By RON HIGGINS, Journal Sports
BATON ROUGE – It’s always a crapshoot how a football season plays out compared to preseason projections.
Missouri is currently No. 9 in the College Football Playoff committee rankings after not receiving a single vote in the Associated Press top 25 preseason poll. USC, TCU, Wisconsin and Texas A&M all were ranked in the AP preseason poll but are nowhere to be found in the current CFP top 25.
If everything had gone according to plan for preseason. 5 ranked LSU, it would beat No. 8 Florida State in the opener. The Tigers’ offense then would carry LSU’s defense while it improved its perceived weaknesses weekly.
The Tigers would roll into its showdown against likely unbeaten Alabama full confidence, maybe win for a second straight season, then blow out Florida before using tonight’s non-conference breather vs. Georgia State in Tiger Stadium at 7 p.m. before closing the season hammering Texas A&M to set up an SEC title game re-match with Georgia.
Instead, No. 15 LSU is 7-3 overall, 5-2 in the SEC West, losing to division winner Alabama and Ole Miss. The Tigers have college football’s No 1 offense with quarterback Jayden Daniels leading the nation in four stat categories and wide receivers Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas are the national leaders in receiving yards and touchdowns, respectively.
LSU’s defense has been awful all season for a variety of reasons, from spotty D-line play to one of the worst groups of cornerbacks ever to wear the Purple and Gold, the latter thanks to huge recruiting misses in the transfer portal.
So with second-year head coach Brian Kelly re-arranging goals and pushing to win out including a bowl game to reach 10 victories for a second straight season, it’s obvious looking ahead to next year is something he can no longer ignore.
Yes, his team is a 31-point favorite over Georgia State (6-4). Yes, the Tigers finish the regular season against Texas A&M which just fired Jimbo Fisher and will pay him a record $77.6 million buyout.
“We still have some work to do this year,” Kelly said Thursday. “Everybody remembers about how you finish. For us, it’s about finishing the season strong. And that’s what our focus is right now.”
But Kelly is finally not averse to talking about reviewing some of this season’s surprise players and discussing how his recruiting philosophy changes with his third signing class.
“You can start with Jayden Daniels,” Kelly said as he began listing the Tigers’ most improved players. “As a quarterback. I don’t know that anybody had him pegged for a leading Heisman Trophy candidate. He has been outstanding.
“Brian Thomas has been another one that I could point to. I think Garrett Dellinger has had a great year on the offensive line.
“From a defensive line standpoint, Jacobian Guillory has progressed. (Linebacker) Greg Penn has been really solid and has improved week-to-week.
“(Defensive back) Sage Ryan is a guy we asked to play multiple positions and that’s difficult. His resilience has been really good and we’ve seen a steady incline in terms of his play.
(Defensive tackle) Masson Smith has been good in the last few weeks.”
As far as building the 2024 roster, Kelly is clear about where he stands.
“Last year, it was acquisition (of transfer portal players) over retention,” Kelly said. “You want to develop your younger players, your freshman class, and we weren’t in a position to do that.
“This year, it’s going to be retention over acquisition. Retention begins with developing a program where players thrive within your culture. Wanting a desire to be there is retention.
“Then you have to add opportunities like `I can see myself playing here and developing to where I could maybe take this game to the next level.’ You have to look at NIL opportunities as a piece of that retention.
“All of those now have to be part of a bigger vision as it relates to retention.”
When asked about the start of college football’s 12-team playoff format next season, Kelly said emphatically “We expect to be there.”
Kelly said the start of this season he thought his program was a year away from being a national contender.
His track record shows his previous teams at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame taking a leap of improvement in year three.
Central Michigan went from 4-7 in Kelly’s first season to 9-4 in his third and final season. Cincinnati went from 10-3 in his first season to 12-0 (he left before the bowl game to accept the Notre Dame job) in his third and final year.
Notre Dame went from 8-5 his first year to a 12-1 and a spot in the national championship game against Alabama in his third season.
“The third year wherever I’ve been is probably a comfort level where everybody from the night cleaning crew to the freshmen in the program for six months or the transfer student all knows what the standard is,” Kelly said. “That creates a synergy within your program that everybody’s pulling in the same direction.
“There’s no need to be slowed down by some that are not on the same page. Everybody’s working in the same direction and we’re getting really close to that. Finishing up this year as we go into the offseason, there’ll be great momentum going into year three.”
1-14: Georgia State’s record vs. Power 5 conference opponents
11: Straight night wins by LSU in Tiger Stadium
12: Games all-time so far for Georgia State played on grass
20: Or more career starts for each starter on LSU’s offensive line
1,206: Rushing yards for Georgia State running back Marcus Carroll, ranking him third in the FBS
Contact Ron at firstname.lastname@example.org