It has been 632 days since LSU head coach Ed Orgeron led his Tigers to a 42-25 win in the College Football Playoff National Championship over Clemson to cap off one of its best seasons in program history. But after superstar cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. was ruled out indefinitely on Wednesday following a foot procedure, those days of yore have never felt so distant.
Now Orgeron has yet one more hurdle to jump in order to avoid a two-year stretch the program hasn't seen in more than two decades.
Stingley was one of the crown jewels of the Orgeron era. Rated the No. 3 player in the 2019 recruiting class, Stingley was the highest-rated recruit to sign with LSU in the Orgeron era and the best since Leonard Fournette in 2014. He lived up to the hype in every way possible, earning consensus First Team All-America honors as a freshman and growing into one of the leaders on the national championship defense.
With Stingley sidelined, only two members of LSU's national championship-winning starting lineup remain: right tackle Austin Deculus and linebacker Damone Clark. And despite recruiting at a nearly unmatched level since winning the national title, Stingley's injury feels like the final straw connecting these two eras finally breaking -- and Orgeron perhaps falling with it.
Since winning that national title, LSU is just 8-7 with a 6-6 record in SEC play. The opener after the title featured the Tigers losing 44-34 to Mississippi State while giving up an SEC-record 623 yards passing to K.J. Costello, a quarterback who was benched later in 2020. The season only careened from there as LSU finished 5-5 and failed to reach a winning record for the first time since before ex-coach Nick Saban arrived in 2000.
Orgeron wiped the deck by firing both coordinators after the .500 season, hiring young assistants Jake Peetz and Daronte Jones instead. So far, the changes have yielded desired results. The Tigers lost their first nonconference game since 2017 in the opener, 38-27 to UCLA, and sit at 3-2. The coaches are different, many of the players are different, but the results under Orgeron remain the same. Being named in a Title IX lawsuit regarding failure to report off-field misconduct only makes things worse.
Perhaps most concerning -- on the field, at least -- is what comes next. After losing to No. 18 Auburn, LSU now has five consecutive games against top-20 opponents, including No. 16 Kentucky on the road this weekend. Following are games against No. 20 Florida, No. 17 Ole Miss, top-ranked Alabama and No. 13 Arkansas.
Historically, LSU has done fine against most of these teams. The Tigers have won six of seven since 2000 against the Wildcats and hold five-game win streaks against both the Rebels and Hogs. But every one of those programs will have LSU – and Stingley's spot on the field – circled in permanent ink.
The SEC's No. 1 receiver, Kentucky's Wan'Dale Robinson, is up this weekend. Arkansas' Treylon Burks, Ole Miss' Dontario Drummond and Alabama's Jameson Williams all rank in the top seven among SEC receivers in yards per game. It's highly unlikely Stingley will be around to neutralize any of them.
Orgeron's team are projected underdogs in all five of the ranked games and could even lose to a healthier Texas A&M in the season finale. With so many losable games, this could be a bottoming out in Baton Rouge of epic proportions. No coach since Saban took over the program in 2000 had won fewer than eight games in a season. Orgeron is on pace to do it in consecutive seasons, an almost impossible task for a program ranked in the top five od the 247Sports Talent Composite.
CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd ranked FBS coaches on the hot seat earlier this week, and Orgeron was one of nine coaches to receive either a four or five rating. That puts him in the same breath with coaches like Washington State's Nick Rolovich, Colorado State's Steve Addazio and New Mexico State's Doug Martin. No coach should ever want to be in that conversation, much less a native son of one of the proudest college football programs in America.
Stingley's draft stock is safely in the top-five range regardless of whether he plays another game for LSU. Still, the junior said in a statement that he hoped to rehab and return at some point this season to play at least one more game in Death Valley.
But two years after reaching the pinnacle of this sport, any return may be too late for Orgeron. Stingley was one of the few remaining pieces of the glory days just two years ago. Now, there's almost no reminder of those days gone by.