Tiger of the Year: LSU football coach Brian Kelly proves he’s right choice after leading Tigers to SEC West crown in first year

PHOTO BY: Jonathan Mailhes

One year and a few days after Brian Keith Kelly shocked much of the college football world by fleeing the hallowed halls of Notre Dame for LSU – ‘a football move’ he said gave him a chance to compete in the best conference in the nation week and week out, it also afforded him what he deemed as his best chance to beat Nick Saban and win elusive national championships.

Kelly sat behind a podium and stared at a group of sportswriters in a cheerless and even gloomy press conference room deep in the bowels of Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta where, in short order, he would give an introductory explanation and no doubt answer a bevy of questions as to what he believed led to the arguable train wreck that had just transpired on the field.

In short, Kelly, an offensive-minded coach, would find himself in a slightly defensive posture, one that
he is not unaccustomed to, at least for a few moments, until he could win the room over.

You know, shift the narrative.

In year one at LSU, in the press room, at least, Kelly always wins the room over.

Kelly would address the most obvious first question, how his first season at LSU, as improbable as it may have played out, had suddenly crash landed with consecutive losses. First a horrifying upset loss and the disaster that was Texas A&M to end the regular season which removed LSU from any hope of College Football Playoff contention, followed unceremoniously one week later by a wild and crazy, but expected loss to heavily-favored Georgia in the SEC Championship Game that had culminated only moments before.

Kelly, ever the eloquent one, would attempt to exercise some control over the narrative, preemptively once again and he would explain why all was not lost. In fact, he would explain why, despite a loss, nothing was really lost. He would begin waxing poetic on about how much progress LSU had made in 2022, ever so subtle in his characteristically dogged way, asserting without directly saying it, his plan was still running ahead of schedule.

LSU was good, Kelly would say.

LSU would only get better, he added. Following a statement from Kelly where he would attempt to briefly explain how Georgia had just completely run roughshod over LSU in the 2022 SEC Championship Game, 50-30, and how this second consecutive whipping by a conference opponent, would not tarnish an otherwise remarkable season where Kelly had successfully led a rapid resuscitation of a recently great
football program. One that had sunken disastrously into tumult and mediocrity before his arrival, scribes then scattered him with questions, no doubt expected ones – questions about special teams blunders which had once again reared its head, along with other inquisitions into defensive lapses, injuries, and, yes, the immediate and long-term horizon.


The fact that Georgia, the defending national champion and now winners of 15 consecutive games, not to mention the consensus No. 1-ranked team in the land, had just curb-stomped LSU – even going for two and successfully converting it on a “Philly Special” despite being up by four scores at the time, irreverent and disrespectful as it may have been, seemed somewhat remarkably inconsequential in the moment.

That’s because what people really wanted to hear in this moment, and what Kelly was primed to deliver, as always, was a reprisal with its latest twist of his upbeat progressive speech, the one that updates listeners on the status of the LSU football program and its players towards affable unconscious accountability.

Specifically, is LSU still on track?

It’s almost like Kelly has become the EF Hutton of LSU football. When Kelly speaks, people listen, especially LSU faithful.

Georgia’s throttling of LSU before a national television audience and 74,810 primarily red-and-black clad Bulldogs fans would not deter Kelly. Nothing, in fact, apparently does.

One thing LSU – players, coaches, fans, administrators, and pundits have learned about the diminutive green-eyed and gray-blond haired former Assumption University linebacker is that he is a determined soul with a plan, one who is not easily or very likely to be derailed.

Certainly not by something as relatively inconsequential as a meaningless loss to a better team, never mind it was for all the marbles in the SEC. Kelly was primed to tackle this, the linebacker in him, you could say.

In this instance, Kelly was like Harold Perkins going up against Ole Miss QB Jaxson Dart or even Bryce Young of Alabama. Kelly tackled the room and shifted the narrative back to LSU’s continued progress in confident alignment with his plan.

“Congratulations to Kirby Smart and the University of Georgia on being the SEC champs. They were the better football team today. Proud of my team. Proud of the fight that they gave. We were just a little short,” Kelly said.

It was not the most points ever scored in an SEC Championship game in case you’re wondering. But that this three-touchdown margin seems wider than “just a little short.” LSU also trailed 35-10 at halftime. But still, Kelly continued his narrative.

“Some key plays obviously in the game were pivotal. Obviously, the special teams play early. Inability to get off the field on third down. Fourth down, a couple opportunities that we had to convert,” he said.

Now, pay attention here. This is where Kelly becomes masterful.

“In its totality, you’re talking about five or six plays where, look, could have, would have, should have, right? The best team won today. I love the way our guys competed. They fought. That’s who they are. That’s the identity of this team all year.

“Unfortunately we were not clean enough in some of those areas against the No. 1 team in the country. When you’re playing the best team in the country for an SEC championship, those things are going to come back and affect the outcome. But as I told them in the locker room, we’ve got a great foundation. It’s a young football team that will take this lesson and build off of it.

“So excited to have the opportunity to coach ’em,” Kelly said.

Brian Keith Kelly’s got this. It’s why he was hired.

WATCH HIM AT WORK, OFF THE FIELD
Q: Brian, you talk about not playing clean today. Was this also an illustration of how far this team needs to evolve? Do you see them being at a different level where you guys need to be?
BRIAN KELLY: “Not really. I mean, look, I’m not going to sit here and say would have, could have, should have, like I said in my opening comments. If we just do a little bit better job on a field goal situation, take seven off the board, it’s 43 points, maybe we convert that, it’s 37. You got a one-score game, you know what I mean? Now you got a one-score game going into the fourth quarter, we get stopped on fourth and inches, that’s a pretty close game.

“The divide is not huge, but we got work to do. As I told our guys. It’s 24/7. It’s not just on the field. It’s how we do things away from the building. It’s every day in the classroom, in the community, all the little things that are going to allow us to be more aware and to be better communicators and have an attention to detail in all those areas.

“We got to continue to develop our football team. This foundation is really strong, and we’ll be able to continue to build on it. But I don’t believe that the gap is something that we can’t continue to close and get back here again next year. That will be our goal, to get back here and to win it.”

One year into the first of his contracted 10 years as the LSU head football coach, consecutive losses to end his first season are not going to detract from the monumental strides he has made in reestablishing the Tigers on the road back to prominence and perhaps even annual supremacy in the
SEC West, the SEC and, yes, back to the upper echelon of the college football elite.

But Kelly and LSU are not there yet, as Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M first, then Kirby Smart and Georgia starkly stated and poignantly pointed out to anyone paying attention on consecutive weekends to send LSU back to earth heading into the 2022 bowl season.

Standing at an unexpected 9-4 on the season with the SEC West title forever in his pocket, Kelly didn’t know yet he would, in fact, be going against Purdue in the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl on January 2 in Orlando, but he did know he and his surprising Tigers would be bowling somewhere soon. That had been decided back in late October when LSU blew out previously unbeaten Ole Miss, 45-20, going on a 42-3 tear after initially falling behind.

It was Kelly’s first signature win at LSU, but it would not be his last. One week later, in a ‘win for the ages,’ Kelly slew the giant, Alabama and Nick Saban, in epic fashion, and catapulted LSU back into the national limelight, into the Top 10, into complete control of its own destiny in the SEC West and into serious College Football Playoff contention.

Keep in mind, this is the LSU that finished last season without a quarterback in a bowl game with only 39 scholarship athletes. It opened the season with 16 transfers on its roster, including its starting quarterback, and it lost by one-point to Florida State in a game it was favored to win because an extra-point was blocked, depriving the Tigers of a shot at a win in overtime – the second time a kick was blocked in the game.

So, after LSU beat Bama and assumed control of its own destiny in the SEC West with a clear road to Atlanta and a possible playoff berth in play, “Playing with House Money” and being “Ahead of Schedule” became terms synonymous with LSU, whose rabid fans were downright giddy with Kelly,
understandably so.

In subsequent weeks, LSU sputtered offensively against Arkansas as dual-threat-turned-phenom quarterback Jayden Daniels battled the flu but Perkins and the defense saved the day and LSU escaped Fayetteville with both an ugly, 13-10 win, and with the SEC West title in hand before taking care of business with a decisive and 41-10 domination of UAB the next week in a rain-soaked and blustery Tiger Stadium.

At the time, it appeared all that stood between LSU and a berth in the college football playoffs was an almost certain win over Texas A&M to end the regular season and another major upset in Atlanta in the SEC Championship, of all places, as unimaginable as that was only one year earlier.

History, of course, will show that neither happened. In retrospect, LSU peaked about the same time Daniels crossed the goal line in overtime against Bama, or when he rolled right and hit Mason Taylor on the two-point conversion moments later in a succession of plays that will forever live in
LSU lore, propelling Kelly past Saban and the Tigers past the Tide, 32-31.

Throngs of LSU faithful stormed the field at Tiger Stadium, but the goal posts remained standing. They were protected. Guarded. LSU was ahead of schedule but had the foresight to still guard its goals as Kelly and his team trudge forward.

And that’s why Brian Kelly is the 2022 Tiger of the Year.

Although he was arguably not LSU’s first choice to replace Ed Orgeron, rebuild LSU’s football program and restore it to national prominence, he has proven to be the right choice going into the Citrus Bowl to conclude his first season.

Kelly is ahead of schedule and controlling the narrative. Exactly what LSU needed. Exactly what LSU wanted. And, obviously, what LSU got.

“Well, I don’t think there’s anything that can take away from what this team accomplished on the field relative to winning an SEC West championship. They won that on the field,” Kelly said. “What I think it does is it brings into light clearly the progress that we’ve made and the things that we have to continue to work on.

“I think for everybody, (the 2022 season) it clearly defines who we want to be and that we’re not there yet. That’s okay. You know, that’s okay. We’re not happy that we’re not the SEC champs. That’s not what we wanted today. We wanted to win this game. But we know where we’re at.

“We’ve clearly talked about what we need to do to be the SEC champs. That’s okay. We need to go to work and get better at the things necessary for us to be better collectively, individually and as a football program,” Kelly concluded.

The affable progression towards the development of unconscious traits continues into the bowl season and beyond.

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