BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — At least Brian Kelly had one season at LSU where expectations were easier than usual to exceed.
No one is overlooking the defending SEC West champions now.
The Tigers enter this season ranked No. 5 in the AP Top 25 preseason poll, have one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country in Jayden Daniels and an All-America candidate at linebacker in Harold Perkins.
Unlike last year, LSU also has a slew of returning players who’ve demonstrated they know what it takes to compete in what has been the toughest conference in college football for most of the past two decades.
“Playing in this league requires more than athleticism,” Kelly said. “You need experience and I think we have experience and I think that’s going to be a strength of this football team.”
Knowing the process their coach wants them to follow helps, too.
“There should be a realistic expectation that everything we do, we’re going to do a little bit better,” Kelly added.
The Tigers went 6-7 in 2021, the year before Kelly came down to the bayou from Notre Dame, where he’d spent 12 seasons. Last year, the Tigers went 10-4, highlighted by their dramatic upset victory over longtime nemesis Alabama on a risky, 2-point conversion in overtime.
Tight end Mason Taylor was a true freshman when he caught Daniels’ quick pass toward the sideline and dove for the pylon to clinch the season-defining victory over the Crimson Tide. Now he’s the leader of a position group.
“It definitely is different. I think everything everyone’s kind of more experienced,” Taylor said. “The offense was new last year. So, everyone was kind of like iffy about the playbook.”
Now, Taylor surmised, “everyone just knows what they’re doing,” and the Tigers “definitely are a better team than last year.”
Kelly has far more confidence in his offensive line now than he did a year ago.
Led by left tackle Will Campbell, who started as a freshman last year, “you have four guys who have started SEC games as opposed to last year where you’re like, ‘I have no idea,’” Kelly said.
On the defensive side, LSU welcomes back 6-foot-6, 315-pound Maason Smith, a top defensive tackle who went out for the year with a fluky, non-contact knee injury while celebrating a teammate’s tackle in a season-opening loss to Florida State.
“I’m sure there’s going to be some feeling his way out when it’s his first game in over a year,” Kelly said. “I think a lot of that hesitation has diminished because of what he did throughout the summer. He looks pretty darn good.”
Malik Nabers returns from his 2022 breakout season as a candidate for the Biletnikoff Award.
But if defenses shade coverage toward Nabers — “He’s going to be a featured player for us,” Kelly says — that could open opportunities for Kyren Lacy and Alabama transfer Aaron Anderson.
Anderson is a New Orleans native who spent one redshirt season in Tuscaloosa before moving back to his native state.
“There’s going to be a lot more to see from him as we continue to build the offense,” Kelly said, noting that Anderson also could get the ball in the running and return game. “He’s got speed, explosiveness. He’s kind of what we thought he would be. … We’ve just scratched the surface in terms of what we can do with him.”
Logan Diggs, a player Kelly once recruited from Louisiana to Notre Dame, is back in his home state where he joins a running back room that already features John Emery Jr. and Noah Cain. Included in the mix are Armoni Goodwin and a pair of freshmen who were four-star recruits: Trey Holly and Kaleb Jackson.
“We got one football. That hasn’t changed so we’ll figure it out as it goes,” Kelly said, adding that in his experience “the guys with the most experience end up rising to the top and taking it over.”
LSU opens the season with a chance to avenge its mistake-prone, season-opening, 1-point loss to the Seminoles last season with a game against No. 8 Florida State in Orlando on Sept. 3. A highlight of every LSU season is its clash with Alabama, this time in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 4. The Tigers visit Mississippi on Sept. 30 and close the regular season at home against Texas A&M on Nov. 25.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll