Quick rebuild: Kelly redirects LSU’s fortunes in one season, leads Tigers to SEC Championship Game against No. 1 Georgia

PHOTO BY: Jonathan Mailhes

A year to the day after taking over a tattered LSU football program first-year coach Brian Kelly was in the process of preparing his Tigers for a date in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.

It’s been quite a climb for a program that was coming off a losing season after a loss to Kansas State in the Texas Bowl in which the Tigers played with 39 scholarship players.

Not only did he help fortify the roster through the transfer portal and high school recruiting, Kelly implemented structure and standards that have served as catalysts in LSU’s worst-to-first ascent in the SEC’s Western Division this season. The No. 11 Tigers (9-3), predicted to finish fifth in their half of the league, will instead represent the West in Saturday’s 3 p.m. kickoff against No. 1 Georgia (12-0) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

CBS will broadcast the game which can also be heard live locally over 98.1-FM.

“Really proud of our staff, certainly our players and everybody associated with LSU football and the accomplishments that we’ve made here in a very short period of time,” Kelly said. “You’ve got to win it on the field. Our guys did a great job of playing their very best when their best was needed. Now we get an opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the country.”

LSU lost its opening game when a blocked extra point with no time remaining sealed a 24-23 setback to Florida State.

 While college football experts predicted cloudy days ahead for the Tigers, they’ve instead found a ray of sunshine. They peaked in the college rankings at No. 6 by The Associated Press and No. 5 in the College Football Playoff Rankings, serving notice the program had made considerable strides in Kelly’s first season.

“When their staff got put in place, it’s hard to compare that against other programs across the board in the SEC,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said of LSU. “I would argue they did the best job of filling holes and creating roster opportunities for guys coming in. You start with the quarterback (Jayden Daniels). I mean, the quarterback has played phenomenal for them. He’s a tremendous athlete. He’s been a tremendous asset for them. But they also filled some really big holes on defense. Probably, if they don’t do as good a job, it’s hard to say where they would be right now.”

LSU was slow starters in conference wins over Mississippi State and Auburn but showed the ability in the second half to make strategical adjustments pay off and display a growing belief to rally when their backs appeared to be against the wall.

Kelly became the first coach at in his first season at LSU to win games at both Auburn and Florida in the same season. There were signs that better days were ahead, and the Tigers showed that in come-from-behind fashion Oct. 22 against previously undefeated and seventh-ranked Ole Miss, 45-20.

“I think it means a lot for LSU that we’re competing for the SEC title because like I previously said earlier, we had an upsetting season last year with a coaching change and everybody just giving us no credit,” LSU running back Josh Williams said. “They had no expectations for the season. So just for us to turn it all the way around and actually get to the SEC Championship is a big for the school and it’s good for the football program and recruiting, so we’re excited.”

LSU’s season picked up steam Nov. 5 with a 32-31 overtime win over Alabama when Daniels connected with freshman tight end Mason Taylor on a two-point pass after Daniels scored on a 25-yard touchdown run.

The Tigers closed with five consecutive wins, cinching the SEC West in the process, before absorbing a 38-23 loss at Texas A&M to finish the regular season.

“We didn’t have a board in our team room that said, ‘SEC West Championship’,” Kelly said. “Our board was about a standard and getting to that standard, building better habits. How we thought, how we prepared was much more about a process than it was for any particular goals. I’d be lying to tell you that was one of them, or wasn’t one of them, because it really wasn’t even part of our thought process. It was really about getting our guys to live to a standard that we’ve set within the program and that’s generally what most coaches are looking at in year one. You’re not thinking about outcomes quite as much.”

LSU makes its seventh appearance in the SEC Championship and first since winning the event in 2019.

The Tigers, who have previously defeated Georgia three times in the game, face the Bulldogs who are the face of stability. They’re the reigning national champions, riding a 14-game winning streak and are appearing in their fifth SEC title game in seven years under Smart.

Quarterback Stetson Bennett’s 26-3 as a starter for one of the nation’s top offenses that averages 38.2 points and 488.8 yards per game.

The Bulldogs have a balanced running game led by Kenny McIntosh (123 carries, 654 yards, 8 TDs) and Da’jun Edwards (115-604, 7). Standout tight end Brock Bowers (46-645, 5 TDs) and wide receiver Ladd McConkey (46-606, 4 TDs) are the team’s top receivers.

LSU counters with an offense, led by Daniels, that’s averaging 32.5 points and 347.7 yards per game. They’ll be challenged by a Georgia defense ranked No. 1 nationally in points allowed per game (11.3) and fourth in yards allowed per outing (270.7).

Daniels is one of two quarterbacks nationally with 2,000-plus passing yards (2,566) and 800-plus (824) rushing yards and has accounted for 26 touchdowns. He’s the school’s single season record holder in rushing yards and rushing TD’s and his total touchdowns are fifth best.

Williams is expected to return after a two-game absence from a knee injury and leads LSU’s running backs with 477 yards on 91 carries for six touchdowns followed by John Emery Jr. with 344 yards on 65 attempts for seven scores.

Malik Nabers is the team’s top receiver with 58 receptions for 726 yards and a touchdown. Kayshon Boutte is next with 42 grabs for 431 yards and a score.

“We certainly feel like we’ve earned the opportunity to be here by the play on the field, and we’re excited about the opportunity to represent SEC West and playing the No. 1 team in the country,” Kelly said. “Georgia has proven themselves to be the best team, and we’re excited about that challenge. We know it’s going to be a tough challenge, but we’re certainly up for this chance to win the SEC. That’s what you play it for. I know our guys are excited about it.”

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