As the venerable, but baffling, former LSU coach Les Miles once said: “How do you like me now?”
LSU coach Brian Kelly has watched his team surge from dead meat to a roaring beast, poised to take the SEC West Division crown most college football observers felt was out of their reach right up until kickoff.
Beating Alabama and Nick Saban, 32-31 in overtime, in Tiger Stadium at night was a long leap in that surge.
LSU only needs to beat Arkansas and Texas A&M to advance to reach a probable meeting with No. 1 Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. And if Alabama beats Ole Miss, the Tigers only have to win one of those two, who have a combined SEC record of 3-8 through Nov. 5, although after watching LSU’s thrilling triumph Saturday, fans have to remember anything can happen. Both of those games are on the road.
The poetry of Kelly’s nine-game tenure comes out in this game. I think back to the end of the season opener when we got our first look at his Tiger team against Florida State. The slow start in that game triggered Twitter calls for his firing in the first quarter. I saw them.
Fast forward to the end of the Florida State game when LSU scored a touchdown on the last play and then had its PAT blocked when it could have gone for two and the win. There was more criticism about not being able to make a gimmie PAT than not having the brass to win the game on the final play.
Funny, isn’t it, how these things come around in a cycle?
There was more than a little irony this time around. The sellout Tiger Stadium crowd was still cheering what seemed like the tying touchdown and hardly had time to be horrified at the do-or-die decision when the two-point play was run. They merely picked up where they left off while storming the field for the second time in two games.
“It was a decision at that moment,” Kelly said. “As I thought about it, you know if we could boil this game down to one play, and win this game, before the game started if you had asked me, ‘Hey I’m going to give you one play, and if you’re successful on that one play you beat Alabama, I would’ve taken that 100 times out of 100. And, so, at that moment it kind of hit me that way and I knew we had a really good play that we hadn’t used, and they hadn’t seen.
“It’s kind of one of those catch-all plays that gets your best player with the ball in his hands on the perimeter where he can make multiple decisions,” Kelly said. “And I felt like if we’re gonna go for two, let’s get him moving and give him multiple options.”
It’s a play that will go down in Tiger Stadium lore alongside Bert Jones to Brad Davis vs. Ole Miss in 1972 and Matt Flynn to Demetrius Byrd vs. Auburn in 2007. It’s still a shade behind Billy Cannon’s Halloween night run, at least for now. Who knows where Kelly will take the program from this point?
If Kelly had any detractors, they certainly have been winnowed down, if not vanished completely. He’s doing a Coach-of-the-Year job with a team that was god-awful in its bowl game loss to Kansas State in January. That award seems destined to go to Tennessee’s Josh Heupel, but maybe not.
Suppose Kelly finds more magic in the SEC Championship Game?
Shout out to my son, Alex, who watched the game and noted how nice it is for the Tigers to be coached by someone who isn’t a cartoon character, flying by the seat of his pants, which is what LSU has had for 18 years. Miles and Ed Orgeron each won a national championship and Kelly has shown perhaps he can do it without all the drama.
Which brings me back to Miles’ question, “How do you like me now?”
It came one game after the 2010 near-debacle against Tennessee in Tiger Stadium. The following week, Miles needed a bounce-pass, fake field goal conversion that survived a review to beat Florida. His false sense of certitude was comical.
You won’t see Kelly acting that way. He exudes order, discipline, calm and poise, which almost certainly rubs off on his players. And now he’s shown the guts for taking a huge, calculated risk. He’s only scratched the surface of bringing in more talent and the early indications are that plenty is on the way.
His repartee with the media is at different times relaxed, serious, professional and witty. He shows none of the paranoia that some other coach is going to steal a play or an idea if he talks about it. Isn’t it refreshing to have an adult in charge of the LSU football program.
Sit back and enjoy this one, fans. There was another $250,000 fine from the SEC for storming the field but there isn’t even a 24-hour rule for you. Savor it right through the end of the year, but Kelly may be providing fans with a lot more in the next four weeks.