BATON ROUGE – Ever notice how after one fights so hard to get their way that sometimes things have a tendency to backfire?
Such as when Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley drew a line in the sand on Oct. 5 about his Oct. 8 game with LSU not moving out of Gainesville, Florida, come Hurricane Matthew or high water. Then when he drew another line in the sand by saying no to every solution for a postponed game that weekend, such as a neutral site, a move to Baton Rouge or the most doable idea – moving the game to Sunday or Monday in Gainesville as South Carolina and Florida Atlantic did on that Sunday in strikingly similar situations. That last one could have been aided by Louisiana State Police and other emergency personnel lending a hand, we found out later, if there were shortcomings there. And LSU offered to fly in, play and fly out on the same day or night.
But it was no to all of them, and the Southeastern Conference ends up moving the game to Nov. 19 in Baton Rouge after all, which was one of the suggested solutions by LSU athletic director Joe Alleva – albeit somewhat self-serving - in the first place.
Meanwhile, Alleva drew his line in the sand at a showboating press conference on October 10, saying no to a rescheduling solution of Nov. 19 in Gainesville because he refused to let LSU lose a home game on that date, which at the time was against South Alabama. He drew another sand line, which was ridiculous, when he said he would not let LSU play on the Tigers’ scheduled open date of Oct. 29 unless Alabama had to play on that date, too. Alleva got what he wanted, and the LSU fans love him for it. Florida replaced South Alabama on the home schedule Nov. 19, and LSU kept its open date this weekend.
But in the end, that could backfire, too, because in many respects the last thing the Tigers need right now is another open date. LSU is coming off its best performance of the season – a 38-21 victory over previously No. 22 Ole Miss – and rolling with momentum on both sides of the ball from a 17-0 second half run and enjoying a suddenly healthier and robust Leonard Fournette at tailback. And it’s time to take a week off?
Since LSU already had an unscheduled open Saturday on Oct. 8 because of Foley’s follies, Oct. 29 will be their second open game day in just one month. That’s not good. It can lead to rust. The previous open date negates this one. The previous open date also poured cold water on the Tigers’ surging momentum as they were coming off a splendid, well-rounded, 42-7 win over offensively hot Missouri in interim coach Ed Orgeron’s emotional debut. It was emotional for him, his newly structured staff (particularly new offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger), the born again players and a reenergized LSU fan base gladly putting the malaise of the previous staff behind them. Then there was a week off.
And LSU started slow the following week against 27-point underdog Southern Mississippi, which took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter and fought to a 10-10 tie at the half. There is such a thing as too much rest.
The way LSU finished so strongly against Ole Miss would have conceivably flowed over to the next Saturday. The Tigers may indeed have been better off playing South Alabama (3-4 overall, 0-4 Sun Belt Conference) this Saturday as a tune-up for Alabama. Goodness knows the pre-Alabama open dates have not worked recently. The Tigers are 0-for-their-last-5 with more than a week to prepare for the Tide.
Of course, the last two times LSU did not have an open date before Alabama, the Tigers lost those two, too – 27-21 in overtime in 2008 and 24-15 in 2009 after beating Tulane easily the week before each year.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, meanwhile, is only 5-3 against LSU when he had a week or more to prepare.
In the end, open dates can be overrated.
The truth is Alabama has beaten LSU five straight times because they have had equal or better talent, though LSU has more players in the NFL. But the Tide’s talent is better spread throughout the roster and coached so well, it looks more talented.
Alabama is being coached very well again this season. LSU has enough talent to beat Alabama. It just needs to be playing at its very best, and that goal may have been more easily met with a game against South Alabama this Saturday.
Fournette would likely have been served by a South Alabama game Saturday as well. He said he was not well conditioned against Ole Miss as he was coming off a month-long layoff because of his ankle injury. Never mind the fact that he gained a school record 284 yards on 16 carries against the Rebels. Unless it is a 10th or 11th consecutive game, nothing gets players ready for games better than a game the previous week.
Meanwhile, Orgeron is enjoying such a head of Cajun steam right now, it may have been better for him and staff to coach for a South Alabama game this week and not start thinking about Bama two weeks ahead. It is such a big game for Orgeron’s and Ensminger’s future, they have to be careful not to overthink things.
On the other hand, who knows? Maybe another week off – if handled right by Orgeron and staff – will help LSU get stronger, smarter and better. The extra week will help starting left guard William Clapp get his problem shoulder that much better. Perhaps starting right tackle Toby Weathersby can return from his foot and ankle injury. And LSU will not get anyone hurt Saturday on the field.
Whether it’s a week or two weeks of preparation, LSU does have an advantage against Alabama it has not had since the early years of Saban vs. Miles. Saban tends to lose more when he is going against a coach the first few times. Miles beat him three of his first five chances, for example, then lost five straight. When Urban Meyer was Florida’s coach, he - like Miles - beat Saban in the first meeting. But then he lost the next two badly before evening things up in the 2014 playoffs as Ohio State’s coach. Georgia coach Mark Richt split with Saban when Saban was at LSU, then beat him again as Alabama’s coach in 2007. Then Saban won the next three.
Saban has coached head-to-head against Orgeron only once when Orgeron was in his last season at Ole Miss in 2007, and Saban struggled to beat a team that finished 3-9 and 0-8 by 27-24. Saban has not coached against Ensminger calling plays since 2008 when Ensminger was promoted at mid-season to offensive coordinator at Auburn after Tony Franklin was fired. Auburn and Ensminger lost, 36-0, to Alabama that year.
Saban and Tide first-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will undoubtedly be noticing a new ring to LSU's offense as they prepare over the next two weeks. It’s only a three-game sample size against weak defenses, but as far as balance, En-Slinger’s offense will catch Saban’s eye more than any LSU attack since 2013 when quarterback Zach Mettenberger threw for 3,000, tailback Jeremy Hill ran for 1,000 and receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry each had 1,000 receiving yards.
It has surely caught Fournette’s eye. He laughed when asked how much LSU’s offense has changed under Ensminger.
“Whew,” he said. “A lot. I mean how wide open was D.J. Chark (on a 40-yard touchdown Saturday)? The vibe of the offense has completely changed.”
And then there is the Third Amigo – new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who caught Saban’s eye when he came to LSU after last season. Saban would be proud of the adjustments on the fly Aranda made after falling behind 10-0 in the first quarter to Ole Miss. Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin may meet his match a week from Saturday night.
It could be interesting – at least for a half or three quarters, right? And if it was this Saturday night, it might be even better.