Why Brian Kelly has already won Year 1 with LSU football even if Tigers lose to Georgia
BATON ROUGE - It was an odd time to issue a warning, but Brian Kelly did it anyway.
"There's still a lot of work ahead of us," the LSU football coach said. "So, I just wanted to make sure that it was duly noted that there's going to be some tough days ahead of us and we're going to have to grind through it."
Those weren't Kelly's words following LSU's blowout loss to Tennessee. Or moments after the Tigers muffed two punts and had two kicks blocked in the defeat to Florida State in the season opener.
That was Kelly after LSU's 38-0 win over New Mexico on Sept. 24.
Kelly, 61, probably felt that LSU's gauntlet of SEC opponents could chew them up and spit them out, that the Tigers' lack of depth could come back to bite them, that all of the habits he'd tried to instill since the moment he stepped foot on campus last November could fizzle out once they were in the heat of battle.
One season wouldn't change LSU from a program that went 11-12 over the last two years to championship contenders.
"They have followed a process and they've been consistent with it. Now we're going to have to apply it to the SEC, and that is a step up," Kelly said. "So the next month, there's going to be some good days and there's going to be some bad days, and they cannot try to do things differently."
And yet, here are the No. 11 Tigers (9-3). A win over No. 1 Georgia (12-0) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday (3 p.m., CBS) and they will be SEC champions for the third time in 11 seasons.
Defeating the Bulldogs, the defending national champions and overwhelming favorite, may seem like an improbable task. But even if LSU loses, Kelly has already won in his first season.
"I would say that I'm really pleased with what our kids accomplished this year," Kelly said after LSU's 38-23 loss to Texas A&M last week.
Kelly has repeatedly said that he never put any specific expectations on this season. But surely he couldn't have expected this level of success in his first season when he took the job after spending 12 seasons at Notre Dame.
LSU had 39 scholarship players available for its bowl game against Kansas State. Key contributors were leaving for the transfer portal or NFL Draft, including the Tigers' top four cornerbacks (Cordale Flott, Dwight McGlothern, Eli Ricks and Derek Stingley Jr.), starting quarterback Max Johnson, lead running back Tyrion Davis-Price, lead tackler Damone Clark and four of LSU's starting five offensive linemen.
There was still some talent (most notably Kayshon Boutte and BJ Ojulari) but a roster already underperforming relative to its talent was getting torn down.
"I really didn't know the roster until I got a chance to examine the roster. And so I got a glimpse of it during the (Texas bowl) prep and saw where we were at and knew that 'OK, we got some work to do,' " Kelly said the Monday before LSU's win over Florida in October.
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Las Vegas pegged the Tigers for six wins. The offseason was promising, as LSU added four top-100 recruits and filled most of its holes through the transfer portal, but it was hard to be overly optimistic with so many new faces arriving.
Besides adding new players, all but one member of Kelly's coaching staff came from somewhere else and LSU added over 45 new support staff members. LSU essentially started from scratch.
LSU fans' fears were realized in the demoralizing loss to Florida State. The Tigers then bounced back to win four straight games before hitting another bump in the road, getting blown out by Tennessee at home.
The loss to Texas A&M was another one of those setbacks. But after beating Alabama, becoming SEC West champions and winning nine games, Kelly already had a lot to be proud of.
"I don't want to say overachieve but I think they have done some incredible things," Kelly said after the loss to the Aggies. "And I don't want this loss to at all take away from what they've accomplished this year. This is one of the most enjoyable years that I've had in my career and watching these kids grow."
Koki Riley covers LSU sports for The Daily Advertiser and the USA TODAY Sports South Region. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @KokiRiley.