Before he took the LSU head coaching job, Brian Kelly placed a call to one very significant veteran of the Tigers program: Nick Saban.
The Alabama head coach led LSU from 2000 to 2004, winning a national championship with the Tigers in 2003. As resources go, that’s a solid one, even two decades on.
“He didn't give up any secrets about étouffée or Louisiana or LSU,” Kelly said this week. “There was nothing that specific, but it just had been a conversation about the SEC in particular.”
Kelly, who famously cannonballed into Baton Rouge in December with a strange attempt at a Cajun accent, has found his footing. Nine weeks into the season, his No. 10 Tigers are 6-2 and preparing for a visit from No. 6 Alabama with the SEC West lead at stake. If he can beat Bama this weekend, Kelly will be able to pronounce “family” however he wants.
LSU pried away Kelly from Notre Dame for moments like this. Saturday night’s marquee Tide-Tigers showdown won’t be the preeminent game of the weekend; Georgia-Tennessee holds that honor, by a wide margin. But LSU-Bama is nonetheless one of the season’s pivot points: a chance for LSU to yank the SEC West lead out of Alabama’s hands, and a chance for Kelly to at last beat Saban.
“It's not pressure,” Kelly said this week. “It's a privilege to play in games like this. Certainly why I came to LSU, to want to play in games like this.”
Kelly and Saban are the two winningest active coaches in college football, combining for 565 victories. They aren’t quite “rivals” per se, given that they’ve met only twice before this year, but both were high-stakes showdowns, and both went Saban’s way. Alabama walloped Notre Dame 42-14 in the BCS national championship in 2013, a game now best known for announcer Brent Musburger’s active in-game interest in Katherine Webb, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron’s then-girlfriend. The Tide also knocked off the Irish, 31-14, in the 2020 season’s College Football Playoff semifinal, a game best known for being the Rose Bowl that wasn’t actually held at the Rose Bowl for COVID-related reasons.
“They were extremely talented teams,” Kelly noted, looking back on the two Alabama squads that took out his Irish. “The '13 team was as physical as a football team that I have ever played against and have not played a team as physical [since]. Then, if you look at the perimeter skill that they had in , it was amazing.”
This year’s Alabama is a more penalty-laden, mistake-prone version, less physically dominant and rawer, particularly at the receiver position. But this year’s Alabama also has Bryce Young, a better quarterback than either of those two prior champions. Young alone is enough to give Kelly nightmares.
“The Heisman Trophy winner is a playmaker. When it comes to making plays on the field, you just put on the film and you watch him. It's pretty amazing some of the plays that he makes,” Kelly said. “He is not making it up, but he is improvising and making plays. He is elite. That's all I can say.”
LSU counters with Jayden Daniels, who’s already set the school’s single-season record for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. Daniels’ performance in October’s crucial comeback victory over Ole Miss was as pretty as it gets: three rushing touchdowns, two passing touchdowns in a 45-20 victory. He’s the most obvious example of LSU rounding into form over the course of the season.
“He has learned a lot of football, and that growth process has really started to benefit itself, and we're starting to see that come to fruition on the field,” Kelly said. “More than anything else he is in a good space, and because of that, you're seeing growth and production happen at the same time.”
That resilience is showing up on the scoreboard, too. LSU has two blemishes on its schedule — a season-opening loss to Florida State that looks bad in retrospect, and an understandable loss to Tennessee, the top team in the CFP rankings — but that critical win over Ole Miss changed the entire tenor of the Tigers' season.
LSU has come back from double-digit deficits three times this season, trailing Mississippi State, Auburn and Ole Miss by at least 13 points each and coming back to win all three games. That’s an impressive feat, but Kelly concedes that it would be more impressive if the Tigers didn’t get down that far in the first place.
Kelly has moved up contact from 45 minutes into Tiger practices to 20 minutes in, to prepare the team for faster starts. “We need to get after it,” he said. “We need to be ready right away.”
Ready or not, the Tide are 13.5-point favorites in Baton Rouge, per BetMGM oddsmakers. Alabama, as it so often does for so many teams, will represent the greatest challenge — and greatest opportunity — for Brian Kelly’s LSU to date. So, are the Tigers ready?
“Well, we have no choice,” Kelly laughed, “unless Alabama wants to forfeit, and I don't think that's in Nick's plans.”
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.