JIM ENGSTER: Kelly Poised to Return LSU to College Throne

LSU coach Brian Kelly PHOTO BY: Jonathan Mailhes

As Brian Kelly preps for year three in Death Valley, expectations remain at a zenith for the 62-year-old leader of the Tiger Kingdom. To whom much is given, much is expected, and Kelly reigns supreme as the highest paid public official in Louisiana history. Kelly is not paid multi-millions to merely show up on Saturday. He is compensated to compete for highest honors every year.

His two immediate predecessors, Ed Orgeron and Les Miles, won national championships in their third full seasons at LSU. Orgeron directed the Tigers to their best season ever as Joe Burrow and an all-star cast went 15-0 and came down the stretch with a Burrow Blitzkrieg in 2019.

The Heisman Trophy winner completed 78 of 126 passes against three outstanding foes, Georgia, Oklahoma and Clemson. Burrow riddled the defenses of the Bulldogs, Sooners and Tigers for 1,305 yards, 16 touchdowns and no interceptions as LSU prevailed by a combined score of 142-63. The  average score of 47-21 over a trio of opponents with a record of 38-4 minus its three defeats to LSU capped an immortal season in New Orleans on Jan. 13, 2020.

That celebration was five years ago, an eternity for restless LSU zealots who do not care to remember it took the Tigers 12 years to return to the top after winning it all in 2007 when the crystal trophy was hoisted in year three of Leslie Edwin Miles. LSU bested Ohio State 38-24 to finish an improbable championship run that seemed doomed when the Bengals bowed 50-48 at home to Arkansas in their regular season finale. The 12-2 crew of Miles also savored glory in the Superdome on Jan. 7, 2008.

It is likely there will be more Cinderella stories comparable to the 2007 LSU run with 12 teams now making the college playoffs. LSU of 2007 is the only two-loss champion in the modern era. Potentially, there will be a three-loss champion coming soon.

This season, the top four teams selected for post-season play will receive a first-round bye. The remaining eight teams will be matched in these matchups:

No. 5 vs. No. 12

No. 6 vs. No. 11

No. 7 vs. No. 10

No. 8 vs. No. 9

It is probable that three SEC teams will be selected to participate, so the goal for Brian Kelly is to be at least the third-best team in the conference and peak late in the season. LSU does not look like the invincible juggernaut of 2019, but the Tiger do enter the 2024 season as one of the 12 most talented teams in the land.

A repeat of the 2007 magic is not beyond the realm of possibility. Kelly enjoyed his best season as a coach in 2012, his third year at Notre Dame. His Irish went 12-1 and lost the national title to Alabama 42-14.

Other less heralded LSU coaches have peaked in year three. Gerry DiNardo was 9-3 and won the SEC West in 1997. The Tigers finished the year with a 27-9 victory over Notre Dame in the Independence Bowl.

Bill Arnsparger won the SEC in his third season. His Tigers were 9-3, losing to Nebraska 30-15 in the Sugar Bowl as Arnsparger left the Superdome and found shelter as athletic director at Florida.’

Jerry Stovall garnered national Coach of the Year honors in 1982 as his Tigers went 8-3-1, losing 21-20 to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and dropping close contests to Mississippi State 27-24, and to Tulane 31-28. It is the only team in LSU history to beat Alabama, Florida and Florida State in the same season.

The most disappointing third season for a coach at LSU was Mike Archer’s tortured downslide in 1989. After going 18-5-1 in two years, Archer’s unit lost by three points to Florida (16-13), four points to Auburn (10-6), six points to Kentucky (27-21) and by six points to Tennessee (45-39) to finish 4-7.

The 1989 debacle was the beginning of an eleven-year collapse that produced eight losing seasons  from 1989-99. Along came Nick Saban and LSU entered its Golden Age of football for two decades.

After a record of 31-19 in the past four seasons with zero opening night wins, LSU Athletic Director Scott Woodward is investing heavily on Kelly to return to the pinnacle, starting with a victory over USC on Sept. 1 in Las Vegas.

Reggie Bush is Again a Heisman Recipient

Reggie Bush had his Heisman Trophy returned last month, 19 years after he starred for the USC Trojans of Pete Carroll and Ed Orgeron. The team and its standout player were stripped of all accomplishments because of payments that are now condoned by the NCAA.

Bush was a great player for Southern Cal, but his rushing stats are just a tad better than those produced in the troubled three- year tenure of Derrius Guice at LSU. Here is the breakdown:

                               Years                   Att.  Yards          Avg.           TD

Reggie Bush           2003-05 433  3169          7.3   25

Derrius Guice                   2015-17   471  3074          6.5   29

LSU punished Guice for revelations of sexual misconduct by removing his stats from the school record book. Guice is certainly laughing when his gaudy numbers are posted in other places for the world to see. There were other ways to penalize Guice that would have been more profound.

LSU also banned Odell Beckham Jr. from campus for two years. His sin was to deliver wads of cash to Joe Burrow after Burrow trotted off the field at the Superdome in his final game as a collegian. Beckham is no doubt scratching his head as to why he was sanctioned for rewarding Burrow, but Joe was not punished for taking the money.

The double standard of justice under LSU President Bill Tate is mystifying. Tate has said nothing in protest of the decision to remove Gen. Troy Middleton’s name from the school library because of a racist letter. At the same time, the president allows people who bought and sold Black people and fought for the Confederacy to continue to have their names displayed on prominent campus buildings located a few yards from the former Middleton Library.

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Jim Engster | President, Tiger Rag

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