Brian Kelly’s Tigers are the future of college football.

A team cannot improve in one season and then win a college football national championship. It’s not exactly true. The best teams always change shape a bit and come together over the course of the year. But there is some truth to the end. The margin of error, if your holy grail is a national title, has always been between zero and one loss, with a few exceptions. Losing a game in September? You might be out right away, depending on who you are and what’s going on around you as the season progresses. Lose twice by mid-October? You can still go on and have a fun season, but you won’t be playing for the biggest prize. This limitation is a feature of the sport. A baseball team can go 22-29 in June and then go to the World Series. College football works differently.

At least it worked differently. Things will change when the college football playoffs go from four teams to 12 in 2024 or 25. In a sense, it will devalue the regular season that a team can lose a game, any game, and still retain a path to the title. In another sense, it will put more value on more regular season games, as more teams will spend more of the season in at least nominal title contention. It would be better if everyone around the sport could learn to love the regular season again on their own terms. But that toothpaste came right out of the tube, and at this point the way to make more games matter more is to put more teams in the CFP.

This year’s LSU Tigers are a window into where college football is headed. In 2019, LSU had the scariest offense and arguably the best team ever, with a 15-0 record to prove its case. The program quickly lost its way after that, and in mid-2021 it fired Ed Orgeron, the head coach and Cajun son who brought that 2019 title to Baton Rouge. It seemed possible that LSU was due for several years in the wilderness. But 10 weeks into next year, under a new coach, the Tigers are closer to the penthouse than an outhouse. On Saturday night, they beat blood rival Alabama on a two-point overtime conversion, effectively knocking the Crimson Tide out of the playoffs and keeping themselves alive (and atop the SEC West race) despite two previous losses. They still control their own destiny even in a four-post-season tag team format. And in the future, there will be more teams like them, the ones that looked legitimately bad at times but recovered in time to become something more than just feel-good stories.

LSU is a team of the future not just because of how they’ve made themselves nationally relevant after a rocky start, but because of how they’re built. In some ways, LSU is less a program of this moment than the next.

If one word describes college football at this point, it’s big. The players are great. The stadiums are big. (Tiger Stadium’s capacity is 102,000.) TV contracts are very, very big. And thanks to all this greatness and schools not paying players, coaching contracts are very, very, very big.

For a program like LSU, it is now an absolute requirement to be led not only by a good coach, but by a Last name. A coach with a name brings a pedigree that helps with recruiting and fundraising. A coach with a name brings the hallmark of a brand school, and that hallmark is the currency. To that end, in 2017, Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward handed over what was then the biggest guaranteed contract in college football history: 10 years and $75 million for coach Jimbo Fisher. -head of state of Florida. Woodward moved to LSU a few years later, fired Orgeron when things went wrong, then left to find another name. Woodward looked at a bunch of coaches – Fisher, of course, but also Michigan State’s Mel Tucker, and depending on the news reports and denials you believe, Lincoln Riley of Oklahoma (who is now Lincoln Riley from USC). They settled on longtime Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.

If someone wrote a script about a college football coach, they could cast Kelly as the role model. He has an authoritative, sometimes purple sheen around him. Two different events during Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame could have ended a coaching career. One involved a student assistant who died while filming a practice in bad weather. (It was Kelly’s decision to practice away, and an Indiana regulatory agency found Notre Dame to be institutionally at fault.) Another involved an allegation of sexual assault against a player that the father of the accuser alleged that Our Lady had kept silent and investigated only superficially. (The accuser died by suicide. Kelly explained how he and the school handled the case.) Kelly’s career was not affected by either case, as Kelly was and remains an exceptionally Well. He was a two-time Division II national champion who went on to win at Central Michigan and Cincinnati before making Notre Dame a regular, albeit losing, presence in the Bowl Championship Series and its successor, the College Football Playoff. So Kelly is both a winning coach and the kind of coach you hire to show how great you are, much like USC hires Riley or Miami hires Mario Cristobal.

The future of elite college football is a perpetual arms race for coaches. By hiring Kelly, Woodward ensured that LSU had one of the biggest guns. The Tigers paid Kelly a small mint when he was the opposite of what most people would call a ‘cultural adaptation’. Kelly is a New Englander who came to Baton Rouge after a long stint in one of the most staid and straight institutions in the country. He entered LSU’s rambunctious, jambalaya-fueled culture, where fans are rowdy and proudly Louisiana. Kelly is neither of those things, and it was fun to watch him fake a Southern accent when he was hired. But as LSU ripped off a 7-2 start and knocked out Alabama, it demonstrated a point about what truly constitutes “in shape.” It’s not that the fit doesn’t matter. All politics is local and all football coaches are politicians. But there are different elements of “culture,” and one of LSU’s love of beating Alabama. Kelly is winner, so it doesn’t matter if he can make a good bowl of okra. That he (like Riley at USC, having come over from Oklahoma) has done so well this year will only fuel more future successful coaching poaching. The fact that Cristobal struggled in Miami and Fisher’s contract at A&M is on the verge of disaster will hardly slow things down. Again, it’s a shootout.

That Kelly has a 10-year, $100 million contract is a sign of the times. The same goes for building his roster in his first year at the helm of the Tigers. LSU will always have four- and five-star players hanging around, even when times are tough. Such is the life of a blue blood recruiting school. But the Tigers had big problems as Orgeron’s tenure drew to a close in 2021, and it’s hard to fix them quickly with players fresh out of high school. So Kelly’s staff worked on the transfer portal. Quarterback Jayden Daniels came from Arizona State, which was about to fire head coach Herm Edwards amid poor play and an NCAA investigation. The defense has benefited enormously from two Mekhis who played elsewhere last year: safety Mekhi Garner (Louisiana) and tackle Mekhi Wingo (Missouri). Cornerback Jarrick Bernard-Converse, who intercepted Heisman winner Bryce Young in the end zone on Saturday, came from Oklahoma State. It’s just a small sample. Wingo got game ball in the win at Alabama, as did Tigers punter Jay Bramblett, whom Kelly brought in from South Bend. Add in a few critical freshmen like offensive tackles Emery Jones and Will Campbell, linebacker Harold Perkins and tight end Mason Taylor, himself a big star on Saturday, and LSU has quickly put together a war machine.

With this newly frozen roster playing for a newly frozen coaching staff, it’s perhaps no surprise that LSU looks so uncertain to start the year. They lost in Week 1 to Florida State. They should have won and would have done so had it not been for numerous special teams calamities, the most crushing of which was sloppy protection that led to a blocked extra point to seal the one-point loss. A subsequent loss to Tennessee was a more complete ass kick that looked even worse than it was due to LSU’s turnover issues, which began on the opening kickoff. Most of the time, however, LSU hasn’t looked so sloppy. Elsewhere, there has been enough chaos that by staying the course and improving, LSU finds itself with a non-zero national championship as the season heads into its most dramatic weeks.

What’s in LSU’s immediate future is hard to say. It’s almost mid-November and they’re on the other side of their annual Bama slugfest with just two losses. Winning would mean winning the SEC, and LSU would then become the first two-game playoff team and most likely the only one before the format went from four to 12. The three remaining regular season games are all against teams LSU should beat (Arkansas, UAB and Fisher’s A&M). Most likely, LSU will win SEC West and then be the food for Georgia, currently the No. 1 team by far in the sport. But you never know, and LSU’s most magical seasons tend to involve a bit of sneaking up on people. For example, their 2007 team lost twice and needed world historic mayhem to win the title, which they went on to win.

There will be more in the years to come. Teams will continue to throw huge amounts of money at coaches who look good in press releases, and some of those coaches, like Kelly, Actually turns out to be quite good. These coaches are increasingly expected to win quickly, regardless of how well their teams performed in the years leading up to their arrival. The lure of the transfer portal and a more accessible 12-team playoff will be gasoline on an expected fire. And when teams get it wrong a few times, like LSU did this fall, they’ll be expected to hang in there, with so much theoretically still up for grabs. The next chapter for 2022 LSU is unknowable, but the next chapter for broader college football is about more teams like 2022 LSU.


Source link

Comments are closed.