A team can’t improve throughout a season and then win a college football national championship. That isn’t exactly true. The best teams always shapeshift a bit and come together over the year. But there is some truth to the point. If your grail is a national title, the margin for error has historically been between zero and one loss, with sporadic exceptions. Lose a game in September? You might be out right then, depending on who you are and what happens around you as the season progresses. Lose twice by mid-October? You can still continue and have a fun season, but you will not be playing for the biggest prize. This limitation is a feature of the sport. A baseball team can be 22-29 in June and then make the World Series. College football operates differently.
At least, it has operated differently. Things will change when the College Football Playoff expands from four teams to 12 in 2024 or ’25. In one sense, it will devalue the regular season that a team can lose any game and retain a title path. In another sense, it will put more value on regular season games because more teams will spend more of the season in at least nominal title contention. It would be best if everyone around the sport could relearn how to love the regular season on its terms. But that toothpaste is way out of the tube, and at this point, the way to make more games matter is to put more teams in the CFP.
This year’s LSU Tigers are a window into where college football is going. In 2019, LSU had the scariest offense and arguably the best team ever, with the 15-0 record to state its case. The program lost its way rapidly after that, and by the middle of 2021 it was firing Ed Orgeron, the head coach and Cajun son who brought that 2019 title to Baton Rouge. It seemed possible that LSU was due for several years in the wilderness. But 10 weeks into the next year, under a new coach, the Tigers are closer to the penthouse than the outhouse. On Saturday night, they beat blood rival Alabama on a two-point conversion in overtime, effectively knocking the Crimson Tide out of the playoff and keeping themselves alive (and atop the SEC West race) despite two earlier losses. They still control their own destiny even in a four-team postseason format. And going forward, there will be more teams like them, ones that looked legitimately bad in stretches but recovered in time to become something more than just feel-good stories.
LSU is a team from the future not just because of how they’ve made themselves nationally relevant after a rocky start, but because of how they are built. In some key ways, LSU is less a program of this moment than the next one.
If one word describes college football at this juncture, it is big. The players are big. The stadiums are big. (Tiger Stadium’s capacity is 102,000.) The television contracts are very, very big. And thanks to all of that bigness and the fact that schools do not pay players, the contracts for coaches are very, very, very big.
For a program like LSU, it is now an out-and-out requirement to be led by a good coach and a name. A coach with a name brings a pedigree that helps recruiting and fundraising. A coach with a name brings cachet befitting a name-brand school, and that cachet is currency. To that end, in 2017, Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward handed out what was then the biggest guaranteed contract in college football history: 10 years and $75 million for Jimbo Fisher, the title-winning head coach of Florida State. Woodward jumped to LSU a few years later, fired Orgeron when things got bad, and then went hunting for another name. Woodward looked into a bunch of coaches—Fisher, of course, but also Michigan State’s Mel Tucker, and depending on which reporting and denials you believe, Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley (who is now USC’s Lincoln Riley). They settled on Brian Kelly, the longtime coach of Notre Dame.
If someone were writing a screenplay about a college football coach, they might make Kelly the template. He has an authoritarian, sometimes purple sheen about him. Two different events during Kelly’s Notre Dame tenure could have ended a coach’s career. One involved a student assistant who died filming a practice in inclement weather. (It was Kelly’s decision to practice outside, and an Indiana regulatory agency found Notre Dame to be institutionally at fault.) Another involved a sexual assault allegation against a player that the accuser’s father alleged Notre Dame kept quiet and investigated only superficially. (The accuser died by suicide. Kelly defended how he and the school handled the matter.) Kelly’s career arc wasn’t affected by either case, because Kelly was, and remains, an exceptionally good football coach. He was a two-time Division II national champion who then won at Central Michigan and Cincinnati before making Notre Dame a regular presence, albeit a losing one, in the Bowl Championship Series and its successor, the College Football Playoff. So, Kelly is both a winning coach and the kind of coach you hire to show how big-time you are, not unlike USC hiring Riley or Miami hiring Mario Cristobal.
The future of elite college football is a perpetual head-coaching arms race. By hiring Kelly, Woodward made sure LSU had one of the biggest guns. The Tigers paid Kelly a small mint despite him being the polar opposite of what most people would call a “culture fit.” Kelly is a New Englander who came to Baton Rouge off a long stint at one of the country’s most staid, uprightly postured institutions. He walked into the boisterous, jambalaya-fueled tailgate culture of LSU, where the fans are rowdy and proudly Louisianian. Kelly is neither of those things, and it was amusing watching him fake a Southern accent upon his hiring. But as LSU has ripped off a 7-2 start and knocked out Alabama, he has demonstrated a point about what really constitutes “fit.” It isn’t so much that fit doesn’t matter. All politics is local, and all football coaches are politicians. But there are different elements of “culture,” and one of LSU’s is a love of beating Alabama. Kelly is winning, so it doesn’t matter if he can make a good bowl of gumbo. That he (like Riley at USC, after coming from Oklahoma) has done so well this year will only fuel more future high-dollar, blockbuster coach poachings. That Cristobal has struggled at Miami and Fisher’s contract at A&M is verging on a disaster will barely slow things down. Again, it’s a gunfight.
That Kelly has a 10-year, $100 million contract is a sign of the times. So is his roster construction in this, his first year leading the Tigers. LSU will always have four- and five-star players hanging around, even when times are bad. Such is life as a blue-blood recruiting school. But the Tigers had big problems as Orgeron’s tenure drew to a close in 2021, and it is hard to fix those quickly with players fresh out of high school. So Kelly’s staff worked the transfer portal. Quarterback Jayden Daniels came from Arizona State, which was about to fire its head coach, Herm Edwards, amid bad play and an NCAA investigation. The defense has benefited hugely from two Mekhis who played elsewhere last year: safety Mekhi Garner (Louisiana) and tackle Mekhi Wingo (Missouri). Cornerback Jarrick Bernard-Converse, who intercepted the Heisman-winning Bryce Young in the end zone on Saturday, came from Oklahoma State. That’s just a small sampling. Wingo got a game ball in the Alabama win, and so did the Tigers’ punter, Jay Bramblett, whom Kelly brought along from South Bend. Add in some critical freshmen like bookend offensive tackles Emery Jones and Will Campbell, linebacker Harold Perkins, and tight end Mason Taylor, himself a big star on Saturday. LSU has quickly gotten a war machine up and running.
With that newly congealing roster playing for a newly congealing coaching staff, maybe it’s no surprise that LSU looked so iffy to start the year. They lost in Week 1 to Florida State. They should have won and would have if not for numerous special teams calamities, the most crushing of which was a botched protection that led to a blocked extra point to seal the one-point loss. A subsequent loss to Tennessee was a more comprehensive ass-kicking that looked even worse than it was because of LSU’s turnover issues, which started on the opening kickoff. Most of the time, though, LSU has not looked that sloppy. Elsewhere, there’s been enough chaos that just by staying the course and getting better, LSU has found itself with a nonzero national championship shot as the season heads into its most dramatic weeks.
What’s in LSU’s immediate future is hard to say. It’s nearly mid-November, and they’re on the other side of their annual Bama slugfest with just two losses. Winning out would mean winning the SEC, and LSU would then become the first two-loss playoff team and possibly the only one before the format goes from four to 12. The three remaining regular season games are all against teams LSU should beat (Arkansas, UAB, and Fisher’s A&M). Most likely, LSU will win the SEC West and then be food for Georgia, the far-and-away No. 1 team in the sport. But one never does know, and LSU’s most magical seasons have tended to involve sneaking up on people. For one example, their 2007 team lost twice and needed world-historic chaos to make the title game, which it then won.
There will be more in years to come. Teams will keep throwing vast piles of money at coaches who look good on press releases, and some of those coaches, like Kelly, will turn out to be quite good. Those coaches will increasingly be expected to win quickly, regardless of how their teams were doing in the years before they arrived. The allure of the transfer portal and of a more accessible 12-team playoff will be gasoline on an expectational fire. And when teams misstep a few times, like LSU did this fall, they’ll be expected to hang in there, with so much theoretically still to win. The next chapter for 2022 LSU is unknowable, but the next chapter for college football writ large is more teams like 2022 LSU.