How Brian Kelly achieved with LSU football what he found to be unrealistic | Toppmeyer
The jokes were all too easy to make after Brian Kelly lost his LSU opener to Florida State, one day after Billy Napier debuted his Florida tenure by upsetting Utah.
Fairly or not, Kelly must exceed Napier’s performance at Florida, while Kelly will be a comparison point for Napier. They were the only SEC coaches hired last offseason, and they’re at rival schools. That makes each a natural litmus test for the other. Plus, LSU could have hired Napier out of its backyard of Lafayette, Louisiana, but chose to hunt big game and uproot Kelly from Notre Dame.
Initial impressions of a new hire can prove capricious.
Fast forward to rivalry week, and LSU (9-2, 6-1 SEC) is in contention for the College Football Playoff, while Napier is answering for Florida (6-5, 3-5) losing to Vanderbilt.
This season is evidence of why LSU awarded Kelly a 10-year, $100 million contract. He ran toward LSU's high demands and the SEC's rugged rivalries, but if you would have told Kelly before the season that he was expected to win the SEC West, he would have considered that unrealistic.
“You have to look at the circumstances when you come into any business or organization. What’s the organizational health? The organizational health was such that it needed to be rebooted,” said Kelly, whose Tigers will play at Texas A&M on Saturday (6 p.m. CT, ESPN). “That started with new coaches, new support staff.
“There are some circumstances where there is a transition where (winning the SEC West) could be realistic (for a new coach). In this situation, that would not have been a realistic expectation.”
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Kelly’s assessment is correct. Expecting him to win the SEC West would have been unfair after he stepped into a program that had just 39 scholarship players available for its January bowl game. Moreover, SEC West rival Alabama entered the season ranked No. 1, returned the Heisman Trophy winner and possessed the nation’s best defensive player.
LSU's coach achieved the unreasonable.
Kelly inherited some talent from Ed Orgeron, but the Tigers were depth deficient, so Kelly plundered the transfer portal. He challenged the team's returning players, including star wideout Kayshon Boutte, to up their game. He instilled a resilient mentality within the program.
Transfer quarterback Jayden Daniels flourished under Kelly’s tutelage, improving as the season goes. And Kelly made the play call of the season when he dialed up a two-point conversion to cap LSU’s 32-31 overtime upset of Alabama.
The SEC West is not at its best, and Kelly positioned LSU to take advantage. If the Tigers somehow stun Georgia in the SEC Championship, he should be considered for national coach of the year.
LSU and Florida are recruiting well. Napier deserves a modicum of patience from finicky Florida fans. He, too, inherited a thin cupboard.
Each of these coaches can be successful, but Kelly always offered the higher ceiling. And he’s closer to reaching it.
Happy Thanksgiving, SEC football coaches
What coaches should be thankful for this holiday season:
Bryan Harsin: A buyout clause.
Nick Saban: Bryce Young.
Kirby Smart: The nation’s best recruiting base.
Mark Stoops: Jimmy Sexton.
Lane Kiffin: Jimmy Sexton.
Eliah Drinkwitz: The ignorance of Missouri’s Board of Curators (and Jimmy Sexton).
Josh Heupel: Chase McGrath’s knuckleball.
Brian Kelly: Cajun cooking.
Shane Beamer: Sunglasses.
Clark Lea: A low bar.
Sam Pittman: An ol’ col’ beer.
Cadillac Williams: An opportunity he’ll cherish forever.
Mike Leach: White meat and gravy.
Billy Napier: Temperate Florida winters.
Jimbo Fisher: A buyout clause.
Vanderbilt earns fine for a modest celebration
Copy editors should review their dictionaries after I read headlines stating that Vanderbilt fans “stormed” the field following last week’s upset of Florida. The verb “storm” is defined as moving forcefully and decisively, but videos of the scene showed fans slowly descending a staircase in a single-file line before moseying onto the field.
I’ve seen folks move faster at a Golden Corral.
Nonetheless, the SEC fined Vanderbilt $250,000 for a third violation of its field incursion policy since its 2004 adoption. Meanwhile, Tennessee was fined $100,000 after its fans truly stormed the field, toppled the goal posts and marched them out of the stadium after an October upset of Alabama.
Give me Vanderbilt fans if I'm building a scholastic bowl roster. Give me Vols fans if I'm organizing an insurgence.
Nonetheless, coaches often say that those who win in November get remembered.
Vanderbilt is 2-1 in November. The Vols are 1-2.
Email of the week
Nancy writes: This non-sporty is still reading your interesting columns and not just because of your good writing skills. I like your observations. … I first wrote you when I was upset about UT cancelling West Point (and thus my nephew’s visit here) because they were afraid to lose a game: They should have canceled South Carolina.
My response: Unfortunately for Tennessee, the Mid-American Conference was knee-deep in conference play last weekend. That left the Vols exposed to South Carolina.
I hope you get to see your nephew during the holidays. You must be proud of his service to our country.
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Three and out
1. Steve Spurrier was quick with the quip after South Carolina trounced Tennessee to eliminate the Vols from playoff contention.
“I almost feel sorry for Tennessee,” Spurrier, the former Gamecocks coach who regularly needled the Vols while Florida’s coach, told the Charleston (South Carolina) Post & Courier. “… They’re just going to have a little bit better-than-average year now. Someone told me, ‘Tennessee is probably headed for the Citrus Bowl now.’ I guess that's kind of a mean thing to say.”
2. Unless LSU upsets Georgia in the SEC Championship, the SEC will be stuck with one playoff qualifier. My playoff picks: 1. Georgia, 2. Ohio State, 3. TCU, 4. Clemson. Clemson needs help, but not that much. Running the table, paired with a TCU or Southern Cal loss, would do the trick.
3. A prediction: The SEC will not produce a Heisman Trophy finalist. Vols quarterback Hendon Hooker had been the league’s top hope for the award, but his season cruelly ended prematurely when he tore his ACL in the fourth quarter against South Carolina. LSU’s Jayden Daniels is now the SEC’s top Heisman hopeful, but the Tigers likely would need to upset Georgia for him to receive serious consideration.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.
The "Topp Rope," is his twice-weekly SEC football column publishing throughout the USA TODAY Network. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Also, check out his podcast, SEC Football Unfiltered, or access exclusive columns via the SEC Unfiltered newsletter.