Former LSU coach Ed Orgeron had college football’s best Hollywood script going while it lasted. The Cajun born on the bayous of Larose finally got his dream job as the Tigers’ head coach and guided his beloved team to an undefeated season and the national championship. It was a team led by a Heisman Trophy winner and was considered by many as the best college team ever assembled that had completed the greatest season in college football history.
Present day LSU coach Brian Kelly may not have a made for TV movie tale to rival Coach O just yet. But give him time. His magical story and season is far from its closing credits.
You remember the trailer that had the Notre Dame transplant trying an ill advised Southern accent and an embarrassing attempt at Tik Tok dancing. The critics were loud, then came the finger pointing and the expected jokes at Kelly’s expense.
He took it in stride with some innocent self-deprecation and went to work coaching.
The opening scene could not have started off any worse.
It was a dud of a loss to Florida State in the Superdome, where the Tigers’ special teams looked like a mix of Keystone Cops and the Three Stooges.
Kelly and his Tigers began to trust each other more, which resulted in an impressive four-game winning streak, which included wins over Mississippi State and Auburn.
LSU was considered roadkill after getting hammered by a buzzsaw that was Tennessee — in Tiger Stadium, no less.
The script took an unexpected twist that saw the Tigers reel off four straight SEC victories, including convincing romps over Florida and Ole Miss. The background music hit a crescendo when Kelly gambled on an overtime two-point conversion to slay mighty Alabama by one point.
The critics and skeptics flipped the page, if you will, and were now falling all over themselves with newfound praise and adulation for Kelly — especially after the College Football Playoff Committee put LSU at No. 7 in the only ranking that really matters at this point in the season.
The emotion-spent Tigers had to dig deep to survive a cold morning kickoff in the Ozarks, and turned back upset-minded Arkansas 13-10 to improve to 8-2 on the year.
Cue up the orchestra, because LSU is now the SEC West Division champ and headed to Atlanta to face No. 1 Georgia for the conference title.
Keep your seats because we are far from the climax.
No one, and I mean no one — not even Brian Kelly — thought this team could knock Nick Saban and Alabama from their perch atop the West.
Heck, Mattress Mack didn’t even think of laying down a million or two on the Tigers to advance to the SEC championship.
Kelly has never wavered in his belief and plan for this team. He has not flinched or expressed doubt in his process and method. He rightfully said they have to play and coach better after the two losses and even after a few of the victories.
He is the winningest active head coach in college football — yes, even ahead of Saban. Kelly has won and been successful everywhere he has worked from little Grand Valley State to Central Michigan, Cincinnati and during his 12 years at Notre Dame.
Once his mind was made up, his departure from South Bend wasn’t the smoothest. LSU athletic director Scott Woodward’s 10-year $100-million deal was too good to pass on. But Kelly’s desire to coach the best athletes, in the best conference in the country, is what brought him to Baton Rouge.
Think back and remember what he inherited once Orgeron left the building and headed to Destin.
The roster contained only 37 scholarship players. His starting quarterback (Max Johnson) had just transferred to Texas A&M before the Texas Bowl. The offense and defense were a shell of their former selves, stuggling through a 6-6 regular season. They were trounced by Kansas State in the bowl game.
A few of the remaining star players, namely Kayshon Boutte, went public with their concerns over the firing of the popular Coach O and more than a few left the team through the transfer portal.
It got pretty low there for a while. Then Kelly starting hiring his staff, which was anchored by defensive coordinator Matt House, former Kansas City Chiefs linebackers coach, and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, who was the OC for Cincinnati and worked with Kelly for a spell at Notre Dame.
Kelly lured Frank Wilson from McNeese to help him recruit Louisiana and Texas. And he added little known Joe Sloan from Louisiana Tech, who has done a masterful job as quarterback coach.
Once the private jet landed in Baton Rouge, Kelly’s top priority was recruiting and signing those 4 and 5 star players and working the transfer portal with lightning speed.
He had no choice, as the roster holes were massive and the talent level at quarterback, secondary, offensive line and running back was at low tide with no rise on the horizon.
In hindsight the biggest portal catch was dual threat quarterback Jaylen Daniels, who transferred from Arizona State, where he started for two years.
The August camp QB competition ended pretty quickly when senior Myles Brennen saw he had no shot at playing. He threw in the towel and ended his football career. Garrett Nusmeier couldn’t match Daniels’ combination of passing and running skills. So the job went to the Southern California kid with a quick smile and even quicker legs.
The second critical piece to fall in place was the signing of 5-star offensive tackle Will Campbell out of West Monroe. A slew of teams around the country, including Alabama and Georgia, tried to lure Campbell away from his commitment to LSU. But the giant lineman was steadfast and stayed true to LSU.
And last there was Harold Perkins Jr., born in New Orleans but playing high school ball in Cypress, Texas. The 5-star linebacker was rated the fourth best player in the country in the spring of 2022. I would love to see what those three players ranked ahead of him are doing now.
Perkins decommitted from Texas A&M (maybe that’s what started the Aggies’ fall from grace) and signed with the Tigers. He was Kelly’s shiniest star recruit. But surely the LSU recruiters didn’t know what impact Perkins would ultimately have on LSU defense as a true freshman. Or did they?
Perkins played sparingly early in the season. But his speed and talent soon put him above any other linebacker and he quickly became a mainstay at edge rusher, harassing quarterbacks with sacks, pressure, hurries and forcing fumbles.
At 6 feet, 2 inches and 220 pounds — with cheetah speed and a Ferrari motor — Perkins is what I call a dominant defensive disrupter. When he is on the field, odds are he will disrupt the offense in some form or fashion and it won’t be very subtle.
Just ask Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin and Sam Pittman at Arkansas why they lost to the Tigers.
Saban will chime in as well.
Remember, LSU has marched to an improbable SEC West title without defensive tackle Mason Smith, thought to be their best defender (before Perkins burst on the scene).
Lost in the fanfare and storming of the field in two celebrations, Smith suffered a freak knee injury in the first quarter of the opening game that sidelined him for the season.
Kelly has rebuilt the roster, overhauled the team’s psyche, and achieved complete player commitment to his system and mindset faster than even he could have envisioned.
What he has achieved with a new quarterback, two freshmen starting at offensive tackle, a new secondary, new kicker, an entirely new coaching staff (minus OL coach Brad Davis), changes in offensive and defensive schemes, all over the course of 10-plus months and 10 games, in the toughest conference in college football … well, it’s simply unprecedented. And as far as I can tell, it has never been done before.
To help put their “journey,” as Kelly calls it, in better context, LSU was picked to finish fifth among the seven teams in the SEC West race — this after ending up at the very bottom of the division last season. For even more perspective, this band of Tigers started this season out of the national rankings for the first time in, oh, about 20 years.
We will soon sit down to a Thanksgiving holiday dinner with the real possibility of an SEC championship and forcing the CFP committee to put a two-loss LSU team in the four-way playoff if they run the table by beating UAB, Texas A&M and those big bad Dogs in Georgia.
Kelly followed in the tumultuous wave of the popular Louisiana-born Orgeron.
He’s a Yankee from Massachusetts with a different accent, a CEO-type coaching style and an undeniable presence, confidence and command.
The script for this — dare I say — shocking LSU season is not yet fully written. The Tigers may have a few more delightful twists in store for us.
I’m just happy to report that Kelly has steered clear of the catch phrase “Geaux Tigers.”
That will be in the other LSU football movie one day.
Catch Rick Sarro’s commentary and latest opinions on Soundoff on CBS Lake Charles Tuesday and Thursday nights at 10:05 pm and again Saturday at 11 pm and Sunday at 10 pm. Follow Rick on Twitter @ricksarro.
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