Excitement for the 2024 college football season is picking up as spring practice gets underway around the SEC.

ESPN decided this week to take a look at the “season-defining” game for every team in its Way-Too-Early Top 25. Mark Schlabach was the ESPN reporter tabbed to make the selection for LSU’s season-defining game.

Schlabach writes that Year 3 of Brian Kelly’s tenure will be defined in Week 1 when LSU travels to Las Vegas to face USC.

“Kelly hopes to restore LSU’s reputation on defense this season, as the Tigers will get tested early against USC in the Vegas Kickoff Classic at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Sept. 1. The Trojans won’t have Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams, tailback MarShawn Lloyd and leading receivers Brenden Rice and Tahj Washington, who helped them rank third in the FBS in scoring (41.8 points) and fifth in passing (333 yards) last season. Lincoln Riley’s offenses will always be capable of piling up yards and points, but naturally USC has had its own problems on defense. Slowing down LSU’s prolific attack will be a test of its own.”

As LSU knows well, recent history says otherwise about Week 1 games

Not to get all “depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” here, but season-defining is unfortunately not defined by ESPN, making things a bit tricky.

Schlabach’s assessment that LSU’s 2024 season likely depends on the defense after the recent staff overhaul won’t get any pushback locally or nationally. And it will be telling to see how said defense fares facing a Lincoln Riley offense with USC’s talent. But can a game be “season-defining” if losing would barely sting (or even at all)?

For 2024, the College Football Playoff is using the 5-7 format. The field will be made up of the 5 highest-ranked conference champions and the 7 seven highest-ranked teams.

It’s safe to say the SEC champion will be one of the 5 highest-ranked conference champs. While many programs see a potential path through the pool of at-large bids, the (virtually) guaranteed way to make the CFP is to win the SEC Championship Game.

While the USC game will say a lot about LSU, it won’t say anything about the Tigers’ chances of getting to Atlanta and punching a Playoff ticket. How the Tigers fare in the SEC race and the CFP race will determine how Kelly is assessed for 2024.

Kelly’s Tiger teams have been the model for putting Week 1 in the rearview.

In 2022, LSU entered Rivalry Week as the No. 5 team in the CFP selection committee rankings despite its Week 1 loss to Florida State and Week 6 loss to Tennessee. If the Tigers had managed to defeat Texas A&M to close out the regular season and Georgia in the SEC Championship, they were on track to be the first two-loss team to make the CFP.

Last season, the Tigers picked up another Week 1 loss to FSU. Even after a Week 5 loss to Ole Miss, LSU was still considered a CFP “sleeper” heading into the Alabama game. It was the loss to the Tide that officially eliminated the Tigers from championship contention.

If any team knows that Week 1 does not define a season, it’s LSU.

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