Rise and shine: No. 14 LSU faces arch-rival Texas A&M with plenty left to accomplish in early kickoff

Tigers want to stay on course for 10-win season, honor seniors and keep Daniels on Heisman track

LSU junior wide receiver Malik Nabers (8) is one the nation's semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award. The Tigers wide out is part of the team's No. 1 offense set to host Texas A&M at 11 a.m. Saturday in the regular season finale for both teams. PHOTO BY: Jonathan Mailhes

When LSU visited Texas A&M in last year’s season finale, the Tigers were ranked fifth nationally, owners of the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division with a bid to the SEC Championship already in hand.

The result was a lackluster 38-23 setback, a game in which quarterback Jayden Daniels twice required medical attention but despite an ailing ankle, returned both times to play in the game. The Aggies got 215 yards and a pair of touchdowns from running back Devon Achane and the Aggies opened a 17-17 game with a stretch of 21 unanswered points that bridged the third and fourth quarters.

A year later LSU’s ranked No. 14 with an identical 8-3 record but without the credentials of a SEC West champion headed to represent the division in the league’s title game next week.

The Tigers (8-3, 5-2 in SEC) close out the 2023 regular season, hosting Texas A&M (7-4, 4-3), with the motivation of atoning for last year’s setback, the opportunity to honor a 16-member senior class and remain on course for a second straight 10-win season.

Kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. with the game being televised by ESPN. It will be carried locally by 98.1-FM.

“The circumstances are different,” LSU second year coach Brian Kelly said on this week’s edition of The Paul Finebaum Show. “We were not mature enough to handle success. We had already won the SEC West and we did not handle the success that we had gotten at such an early stage of our development in our process. We’re in a different place.

“We’re in our second year,” Kelly said. “This football team’s a lot more mature. Texas A&M is a really good football team. Regardless of what has happened with their leadership (firing of head coach Jimbo Fisher) it doesn’t diminish who they have on the field. This is an outstanding football team. This is the way it is when it’s Texas A&M against LSU. It will be a great challenge for our football team and one quite frankly, they’re looking forward to.”

With the two of the team’s more prominent goals of an SEC championship and berth in the four-team CFP playoffs evaporating in the wake of 42-28 road loss the Alabama, Kelly’s turned the attention of his program taking the necessary steps toward consistency. Without the former objectives being attainable, the Tigers second-year coach has made it perfectly clear that another 10-win season stacked on top of last year’s 10-4 mark should serve as a building block for the future.

“We’re in Year 2 of building a program,” Kelly told Finebaum. What’s the model? The consistency in which Georgia and (head) Kirby Smart and Alabama and (head) Nick Saban. They’ve been able to put together 10-win seasons year in and year out. That’s what we’re looking to do. We want to put together a back-to-back 10-win season and those are the foundational pieces that you’re looking for in consistency in your program. 

“This is an important game,” Kelly said. “This gives us a chance to work toward another 10-win season and you can’t get there unless you’re putting together these kinds of seasons. Even with a couple of stumbles this year we’ve had a great win on the road against Missouri (49-39). We fell on the road against Mississippi (55-49) and Alabama and in a neutral site game against Florida State (45-24). These are all Top 10 teams. We had our stumbles, but we have a chance to win 10 (games) and that is foundational in terms of building it back-to-back years.”

Without an additional game in next week’s conference championship Kelly realizes the value of another outstanding performance from quarterback Jayden Daniels in his growing bid to win this year’s Heisman Trophy.

And for Daniels to continue to polish his resume – the nation’s leader in total offense (417.4), passing TDs (36), rushing yards by a quarterback (1,014), points responsible for (278), passing yards per game (325.8) and pass efficiency (208.3) – the fifth-year senior will have to do against one of the nation’s top defensive units.

The wide receiver combination of Malik Nabers (80-1,424, 12 TDs) and Brian Thomas III (55-1,021, 14 TDs), a pair of semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award, are Daniels’ top targets.

Daniels is LSU’s leading rusher (124-1,014, 10 TDs) and the Tigers are expected to get back second-leading rusher, Logan Diggs (113-635, 6 TDs), back a two-week absence because of an injury.

“This is the best defense we’ll see,” Kelly said of his offense. “They’re excited about playing A&M. It’s a great challenge for them and they’re excited about it.”

Led by linebackers Edgerrin Cooper (75 tackles, 7 sacks) and Tauren York (60 tackles. 8 TFLs, 3 sacks), the Aggies lead the SEC in total defense (286.5) – ranking eighth nationally – and are third in the league in scoring defense (19.5) – a category ranking them 25th nationally.

A&M also leads the SEC and is second in the country in sacks per game and tackles for loss per game (3.64) and (8.5), respectively.

By comparison, LSU ranks first nationally in both total offense (562.2) and scoring (46.8).

“He’s extremely talented,” said A&M interim coach Eljah Robinson of Daniels. “He does a really good job. He’s rushed for over 1,000, thrown for over 3,500 yards (3,577), he’s got a great coach in coach Kelly. He’s a problem. He’s a true weapon. We have to be at the top of our game. He’s grown so much since last year. He’s not up for the Heisman for no reason. He’s talented, he’s smart, he makes great decisions, he protects the football. He’s a challenge.”

Robinson, in his first game after replacing Fisher, guided A&M to a 38-10 victory over Abilene Christian last week.

Sophomore Javien Henderson, a transfer from Fresno State, became A&M’s third different quarterback this season following an injury to former LSU quarterback Max Johnson who suffered three cracked ribs in a loss to Ole Miss on Nov. 4.

Henderson completed 16 of 23 passes for 260 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in last week’s outing with wide receiver Moose Muhammad III catching four passes for 104 yards and a TD.

“This has all been about leaving a legacy and that is another opportunity to win 10 games,” Kelly said. “They have that chance to finish the season strong and this is another important game for them.”

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