BATON ROUGE, La. In “Apollo 13,” after the command module explosion on the way to the moon, NASA flight director Gene Kranz asks one of his engineers: “What have we got on the spacecraft that’s good?”
Ed Orgeron might as well be asking a similar question about his increasingly decimated LSU football team: “Who have we got that can play?”
The latest ruptured O2 tank in a season full of them: All-American cornerback Eli Ricks has undergone surgery on a recurring shoulder injury and is gone for the season.
So is LSU’s other starting All-American cornerback, Derek Stingley Jr. (Stingley isn’t officially done for 2021, but he might as well be). So are two starting linebackers, Andre Anthony and Jared Small. Projected, or at least possible starters, quarterback Myles Brennan and running back John Emery, have yet to play a down. Brennan broke an arm, while Emery is appealing an NCAA academic suspension whose reversal is approaching a lower and lower level of probability each day.
Ricks’ injury is just another body blow that comes right after losing wide receiver Kayshon Boutte to a season-ending ankle injury at Kentucky.
But it’s all just the tip of the football-roster iceberg. LSU is missing at least eight likely or potential starters from its preseason depth chart and will be without at least three other starters on defense — Ali Gaye, Joseph Evans and Major Burns — for the Tigers' game against Florida at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Some small consolation is the expected return of defensive tackle Glen Logan and the fact that freshman safety Sage Ryan finally played at Kentucky.
If there is one word for LSU football in 2021 (other than “mediocre”), it might be “cursed.” It is as though the football gods decided after the magical, everything-went-right 2019 national championship season, the great cosmic football field had to be leveled again.
Leveled with a vengeance. The Tigers, of course, went 15-0 in 2019. They are 8-8 since then, unlikely to reach 15 total wins for 2020 and ’21 combined.
Orgeron said his team is playing for pride against Florida. He left any references to the few and the proud to the Marines. But it’s hard to take pride in what LSU football has become post-national championship.
LSU’s first losing season since 1999 looks more likely by the day. By the injury. It’s a fate the Tigers narrowly avoided last year by shocking Florida and out-relay-racing Ole Miss to end the season.
LSU has six games remaining, five of them against teams in the AP Top 25, starting with the No. 20-ranked Gators (4-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference). The only game that looks like a sure win is ULM. Right now, I’d have to peg the Tigers no better than 5-7, but 4-8 is in the ghastly ballpark.
This all looks like the coup de grace blow to Orgeron’s tenure as LSU’s coach. The last coach to lose five or more games in back-to-back seasons was Gerry DiNardo, who was fired in 1999 and succeeded by Nick Saban.
But all the injuries give Orgeron and his supporters, who still very much exist in numbers, an out. Or at least a reason to lobby that he deserves at least one more season as coach.
It is a fair question, but ultimately not one that's likely to help him retain the job in 2022.
The injuries are staggering, but they also serve to highlight LSU’s recruiting issues and lack of player development. LSU signed eight five-star players from 2018-20. Three of those are injured (Boutte, Ricks, Stingley) and one is ineligible (Emery). Of the other four — Ja’Marr Chase, Terrace Marshall, Arik Gilbert and Marcel Brooks — opted out and/or transferred.
Injuries don’t also account for all of LSU’s deficiencies on the offensive line. Center Liam Shanahan is doing his best, but LSU should have a top-shelf center who signed out of high school who can play that position. A lot of LSU's offensive line recruits have struggled to play at all, or play well.
LSU has loaded up on skill players overall in recent recruiting classes but has been deficient in landing linemen on both sides of the ball — or at least linemen who can compete at the SEC level. And that is the foundation for being a championship team and a perennial national contender.
On his podcast Wednesday, local sports talk pundit Charles Hanagriff said he asked people getting on a plane to come home Monday from Kentucky to identify the best LSU player left. At the time, he said Ricks.
That has changed.
Who is LSU’s best player now? Linebacker Damone Clark? Freshman receiver/tight end Jack Bech? Quarterback Max Johnson? One could even make an argument for kicker Cade York.
It isn’t a long list to choose from. However it happened, whatever it took LSU to get there, the Tigers are a mediocre football team at best right now. Tough luck may be contributing to Orgeron’s downfall as LSU’s coach, and to the program’s slide into irrelevance overall.
But good programs overcome injuries and defections.
Georgia has overcome the loss of its top five receivers and its starting quarterback to be No. 1 in the nation. The Bulldogs, unlike the Tigers, found something on the spaceship that was still good. And Orgeron’s fate was likely already sealed, even before all the injuries hit LSU with such brutal force.