That the LSU football program is in a better position with Brian Kelly as head coach than it was with Ed Orgeron and Les Miles, is not up for debate. But does his hiring spell championships in this program’s future?
I’m not so sure.
From a cultural, behavioral, and on-the-field success standpoint, Kelly was the best attainable answer to solve LSU’s problems, both recent and repetitive. LSU needed a coach capable of revitalizing a program while also being able to rebuild its reputation and keep controversy away.
Fortunately for them, they got exactly that in Kelly.
While Kelly has dealt with controversy throughout his long tenure with Notre Dame, those instances are few and far between. Apart from the normal performance critiques every college football coach receives, Kelly’s name typically remains outside of the negative spotlight.
On the other hand, his on-the-field success speaks for itself.
With his first FBS football team, Central Michigan, he took a squad that placed at the bottom of its division in 2003 and turned it into a Mid-American Conference champion just three years later.
Then, he helped Cincinnati escape West Virginia’s firm grip on the Big East, leading the Bearcats to two conference titles and BCS bowls. He transformed a decent team under Mark Dantonio into one some believed should have been in the national championship game after the 2009-10 regular season.
Unfortunately, that sentiment did not last long.
The Bearcats went 0-2 in those BCS bowls, losing by 13 to Virginia Tech in the 2009 Orange Bowl before getting blown out by Florida in the 2010 Sugar Bowl. That Sugar Bowl loss occurred while Brian Kelly was in Indiana preparing for his next reconstruction project in blue-blood Notre Dame.
While he successfully upgraded his third team, taking a Notre Dame squad that had gone 16-21 in its previous three seasons to the national championship in just his third year and re-establishing the program as a consistent regular-season powerhouse, his BCS-bowl win total remains at zero. In fact, it has been no more than a glorified version of his Cincinnati teams in 2008 and 2009, who dominated the Big East but were exposed anytime they faced a championship contender.
Under Kelly, Notre Dame went 0-4 in BCS bowls, getting outscored 147-59 in those games.
He has continuously cited recruiting restrictions due to academic requirements being the primary reason the Fighting Irish have not been able to compete with the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State.
However, that isn’t necessarily true.
While Notre Dame may key in on a student’s academics more than most top football programs, if they are so restrictive, how were they able to recruit the second-best class in the country in 2008, according to 247sports, less than two years before Kelly took over the program?
How do they currently sport the best 2023 recruiting class now that Kelly has been gone for eight months?
Not to mention Notre Dame is not the only relevant football program that deals with academic restrictions. Stanford is just as restrictive and has attended five BCS bowl games since 2010, winning three of them. Not to mention it defeated the Fighting Irish six times during that same time span.
The Cardinal did this all while only topping Notre Dame once in recruiting.
Kelly’s four BCS bowls with the Irish came against arguably the best teams in college football, with three opponents winning the national championship and one, Ohio State, coming one tough loss away from making the playoff. But this is a program that wanted college football fans to see them as a team worthy of a championship, yet anytime they got the chance to prove themselves, they did not look prepared in the slightest.
And it’s not like Notre Dame never appeared capable during the regular season.
Between 2014 and 2017, Notre Dame faced off against three playoff teams during the regular season and matched up well against them, losing those games by a combined seven points. The Irish statistically outplayed Florida State in 2014 and Clemson in 2015 as well, but turnovers and missed opportunities ruined their chances of victory.
While their recruiting classes were not the best, they consistently produced talent that could compete at the highest level, but their performances in big games such as the ACC Championship in 2020, both playoff games they were featured in and the Fiesta Bowl in 2015 don’t mirror their performances throughout the regular season. We can only speculate as to whether it was due to poor strategy, preparation or lack of discipline.
It’s more unsettling considering that through 11 seasons, the Irish’s best BCS performance came after Kelly left, falling two points short of beating a playoff contender in the 2022 Fiesta Bowl.
What that means for LSU is complicated and hard to predict.
Kelly has consistently proven that he can turn dust into gold, bettering every team he has coached at the FBS level. Despite his shortcomings at Notre Dame, he provided the program with immediate on-the-field improvements and maintained consistent success throughout most of his time there.
He is also in a better position when it comes to making BCS bowls, no longer losing a chance at making the playoff after losing once and a BCS bowl after losing twice. He’s had both those situations occur over the past three seasons, due to the struggles of USC and Stanford dulling the strength of Notre Dame’s schedule and the Irish’s lack of a conference title to bolster their resume.
His best teams have beaten solid Michigan, Michigan State, USC and Stanford teams throughout the regular season while also holding their own against Clemson and Georgia on multiple occasions. The prospect of Kelly quickly developing LSU back into a BCS-bowl and eventual playoff contender is not that far-fetched.
He just has to win big games, and this is his best opportunity to do so.
Since Kelly took his first FBS job, the Tigers have won two national championships with two worse coaches than him. He has already gotten to work reconstructing this team into a contender, producing one of the best 2022 transfer portal classes in the country and filling many of their perceived weaknesses with experienced talent.
There are reasons to be optimistic heading into this new era of LSU football. But until Brian Kelly takes this team to the promised land and wins, remain skeptical.