Why beating Alabama is the final hurdle for Ed Orgeron to prove LSU is elite again

It may have been the most forthcoming Ed Orgeron has been in an open media session. During an enlightening 26-minute press conference Monday, we learned …

There's no use tap-dancing around the issue regarding Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who is listed as questionable and a game-time decision. Does LSU's coach expect 2018's Heisman Trophy runner-up to play in Saturday's top-five showdown with Alabama? "Sure," said Coach O matter-of-factly.

LSU has been game-planning for Tagovailoa and the Crimson Tide since the spring. That confirmed not only Alabama is LSU's biggest impediment to a championship but that Orgeron has led a groupthink that an eight-game losing streak ends this year. "You can tell by the rankings we made up some ground," he said. "We still have to beat them."

Answering a question regarding the lethal slant patterns run by Alabama's wide receivers, Orgeron said the staff had just met on that very subject. "We were talking about that at 6 o'clock this morning, to be honest with you. If you're playing man, they're probably going to catch the slant but it should be for 3 or 4 yards, not for a 10- or 15-yard gain."

So did Orgeron just tell the world LSU will be playing man-to-man? And what if he did? Coach O seems more laid-back these days than a Tiger Stadium tailgate. 

Regarding defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, Orgeron said, "If we would run all the stuff he has up on the board today, it would take 350 plays. The guy has a mind. He's always working on new stuff. Sometimes I have to go in there and say, '[Whoa]'."

That all of it came the week of what may be the biggest game of Orgeron's head-coaching career speaks some truths. The man is not only comfortable in his own skin but confident about Saturday's result.

"This is the best football team we've had going into this game," he said. "I do believe we have the quarterback to do it now."

That among other things. Simply stated, Orgeron is now more self-assured of his place in the college football universe. Sure, he has that quarterback (Joe Burrow), maybe the best player in the country. He also has an offense to go along with it and a staff with which he is simpatico.

So much so that there will be a bit of a Sophie's Choice for Orgeron when it comes to postseason awards. He may have as many as three assistants in the running for the Broyles Award (assistant coach of the year) – Aranda, offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger and WR coach Joe Brady.

That is a snapshot of the man who, at this point, is the national coach of the year favorite. An overreach? Hyperbole? Maybe not. One of the favorite pinatas in the SEC and nationally is at the top of his profession this week as he prepares his team for the latest Game of the Century.

Orgeron's reboot has actually been a series of key decisions along with plain, old maturation. It's easy to isolate a couple of those decisions.

Coach O had the [rhymes with guts] to go to the spread offense and hire a 28-year-old New Orleans Saints assistant (Brady) to install it. He then turned the team over to Burrow, basically in July when the quarterback was named a captain. Strategic mastermind (Brady) plus heart-and-soul leader (Burrow) has equaled LSU's best start (8-0) since 2011, the last time it beat Alabama.

"I'm not going to say he's the single most important recruit in LSU history. but he's one of the top five for sure," Orgeron said of Burrow. "Joe is the reason we've been having the success we've been having on offense."

That offense is considered the key to beating Alabama, which was ahead of the curve in installing the spread. Now the best coach at this point of 2019 might also have the best team. We'll find out Saturday and beyond.

"It goes to show you the direction of the SEC," Orgeron said. "The spread, all the top players in the country have interest in playing in the SEC. We basically can go anywhere in the country for the top receivers. We've just been fortunate we have top receivers here in the state of Louisiana."

If there is a difference in Saturday, it may be at that position. LSU has never had trouble attracting star wideouts. Justin Jefferson and Ja'Marr Chase are 1-2 in SEC receiving, each averaging 100 yards per game.

Alabama may be better. It may be best at the position nationally. The Bama Four -- Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle -- are responsible for 141 or the team's 191 receptions.

Consider how far Orgeron has come. His first head-coaching experience was revealed in Bruce Feldman's fine book, "Meat Market." Coach O's shortcomings in that role were revealed in a 10-25 run over three years at Ole Miss.

Orgeron never got away from being an elite recruiter and defensive line coach. He thought he'd turned the corner as a head coach, going 12-4 as an interim role at USC and LSU.

When USC hired Steve Sarkisian over him in 2013, both Orgeron and the Trojans players shed tears. When former Tigers athletic director Joe Alleva failed -- very publicly -- twice to land Jimbo Fisher and once to hire Tom Herman, Orgeron waited his turn.

What else was he going to do? The man had the smarts, experience and self-awareness to know there was no shame in being the No. 3 choice.

But after Coach O won nine and then 10 games in his first two full seasons at LSU, this is what defensive end Rashard Lawrence said about his coach in July: "I wouldn't say so much hot seat [for Orgeron]. I'd say pressure."

Even the players sensed a decent man had waded into something unholy and unfair because of someone he wasn't.

"Wherever you want to go, it seems like you have to go undefeated," Orgeron said. "If you start thinking about all that stuff, it becomes overwhelming for your football team."

In an irony now that may resonate for years, Fisher -- that previous No. 1 choice -- has some odd catching up to do. By any reasonable measure, he is now chasing LSU as well as Alabama in the SEC West. At least.

Also, by any reasonable measure, LSU is back -- under Orgeron.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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