On September 29, 2013, a few hours after a blowout at Arizona State, USC AD Pat Haden called Lane Kiffin off the bus and fired him on the tarmac.
Haden tapped Ed Orgeron as interim. Orgeron went 6-2, getting the Trojans back into the AP Poll for a few weeks. By every account, USC players adored Orgeron, lobbying for him to get the permanent job.
Haden hired Steve Sarkisian. In 2015, Orgeron went to his native Louisiana to coach LSU’s defensive line. Then he got a promotion to coach every other LSU position group, too.
USC’s decision not to hire Orgeron changed the fates of not just the Trojans and Tigers, but let’s start with USC.
USC is different for the rest of the 2010s, probably for the better.
Guessing how Orgeron does at USC is a challenge. He’d previously failed at Ole Miss, badly. He seemed to have grown a lot by the time he was USC’s interim, though.
The Trojans recruited excellently while he was recruiting coordinator from 2010 to 2013, including classes ranked third, third, and eighth. The 2013 defense was sixth in SP+ while Orgeron was coaching the linemen. We also got to see eight games with Orgeron fully in charge, and the Trojans were better in those than they’d been the last two seasons under Kiffin, when they were 10-8.
It’s also possible Orgeron’s the kind of Cajun who was always going to thrive more at LSU than anywhere else. “I’m better off at LSU,” he’d say after taking LSU’s interim job in 2016. “Maybe I’m not the country club guy they wanted, and you know what, to hell with them.”
That seems to be what Haden’s group didn’t like, as silly as it sounds:
USC would’ve done better than it did overall under Sarkisian and Clay Helton. Orgeron’s proved to have become a championship-caliber head coach in addition to an excellent recruiter. But figuring out specifics is hard, because USC never let him sign his own recruiting class.
Some things that might’ve happened:
- Orgeron might’ve handled USC’s QB situation differently in 2016. If he’d moved to redshirt freshman Sam Darnold a game or two earlier, USC might not have started 1-3. That’s just a guess — who knows if Orgeron would’ve operated differently than Helton — but USC could’ve made the Playoff.
- USC also might’ve made the Playoff in 2017. This comes down to whether you think Orgeron would’ve found a way to win a weird weeknight game at Washington State.
- We might’ve been spared years of rumors about James Franklin or Urban Meyer taking the gig. (We would not have been spared rumors about Jeff Fisher or Jack Del Rio, because those are eternal features of any USC search.)
USC’s just one part, though. Some other things that would’ve been different:
Sarkisian stays at Washington for a while.
That means the Huskies do not hire Chris Petersen, at least not in 2014. That means he can’t start building in Seattle until later. So it’s unlikely Washington makes the Playoff as the #4 seed in 2016.
That means, unless Orgeron had USC rolling, the Pac-12’s missed-Playoff streak would be even more embarrassing.
Oregon made it in 2014. And without Petersen’s Washington or possibly Orgeron’s USC, that’d be it for the entire decade.
(You might argue that, with a lesser version of Washington, another Pac-12 team could’ve gotten over the hump. But look at the teams that got close. It’s not likely.)
With Washington not in the 2016 Playoff, someone proves a two-loss team can make the field.
The simplest guess is 11-2 Penn State. Bama probably would’ve won by a lot. However, this would leave Penn State fans less sour at the Playoff committee. The group of fanbases with annually aired CFP grievances might just be Baylor/TCU, UCF, and of course Ohio State.
Petersen staying put would have its own ripple effect in coaching carousels.
Predicting Petersen’s movements was never easy. But as long as Petersen remained, Boise couldn’t have hired Bryan Harsin, his former OC who’d gone to Arkansas State in 2013. That means the Red Wolves probably would’ve kept their coach for longer than a year, instead of having Harsin join Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn in a trio of one-and-dones before Blake Anderson.
Here is the big one: LSU probably doesn’t hire Orgeron as head coach.
Maybe the Tigers would’ve, because maybe Orgeron would’ve been on a run of 10-win seasons at USC, and the Louisiana native surely would’ve listened. Take away his real-life 2016 interim run at LSU, and Orgeron’s last SEC experience would’ve been the one that failed spectacularly at Ole Miss.
My colleague Steven Godfrey, who’s known Orgeron for more than a decade and followed his career closely, doesn’t think LSU would’ve hired Orgeron after firing Les Miles.
The Tigers would’ve targeted the same candidates as in actual reality: Jimbo Fisher and Tom Herman. And since Herman took the Texas job before LSU named its replacement for Miles, that leaves Fisher.
Fisher would’ve been way less likely than Orgeron to hand over the offensive reins to a young, outsider assistant like Joe Brady, whom Orgeron hired to overhaul LSU’s passing game in 2019. Maybe Joe Burrow never would’ve come to LSU at all, but he almost definitely wouldn’t have become a world-beating monster in an unstoppable offense. The notion of Orgeron as overseeing better 2019 offensive innovation than Fisher is both fair and funny.
So, it’s pretty safe to say LSU does not win 2019’s national championship.
Maybe another coach would’ve, but that’s a pretty massive assumption. Orgeron’s the guy who recruited Burrow, and he’s the guy who surrounded him with the right pieces to make one of the most dominant offenses in football history.
If LSU doesn’t win 2019’s title, perhaps Clemson — the team LSU beat relatively easily in the title game — does. Or maybe it’s Ohio State, the #2 Playoff seed behind the Tigers that year. Maybe Georgia makes the Playoff. Maybe Alabama does! But anyway, LSU’s not likely to win.
Say Fisher bolts Tallahassee for Baton Rouge. That means the Florida State job would’ve been open for 2017, a year before it actually opened.
There’s a chance the Noles hire Willie Taggart a year before they did in real life. Taggart had just gone 10-2 at USF, completing his second revival after doing the same at Western Kentucky.
I consulted with FSU expert Bud Elliott, who had a few other ideas:
- Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck, who’d completed an epic turnaround with a 13-win season that included a Cotton Bowl berth. Fleck had never coached college in Florida.
- Jeff Brohm, Taggart’s successor at WKU, who’d just won Conference USA two years in a row and had a highly regarded offense but few Florida ties. It would’ve been weird to hire a less proven version of Taggart (and with fewer Florida ties), though.
- Temple’s Matt Rhule, who won the AAC that year.
- Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, who’d replace Rhule at Temple.
- Or maybe Charlie Strong, fresh off his firing at Texas.
Taggart might have been the guy anyway. That would’ve given him more time to head off the roster and academic issues Fisher’s administration left behind. Maybe Taggart’s FSU tenure wouldn’t have ended two years in.
Let’s say FSU hires Taggart in 2017, which would’ve made about as much sense as it did in 2018. Now Oregon needs a different coach.
- Fleck would’ve been a possibility. Oregon reportedly scratched him off its list before settling on Taggart. Either FSU or Oregon hiring Fleck would’ve been bad for Minnesota, which probably would not have had a breakthrough season like 2019’s.
- Boise’s Harsin was another real-life idea, though in this scenario, he might’ve still been Arkansas State’s Harsin.
- Chip Kelly’s name came up, though he decided not to come back to college football until the following year at UCLA.
- The Ducks could’ve pushed for UCF head coach Scott Frost, their OC under Mark Helfrich. Frost said he wasn’t a candidate, but this was before he went undefeated in 2017 and his Nebraska hype exploded.
This could all lead to Tua Tagovailoa not playing at Alabama.
- USC? In reality, Sarkisian and his staff built a strong relationship with Tua, and they were considered the frontrunners before Sarkisian’s firing in 2015. In this alternate timeline, maybe infectious recruiter Orgeron hangs on to Tagovailoa. (Also right before Sarkisian’s firing, Bama had accepted a commitment from another blue-chip QB in the class of 2017, Jake Fromm. These things can be fluid.)
- Washington? Maybe Sark’s bond carries over to Seattle. Tua’s eventual primary recruiter at Alabama was Tosh Lupoi, who’d been Sarkisian’s D-line coach at UW. If Sarkisian had stayed longer at Washington, maybe Lupoi could’ve helped get Tua. (This part likely requires a previous alternate timeline adjustment, because an NCAA investigation had led to Lupoi and Washington splitting after 2013.)
- Oregon? The five-star Hawaiian QB once wanted to play for the Ducks. But Helfrich’s staff, in one of the great recruiting blunders, didn’t offer him. Tagovailoa committed to Bama in May 2016, before Helfrich was fired. Maybe a new Oregon staff could’ve gotten an offer out in 2017, but it was probably late.
Maybe Bama finds a way anyway. But there’s a good chance he goes elsewhere, which changes at least a couple national championship races.
Meanwhile, if Fisher’s at LSU, who’s at Texas A&M?
The Aggies, no longer able to pledge $75 million for 10 years of Fisher’s services, need a different coach after firing Kevin Sumlin at the end of 2017.
Well, a popular candidate would’ve been Aggie alum Chad Morris, who’d modernized Clemson’s offense in advance of their national championships. He’d since taken over a 1-11 SMU and built it to 7-5, all while exciting onlookers with his smashmouth spread offense. When he took his name out of the running in Baylor’s 2016 search, Aggies figured he was biding his time to replace Sumlin.
Morris would’ve made sense. His SMU was rising, he’d spent nearly two decades coaching Texas high school football, and he’d been an exciting Power 5 coordinator.
It didn’t happen, much to the eventual delight of A&M fans.
I am choosing to live out a reality in which A&M hires Morris after Sumlin’s 2017 firing. Thus, Arkansas needs someone to replace Bret Bielema.
By the time Arkansas landed Morris, the Hogs had failed to hire Malzahn, a native son who’d parlayed their interest into a trillion-dollar extension at Auburn.
The solution is obvious: Arkansas offers two trillion dollars and hires Malzahn.
Auburn then must do something wild to make its own splash.
Because doing wild stuff is what Auburn does, and there’d be nothing more confrontational than hiring away the guy who’d just overhauled their biggest rival’s offense:
The way Kiffin’s post-USC career unfolded in reality — three years at Bama, three at FAU, then a return to the SEC as Ole Miss’ head coach — was interesting enough.
But in this timeline:
- Kiffin goes to Auburn in 2018. He tweets come #cometotheAU to anyone who will listen.
- A year later, USC fires Orgeron for not having his shirt tucked in at a booster dinner.
- Orgeron takes a job as Auburn defensive line coach.
- In 2021, Auburn fires Kiffin for [use your imagination].
- Ed Orgeron, Auburn interim head coach.