Tell the Truth Monday: Brian Kelly has LSU ahead of schedule
It’s the first Monday of 2023.
And the last Tell the Truth Monday of the 2022 season.
LSU finished its 2022 season and started 2023 with a dominant 63-7 victory against Purdue in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
The truth is that the Boilermakers didn’t belong on the same field as the Tigers.
It’s also true that – because of opt-outs – the Purdue team playing Monday wasn’t the same team as the one that played in the Big Ten Championship Game.
And it’s true that the 2022 LSU team isn’t as good as the final score against the Boilermakers might suggest.
The Tigers were missing key players, too, but they had clearly superior depth to Purdue even though the depth isn’t yet to where head coach Brian Kelly expects it to be or where it needs to be for LSU to be consistent contenders for SEC and CFP titles.
It was a nearly flawless performance by the Tigers and an exhilarating end to Kelly’s debut season.
But it doesn’t mean LSU has arrived.
The final performance by the 2022 Tigers bears many of the same characteristics as their entire season.
It’s eye-opening because it exceeded realistic expectations.
It shows that Kelly and his staff have this group primed to perform about as well as it’s capable of performing.
It’s encouraging because it demonstrates that the program is ahead of schedule, considering the rebuilding that was necessary when Kelly succeeded Ed Orgeron.
But the key to keeping the win and the season in perspective is to realize that being ahead of schedule doesn’t mean the same thing as mission accomplished.
Kelly’s mission is to make LSU a perennial contender to win the SEC West, a program capable of winning the SEC title any season and periodically winning national championships. The same thing Alabama has been and Georgia has become.
During the regular season, the Tigers showed that already they were able to beat Alabama – albeit at home, by 1 point, in overtime.
That’s a significant accomplishment in a single game but not necessarily evidence of programs on equal footing.
The Tigers also showed that they weren’t yet able to beat Georgia, or even come terribly close, in a 50-30 loss in the SEC title game.
The season also featured a sloppy, last-second loss to Florida State in the opener, a punch-in-the mouth blowout loss at home against Tennessee and a head-scratching performance in a double-digit loss to a 5-win Texas A&M team in the regular-season finale with a Playoff berth still potentially within grasp.
The body of work leading into the Citrus Bowl showed that LSU was a good team, one capable of playing like a top-5 team on occasion and one also capable of playing like an unranked team on occasion.
The dominance of a Big Ten team in one of the most prestigious non-New Year’s 6 bowls isn’t as indicative of where the program is as the numbers might make it seem.
The Tigers still have a lot of work to in developing championship-caliber depth and they seem well on their way to doing that. No offense to Purdue, especially amid significant opt-outs, but being deeper than the Boilermakers isn’t the target Kelly has in his sights.
There’s one more truth – a significant one – that has to be acknowledged.
Evaluating where the LSU program is on the first couple of days of 2023 requires assessing more than just the won-lost record, the statistics and the most recent performance.
It requires looking at the foundation.
Kelly and his staff inherited a dysfunctional program. They not only needed to bring in a bunch of really good players, but they had to demonstrate that they had a program in which elite college players can maximize their development as NFL prospects, mature with like-minded, dependable teammates and be nurtured by coaches they can trust.
The Tigers, like the Boilermakers, were missing players because of NFL opt-outs and the transfer portal. But LSU wasn’t hampered nearly as much as it was a year earlier and the return of quarterback Jayden Daniels shows progress in player retention.
More than that, though, the way Kelly’s team prepared, performed and celebrated Monday demonstrated that a championship culture is being established. And that will positively impact the ability to attract and retain more and more elite players.
The Tigers have not arrived.
But they look like they’re going to arrive earlier than projected.