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Burrow, Orgeron Turn Second Chances into Championship

By Matt Smith
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The path to Monday night’s coronation wasn’t all that easy for Orgeron and Burrow. It actually started in the wrong direction.

One went 3-21 in SEC play. The other couldn’t even win the No. 2 quarterback role as a third-year sophomore.

For Ed Orgeron and Joe Burrow, their journeys to the top of college football reached the finish line in Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship, as No. 1 LSU (15-0) finished on a 35-8 run to defeat No. 3 Clemson (14-1), 42-25.

A 17-7 deficit, the Tigers’ largest of the season, rattled neither coach nor quarterback, as LSU scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives in the second quarter to take a double-digit lead of their own at halftime. The defense shut down Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson offense in the second half, and it was an easy ride for LSU in the fourth quarter in closing out the school’s fourth national championship and third this century.

The path to Monday night’s coronation, however wasn’t all that easy for Orgeron and Burrow. It actually started in the wrong direction.

In 2005, Orgeron was ill-prepared for a job he shouldn’t have been offered but had to take. He was the defensive line coach for the USC dynasty of the mid-2000s, never a coordinator, but Ole Miss thought his recruiting prowess could inject some life into a program that had been struggling to bring in elite talent.

Ole Miss quickly learned it had made a major mistake, as Orgeron was the control freak that Nick Saban is without the meticulous attention to detail of Saban. After seasons of 1-7, 2-6 and 0-8 in SEC play, Orgeron was fired, and spent the next eight seasons as a position coach with the New Orleans Saints, Tennessee, USC and LSU.

Burrow’s formative years were spent in Big Ten country, growing up in small-town southeast Ohio. He had the dream of every young player in the state to attend college in Columbus and don the scarlet and gray of Ohio State. Burrow did just that, sitting behind starter J.T. Barrett for two seasons.

In 2017, when Barrett was injured in the all-important rivalry game at Michigan, it was redshirt freshman Dwayne Haskins Jr., not the more experienced Burrow, who came off the bench to help preserve a Buckeyes victory. After a competition the following spring to replace Barrett, Haskins was the starter, and Burrow knew his time was never going to come at his dream school. He graduated that summer to ensure immediate eligibility and began searching for a place to play his final two seasons.

Orgeron had returned to head coaching a year earlier, as LSU surprisingly removed Orgeron’s interim tag after he guided the Tigers to a 6-2 finish following the firing of Les Miles in September 2016. His first full season as head coach, in 2017, was a mixed bag, as LSU finished 9-4, which included a loss to Troy, while Orgeron clashed with offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Orgeron knew that for him to not blow what would probably be his last opportunity as a head coach, he needed to run an offense he felt comfortable with and find a quarterback of his choosing.

It just so happened that a high-pedigree quarterback in the Midwest was looking for a new home and fresh start.

Burrow and Orgeron hit it off in the former’s official visit to LSU, and Burrow arrived in Baton Rouge in the summer of 2018. He was behind three other quarterbacks in the learning process, but finally earned the long-coveted QB1 designation by the start of the season. The Tigers went 10-3 in Burrow’s junior season, routing No. 2 Georgia and ending UCF’s 26-game winning streak in the Fiesta Bowl. A 29-0 loss to Alabama, however, meant both Orgeron and Burrow needed additional help to get over the top in the SEC West.

That need brought New Orleans Saints offensive assistant Joe Brady into the equation. Brady joined incumbent Steve Ensminger as co-offensive coordinators after the 2018 season, installing a revolutionary passing offense that meshed perfectly with Burrow.

After 449 passing yards and five touchdown throws on Monday night, Burrow finished the 2019 season with 5,657 yards and 60 touchdown passes, becoming LSU’s second Heisman Trophy winner and closing his career with a national championship. No SEC quarterback, not Newton, Tebow, nor Wuerffel, can match what Burrow put together over the past four-and-a-half months.

Orgeron joined the man he defeated on Monday night, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, as the only coaches to lead a team to a 15-0 season. He might not be Bryant or Osborne or Saban, but Orgeron has his place in history as the head coach of one of the best teams in college football history.

Even in the flatlands of Louisiana, roads can be windy, hilly and curvy. No two people know that better and Orgeron and Burrow. Their roads merged at the perfect time in the perfect place, and ended together in New Orleans in a deluge of purple and gold confetti in the Superdome as 2019 national champions.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.