After the uncertainties and disappointments of last year’s football season due to a virus and myriad weather-related events, sports fans are optimistic for a more normal experience this year; but if we’ve learned anything over the last 18 months, it is that life is unpredictable and little is for certain. Nonetheless, football fans have much to look forward to this year. In our annual Football Gold section, Thrive contributor Matt Dye fills readers in with all the thrilling details on your favorite Louisiana teams. You’ll also find an in-depth interview with Clerc Bertrand, Executive Director of the McNeese Athletic Foundation – she has some exciting news, too!
by Matt Dye
When an era finally ends, it’s interesting to go back to the beginning, and in the case of the Saints, there’s a whole generation now that’s known nothing but success these past 15 seasons. They don’t know the dark times; ‘bags over heads’ is just something their uncles mutter after a rare bad beat. Some deny the Saints were that bad before Brees, but some of us still have Aaron Brooks’s backward pass etched in our brains as evidence of how it was darkest before the dawn.
Some say that now it’s the start of the Jameis Winston era, but in reality, the Saints don’t know who their starting quarterback will be this season, with a believed battle to be had at training camp between Taysom “I Play Football” Hill and Winston. Speculation abounds with Coach Payton even rumored to be favoring Hill, but realistically, this should be Winston’s team, if not at the start, then by the end of the season.
The question is, who are these Saints without Drew Brees, and the answer is, still a very good football team. The argument has been made that in the playoffs, Brees hindered them more than he helped, and is evidenced by bringing Winston in to throw the deep ball, which he completed, in the playoff loss against the eventual Super Bowl Champion Buccaneers.
The leadership of the team now falls to Cam Jordan and the defense, and they are hungrier than ever after being on the precipice the last few seasons. But Jordan and the D will have to do it without fellow defensive end David Onyemata, who tested positive for PEDs and will miss the first six games. That could hurt a defense that already traded Malcolm Brown in the off-season and let Sheldon Rankins and Janoris Jenkins go.
On the offensive side of the ball, Drew may be gone, but Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas are still around, and they may be the best RB/WR combo in the league. Thomas is coming off an injury-plagued season last year, but if he can get into rhythm with whomever is behind center, he should get back to his old self in no time. The question will be how good the receivers will be – those not named Michael Thomas – and if second year tight-end Adam Trautman has a breakout season, as he should with competent quarterback play.
Also keep in mind that the NFL has decided to muck with their business model again this season, so now instead of four pre-season games and 16 regular season, we’re going 3 and 17, which means that’s one more week of fantasy football for some of you. It’ll also be interesting to watch how teams manage the extra game along with injuries. We may see both Winston and Hill at quarterback just because of some new load management theory.
The good news is that the Saints are playing a team with just as questionable a quarterback situation in Week One when they take on the Green Bay Packers. Everyone assumes Aaron Rodgers will be out there, chucking the pigskin in the Superdome, but it’s possible he’s happy with Shailene and just hangs up the cleats.
Otherwise, you can look at the Saints quarterback transition schedule as being as easy as it possible could be. Besides seeing division rivals twice each, with Atlanta and Tampa Bay on their last legs with their own respective quarterbacks (one day it’ll be true, Brady!) and Carolina welcoming Sam Darnold on a second chance, New Orleans gets the woeful NFC East and the nearly as woeful AFC East.
Time will tell how dangerous this team will be, and by the time they travel to Nashville and play the Titans in Week 10, you’ll be able to tell what this team’s potential could be in the playoffs; and with the NFL keeping with seven teams, they should make the playoffs.
So we can stow the paper bags for another year.
“We want to bring a conference championship back to Lake Charles,” McNeese quarterback Cody Orgeron says. “How resilient this community is. We’re really just playing for the people in Lake Charles.”
College football last season was a different beast for everyone with COVID-19 radically warping schedules, but here in Lake Charles . . . you know the rest.
Many of you might have missed Frank Wilson’s first year as head coach of the Cowboys as you were putting roofs back on your houses, but he led out a gritty team of players, many of whom were also still putting roofs back on their own houses.
“It was big for us to play in the spring,” Coach Wilson said. “To give us some normality and to play in front of our fans and our community.” That team went 3-4, finishing the season with a tough loss to eventual National Champion Sam Houston State.
But now, Sam Houston State has left the conference, having joined the WAC (Western Athletic Conference). Leaving to join with them were Lamar, Stephen F. Austin, and Abilene Christian. Central Arkansas got the wrong memo and joined the Atlantic Sun Conference instead.
That means that in many ways, the SLC is wide-open, down to six football playing schools. But this also brings in the complexity of this year’s schedule as McNeese will play three of its five conference opponents twice in a home/away sequence, similar to divisional play in the NFL. It’d be easy to pick McNeese to finish atop the standings, but how this format affects teams’ overall records in some ways makes the SLC a crapshoot. Hopefully this is a one-time deal, as the Southland should add a few new schools by next year.
Frank Wilson’s second year Cowboy team returns 10 starters on offense as well as eight starters on defense, and as Coach Wilson pointed out at SLC Media Day, every place the team had a weakness, he worked to seal that hole with talent. “Every guy that entered the transfer portal, we replaced with an all-conference player.”
Speaking of all-conference talent, reigning SLC Defensive Player of the Year (and scooter-enthusiast) Isaiah Chambers is one of six Cowboys to be named to the SLC Pre-Season All-Conference Team. He’s joined by fellow defense end Mason Kinsey and defensive back Andre Sam on the first team. Wideout Josh Matthews, defensive back Chris Joyce, and punt returner Mason Pierce made second team.
Cody Orgeron is back at quarterback, and his final season at the helm will be exciting. During his two years full-time under center, he’s been effective, completing 321 of 542 passes for 4,188 yards, 34 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. It’s a sign of how competitive the SLC is that he’s been left off that pre-season list.
It’ll be interesting to see if a lead runner comes out of the backfield or if Coach Wilson continues to employ a committee as he did last season. Keep an eye on Deonta McMahon, Carlos Williams, and Josh Parker – maybe in that order – to get the rock when Orgeron isn’t throwing it or running it himself.
Catching the ball, look for aforementioned Matthews and Pierce to be two of Orgeron’s favorite targets, as well as Severyn Foster and a bevy of young talent at receiver.
The defense should be complete fire, with three players on the All-Conference first team. As Chambers points out, the secret to his success is, “I don’t talk much. I just do the work.” And his effect on the team since joining them last year is easily apparent and ready for year two.
Two other interesting wrinkles to be aware of going into this season.
First is the Sept. 11 match-up with LSU, where we’ll have the Battle of the O’s as father takes on son. McNeese has already been known to play Power 5 schools tough and even upset a few. This will technically be the third match-up between the schools, with McNeese taking an early lead in the first game before falling to Goliath, and the second game going 11 plays in 2015 before being cancelled by lightning. Stranger things . . .
The second is that all of McNeese’s home games this season will be played at NOON this year due to the absence of stadium lighting. This gives every opportunity to come to Cowboy Stadium and enjoy the game while getting home in time to catch LSU at night. Tickets are on sale now!
After a 2019 title run that had Louisianians puffing out their chests and talking about variations of ways to name their kids Burrow or Orgeron, the perils of success began to befall Baton Rouge. First was the inevitable vulture-ing of assistant coaches to full-time jobs and the NFL. Next, COVID-19 caused an uneven 5-5 season. And then the reports emerged of sexual misconduct by several players, past and present, and suddenly it felt like decades since Joey B. was smoking a cigar in the locker room, victorious.
But if there’s one thing that Coach O has proven throughout his coaching career, it’s his ability to handle a problem head-on when he sees there’s something amiss. When he first arrived at LSU, he hired Matt Canada as his offensive coordinator and surprised everyone when he fired him a year later. The fit wasn’t right, he said, and instead he brought in Joe Brady and just like that, LSU had a passing offense fans had dreamed about their entire lives.
After 5-5, Coach O took the sledgehammer to his coaching staff, getting rid of defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, who took over for Dave Aranda, and passing coordinator Scott Linehan, who took over for Brady. Both these coaches have extensive NFL experience, but they weren’t the fit Coach O was looking for with his players.
Since the end of last season, Orgeron has brought in Jake Peetz with DJ Mangas to try to reinvigorate the offense, and Daronte Jones to get the defensive back on track. Both these hires not only point to innovative coaching schemes, but also youth in the respective positions rather than the constant retreads that seem to define most staffs.
Leading the Tigers’ offense is still largely up in the air. Myles Brennan took over for Joe Burrow last season and was on an upward trend before getting injured for the season in Week 3. His primary competition, Max Johnson, played well in his final two starts of the season and gives the offense a little more variety, but it’s hard to imagine he takes the job away from Brennan.
Austin Deculus and the entire offensive line return for the Tigers, which is a nice security blanket for whomever starts under center. It also means we can look forward to a powerful running game from the Tigers this season as they work to right the ship.
Heading up that running game will be a 1-2 punch of Tyrion Davis-Price with homerun hitter John Emery, Jr. This could change as training camp goes along, but these two guys are the best contenders. Catching the ball, all eyes should be on Kayshon Boutte, who is set to be the next in a long list of great LSU wide receivers.
Cornerback Derek Stingley, Jr. is the next in line to don the #7 jersey, and he will lead a defense that needs to improve mightily from last season. Luckily, the defensive line with B.J. Ojulari, Ali Gaye, and Andre Anthony is ready to get back to that 2019 form and should wreak havoc in the opponent’s backfield.
LSU opens the season all the way on the West Coast when they face off against UCLA on September 4. Then it’s home to face McNeese in The Battle of the O’s followed by another home game against Western Michigan before the Tigers start conference play on the road at Mississippi State.
This should be a revenge game as Mississippi State took down the Tigers last year, 44-34 in Death Valley, but with second year coach Mike Leach, the Bulldogs are a much more dangerous opponent, as are their in-state rival Ole Miss with second year coach Lane Kiffin. Even once-milquetoast Kentucky is looking fearsome with second year coach Mark Stoops.
Combined with LSU’s yearly battles with Florida and Alabama, this should shape up to be another difficult year in the SEC West that’ll more than likely come down to a November 6 match-up at Bryant-Denny Stadium to determine who’s playing for the SEC Championship.