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The Magic of LSU and the Perfect College Football Season

Joe Burrow and Ed Orgeron just capped a run for the ages with a national championship. Nothing in their past suggested this was possible—until the brilliance of this quarterback, this coach, this city, and this team became inevitable.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Visibility was low everywhere I went in New Orleans, starting the moment the LSU Tigers officially became legends.

First was the field, where walking through the confetti shower felt like being trapped in a snow globe with the happiest enormous men on earth. Next was the locker room, where the smoke from roughly 100 cigars made a room designed for athletes to get dressed feel like a 1950s steakhouse. And then there was Bourbon Street, where a thick fog obscured the downtown skyscrapers just a few blocks away. I spent four hours wandering through these hazes, constantly enveloped by celebrations. On the field, it was joyous hugging between massive football players experiencing the biggest moment of their lives. In the locker room, it was over-the-top antics of NFL stars who were just as excited by their alma mater’s coronation as the current players. In the French Quarter, it was a pretty typical scene for Bourbon Street—happy drunks as far as the eye can see—with the one twist being that this time, almost everyone was from Louisiana.

In the various mists, mistakes were made. In the confetti snow globe, former LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. stormed into the area where the band was seated to demand it play “Neck,” the song LSU’s athletic department has banned at games ever since the student section turned it into an ode to feline fellatio. Beckham’s request was denied, and state troopers had to escort him out of the stands and back onto the field. In the locker room cigar smog, there was a small fire nobody noticed for several minutes. I saw a lineman toss a still-lit cigar into a trash can without extinguishing the flame, but didn’t think anything of it until I picked up on a burning smell distinct from the cigar smell. There was a burning napkin in there, and a police officer came by to dump water into the bin. In the French Quarter fog, I saw an LSU fan in pristine purple-and-white Jordans step into a pile of shit left by a police horse. Our hero never broke stride.

I suppose that after watching this 2019 LSU team, it was possible to forget things could go wrong. The Tigers played one of the toughest schedules in college football history, facing off against five teams ranked in the top 10 of the final AP poll. They didn’t just go undefeated—they set records for excellence. Quarterback Joe Burrow broke the single-season FBS marks for passer rating (202.0) and touchdown passes (60) and won the Heisman Trophy by the largest margin of victory in the award’s 84-year history. Burrow played 15 great games in a row; his worst performance was probably an October outing against Auburn in which he went 32-of-42 passing for 321 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

Monday night, he played Clemson, the defending champion and the best defense in the country. Clemson came in having allowed fewer points (11.5 per game), passing touchdowns (nine), and passing yards (151.5 per game) than any other team in the nation. Burrow lit that group up for 463 passing yards with five touchdowns and 58 rushing yards with another score. Last January, Clemson announced itself as college football’s preeminent power by shoving Alabama into a dumpster during the national title game. This January, Burrow peeked into that dumpster and realized there was enough room for Clemson too. Before Monday, Clemson had lost four games in the past five seasons by a combined total of 27 points. LSU won 42-25, and kneeled at the Clemson 4-yard line to run out the clock in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter.

It is shocking that LSU became the team that could not fail, because so many parts of LSU were seemingly defined by failures. The Tigers suffered at least three losses in each of the previous seven seasons, falling from a national title contender to Alabama’s plaything. They perpetually struggled on offense, earning a reputation for run-and-defense-heavy swamp football. Ed Orgeron’s only prior head-coaching gig was a disastrous stop at Ole Miss, where he famously ripped off his shirt and challenged his players to fight him. Burrow was a transfer from Ohio State, where the quarterbacks above him on the depth chart maintained a running joke that they couldn’t remember his name. (Some called him Jimmy, others called him John.) Remember how I said Burrows’s worst game this season was the Auburn game? That would’ve been the best of Burrow’s career before 2019, by a lot.

Now, based on résumé alone, the Tigers can stake a claim to the greatest individual season in college football history. They were perfect, unlike so many champions; they had a record-setting Heisman winner, who will soon be the no. 1 draft pick. They won national awards presented to the sport’s best wide receiver (Ja’Marr Chase), defensive back (Grant Delpit), head coach (Orgeron), and assistant coach (Joe Brady). Their strength of schedule is virtually unmatched in modern NCAA history, and still they dominated. In their 15 games, they trailed in the second half for a grand total of seven minutes.

But what makes this title particularly special is the story line. Nobody is supposed to be as good as LSU was this season, but especially not this school, this coach, and this quarterback. It is false to say they came out of nowhere, since that would imply they hadn’t done anything beforehand. LSU, Orgeron, and Burrow had done a lot, and none of it suggested this was possible. In a sport of dynasties, these Tigers delivered the greatest season of all time, with its greatness outdone only by its improbability.

College Football Playoff National Championship - Clemson v LSU
Joe Burrow
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Of course it was New Orleans. It had to be New Orleans. LSU won the championship here in 2004 and 2008, and appeared in the championship game here in 2012. Monday marked the fourth time that college football’s national title game was held in New Orleans in the past 20 seasons, and the fourth time that LSU has played in the title game during that stretch. Somehow, the stars always align. LSU’s ability to compete for championships in and only in years the title game is played in New Orleans surpasses coincidence. It is magic.

This magic is awfully convenient for LSU fans, who packed the Superdome and every bar in the city. Walking around New Orleans this weekend, it at times felt like Clemson fans outnumbered LSU fans, but this was a lie based on circumstance. The Clemson fans flew in from South Carolina, booked hotel rooms, and did what tourists do: eat beignets and drink frozen booze out of obnoxiously large souvenir cups. (I also did this. Don’t judge me.) You didn’t see the LSU fans out and about because they weren’t out-of-towners. They were playing a damn home game, and lived their normal lives in their normal neighborhoods until it was time to shine.

This magic is also awfully concerning for LSU, because the next four national championship games are scheduled outside of New Orleans. Such sorcery promises successes but also lean times. One four-year gap saw Nick Saban leave LSU for the Miami Dolphins; the most recent eight-year gap saw LSU drop eight consecutive games to rival Alabama.

And, of course, LSU’s future is now uncertain. After all, its best player is leaving, a point raised by one of the NFL players on hand in the Tigers’ locker room. The NFL players were everywhere, as ubiquitous as the cigar smoke: Beckham was there, vigorously demanding that reporters stop interviewing wide receiver Justin Jefferson. (“No more questions! I’m his agent!” Beckham shouted to the media.) Ezekiel Elliott was there, even though he went to Ohio State. (Maybe he booked his plane ticket before the Buckeyes lost the Fiesta Bowl to Clemson?) One player stopped me to snap a photo of him posing with his former teammate and current Cleveland Browns corner Greedy Williams. (I hope it came out OK!) And Devin White, the former LSU linebacker who went fifth in the 2019 draft, started shouting at Burrow as he returned from his press conference. “DRINKS ON JOE TONIGHT! HE’S GONNA BE THE NO. 1 PICK!”

Burrow downplayed such talk. “Man, I’m still broke!” he responded. White was thinking about the future; Burrow was still living in the moment, when he does not have tens of millions of dollars.

Of course, White had a point. Burrow will be the top pick in April’s draft, which is basically the only time anyone has ever been able to accurately predict his future. Even Orgeron, who passionately recruited Burrow by wooing him with crawfish, did not see this coming. At Saturday’s national championship media day, I asked Orgeron if he ever envisioned Burrow having this type of season, with all these records and trophies. He smiled and shook his head. “Him being the Heisman winner never entered our mind,” Orgeron said. “All we wanted was to win games with a good quarterback. He exceeded all our expectations.”

Orgeron, too, exceeded expectations. When he was named LSU’s full-time head coach in November 2016, many felt that the school was settling. Orgeron was viewed in college football circles less as a coach and more as a cartoon character. (The guy who does his voice work is INCREDIBLE!) Sure, he was beloved by players, and sure, he seemed to be a perfect fit in Louisiana, the state in which he was born and raised and learned to speak Cajun French and whatever language alligators use. But no one saw this coming. Orgeron took a program that struggled for half a decade and reshaped it into a new, overpowering force destined to bring home a national championship.

Maybe the same magic that transformed Burrow from a college football frog into its crown prince will soon transform his backup, Myles Brennan, another senior with a thus-far uninteresting college career. Maybe the key is actually Chase, who finished Monday with 221 receiving yards and two touchdowns and spent the night sprinting past Clemson defenders on bombs and around them after reeling in short passes. Maybe the secret really resides with Brady, the 30-year-old assistant who showed up in Baton Rouge this season and revitalized the team’s entire passing scheme. With so many brilliant performances, it’s tough to say who was most responsible for all of the incredible things that happened.

All we know is what we saw: brilliance, from start to finish. LSU’s championship run proved that the past isn’t destined to repeat itself, and that the future will always be unknown. The only thing worth focusing on is the present, and the transcendent glow of Burrow revealing himself to be a dime-dropping god while the coach with the funny voice emerged as a champion for the ages.

The 2019 LSU Tigers were a celebration in a fog. It doesn’t matter what lies beyond what you can see. When you’re surrounded by something this incredible, the rest fades away. Embrace the magic until you forget that failure exists.