Brian Kelly tries to ascend to the top of the SEC

LSU Football Stadium

Brian Kelly in the SEC? This was supposed to be a conference which chewed up Kelly and spat him out. National dislike of Notre Dame is widespread, but it burns deeply in the SEC for obvious reasons.

Matt Zemek,

“Get Notre Dame in the SEC, and Brian Kelly can’t arrange his schedule to have several breathers against Stanford, Navy, Boston College, and Pitt. Let’s see him handle the eight-game SEC gauntlet and see how he likes it. This isn’t South Bend anymore!”

It was – and still is – a valid line of thought. Notre Dame does play plenty of tough teams, but the ability to schedule games against less imposing opponents in between the tough games provides the Irish with cushions and buffers and on-ramps, the kinds of things which go into a great schedule. Notre Dame could customize its schedules to be tough enough in the aggregate but balanced enough that the Irish would never have to play two huge games in consecutive weeks. They could always downshift. They could do several times a year what Alabama and other SEC powers do once a year in late November: the FCS game before the big rivalry game and the SEC Championship Game. SEC teams might seek that “breather” once, maybe twice, in a season, but Kelly could do that several times at Notre Dame. The move to the SEC and LSU was supposed to knock Kelly back a few pegs.

To be sure, Kelly did absorb a few punches in Year 1 at LSU. The Tigers did get rocked by Texas A&M. They were no match for Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.

Wait a minute! LSU made the SEC Championship Game? The Tigers beat out Nick Saban and Alabama in Kelly’s first season? LSU was immediately able to solve the Nick Saban puzzle under Brian Kelly?

Even if one accepts the view that 2022 Alabama was not up to the standard of a Nick Saban-coached team, it remains that Kelly and LSU overachieved last season. The Tigers did not look very good in the first month of the season. They lost to Florida State. Their special teams were horrible. The offense began the season with new quarterback Jayden Daniels struggling. The new signal-caller was trying to establish a rapport with his teammates on the field, but it didn’t happen all at once. LSU was fortunate to escape Auburn, buying a little bit of time. However, when the Tigers were smashed at home by Tennessee, it seemed – with the whole second half of the season lying ahead – that Kelly was going to have a long, difficult year.

Against Ole Miss, however, everything changed. The Tigers swatted away a slow start and swamped Lane Kiffin’s team in a blowout. Daniels was struggling put everything together, but in that Ole Miss game, it all clicked … and it stayed there for most of the season.

The defining test for LSU in most seasons is the game against Alabama. When Joe Burrow outplayed Tua Tagovailoa in a memorable 2019 shootout in Tuscaloosa, everyone knew not only that Burrow was the Heisman Trophy winner for that year, but that LSU was the favorite to win the national championship. While the 2022 Tigers weren’t a national title contender after their slow start, they knew that if they could beat Alabama, the path to Atlanta was theirs. They could rise to the top tier of the SEC after a month of September in which they lagged well behind the best teams in the conference. Could this team really engineer that quick a turnaround? Could the Tigers and Kelly truly make the pieces of the puzzle fit this cleanly after laboring through a clunky first month of football?

That game against Alabama in Tiger Stadium was a microcosm of the team’s season. It was far from perfect, but whenever it seemed the game might get away from the Tigers, they rallied. When LSU arrived at a fork in the road and looked at two divergent paths marked “triumph” and “disaster” (straight out of a Rudyard Kipling poem, for the British literature enthusiasts in the crowd), the Tigers were able to summon up more toughness and resilience than they knew they had. Jayden Daniels did a lot of growing up throughout the 2022 season, but it was as though his maturation as a quarterback was encompassed in that one game against Alabama. As the stakes grew higher, Daniels – who had slogged through an unremarkable career at Arizona State which was bereft of big crowds and electric moments – played with the poise of someone who had been in this kind of cauldron many times before. He didn’t look frozen in the face of the pressure or the stakes. He reacted with the natural instinctiveness of someone who had been playing heavily hyped SEC showdowns all his life.

Jayden Daniels entered that Alabama game a boy. He left it a man, making stacks of late-game clutch plays and nailing the final, fateful pass of the game, the winning 2-point conversion pass which slayed the dragon and put LSU in the SEC West driver’s seat. Kelly had brought along his transfer quarterback more quickly than the experts thought he could. Daniels grew up more rapidly than most expected. LSU, not even needing one transition year to beat Bama under Brian Kelly, had arrived ahead of schedule.

Brian Kelly thumbed his nose at the critics who felt an SEC schedule was going to be far less forgiving than a Notre Dame slate.

LSU and Kelly have both fortified their reputations heading into 2023. However, now comes the challenge of wearing a target on the back from Day 1. Nick Saban gets to be the underdog in a head-to-head battle with the Tigers, who – with Daniels matched against the inferior Tyler Buchner – will have a clear advantage at football’s most important position.

It’s all there for LSU. The Tigers can affirm their supremacy in the SEC this year. They can certainly get back to Atlanta. If they do have a rematch with Georgia, they should be able to put up a better fight than they did a year ago.

All the growth we saw in Baton Rouge in Year 1 of the Kelly era can increase and multiply in Year 2. Is LSU ready to handle the heat of being a target in the SEC? Can Brian Kelly make LSU the king of the South in just two seasons? We will soon find out.

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