Why Brian Kelly will win a national championship at LSU before Lincoln Riley wins one at USC
I rolled my eyes both times I got the text.
The first one came on Sunday afternoon. One of my buddies said “did not expect Riley to USC.” Honestly, I thought Mike Riley to USC was more realistic than Lincoln Riley to USC, which was why I responded with nothing but 3 question marks. That same buddy then shared Pete Thamel’s tweet saying that USC was “targeting” Riley as its next head coach.
Sure, I bet they’re “targeting” him in the same way I’m “targeting” that villa in Italy.
Nope. “Targeting” apparently means more than that.
So you’d think I learned my lesson by the time another buddy texted me a day later with a similar response. This buddy, an LSU fan, texted me in all caps “WE GOT BRIAN KELLY???”
Eye roll again. Sure ya did, guy. And I got that house on the water in Clearwater I’ve been eying.
Nope. That’s not a joke, either.
Welcome to 2021, where fantasy message board hires are now reality. Money is just a number and forking over 9-figure contracts to poach elite coaches is now a thing. Fourteen years ago, Nick Saban was the first $4 million coach in the sport. Now, Riley and Kelly are clocking in around a reported $10 million annually (Kelly is an annual average of $9.5 million).
Maybe you just rolled your eyes at that. Or maybe you’ll roll your eyes at this other thought I had once that reality set in.
In a race to win a national championship, give me the new coach of the Bayou Bengals.
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Kelly, not Riley, will reach the top of the college football mountain first. Yes, even in the big, bad SEC. As in, the SEC that Riley opted out of joining by ditching SEC-bound Oklahoma, turning down LSU and shipping out as far west as possible.
And sure, it makes perfect sense why Riley looked into the crystal ball and saw a favorable path for himself at USC. It wasn’t just that the path was lined with hundred-dollar bills. It was that at USC, he’s suddenly the undisputed top contender who will instantly have a chance to recruit more talent than anyone in the conference.
So … like he had at Oklahoma. You know, the place where he won 4 consecutive conference titles and made 2 Playoff appearances with 3 quarterbacks who finished in the top 2 of the Heisman Trophy voting and are now starting in the NFL. This season, Oklahoma ranked No. 6 in the 247sports talent composite rankings. And Riley, with the preseason Heisman favorite and projected No. 1 overall pick, couldn’t even earn a trip to a conference championship.
Don’t get it twisted. Riley is an excellent coach, a second-to-none developer of quarterbacks and an elite offensive mind. But allow me to roll my eyes at the notion that he’s suddenly going to start recruiting at a Kirby Smart level in a state where everyone attacks and that Riley is now going to get even more talent at the game’s most important position.
But what about the Playoff, you ask? After all, Riley just joined the league that is about to get shut out of the Playoff for the 5th consecutive year while Kelly just joined the conference that won 11 of the past 15 national championships. Surely Kelly can’t win a national championship before Riley with how daunting that road is, right?
Yeah, about that.
The Playoff is expected to expand to 12 teams. As in, say goodbye to the 1-bid leagues and say hello to 9-3 teams making the field. That’s the LSU floor. This notion that USC is going to have a much favorable path to the Playoff is ignoring the looming expansion elephant in the room. The new mindset will just be make the field, by any means necessary.
Riley and Kelly have been criticized for their Playoff failures. They’re a combined 0-5, and only 1 of those semifinal losses was by single digits. They saw their respective ceilings. The side-by-side comp shows that, too:
*based on 247sports talent composite
And by the way, that lone Notre Dame AP Top-5 win was against a Trevor Lawrence-less Clemson team. It also took 2 overtimes, and Clemson avenged that loss in convincing fashion on a neutral site in the ACC Championship with a healthy Lawrence. That was Kelly’s first and only win against a top-5 team in 12 years at Notre Dame. Since 1997, Notre Dame is 3-21 against AP Top 5 teams and 0-6 against them in bowl games.
That’s not an indictment on Kelly. It’s an indictment on a program that has stricter academic standards than the current college football powers (and who also couldn’t prevent a defensive coordinator like Mike Elko from getting poached by richer Texas A&M). Talent is the name of the game when it comes to winning championships and competing at a top-5 level. Since 2017, Notre Dame had a combined 7 5-star players on those 5 teams. This year alone, 5 programs have as many 5-star players. Who does that include, you ask? Oklahoma.
That’s right. Riley has as many 5-star players on his current roster than Kelly had in his last 5 years as a head coach.
Now, look at a place like LSU, where the Tigers haven’t had a coach for 2 months, and they still have as many 5-stars committed to the 2022 class (2) as Kelly had on his roster at any time in the past 5 years.
You see what I’m getting at.
Kelly is going to recruit there. There’s no denying that. He consistently recruited at a top-10 level at Notre Dame. Now with LSU’s resources, that’s only going to improve.
But what about his lack of southern roots, you ask? Last I checked, Nick Saban and Les Miles didn’t have southern roots before they came to LSU and started recruiting top-5 classes and competing for national titles.
Oh, I probably should’ve brought that up earlier. As in, the whole “the past 3 LSU coaches all won national titles” thing. USC, meanwhile, had 1 coach sustain any amount of success in the past 30 years and then got popped for NCAA violations as soon as he (Pete Carroll) jumped ship to the NFL.
Advantage, LSU. Advantage, Kelly.
I don’t know how long it’ll take for Kelly to win it all at LSU. Orgeron, AKA the guy who flamed out at Ole Miss and whose hiring was mocked, needed 3 years. So did Miles. Saban needed 4. Maybe it will take 3-4 years for Kelly to check that last box off his coaching bucket list.
I’ll take the “over” on Riley, who will have plenty of success but is still trying to turn around a program that’s about to finish outside the top 10 for the 9th time in the past 10 seasons. Go ask Steve Sarkisian about being an elite offensive mind and turning around a traditional power. It doesn’t happen overnight.
At LSU, nobody should be surprised if Kelly turns another program into a contender in Year 1. He’s not overhauling a culture or trying to get people to show up on Saturdays like Riley is.
Soon, Kelly will stand atop the college football mountain.
When he does, it’ll prompt the same reaction from the rest of the college football world — an eye roll after yet another LSU coach brings a title back to the Bayou.