GAINESVILLE, Fla. — LSU coach Ed Orgeron sweated through his postgame interview, but not because of the questions. They were simple compared to the Gordian knots he’d been asked to untangle the previous two weeks. The moisture poured from Orgeron because Florida’s football program had somehow managed to create a room more humid than the actual swamps a few miles away and the figurative Swamp on the other side of the wall. When Orgeron finished talking, he wiped his brow and walked out into the cool evening breeze. A bear hug stopped him.
“How about that?” LSU athletic director Joe Alleva yelled as he embraced the football coach he hired last November after firing Les Miles two months earlier.
LSU’s 17–16 win meant so much for these two. Alleva tried to be the people’s AD last year when Hurricane Matthew forced the Florida game to be postponed, but he botched a game of chicken against outgoing Florida AD Jeremy Foley and wound up staring down two consecutive years in Gainesville after the Gators came into Baton Rouge and won in November. Alleva did the will of the people again that month when he hired Orgeron permanently, but he gave him a massive buyout that wasn’t necessary to lure him to the job. That became a major talking point after Orgeron’s Tigers got whipped by Mississippi State on Sept. 16 and after Orgeron broke a campaign promise with a move that wound up getting LSU beat by Troy on Homecoming. Orgeron and Alleva had tied themselves together, and while Alleva would go first—Orgeron would be safer longer thanks to that buyout Alleva gave him—they would both eventually get run out of their jobs if they couldn’t engineer a turnaround.
So last week, everyone met. Players and coaches. Players and players. Alleva and Orgeron and the coordinators. Air was cleared and ground rules were set. “I’ve never been on a team that had so many meetings,” linebacker Devin White said. “But it was well worth it.” The older players impressed upon the younger ones that practices needed to be more intense. Orgeron impressed upon the coordinators that he wouldn’t do what he did a week earlier when he asked offensive coordinator Matt Canada to cut out the pre-snap motion and shifts that make his offense what it is. That decision, which called back to Orgeron’s disastrous tenure as the Ole Miss coach from 2005 to ’07, led to zero points in the first half against Troy. At halftime, Orgeron realized he’d made a mistake. It didn’t save the Tigers from an embarrassing loss, but it might have kept one loss from becoming two.
Saturday might have been the first step out of danger and toward a brighter tomorrow. Or it might have been a mirage. After all, it was a one-point win where the margin was provided by a missed extra point from a kicker who had never missed one. It came on a day when LSU’s offensive coaches basically admitted by their play selection that the Tigers couldn’t throw the ball against a competent defense. But it happened nonetheless, and sometimes all it takes is one win to make a team believe. If the LSU defense hadn’t stuffed the Gators on three consecutive fourth-quarter drives (24 yards allowed on 13 plays) and Florida had squeezed off just one fourth-quarter field goal, the sky might still be falling in Baton Rouge.
But it isn’t.
LSU’s defense did come through. LSU’s offense did just enough, even though quarterback Danny Etling struggled to throw and the line included as many as three true freshmen at times. Tailback Derrius Guice, limited by a knee injury much of the season, looked more comfortable as the game wore on. Defensive end Rashard Lawrence, who fought through an ankle injury, helped lead a group that now has 20 sacks through six games. The challenge grows on Saturday when LSU gets a visit from an Auburn team that shredded the SEC’s Mississippi schools in consecutive weeks, but LSU’s players see a path to the kind of improvement that will make them competitive in the SEC.
To win this week, LSU defenders will have to extend their fourth-quarter performance in Gainesville for another four quarters. Florida pounded the Tigers on the ground for 112 yards on two third-quarter touchdown drives, but LSU’s defense responded in the fourth. White, who led LSU with 13 tackles, said he blocked out the negativity all week. Sort of. “I saw Tim Tebow say that Troy’s linebackers were better than ours,” he said. “I took offense to it.” That noise would only get louder if the defense buckled one more time against the Gators. Instead, White found himself leaping as Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks’s final pass hung in the air. White had ripped Franks when he decommitted from LSU and flipped to Florida in 2015. “I just wanted to back all those words up,” White said. “I know that at the end of the day he was saying, ‘I want to make him eat those words.’” White knocked down the pass, backing up his criticism and ending the threat.
For seniors such as defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, the win meant this group of veterans had not let the locker room get away from them. They had demanded more during the week, and they had gotten it from everyone. They just had to fight through the fatigue and secure the victory to prove what they wanted would work. LaCouture loved the fact that the defense needed to finish out the Gators. “It gives you this type of buzz,” he said of the final possessions. And after? “It’s probably the best feeling I’ve had in a long time,” he said.
The same went for Orgeron, who isn’t in any real danger of getting fired this season barring complete disaster. Though Orgeron was—and is—relatively safe, he heard the chatter. He knows one of the nation’s most demanding fan bases can turn quickly if the Tigers don’t play to a high standard. He knew he couldn’t protect his players or assistants from the noise. They had all brought it upon themselves. “I know what happens when they go home,” Orgeron said. “It’s tough for everybody.”
The only way to quiet the criticism was to win. The only way to keep it from coming back is to keep winning. This is the simple reality, and Orgeron understands that when it comes to his dream job, pressure is part of the benefits package. “Every day I’m a Tiger is going to be a great time,” he said. “This is a wonderful place to coach. Although it’s been a rough week, I can’t have a bad day as long as I’m the head coach at LSU. I refuse to have one.”
Some days are better than others, though. Saturday was one of them. The pressure will return this week, but as Orgeron and wife Kelly walked hand-in-hand toward LSU’s bus, it still felt like a dream come true.
A Random Ranking
Tom Petty died last week at age 66. These are my top 10 Petty songs. Your list may differ wildly, which is a testament to just how many great songs he and the Heartbreakers made.
1. “Learning to Fly”*
2. “Free Fallin’”
3. “The Waiting”
4. “American Girl”
5. “Even The Losers”
6. “I Won’t Back Down”
7. “Southern Accents”
8. “Don’t Do Me Like That”
9. “Walls (No. 3)”
*This wasn’t my favorite until I saw Petty live in Gainesville in September 2006. This stripped down arrangement—mostly acoustic guitar, piano and Stevie Nicks helping sing backup—is one of my favorite musical memories. The embedded clip is that performance.
Nick Saban is mad that media members pointed out the fact that the Crimson Tide beat Vanderbilt and Ole Miss by a combined score of 125–3. Fortunately for Saban, he’ll have a lot more teachable tape after a 27–19 win at Texas A&M. Alabama’s toughest game of the year so far did expose a few weaknesses for the Crimson Tide, but more than anything it should give Aggies fans a reason to be excited about what freshman quarterback Kellen Mond can become. And if any Heisman Trophy voters were watching, hopefully they noted that Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick might be the best pure football player in college right now.
The ankle injury quarterback Kelly Bryant suffered in a 28–14 win against Wake Forest is cause for concern, but Clemson has depth at quarterback. The Tigers need to get through a Friday visit to Syracuse. Then they’ll have 15 days to get healthy before they start the toughest stretch of their schedule.
3. Penn State
The Nittany Lions rolled into their bye week with a 31–7 win at Northwestern. They can relax this week, and then they must prepare for the three-game stretch that could define their season and the Big Ten East title race. They get Michigan at home on Oct. 21. Then they face Ohio State and Michigan State on the road in consecutive weeks.
The Horned Frogs survived a visit from West Virginia that could potentially be the first of two TCU–West Virginia meetings in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex this season. Oklahoma’s loss to Iowa State throws the Big 12 into a serious state of uncertainty, but the Frogs are probably O.K. if they keep winning. I seriously considered putting Washington in this spot, but the Huskies’ soft non-conference schedule (which they control) and their backloaded Pac-12 schedule (which they don’t control) has left them with no quality wins at this point. If they keep playing the way they have, those quality wins will come, though. Then there will be a serious debate.
Big Ugly of the Week
This week’s honor goes to LSU center Will Clapp, who went down in the first half of Saturday’s win but came back after only one play to help lead a line that had to play three true freshmen (guard Ed Ingram and tackles Austin Deculus and Saahdiq Charles) for much of the game. “Just a little injury,” Clapp said with a grin.
Clapp kept the line steady in spite of the personnel fluctuation and helped LSU build a lead that Florida couldn’t overcome. And the experience can only make the freshmen who were forced into action that much better in the future. “They made freshman mistakes, but they didn’t back down from the challenge,” Clapp said. “I couldn’t be prouder of those three.”
Three and Out
1. While many of you were sleeping, two backs who should be seriously considered for the Heisman Trophy were working their magic.
Here’s San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny, who carried 27 times for 170 yards and two touchdowns in a 41–10 win at UNLV.
And here’s Stanford’s Bryce Love, who carried 20 times for 152 yards and a touchdown in the Cardinal’s 23–20 win at Utah. Love’s 7.6 yards per carry average on Saturday dropped his season average to only 10.5 yards a carry.
2. Western Michigan beat Buffalo 71–68 in seven overtimes on Saturday in a game that broke the NCAA record for highest combined score, but the game’s best moment came in the first overtime when Broncos tight end Donnie Ernsberger scored and his sister engaged in a solo field-storming.
3. Miami coach Mark Richt led the Hurricanes to their first win against Florida State since 2009 on Saturday. Afterward, Richt—a longtime offensive coordinator at Florida State under Bobby Bowden—noticed some of his players celebrating on the Seminoles’ logo at midfield. Richt didn’t let that celebration last long.
For Your Ears
In this episode, Patrick Meagher and I discuss why the Buyout Bus may be a little less crowded than we thought. Also, a College Football Playoff scenario involving Notre Dame that would be a nightmare for everyone but the SEC and one other league.
What’s Eating Andy?
Ole Miss officially posted its head football coach job opening last week. It requires work on “some evenings and weekends,” apparently. The last time the Rebels posted this job was 2011. I applied, laying out my plan to raise the program from the depths to which it had fallen at the tail end of the Houston Nutt era. I didn’t even get a call back, but judging by what happened, the Rebels liked some of my ideas a lot.
What’s Andy Eating?
For some reason, decades passed between this idea…
Hey, if I open a restaurant that has a bunch of TVs showing sports, lots of people will come to buy beer and food while watching sports.
… and this idea …
If I serve food that actually tastes good at my restaurant that has a bunch of TVs showing sports, even more people might come. Maybe they’ll even come when there are no games to watch.
The second idea hasn’t reached every town in America, but it’s spreading quickly. And thank goodness for that. Just because I want to watch a game while I eat doesn’t mean I should have to be limited to Coors Light and wings purchased from the freezer section of the local wholesale club. The trend of sports bar/gastropubs—let’s call them sportstropubs—has broken the sports bar out of this rut, and those of us who love sports and food are happier for it.
If an aspiring restaurateur wanted to know how to create the perfect sportstropub, I’d just send that person to Tallahassee, Fla., to visit Madison Social. It is exactly what that genre should be. The rustic-meets-industrial vibe is hip but approachable. It’s more upscale than a Buffalo Wild Wings—because the target market is people who want something better than Buffalo Wild Wings—but it’s not too upscale. Its prices are reasonable, probably owing to the fact that it serves the area around Florida State and college students won’t frequent a place that wipes out their wallets. But most importantly, the food is excellent. It’s sports bar fare designed with an attention to detail most sports bars wouldn’t bother employing.
A typical sports bar would offer a bacon cheeseburger with beef, choice of cheese and bacon between two buns. It might try to jazz it up by putting barbecue sauce or onion strings on the burger. Madison Social offers the MadSo Burger. It has bacon, but it’s thick-sliced maple pepper bacon. It has onions, but they’re caramelized in whiskey. It has aged cheddar. It also has a piece of fried avocado, which I now believe should come as an option on every burger. This combination—which includes excellent fresh-cut fries—runs $12. That’s only $1.51 more than the equivalent Buffalo Wild Wings burger (the Big Jack Daddy, with pulled pork and onion rings atop the patty and just-O.K. fries) for a vastly superior experience.
Also, at Madison Social, dessert can be a real cocktail such as the Madison Mule (a Moscow Mule with cucumber and agave added) or a sweet treat. When I visited, I finished with the Cast Iron Cookie, a giant chocolate chip cookie baked in a small cast iron skillet and covered with vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup and whipped cream. This isn’t a complicated dish by any stretch, but the extra effort to bake it to order in the mini skillet to produce a warm cookie that pairs perfectly with ice cream is the difference between an average dessert and a wonderful one. Hopefully Madison Social keeps making this extra effort, because it makes all the difference.