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LSU Football Coaching Search: It’s Looking Like Lincoln Riley Or Bust

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BATON ROUGE – “The Lincoln Riley hire may have already been made by LSU verbally, for LSU athletic director Scott Woodward is as stealth and smart as they come. Riley, a Muleshoe, Texas, native who was born in Lubbock and was a walk-on quarterback at Texas Tech, has been in the Big 12 for most of his adult life. At this stage of his life, he could be wanting something new, an adventure, wanderlust. It could happen.

Outkick column on Nov. 17.

Yes, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley is back at the top in the LSU football coaching search, but he most likely never exited.

And do not count out Baylor coach Dave Aranda just yet either. It is not a surprise that Baylor just decided it was going to enhance his contract after Aranda’s name grew hotter for the LSU job last week. It is also not earth shattering or major news what Aranda said Wednesday on FOX Sports.

“I love it here, and this is where I want to be,” Aranda said. “And I think the fit at Baylor is so strong.”

That is a non-denial denial. Very talented, highly sought after people often leave jobs they love because they find something that might be better. Not everyone who leaves a job leaves because they hated it. Riley can be LSU’s new coach and still have loved every minute of his time at Oklahoma.

“I coach the University of Oklahoma football team,” Riley said last week when asked about the LSU opening. “You guys know me. You know how I feel about this place and this program.”

Another non-denial denial. People often leave jobs they love for a new frontier … and more money.

Riley could very well become LSU’s new coach very soon, despite a report to the contrary on Nov. 17 that I mistakenly believed after writing my column on that date. Then Riley was incorrectly excluded from a list of three candidates for the LSU job last week.

If LSU does not get Riley for what could be something astronomical between $10 million and $12 million a year, look for Aranda’s name to resurface. Riley makes approximately $8 million a year now.

Something could happen late this week, like Saturday, or early next week, like Monday, as reported here last week.

If No. 10 Oklahoma (10-1, 7-1 Big 12) wins at No. 7 Oklahoma State (10-1, 7-1 Big 12) Saturday in Stillwater on ABC, the Sooners will advance to the Big 12 championship game on Dec. 4 and play Oklahoma State again.

A better scenario for LSU may be if Oklahoma loses, and No. 8 Baylor (9-2, 6-2) beats Texas Tech (6-5, 3-5 Big 12) at 11 a.m. on Fox Sports 1 to reach the Big 12 championship game. Then Oklahoma would be done, excluding a bowl in a month, and Riley could be introduced at LSU on Monday. If the Sooners advance to the Big 12 title game, things could be put off a week.

Woodward did not seem like a man desperate for a coach over the Thanksgiving holidays as he was hunting with friends. He could have bagged his target weeks ago with both parties waiting until the end of the regular season for the blockbuster announcement.

If Woodward pulls this off, and it could happen, LSU would be jettisoned to national relevancy over night and to the top of the college football news cycle like it hasn’t been since winning the national championship two years ago.

And what a fantastic hire it could be. Finally, LSU will have a true pass-oriented, progressive, action-packed offensive coordinator running its football program. No longer would the LSU coach be looking for a new offensive coordinator almost every year.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron, who will coach his last game with the Tigers Saturday against No. 15 Texas A&M in Tiger Stadium (6 p.m., ESPN), hired four offensive coordinators in six years on the job. Those were Steve Ensminger in 2016, Matt Canada in 2017, Ensminger again in 2018 through 2020 and Jake Peetz in 2021. There were also three passing game coordinators in the last three years – Joe Brady in 2019, Scott Linehan in 2020 and DJ Mangas in 2021.

Orgeron, who was never a defensive coordinator, also had to hire two defensive coordinators over the last two seasons – Bo Pelini and Daronte Jones – while he was hiring the above offensive coaches. As time went on, his hires got worse, player development suffered, and we’ve all seen what has happened. LSU (5-6, 2-5 SEC) is a loss away from its first losing season since 1999 after a 5-5 mark in 2020.

At LSU, Riley would hire an offensive coordinator and other offensive assistants, but none of them will be extremely important hires, because in truth Riley will always be the offensive coordinator, passing game coordinator and quarterback coach as the head coach.

The constant, problematic search for quality quarterbacks at LSU and the struggles with their development could finally cease with the hiring of Riley. LSU’s quarterback void has wearily gone on since Matt Flynn left after the 2007 national championship with just the two-year respite of greatness with Joe Burrow in 2018 and ’19. Riley knows how to recruit quarterbacks and knows how to develop them. LSU has not had someone consistently great at that since Jimbo Fisher was offensive coordinator from 2000-06.

Think about this. Orgeron hired nine offensive, passing game or defensive coordinators in just six years on the job. Riley, on the other hand, will just have to worry about hiring a great defensive coordinator and keeping him as long as possible. Instead of looking for coaches all the time like Orgeron, he will be looking for players more and can focus on two of LSU’s biggest problems under Orgeron and previous coach Les Miles – player development and roster management.

Riley is also just 38 years old. He would be LSU’s youngest head football coach since Mike Archer, who was 34 when he took over in 1987. If he wins a national championship at LSU within the next five years, Riley will just be in his early 40s and likely not feel like he has worked his whole career for that and tend to relax. This may have happened to Miles and Orgeron. Riley will have a better “psychological disposition” – seven-time national champion coach Nick Saban’s words – to work for more.

Riley is 54-9 overall and 37-6 in the Big 12 at Oklahoma since moving up from offensive coordinator for two seasons to replace Bob Stoops in 2017. He has won 12 games in a season three times and has reached three College Football Playoffs without a win.

LSU could help him get over that hump.

The best part of Riley’s glittering resume may be the fact that he learned under offensive genius/Mississippi State coach Mike Leach when Leach was Texas Tech’s head coach – first as a walk-on quarterback in 2002, a student assistant from 2003-05 after being cut from the team, a graduate assistant in 2006 and as wide receivers coach from 2007-09.

“He was there for a spring, and we had too many walk-ons that year anyway,” Leach said on the Nov. 17 SEC teleconference. “So, I cut several of them.”

Leach cut Riley, but was impressed with his intelligence and asked him to stay and help coach as a student assistant.

“Because I thought he’d be a good coach,” Leach said. “Well, initially, he got mad. Didn’t want to get cut. Then he came back a day or two later and says he wants to be a student assistant. And really never looked back. I mean just really immersed himself in coaching and did a good job. Once he went in, I mean, he was all in. Real vigilant about studying and learning.”

Oklahoma freshman quarterback Caleb Williams is No. 6 in the nation in passing efficiency with a 176.3 rating. The Sooners are No. 10 in the nation in scoring with 38.9 points a game.

“He always worked hard at learning how to be a coach,” Leach said. “And he was just incredibly dependable. I mean, he was like my right-hand assistant there. He’s a very smart guy, picked up things very quickly. Also, a guy who had a little insight, rather than just a parrot it back.”

Imagine, if you will, the triangle of offense in Louisiana and Missisippi with Riley at LSU, Leach at Mississippi State and Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss.

It could all be happening soon.

Written by Glenn Guilbeau

Guilbeau has been on the LSU beat since 1998 with multiple outlets in Louisiana, prior to that he had covered both Auburn and Alabama. He won first place for his game feature on LSU's upset at Florida last season from the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). He was also named Beat Writer of Year, by Louisiana Sports Writers Association in July; placed in three Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) categories – Beat Writer, Explanatory, Game Coverage – last spring. Guilbeau was also the FWAA first-place winner for columns in 2017 and was also the top overall winner in 2016 FWAA placing first for his game story, second in columns, and receiving honorable mention for features.

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