Why Brian Kelly's feels LSU is positioned to win national title without Jayden Daniels

BATON ROUGE, La. — I’m seated inside Brian Kelly’s office on an April afternoon, inquiring about the LSU football coach’s Year 3 expectations, before I pivot the conversation.

With my tongue in my cheek, I say to Kelly that I’m surprised we’re doing this interview here. Kelly looks at me quizzically, as if to say: Why wouldn’t we be doing this interview here?

I let the penny drop and quip that I thought maybe we’d be having this conversation in Michigan.

Kelly plays along for a moment.

“Yeah,” he says sardonically. “Right.”

Coaching carousel rumors positioned Kelly as a possible heir to Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh. Rumors, though, can’t be trusted.

Kelly had no interest in leaving LSU for Michigan, he tells me.

No interest?

“No. Not at all,” Kelly says. “I have committed myself to (LSU).”

Coaches rival rumors and politicians on the truthfulness meter, but Kelly lays out a convincing case that LSU remains the destination where he wants to finish his career. He relishes coaching in the SEC, and he believes he can hunt an elusive national championship — the lone accomplishment missing off his career résumé — with the Tigers.

LSU coach Brian Kelly walks the sideline during his team's game against Purdue in the 2023 Citrus Bowl at Camping World Stadium.
LSU coach Brian Kelly walks the sideline during his team's game against Purdue in the 2023 Citrus Bowl at Camping World Stadium.

Kelly coached against Michigan. He respects Michigan. He doesn’t want to be Michigan.

He lived the Midwest life. He’s not itching to run it back. He’d rather challenge himself against Alabama and Georgia and now Texas and Oklahoma.

“I don’t want to coach anywhere else,” Kelly said.

Maybe you’re scoffing, because Kelly once said something similar about Notre Dame before defecting to the bayou, but the truth is, Kelly can achieve everything he wants at LSU. Nick Saban, Les Miles and Ed Orgeron each won a national title here within four seasons.

Kelly, 62, is building momentum. He won 20 games through two seasons. Saban never amassed that many victories through his first two seasons at either Michigan State, LSU or Alabama.

What if Kelly’s just getting started?

Reflect on Kelly’s career, and you’ll see that his tenures at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame reached a crescendo in his third season. That included a national championship game appearance in his third year at Notre Dame.

So, when can Kelly’s Tigers contend for a national championship? Now.

Brian Kelly’s quest for an LSU national championship

When I interviewed Kelly last summer, he pinpointed 2024 as LSU’s timeline to seriously contend for a national title. I revisited that topic with Kelly in April. He made no guarantees or bold predictions. He also didn't back down.

Kelly reconfigured his coaching staff in the offseason by hiring some top assistants to target defensive improvement. He sees more roster depth and player leadership than LSU embodied a year ago.

“I think the program is now built on a foundation that they can go compete for a championship,” Kelly said.

How, you might wonder, is LSU supposed to contend for a national championship after it lost three games last season despite featuring the Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback?

Start by finding a pulse on defense.

“If we could’ve played any semblance of defense (last season), we’re in the playoffs,” Kelly says bluntly.

Kelly whispered warnings last summer about defensive deficiencies. He proved prophetic. LSU’s defense ranked closer to Vanderbilt’s than it did to Georgia’s. LSU’s reliance on youth and transfers didn’t work. This year, juniors and seniors populate LSU’s defense, and Kelly took fewer transfers.

Kelly still doesn’t discuss his defense as if it’s Georgia’s, but he speaks of development and seeing more of the “basic tenets” of defense under new coordinator Blake Baker, who previously transformed Missouri’s defense.

“It won’t be elite yet,” Kelly said of LSU’s defense, “but I think it’s getting to the point where it can complement our offense. It didn’t complement our offense last year.”

Kelly is counting on growth in the secondary, which opponents shredded last season. He likes LSU’s linebackers and edge rushers. If he had a wish, it would be for another high-end defensive tackle or two.

Also, LSU needs Harold Perkins to play like Harold Perkins after he struggled as a sophomore to transition from edge rusher to inside linebacker. He’ll play weakside linebacker this season, rather than returning to edge rusher.

“We’re going to need our best players to play their best football,” Kelly said. “Harold Perkins is going to have to be an impact player.”

In LSU’s spring game, its defense did a good job hiding any potential improvement. Garrett Nussmeier cooked the Tigers’ defense.

If Kelly harbors concerns, starting quarterback isn’t among them.

‘Players love’ LSU quarterback Garrett Nussmeier

Kelly identifies only one missing piece for Nussmeier: more playing time.

In other words, Nussmeier possesses the necessary abilities, mechanics and know-how. The fourth-year Tiger quarterback just needs more snaps. Think Carson Beck, who spent three seasons as a Georgia backup before passing for nearly 4,000 yards last season in his first season as its starter.

Jayden Daniels led all quarterbacks last season with 1,134 rushing yards, en route to becoming LSU’s third Heisman winner. Kelly doesn’t expect Nussmeier to repeat that dual-threat production, so LSU must rely on its veteran offensive line and running backs to recoup that ground attack.

Kelly endorses Nussmeier’s arm. Nussmeier completed all seven of his passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns in LSU’s spring game.

LSU quarterback Garrett Nussmeier (13) throws the ball under pressure against Wisconsin during the 2024 Reliaquest Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.
LSU quarterback Garrett Nussmeier (13) throws the ball under pressure against Wisconsin during the 2024 Reliaquest Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.

The window to buy low on Nussmeier’s stock is closed.

“He just eats this up,” Kelly said. “He eats it and drinks it and sleeps it. The players love him. He’s committed. He’s got leadership capabilities. More than anything else, you have a guy that loves the big moments.”

Fine, but how can LSU replace the exit of star receivers Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr.?

This solution is multi-pronged. Kelly identifies Kyren Lacy as a budding star. Also, he likes LSU’s wide receiver depth.

“The sum will have to be greater than any one of the parts, because you’re not going to replace individually three first-round draft picks,” Kelly said in reference to Daniels, Nabers and Thomas.

What Nick Saban’s retirement means for LSU, Brian Kelly

Kelly might be the only Baton Rouge resident who would prefer that Saban still coached Alabama.

After Kelly departed Notre Dame for LSU, he said a desire to face elite SEC competition influenced his decision. Saban personified that challenge. Kelly beat Alabama his first season at LSU, before the Tide turned the tables last season. Saban retired owning a 3-1 all-time record against Kelly.

“I’m sorry to see Nick go,” Kelly said.

I’ve wondered whether Saban’s retirement creates a power void in the SEC — or at least leaves room for a new twin power to emerge alongside Georgia.

Kelly doesn’t contextualize Saban’s retirement that way.

“Kalen DeBoer is an outstanding football coach,” Kelly said of Saban’s heir. “His success is real. They hired somebody that, I think, creates the same kind of expectations at Alabama.”

No longer, though, does Saban directly impede Kelly’s championship quest.

Who’s the new face of the challenge?

“It’s Kirby Smart,” Kelly said.

Imitation is a college football coach’s highest compliment, and Kelly’s program-building blueprint for LSU resembles Smart’s method at Georgia. Kelly doesn’t covet Lane Kiffin’s “Portal King” throne. He’s intent on signing and developing recruits and using transfers to fill cracks.

That formula requires not only retention and development, but also signing premier prospects. Smart, like Saban before him, is a master recruiter.

To that end, LSU boasts the SEC’s top-ranked 2025 recruiting class, albeit more than seven months until signing day.

“We had to get some things right systemically, and I think he’s done that,” LSU athletic director Scott Woodward said of Kelly’s first two seasons. “Now, it’s a matter of recruiting at an elite level. That’s what he’s doing."

Never mind Michigan. LSU retains Brian Kelly's attention

While in New York City in December for the Heisman ceremony, Kelly looked at the digital billboards around him on 42nd Street. One billboard featured Daniels. Another displayed LSU gymnastics’ Olivia Dunne, while yet another showed women’s basketball star Angel Reese.

“I was like, ‘OK, you’ve got my attention,’ ” Kelly said.

That scene in New York provided a visual of why Woodward says LSU possesses America’s hottest college brand.

LSU gymnastics won the national championship in April. Kim Mulkey won a women’s basketball national championship in her second season coaching LSU. Tigers baseball coach Jay Johnson also won a national title in his second season.

Woodward doesn’t have Kelly on a clock.

“I love where the program is heading,” Woodward said. “Year 3 is not like it’s the final thing.”

As for those Michigan rumors, Woodward says he “wasn’t too worried about it, but I was paying attention.”

“Not disparaging Michigan,” Woodward said, “but for Brian’s path, I think he wanted to compete in the best conference, and I think he wanted to compete at the highest level, and I think that’s why he accepted the challenge here.”

Anyway, Kelly never leaves a job before Year 3. That’s when he really starts cooking.

This article originally appeared on Lafayette Daily Advertiser: Brian Kelly and LSU ready for national title without Jayden Daniels