron to be an X’s and O’s savant or a visionary program builder. Expensive coordinators Matt Canada and Dave Aranda were given lucrative contracts to handle the details of the program. Orgeron’s job was to be the Cajun Dabo, delivering mojo, recruiting juice and motivation. Instead, the scary reality is that these Tigers don’t have any of the traits long associated without Orgeron. Somehow, the coach famous for his growl has a program with no bite.

“It wasn’t what you expect,” said one assistant coach. “You expect guys ready to kick your ass. There wasn’t any fire. Genetically they weren’t as good. On film, they weren’t as good. But these guys, I don’t know. These guys, I don’t even know what to say. I can’t believe they play the way they do. They’re soft. Soft. It doesn’t make sense.”

Added another personnel executive: “When everything got super tough against Mississippi State, they tapped out. State was giving it to them and they didn’t want any piece of it. They were tapping out the entire game.”

Former LSU star Booger McFarland saw similar traits. McFarland, now an analyst for ESPN, said that LSU “quit” in the fourth quarter of the Mississippi State game and worries that Canada’s spread system will rob LSU of its smash-mouth identity. McFarland sees the issue with LSU as more of a talent deficit than a coaching problem. But he doesn’t deny troubling signs.

“My biggest fear when they hired Matt Canada was LSU getting soft, and it’s happening before our eyes,” he said in an interview before the Troy game. “They’re not physical on the line of scrimmage. It’s a byproduct of the offense, which goes side-to-side. They’ve lost the ability to go north-south and be physical.”

It’s one of the biggest paradoxes in college football – an Ed Orgeron team gone soft. Think of a Mike Leach team playing with three tight ends or David Shaw rolling out the Run-And-Shoot. Heck, picture Nick Saban giving a press conference that doubles as a Saturday Night Live audition.

“They’re just standing there,” said another assistant coach who studied LSU’s defense. “They weren’t running to the ball. It baffles me. I don’t know Dave Aranda, but I know they’re paying him a s—load of money.”

How talented is LSU? The consensus from the NFL is that they’re not as talented as in the past. A coaching transition and the recruiting atrophy of the late years of Les Miles – especially at the quarterback and line positions – has caught up to LSU. McFarland predicts they need two recruiting cycles to catch up in the SEC, as the depth, especially on the lines, is non-existent.

That said, coaches and scouts did point out there’s not a complete void of talent. The secondary is loaded, there’s skill at receiver and tailback Derrius Guice, who didn’t play against Troy because of a leg injury, is considered a potential first-round NFL draft pick.

But no one interviewed thought LSU was playing close to its potential, as its issues transcend personnel. One coach pointed out that he spent a week watching film in which promising sophomore linebacker Devin White was pointing out to senior linebacker Donnie Alexander where he should be going.

“Their front seven did not play hard, did not play hard at all,” said a coach who faced LSU. “They did not play with their hair on fire.”

And that included Arden Key, who entered this season as a potential first-round draft pick but has sputtered through three games, no thanks to injury, inconsistent effort and conditioning issues that include reports he’s 25 pounds overweight. One analyst pointed out Key lacking effort on a touchdown run against Syracuse.

“Key literally gives up chasing him on his way to the end zone, and if you’re the fourth-overall pick, you catch him from behind,” the analyst said. “They all looked out of shape. Watching game film, you can see their bellies breathing hard while they’re playing. They didn’t strain. They didn’t play hard.”

LSU will be facing a spate of hard decisions. In the micro, Orgeron needs to decide whether to bench senior transfer quarterback Danny Etling for freshman Myles Brennan. And when does Coach O declare this season lost and start preparing for the future?

(Nearly every coach pointed out that Etling wasn’t good enough to win the job at Purdue, that being evidence enough of his limitations).

But the hard part for Orgeron is that this loss to Troy will ratchet up the scrutiny significantly, making playing for the future a vexing decision. Firing Orgeron after this season would appear to cost LSU nearly $8.5 million. (The contract says it’s pro-rated of the $12 million buyout figure, which would mean it would have dropped since he was paid for coaching 11 months of the year).

Orgeron went 10-25 at Ole Miss, a fact overlooked by much of the puffery narratives of change that surrounded his interim stint at LSU. But the lack of effort and dismal results are starting to look familiar, as there’s a difference between giving a program a jolt for a few months and running it full time.

LSU athletic director Joe Alleva, left, is on the hook for his hire of Ed Orgeron. (AP)

There will also be significant pressure on Joe Alleva, long regarded in athletic-director circles as one of the most incompetent and overmatched ADs in America. Alleva bungled the first Miles attempted firing, botched Johnny Jones’ departure in basketball and got left at the altar when Tom Herman ditched LSU for Texas. (A move only Alleva didn’t see coming). LSU then panicked and embraced Orgeron, hitching Alleva’s already shaky fate with a coach who has won about 45-percent of his career games.

If LSU does make any changes, they’d replicate Nebraska’s blueprint and start with Alleva. There are no signs that LSU officials are considering a move on Orgeron immediately, as it would only be fair to let him recruit a few full classes and build the program.

But on Saturday night, after the most embarrassing LSU loss this century, Alleva’s comfort hire has everyone in Baton Rouge feeling uncomfortable. Orgeron’s most redeeming characteristics – his fire and energy – looked sapped as he paced the sidelines with a constipated grimace in the fourth quarter.

Ed Orgeron’s first LSU team has developed an identity as soft, uninspired and lacking any distinct fire. The entire LSU program needs to guzzle a Red Bull, or the feel-good tale of a local boy’s rise to coach LSU will be a short story.

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