ORLANDO, Fla. – Brian Kelly left behind lifetime job security at Notre Dame for a brand-new “fay-mily” at LSU for one primary reason: To win a national championship. Trade the headaches of an independent private school in Indiana for all the gumbo and five-star linemen the state of Louisiana has to offer, and a coach as accomplished as Kelly might salivate at the thought of building the next Alabama or Georgia.
Which is why Kelly sat at his postgame news conference late Sunday night looking like a poker player whose winnings just got wiped out with one bad hand. Somehow his second LSU team, a preseason top-five pick with earnest ambitions of a run deep into January, had managed to get blown out of the building in its season opener, a 45-24 debacle against No. 8 Florida State.
Allowing 31 straight second-half points to an ACC opponent was not part of the plan back at halftime of that basketball game two years ago.
“We’re certainly not the football team I thought we were,” he said afterward, later calling the outing, “a total failure on a coaching standpoint and a player’s standpoint.”
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Many of us jumped on the LSU hype machine after Kelly arguably overachieved by winning 10 games and an SEC West championship in his first season. This writer in particular pegged his squad to be the second-best team in the country a few months ago after Kelly loaded up in the portal to fortify what was already a veteran team.
With the benefit of hindsight, maybe we should have paused and recalled that two of the last three games LSU played in 2022 were a 15-point loss to a 5-7 Texas A&M team and a 20-point loss in the SEC Championship Game to Georgia.
As Kelly and star quarterback Jayden Daniels described it, the Tigers themselves may have bought into the hype.
“For some reason, we thought we were somebody else — that we were the two-time national champion Georgia Bulldogs or something,” said Kelly. “We were mistaken.”
“I agree with him,” said Daniels. “We got ahead of ourselves. We thought we were going to come out and it was going to be easy.”
It was anything but.
Granted, LSU actually led at halftime, and could have easily been farther ahead given Daniels was twice stymied on fourth-down attempts in the red zone (the first one coming on a sack with the Tigers at the Florida State 1-yard line. Even then, though, something felt off about the Tigers.
Daniels, much like last season, was being forced to do pretty much everything himself. He accounted for 248 of LSU’s 293 yards in the first half. He delivered several highlight plays, but Florida State also delivered several crushing hits on him. It did not feel like a sustainable formula.
Sure enough, the Tigers’ largely non-existent rushing attack disappeared entirely after halftime. Missing veteran John Emery Jr. and Notre Dame transfer Logan Diggs, LSU’s running backs accumulated just 49 rushing yards the entire game, 35 of which came on one first-half Josh Williams run. LSU had to punt on two of its first three possessions in the second half, with the other ending on a Daniels interception when top receiver Malik Nabers slipped.
But the real five-alarm fire took place on the other side of the ball.
Florida State’s offense sputtered in the first half but after halftime put on a clinic behind star QB Jordan Travis (22 of 31, 342 yards, four TDs, one INT) and receivers Keon Coleman (nine catches, 122 yards and three TDs) and Johnny Wilson (seven catches, 104 yards). After settling for a field goal on its first possession, FSU scored touchdowns on each of the next four to turn a one-time 17-14 deficit into a staggering 45-17 lead. Three different Noles players — Coleman, running back Lawrance Toafili and tight end Jaheim Bell — broke receptions of 40-plus yards.
LSU is supposed to be DBU. On Sunday, it could barely register a PBU.
“I’ve got to take accountability and responsibility for the way that we came out in the second half,” said Kelly. “It’s disappointing.”
Now, for the requisite disclaimer that this was only the first game of the season: teams evolve. Sometimes they get better, sometimes they get worse. New players emerge, or, potentially in LSU’s case, key ones return. In addition to Emery and Diggs, LSU badly missed star DT Maason Smith, serving a one-game NCAA suspension over a pre-NIL autograph signing.
But what you don’t usually see is a team get blown out in the first game, turn around and win the national championship. I cannot think of one that even came close.
Make no mistake — this was a colossal setback for Kelly. The only way the Tigers are going to the College Football Playoff now is if they win the SEC championship, and the only way they’re going to win the SEC championship is to beat Alabama in November and, most likely, Georgia in December. They’re not going to be able to do either of those without a physical offensive line that can open holes for a running back. And Daniels might not even be available by those games if he gets beat up the way he did Sunday.
But Daniels is also the biggest reason not to give up on LSU completely. The fifth-year college starter is unquestionably dynamic. He burst into the open field on a 40-yard run that set up LSU’s second touchdown. He completed 22 of 37 passes for 347 yards, including a late 75-yard downfield strike to Brian Thomas Jr. that finally stopped the bleeding. Daniels has a plethora of proven targets in Nabers, Kyren Lacy and tight end Mason Taylor.
Kelly was on the wrong end of his share of blowouts at Notre Dame — most infamously, the 2012 national title game against Alabama and a 2018 CFP semifinal against Clemson. They reflected the recruiting gap he could never quite close on those powerhouses.
They’re the reason he’s now at LSU, a program with three national championships this century and zero excuses not to attract the most talented players in the country. There’s supposed to be no gap between a program like his and a program like Florida State’s.
“We’ve got a minimum of 11 more games,” said Kelly, “and I’m going to tell you now: We’re going to be better.”
We’ll check back with him in November.
(Top photo: Julio Aguilar / Getty Images)