Something still to play for: No. 13 LSU leaves for ReliaQuest Bowl with plenty of ammunition to attain 10-win season

Members of LSU's football team prepare to leave Baton Rouge airport Tuesday for Tampa, Florida. PHOTO BY: LSU athletics

The No. 13 LSU football team departed Tuesday for Tampa, Florida and the ReliaQuest Bowl with a team relatively intact for the Jan. 1 game.

The Tigers are without Heisman Trophy quarterback Jayden Daniels, who announced his intentions Dec. 15 to skip playing in the game, but still planned to be there to support his teammates.

For teams not a part of the four-team College Football Playoffs, opt-outs have been in vogue with players deciding the risk of injury in inconsequential games didn’t equal the reward of a substantial payday in the NFL.

LSU (9-3) went to last season’s Citrus Bowl minus six players that all declared for the NFL Draft, but with a sturdy framework of experienced players in their two-deep roster, overwhelmed an outmatched a Purdue team, 63-7.

While LSU’s incurred its share of players jumping into the transfer portal over the past month, the Tigers have not suffered the loss of a starter when redshirt sophomore safety/cornerback Sage Ryan removed his name from the portal and announced his return for the 2024 season.

“We’re bringing everybody with us from the last game this season,” LSU football coach Brian Kelly said during a media briefing Dec. 18. “Everybody’s practiced with us. Everybody has trained and that’s two weeks in with the entire team here. We’re pretty excited about who we are. They clearly want to be able to build on the success they’ve had. They see this as a great platform for that.”

Kelly said LSU worked exclusively on Wisconsin (7-5) last week will resume firming up the team’s gameplan once the team begins practice Wednesday at Tampa’s Jesuit High School for the first of four straight workouts.

Kickoff for the game is at 11 a.m. on ESPN2. The game can also be heard locally over 98.1-FM.

“We have a group of guys that want to finish,” LSU junior defensive tackle Mehki Wingo said in a recent interview. “Jayden did what was best for him, everybody understands his decision and we support him in everything that he does. The culture here is that guys started together, and we want to finish this together and get that 10th win.”

Over the course the final 1 ½ months of the season Kelly has trumpeted a distinct message that has resonated throughout the team.

Alabama dealt LSU’s its second loss in Southeastern Conference play Nov. 4 with a 42-28 setback that further took shape once Daniels was knocked from competition by a concussion and the Tigers trailing, 35-27.

Kelly admitted that while a SEC Championship and potential berth in the CFP playoffs were no longer a reality, he challenged his team to finish strong and lay a foundation for the future with a second straight 10-win season.

The Tigers won their final three games, averaging 50 points a game, to wind up the regular season with a 9-3 record.

“The culture we’ve built here is very special and guys just love playing for each other,” LSU linebacker Greg Penn III, who announced his plan to return for the ’24 season. “Guys that are for sure leaving, they just want to go out and play one last time.”

The players Penn alluded to were wide receivers Malik Nabers Jr. and Brian Thomas, who after spectacular seasons, have practiced with the expectation of playing in the bowl game.

Their futures are expected to be decided after the game.

Another is Wingo, who after undergoing abdominal surgery and missing the team’s final five games, returned to bowl practice and anticipates making a decision on his future following the bowl game.

The native of St. Louis, Missouri was a third team All-America choice in 2022, started in all seven of LSU’s games this season and had 22 tackles with three TFLs and 2 ½ sacks in ’23.

“I’m the captain of this team,” said Wingo, who wears the revered No. 18 jersey. “I feel like I owe those guys to come back and play and help get that 10th win. I hate that I had to have surgery and miss the season but it’s important to finish out the season with those guys.

“Sometimes around bowl games, practice gets lackadaisical, guys are out there to get to the bowl game,” Wingo said. “This team’s been very intentional with our work and taking the individual periods very seriously and really trying to get better.”

LSU’s won 10 or more games 14 times in school history. The Tigers have only enjoyed back-to-back, double-digit win seasons in 2005-06-07 under Les Miles and ’18-’19 under Ed Orgeron with the latter resulting in a 15-0 record and national championship.

Penn said finishing with a fourth-straight victory and 10-win season remains the only way to close the ’23 season.

“Coach Kelly told us we could make history getting back-to-back 10-win seasons,” Penn said. “That’s something that helped guys want to come out and play this game. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that for us and our fans.”

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William Weathers

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