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  • In this week's mailbag, we look at the potential of Ed Orgeron adding Ohio State grad trasfer QB Joe Burrow and how a team like Northern Illinois could crash the College Football Playoff party.
By Andy Staples
May 09, 2018

A sought-after graduate transfer quarterback has hit the market, and you have questions…

From Matt: Was this a chapter in O’s binder all along?

Matt is referring to the possibility of Ohio State quarterback Joe Burrow joining LSU as a graduate transfer. Matt also is referring to the binders Tigers coach Ed Orgeron distributed during his interview to secure the full-time job when he was still LSU’s interim coach in 2016.

Those binders contained a plan to build a “championship program,” and they’ve become a frequent punchline in the past year because Orgeron deviated from one of the major planks of his platform. He had promised to hire good coordinators and let them do their jobs, but the offensive coordinator Orgeron hired (Matt Canada) was a one-and-done, and the Tigers lost to Troy after Orgeron asked Canada to cut down on the shifts and motions that essentially make his offense what it is.

But here’s the thing. Canada’s offense didn’t exactly set the SEC on fire, and LSU still won nine games in 2017. The 2018 schedule, which opens with Miami in Arlington, Texas, and includes an SEC East crossover visit from Georgia, is pretty rugged. The popular assumption in SEC country is that Orgeron’s decision to part ways with Canada and promote Steve Ensminger—who served as LSU’s interim offensive coordinator in 2016—will combine with the difficulty of the schedule and spell doom for Orgeron’s tenure.

I’m not so sure about that.

LSU probably will be better on both lines of scrimmage this season. Several young offensive linemen (most notably tackle Saahdiq Charles) had to play earlier than expected to fill holes caused by injuries last year. On the defensive line, LSU should be considerably deeper despite losing three senior starters. Early last season, the Tigers had no rotation of which to speak. That will change this season with an infusion of young players combined with veterans such as Rashard Lawrence and Texas Tech transfer Breiden Fehoko.

The receiver group should be deeper, too. That likely will be what Tigers coaches try to sell to Burrow, who lost out to Dwayne Haskins for the starting job in Columbus. Texas Tech transfer Jonathan Giles should be a top target, and Justin Jefferson showed this spring that he’s capable of being a lot more than just a jet sweep specialist. The big question is who will carry the load at tailback, which is something no one has had to ask in Baton Rouge for a long time. Clyde Edwards-Helaire probably will take the bulk of the carries, but he doesn’t come into the role with prior experience as a trusted No. 2 back like so many of his predecessors did.

LSU has three quarterbacks (Myles Brennan, Lowell Narcisse and Justin McMillan) currently competing for the starting job, but no one distanced himself from the others in the spring. In fact, the trio only muddied the picture further. That’s why LSU is interested in Burrow, and judging by the permission to contact letter crafted by Ohio State—which included only LSU and Cincinnati—that interest is mutual.

What’s interesting about Burrow and LSU is that if Burrow is as good as his Ohio State teammates say he is, he could conceivably elevate a program that has lacked dynamic quarterback play since Zach Mettenberger left following the 2013 season. Let’s say LSU is basically the same level of team it was last year. Now add a good quarterback. That’s a team that—even with this schedule—could equal or surpass last year’s win total.

From Nick: #DearAndy in a hypothetical world where Northern Illinois runs the gauntlet and beats Iowa, Utah, Florida State, and BYU out of conference, would they legitimately put themselves in the conversation for the CFP?

Let’s use an example from the real world to answer Nick’s question. Had Houston not lost to SMU and Navy in 2016, the Cougars absolutely would have been in the playoff conversation. That year, the Cougars opened with a win against eventual Big 12 champ Oklahoma and then crushed Louisville and Heisman Trophy-bound quarterback Lamar Jackson on a Thursday in November with the entire nation watching. Going undefeated in the American with those two non-conference wins would have made Houston a legitimate playoff contender.

I’m in the minority that believes that year alone would have put Houston in the conversation, but others whose opinions I respect believe the Cougars’ excellent 2015 season—which ended with a Peach Bowl win against Florida State—would have made playoff contention possible. The previous year isn’t supposed to matter, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt in that case.

Northern Illinois isn’t coming into this season with that kind of built-in respect, but I don’t know if that would matter if the non-conference opponents were good enough. That, by the way, is the key when discussing how a Group of Five school might realistically contend for a playoff berth. To make up for the weakness of the conference schedule, the out-of-conference opponents must be great.

So if the Huskies wanted to get themselves discussed on ESPN on a Tuesday in November, here’s what would have to happen…

• Northern Illinois would have to go 13-0. This goes without saying. The MAC is perceived as the weakest conference, so any loss would knock the Huskies out of the conversation.

• Either Iowa would have to win the Big Ten, Utah would have to win the Pac-12 or Florida State would have to win the ACC. Having a head-to-head win against a Power Five conference champ would silence a lot of arguments. It might be possible for this group to be good enough without a league title, too. If, say, Iowa won the Big Ten West but lost the title game, Utah won the Pac-12 South but lost the title game and Florida State finished 10-2 with a loss to NIU and a loss to Clemson that kept the Seminoles out of the ACC title game, that probably would be OK as well.

• It would certainly help if BYU could get back to playing like BYU.

Basically, it will take a perfect season combined with a perfect scheduling storm for a Group of Five team to have a legitimate shot at the playoff.

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