LSU enters a strange new world with Brian Kelly in charge

LSU Football Stadium
Tiger Stadium at night. Photo courtesy of LSU athletics.

If you had asked 100 LSU fans before Thanksgiving Day of 2021 who their next head coach would be, would even one of those 100 fans have named Brian Kelly as a possible candidate? Maybe.

By Matt Zemek

Certainly not more than a handful at best.

Lincoln Riley rumors swirled through Baton Rouge in late November of last year, as the search for Ed Orgeron’s replacement intensified. Mel Tucker of Michigan State – who had previously worked under Kirby Smart at Georgia – was viewed to be a primary LSU target for a period of time. Jimbo Fisher’s name was thrown around, though the king’s ransom salary he pulls down at Texas A&M always seemed like a barrier to a return to Baton Rouge.

Brian Kelly? Nah. Since when does a coach leave Notre Dame for a job other than (maybe) the Dallas Cowboys or another especially prestigious NFL franchise? Moreover, Notre Dame is not a beloved program in the Southern United States. Respected, yes, but not loved. Moreover, Brian Kelly – having coached at Cincinnati before moving to Notre Dame – had established himself in the Midwest. Would the coaching veteran really leave his perch in South Bend at this stage of his coaching career for the SEC gauntlet and the challenge of having to beat Nick Saban and Kirby Smart to make the College Football Playoff? That’s just not a logical move, but as we saw with Lincoln Riley to USC and other moves from the 2021 carousel, the logical move is no longer the move we should assume will happen. People are making more original decisions which don’t follow the typical script for what their industry or prevailing culture says they should do. They are following their own path.

Brian Kelly wanted to follow his own path, and it led him to the Bayou. Those who enjoy playing the sportsbook will be intrigued by the addition of Kelly to the LSU Tiger program.

Kelly gave some speeches early in his LSU tenure in which he used a weird and inauthentic accent, apparently an improvised faux-Southern accent. He seems to be making an attempt to be less reserved, more expressive, and willing to risk embarrassment in order to survive in the ruthless competitive atmosphere of the SEC West. At Notre Dame, Kelly could shape his schedule to balance risk and reward. In the SEC, Kelly can’t really do that. Sure, he can juggle the four non conference games LSU plays, but not eight SEC contests. This is the biggest hardship for Kelly at LSU. He no longer has the safety afforded him by a lack of conference affiliation at Notre Dame. Everyone is eager to see how Kelly fares in the division regarded by most as college football’s best.

Brian KellySaban. Jimbo. A rising Ole Miss. A renewed Arkansas. There are no guarantees that LSU will finish in the top four in its division. It will probably finish ahead of Auburn and Mississippi State, but with Lane Kiffin and Sam Pittman thriving in the SEC, Kelly’s coaching chops – as considerable as they are – offer no assurances to the Tigers and their fan base. The competition is getting better. Kelly certainly intends to take down Saban and Jimbo, but he frankly has to worry about Ole Miss and Arkansas first before he can challenge for the SEC West title. He is not going to solve all of LSU’s problems – the mess Ed Orgeron handed to him – in one year. The real question is if Kelly can leave 2022 knowing that he has the program in position to make a run for the brass ring in 2023.

One of the most fascinating transfer portal developments of the past offseason feeds into one of the more intriguing quarterback battles at any college football program heading into August camp. Myles Brennan had already established himself within the LSU program, so it was therefore an eye-grabbing development when Jayden Daniels, the former quarterback at Arizona State, decided to transfer to LSU.

Daniels had originally decided to stay at Arizona State and play for Herman Edwards in 2022, but as more leaks about the Sun Devils’ COVID-19 recruiting scandal began to emerge, and as more ASU players entered the transfer portal, Daniels realized how barren the Arizona State program was going to be this year. He changed his mind and entered the portal.

LSU was a surprising choice, given the fact that Daniels will have to battle Brennan for the job. Daniels was expected to attend a school where he would be the unquestioned QB1 right away. This was not what most analysts expected.

Again, the conventional and expected decision is not the choice a young man ultimately made. In that sense, Brian Kelly and Jayden Daniels are more alike than one might first think. They both defied the pervasive and prevailing expectations of what they would do. They both zigged when most people in the crowd thought they would zag.

It’s a big-enough story when an incumbent quarterback inside the program battles an outsider for the starting job. That is headline-news, front-page material at a program such as LSU, two years removed from Joe Burrow’s majestic national championship season and a historic 14-player NFL draft haul in April of 2020.

Now add the fact that this high-profile quarterback battle will take place under the watchful eye of a first-year head coach who left Notre Dame at the height of his powers – having just missed the College Football Playoff last season – to come to an SEC program.

You really can’t make any of this stuff up. It’s too incredible. If you pitched this as a movie idea to a studio, you might have been laughed out of the room as presenting over-the-top ideas no audience would seriously consider. Yet, it’s the new reality at LSU, where fans aren’t necessarily happy about their new coach but are aware that he is skilled at what he does.

The drama of the offseason has left everyone drained and a little out of breath. Now we get to see what Brian Kelly can do in college football’s most cutthroat conference. It will be something to behold, for better or worse.

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1 Comment

  1. “The real question is if Kelly can leave 2022 knowing that he has the program in position to make a run for the brass ring in 2023.”

    My question is will they even be bowl eligible (ie. NCAA sanctions) in 2023.

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