Why Brian Kelly's LSU showed it'll be the biggest SEC West threat yet to Nick Saban's Alabama
The Alabama dynasty isn’t dead yet.
It’s not fair to say the Tide are done winning national titles as long as Nick Saban is on those sidelines and he’s cranking out No. 1 recruiting classes. Last I checked, both things are still happening, despite the fact that the Tide had 2 losses before the Iron Bowl this season for the first time since 2010.
In 2010, there wasn’t a “threat” to Alabama’s dynasty because, well, Alabama wasn’t a dynasty yet. Sure, Saban was on his way to leading a decade of dominance unlike any we’d ever seen in college football history. Playing in 9 national championship games in a 13-year stretch is arguably more impressive than winning 6 rings in that time.
During that run, we’ve seen a handful of formidable West foes. 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 suppose 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 that thorn in Alabama’s side under Fisher.
But already, it appears that Brian Kelly’s LSU is about to be the biggest West threat that Alabama has seen since it began this version of Alabama. In case you were wondering, Saban is 75-12 against West foes since the start of 2008 and it hasn’t missed out on West titles in consecutive years since 2010-11.
Don’t get triggered, Georgia fans. You’ll notice that I limited that to SEC West teams. Why? It’s a more interesting discussion when it’s a team Alabama sees on its schedule every year. As we know, LSU will be there no matter what.
(Also, Georgia just won 2 national titles and is about to be the overwhelming favorite to 3-peat for the first time since 1936 Minnesota. Do you really need me to break down why Georgia is a threat to Alabama?)
Kelly just did something that Sumlin and Malzahn both did: take down Saban in Year 1. After that, Sumlin and Malzahn went a combined 2-10 against Alabama. Despite all the praise those respective coaches received after their statement victories — A&M did so with the Johnny Manziel game in Tuscaloosa while Auburn did it with the Kick-6 — they were never threats to Alabama.
Why not? To be a threat to Alabama, you have to be recruiting top-5 classes annually, just like Georgia has been doing under Kirby Smart in each of the past 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.
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In hindsight, that was never gonna cut it. Sure, you can have a 1-off victory against Alabama without a slew of top-5 classes, but we’re talking about being a true threat to the Tide on a yearly basis. And if you think Malzahn’s Auburn teams were an annual threat to Alabama, perhaps you missed the part where he never had a team stay within single digits in Tuscaloosa.
As Georgia showed us, to be a true annual threat, you need 3 things:
- Top-5 talent
- The right offensive scheme
- A coach with a proven track record
(Smart was “a coach with a proven track record” by the time he finally beat Alabama by virtue of being in the midst of his 5th consecutive top-7 finish.)
Miles’ LSU squads checked 2 of those 3 boxes, which was why once Alabama was in dynasty mode in 2012, the Tigers lost his final 6 games in that matchup. Sure, LSU started with a 3-2 advantage against Saban through the 2011 regular season, but after that, did LSU have the right offensive scheme under Miles to compete at that level annually? Nope.
Right now, the same appears to be true of A&M, which compiled that historic 2022 class — notice I said “compiled” instead of Saban’s word “bought” — but is in the midst of an offensive overhaul after 2 years of disappointment. For now, you can’t say that the Aggies check all 3 boxes.
For a minute, those Ole Miss teams in the mid-2010s appeared to be a threat, though recruiting violations and an escort service scandal halted that before it could really take off. Maybe that was why you couldn’t check the “coach with a proven track record” box for Ole Miss. Also, let’s not convince ourselves that Freeze 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 everything blew up a year later.
Orgeron’s LSU had top-5 talent with the right offensive scheme. Of course, that’s why it’s important to have a coach with a proven track record. How do you handle success? When Orgeron, Malzahn and Freeze all got those early victories against Saban’s Alabama, they were really experiencing their first taste of success as head coaches, and Sumlin had 1 Top 25 finish at Houston prior to his A&M arrival.
Hence, why we can have this discussion with Kelly.
He certainly checks 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 prior to arriving at LSU … where he instantly won 10 games playing in the toughest division in the sport.
There was fear that Kelly wouldn’t adapt to his new surroundings and that he wouldn’t recruit enough talent in a new region of the country. In 2022 without a full cycle, he signed the No. 7 recruiting class and the No. 3 portal class. In 2023 with a full cycle, he has the No. 5 recruiting class and the No. 1 portal class.
To recap, Kelly is about to match the amount of top-5 classes signed by Sumlin, Freeze and Malzahn combined. From 2012-22, here were all the non-Alabama SEC West squads who signed a top-5 class nationally:
- 2014 LSU
- 2014 A&M
- 2015 LSU
- 2016 LSU
- 2016 Ole Miss
- 2019 LSU
- 2019 A&M
- 2020 LSU
- 2021 LSU
- 2022 A&M
- 2023 LSU (as of Jan. 26)
We know LSU can stack top-5 classes in a way that no other non-Alabama SEC West team can. That, coupled with his ability to recruit the portal, is why Kelly’s post-Year 1 outlook is so positive. It’s not just signing elite talent at LSU. Miles had the wrong offensive scheme. Orgeron didn’t handle success well.
What’s standing in Kelly’s way? It isn’t talent. There aren’t 5 coaches in America with a more proven track record than Kelly, either.
Maybe the only thing you could knock Kelly for is not annually cranking out an elite offense. It wasn’t like Mike Denbrock was sitting at a 100% approval rating throughout 2022. Kelly’s track record for developing franchise NFL quarterbacks is nothing to write home about, either.
Then again, beating Saban has always been more about scheme than it’s been about having stud, future NFL quarterbacks. Nick Marshall, Bo Wallace, Chad Kelly, Johnny Manziel and Jarrett Stidham didn’t check those boxes. Jayden Daniels might be fall into that category one day, but for now, he’s the guy returning after leading LSU to a win against Alabama and a West title. Not bad for a guy who didn’t even have a full offseason to get the lay of the land.
The same could be said 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 from in Year 1 suggested that he knew what he signed up for. He’s not always going to crush the press conference and he could have some cringe-worthy moments down the road, but those things were never going to make or break his success against Alabama.
In 2023, Kelly will likely have a preseason top-10 team for an LSU team who has a shot to be the preseason media pick to win the West. Take that for what it is. In 2022, LSU didn’t receive a single first-place vote and we know how that turned out. Most teams who win 6 games and roll out 39 scholarship players for a bowl game aren’t expected to win the toughest division in sports.
Kelly soared past those Year 1 expectations. It’ll be increasingly difficult for him to live up to that awfully high bar.
It’s safe to say there’ll be a new expectation as long as Kelly is in Baton Rouge — be Alabama’s West threat unlike any we’ve seen during Saban’s run of dominance.