Opinion: LSU football hires big-name coach in Brian Kelly, but Nick Saban shouldn't worry

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

Scott Woodward went big-game hunting, and after a six-week search, the LSU athletics director bagged a 12-point buck.

But the prize headed for Woodward’s hiring trophy wall sure looks out of place to me.

LSU is set to hire veteran Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.

Woodward lived up to his reputation of sparing no expense to land a household name. But this is a name Alabama coach Nick Saban and Georgia coach Kirby Smart are familiar with, and one who shouldn’t concern them.

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OPINION: Brian Kelly's move from Notre Dame to LSU shows college football has a real problem on its hands

Kelly won close to three-fourths of his games at Notre Dame, and that was enough to enjoy a successful 12-year tenure, but the Irish regularly flopped in their biggest matchups. LSU's standard for success is loftier.

Brian Kelly spent 12 seasons as the coach of Notre Dame.

LSU’s goal is to sit on college football’s throne. The Tigers achieved that two years ago, but Ed Orgeron went 11-11 the next two seasons. Not nearly good enough.

Woodward's solution?

LSU hired a coach who’s 0-2 against Saban with a margin of defeat of 73-28; 0-2 against Smart; 1-3 against Clemson’s Dabo Swinney; 0-1 in home games against Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell; 3-5 against Michigan; and 0-5 in New Year’s Six-level bowl games, plus a BCS national championship.

LSU fans probably remember Kelly from Notre Dame’s 21-17 triumph over the Tigers in the Citrus Bowl to cap the 2017 season.

That ranks as the most impressive bowl victory of Kelly’s career.

Here’s how Kelly fared while at Cincinnati and Notre Dame in his biggest postseason games:

Orange Bowl (2008 season): Virginia Tech 20, Cincinnati 7

BCS National Championship Game (2012 season): Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14

Fiesta Bowl (2015 season): Ohio State 44, Notre Dame 28

Cotton Bowl (2018 season): Clemson 30, Notre Dame 3

Rose Bowl (2020 season): Alabama 31, Notre Dame 14

LSU landed a big-name coach, but not a big-game coach.

And Kelly will find stouter opponents on his annual schedule in the SEC West than he did at Notre Dame. The likes of North Carolina, Boston College, Georgia Tech and Virginia will be replaced with Alabama, Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M.

To Kelly’s credit, he’s been a consistent winner everywhere he’s been – Division II Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame. He became Notre Dame’s most successful coach since Lou Holtz, by a wide margin.

LSU expects to live among the elite in the annual recruiting rankings, but Kelly signed only one recruiting class that ranked higher than ninth nationally during his Notre Dame tenure.

Although Kelly failed to match predecessor Charlie Weis’ highly touted recruiting hauls, he fared far better on the field than Weis, a sign that he develops talent.

Kelly should enjoy recruiting to LSU’s admissions standard rather than to Notre Dame’s prestigious pedigree, and the Tigers also hold the advantage of being the lone Power Five school in a state steeped with talent.  

But while Kelly will find a more favorable recruiting landscape, how will a Massachusetts native who’s never coached south of Cincinnati fare going up against Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and others on the South's recruiting trail?

Geographic background and perceived fit isn’t everything. If that were the case, then Orgeron, a native Cajun, would remain LSU’s coach.

Saban wasn’t raised on gumbo, but the West Virginia native and Kent State alumnus won a national championship at LSU and positioned the Tigers among the nation’s elite.

Plenty of native Southerners who played ball within the SEC flopped as head coaches.

But after the fiery Saban, the quirky Les Miles and lovable Orgeron, how will LSU’s hurricane-drinking, crawfish-eating fans react to a prickly Yankee?

Kelly doesn't bring the promise of rekindling the flair LSU showcased while going undefeated in 2019 behind one of the greatest offenses in college football history. LSU should have hired Lane Kiffin if it wanted a high-flying, risk-taking brand of ball.

Kelly won throughout his Notre Dame tenure with a balanced, traditional brand of offense and defense.

And that worked well – right up until the Irish got trounced in big games.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.