The least of Brian Kelly’s concerns this week has to do with a letdown.
The first-year LSU football coach knows the Tigers didn’t play up to their standards in a 38-23 loss to Texas A&M last week, squandering any possibilities of reaching the College Football Playoff.
“Our guys know it, and they care about that,” Kelly said Monday. “And you can sense it and feel it over the last couple of days. From after the game in the locker room to yesterday when they had to be here for a meal.
“Even today in the training room, our guys know they let something slip away and they’re upset about it.”
The loss for LSU (9-3) reaffirmed a truth that Kelly suspected all along: The Tigers aren’t good enough to win with just talent.
“We don’t have a margin for error,” Kelly said. “We have to play with grit. We have to play with fire. We have to play to our identity. And if we don’t, we’re not the kind of team that we need to be.”
Despite the loss, LSU’s fire has matched its talent more often than not this season. It’s a big reason why the Tigers are facing off against No. 1 Georgia (12-0) in the SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday (3 p.m., CBS).
LSU shocked Alabama this season. It captured gutty wins over Auburn, Arkansas and Florida. Even in their loss to Florida State to open the year, the Tigers played with plenty of fight despite not playing well.
For reasons that have escaped Kelly, LSU didn’t have that same fight against Texas A&M. The Tigers got dominated at the line of scrimmage and were run all over by an Aggies offense that failed to score more than 30 points against an FBS team until that game.
In the Pac-12 or ACC, perhaps the Tigers could have won with a performance that flat. But in the SEC, that’s not possible. Even when it comes against Texas A&M, which entered the game with one SEC victory.
“There are just too many talented players. And if you’re not ready to play and play at your best, you’ll get beat,” Kelly said. “That’s the SEC West.”
LSU’s opponent this week is the only program in the conference where that logic probably doesn’t apply.
Georgia is the No. 1 team for a reason. According to ESPN’s College Football Power Index, no other team in the country has a top-five offense and defense.
The Bulldogs are undefeated despite not always playing up to their standards this year. They surrendered 22 points to Kent State and nearly lost to Missouri in the first half of the season. They also only scored one touchdown against Kentucky two weeks ago and failed to takeover the game against Georgia Tech last week until the second half.
None of those games should have ever been close for a program that won the national championship last year and has dominated former College Football Playoff contenders Tennessee and Oregon this year.
LSU has the talent to hang with anyone in the country, including Georgia. But, as Saturday proved, the Tigers’ roster deficiencies are bad enough to lose to almost any opponent. LSU has two freshmen starting on their offensive line, only three healthy scholarship running backs, poor depth on their defensive line and a freshman as its only playmaking tight end.
It’s a talented but flawed roster. That was to be expected when Kelly took over a program that only had 39 scholarship players. The Tigers are good but they have to play with at their best to win in the SEC.
Especially if they intend on winning the SEC Championship.
“Our guys have had the opportunity to play the best and this is another opportunity for us to be challenged,” Kelly said. “And so we’re excited.”
The regular season is over and now it’s time to kick off the SEC Championship Game with Georgia and LSU squaring off for the conference title and College Football Playoff selection coming the day after that.
Georgia looks like a lock, even with a loss in this game, owing to having such a strong case as the current No. 1 team that any result that comes out of Atlanta wouldn’t be enough to knock it out of the final four.
LSU appeared to be a contender for the fourth spot in the CFP rankings before a surprise third loss on the road to unranked Texas A&M in the regular season finale, but this is still the SEC West champ in Brian Kelly’s first season with a chance to give college football’s defending national champion a black eye before venturing on to its title defense.
What do the experts think of this matchup? Let’s take a look at how the College Football Power Index computer prediction model projects the game.
Georgia vs. LSU picks, predictions
Georgia prediction: The computers favor the Bulldogs by a comfortable 83.0 percent margin to win the game and become SEC champions.
LSU prediction: That leaves the Tigers with a narrow 17.0 percent shot to pull off the upset and win their first league title since 2019.
Point spread: Georgia comes into the game as 17.5 point favorites against LSU, according to the lines at SI Sportsbook.
Total: 51 points
Moneyline: LSU +600 | Georgia -900
Spread consensus pick: Georgia -17.5