Kelly won’t make moment too big for LSU against Alabama

EAGLE AT LSU: Evangel Christian’s Jarrick Bernard-Converse’s play has helped LSU’s back end settle in, hiking the Tigers’ defensive prowess. (Photo by PETER FOREST, Journal Sports)

By RYNE BERTHELOT. Journal Sports

LSU football coach Brian Kelly had a clear and succinct message for Alabama’s Nick Saban at the beginning of his weekly press conference Monday.

“Well, as you know, it’s Nick Saban’s birthday today,” Kelly said with wry smile. “So I want to wish him a happy birthday to start this off. Maybe that’ll soften things up a little bit.”

Kelly hopes to spoil Saban’s 71st birthday week on Saturday, when the two coaching titans square off in the confines of Death Valley. The pair have faced each other twice before: Once in 2013 when Notre Dame lost 42-14 to Alabama in the National Championship game, and again in 2021 when the Fighting Irish lost 31-14 to Alabama in the Rose Bowl.

Still, Kelly refused to make Saturday’s 6 p.m. game on ESPN bigger than what it is – the annual matchup of traditional powerhouses, this year the No. 15 Tigers hosting the sixth-ranked Crimson Tide. He believes a solid week of practice will help mitigate the hype.

“The first thing you have to do is take this game and think about how you got here,” Kelly said. “We’ve done it by our preparation. We’ve prepared well, we’ve focused on playing our best when our best is needed.

“We can’t be distracted by, ‘This is a big game,’ or, ‘This is Alabama.’ That’s not going to help us in this situation. What’s going to help us is playing our best when our best is needed.”

LSU’s best may be yet to come, though. The Tigers have hit full stride with their front seven, but the secondary will see a huge boost with the return of safety Major Burns, who hasn’t played since the Mississippi State game on Sept. 17. Kelly said he’s been cleared to practice after suffering a neck injury and is expected to play Saturday.

Kelly also gave an update on offensive lineman Garrett Dellinger, who’s been “day-to-day” with an MCL injury. Dellinger will practice this week, but it remains to be seen whether or not he’ll be ready for game day.

After another dominant performance by Harold Perkins and Micah Baskerville against Ole Miss two weeks ago, Kelly’s depth chart has become more and more solid on defense.

In short, the best players will play.

“I feel that it’s important that the best players play. I think we’ve seen consistently who those players are,” Kelly said of the rotation at linebacker. “Micah Baskerville has been playing really good football for us. Obviously, we want to get [BJ] Ojulari on the field, and [Harold] Perkins. Those guys are making plays and have had high production for us.”

There’s no reason for Kelly to make this game bigger than it already is. If a heated and storied rivalry between LSU and Alabama wasn’t enough to grab his team’s attention, the three-way tie for first in the SEC West between LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss will undoubtedly add fuel to the fire that’s sure to stoke itself in Tiger Stadium Saturday.

Kelly just wants to make sure his players understand why they’re here.

“That’s why you come to LSU,” Kelly said. “It’s not pressure, it’s a privilege to play in games like this.”

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