Questions such as, why is linebacker Harold Perkins, maybe the best defensive player in the nation, suddenly neutered by the 2023 Tigers? And, how did the most historic program in the sport forget to count out 11 defenders with the game in the balance near the goal line Saturday against Ohio State? Twice?
There’s plenty more, but you get the idea. Neither school inspires total confidence at the moment when measured against other message board emotions. And neither program is greater than the sum of its expensive parts.
Why the instability? Peel back far enough, and you can explain just about anything in college football using Alabama. The lasting impact of the Nick Saban era will not be the pile of humiliating box scores, but the heaps of existential crises inflicted on so many of college football’s other major brands.
That includes Notre Dame and LSU, which are operating inseparably for the time being.
When Kelly left in 2021, it was an emotional first for the Notre Dame program. Other Fighting Irish coaches have departed for employment elsewhere, but they did so either after the school fired them or to beat the band and avoid an official termination. (Shout out to 1944 Irish coach Ed McKeever, who “left” Notre Dame “for” Cornell after overseeing the worst loss in program history, a 59-0 pounding by a wartime Army roster, and never had to justify it at Media Days.)
No one had ever spurned Notre Dame for a peer. Kelly did, and it’s a decision that seems impossible to separate from his bookended national title embarrassments against Saban: First, the 42-14 blowout in the BCS Championship game after the 2012 season, then a 31-14 slow-cooker in a College Football Playoff semifinal eight years later.
Kelly went 113-40 and posted double-digit wins seven times in his 12 seasons in South Bend. He was also 54-9 in his final five seasons — in no way fading out or falling behind standards.
But he grew convinced that Notre Dame’s vantage point on college athletics wasn’t aligning with his own. Kelly wanted the fiscal ruthlessness of the SEC in South Bend, lobbying the Irish to keep pace with the facilities and staffing of the Alabamas and Georgias and their shelves of career-affirming hardware.
The even rawer truth: Kelly wanted better players because he had convinced himself it wasn’t his fault, it was the players, and he wanted the types of athletes Alabama had, those on the level that obliterated his best Notre Dame teams.
When Notre Dame leadership disagreed with him, he left straight for the SEC, a move — especially at 54-9 — that screamed that Notre Dame, 22-time national title claimant, co-author of the sport’s history and physical embodiment of American Catholicism, was not a functional national title contender in the game’s modern age.
The Irish replaced him with Marcus Freeman, then the defensive coordinator. It was a move that immediately upbraided Kelly: Notre Dame tapped a young, Black assistant with a stellar record as a recruiter who promised that there was no limit to the program’s recruiting, that the storied brand and the modernized talent market were simply not properly joined.
Meanwhile, if Kelly suddenly seemed staid and boring to the fan base he fled, that’s exactly what LSU desired. The Tigers’ narrative after Saban left for the NFL in 2005 has been one of the most vexing in the sport: Both coaches who followed Saban at LSU have won national titles (Les Miles in 2007, Ed Orgeron in 2019), yet neither instilled Saban’s level of stability and standards.
LSU remains the only place in college football where winning a national title alone isn’t enough to win hearts and minds. Two, maybe?
Saban’s 2007 return to college football — but in Tuscaloosa — devastated LSU in a way it’s still reacting to. It certainly didn’t help when, in January of 2012, Alabama humiliated LSU in a 21-0 rout in the BCS Championship game. LSU had already beaten the Crimson Tide, 9-6, in Tuscaloosa that season, but Saban returned to deliver Miles a humbling checkmate when it counted most.
Miles was never good enough to follow Saban, and a few years later, LSU fired Orgeron, the full-blooded Cajun native son who assembled arguably the most significant single season in school history (2019) but then was at the helm for two wildly inconsistent years on and off the field.
Certainly, Orgeron made the idea of a change so soon just palatable enough by losing games, but he was doomed regardless. New athletic director Scott Woodward (himself a Louisianian and LSU graduate) arrived in 2019 hellbent to salve his school’s acute existential Saban pain by finding a publicly passable counterpart to him. That wasn’t ever going to be Coach O.
LSU fans wanted the same kind of tactician, statesman and, above all else, CEO-passing coach who could woo at country club events, then frighten boosters the right way. A coach who, above all else, would inspire an image of professionalism on par with Saban.
Our story satisfied the stranger-than-fiction requirement when Kelly proved himself right, albeit in a one-game sample, by finally beating Saban, 32-31, in his LSU debut season in 2022 (with a play very familiar to Notre Dame fans, to boot).
The result fulfilled what LSU fans requested, yet LSU is no closer to wresting control of the SEC after back-to-back losses in season openers to Florida State, a blowout loss in the 2022 SEC championship game to Georgia, and head-scratching moments such as a rivalry loss to hapless Texas A&M last season.
This week, the Tigers will travel to Oxford and face an inarguably less-talented Mississippi team, one they handled last season, but will do so on the heels of surviving against a bad Arkansas team they should have been able to dominate.
Their secondary is concerning, and Perkins, one of the most exciting players entering the season, has been a ghost in his weird new position. In short, the Tigers are good but not great and trending toward inconsistent. The sample set is still tiny, and Kelly is a respectable 13-5, but his conviction that all he needs is a place that accesses better talent has yet to prove true.
And even if it does, it’s not a joke: The LSU standard really is a one national title minimum per coach, and even that comes with no guarantees. Deification down South adjusts for inflation.
South Bend remains unsettled, too. Freeman is absorbing the blame for Saturday’s collapse, a gaffe that could be forgivable even when committed on such a grand stage as against Ohio State, if not for inexplicable losses to Marshall and Stanford in his debut season last year.
It’s also worth noting that Kelly’s criticism, both spoken and implied, is far from disproven: While Freeman has served as an excellent recruiter of players, a long and rejection-filled journey to replace departing offensive coordinator Tommy Rees (to Alabama, of course) last year felt notable Saturday.
Instead of settling on promoting assistant Gerard Parker, how different would an Irish offense helmed by one of their rumored targets, such as Colorado offensive coordinator Sean Lewis or Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, have looked Saturday? Regardless of official statements and on-the-record confirmations, how does such a prominent program accused of favoring yesteryear logic weather such a bumpy search for what should be a career-making position?
In fairness, these are questions asked of two incomplete pictures, meaning that answers (smart ones, at least) aren’t arriving after this weekend or the next. But the fact we’re even asking? Blame Bama.
A college football hipster’s game of the week
West Virginia at TCU, 8 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2
Remember TCU? The Horned Frogs were somewhat predictably obliterated in the national title game back in January and somewhat unpredictably upset by Deion Sanders’s rolling media revue in Colorado’s Prime-era debut.
The ensuing fall from flavor-of-the-moment status wasn’t such a bad move for a program replacing almost all of its 2022 offense. TCU regained form with wins over in-state rivals Houston (36-13) and SMU (34-17) the past two weeks. But with the offense under new coordinator Kendall Briles sputtering (at least relative to 2022), does that mean a suddenly dominant West Virginia defense could score an upset and push the Mountaineers to 4-1?
West Virginia has kept Coach Neal Brown off the hot seat, but the quality of its wins over Pittsburgh (an increasingly embarrassing offense post-Kenny Pickett) and Texas Tech (quarterback Tyler Shough was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with a broken fibula) are questionable under scrutiny. Except they’re wins. West Virginia is 3-1 with a decent path to bowl eligibility. Another win here would be even more shocking than Colorado’s record.