Scooter Hobbs column: Good, but not enough

Published 11:00 am Saturday, August 26, 2023

During the Southeastern Conference football championship festivities in Atlanta last December, a fellow sports writer relayed what the coach he covered thought about Brian Kelly as LSU’s head coach.

According to my buddy, the Kelly critique went something like this:

“What you have to remember,” the coach supposedly said, “is that this is probably the least talented team that he’s going to have at LSU. And he has them in the SEC championship game, won the West. What does that tell you?”

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Not sure. But maybe it explains why expectations are so high as Kelly, the Yankee who came south to bring some maturity and stability to the LSU program — still without learning to speak proper Cajun — prepares for his second year with the Tigers.

It’s a far different program that surprised just about everyone, even ever-optimistic LSU fans, by going 10-4 in what was a major rebuilding year, both for the roster and the culture.

But there are always questions and this season is no different, so as is customary this time of year we will get to as many of them as possible.

Just try to remain orderly and try not to hurt each other.

Question: Those expectations. They must have really gone through the roof after LSU beat Purdue 63-7 in the Citrus Bowl, huh?

Answer: Not really. Keep in mind Purdue had so many opt-outs the Boilermakers had to basically send the JV team. Much like LSU did the previous year for the Texas Bowl. All it did was help the game live up to its proper name — the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl.

Q: It almost seems like too much of the optimism for LSU is based on

Good, but not enough the notion that Alabama and Nick Saban may be slipping, right?

A: You’re probably right. And that’s probably a dangerous leap of faith. Most of it is because the Tide don’t have a clear star at quarterback.

Q: And LSU does?

A: LSU has the best quarterback room in the SEC.

Q: How so?

A: Well, Jayden Daniels is first-team preseason all-SEC. It’s a close call — there are others — but Daniels is at least in the conversation. Yet even with arguably the best at the position, if he were to go down, LSU would likely show less drop off from its starter with Garrett Nussmeier stepping in than any other team.

Q: What can Daniels improve on?

A: Throw more interceptions.

Q: Huh?

A: Seriously. Kelly would like to see him take more chances, attack downfield more, create more big plays.

Q: They got the receivers to do it?

A: Oh, yeah. It’s LSU. Malik Nabors is the star, but the whole flock is what you’re used to seeing from LSU in recent years.

Q: Is it true they got eight running backs on scholarship?

A: Yes it is — and they didn’t even buy any extra footballs.

Q: Can they play them all?

A: Obviously not, but at least they won’t run out. It is one of the positions where a committee seems doable. Josh Williams, who’s been injured, probably came on strongest at the end of last season and should be ready for the opener. But they probably need to narrow it down to three or four.

Q: Sounds like a lot of fire power, huh?

A: Yes, but the best news for the LSU offense is up front. There may have been better offensive lines at LSU, but for the first time in your lifetime there are no real question marks coming in. That’s what happens when you start two true freshmen the previous year. During August camp there were even scattered reports of developing depth and no hints of the obligatory injury that generally sidelines one or two per preseason.

Q: So what about defense?

A: The defensive line will be dominant, the linebackers could and should be great and the secondary will be determined by how many transfers are good enough to play in the SEC.

Q: But I thought Kelly was weaning himself from the NCAA transfer portal?

A: Maybe next year. For now, DBU is still using mostly hand-me-downs from other programs. But it got away with it last year, so who knows?

Q: Where do the Tigers need to improve most from last season?

A: Come on, give me a tough one. Easy. Special teams. It was an eye sore last year — from dropped kicks to blocked kicks to blown coverages to most every hijink in between — with special teams’ fingerprints all over the four LSU losses while complicating several of the wins.

Q: Any solution?

A: We’ll see. Kelly’s remedy was to replace coordinator Brian Polian with a centralized approach where almost all the assistants handle an aspect (Polian, removed from on-field coaching, later left the program). The new approach isn’t groundbreaking as many teams divide it that way. But at least it will be different.

Q: So, what’s your season prediction?

A: I’ll go with 11-1, good enough to win the SEC West again, but not good enough to beat Georgia in Atlanta.

Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at