Grit. Guts. Blue-collar. Never say die. Hard working. Toughness. Heart.
One of my least favorite things about the Twitter-era of sports commentary is the way we belittle these values. When a blogger talks about a guy who is giving it the proverbial 110%, odds are pretty good it is not meant as a compliment.
Team player is a guy not good enough to be a star. A hard worker is a performative try-hard. There’s nothing easier to mock than the fans who claim stars can’t measure heart.
And look, there is something to that. Talent matters. Stars matter. You could get all of your buddies together and no matter how hard you tried or how much will you had, LSU would steam roll your out of shape butts in their sleep.
That said, effort matters. Yes, I know every player who has gotten this far into their athletic career has worked hard. You don’t play big time college football without putting in a lot of hours of practice. You can’t coast to this level.
This is not the most talented LSU team any of us have seen. Looking at the roster, there are not a lot of sure-fire pros in the two deep. Jayden Daniels will be lucky to make an NFL roster and carry a clipboard for a few years. DBU right now lacks an All-World dominant player. Jay Ward is absolutely balling out right now, but he’s still got an uphill climb to play on Sundays.
But this team has guts. And guts matter.
College football is a game played by kids. Because of that, kids will let their emotions control the way their play, for good or ill. It allows players to find something inside them they never thought they had, but it also causes teams to get down on themselves and throw in the proverbial towel. This is a feature, not a bug. The emotions of the young men playing this sport is what makes college football so prone to massive swings of momentum.
LSU has played two games against Power 5 teams, and in both games, LSU has fallen behind by two touchdowns. In both games, LSU looked almost inept in the first half, particularly on offense. And these things have a way of snowballing. Guys press to break out of the slump, they try to do too much and get it all back on one play… and instead they make the hole deeper.
There are some players who are wearing their frustration on their sleeves, but by and large, this team has played its best football when it has been in the worst situation. This team is, brace yourself for it, clutch.
Oh my God, not the C-word.
Believing in clutch is downright apostasy in today’s analytic world. It’s akin to saying you believe in bridge trolls or magic fairies. But the fact is, clutch exists even in analytic circles, they just call it something like “high leverage.” LSU has played its best football in high leverage situations.
Is it sustainable? Who cares right now?
When Mississippi State scored a touchdown with just over two minutes left in the first half, LSU was staring a two-touchdown halftime deficit square in the face. That with the Bulldogs slated to get the ball to start the second. This is how blowouts happen.
Instead, Jayden Daniels guided an offense, that up to this point had been lifeless, 75 yards in a minute and a half. Daniels found Jaray Jenkins for a critical touchdown to keep the game within six at the half.
LSU found its extra gear, again, in the fourth quarter. LSU’s offense converted its first third down of the game on one of the first plays of the quarter, a run on third and goal which ended with Jayden Daniels in the end zone. He ran over several State defenders and then started to run his mouth. It wasn’t just a critical score on the stat sheet, but it was a real Screw You Touchdown in execution. You could just feel Daniels taking over the game.
He’s not Joe Burrow. But this team doesn’t need Joe Burrow. That’s not who this team is. This team is not going to compete for a national title, this team is about restoring what LSU football is all about after the erosion of the last two seasons.
2019 will last in myth forever, but it is an outlier in the LSU program. That team was gob-smackingly talented. The story of LSU football, the games that ring out over the past century, are usually about guts and effort. It’s the valiant but doomed defeat of the 1979 USC game. It’s Tiger Stadium getting so loud, Ohio St wouldn’t come out of its locker room in 1987. It’s Bringing the Magic Back in 1995. It’s pulling the upset for the ages in the 2001 SEC Championship. Even Joe Burrow running it down Georgia’s throat in 2018 was all guts.
Guts. Heart. Clutch. Toughness.
This team has it in spades.
Fans will forgive losses, by and large. They do not forgive a perceived lack of effort. The good news for LSU this season is…. Who is going to out-talent them? No one in the SEC West looks all that intimidating, as even Bama has shown signs of cracking.
LSU is not going to run the table or anything. Talent still matters and this team isn’t good enough to do that. But if LSU beats Auburn, as it should, then it is already 2-0 in SEC play. All you have to do from that point on is win half of the six coin flips left on the schedule (ok, five coin flips and Bama), and the team is 5-3 in the SEC. A good year, and something to build on.
Get lucky? Maybe grind out a win you shouldn’t, then this team is 6-2 in the SEC and maybe finishing the year in the top ten. Which is a long way from here, but it is still reasonably on the table.
Every team on the SEC schedule can beat LSU. LSU can just as likely lose to them. One month into the season, no one looks dominant except Georgia, and they aren’t on LSU’s schedule… yet.
The true success of this season isn’t told entirely in wins and losses. It’s about changing the culture, and getting back to what we once were. Fitting in with those legends of players and teams that would play to their maximum ability for the pride of Louisiana and LSU.
These early returns are positive. Brian Kelly would fit right in with Cholly Mac right now. The talent will come, but right now, the most important thing is to have a team that plays hard, all game, every game. And that hasn’t been the case the past two seasons.