1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …

We’ve reached a seminal moment 1 year later, a real and tangible test of just how far LSU has come since the arrival of coach Brian Kelly in 2022.

You’re not going to get a more consequential beginning to the college football season than what will play out Sunday night in Orlando.

LSU. vs. FSU.

One contender steps forward, the other scrambles to find a way back. Two 10-win teams from 2022 with Playoff goals that weren’t afraid this offseason to speak the quiet, confident words out loud.

The road to the national championship begins in Week 1. It could end there, too.

“This time it’s a little different,” Kelly said in July. “You had a couple of teams last year that didn’t really know who they were. You’re going to get a good idea of who you are this time around.”

More than anything, that’s where we are with LSU in Year 2 under Kelly: Are the Tiger the real deal — or still a year away from the ability to win it all?

We’ve heard all offseason about the upgraded roster, and the significant improvement from quarterback Jayden Daniels. About how everyone on a talented roster understands what’s expected the 2nd time around.

We’ve heard about championship predictions and Heisman Trophy runs and the flip from the quickly faded days of Ed Orgeron, to the my way or there’s the transfer portal ways of Kelly.

We saw evidence last season with the win over Alabama, and the gutsy and successful 2-point conversion call. We saw the Tigers take a lethal blow in an embarrassing 27-point home loss to Tennessee — a loss that would’ve crippled many teams with 1st-year coaches — and still find a way to nearly double the win total of 2021.

Those 10 wins in 2022 are important, but that’s not going to satiate LSU faithful. Kelly knows it, players know it.

“The expectations in this program are real,” Daniels said. “You can take it head on, or you can run away from it. But you’re not avoiding it.”

That’s why 13 players left LSU for the portal after last season, a stark lesson in it’s not working for either of us. And that wasn’t the lower level of the roster, with 8 of the portal entries signing with Power 5 schools.

But it’s the 12 additions from the portal that have LSU in position to do what it couldn’t in last year’s FSU game: control the lines of scrimmage and impose their will on the Seminoles. In no other area is that more impactful than on defense.

With star defensive tackle Maason Smith out because of a 1-game suspension, 5 of the top 8 defensive linemen on the 2-deep roster are from the portal (more on that later). But it doesn’t end there.

You’ve heard the talking points by now. LSU got 240-pound thumping linebacker Omar Speights from Oregon State, and he’ll allow linebacker Harold Perkins — the best defensive player in college football — to move around the front seven and create mismatches.

Cornerbacks Duce Chestnut (Syracuse) and Zy Alexander (Southeastern Louisiana) excel in man coverage with elite speed, which plays into LSU’s ability to pressure the quarterback and force quick, poor decisions.

The defense is revamped, and the offense will pick up from the way it produced at the end of last season. Everything is ahead of schedule in Baton Rouge.

Or is it?

Or does everything break down the first time FSU quarterback Jordan Travis scrambles for 20-plus yards?

“It’s going to be a great test for our whole team,” Daniels said. “These are the games you come to LSU to play in. We could play a game against an inferior team, but what’s the fun in that? Let’s start with the game that’s going to test us as soon as we step on the field.”

2. Building the machine

Kelly had his come to Jesus moment at Notre Dame after the 2012 season, when Alabama destroyed the Irish in the BCS National Championship Game.

He could no longer recruit to beat USC and Stanford and Michigan. This was a much heavier lift.

He had to recruit elite players along the lines of scrimmage to deal with the SEC, which had won its 7th straight national title with Alabama’s cakewalk over the Irish.

It took 4 seasons for the philosophy to take hold, for the recruiting and the development and the results to all work cohesively and produce the ensuing 5-year run where ND won 54 games and reached 2 Playoffs. The Irish had 9 players on the lines of scrimmage selected in the NFL Draft during that span, including 2 1st-round selections on offense and 1 on defense.

One problem: He doesn’t have 9 years to make it work at LSU. It has to happen yesterday.

That’s why 5 of the first 8 defensive linemen on the 2-deep roster are transfers, and if you include star nose guard Mekhi Wingo — a transfer from Missouri in 2022 — it’s 6-of-8.

That’s where you want to be on the lines of scrimmage — where you can lose your best player to suspension, and he’s replaced by a 6-4, 320-pound transfer from West Virginia (Jordan Jefferson) who, at times last season, was a game-wrecker in the Big 12.

Meanwhile, there’s the offensive line, where Kelly in 2022 landed 2 of the top tackles in the nation from Louisiana — and threw both into the starting lineup. Now LT Will Campbell is a preseason All-American candidate (and the newest LSU player to be honored with the No. 7 jersey, though he’ll wear it as a patch), and RT Emery Jones Jr. is among the best young tackles in the SEC.

Then there’s mammoth 5-star signee Lance Heard (6-6, 340), a 3rd elite offensive lineman from the state of Louisiana who is forcing his way into the starting lineup. He has played so well in fall camp, he could force the staff — at some point early in the season — to move Jones inside to guard to get the best 5 on the field.

That’s where you win big games: you’re bigger and stronger on the lines of scrimmage than the other guy.

3. The big test, The Epilogue

If LSU truly is to be considered among the elite of college football, this is where the Tigers take a stand in these early season nonconference mega matchups by clearly defining who and what they are.

Just like Alabama and Georgia have, and yes, LSU from the past.

It should come as no surprise that Alabama, Georgia and LSU have won (and often overwhelmed) in these games by controlling the lines of scrimmage.

It happened last year in Georgia’s 49-3 rout of Oregon, the only game transfer QB Bo Nix played didn’t play like a Heisman Trophy winner.

That game was not unlike Alabama’s intimidation of Miami in 2021 (or USC, Louisville and FSU in years’ past, or take your pick of any other big, early season nonconference game).

Or Georgia manhandling Clemson, or winning at Notre Dame against Kelly’s best Irish team, or most any other early-season, nonconference game for the SEC’s elite. Under Les Miles, LSU consistently won big in early nonconference games (Oregon, Washington, TCU, Wisconsin, Virginia Tech).

This is how it works when you’re ready to move into the SEC elite, and win big. You certainly don’t fumble 2 punt returns and blow a blocking assignment on an extra point — among many other mistakes — and walk off the field in stunned disbelief at how it all unraveled in last year’s opener against FSU.

This is where we are with LSU: If you want to be considered a legit national title contender, take care of business Sunday in Orlando.

4. Will he or won’t he?

The question of the offseason in Salt Lake City (and by proxy, Gainesville) has been the health of Utah QB Cam Rising.

We’re less than 4 days from Florida’s trip to Utah for a Thursday night game, and there’s a whole lot of gamesmanship going on.

Rising, who had ACL surgery in January after injuring his knee in the Rose Bowl, hasn’t officially been cleared to play. He has been throwing with the team all fall camp, but has been kept from contact and sudden lateral movement.

Early during fall camp, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said Rising needed to be cleared to practice full-go 10-14 days prior to the game to play against the Gators. If Rising can’t play, Bryson Barnes would start.

But Barnes has been holding off sophomore walk-on Nate Johnson, and only late last week did Whittingham say Barnes — who had 4 TDs and 2 INTs in limited action in 2022 — would start if Rising can’t go.

When asked Friday how late he could go before naming a starter, Whittingham joked, “probably 10 minutes before kickoff.”

Rising threw for 216 yards and 1 TD last season in Gainesville, and he threw a critical interception in the end zone in the final seconds with Utah trailing 29-26. He did that against a Florida defense that, while more experienced than the 2023 unit, isn’t nearly as talented.

Or as one Gators staffer told SDS, “Everyone is concerned about the quarterback (at Florida), but we’ve got some dudes in this group. I can’t wait to go play.”

5. The Weekly 5

Five picks against the spread.

  • 1. LSU (-2.5) vs. FSU
  • 2. Florida at Utah (-7)
  • 3. South Carolina vs. North Carolina (-2.5)
  • 4. Tennessee (-28.5) vs. Virginia
  • 5. Ball State at Kentucky (-26.5)

2022 season: 44-36.

6. Your tape is your resume

An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Vanderbilt WR Will Sheppard.

“He has good size and he can run. His game is very fluid, and he has shown some explosion after the catch. They haven’t been able to throw the ball with efficiency until late last season. They’ll throw it all over the place this year with the quarterback (AJ Swann) who will be a legit factor in 2025 (draft). We’ll at least get an idea if he can be a volume catch guy, and what happens when they need a play and he has to win on the outside? He’s an intriguing guy right now. I can promise you, he’s on plenty of radars.”

On cue, Sheppard caught 6 passes for 68 yards and 2 TDs in Vandy’s Week 0 win over Hawaii.

7. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing: Week 1 revelation.

1. Georgia: Carson Beck will have an Aaron Murray-type season at Georgia — but won’t finish yards shy in the SEC Championship Game.

2. LSU: Daniels is the show, but watch Notre Dame transfer RB Logan Diggs. A legit NFL talent.

3. Tennessee: After 4 long years — and after many in his class already are stars in the NFL — Bru McCoy becomes an elite No. 1 WR.

4. Alabama: New DC Kevin Steele will have a more significant impact than new OC Tommy Rees.

5. Texas A&M: Even Jimbo Fisher can’t screw up the elite talent of QB Conner Weigman.

6. Kentucky: QB Devin Leary is a huge addition, but the UK defense will be the best since Stoops arrived in 2013.

7. Arkansas: It took a full season, but watch edge Landon Jackson develop into an elite pass rusher.

8. Ole Miss: Lane Kiffin’s desire to play 1 QB won’t happen — but only because Spencer Sanders is too dynamic to keep off the field.

9. Mississippi State: Remember this name: Lideatrick Griffin. For much of his career, he has been a special teams return ace. Now all of that speed is freed up in the slot in Kevin Barbay’s offense, and he’ll force defenses into plenty of conflict.

10. South Carolina: The transition is real. Freshman Nyck Harbor, a 5-star edge in high school, is now a wide receiver and running with the first 4 — at 6-5, 241 pounds.

11. Florida: The Gators had 23 sacks in 2022. They’ll double that number in 2023 — and edge Princely Umanmielen will be the most disruptive off the edge.

12. Auburn: There are 12 transfer starting for Auburn, including 3-of-5 on the offensive line. And the Tigers’ offense will still revolve around a wildly underrated run game.

13. Missouri: Coach Eli Drinkwitz has to win now. But that doesn’t mean he plays it safe. Sam Horn will be the Tigers’ quarterback because he has the highest ceiling.

14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores can’t stop anyone defensively, but QB AJ Swann to WRs Will Sheppard and Jayden McGowan is going to be a big problem for the rest of the league.

8. Ask and you shall receive

Matt: Which quarterback gives Alabama the best chance to win? — Donald Jacobs, Orlando.


Nick Saban has had 8 1st-year starting quarterbacks at Alabama since 2007. Those 8 quarterbacks combined for a TD/INT ratio of 236/53.

Let me write that again: 236 touchdowns and 53 interceptions. Or an average of 29.5 TDs, and 6.6 INTs.

The bigger question is where do Jalen Milroe, Ty Simpson and Tyler Buchner fit with the other 8 1st-year starters: Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron, Blake Sims, Jacob Coker, Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones and Bryce Young.

Milroe is similar to Hurts but has the veteran presence of Mac Jones (though not a similar thrower). Simpson has the throwing ability of a young Jones, but is more like McCarron in his 1st season — where it took a while to figure out things.

Then there’s Buchner, who has some Hurts, McElroy and Blake Sims qualities. None of the group can be compared to Tagovailoa or Young, but that doesn’t mean Saban can’t get the best out of them and a strong defense and run game.

McElroy won a national title. So did McCarron and Coker. That’s the safest comparison to this season, and that’s why I believe Saban can (and will) win with any of the 3 quarterbacks.

Does winning translate to the Playoff? I’d say no at this point, but if 1 of the 3 quarterbacks plays well when the stadium is full and the silk jerseys are on — which many do at all levels of football, even though it doesn’t look god in practice — Alabama is a Playoff team.

9. Numbers

5,418. Want to know why Joe Milton III will have a big season at Tennessee? The same reason Hendon Hooker did: because of the Vols’ run game.

That’s right, the run game.

Nothing protects a quarterback from the ills of the game (pass rush, 3rd and long, combination coverages) quite like a good run game. The Vols have rushed for 5,418 yards and 70 TDs in the past 2 seasons, an undervalued reality that has kept Heupel’s offense humming for 2 years.

Tennessee has its most athletic offensive line under Heupel, and returns RBs Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright — who have rushed for 2,810 yards and 36 TDs in the last 2 seasons.

10. Quote to note

Arkansas coach Sam Pittman on the transfer portal: “I think it’s just like anything else. You take mine, I’ll take yours. I’ve got enemies out there. I don’t think I have a whole lot of enemies in the coaching business, and they’re willing to talk to us. And we certainly are (with) them. We want to help our kids if they decide to leave.”