Brian Kelly’s time at the helm feels different

BATON ROUGE – If no one else will say it, I will.

When I left the Caesars Superdome on September 4 after watching Florida State’s 24-23 season-opening victory over LSU, I had nary a shred of confidence that new head coach Brian Kelly would produce a 10-win season. From freshmen that looked like they had no business playing in a Power 5 game, to wildly disheveled special teams that were nothing less than downright embarrassing, thoughts of the Tigers beating Alabama and Ole Miss were laughable as I watched Kelly take the podium after his first game.

To his credit, Kelly handled that press conference (which, for what it’s worth in hindsight, would probably be his most uncomfortable media appearance) very well, with an even-keeled attitude and calm reassurance that a coach needs to avert mass panic from a passionate fanbase like LSU.

When it came to Brian Kelly and his prospects at LSU, I was so wonderfully wrong.

Kelly brought his pedigree with him, something that most Tiger football fans aren’t used to seeing. There was that mediocre stop a decade earlier at Ole Miss for Ed Orgeron and an encouraging three-year stint for Les Miles at Oklahoma State before they took the reigns at LSU. Neither of them were legitimate title contenders upon arrival. Both of them won national championships for the Tigers, but neither of them could hold together a dynasty despite coaching one of the game’s premier programs.

Kelly’s off to a much better start to that decade-long dynasty fans are so hungry for.

But what did Brian Kelly do that Orgeron and Miles couldn’t?

I found myself coming back to the same thought over the season as I listened to Kelly talk about his players and coaches: Kelly’s a good football coach, but an even better boss.

He knew his team’s strengths and weaknesses. He wasn’t going to force someone into failure, and he wasn’t married to any concept or notion of what his offensive scheme should look like, instead tailoring the offense to his personnel.

Take Harold Perkins, for example — an uber-talented, elite athlete who was 18 years old and living on his own for the first time in his life. While Perkins was a menace to opposing quarterbacks and a TV darling because of it, Kelly drove one point home in his press conferences: Perkins was still a work in progress.

“He came in as an inside linebacker, and I think we identified early on that that was going to take longer for us to get him into the rotation on the field,” Kelly said earlier in the season. “We moved him to an outside linebacker position, which we felt like was an easier fit for him to pick up what we wanted because we could put him into different packages.”

Maybe it’s the way Kelly conveys his thinking, something that neither Orgeron nor Miles were particularly good at doing. Maybe he’s embraced the ever-changing landscape, one where athletes have more control over their own destiny than ever before. Maybe he’s just full of common sense, something that the world seems to be severely lacking.

Or, maybe he’s just a good boss.

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Tigers boil Boilermakers in Citrus romp

PLAYMAKER: Evangel product Jarrick Bernard-Converse (24), shown breaking up a pass in LSU’s win over Alabama, made another big play on the goalline and won a game ball Monday in his final college contest as LSU routed Purdue in the Citrus Bowl. (File photo by PETER FOREST, Journal Sports)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

ORLANDO — Jarrick Bernard-Converse started in 47 consecutive games at Oklahoma State before bringing his game back to his birthplace, Baton Rouge, for a graduate season at LSU, so taking his last one off wasn’t in his DNA.

While several Tigers’ upperclassmen skipped Monday’s 2023 Cheez-It Citrus Bowl in preparation for the NFL Draft, the Evangel Christian alum was on the field for almost the entirety of Monday’s 63-7 slaughter of outmanned Purdue. The veteran cornerback made the most of his time, pulling down a goalline interception to go along with three tackles as LSU stymied the Boilermakers all day.

That yeoman’s effort earned him a special prize to treasure: first-year coach Brian Kelly presented Bernard-Converse the defensive game ball for tenacity as well as for his performance.

“Here’s a senior who could’ve easily not played in this game, but took virtually every snap out there,” Kelly said. “He was our MVP on defense today, and what it means to have someone like him come into our program and really steady things for us.”

LSU finished with another 10-win season, the 17th in program history and 12th this century, and will rise from its current No. 15 ranking. The Tigers (10-4) outgained Purdue 594-263, scored four touchdowns in the final 16 minutes of the first half to open an insurmountable 35-0 halftime lead, and garnished the day with a 99-yard interception return TD by Quad Wilson in the final minute.

The Boilermakers (8-6) were without former head coach Jeff Brohm, quarterback Aidan O’Connell and two of their leading pass catchers in Charlie Jones and Payne Durham and, as such, the passing attack suffered, despite Saints’ great and Purdue alum Drew Brees jumping in for the bowl as QB coach. Austin Burton started under center for Purdue and saw all of the action in the first half before being replaced by two backups. They combined for just 143 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions, while running back Devin Mockobee managed just 48 yards on 13 carries.

The Tigers’ offense encountered no such hardships, however.

After their first drive stalled, the Tigers scored the game’s first 49 points — starting from the 7:01 mark in the first quarter and ending with Purdue’s only touchdown with 12:27 in the fourth quarter — en route to a share of the second-largest margin of victory (56) in bowl history. The 63 points tied the most in LSU history, posted in the 2019 Peach Bowl.

The running back trio of John Emery, Noah Cain and Derrick Davis combined for four touchdowns, but no offensive player had a more explosive game than Malik Nabers, who caught nine passes for 163 yards and a touchdown on 12 targets. He also completed two passes for 50 yards and a touchdown (a 5-yarder to quarterback Jayden Daniels) and was named the Citrus Bowl MVP.

“It shows that I’m able to come out here and perform at a high level with anybody,” Nabers said. “It’s something I can build on for next year to keep my confidence up.”

After questions swirled around Daniels’ availability due to his sore ankle, he and backup Garrett Nussmeier torched the Boilermakers’ defense: Daniels threw for 139 yards and a touchdown, and ran for 67 more yards, along with his first career TD reception from Nabers. Nussmeier threw for 173 yards and two touchdowns as a change of pace to Daniels throughout the game before taking over in the second half. Even highly-touted freshman Walker Howard got into action and completed two of four attempts in the closing minutes.

Kelly said the division of labor at QB between Daniels and Nussmeier — who sparkled in relief in the SEC Championship game — was by design, not by circumstance of the scoreboard.

“I thought (Nussmeier) played well, but we made it clear that he was going to play the third series,” Kelly said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen after that, but we made it clear to him: ‘Go in, do your job. You have a job to do, get it done,’ and then we’ll roll after that and see how it goes.”

It went well. Even without two key receivers in Kayshon Boutte (a late scratch) and Jaray Jenkins, the Tigers’ offense purred.

The defense wasn’t without a fair share of absences, either: stalwarts BJ Ojulari, Jaquelin Roy and Ali Gaye all opted out of the game, which left Mekhi Wingo as the only starter remaining along the defensive line. The front seven still managed to wrack up four sacks on the evening to go along with contributing to three interceptions.

For Bernard-Converse, those numbers didn’t lie.

“We just wanted to go out there and attack the game plan and execute in every phase, starting with the front four all the way to the back end,” he said. “We just wanted to do our job to get this 10th win.”

They did, and it made for a very memorable finish for both LSU and the Evangel product. The other former ECA standout among the Tigers’ defensive starters, senior linebacker Micah Baskerville, also shined, tying for second on the team with five tackles and leading in pass breakups with two.

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Tigers can’t hang with Georgia in SEC title game, draw Citrus Bowl clash with Purdue

BRIGHT SPOT:  Backup quarterback Garrett Nussmeier threw for almost 300 yards against No. 1 Georgia Saturday as LSU bent the Bulldogs’ vaunted defense, but couldn’t break it. (Photo courtesy LSU Athletics)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE – LSU’s unlikely journey to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game ended predictably, but there’s one last challenge to cap Brian Kelly’s first season: the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl.

With Saturday’s 50-30 loss to No. 1 Georgia in the rearview mirror and four losses on their ledger, the Tigers will make their third trip to the Citrus Bowl since 2016, this time against Purdue (8-5) which lost the Big Ten Championship game 43-22 to Michigan Saturday night.

The Tigers and Boilermakers have never faced each other, but that changes Monday, Jan. 2, at noon CST in Orlando.

Purdue didn’t cash in on outgaining the No. 2-ranked Wolverines 456-386, but Michigan needed a second-half surge to secure its victory, posting 29 points after halftime. The Boilermakers settled for field goals on five trips inside the Michigan red zone.

There was much less doubt earlier Saturday in Atlanta. The Tigers had their slim hopes of a major bowl selection dashed by halftime as Georgia led 35-10.

Kelly had an open admission about the defending national champions afterward: They’re just better.

“They were the better football team today. Proud of my team, proud of the fight they gave today,” Kelly said. “We were just a little short.”

The Tigers (9-4) were outmatched by a more veteran squad, but they had the upper hand early until a costly blunder. Georgia’s first touchdown came with 3:33 left in the first quarter when an LSU field goal attempt was blocked by Nazir Stackhouse and returned 96 yards for a touchdown by Christopher Smith. LSU’s players didn’t react after the block as the ball dribbled several yards downfield, assuming the play was dead before Smith returned it with no resistance.

“Obviously we did a poor job coaching,” Kelly said. “It’s our responsibility to have our guys alert in that situation; they were not alert. That falls on coaching. That falls on my shoulders. I take full responsibility for that.”

Georgia (13-0) entered the game as one of the top defenses in the nation, and while the defense wracked up four sacks and three turnovers, it was the Bulldogs’ offense that put the game out of reach. Quarterback Stetson Bennett threw for 274 and four touchdowns on 23-of-29 passing, while Kendall Milton eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the ground with just eight carries. With the addition of a two-touchdown day for Kenny McIntosh on the ground, the Bulldogs kept a usually stout LSU defense on is heels.

The Tigers have faced plenty of good running backs throughout the season and have had good success with stopping the run. That didn’t translate Saturday, as the Bulldogs ran for a combined 255 yards on 44 attempts.

“It’s a challenge every single week going against good O-lines,” defensive lineman Mekhi Wingo said. “We’ve played a great running back almost every week. It was just another bump in the road for us. It was the same preparation throughout the week.”

There were still highlights, though.

Jayden Daniels responded to the special teams blunder with a 52-yard touchdown pass to Kayshon Boutte. When Daniels exited for good after the first half because he reaggravated his sprained ankle, Garrett Nussmeier turned in the best performance of his career, throwing for 294 yards and two touchdowns on 15-of-27 passing. He found Malik Nabers for a 34-yard touchdown in the third quarter and Jaray Jenkins for a 33-yard TD in the fourth, but the three-score lead Georgia built insulated any chance of a comeback.

The loss capped an unlikely scenario where LSU won the SEC West over preseason favorites Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M. Kelly took over the program with just 39 scholarship players, then bolstered his roster with a transfer-heavy signing class. LSU’s offense featured three true freshmen for the entirety of the season in Will Campbell, Emery Jones and Mason Taylor. The defense added another in Harold Perkins, who made waves nationally as one of the best edge rushers in the country.

“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. I’m so excited to have the opportunity to coach them,” Kelly said.

Now, there’s one last chance at a 10-win season, something that was unthinkable in September but was almost a lock two weeks ago before a titanic loss to struggling A&M.

That, nor the pageantry of a bowl game, changes much for Wingo.

“I would say we just finish off the right way,” he said. “Get back to it, get back to our process. Going at it in the weight room, going hard, just practicing, paying attention to the small details. Just end the season on a good note and send the seniors out right.”

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Georgia won’t sleep on LSU, despite being heavily favored

CAN DANIELS DANCE?:  After twisting an ankle at Texas A&M, LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels’ mobility will be a pivotal factor Saturday afternoon in the SEC Championship Game. (Photo by PETER FOREST, Journal Sports)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

ATLANTA – Georgia coach Kirby Smart wasn’t a man of many words after he took the podium at the Southeastern Conference Championship Game press conference Thursday.

There was a buffet of questions that varied from transfer portal expectations, to snap count monitoring, to his history with LSU coach Brian Kelly. Smart was efficient in his replies.

When Smart was finally quizzed about No. 11 LSU, the Bulldogs’ surprising foe in the 3 p.m. game Saturday, he was clear and concise.

“They’ve got a lot of talent, a lot of really fast, athletic players,” Smart said. “When you look across the skill level of both sides of the ball for them, they’ve got great size and great speed. They’ve got one of the most physical offensive lines we’ve played. They’re really, really talented in the red zone defensively and red zone offensively, which we worked on hard yesterday, and on third down as well. They don’t get in many third-and-long situations.”

The unbeaten (12-0) defending national champions enter Saturday’s contest as the No. 1 team in the country, the heavy favorite (by 17.5 points) over a three-loss (9-3) LSU squad. Smart said it won’t be a gimme by any means, especially with the return of a healthy Jayden Daniels. The biggest question looming around the Tigers has been the status of their versatile and productive quarterback, who suffered an ankle sprain last week in the 38-23 upset loss at Texas A&M. Kelly eased those fears in his press conference Thursday.

“He’s going to be good,” Kelly said about Daniels’ availability. “He had a good week of practice, and he’ll play for us on Saturday.”

Smart has positioned Georgia as one of the nation’s premier defenses year in and year out, and this season’s squad has proved no different: The Bulldogs rank fourth in the NCAA with just 270 yards of offense allowed per game, and have allowed just 13 touchdowns to opposing offenses, the fewest in the nation.

The Tigers haven’t faced a defense of similar credentials and stature all season: Alabama’s 25 touchdowns and 311 yards allowed-per-game put them a distant second among teams on LSU’s schedule.

“We’re going to play a physical football team that has the style of its head coach,” Kelly said. “They’re going to play great defense, they’re going to be physical on both sides of the ball. That’s the nature of a well-coached football team that’s won a national championship and is competing for another. You know what you’re going to get here.”

While the defense has drawn most of the attention, Georgia’s offense last year found an unlikely leader in quarterback Stetson Bennett, who led the Bulldogs to the national title last season after earning the job over the presumptive starter, USC transfer JT Daniels. The 25-year-old Georgia native has become a focal point for an offense that’s quietly put together a Top-10 statistical campaign with 55 total touchdowns and 488 yards of offense per game.

Smart knows the keys to the locker room belong to his team leaders — Bennett being one of them — and that’s what he wants. It delivered a national title last year, and set his team up nicely to defend that title this season.

“Any good team is going to be player-led. I don’t know a good team that’s not player-led,” Smart said. “There’s probably some bad teams that wish they had better leaders as players, but the good teams I’ve been able to be a part of, they’re all player-led. That’s how a coach should want it. If you do your job, the players should follow the directive to lead the other guys.”

There are no guarantees in the SEC, but if the LSU team that shined in midseason appears, Saturday could provide a riveting third chapter in the story between Kelly and Smart. Smart leads the series between the two at 2-0, but Kelly hopes to spoil that burgeoning streak in their first matchup since he took the head coaching job at LSU a year ago.

“They’re really good and well-coached,” Kelly said of his past run-ins with Smart’s teams. “Good players, very competitive games. One of them was home, one of them was away, and they were great atmospheres. It’s just really good college football. Look, it’s going to be a really similar situation.”

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Tigers’ championship bid may end in heartbreak, but should still be celebrated

BATON ROUGE – So, the regular-season finale left something (a lot) to be desired.

Let’s face it: there was no part of LSU’s team that looked good last Saturday night. John Emery’s three touchdowns look great on paper and will likely help fill a highlight tape, but individual achievement doesn’t trump the lackluster offense the Tigers displayed otherwise.

There was a quiet defensive performance – most notably zero sacks, despite featuring two of the nation’s best edge rushers – that will undoubtedly go down as one of the worst of the season.

It was the game almost every Tiger fan expected from LSU at the beginning of the season: a supremely-talented Texas A&M team found its footing at home. A supremely-disheveled LSU team looked ineffective and out of sorts.

It certainly doesn’t reflect the storyline of LSU’s season.

I won’t say nobody expected LSU to win at least nine games, beat Ole Miss and Alabama, and win the SEC West. I’m sure somebody, somewhere, did. I hope they placed a sizable bet on those odds in Vegas before the season started.

There are still two more games left, and while the fate of the Tigers’ bowl game is still up in the air (we can say with certainty that LSU won’t be in the College Football Playoff), the SEC Championship game is this Saturday. That means a bout with Georgia, undeniably the best team in the SEC and arguably a cut above everyone else in the country.

Even before Jayden Daniels’ injuries last week, a championship win over Georgia was a tall order. If Daniels misses the game, turn the tall order into a mountain. Brian Kelly said on Sunday that he was “optimistic” about Daniels’ ability to practice on Tuesday, though Daniels wore a boot on Sunday to protect a sprained ankle.

Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, it’s hard not to give Kelly a great report card in his first season on the sidelines.

He started with a secondary that should’ve been more akin to swiss cheese with holes everywhere. Sloppy, or at the very least inconsistent, quarterback play. No stars among the offensive playmakers aside from Kayshon Boutte. Two true freshmen at the offensive tackles that SEC defenses should’ve been overwhelming.

None of that happened, though. Instead, the secondary of misfits became a symbol of the team’s relentlessness. Daniels broke single-season quarterback rushing records at LSU. Mason Taylor and Josh Williams may as well go down as folk heroes on campus for their offensive contributions. Will Campbell and Emery Jones have been two of the brightest offensive linemen LSU’s seen in a decade.

They’ve been steamrolled by teams that should’ve been near the top of the SEC for two of their three losses. Fair warning, Saturday’s game doesn’t look any different. Even if the Bulldogs blow away the Tigers, that doesn’t cheapen the accomplishment of reaching the SEC title game, nor should it.

Kelly was asked during his Monday press conference about the late start that a conference championship game brings on the recruiting trail.

He agreed that it does stall building LSU’s Class of 2023, as most coaches spend this week making their first stops, but pointed out the players he’s recruiting will know where to find him.

We’ll all know where to find Brian Kelly Saturday, and that’s more than anyone could’ve asked for.

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No Aggie joke: LSU’s playoff hopes soar, then sink 

THREE TDS:  John Emery Jr. found the end zone three times for LSU but the Tigers couldn’t contain Texas A&M’s running game Saturday night. (Photo courtesy LSU Athletics)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – As quickly as LSU’s College Football Playoff stock rose Saturday, it vanished within hours.

After No. 2 Ohio State’ 45-23 homefield loss to third-ranked Michigan earlier in the day, the Tigers’ chances at moving into the top four of the CFP rankings looked good. Next Saturday’s SEC Championship Game in Atlanta against No. 1 Georgia suddenly loomed as an epic showdown, with a chance for LSU to reach the national championship tournament by upsetting the Bulldogs.

But first things first. LSU will not be ranked fourth in Tuesday’s CFP rankings, or close enough to leapfrog into the final four even if the Tigers can stun the defending national champs next week. Not with three losses, the latest to a team with a losing record and one that just ended a six-game SEC skid at LSU’s expense.

No Aggie joke — just a career-high 215 rushing yards from Devon Achane helping Texas A&M bury LSU’s high hopes Saturday night in a 38-23 shocker at Kyle Field.

“I could break the game down in so many different ways, but it just wasn’t our best. Our best was needed today,” LSU coach Brian Kelly said. “We didn’t have it.”

The Tigers (9-3) trailed for most of the night. A slow start was nothing new. Faltering in the fourth quarter was.

The Aggies (5-7) forced a punt on LSU’s opening drive, and Achane capped a 15-play, 90-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown run up the left side to give the Aggies a 7-0 lead 10 minutes in.

Texas A&M built a 17-10 lead but the Aggies stalled on three consecutive drives to open the third quarter. A&M coughed up the lead when John Emery, Jr. scored his second of three touchowns on a 19-yard carry up the middle with 9:40 left in the third quarter and tied the game.

The tides turned just over two minutes later. LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels fumbled a quarterback keeper into the arms of Demani Richardson, who returned it for a 27-yard touchdown that gave the Aggies the lead for good. It was the second of LSU’s two fumbles on the night, but the only turnover registered in the game.

It just so happened that the one turnover was also the most costly mistake LSU made.

“I think there was some momentum swings there,” Kelly said about Daniels’ fumble. “Obviously we came out in the second half and got some stops and we got the score, thought we got the thing back in order. It was one of those things where you wish you could’ve had it all over again in terms of what happened in that situation. That momentum swing, I don’t know if we ever really recovered from it.”

LSU struggled to find any rhythm in the passing game, as Daniels managed just 88 second-half yards despite playing from behind most of the way. Daniels’ line looked slightly better over four frames, as the redshirt junior finished with 189 yards on 21-of–35 passing.  He also tacked on 84 yards rushing on 12 carries. Daniels was again the Tigers’ most effective weapon offensively, and kept plays alive with his feet when the pocket broke down. He was only sacked once in the game.

“I thought he did a great job protecting himself, sliding protections, I thought he was as good as he’s been all year in terms of protecting himself,” Kelly said. “They ran a lot of two-man, so they got two, three holding calls, could’ve been a lot more. You get behind in those situations, it’s a little more difficult. They’re dropping eight into coverage then.”

Daniels left the game briefly in the fourth quarter after taking a shot to the leg, and he appeared to reaggravate the injury upon his return, but finished under center for the Tigers. Kelly clarified that Daniels suffered two separate injuries.

“He’s got an ankle injury (that) was the last one,” Kelly said. “The first hit, I think he bounced back from that. The second was more of an ankle.”

Achane wasn’t the only part of the Texas A&M offense to find his stride: Both freshman quarterback Conner Weigman and wide receiver Muhsin “Moose” Muhammad had big nights: Weigman completed 12-of-18 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns, while Muhammad caught all five of his targets for 94 yards and a touchdown, which he hauled in at the start of the fourth quarter to give the Aggies a comfortable two-score lead.

The Tigers fell behind 38-17 before scoring again with 6:21 left. LSU’s last threat died at the Aggies’ 27 with just under three minutes remaining, and the Aggies literally ran out the clock.

After an extremely disappointing season, Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher finally saw the potential of his team realized, albeit too little too late.

“It’s what I’ve been saying. They’re young guys that are growing and developing,” Fisher said of his team. “There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing, it’s how we’ve got to do it and how we’ve got to get the maturity out of them and execute what we got.”

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Tigers-Ags rivalry runs deeper than the annual game

GOOD NABERS:  LSU got a big game last Saturday from Malik Nabers, who collected 129 yards on seven receptions in a 41-10 romp over UAB. (Photo by PETER FOREST, Journal Sports)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When LSU and Texas A&M kick off tonight, it’ll be the next chapter in a rivalry that’s picked up steam in recent years.

There was the mind-blowing seven-overtime 2018 epic, won 74-72 at home by the Aggies. LSU’s response came in Tiger Stadium, a year later, with the first appearance of the Joe “Burreaux” jersey in Senior Night introductions followed by a 50-7 thrashing handed out by the eventual national champions.

Just last year, the Tigers gave lame duck coach Ed Orgeron a happy sendoff by surprising the 14th-ranked Aggies 27-24 in Tiger Stadium.

LSU is 8-2 in its Southeastern Conference contests against A&M since the Aggies joined the SEC. There’s an abundant collection of lore from prior matchups in a series the Tigers lead 35-22-3.

The 6 o’clock kickoff at Kyle Field is 2022’s on-field collision, but it’s not the first battle, or the most important, the two SEC West rivals have waged this year. Even if somehow, the struggling Aggies (4-7, 1-6, on a six-game SEC skid) shock the sixth-ranked Tigers (9-2, 6-1), LSU is still headed to the SEC Championship Game next Saturday in Atlanta.

The first confrontation came on Feb. 2, when Harold Perkins signed his letter of intent to play for LSU after originally committing to A&M. Perkins was ranked as the No. 8 player in the nation and a five-star recruit, according to 247Sports. This season and for at least 1-2 more, he’s a dynamic factor for the Tigers and a missing link at A&M.

Both head coaches, the Aggies’ Jimbo Fisher and LSU’s Brian Kelly, remember that recruiting battle well.

Fisher recalled something else about watching the freshman phenom play in high school.

“Harold’s very gifted,” Fisher said Monday. “As great as he’s playing on defense, if you watched him in high school, you could argue he was just as great of an offensive player as he was a defensive player. I think he averaged 10-yards-per-carry. Was really athletic, ball-skilled. Really good basketball player. You could just see a natural athlete.”

While Perkins spurned the Aggies, Max Johnson did the opposite: The former LSU signal caller earned the starting spot on Fisher’s offense, but has missed most of the season with a broken hand.

Freshman Conner Weigman has taken the reigns and found limited success, though he’s been hampered by the absence of starting running back Devon Achane, who’s missed the last two weeks with a foot injury. He’s been spelled by former LSU-target and Baton Rouge native Le’Veon Moss, who posted 78 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries in a lackluster 20-3 win over Massachussetts last week.

Fisher felt “very optimistic” that both Achane and freshman wide receiver Evan Stewart would play in the season finale.

LSU may also be without its starting running back in Josh Williams, who missed last week against UAB with a knee sprain. Kelly said he’s “made progress” throughout the week, but was ultimately noncommittal on Williams’ status for the game.

Noah Cain turned in a three-touchdown performance in the 41-10 win last week over UAB in Williams’ absence, and may have earned himself a larger share of snaps moving forward, regardless of Williams’ status.

“I think Noah Cain has helped himself,” Kelly said at his Monday press conference. “He’s not flashy, I don’t think he’s going to be a guy that makes a ton of people miss, but does he really have to? He plays with low pads, he’s physical, he’s smart, he catches the ball coming out of the backfield. He’s reliable in pass protection, and he’s tough to bring down. I think I just mentioned four or five things that are pretty good to have.”

The bottom line: LSU and Texas A&M are two programs headed in very different directions. The Tigers have their sights set on a shot at the SEC championship and a playoff berth, while notching the 17th 10-win season in program history. The Aggies are limping into the offseason, ready to end their miserable 2022 campaign, regroup, reconsider and recover. And, of course, recruit.

Fisher knows just how important a win against LSU could be.

“It’s huge. Again, the future and what we have here is extremely bright, where we’re going and what we’re doing, playing together and being together,” Fisher said. “I think for the seniors it would be a great sendoff for the last time they walk in that stadium.”

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Eyeing 10-win season, Tigers need to be wary of Aggies

BATON ROUGE – “All they need is one.”

LSU’s Brian Kelly, in the fashion of any college coach discussing his upcoming opponent, heaped mounds of praise on Jimbo Fisher and the floundering Texas A&M football team during his press conference on Monday.

Whether it was warranted or not is a great question that probably won’t spark the most thought-provoking debates among LSU fans. There’s a certain relief in watching a rival suffer through the dysfunction the Tigers and their fan base went through the last two seasons.

But Kelly’s right — the Aggies don’t have the record they want, but all they need is one win against LSU. It’ll cap the season on a high note, maybe help Fisher save face on the recruiting trail, and leave A&M not saddled by an SEC losing streak entering next season.

It’s almost surreal to consider that, in the wake of A&M compiling the country’s highest-ranked  recruiting class last winter, the Aggies are 4-7. Kelly made it a point to mention that the talent Texas A&M has rostered doesn’t match the record. And, lo and behold, Kelly was right again.

The Aggies are going through upheaval. There’s Mushin “Moose” Muhammad II, a star wideout, actively discussing on Twitter an internal conflict between he and Fisher over his choice to wear sleeves during a game (Fisher has a policy against skill position players wearing sleeves). There was the very public conflict between Fisher and Nick Saban this summer ignited by Saban’s accusing A&M of “buying” its recruiting class with NIL money. Never mind the constant carousel of comments by media and fans regarding Fisher’s exorbitant contract that would for sure take a massive buyout — $86 million is the most commonly cited figure — from boosters.

Suffice to say, there’s a lot bubbling underneath the surface of that locker room, and opposing coaches could breathe a sigh of relief knowing that they’re facing that circus on Saturday.

Yet, time and time again since arriving in Baton Rouge last winter, Kelly’s proven that he won’t take anything for granted.

There were justifiable fears among fans of a trap game against Arkansas, which was probably LSU’s sloppiest outing since the loss to Florida State – but Kelly made aggressive decisions throughout that wintry day in Fayetteville, not playing it close to the parka. Last Saturday’s visit by UAB was written off as an easy win, and while it was, it was because the offense rebounded to have one of its cleanest performances of the season, and the defense was dominant in the final three quarters.

Kelly hasn’t done things the traditional LSU way, either: Jayden Daniels has constantly rewritten the rushing record books for quarterbacks at LSU, and while Daniels is having a fine season worthy of dark horse discussion for the Heisman Trophy, he didn’t exactly have a high bar in the run game from past LSU quarterbacks: Justin Jefferson’s 450-yard year was enough to rank No. 1 on the single-season all-time rushing yards list for quarterbacks. Daniels eclipsed that in half a season.

Then there’s the running-back-by-committee approach, which has proven wildly effective after the use of a featured back for much of the last decade at LSU. That move’s paid off in dividends: the Tigers have four different running backs that have pitched in major playing time in Josh Williams, John Emery, Jr., Armoni Goodwin, and Noah Cain. Against UAB it was Cain, a Penn State-transfer who had previously seen the least amount of playing time of the four, scoring three touchdowns. With Goodwin gone for the rest of the year due to a knee injury, Cain’s emergence is key.

Kelly hit the lottery in the transfer portal this offseason, and he pointed to Cain and linebacker Greg Brooks as tw of his biggest gets, even saying that his staff “knew what they were getting” when they pulled them out of the transfer portal.

Those moves haven’t just allowed Kelly to survive in his first year – he’s thrived. On the precipice of a 10-win season – LSU’s third since 2013 – his Tigers need to grasp his own piece of wisdom.

“All they need is one.”

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Tigers tough out bad conditions, dominate UAB

VINTAGE PERFORMANCE:  LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels rebounded from a subpar outing last week at Arkansas with one of his best games of the season. (Photo by PETER FOREST, Journal Sports)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE – LSU running back Noah Cain had three seasons at Penn State under his belt before arriving in Baton Rouge. He knows a thing or two about playing in cold and wet conditions.

So it was no shock – Cain was able. He handled Saturday night’s miserable weather like a duck landing on University Lake.

With a largely quiet Tiger Stadium staring them down, the sixth-ranked Tigers relied on their own toughness to steadily grind out a 41-10 win over Alabama-Birmingham. Cane pounded in three short touchdown runs as LSU (9-2) wrapped up its home slate with only a few thousand hardy souls in the stands as the game wound down, solidly in the Tigers’ grasp.

“I was telling a lot of the guys on the team that this is a warm day up north,” Cain said with a grin. “Really, it was about the mental toughness speech Coach [Brian] Kelly kept saying over and over again until it was really drilled into our head, and we showed that tonight.”

The former Nittany Lion, a junior, made the most of his opportunities, scoring three times and piling up 76 yards on 13 touches. He was the primary beneficiary of two scratches on the running back depth chart, as both Josh Williams (knee) and Armoni Goodwin (knee) were inactive. Kelly said that Williams is expected back next week against Texas A&M, while Goodwin is done for the season.

Cain’s UAB counterpart, DeWayne McBride, didn’t fare so well, despite a sparkling worksheet this season.

The junior running back, who had the second-most rushing yards (156 per game) across the FBS entering  Saturday’s game, was limited to just 35 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. McBride’s bad night was a testament to the rushing attacks that LSU faced before him, Kelly said.

“We’ve been challenged with the great backs, last week against Arkansas, or this week,” Kelly said. “Earlier in the year, obviously, we’ve had many challenges, whether it’s Alabama or Ole Miss’ running game. This group has responded to those challenges. It’s a collection of a number of guys just buying in and doing their jobs and it goes back to … accountability.”

After a pedestrian performance against Arkansas, LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels turned in his third 100-yard rushing performance of the season, racking up 112 and a touchdown on the ground to go along with 297 yards and a touchdown through the air on 22-of-29 passing.

All told, Daniels was responsible for 409 of the Tigers’ 565 yards of offense against UAB (5-6), who had curtailed an explosive North Texas offense a week earlier.

“We wanted to bounce back from what we felt was offensively less than our best game. I think Arkansas had something to do with it, (and) we had something to do with it,” Kelly said about the aggressive playcalling on offense. “Jayden prepared really well, and you can make the case that this was his best game of the year. He pushed the ball down the field vertically, he saw things, he was assertive.”

LSU broke open the scoring on the night’s first drive on a two-yard run by John Emery, Jr., but Jermaine Brown, Jr. took the ensuing kickoff 66 yards to set up the Blazers on a short field. DeWayne McBride punched in UAB’s only touchdown from five yards out for an early 7-7 tie.

The Tigers responded with touchdowns on four of their next five drives, including Cain’s three rushing touchdowns, the last creating a commanding 28-10 lead with 40 seconds left before halftime. A touchdown rush by Daniels in the third and a touchdown catch by Brian Thomas, Jr. in the fourth garnished the outcome, which was secured by the increasingly stingy LSU defense.

The mental toughness that Kelly harped on his players over the week paid dividends on Saturday. It’s a talking point Kelly wanted to make for a long time prior. It’s a sign of the team’s maturation, that they can handle anything the elements and a half-empty Tiger Stadium can throw at them.

“I’m so proud of our mental toughness and their ability to do it the right way late in November against a team they’re supposed to beat,” Kelly said. “The wins have been nice. The individual achievements have been really neat — the SEC West Championship. But I’m most proud of the mental toughness this group has shown.”

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Tigers try not to overlook UAB while cradling SEC West title

LOCAL TIGERS: Jarrick Bernard-Converse (24) and Micah Baskerville (23), both Evangel products, are keys for LSU’s defense. (Photo by PETER FOREST, Journal Sports)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE – Not only does tonight’s 8:05 kickoff in Tiger Stadium mark the end of LSU’s nonconference schedule, it’ll also settle a score.

The Blazers have spent the last nine years sporting a .500 record against LSU all-time after LSU beat UAB 56-17 in 2013. UAB won the first matchup between the two teams in 2000, 13-10.

The final homefield appearance for LSU is, of course, Senior Night, with 17 honored in a pregame ceremony.

“We’re excited about sending our seniors off with a victory and that’s been really our focus this entire week, playing to our standards,” LSU coach Brian Kelly said. “Obviously it’s been a great year, but we still have a lot of work to do.”

The sixth-ranked Tigers have exceeded all expectations by securing the Southeastern Conference West Division title and a berth in next month’s SEC Championship Game against No. 1 Georgia, the defending national champions. A win there, and LSU is in the College Football Playoff as one of four teams alive for a national championship.

But first things first. Tonight it’s UAB, a championship contender in Conference USA year after year. Next week it’s a visit to Texas A&M, but Kelly is keeping his Tigers focused on the Blazers, who should not be taken for granted.

UAB features one of the most potent rushing attacks in the Group of Five, as running back DeWayne McBride has averaged almost 7-yards-per-carry on 204 attempts to go along with 17 touchdowns. The junior has also tallied 1,407 yards on the ground, good for second in the FBS. Their offense ranks fifth nationally in rushing yards-per-game.

McBride’s not the only running back head coach Bryan Vincent utilizes, either: Senior Jermaine Brown, Jr. sees plenty of work as a change-of-pace back for the Blazers and has eclipsed the six yards-per-carry mark on 114 attempts.

McBride and Brown head an offense that’s established and pedigreed in the eyes of Kelly.

“They’re very accomplished on offense. In an overview I would say they’re a very mature team,” Kelly said. “They’re made up of a lot of fifth-year seniors, (and) there’s a number of sixth-year players on this team. This is a mature, veteran football team that has a very good offensive structure.”

Vincent didn’t share in his counterpart’s focus on upperclassmen, however. Instead, true freshman Harold Perkins caught his attention, especially after Perkins recorded four sacks and two forced fumbles against Arkansas to lift LSU to a 13-10 victory last Saturday on the road.

“After 12 or 14 hours of film yesterday and last night, he’s a guy that really stood out. You sit there, you watch him, and you watch all the things that he does,” Vincent said Monday. “Whether he’s rushing the passer, whether he’s spying the quarterback, whether he’s playing coverage? This is without a doubt the best true freshman I’ve seen in my career. Without a doubt.”

Still, UAB’s 5-5 record, coupled with LSU’s meteoric rise up the rankings, have left the Tigers as heavy favorites. It’s a game that’s easy for the Tigers to overlook, just like Arkansas was the week before.

There won’t be any of that, Kelly said. He’s echoed the same mantra all season: Preparation is key.

“That’s kind of a piece of who we are, right? We focus on a process more so than an outcome,” Kelly said. “It’s been a consistent way of how we do things on a day-to-day basis. We focus much more on the little things, our habits, how we think, what we do on a day-to-day basis, much more than outcomes and championships, things of that nature.”

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Kelly puts focus on UAB and Senior Night, not Georgia

TIGER TANDEM:  The Walter Camp Foundation’s National Defensive Player of the Week, true freshman Harold Perkins (40), and Evangel Christian product Micah Baskerville (23), teamed up on this tackle against Alabama. (File photo by PETER FOREST, Journal Sports)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE — By the metrics of almost every preseason prediction, Brian Kelly’s first LSU football squad has overachieved.

There’s a win against Alabama, coupled with wins over Mississippi State and Ole Miss. There are impact freshmen on both sides of the ball that rank among the best at their position in the SEC. There’s an SEC Championship appearance waiting in the wings once the regular season is finally over.

Not to overlook an 8-2 record and No. 6 national ranking, when few expected a spot in any Top 25.

Those weren’t the metrics Kelly was looking to judge his first season by, though.

“I didn’t put any wins or losses on this team,” Kelly said during his Monday press conference. “I put, ‘I want to play hard, I want to be better in November, and I want to teach them how to win.’ I think we’ve hit all of those markers, and that’s kind of where I wanted this program to be. I think we’re at where we should be at this time.”

There are still two games left on the regular-season slate, against UAB at home Saturday night and next Saturday at Texas A&M. While they won’t be the toughest tests on the schedule, they’ll present a unique challenge: they stand as tune-ups for the title bout with Georgia, a game that, barring Tiger stumbles, will draw plenty of attention nationally.

That hasn’t kept Kelly from being focused on the work in front of him, especially given his unique set of goals and standards he had set forth for the season.

“I think we’ll have plenty of time to get information on Georgia, and we’re pretty much aware of Georgia and who they are and what they’re about. Our focus will be on UAB and Texas A&M because they matter. For us in terms of where we are and the development of our program, these singular games are so important to us.”

Kelly’s seen that development on the individual level, as well. There’s Micah Baskerville, for instance, who fell out of favor with Ed Orgeron’s staff last season after seeing significant snaps early in his career. The Evangel Christian product has become a key factor to the success of a potent defense and has turned himself into one the conference’s best linebackers in pass coverage.

Baskerville’s triumphs didn’t stop there, though.

He’s graduated from LSU, one of 13 seniors who will participate in Saturday’s Senior Night festivities to do so. He saw LSU at the pinnacle of college football before it came crashing down a season later, only to be rebuilt under a new head coach. He went through a Covid-shortened season at an empty Tiger Stadium, a shell of what it has typically been on any given Saturday night. He overcame a reputation, Kelly said, that kept him from reaching his full potential until now.

On some levels, Baskerville’s progression is a microcosm of what LSU’s senior class had to endure. The trials and tribulations have all been accentuated with an exceptional closing act.

“When I got here, everybody was like, ‘Well, ya know, he doesn’t go to class, he doesn’t do this, he doesn’t do that,’ and he’s been amazing,” Kelly said of Baskerville. “He’s gotten his degree, he’s been a great leader, he’s been inspirational in everything he’s done. I love that story. To watch him grow, and do the right things in the classroom and overcome all of the things that were in his past, that to me is this senior class.”

Baskerville and his fellow seniors had a choice to make before the season, Kelly said.

“They could’ve been average, they could’ve been poor. They could’ve just been good. They’ve chosen to be champions by the way they’ve gone to work every day, both in the classroom and on the football field. The choices these guys have made have been outstanding.”

For one last Saturday night in Tiger Stadium, they’ll reap the rewards of those choices.

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With the SEC West in hand, the Tigers have made their point

BATON ROUGE – There’s no losing left for LSU this season.

They can beat Georgia in the SEC Championship by four touchdowns. Harold Perkins could top the collegiate single-game sacks record in every game left on the schedule. Jayden Daniels could run for 200 yards a game and throw for 300 more.

They could also get blown out by Georgia. Perkins could show that he’s still a freshman, figuring out college life, let alone all of his defensive assignments. Daniels could throw for another measly 86 yards, as he did Saturday at Arkansas, in every remaining game.

It doesn’t matter. They’ve done far more than they were expected to accomplish in Brian Kelly’s first year as coach.

Of course, they could actually lose. They’ve clinched the SEC West, and they could just coast to the finish line, though Kelly’s attention to detail and preparation likely won’t allow for it. It’s highly doubtful they lose to either UAB or Texas A&M, but a defeat in the SEC Championship Game to defending national champion and top-ranked Georgia is a very real possibility.

When that visit to Atlanta comes around, though, the final score is a moot point: LSU’s won the season.

There should’ve been a lot more red in the ledger than the two losses they have. There could’ve been talk about personnel changes, both on the field and on the sidelines. There could’ve been the continued questions about LSU’s lack of high-end quarterback play in recent years (other than Joe Burrow, of course). Those narratives were whisked away in October, with the winds of change as Kelly’s influence became apparent.

The biggest testament to the team’s moxie came Saturday.

Arkansas was trailing by three in the first quarter and was faced with a fourth-and-goal from the LSU 3. Instead of taking the chip-shot field goal, Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman went for broke and trusted backup quarterback Malik Hornsby to make a touchdown happen.

He couldn’t.

Pittman had his idea of who the better team was, and a conservative game plan wasn’t going to cut it. Even with home field advantage, even with the resounding votes of confidence he heaped on Hornsby all week (never mind the fact that he eventually pulled Hornsby for third-stringer Cade Fortin), the grittiness and mental fortitude that LSU’s developed over the season was enough to worry him. That play call showed that Pittman knew just how easily that game could get away from his team.

In no way is this a condemnation of Pittman’s aggressive playcalling; Kelly did the same thing, going for it on fourth down in his own territory before the play was whistled dead due to a penalty. So Kelly did it again, this time with a fake-punt run by Jay Bramblett, wiped out by another flag.

In past years, that’s a head-scratching move at best, to give the opponent the gift of good field position.

But why not risk it when the defense has been so wildly effective? Perkins was the most impactful player on the field, and it wasn’t close. Why not rely on him and his defensive comrades to keep Arkansas out of the end zone? Kelly called the game to his team’s strengths, something that his predecessors didn’t do often enough.

Pittman’s playcalling was aggressive because he felt it had to be. There was a respect for the team that LSU’s become in Brian Kelly’s first year, a culmination of all the triumphs that the Tigers’ have experienced in the midst of an overhaul.

Kelly said in his postgame press conference that his Tigers haven’t arrived yet.

It sure seems like they have.

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Perkins has sick game to help LSU survive Arkansas upset bid

FEVERISH PURSUIT:  LSU freshman Harold Perkins felt poorly Saturday morning but made Arkansas fans, and quarterbacks, feel worse. (Photo courtesy LSU Athletics)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. –  Prior to kickoff Saturday morning, Harold Perkins wasn’t feeling too hot.

He vomited, coach Brian Kelly said, during LSU’s team meal and dealt with flu-like symptoms leading up to game time.

Those symptoms were forgotten when Perkins hit the field and saw red. Razorback red.

The true freshman phenom played feverishly, collecting a school single-game record four sacks among his eight tackles, forcing two fumbles and breaking up a pass in LSU’s 13-10 win at Arkansas Saturday.

The outcome, coupled with Alabama’s 30-24 victory at Ole Miss, clinched an SEC Championship game berth with the SEC West crown for the seventh-ranked Tigers (8-2, 6-1).

He terrorized the pair of quarterbacks Arkansas coach Sam Pittman tabbed to replace the injured KJ Jefferson, strip sacking both Malik Hornsby and Cade Fortin at pivotal moments in the game. One of those forced fumbles came with 1:19 left in the game, and effectively sealed the deal for LSU.

“He impacted the game, obviously, to the level where we win the game, too,” Kelly said about Perkins. “He’s a multi-dimensional player, he made a great play in pass coverage, getting under a throw late in the game. I don’t think there are enough superlatives to talk about this young man.”

His performance had Tiger fans ready to rename a major Baton Rouge thoroughfare “Harold” Perkins Road.

It was just enough to overcome an ineffective LSU attack.

LSU’s offense suffered seven sacks – five in the first half – and consequently the passing game suffered: Jayden Daniels completed just eight of 15 passes for 86 yards. He also threw his second interception of the season, his first since the loss to Tennessee on Oct. 8.

“Sacks are overrated when it comes to offensive line issues,” Kelly said. “Sometimes the quarterback causes sacks, sometimes it’s the back that’s not fitting. When you break it all down, you don’t want your quarterback sacked at all.

“I think they did a really good job of bringing pressures and I think we probably needed to do a better job overall in pass protection. I’m not giving the offensive line a pass here, but anytime you talk about sacks, you should look at everybody, including the coaching of it. We’re all responsible for that.”

Some of those sacks came from Daniels breaking late out of a collapsing pocket, where the Razorbacks (5-5, 2-4 SEC)  were prepared with a zone coverage scheme to make sure he couldn’t get past the line of scrimmage. Daniels has taken 12 sacks over the last two games.

“There were multiple looks. He was hesitant,” Kelly said about Daniels. “He just didn’t have that aggressiveness that he needed, and he wasn’t sure in some things. So we have to do a better job coaching him, and he’s got to be more assertive.”

With the offense stalled, Perkins became the difference maker that the Tigers desperately needed to secure the Golden Boot rivalry trophy, and, with Alabama’s win, the SEC West.

LSU didn’t score its first touchdown until 5:25 was left in the third quarter, when Josh Williams punched it in from a yard out. Daniels hit Kayshon Boutte for a 26-yard completion the play before, and Williams cashed it in to give Tigers a 13-3 lead.

Williams was the most productive skill player on LSU’s offense, piling up 122 yards on 19 carries to go along with his touchdown.

Arkansas climbed back in it when Fortin, who completed eight-of-13 passes for 92 yards, hit Matt Landers in stride for a 40-yard score with 13:37 left to play. But the Razorbacks weren’t able to sustain a drive afterward, and Perkins’ strip sack was recovered by Mehki Wingo to end the suspense.

Coming off beating two Top 10-ranked foes, LSU’s win Saturday didn’t inspire confidence that the Tigers are ready to take on the likes of Georgia or Ohio State, but it was a shining example of a mantra that Kelly’s been preaching all season:

Just find a way to win.

“You still have to find ways to make plays and win these games at the end,” Kelly said. “Look, we’re far from a finished product. I don’t think anybody’s in there feeling like we’ve arrived. We’ve got a lot of work to do. During this journey, we’re still finding ways to win football games.”

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LSU brings new mindset into battle for the Boot at Arkansas

HEADING UPFIELD:  Evangel product Micah Baskerville (23) is one of the key pieces of LSU’s intense pass rush. (Photo by PETER FOREST, Journal Sports)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – After two consecutive upsets under the lights of Tiger Stadium, the hard part of LSU’s SEC gauntlet is behind the Tigers.

Now comes the dangerous part.

Today’s 11:07 a.m. matchup on ESPN with a struggling Arkansas (5-4 overall, 2-3 in the SEC) team will be the perfect test of the Tigers’ consistency.

LSU will encounter a hostile environment, a high of 45 degrees that will feel much colder, and a rivalry trophy (The Boot) at stake. The Tigers (7-2, 5-1) have to cast aside the underdog mindset that’s fueled a run to the top of the SEC West. They’re three-and-a-half-point favorites in Las Vegas. They’re now No. 7 in the AP Top 25 poll.

Even head coach Brian Kelly admitted Wednesday that the newfound success requires adjustments to his team’s preparation.

“Certainly with the success we’ve had, we’ve entered into a new part of how we think, and our team needs to now handle success,” Kelly said during the SEC teleconference. “That means preparing the right way, avoiding distractions and really working on what they’ve been good at, and that’s day-to-day.”

The Tigers have prepared this week to face dual threat quarterback KJ Jefferson, whose status was described as a game-time decision by Arkansas coach Sam Pittman Wednesday. Redshirt sophomore Malik Hornsby is waiting in the wings for the Razorbacks, another dual-threat quarterback, albeit with limited game action during his two seasons in Fayetteville.

Pittman said that Hornsby’s prepared for the starting job this week, if Jefferson’s bruised clavicle forces him to miss time.

“Malik Hornsby’s looked really good in practice, the team’s confident in him,” Pittman said. “Either way, whatever happens, whether we play KJ or we play Malik, we feel like we’ll have guy who can go back there that the team believes in, and execute our game plan.”

Pittman did say that Jefferson’s thrown “a little bit more” this week than he did last week, when Arkansas suffered an ugly 21-19 loss to Liberty, but the redshirt junior still threw for 284 yards and two touchdowns. It was Jefferson’s meager rushing production – 16 attempts for 36 yards, including four sacks – that was out of place.

Those numbers may not improve this week thanks to a dominant pass rush for the Tigers, complete with a three-headed monster in Harold Perkins, Micah Baskerville and BJ Ojulari. Those three linebackers combined for two sacks, two-and-a-half tackles for loss, and six quarterback hurries against Bryce Young last week.

LSU also boasts two former Razorbacks in the secondary in Joe Foucha and Greg Brooks. While they’ve both been key contributors to LSU’s continued success, Kelly added that he didn’t seek intel from them on their former teammate.

“Look, there’s not a whole lot you can do. You’ve got to defend a dual threat quarterback,” Kelly said. “You can only imagine they didn’t have much success defending him in practice. We didn’t spend too much time asking about it. We know we’ve got to do a great job with 11 players defending KJ.”

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Mulkey tempers lofty expectations as Year 2 begins at LSU

PIECE-IT-2TOGETHER:  In her second year coaching at LSU, Lady Techster legend Kim Mulkey is hoping to develop a consistently-powerful program as she did at Baylor. (Photo by KRISTEN YOUNG, LSU Athletics)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE – Kim Mulkey wasted no time in building a struggling LSU women’s basketball program back into a powerhouse.

A 26-win season with a second-place Southeastern Conference finish, cheered by crowds routinely over 10,000 at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, and national coach of the year honors are testament to the remarkable turnaround in Mulkey’s Year 1 with the Tigers.

The arrow remains pointing up.

For instance, she inked the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class for 2023, complete with Parkway’s Mikaylah Williams, regarded as the top high school player in the nation by ESPN Hoop Gurlz, among others. The Bossier City superstar will be at LSU next season.

The Lady Tigers are ranked in the Associated Press preseason poll for the first time in nine years, coming in at 16th.

Those external expectations are loftier than they were last year, but Mulkey’s kept her head level and clear. Her program’s still very much in a rebuild, so much so that she’s adopted a mantra for the season.

“Our theme for the year is Piece-It-2gether, and the 2 is obviously signifying my second year or our second year at LSU,” Mulkey said recently, pointing at a wristband with the slogan. “We have a lot of talent on the floor, but we’ve got to piece it together. We’ve got kids coming from other programs, high school kids stepping on this college campus for the first time, we’ve got returning players who will have to play different roles, so we’ve got to piece it together, and that takes time.”

Like other collegiate coaches who have been tasked with a rebuild, Mulkey took advantage of the transfer portal. Seven of the 10 non-freshmen on LSU’s roster have played at another program, including Kateri Poole, who was named to the Big 10 All-Freshman team in 2020-2021 at Ohio State. She’s also had experience playing in the PMAC when she logged 10 minutes against LSU during the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season.

There’s Jasmine Carson, a transfer from West Virginia by way of Georgia Tech, who notched 17 points in LSU’s 125-50 win over Bellarmine Monday.

Don’t forget about Alexis Morris, who Mulkey picked up from Texas A&M prior to last season. She averaged 15 points and four boards a game in 25 starts last season.

“Well the transfer portal is just like free agency in baseball,” Mulkey said. “Those guys have somebody assigned to that computer now, right? Every time somebody gets designated for assignment, boom, you pick them up. That’s kind of what the transfer portal is. We stay on top of it. It’s here to stay and we lost a tremendous class of seniors last year with a lot of points and production, so we had to fill a lot of needs.”

Mulkey lost six seniors from last year’s roster, including Khayla Pointer, who left LSU with a laundry list of accolades and records, and left behind big shoes to fill.

That prospect has Mulkey tempering expectations, at least in the early season.

“Last year I inherited a program that won seven ball games. Let me temper it down a little bit: we won 26 basketball games and finished second in the league to the national champions,” Mulkey said. “There is no way that you’re going to stand here today and think you’re going to do even better than that. Not with new faces. We aspire to do that, but I can’t look at a crystal ball and see how quickly we all get on the same page.”

After the 75-point victory margin Monday, the Tigers aim for another blowout tonight as Mississippi Valley visits the PMAC. LSU doesn’t appear to have too many, if any, severe challenges until Oregon State visits just before Christmas, and by then, Mulkey figures to have the pieces in place.

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Bramblett has even more reason to revel in LSU’s win over Bama

SWEET REVENGE: LSU punter Jay Bramblett played a key role in the Tigers’ 32-31 overtime victory over Alabama. (Photo by GUS STARK, LSU)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports 

BATON ROUGE – Jay Bramblett stood outside the locker room with a smirk on his face. Maybe it was because he was given the game ball for special teams after he downed three punts inside the 20 against Alabama.

Maybe it was the revenge he helped serve after losing to the Crimson Tide in the 2021 Rose Bowl with Notre Dame.

Or maybe it’s just all of the phone calls he would get to make back home after his obligations with the media were over.

“I’ll be honest, I’ve never wanted to win a football game more than I did tonight,” Bramblett said after the Alabama game Nov. 5.

That’s because Bramblett, who followed Kelly over from Notre Dame this past off season, is from Tuscaloosa. There’s plenty of Tide fans that needed to know of Bramblett’s triumph firsthand.

“I’m going to be talking a lot of crap to some of my friends and family, so I’m looking forward to that,” Bramblett said.

Bramblett signed on with Kelly and the Fighting Irish as No. 2 punter in the nation for the Class of 2018, and took over the starting job his freshman season. He’s in the midst of a career year after averaging 44,81 yards-per-punt on 32 tries. He’s been a bright spot on a special teams unit that’s struggled with mistakes, pinning 13 of his 32 punts inside the 20-yard line.

On the biggest, brightest stage of the season, Bramblett delivered, and even Nick Saban took notice in his postgame press conference. The Crimson Tide were fairly effective on the ground — running back Jahymr Gibbs had 99 yards on 16 carries — but Saban had to answer as to why Alabama relied so much more on the passing game, and it had everything to do with LSU’s senior punter.

“We had bad field position, we struggled to run it when we tried to run it,” Saban said after the game. “We passed it quite a bit when we were backed up.”

Bramblett was well aware of just how big the stage was, but after 47 games in the college ranks, he knew what his role was and exactly how to fulfill it.

“I had a lot of adrenaline pumping and a lot of that stuff, but when you think about the magnitude of the game, and kind of where it stood as we went through the game, we were neck-and-neck the entire time,” Bramblett said. “Every single yard counts, and I think last week I kind of hit on it — we have a 50-yard net, and they have a 40-yard net. We’re gaining field position back, so it definitely adds up.”

Bramblett’s contributions haven’t made him a household name, or an all-conference selection. In an era of punters focused on distance and hang time, Bramblett’s best attribute comes from his consistency, both on the sideline and on the field. He’s become the benchmark for the Tigers’ special teams unit.

But, maybe most importantly, he knows Brian Kelly better than any player in the locker room.

He also knew, no matter how much Kelly downplayed it, just how much a win against Alabama and Saban meant to him. He made sure to celebrate the occasion as soon as Kelly got back to the locker room.

“Obviously he was super excited. I think that was one of the reasons he came here, to beat Alabama, beat Nick Saban,” Bramblett said. “That was the first thing I had an opportunity to say to him. I was like ‘Man, we finally got’em.’ It’s obviously a great feeling.”

That feeling meant, at least for a night, Bramblett was the happiest Tuscalloosan.

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McMahon has hands full with brand new roster for Tigers

PICKIN’ UP THE PIECES: LSU men’s basketball coach Matt McMahon has put together an almost entirely new roster for this season, which begins tonight. (Photo by BEAU BRUNE, LSU Athletics)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE – LSU starts a new era in basketball tonight at home, with Shreveport’s Kendal Coleman on a reconfigured roster that analysts believe could keep the Tigers competitive despite the turbulent coaching transition last March.

With the controversy-riddled, but highly-successful (on the court) Will Wade era reaching an unceremonious end in March, athletic director Scott Woodward quickly plucked Matt McMahon from Murray State to pick up the pieces.

Pick up the pieces he did.

From the date of Wade’s firing on March 12 to April 1, the LSU basketball team lost every scholarship player on the roster. Eleven entered the transfer portal. Two declared for the NBA Draft. They also lost all four commits for the 2022-23 signing class.

McMahon managed to pull three of those Tigers back from the portal: Mwani Wilkinson, Justice Williams, and Adam Miller, who didn’t play last season with a torn ACL but figures to be a major contributor from the perimeter after he led all Big 10 freshmen in three-pointers with 52 when he was at Illinois for the 2020-2021 season.

“Adam’s been awesome,” McMahon said during the recent Southeastern Conference Basketball Media Day. “I’ve only been with him seven months now. He’s a relentless competitor, very tough. I have great admiration for his work ethic and commitment and discipline to get back from his devastating knee injury.”

McMahon’s work in the transfer portal wasn’t finished after the player retention phase, though: He brought in three of his players from the extremely successful Murray State program in Justice Hill, Trae Hannibal and KJ Williams. Williams, a 6-10 forward, is the reigning Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year. Hannibal has SEC experience with two seasons at South Carolina before he transferred to Murray State. Hill, who began his college career as an Arkansas signee, is expected to provide valuable minutes at the point, where McMahon has watched him grow over the last two seasons.

“Love Justice, comes from a great family, very high-character young man. He had an awesome season for us last year, one of the top in the country in assists-to-turnover ratio,” McMahon said. “Had some monster games where he shot it extremely well from three … He’s really grown and developed as a leader, which I think is so important at the point guard position. He’s an elite athlete, great speed, and when you combine that with his work ethic, I think he’s much improved from where he was a year ago when he was at Murray State.”

McMahon added three more from the transfer portal with Cam Hayes (North Carolina State), Derek Fountain (Mississippi State) and Coleman (Northwestern State) before rounding out the roster with freshmen. Hayes and Fountain were both role players on their previous teams.

Coleman, a Shreveport native and Captain Shreve alum, averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Demons on his way to first-team All Southland and All-Southland Defensive Team honors. He put up double-double performances against Power 5 teams, including LSU, in his breakout second-freshman (resulting from the pandemic) season. Coleman won’t start, but is expected to contribute some valuable minutes up front for the Tigers.

The Tigers also welcome four true freshmen forwards in Cornelious Williams, Jalen Reed, Tyrell Ward and Shawn Phillips, all of whom will have an opportunity to earn minutes early in the season with a starting lineup largely in limbo.

“There’s still a lot of unknown there. We have essentially 13 new players,” McMahon said. “We’re trying to take these talented players and build them into one cohesive unit. I think we have to work extremely hard and very intentionally to try and build that chemistry and that culture that will lead to what we hope is a standard of performance that will lead to winning.”

Whether that standard of performance will lead to winning remains to be seen, but LSU fans will certainly have to adjust to an almost entirely new program from just a season ago.

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Kelly not worried about Bama hangover

TIGERS’ POUNCE:  LSU’s BJ Ojulari wraps up Alabama running back Jahmyr Gibbs Saturday night in Tiger Stadium. (Photo by PETER FOREST, Journal Sports)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE — Don’t ask first-year LSU football coach Brian Kelly about trap games.

For the coach who’s preached preparedness week in and week out, a trap game is an excuse for a poorly-prepared team to underperform.

Coming off two Top 10 wins at home, Kelly doesn’t believe that LSU faces a trap heading into Fayetteville Saturday against a 5-4 Arkansas team coming off a homefield loss to Liberty.

For the No. 7-ranked Tigers (7-2), it’s all about the week leading up to the 11 a.m. kickoff.

“I guess, I guess that’s what they call it. I’ve never bought into that because I think if it’s a trap game, you have not done a very good job with your football team,” Kelly said during his press conference Monday.

“For example, (in) January, February, March, we did not train indoors, we trained outdoors. Weather’s not going to be a factor. We’ve been outside in 50-degree, 40-degree weather. They know that Arkansas is an SEC opponent that beat them last year.

“Your thoughts affect your actions, that affect your physiological response, so we’ve been working on how we think since Day 1. It becomes a trap game if you’re not thinking right.”

The Tigers have plenty to remember from when Arkansas beat LSU in Tiger Stadium last season, 16-13. LSU will get another look at quarterback KJ Jefferson, who managed just 142 passing yards and 42 rushing yards in last year’s matchup. With Jefferson sitting just 19 yards shy of the 2,000-yard season mark through the air, Kelly singled out the junior as a challenge the LSU defense will have to resolve.

“We’re obviously facing a team that has a very prolific offense, and in terms of players, it starts with their quarterback,” Kelly said. “I think it’s the fifth time now we’ve seen a big physical quarterback, KJ Jefferson. 6-3, 240. He’s got 17 passing touchdowns, 6 rushing touchdowns. He’s going to be a handful.”

Jefferson — whose sore shoulder is a concern, said Arkansas coach Sam Pittman — will face an LSU defensive front seven that showed renewed energy in the Tigers’ 32-31 overtime win over Bryce Young and Alabama last week, a boost that resulted in Mekhi Wingo earning the game ball last week on defense, while Harold Perkins was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week.

Wingo stepped into a starting role after the first drive of the season against Florida State, after Maason Smith tore his ACL celebrating. He’s become a key piece along the defensive line ever since, and paired with Jaquelin Roy, the two have allowed the Tigers to show multiple looks up front for opponents.

“I think that anytime you lose a stalwart like Maason, there’s cause for concern,” Kelly said. “I think what we’ve done really well is mix up the front. We’ve played some three-down to take the pressure off losing a player of that caliber, and by doing so we’ve been able to rotate the defensive tackle position between three-down and four-down.”

It’s players like Wingo, Roy, Emery Jones, Josh Williams and others who have excelled in their roles when called upon that have propelled LSU into the SEC Championship conversation, a far cry from the slow start they endured early in the season.

In Kelly’s words, they never gave up, they just figured it out.

“I’ve said this, the biggest thing is that they jumped in the deep end and didn’t know how to swim,” Kelly said. “But they were not going to drown. They were going to find a way to stay above water, kicking and doing whatever is necessary. That’s kind of built this fight in them, this toughness in them. They haven’t been perfect, and certainly we’re not there yet, but they have such a pride in LSU.”

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Did LSU’s win signal the end of an era?

BATON ROUGE – There’s no cheering in a press box.

It’s one of the cardinal rules of sports journalism, an inalienable standard that’s thoroughly enforced from working area to working area. Signs are plastered everywhere, notices relayed over the PA system periodically, because human beings sit there.

When Mason Taylor crossed the goalline on the two-point conversion that ended a dramatic, tension-filled regular-season game that felt more like a national championship bout, no journalist, writer, or reporter cheered.

Instead, there were heavy sighs, like a weight being lifted. There were glances at one another, an acknowledgment that we’d just witnessed the same event. The electricity from a fervent crowd pulsated through the press box. You could feel the tension ease. There was hurried scribbling on notepads and typing on phones, trying to come up with the right question to encapsulate the moment.

After all, what had just transpired was an instant classic. It’s a game that will be remembered for years to come, and the ultimate confirmation of Brian Kelly’s arrival as a savoir at LSU. It was an improbable upset against a rival that’s given LSU fits over the last decade, and Kelly did it with a team of underclassmen and transfers.

There was a lot to digest.

There was a lackluster performance from Tiger traitor/Alabama cornerback Eli Ricks, who had left LSU nearly a year ago just to be exposed by his former teammates on several key plays that kept the Tigers alive — not that they needed any help doing that themselves. There’s still a narrative out there that Ricks could be a first-round pick in next year’s draft, despite not starting for half the season.

There was another good-not-great performance from Bryce Young, who had only played in Death Valley during the COVID years, when Tiger Stadium was a shell of what it was Saturday night.

There weren’t any big-play receivers that could demoralize LSU with one flash, except for one long catch by Jase McClellan on Young’s wild scramble creating busted coverage by Major Burns. The only ’Bama bright spot was Jahmyr Gibbs, who looks like the prototypical three-down back that has taken the NFL by storm the last few years.

There’s no doubt that LSU was the better team Saturday night, just like they were against Ole Miss before that. They’ve cemented their spot in the Top 10 through sheer force of will, and I don’t think they’ll relinquish it over the final quarter of the season. This team has overachieved in almost every way. 

But did this Crimson Tide crew seem like a Nick Saban team to you?

It didn’t to me.

Saban’s 71 now, no spring chicken in the college football scene. The longevity of his dominance has been exceptional, and should be celebrated accordingly. His offensive and defensive schemes are far from antiquated. He does a good job of surrounding himself with the right people to make sure his team isn’t living in the past.

But I couldn’t imagine being 71 years old and having to keep up with upwards of 100 teens and 20-somethings. I couldn’t imagine having to maintain the rigors of an SEC schedule, the 10-, 12-, 14-hour days that keep you away from the other parts of your life.

Then there’s the transfer portal, which, by the way he’s talked in the offseason, has really thrown a wrench in his program. Is that a part of his program’s problem, he can’t keep the depth he used to because those players move on to more significant roles at other programs?

It feels almost blasphemous to say, but is Saban just old?

There aren’t many coaches who have had success over 70. There aren’t even many Power 5 coaches that are still coaching at 70.

Bobby Bowden was one, maybe the most successful coach in terms of his twilight coaching career. He’s the oldest coach to win a national title, when he did so with Florida State at the age of 70 years, 1 month and 27 days in 2000. Bowden coached until he was 80, when he stepped down; the Seminoles failed to reach 10 wins in any of his final six seasons.

There was Joe Paterno with Penn State whose sterling career was marred by the reprehensible Jerry Sandusky child molestation case. Paterno coached until the ripe age of 85. If his wins weren’t stripped due to his indifference to Sandusky’s conduct, Paterno would’ve finished 120-62 over his final 15 seasons. Bill Snyder at Kansas State also had a winning record during his second stint, which lasted 10 seasons.

But none of them coached in the SEC. It’s an arguable point that none of them have put together the dynasty Saban has, either. They certainly didn’t have to deal with a transfer portal, or Name, Image and Likeness deals, or social media platforms that have given players the capability of growing their own brand without having to actually do something on the field of play.

Maybe Saturday night’s game was a sign of things to come for Alabama.

Maybe it’s over.

If so, it’s certainly been an impressive run.

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Tigers break through, stun Alabama in instant classic

DANIELS’ DANCE:  LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels used some exceptional downfield blocks and his speed to run untouched for a 25-yard TD in overtime, setting the stage for the No. 15 Tigers’ last-play triumph over sixth-ranked Alabama. (Photo by PETER FOREST, Journal Sports)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE — It took four quarters and then some, but Saturday’s 32-31 overtime win by LSU against Alabama allowed new Tigers’ coach Brian Kelly to check another box off of his coaching bucket list on his third try:

Beat Nick Saban.

“I had never beaten Alabama,” Kelly said. “Those things are kind of, you want to check the box and move on. I get a little emotional about those, but I was emotional not for myself, but I was emotional for our team. I know what we looked like in January, and I see where we are today, and that’s pretty emotional.”

Kelly had to set all emotion aside for his final play call of the night, a two-point conversion attempt in overtime that could secure the Tigers’ second consecutive upset – and by far, biggest win since the 2019 national championship season.  So, when he dialed up a play that would roll quarterback Jayden Daniels out to find tight end Mason Taylor on the goalline, there was no second-guessing the decision.

“You’re going to get second-guessed in that situation if you don’t get it, I get that,” Kelly said. “To me I just felt like, I looked at our team, I assessed the situation, and I just felt like it was the right thing to do. I don’t feel like our fans would have been criticizing it, they’d want me to get the win. That’s what I’m here for.”

While Kelly made a calculated call to go for two, his true freshman tight end admitted that he had to keep his nerves in check for a moment.

“When they first called the play my heart low-key dropped, I’m not gonna lie,” Taylor said. “But we practiced for this. Pressure is a privilege at LSU, so I went out there and executed just like practice. I’m glad our coaches trust me with the play and the ball.”

The No. 15-ranked Tigers (7-2) went back and forth with sixth-rated Alabama for four quarters before that fateful play, but the game started on a much different note. The Crimson Tide (also 7-2) had no issue driving the ball 76 yards on eight plays on their first series, but a pair of Shreveport natives killed the momentum Alabama had built.  Micah Baskerville forced an errant throw into the hands of Jarrick Bernard-Converse in the end zone.

Thanks to heavy pressure on Bryce Young, the Crimson Tide was kept out of the end zone in the first half, the first time all season Alabama didn’t score a touchdown in the first two quarters.

Alabama’s offensive efforts weren’t helped by a sold-out crowd in Tiger Stadium that kept Alabama’s offense out of sorts all game. With Young having to take extra time to call out his plays due to crowd noise, the Crimson Tide weren’t able to maintain an up-tempo offense: Young accumulated 328 yards through the air, but completed just 25 of 51 passes for one touchdown with one interception.

“The crowd was unbelievable,” Kelly said. “They created an energy unlike one that I can remember, that was sustainable for our football team. That was truly a home field advantage for us.”

The Crimson Tide relied heavily on their passing game to get them out of their own red zone. Running back Jahmyr Gibbs was Saban’s most efficient weapon, racking up 99 yards on 16 carries and 64 yards on eight catches.

LSU’s offense didn’t fare much better in the first quarter, but managed to score the game’s first points when John Emery Jr. caught a pass along the Tigers’ sideline and took it for a 30-yard touchdown with 13:04 left in the second quarter. With their offensive efforts sputtering, the Crimson Tide had to settle for field goals from Will Reichard on three consecutive drives — two in the second quarter and one to start the third – in order to secure their first lead of the game, 9-7.

That lead changed hands seven more times starting from the 3:30 mark in the third quarter, but the Tigers suffered a serious gut punch with 4:44 left in the final period. Young escaped a collapsing pocket, scrambled and found a wide-open Ja’Corey Brooks behind defenders for a 41-yard touchdown to give Alabama the edge, 21-17.

The Tigers rebounded by driving 75 yards in seven plays for Daniels 7-yarder to Taylor and a 24-21 lead in the waning minutes. Alabama tied it at 24 with 21 seconds left on a 46-yard field goal by Reichard. When the Tide’s Roydell Williams scored to open overtime and Reichard kicked the extra point, Kelly decided there wouldn’t be a second OT.

So, when Daniels ran for a 25-yard touchdown on the first play, Kelly knew he had to capture that moment. He rolled the dice with a do-or-die try for two and the win.

“If you asked me, ‘Hey, I’m going to give you one play, and if you’re successful on that one play, you beat Alabama,’ I would’ve taken that 100 times out of 100,” Kelly said. “At that moment, it kind of hit me that way, and I knew we had a really good play we hadn’t used, and they hadn’t seen.”

It’s one that won’t fade from memory any time soon, if ever.

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Kelly’s first Tiger try vs. Bama carries larger implications

TRENCH WARFARE: The battle up front, in possibly sloppy field conditions, will be a key in tonight’s LSU-Alabama contest. (Photo by PETER FOREST, Journal Sports)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE — It won’t be the biggest stage of Brian Kelly’s career, nor will it be Nick Saban’s finest hour. Both are experienced at game planning for national championship contests.

That doesn’t mean that tonight’s 6:10 matchup (on ESPN) in Tiger Stadium between 15th-ranked LSU (6-2, 3-1) and No. 6 Alabama (7-1, 3-1) won’t have a significant impact for either coach, though.

There’s conference implications, with both teams sharing a portion of the lead in the Southeastern Conference West Division as the SEC Championship game draws near.

There’s the initial impression for Kelly, who would silence all criticism – that is, if he hasn’t already – with a win in his first game as LSU’s head coach against the Crimson Tide.

There’s an opportunity for Saban to prove that his team still belongs in the playoff conversation among the likes of Georgia, Tennessee and Ohio State.

Both coaches have heaped praises on each other throughout the week, both being cautious not to add fuel to the fire that the rivalry has kicked up over the past decade.

“Our guys are certainly prepared for the very best, we’re going against a Heisman Trophy winner and going against a consistent football team that Coach Saban puts out there each and every week,” Kelly said. “We know the challenge in front of us, but it’s an exciting opportunity for our football team to play in Tiger Stadium on national TV.”

Alabama’s had more struggles than its 7-1 record might suggest: There was a late 20-19 win over Texas in Week 2, then a 24-20 escape against a struggling Texas A&M team in Week 6. Their only loss came at the hands of Tennessee a week later, 52-49.

That doesn’t mean the Crimson Tide aren’t necessarily the powerhouse of college football that fans are used to seeing. There’s still Bryce Young, last year’s Heisman winner.

“In many instances, you can’t defend him because he’s so elusive and he wants to throw the football,” Kelly said of Young. “He could take off so many times, but he’s trying to find receivers down the field. He just has a great sense of awareness. He’s a true quarterback, he’s not a scramble-around-guy that’s just, you know, throwing it up there. He’s very intentional about everything that he does. He’s not taking sacks. He’s the (reigning) Heisman Trophy winner, and he should be. He’s the best player in college football.”

Young’s success in Saban’s offense has been well documented, but the Crimson Tide attack will be one of the most balanced LSU will face this season: Running back Jahmyr Gibbs leads a rushing attack that’s produced a 221-yard average with six yards per carry, while Young and backup Jalen Milroe have thrown for 23 touchdowns and 274 yards a game.

That ground attack may become even more important: There’s a 100 percent chance of rain in Baton Rouge earlier today, all but assuring sloppy conditions perfect for old-time, ground-and-pound football. That can bode well for LSU as well, getting some key cogs back. Running back John Emery Jr. and wide receiver Jack Bech will return and offensive tackle Garrett Dellinger will be a game-time decision, recovering from an MCL injury suffered against Tennessee.

“I don’t think we would put him back into the starting rotation, but he would be somebody who would be able to be in a rotation for us, which would be very beneficial,” Kelly said of Dellinger. “He would be able to take away some snaps in the rotation at the guard position, and if it could give us some depth at the guard position, that helps us out in the long run.”

But down the road is not in the minds of Tiger fans tonight. They are savoring the chance for a statement win, one that would earn LSU students another jaunt to rush the field — but this one uniformly embraced by Bayou Bengals.

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Ricks making his unwelcome return to Tiger Stadium

NUMBER 1 TIGER TARGET:  Eli Ricks, once a budding superstar cornerback for LSU (shown here in 2021), will be the focus of Tiger fans’ ire Saturday night as he returns to Baton Rouge with the Alabama Crimson Tide. (Photo courtesy of LSU Athletics)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE — There’s plenty of reasons why LSU and Alabama just don’t like each other.

There’s Nick Saban, who turned the LSU football program on its ear when he won a National Championship in 2003 and did it again just two seasons later when he left for the Miami Dolphins. In the decade-plus since leaving the NFL ranks for Alabama, he’s become one of the most widely disliked figures in Tiger Town.

Eli Ricks, on the other hand, isn’t there just yet.  But he’s certainly not going to be welcomed back into Tiger Stadium tonight when No. 6 ‘Bama visits 15th-ranked LSU at 6 o’clock in an ESPN-televised SEC West showdown.

Once regarded as LSU’s gold-standard cornerback of the future, Ricks cut that storyline short when he entered the transfer portal in November 2021. He decided on Saban and the Crimson Tide a month later and Tiger fans angrily recoiled in disgust.

Ricks’ time in Tuscaloosa had a tumultuous spring – the junior was arrested in May for speeding, driving without insurance and first possession of marijuana. Then came the start of the college football season, which saw the LSU starter buried on the Tide’s depth chart. There was even a cryptic message Ricks posted on social media in October that suggested he may have had interest in returning to LSU.

Ricks’ stay on the end of the bench – whether it be for his off-field behavior or simply lack of production – ended after the Crimson Tide was torched for 385 passing yards and five touchdowns by Tennessee two weeks ago.

Last week, in his first start for Alabama, Ricks tied for the team lead with four pass breakups on his way to receiving national acclaim — the Bednarik Award Player of the Week, honoring the most outstanding defensive player of the week in major college football.

“Eli just had to go through a lot of transitions here in terms of what he had learned before and trying to learn our system and getting confident in it,” Saban said during Wednesday’s SEC teleconference. “We always thought he could be a really good player. I thought he played well in the last game. Hopefully he’ll be able to build on that and stay focused on the things that he needs to do to execute well at his position.”

Ricks had become a battle-tested starter by the time his LSU career came to an end, but his biggest challenge comes Saturday. He’s felt the atmosphere in Death Valley when the crowd was behind him, now he’ll have to face that atmosphere when the crowd is against him.

What makes Ricks’ college football journey equal parts frustrating and shocking for LSU fans is that his journey is unprecedented. He used the transfer portal to its most extreme extent, not choosing just another school, but switching to a team in the same division of the same conference, to a head coach that’s brought both programs to the highest ranks of college football, and to a fanbase that holds a particular disdain for LSU fans (and vice versa).

In short, Ricks couldn’t have picked a worse place to transfer if he wanted to leave Baton Rouge graciously.

In doing so, however, he became the SEC poster child for the transfer portal: leaving a situation that no longer served his purpose to find another that would, no matter where that might be.

But Eli’s not the only Ricks that’s stoking the fire between LSU and Alabama. Younger brother Desmond is a five-star corner in the Class of 2023, and he’s narrowed his choices down to  three: LSU, Alabama and Florida. He’ll be in Baton Rouge on an unofficial visit Saturday night.

Meanwhile, all eyes will be on big brother. Saban knows that.

“I think it’s important that he just goes into this game and be himself. He doesn’t need to think he has to do something fantastic just because he’s playing against a team he used to play for,” Saban said.

That’s one perspective. But here’s a more popular one in Baton Rouge – it’s time for Eli Ricks to face the music he created a year ago.

LSU fans will be sure he hears it.

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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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DBU brand at LSU being sustained by transfers

NEW TO DBU: UL Lafayette transfer Mekhi Garner is one of the newcomers who has solidified LSU’s secondary. (Photo by KRISTEN YOUNG, LSU)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

It wasn’t supposed to be a banner year for LSU’s secondary.

There was no “next man up,” no underclassman that would suddenly take the defense to new heights. There were no surefire first-round picks that the Tigers have produced in past seasons.

Instead, new head coach Brian Kelly had to rely on a slew of transfers, almost all of whom have ties to Louisiana.

Colby Richardson (McNeese State), Joe Foucha (Arkansas) and Greg Brooks, Jr. (Arkansas), all hail from the New Orleans area. Mekhi Garner transferred to LSU after Billy Napier left Louisiana-Lafayette to take the head coaching job at Florida. Major Burns (Georgia), a transfer from last year’s class, is from Baton Rouge. Jarrick Bernard-Converse (Oklahoma St.), played at Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport. Sevyn Banks (Ohio St.) is the lone transfer with no immediate ties to Louisiana.

With a mostly-bare cupboard and most of the starting spots in the secondary open for competition, tough questions and low expectations clouded a unit that was seen as the Tigers’ weak spot entering the season.

Now, eight games in, the Tigers’ mix-and-match secondary has developed to hold its own well enough to keep LSU competitive with almost any team in the nation. Two of those transfers were recently named among the top 50 impact transfers in college football this season by ESPN — Garner was ranked No. 16, while Brooks earned the No. 25 spot on the list.

Garner was a hot commodity coming out of ULL, and has cemented himself atop the depth chart at cornerback, with Bernard-Converse and Richardson rotating at the other spot. Garner’s reputation in pass coverage followed him to LSU, where he’s allowed a reception on just 48 percent of the attempts opposing quarterbacks have thrown his way, according to Pro Football Focus.

Brooks, a safety, was thrown into the fire early after Burns went down with an injury. Foucha missed the Tigers’ first four games with an academic stumble. He was a multi-year starter at Arkansas and helped the Tigers secure their win against Auburn with a key interception.

While LSU’s secondary has certainly exceeded expectations and kept the Tigers in their fair share of games, the unit still leaves something to be desired in some categories: They’ve allowed an opposing passer rating of 124.63, 45th-best in the nation, and have been complicit in allowing opposing offenses to convert on 38-percent of their third downs, 70th in the nation.

Possibilities for LSU’s best defender — aside from Garner — don’t even play in the secondary.

Shreveport-Evangel Christian product Micah Baskerville, a linebacker, is tied for third in the nation among linebackers with four pass breakups, and has allowed just 10 catches on 23 targets this season. He’s also been the Tigers’ busiest tackler, leading the team with 33.

Baskerville had to earn time in Kelly’s defense, but has made himself indispensable on passing downs for LSU: No other linebacker in the SEC comes close to Baskerville’s 48-percent completion percentage, with Mississippi State’s Nathaniel Watson second at 62 percent with 20 or more targets.

LSU has proudly billed itself as one of the best schools in the nation for defensive backs in past years, adopting the moniker “DBU.”

That title may not ring completely true this season, but LSU’s secondary can still contend with any in the SEC.

Rest assured, there’s still a “no-fly zone” in place in Baton Rouge.

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