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In Yr 1 of Coach Kelly Tigers Back to the ‘Elite’ level?

These Tigers certainly aren’t perfect and might not even be elite. But SEC membership has its privileges. Consider that No. 7 LSU is 7-2 after the Alabama overtime win and can see a direct path to one of those CFP berths from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“There would have been other jobs that would not have been of interest [to me],” Kelly told CBS Sports, “but LSU [had] the resources, the recruiting base, all those things plus the SEC West and [having] a pathway to a playoff without having to be undefeated every year.”

That’s a subtle reference to Notre Dame, though certainly not an overt dig. With no conference, no league championship game, and a lesser schedule, the Fighting Irish have generally had to win them all to get a national title shot since the start of the BCS era (1998).

Three times since 2012, Notre Dame played in a BCS Championship Game or CFP. It lost those games by a combined 68 points. That after a cumulative 34-1 record in those regular seasons.

Three times since 2011, two teams from the SEC made it to BCS Championship Game or the CFP in the same season.

There’s just a pair of two-loss national champions in history. LSU (2017) joins Minnesota (1960) with that distinction. That Tigers team may or may not have come up when Kelly spoke to Nick Saban before taking the LSU job, but the possibility of advancing to the CFP without a perfect record was certainly implied.

A month ago, LSU was 4-2 and unranked following a 27-point loss to Tennessee. After beating two top-10 opponents (Ole Miss, and Alabama) in the next three contests, it now controls its destiny with a road game at Arkansas next.

That control includes the ability to win the SEC West, the SEC title, and even the playoff.

That’s the kind of juice LSU and the SEC carries.

“It’s the American League East,” Kelly said of the SEC West. “It’s deep and it’s strong, but that was the challenge I was looking for.”

LSU is a Netflix documentary with endless episodes. Less than three years ago, its 15-0 team was one of the best of all-time. Twenty-one months after winning it all, Ed Orgeron was fired. Athletic director Scott Woodward then opened up his oil well gusher of endless funds to lure the best. When Jimbo Fisher and Lincoln Riley wouldn’t take the bait, Notre Dame’s all-time winningest coach was more than interested at $9.5 million for 10 years.  

The money is the money. Kelly is delivering. He shaped a vision for his program that had finished in a tie for last in the SEC West for the first time since 1999. Forty-two staffers were changed. Kelly says he inherited 36 scholarship players due to transfers, ineligibilities and medical disqualifications. He kept talking about “structure” and “accountability.”

So much for that. LSU was sloppy in a season-opening, one-point loss to Florida State.

“When we first met, it was, ‘Look, we finished last. That’s not the standard,'” Kelly told his players. “‘That’s not the standard. You have a choice to do something about it. You can continue to be bad. You can be average. You can be good, or you can be elite.’ They’ve made great choices along the way.”

It has been a process. Arizona State transfer quarterback Jayden Daniels is having a career year. The offensive line that pushed around Bama in the second half features two freshman starters at tackle. An incredible 91 high school recruits were in attendance.

Kelly did homework about coming to the beautiful, quirky, friendly, passionate world of LSU and Death Valley. But really, he had no idea until Saturday.

“I think it’s probably … the first time I’ve coached in a game where [the crowd] definitely affects how the game is played,” he said.

Saturday felt like a baton had been passed. Reigning champion Georgia increasingly has a chance to repeat. LSU beat Alabama for only the second time in the last 11 meetings. Bama is all but out of playoff competition, having lost two games by four points.

When Kelly and Saban met on the field before the game, they didn’t talk ball. They discussed Saban’s former house in Baton Rouge. Kelly had a chance to buy it but passed.

“What a wonderful house it was,” the LSU coach said.

What a fantastic first season it is turning out to be.

“We just have the training wheels on,” Kelly said. “The players have jumped in the deep end and didn’t really know how to swim. They were going to find a way to stay above the water, kicking, doing what is necessary. They have such pride in LSU.”