Maybe one of the toughest parts of being a major college head football coach of programs with national championship traditions is finishing a season when title hopes have evaporated.
You try to find a new goal and sell it to your players, hoping they buy in.
And that’s become more challenging for almost the last 10 years when elite players bypass postseason play (unless it involves playing for a national championship) to avoid injury as they enter the NFL Draft.
This is where second-year LSU head coach Brian Kelly finds himself this week after Saturday’s 42-28 loss at Alabama killed the Tigers’ slim hopes of advancing to the SEC title game for the second consecutive season.
There is nothing faulty about LSU’s 6-3 overall record and 4-2 SEC West ledger. It’s an accurate reflection of a team that hasn’t been able to fix its flawed defensive backfield which struggled from day one in preseason camp.
Last season’s SEC Western Division title won by the Tigers, who finished 10-4 overall and 6-2 in the SEC, was fools’ gold. They had three double digits scoring deficits against Auburn, Mississippi State and Ole Miss and won each game. They edged Alabama in overtime and escaped Arkansas with a 3-point win when the Hogs played without QB KJ Jefferson.
LSU could have easily gone 7-5 a year ago in the regular season. But they had veteran defensive playmakers who were able to execute D-coordinator Matt House’s halftime adjustments.
And the transfer portal defensive backfield additions were solid. There were virtually no obvious personnel holes defensively, and quarterback Jayden Daniels’ rapid improvement in the back half of the schedule made the Tigers the surprise team in the league.
This season, from the jump, the defense has been trying to fight its way back to being serviceable. When new LSU D-line coach Jimmy Lindsey left the team at the start of training camp to deal with a “personal health matter,” Kelly tried to re-shuffle his staff from within.
The result of mediocre line play, plus the three healthy transfer portal cornerbacks proving to be exceedingly underwhelming, left Daniels and LSU’s offense to carry the team.
The offense has produced record-setting numbers. Daniels has enjoyed the second-best season in LSU history by a QB compared to Joe Burrow’s 2019 Heisman Trophy season when the Tigers won the national championship.
But the one thing Kelly and House haven’t been able to do is find enough defensive schemes to cover LSU’s cornerback woes. The result has been doing things like using play-wrecking linebacker Harold Perkins Jr. more in pass coverage than coming off the edge and using unmatched speed to rush quarterbacks.
Kelly has never publicly complained about the dumpster fire he took over from previously fired head coach Ed Orgeron, who had no clue how to maintain a consistent winning program after the 2019 title.
He made bad hires in 2020 and 2021 for offensive and defensive coordinators and lost the trust of the team. And then he happily skipped out the door with a $17.1 million buyout.
By the time Orgeron was working on his tan, LSU was left with 39 scholarship players to play in a January 2022 Texas Bowl loss to Kansas State.
Kelly had taken over Division 1 programs at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame where rebuilds were involved, so he understands it’s a process of stockpiling recruiting classes.
But the scholarship deficit he faced at LSU was far worse than any school he’d ever taken over.
Kelly said early this season he thought his program was a year away from contending for championships. He’s been pretty consistent in that message. He understands why there’s a gap between LSU and two-time defending national champ Georgia and Nick Saban’s six-time national champion Alabama dynasty.
“We’ve had some young transfer portal players who have done a nice job for us,” Kelly said. “But you want to develop your players. Alabama and Georgia have done a great job of developing players through the program where they don’t have to put them on the field until they’ve been seasoned. And then when they’re ready to play, physically, mentally and technically, they can play at the highest level.
“So, we’re just a step behind. But we’re closing the gap again.”
It’s why Kelly wants badly to win the last three regular season games and a bowl game to finish with 10 wins for a second consecutive season. He wants to maintain consistency and not give the appearance of losing ground.
“I want to be around elite because that’s what this program (is),” Kelly said. “I didn’t come down to LSU to be good. I came here to be elite. And our players that sign scholarship papers here, I’m sure they do it because they want to be elite, too. I know our fan base doesn’t want (just) good. I can tell already that’s not the case. It’s about being elite.”
“So, these are weeks where you’re talking about `Why are you here?’ I know why I’m here. Why are you here? We’re here on this chase to be elite. And so, it’s going to require you to work on these things if you want to be elite.”
And that means finishing this season with a flourish and not moving on to 2024 just yet.
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