By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
After three straight wins which arrived amid the acidic post-Florida State toxicity, Brian Kelly's Tigers are 3-1, looking like a team that should be 4-0 and heading into the meat of their SEC schedule with confidence brewing among his squad & staff.
Following LSU's 15 point comeback win over Mississippi State, a statement had been made:
This may be a team in transition, a program starting to build under Coach Kelly, but they must be competitive to fulfill the LSU standard.
And they're more than qualifying in terms of fight, desire and heart, showcasing an ability to pull off multiple double digit comebacks, led by Matt House's spirited, stingy defense, the legs & arm of quarterback Jayden Daniels and timely plays from dynamic skill position players.
Dealing with the errors or inexperience of a squad based around young players, a few veterans and transfers, fighting injury woes, a disappointing passing game or lack of a lead rusher, while starting two freshmen at each tackle position on the offensive line, a walk on kicker and another debutant at tight end, Brian Kelly's LSU have shown glimpses of a potential powerhouse...either by season's end or in the years to come.
When talking about the future, one could only be excited by what Will Campbell, Emery Jones Jr, Harold Perkins and Mason Taylor have accomplished thus far in their first few games, adding likely red shirt QB Walker Howard, CB LT Welch and DE Quency Wiggins to the mix of future Tiger greats.
Laying down a strong marker for their development with solid performances against an SEC opponent and showing mental toughness to respond in the brutal, high stakes game vs Florida State, Kelly's youth movement are showing maturity and football IQ beyond their years.
Knowing he can count on some of his most inexperienced players, Kelly appears confident heading into his first road test as an SEC head coach, set for departure to Jordan-Hare Stadium where LSU will take on Auburn's under-fire head coach Bryan Harsin and a squad who were obliterated in front of their own fans just two weeks prior at the hands of Penn State.
Sounds like an easy trip, right??
Not on the heels of Auburn's ugly, win-at-all-costs 17-14 overtime victory vs Missouri....no, no, no....a trip to Auburn is never an easy ride within the rivalry's historical context or the modern day parity we've witnessed week to week around college football.
Wins don't grow on trees....
Wins aren't guaranteed....
However, marching into an SEC gauntlet possessing a defense as in your face intense as Matt House's crew, LSU will feel confident they can compete in any game on the schedule.
Alongside a steely platoon linebacker system and an at times dominant defensive line, Robert Steeples and Kerry Cooks' DBU are standing out through four games, defying preseason concerns about their new transfers gelling alongside returning players.
These worries on the part of many, including myself admittedly, are still up for debate at such an early stage of the season, yet considering DBU's lack of depth and new faces, Steeples and Cooks' respective corner and safety units are improving week to week collectively and shining bright individually, Jay Ward, Mekhi Garner, the injured Major Burns, Sage Ryan, Greg Brooks Jr and Jarrick Bernard-Converse all standing out at the backend.
Answering their depth issues at the right time, enter stage right DBs Joe Foucha and Sevyn Banks, both returning from academic suspension and injury respectively.
Meanwhile, even as Mike Denbrock's offense has failed to really get going for 4 solid quarters against a top tier opponent, LSU's squad attacked New Mexico for 633 total yards, 400+ through the air and 200+ on the ground....marking the first time since 2019 an LSU offense racked up over 600 yards.
Jayden Daniels and Co also registered a 60+ point outing for the first time since Joe Burrow walked off into the sunset....
Despite their lack of production at receiver thus far, with weapons like Kayshon Boutte, Jack Bech, Malik Nabers, Jaray Jenkins, Chris Hilton Jr and Brian Thomas Jr out wide, Kelly's Tigers contain enough playmaking on the outside to separate themselves late in games, if given the ball.
Along the front, Brad Davis' offensive line are also starting to figure it out, rushing for over 200 yards in three straight games.
Returning a key piece to their line this past Saturday, highly skilled guard Anthony Bradford came back after a game out and looked strong as ever, helping solidify the interior where center Charles Turner struggles as a pass protector.
Speaking of pass protection, after LSU's backfield debacle vs Florida State, Coach Davis' crew cleaned up their play within the pocket, keeping Daniels upright outside of a couple errors, a few sacks and worrying penalties.
So....how good are this LSU team??
They're better than the scoff-mouthed analysts were projecting....
They're far more elite on defense than many believed....even as this group sustain injuries, they still delivered the program's first shutout in 4 years.
Could Brian Kelly's LSU actually be good enough to survive unblemished through an October rollercoaster of death against a humiliated, angry Auburn, Heupel's top 10 ranked Tennessee, Napier's Florida or Kiffin's #14 ranked Ole Miss?
To do that, Kelly's debutant Tigers would have to be great.
Did Brian Kelly's staff adequately utilize these first four games as a proving ground?
Finding their weaknesses, identifying strengths, locating reliable players in each position, eliminating dead end plays or schemes.....what did Kelly and his staff learn over LSU's topsy turvy first quarter of 2022???
We will find out against Harsin's Auburn on Saturday....the first road trip of the Brian Kelly era leading straight to Jordan-Hare for a game which has historically supplied upsets, wild finishes and some of the most memorable moments in SEC history.
Let's get weird.
By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
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