Why Brian Kelly’s LSU showed it will be the biggest SEC West threat yet to Nick Saban’s Alabama

The Alabama dynasty is not dead yet.

It’s not fair to say that the Tide are done winning national titles as long as Nick Saban stays on that sideline and he produces the #1 recruit classes. Most recently, I checked that both things are still happening, even though The Tide had two losses before the Iron Bowl this season for the first time since 2010.

In 2010, there was no “threat” to Alabama’s dynasty because Alabama was not yet a dynasty. Sure, Saban was on track to lead a decade of dominance unlike any we’ve seen in college football history. Playing in 9 national championship games in 13 years is arguably more impressive than winning 6 rings in that time.

During this run, we saw a handful of formidable Western enemies. There was Les Miles’ LSU, Gus Malzahn’s Auburn, Kevin Sumlin’s Texas A&M, Hugh Freeze’s Ole Miss and Ed Orgeron’s LSU. I assume there was Jimbo Fisher’s A&M, but the rest of those programs were used in the past tense, and technically the Aggies are still trying to be a thorn in Alabama’s side under Fisher.

But already, it appears that Brian Kelly’s LSU will be the biggest western threat Alabama has seen since this version of Alabama began. In case you were wondering, Saban has gone 75-12 against West foes since early 2008 and has not missed a West title in consecutive years since 2010-11.

Don’t get triggered, Georgia fans. You’ll notice I’ve limited this to SEC West teams. Why? It’s a more interesting discussion when it comes to a team that sees Alabama on their schedule every year. As we know, LSU will definitely be there.

(Plus, Georgia just won two national titles and is about to be Minnesota’s overwhelming favorite for 3-peat for the first time since 1936. Do I really need to explain why Georgia is a threat to Alabama?)

Kelly just did what Sumlin and Malzahn both did: defeat Saban in Year 1. After that, Sumlin and Malzahn combined to go 2-10 against Alabama. Despite all the praise these respective coaches received after their statement victories — A&M did it with Johnny Manziel’s play at Tuscaloosa while Auburn did it with the kick-6 — they were never a threat to Alabama.

Why not? To be a threat to Alabama, you need to recruit top 5 classes annually, just like Georgia did under Kirby Smart in each of the last 7 classes. In Sumlin’s 6 classes at A&M and Malzahn’s 8 classes at Auburn, they signed a combined…1 top 5 class.

Continue reading

Sports betting in Louisiana is officially live across much of the state. Whether you bet on SEC soccer or LSU soccer games or the Heisman race every year, if you live in Louisiana you can now do it from your mobile phone.

In retrospect, that would never be enough. Sure, you can pull off a one-off win against Alabama without a bunch of top-five classes, but we’re talking about being a real threat to the Tide annually. And if you think Malzahn’s Auburn teams were a yearly threat to Alabama, you might have missed the part about how he never had a team in Tuscaloosa that stayed in the single digits.

As Georgia showed us, to be a true annual threat, it takes three things:

  • Top 5 Talent
  • The right offensive scheme
  • A coach with a proven track record

(Smart was “a coach with a proven track record” when he finally beat Alabama because he was in the midst of his fifth straight top 7 finish.)

Miles’ LSU teams checked 2 of those 3 boxes, which is why when Alabama was in dynasty mode in 2012, the Tigers lost their last 6 games in that match. Sure, LSU started the 2011 regular season with a 3-2 advantage over Saban, but did LSU have the right offensive program under Miles after that to compete at this level annually? nope

Right now, the same seems to be true of A&M, which put together this historic class of 2022 — note I said “compiled” instead of Saban’s word “bought” — but is stuck in the midst of an offensive overhaul after two years of disappointment. At the moment, there’s no telling the Aggies tick all 3 boxes.

For a minute, those ole miss teams seemed like a threat in the mid-2010s, though recruiting breaches and an escort service scandal stopped that before it could really get going. Maybe that’s why you couldn’t tick the “coach with a proven track record” box for Ole Miss. Also, let’s not convince that Freeze has stacked a bunch of top 5 classes. That stunning, too good to be true, 2013 group was only No. 8 nationally. It was actually that 2016 group that ranked No. 5, but a year later it all exploded.

Orgeron’s LSU had top 5 talent with the right offensive scheme. So of course it’s important to have a coach with a proven track record. How do you deal with success? When Orgeron, Malzahn and Freeze all had those early victories against Saban’s Alabama, they really experienced their first head coaching success, and Sumlin had a top-25 finish in Houston before arriving at A&M.

So we can have this discussion with Kelly.

He certainly ticks the “coach with a proven track record” box, and before you tell me about his lack of playoff success, tell me about the guy who had 8 seasons of double-digit wins before coming to LSU … where he immediately won 10 games in the toughest division in the sport.

There was concern that Kelly would not adjust to his new environment and recruit enough talent in a new region of the country. In 2022, he signed Recruitment #7 Class and Portal Class #3 without a full cycle. In 2023, with a full cycle, he has Recruitment #5 Class and Portal Class #1.

To recap, Kelly is on track to match the number of top five classes signed by Sumlin, Freeze and Malzahn combined. From 2012 through 2022, here were all of the non-Alabama SEC West rosters who signed a Top 5 class nationally:

  • 2014 LSU
  • 2014 A&M
  • 2015 LSU
  • LSU 2016
  • 2016 Ole Miss
  • LSU 2019
  • 2019 A&M
  • 2020 LSU
  • 2021 LSU
  • 2022 A&M
  • 2023 LSU (from January 26)

We know LSU can stack the top 5 classes in a way no other non-Alabama SEC-West team can. That, along with his ability to recruit the portal, is why Kelly’s outlook after year one is so positive. It’s not just about signing elite talent at LSU. Miles had the wrong offensive scheme. Orgeron didn’t handle success well.

What’s in Kelly’s way? It’s not a talent. There are also no 5 coaches in America with a more proven track record than Kelly.

Maybe the only thing you could pat Kelly for is not launching an elite offensive every year. It wasn’t like Mike Denbrock had a 100% approval rating all of 2022. Kelly’s track record of developing franchise NFL quarterbacks is nothing special either.

Then again, beating Saban has always been more about a plan than having future NFL quarterbacks. Nick Marshall, Bo Wallace, Chad Kelly, Johnny Manziel, and Jarrett Stidham didn’t check those boxes. Jayden Daniels might someday fall into that category, but for now, he’s the guy making a comeback after leading LSU to a win over Alabama and a West title. Not bad for a guy who hasn’t even had a full offseason to get the hang of it.

Ditto for Kelly, who hit the ground running from the moment he arrived in Baton Rouge. Bad Southern accent and dance videos aside, everything we saw in Year 1 indicated he knew what he was signing up for. He won’t always destroy the press conference, and he might have some chilling moments later, but those things would never make or break his success against Alabama.

In 2023, Kelly will likely have a top 10 preseason team for an LSU team that has a shot at being the preseason media pick to win the West. Take this for what it is. In 2022, LSU didn’t get a single first-place vote, and we know how that played out. Most teams that win 6 games and field 39 scholars to a bowl game are not expected to win the toughest sports division.

Kelly exceeded those first-year expectations. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for him to live up to that terribly high bar.

It’s safe to say that as long as Kelly is in Baton Rouge — Alabama’s western threat unlike any we’ve seen during Saban’s dominance run — there will be a new expectation.