Brian Kelly joined LSU to beat Alabama football's Nick Saban. Can Kelly win in Year 1?

Nick Kelly
The Tuscaloosa News

Brian Kelly didn't mince words about what he wants to accomplish at LSU.

He joined the Varsity House Podcast in the spring, explaining his decision to leave his job coaching Notre Dame to lead LSU.

"I want to beat Nick Saban," Kelly said. "Who doesn't want to beat Nick Saban? You know what I mean? I want to play him in the regular season. That's the standard, right? That's the standard. Now he's a conference opponent. I started in Division II as a head coach and felt like I was ready to move to Division I at Central Michigan. From there I moved to Cincinnati. From there I moved to Notre Dame.

"I loved my time in Notre Dame. I loved the players more than anything else. And then you're presented with another challenge. I've always felt you never run from a job. You run to a job. I never ran from Notre Dame. I ran to an opportunity. I just felt like this was a great opportunity."

It's not a guarantee by Kelly. He's just saying what he wants to accomplish. It's not near as inflammatory as Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher comment before the 2021 season, saying the Aggies would beat Saban's behind before he retires.

Still, there's a big gap between wanting something and actually achieving it.

Kelly could find out how sizeable that divide is this week when his No. 17 Tigers (6-2, 4-1 SEC) face the No. 6 Crimson Tide (7-1. 4-1) on Saturday (6 p.m., ESPN) at Tiger Stadium. Or perhaps, Kelly gets his wish right away and wins his first game at LSU against Saban.

Kelly has had opportunities in the past, but each one has fallen flat.

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First there was the BCS Championship Game in 2013. Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14.

Then there was the College Football Playoff semifinal in the 2021 Rose Bowl. Alabama 31, Notre Dame 14.

Perhaps the third time will be the charm for Kelly. His chances are looking better now than they did after the first game of the 2022 season.

Kelly’s time at LSU began with a season-opening loss to Florida State. The Tigers also lost to No. 3 Tennessee at the beginning of October, but otherwise, LSU has been quite solid.

Kelly’s squad has beaten four SEC foes: Mississippi State, Florida, Auburn and most recently a 45-20 win over No. 10 Ole Miss.

This sets up for quite the matchup in Baton Rouge against Alabama where Kelly could very well have a team good enough to beat the Crimson Tide.

“(Kelly’s teams) always have balance on offense,” Saban said. “They’re going to run the ball. They got a very good throwing scheme. Utilizing the personnel that they have very, very well. They’ve historically played very well on defense and special teams. It’s typical of what a well-coached team usually does. They’ve gotten to the point where – and all of his teams have been this way – they don’t beat themselves. You’ve got to execute and beat them, and I think that’s got to be the focus for our team.”

Part of this is coach speak, but much of it is based in truth. Kelly could get his first win against Saban if Alabama plays on the road like it played against Tennessee or even Texas. Alabama can’t afford 17 penalties like it had against the Vols. It also can’t play undisciplined, like it did on the punt Quandarrius Robinson touched that gave Tennessee the ball back and a short field.

Minimizing undisciplined play will be vital, but Alabama likely will have to do more than that to beat the Tigers.

Kelly has a dynamic quarterback in Jayden Daniels who has passed for 12 touchdowns to go with one interception. That’s only part of his game, though. Daniels has nine rushing touchdowns and is ninth in the SEC with 524 rushing yards.

Alabama is certainly capable of beating LSU under the lights, but it won’t be easy by any stretch. Especially if the Crimson Tide has more road woes.

If those persist, Kelly might get that win over Saban he covets. In the process, LSU could also secure the SEC West crown.