Saturday’s win shows LSU’s ceiling is higher than expected

BATON ROUGE – It wasn’t the cleanest, but Saturday’s 31-16 win over Mississippi State should give the LSU faithful some hope.

Not hope for a national title, or even a Southeastern Conference crown, although a second or third-place finish in the Southeastern Conference West isn’t out of the question.

The real hope comes from the underclassmen, many of whom are seeing significant playing time under new coach Brian Kelly.

There’s Emery Jones and Will Campbell, two true freshmen at the offensive tackle spots who turned in maybe the best performances of the year so far up front. Then there’s Garrett Dellinger, a sophomore who’s played all along the offensive line in his first two seasons. Don’t forget Miles Frazier, a redshirt sophomore who came from Florida International in the transfer portal to earn a starting O-line spot. Mason Taylor’s earned a significant target share in the tight end position, despite being a true freshman.

Then there’s the defense, almost completely re-tooled through the transfer portal and underclassmen. Freshman linebacker Harold Perkins had 1.5 sacks and a quarterback hurry, while sophomore Mekhi Wingo’s been a staple along the defensive line ever since Maason Smith limped off the field at the Caesar’s Superdome a few snaps into the season with a torn ACL.

Without a new coach, this team would test the patience of even the most virtuous LSU fan.

With Kelly, who’s now coached all of four quarters of SEC football?

It’s a tough sell, at the very least.

LSU has scored 35 points combined in the fourth quarter of their first three games. Their best offensive performances came against Florida State and Mississippi State in the final frames.

The offense has flashed, on occasion. It’s also felt at others like a stubborn old mule that won’t budge.

But there’s rhyme and reason to Kelly’s madness, and a pedigree to support it.

Taylor looks like a prototypical pass-catching tight end who’s just a few reps away from being a major factor in LSU’s passing game. Kelly has worked to get Kayshon Boutte involved in the passing game again, although the emergence of Brian Thomas, Malik Nabers and Jaray Jenkins has crowded a receiver’s room that was once thought pretty bare.

He’s mixed-and-matched offensive linemen until he finds where they’ll excel and he avoids where they’ll struggle.

Instead of being impatient with a struggling special teams unit, he worked with special teams coach Brian Polian to make progress after a costly Florida State debacle. Week 4’s matchup with New Mexico presents a similar opportunity to the Week 2 Southern game, with Damian Ramos and the field goal unit likely to get several point-after tries.

He achieved more by limiting Mike Leach’s air raid offense to just 214 yards passing than his predecessor did, and he achieved it without the likes of Cordale Flott, Jabril Cox and Eli Ricks, who allowed 623 yards passing to the Bulldogs and KJ Costello in 2020. Flott and Cox were both draft picks, while Ricks transferred to Alabama and figures to be a first-day selection next April.

Instead, Kelly relied on names like Colby Richardson from McNeese State, and Mekhi Garner from ULL. Then there’s Joe Foucha from Arkansas, who’s serving an academic suspension until Week 5, and Sevyn Banks, who saw limited duty this week after recovering from a hip injury he suffered while playing at Ohio State.

If the talent is lesser, but the result is greater, does that make the coaching better?

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