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O’Connell: Imagining What Utah Vs. LSU Will Look Like Is ALMOST Impossible

LSU Tigers cheerleaders celebrate their 42-25 win over the Clemson Tigers in the College Football Playoff National Championship game at Mercedes Benz Superdome on January 13, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The University of Utah scheduled a home-and-home football series with the defending national champions of LSU. This is, of course, a fantastic “get” for the Utes from a scheduling standpoint.

Still, with the series to be played out more than a decade in the future, it’s hard to imagine that the two programs involved in the series will look the same in 11/12 years as they do now.

I decided to try and predict what we can expect in relation to the LSU/Utah matchup when the Bayou Bengals finally do make the flight to Salt Lake City.

Ed Orgeron May Still Be Around

I think it’s safe to say that in 2031, LSU will still very likely be loaded with the kind of talent that we are accustomed to seeing in the purple and yellow uniform. The level of investment from the school, program, community, and culture surrounding LSU football is unlikely to diminish, even with the passage of many years. As much as we like to disparage the arrogance and bias of the SEC, there is an undeniable advantage to fielding a program in the gridiron-obsessed South.

I suppose I could see Ed Orgeron still coaching LSU in 2031. He’ll be nearing retirement age, but I’ll hold out hope that we get to hear that cement-gargling voice on the sideline at Rice Eccles. His potential presence doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the Tigers will still be contending for national championships though because a huge part of Orgeron’s success at LSU is rooted in the assistant coaches he has surrounded himself with. Even if Eddie O is still around by then, he’ll likely be on the third or fourth iteration of his staff. It would take either remarkable luck or incredible acumen in selecting top-quality coordinators and position coaches for him to still be on top. In fact, we’ll see his longevity tested in the 2020 season now that Dave Aranda has moved on to become Baylor’s head coach.

I can confidently say that on-field talent will not be a problem for LSU. Players with size and speed are seemingly abundant on the Bayou. That’s not going to change in the next decade. I firmly believe that by the time the first matchup between these two teams comes around, both programs will be paying players through Name, Image, and Likeness avenues at the very least. (If the game was scheduled for 2021, only LSU would be paying players).

While this might lead some to believe that the playing field will even out somewhat in the favor of the Utes, I find it hard to believe that program like LSU won’t find a way (legal or not) to stay ahead of the curve to ensure that elite talent still comes their way.

Future Is Bright, But Uncertain For Utah

The future of Utah Football is bright, but far less certain. Kyle Whittingham will in all likelihood be retired by then, and while I am very confident that heir-apparent Morgan Scalley is more than capable of leading the program in the right direction, Utah doesn’t have the same built-in safeguards that a program like LSU does.

The Pac-12 Conference is losing ground in the financial arms race with its Power-5 peers, which means thinner recruiting budgets, lower salaries available to attract and retain the best assistants, and potentially a shallower pool of boosters and partner companies willing to attach their brands to player endorsement deals, even when they become legal. It’s unfortunate that the numbers in the bank matter just as much as the stats accumulated on the field, but that’s the harsh reality of trying to compete in the present (and future) landscape of college football.

Where it’s feasible to think LSU might be taking a turn as the flagship program of SEC football in a dozen or so years, it’s going to take some serious creativity for Utah to position themselves ahead of the more celebrated heritage brands in the Pac-12 and you’ll have to get a much better contract from Under Armour to outpace Oregon; who I don’t place among the heritage brands, but who has climbed the social ladder in the conference with all the bravado and success of a new-money-Utah-County-tech-startup billionaire.

Secrets Are Getting Harder To Keep

I certainly don’t see the Utes suffering a precipitous fall from relevance, but keeping pace with a traditional SEC power is a tall order. An often-overlooked reason for this is that Utah’s most reliable source of big-body talent -the Polynesian community- is now being raided by SEC programs with newfound vigor. A recruiting niche once monopolized by Utah, BYU, and the West Coast schools is now an open market.

Utah’s quirky advantages are becoming harder and harder to identify and the trade secrets that the former mid-major has used to keep themselves competitive are growing progressively harder to guard. None of these issues preclude Utah from winning against LSU when the games finally do get played, but each is an obstacle to address in the years leading up to the showcase.

Perhaps a more sobering thought is the fact that we might not need to worry about this matchup at all. After all, the future is nigh-impossible to predict. This stroke of scheduling genius is likely to be threatened by another round of conference realignment (Pac-16, anyone?) before the ball is ever actually kicked.

Then there’s the inevitable turmoil surrounding pay-for-play rules, financial concerns related to head-injury litigation, declining participation in youth football narrowing the field of scholarship-worthy athletes, at least two more television contracts to be negotiated between now and then, and perhaps even a global extinction event linked to our decades-long abuse of critical ocean ecosystems!

Okay… Maybe that last one is unrelated, but I think you get the picture.

Today I celebrate the hard work and accomplishment of the athletic department staff at Utah responsible for scheduling a series designed to bolster the Utes’ profile as a nationally relevant brand.

I do so with an intense curiosity for how Utah vs. LSU will actually look more than a decade from now when we all climb into our self-driving, zero-emission cars and head for the Rice-Eccles parking lot.

I suppose only time will tell.

You can follow Sean O’Connell on Twitter here.