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NEW ORLEANS — The doors swung open, and thick cigar smoke wafted in the air of the LSU locker room, the sweet smell of victory lingering like one of those endless nights in the French Quarter.
“No one has ever done what we did, the way we did it,” Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow said.
Now, the overriding question: what’s next?
Because for all the unreal and unthinkable Burrow and LSU accomplished this season, for everything coach Ed Orgeron did in rebuilding and redirecting this beast of a program that had lost its way, the grind of college football never reaches the horizon.
One year ends, another begins. The very next day.
Even before LSU whupped defending national champion Clemson 42-25 on Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, before LSU snapped Clemson’s 29-game winning streak, staff members were already thinking about the 2020 season and how to sustain.
There are two critical factors in LSU returning to this game next year in Indianapolis: who plays quarterback, and who coaches that quarterback and calls plays.
“What Joe did was unique,” LSU wideout Justin Jefferson said. “You can’t just think you can replace that.”
Especially if the man in part responsible for Burrow’s season for the ages—passing game coordinator Joe Brady—may not be around too. Sports Illustrated‘s Ross Dellenger reported late last week that LSU and Brady had agreed to a three-year contract, but Brady said during the CFP media day he “hasn’t seen a contract.”
Multiple reports have Brady as Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule’s top target to run his offense. Other NFL teams will also likely call—even though Orgeron insists Brady will be in Baton Rouge next fall.
A former NFL assistant coach with the New Orleans Saints, Brady spoke late last week about his love for the NFL (and college football), and how he credits much of what he has become at such a young age (30) to a handful of mentors in the league.
And make no mistake: LSU’s emergence this season as a devastating offense—the Tigers broke the single-season FBS scoring record with 726 points—and Burrow’s prolific, record-breaking season (he set an FBS record with 60 TD passes) can all be traced to Orgeron‘s hiring of Brady around one year ago.
“It would be disingenuous to say anything else,” Burrow said.
So that leaves LSU’s 2020 season in limbo, albeit temporarily. The first step is Brady making his decision.
The next is finding a quarterback.
Backup QB Myles Brennan.Michael Democker/Associated Press/Associated Press
When asked if next year’s quarterback is on the current roster, one LSU assistant coach told B/R, “We’ll see.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of redshirt sophomore Myles Brennan, Burrow’s backup this season, or anyone else.
There is hope that one of two 4-star quarterbacks (6’6″, 240-lb T.J. Finley) could compete for the job, but the more likely scenario is LSU finding a veteran quarterback in the NCAA transfer portal. After all, that’s where Orgeron found Burrow, who couldn’t win the job at Ohio State and grinded out a solid first season at LSU in 2018 before Brady came along and changed everything.
One LSU staffer said the team has been looking at transfer portal candidates who can play immediately, and that it’s “probably going to be” an option. Midway through the third quarter in Monday night’s blowout of Clemson, that road might have gotten more clear when Houston star quarterback D’Eriq King announced on Twitter he was entering the portal.
Former Houston QB D’Eriq King.Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
King redshirted this season while new Houston coach Dana Holgorsen began to rebuild the roster, and he has been compared to former Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray: small in stature (5’11”, 195 lbs) but big in arm talent and dynamic running ability.
Just how talented? Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley called King “one of the best quarterbacks in the country” prior to the Sooners’ season-opening victory over Houston, one of four games King played this fall before redshirting.
The only other quarterbacks in the portal with immediate eligibility who make sense for LSU are former Stanford starter KJ Costello, former Florida starter Feleipe Franks (who committed to LSU in high school before signing with the Gators) and former Boston College starter Anthony Brown.
Any other transfer outside that group wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade over Brennan. There will be more transfers after spring practice—Burrow transferred after Ohio State’s spring practice—but the object is to get a quarterback in before spring so he’ll have as much time as possible to learn Brady’s system.
That is, if Brady stays at LSU.
If he doesn’t, Orgeron will be staring at his third critical personnel decision since taking over as head coach on a full-time basis in 2017. The two prior—firing offensive coordinator Matt Canada and hiring longtime friend Steve Ensminger; hiring Brady as passing game coordinator—were near-perfect moves.
A name to look for should Brady leave for the NFL is Kansas offensive coordinator Brent Dearmon. Ironically, it was former LSU coach Les Miles—whose archaic offense cost him the job in 2016—who found Dearmon in the NCAA lower divisions (he was head coach at Bethel University and offensive coordinator at Arkansas Tech) and offered him a senior offensive consultant position at KU.
Six weeks into the season, with KU’s offense struggling to score, Miles promoted Dearmon, 34, to offensive coordinator, and his run-pass option-based offense—and quarterback Carter Stanley—took off.
If Brady leaves, don’t expect Orgeron to change the RPO philosophy Brady implemented.
“This is our offense. This is who we are,” Orgeron said.
Passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach Joe Brady.Danny Karnik/Associated Press/Associated Press
No matter who’s under center or who’s coordinating the offense.
Burrow strolled into the locker room long after his time at the postgame dais, the cigar he initially lit prior to leaving for his press conference now considerably shorter but still satisfying.
His 60 touchdown passes this season were one more than LSU’s four-year total from 2015 to 2018. Burrow threw 16 touchdown passes last season before Brady’s arrival and threw 12 this season in two CFP games.
“It’s hard to put into words what this offense has meant to this team and to me personally,” Burrow said.
When he was told in the postgame locker room that he set the FBS record for touchdowns, he asked: “Did I break the completion record? Because that’s the one I’ve privately been shooting for.”
He didn’t, but that’s about the only goal he didn’t reach in a generational season. A handful of drops by LSU’s typically sure-handed receivers likely cost Burrow the record.
He finished the season completing 76.3 percent of his passes; former Texas quarterback Colt McCoy holds the FBS record at 76.7. But with or without the percentage record, Burrow put together the single greatest season for a quarterback in the 150-year history of the sport.
So yeah, keeping Brady and his player-friendly RPO offense on staff for at least another year is a big deal.
One industry source told B/R that no matter what an NFL club offers Brady, LSU is committed to matching the monetary deal. That number could make Brady the highest-paid coordinator in college football, not even a year after he was making less than $100,000 as, he said, the “assistant to the assistant coach” with the Saints.
If he stays at LSU, he has some heavy lifting to do with the offense. The Tigers return a solid nucleus but could lose junior wideout Justin Jefferson, tight end Thaddeus Moss and tailback Clyde Edwards-Helaire to the NFL.
Those were three significant pieces to LSU’s success this fall and would be three critical players for the transition of any new quarterback.
“If you play as you’re coached, you’ll have success in this system,” Burrow said. “I’m the perfect example of that.”
He’s the unique example—something you can’t replace the very next day.