LSU vs. Alabama: Ed Orgeron's tears tell a deeper story as long-deserved respect finds Coach O
Orgeron has been overlooked and passed by his entire career, but now he and the Tigers will not be denied
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The 58-year-old, pot-bellied coach was crying at midfield, an arm around his equally leaky wife. His children were pulled close. Those tears streaming down Ed Orgeron's face reflected equal parts relief, joy and certainty.
"I thought all week we were the better football team," LSU's coach said.
He said it at least three or four times in the aftermath of No. 2 LSU's historic 46-41 win at No. 3 Alabama.
That's the thing about Orgeron. He hides nothing. The night before the Georgia game last year, he came into the team hotel and tore off his shirt in an attempt to motivate the Tigers. That harkened back to his days at USC when he performed the same act in a team meeting.
That act is preserved somewhere on YouTube. Saturday, though, was a performance for the ages.
"This won't be the first. It won't be the last. We're coming," Orgeron promised.
The Tigers (9-0) have arrived. Saturday proved they've caught the Crimson Tide. Not necessarily from behind, either. In addition to running away from Alabama, LSU smacked it in the mouth in the latest Game of the Century.
The unraveling was systematic. The mistakes were stunning. Bama's defense was more than pliable.
"We know we're the better team," LSU linebacker Patrick Queen said. "We watched these guys on film. They're not the same like they used to be. … You look everywhere on the field, they're not the same team."
Those shirt-ripping days as an assistant previously defined Orgeron as something less than what he was Saturday night -- not just head-coaching material, but a proven, big-time head coach and perhaps the national coach of the year.
Those kinds of things come your way when you end an eight-game losing streak to Alabama so emphatically that they carry your Heisman Trophy-worthy quarterback off the field in the other team's stadium.
"This probably elevated him to another level, but he improved his entire time here," said that quarterback. Joe Burrow is now the Heisman favorite after throwing three more touchdowns.
More than that, Oregon is the gravelly-voiced inspiration for a state and a program that listened to his absolute belief that LSU was destined for wins like the one achieved Saturday.
"You know when I felt it?" Orgeron asked the media afterward in the bowels of Bryant-Denny Stadium. "When I got on the plane. I felt like, 'You know what, we got 'em. We finally got the tools that we need. We finally got the players that we need. We finally got the coaching staff that we need to beat these guys.'"
And so these inspired Tigers went out and did it. They did it to clear the trail for the SEC West title, a berth in the SEC Championship Game and -- if all goes well there -- a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Yup, it's OK for Tigers everywhere to believe. LSU is back in championship contention with a Louisiana native and former LSU player who was a third choice for the job a couple of years ago.
The tears closed a loop. It was six years ago when USC players were crying when Orgeron wasn't elevated from interim coach after replacing Lane Kiffin in 2013. Coach O went 6-2 that year but watched Steve Sarkisian get the permanent gig. Another loop was closed as Orgeron the head coach could have stared across the field Saturday at Alabama's losing offensive coordinator, Sarkisian.
"That victory formation was very, very nice," Orgeron said.
He is now 34-9 in three-plus seasons at LSU's coach, 8-1 against top 10-ranked teams. Orgeron was elevated to an interim role in 2016, replacing Les Miles, and ultimately hired for the job after former athletic director Joe Alleva struck out in his pursuits of Jimbo Fisher and Tom Herman.
"They beat us for eight years," Orgeron said of Alabama. "We got tired of hearing their stuff. I told the team tonight, 'We draw the line.' We had enough."
So these Tigers went out and scored 33 points in the first half, the most by an opponent in the Saban era. In the previous four meetings, they had scored a total of 26 against Alabama. The 46-point total was the most against Saban's Tide and the most in the last 16 years against Alabama. That prior occasion was a five-overtime loss to Tennessee.
Let's try to sum up LSU's frustration against Alabama: LSU coaching legend Charlie McClendon was the first former Bear Bryant player to beat the master. That came 50 years ago Friday. But it was his nine-game losing streak to Bryant (1971-79) that contributed to Charlie Mac's retirement.
In 1946, LSU was looking for its first win over Alabama -- since 1909. The Tigers won that year, 31-21. Tigers everywhere had to live with the 2011 split, winning 9-6 in the first Game of the Century in Tuscaloosa, then losing the rematch 21-0 in the BCS Championship Game.
"I might have to go to the 7-11 now and get me a Monster or Red Bull [to celebrate]," said Orgeron, who has been known to down an energy drink or two to keep his edge.
These Tigers came out attacking with Burrow (31 of 39, 393 yards passing) and 5-foot-8 running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (180 total yards, four touchdowns).
They also attacked Tua Tagovailoa. Alabama's heart and soul looked absolutely healthy 20 days removed from ankle surgery. Despite throwing for 418 yards and four touchdowns, there were no excuses. Tagovailoa's first-half fumble and late interception both led to LSU touchdowns.
The certainty of beating Alabama revealed the other side of this latest Game of the Century. The Tide has indeed turned in favor of LSU.
Not only are the Tigers better, there's that troubling Tide regression. Too many true freshmen had to play this season. There were tackling issues and physicality issues on Saturday.
Yes, Alabama got pushed around. There were too many concerning mistakes that an admirable second-half rally couldn't overcome.
For the second time in 10 months, Alabama not only lost to a top-five team, it got worked. Remember Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship in January? The Tide defense has given up at least 454 yards in six of Alabama's last 12 games.
That absolutely will be on the minds of the CFP Selection Committee. Even though they lost by five to the top team in the AP Top 25, Alabama is going to have a hard time making a case to be a second SEC team in the field.
Something is missing.
Something changed for the Tigers. They went from being shut out by the Tide at home last year (29-0) to scoring almost half a hundred in Bama's crib.
At the same time, Burrow might have clinched the Heisman.
"Obviously growing up you watch the ceremony, you watch what it means to people, how much they want to win that award," Burrow said. "But when I got to college, I realized team success ... is all that matters."
This team doesn't go without Burrow being the most accurate thrower and highest-rated passer in the country.
LSU has embraced a Midwesterner from Ohio State who still hasn't gotten used to Cajun food but became a team captain in July and took it from there.
"This is why I decided to transfer," Burrow said. "Having these guys embrace me the way they have, some quarterback from Ohio who came in last June before the season, it means a lot to me."
Oh, and there was this Coach O-delighting moment.
"I enjoy getting hit sometimes," Burrow said after rushing for 64 crucial yards. "It makes me feel like a real football player instead of a quarterback."
Have a Red Bull, young fella. You fit right in with your coach.
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