- Jan. 14, 2020, 4:03 p.m. ET
NEW ORLEANS — The signs of a renewed football empire were everywhere as Monday night merged with Tuesday morning: the cigar smoke cloaking Louisiana State’s locker room, the purple and gold confetti on the Superdome’s field, the crush of reporters and state troopers surrounding a coach whose career had been all but left for dead not long ago.
On Monday night, L.S.U. — a program that just two years ago failed to beat Troy, a team it paid nearly $1 million to play — again reached a single-season pinnacle. But the recent history of college football shows that L.S.U., which began this season as an underdog even within its own division, faces a mighty challenge in keeping its toehold at the very top.
“Everything fell into place to have the season we needed to have,” said Ed Orgeron, the Louisiana native who grew up harboring a dream to coach the Tigers.
Since the start of the Bowl Championship Series era in the 1998 season, which ultimately gave way to the College Football Playoff system in 2014, a champion has successfully repeated winning the crown just once: Alabama. But L.S.U. has now amassed the second-most titles of that 22-season stretch — more than Florida, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Southern California or, yes, Clemson.
Indeed, L.S.U. is well versed in the challenges of remaining the champion: It tumbled to 9-3 immediately after the 2003 season title, and to 8-5 after it came out on top of the 2007 season. And no matter how the next campaign goes for L.S.U., any future team, in Baton Rouge or elsewhere, will struggle to match its success this past season.
L.S.U.’s perfect record included victories over five teams — Clemson, Georgia, Florida, Oklahoma and Alabama — that finished in the top eight of the Associated Press Top 25 poll. The Heisman Trophy winner, Joe Burrow, threw 60 touchdowns to set a Football Bowl Subdivision record. The offensive quartet of Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Justin Jefferson flourished in a spread offense that was new to L.S.U., and played with a resurgent line that terrorized opponents. Its defense was less potent than its offense but also unnerved plenty of quarterbacks.
“We’re national champs,” Orgeron said soon after the game. “We’re 15-0. Whether we’re mentioned as one of the greatest teams or not, that doesn’t matter to me. I think we’re going to get to work, we’ll go to class on Wednesday and we’ll start working on next year.”
Despite the benefits of a dominant performance this season, L.S.U. cannot escape the peculiarities of the sport: roster evolution, rising and falling fortunes at other schools, sheer luck (good or bad).
To be sure, the L.S.U. roster will still be among the most well stocked in college football. K’Lavon Chaisson, an outside linebacker, and Chase, a wide receiver who had a team-leading 221 yards and a pair of touchdown catches on Monday night, have finished only their sophomore campaigns. Derek Stingley Jr., a cornerback from Baton Rouge, started every game of his freshman year.
But Burrow, after a college career that started at Ohio State and skyrocketed at L.S.U., is bound for the N.F.L., possibly as the top pick of April’s draft. Jefferson, a wide receiver, was a junior this past season and could elect to enter the draft, as could Edwards-Helaire, a star tailback, and two safeties, Grant Delpit and Jacoby Stevens, who were defensive staples.
The snake pit of the Southeastern Conference also will be refreshed. Nick Saban, who was on the sideline in New Orleans on Monday, is plotting a comeback at Alabama. Gus Malzahn, whose Auburn Tigers came closer than anyone else to beating L.S.U. this season, will be seeking another signature win at home, and Texas A&M, under Jimbo Fisher, will take its shot at L.S.U. in College Station. Mike Leach’s Air Raid playbook has arrived at Mississippi State, and Lane Kiffin, a veteran of the SEC’s assorted wars, is now in charge at Mississippi.
And that is just the West Division. The rest of L.S.U.’s schedule includes Florida and Texas.
L.S.U. certainly gained plenty this season, including months of public attention and a soaring reputation that may help the Tigers to guard — somewhat — against the pitfalls of college football.
Dave Aranda, who just finished his fourth year as the defensive coordinator at L.S.U., said that the championship campaign had signaled to prospective players that the team from Baton Rouge had “energy and moxie and swagger,” and that his recruiting pitches were already finding more receptive audiences.
“We’ve shown that the L.S.U. brand is strong, and we’ve shown that you can have special years here,” he said. “We’re counting on this being the first of many.”
But Aranda conceded that L.S.U. would have to search for a new chemistry like the one that fueled this season’s mounting momentum, limited crises and gave credence to Orgeron’s “one team, one heartbeat” mantra.
“You have to start over again,” Aranda said in a crowded Superdome corridor early Tuesday. “You have to identify your leaders, you’ve got to put them through stress and through breakdown so you can identify the right people to build them up the right way.”
Patrick Queen, a linebacker who could be among the Tigers in the N.F.L. by this time next year, argued Tuesday morning that the L.S.U. culture was an enduring lifeline for the program, whose last three head coaches have now brought championships back to Baton Rouge.
“L.S.U. is always going to be capable of doing what we did this year,” said Queen, who is from a small community northwest of the Louisiana capital. “We’ve got great players, great coaches. As long as we believe in each other, we’ll be able to accomplish anything.”
L.S.U. is already on the clock.
The semester’s start, delayed because of L.S.U.’s appearance in the title game, will come on Wednesday. Recruiting, Orgeron said, had already resumed with volleys of text messages ahead of weekend meetings. The lobbying to salvage this season’s roster, as much as the coaches can, will soon begin.
But Orgeron did savor the victory, at least for a meal: Ensconced in the Marriott on Canal Street, he and his wife had fried chicken from Popeyes.