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By beating Alabama, Brian Kelly shows winning trumps 'fit' with LSU football | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK
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If Brian Kelly suggested changing Louisiana’s official dish from gumbo to New England clam chowder, do you think anyone would object?

Not after this Massachusetts native has positioned LSU to win the SEC West in his first season, after the No. 10 Tigers downed No. 6 Alabama 32-31 in overtime Saturday.

“Fit” is one of the most discussed topics after a coaching hire, but pinning down what, exactly, that means is murky.

Cultural fit? Geographic fit? Does the coach need to talk like the fan base? Does being an alumnus of the school he’s coaching matter?

I see fit as extra credit. The best coaches, like the smartest kids in class, don’t need the extra credit. A spot-on fit can offer a small boost to coaches lingering in the middle, and a lack of fit can be an anchor to struggling coaches.

For coaches at the top of the class, fit is irrelevant, because wins pile up so quickly that no fan or recruit should care what state is listed on the coach’s birth certificate.

As LSU athletics director Scott Woodward told me last summer, geographic fit tends to be “kind of overstated” in coaching hires.

“A guy named Urban Meyer and a guy named Nick Saban did pretty well in the Southeastern Conference,” Woodward said at the time, noting a coach from Ohio and another from West Virginia who combined to win nine national championships with SEC schools.

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Most elite recruits want to play at a school and for a coach who will put them on a path to the NFL. They also desire opportunities for lucrative NIL deals and a chance to win a championship.

Kelly and LSU (7-2, 5-1 SEC) offer all of that.

The Tigers’ 2023 recruiting class ranks fourth nationally in the 247Sports Composite, and Kelly already has six recruits committed to his 2024 class.

In the first major recruiting triumph of his tenure, Kelly signed five-star linebacker Harold Perkins last February. Perkins made eight tackles against Alabama.

In the SEC, winning is always the ultimate fit. To that end, Kelly looks bespoke for LSU.

“Tactically, we played smart,” Kelly said of LSU’s performance against Alabama.

Imagine one of Kelly’s LSU predecessors using “tactically” in a sentence. And imagine tactically-smart performance being a defining trait for LSU.

Indeed, it’s a new day at LSU, a program that often boasts talent but hasn’t always played up to ability.

On LSU’s two-point conversion, freshman tight end Mason Taylor caught a pass from Jayden Daniels, an Arizona State transfer whom Kelly brought in.

Plenty of former coach Ed Orgeron’s leftovers are contributing to Kelly’s first season, but two newcomers flourishing under Kelly combined for the winning score.

How fitting.

Items on Tennessee football’s wish list

The Vols’ College Football Playoff hopes took a hit with a 27-13 loss to Georgia in a matchup that, for most of the game, felt more lopsided than the score indicated.

Still, Tennessee (8-1, 4-1) can avoid joining 2014 Mississippi State as teams to miss the College Football Playoff after opening No. 1 in the initial playoff ranking, if the Vols finish at 11-1 and receive assistance.

I expect Tennessee to remain in the top four of the next CFP rankings. I predict the committee will unveil this order: 1. Georgia, 2. Ohio State, 3. Michigan, 4. Tennessee, 5. TCU, 6. Oregon, 7. LSU, 8. Southern Cal.

If my rankings prove correct, hold off on celebrating, Vols fans. Teams like TCU, Oregon or even USC likely will surpass Tennessee if they keep winning.

By sitting at home on conference championship weekend, the Vols will miss out on a final opportunity to bolster their playoff résumé.

Here’s how I rank Tennessee’s playoff-assistance wish list:

1. Georgia wins out. The Vols’ playoff hopes are now directly tied to Georgia’s success.

2. A loss to undefeated TCU. Regardless of what the rankings say Tuesday, come December, the committee is not going to put one-loss Tennessee in the field ahead of an unbeaten Power Five champion. But, if the decision is between 11-1 Tennessee or 12-1 TCU for the final spot, I think it’s advantage Tennessee.

3. Ohio State wins the Big Ten. For the Big Ten to claim two playoff spots, I think it needs Michigan to win the conference. A one-loss Buckeyes team with wins against Notre Dame and Penn State might look tempting to the committee as a final playoff team. Comparatively, Michigan has played a weaker schedule and may need to win out to earn selection.

Check these three boxes – Georgia wins the SEC, TCU loses and Ohio State wins the Big Ten – and an 11-1 Tennessee stands a good chance of playoff selection.

Even checkmarks in the first two boxes would put an 11-win Tennessee firmly in the conversation.

Miss on box one or two, though, and the Vols’ playoff hopes may hinge on a two-loss team winning the Pac-12.

Three and out

1. Alabama (7-2, 4-2) will miss the playoff for just the second time, and the Tide isn’t out of the woods. It must play Ole Miss (8-1, 4-1) on the road Saturday. The Rebels operate an offensive scheme similar to the one Tennessee used to decimate Alabama, albeit with less talent and consistency. An Alabama season that began with national championship aspirations may end in the Gator Bowl.

2. Some say Kelly made a gutsy call by going for two to beat Alabama. Really, it was just the smart call. If you have one play to gain 3 yards to win the game while the reigning Heisman Trophy winner watches from the sideline, you take it.

3. Arkansas drilled Auburn, 41-27, in the final game of Bryan Harsin’s tenure. A week later, Liberty beat Arkansas 21-19, and Hugh Freeze improved to 34-12 at Liberty. To reiterate what I wrote last week: Auburn’s coaching search need not become overcomplicated. Make a run at Ole Miss' Lane Kiffin, and if he says no, hire Freeze, a proven winner who craves another shot in the SEC.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.

The "Topp Rope," is his twice-weekly SEC football column publishing throughout the USA TODAY NetworkIf you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Also, check out his podcast, SEC Football Unfiltered, or access exclusive columns via the SEC Unfiltered newsletter

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