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Questions and Answers, with LSU’s And The Valley Shook

A back and forth with LSU’s SB Nation blog about tomorrow’s Vols/ Tigers matchup

LSU v Tennessee Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Though Tennessee has doubled up LSU in the history of this SEC East/ West division matchup, with the Vols having notched 20 wins of the 30 all-time matchups, it’s the Tigers currently riding a five-game winning streak.

To make matters to worse, the bookends of UT’s ongoing slide versus the Tigers, 2006 and 2017, each have its own special place in the blasphemous, lost-wandering-in-the-woods recent tenure of Volunteer football.

The ‘06 game saw Jamarcus Russell and the 7-3, 13th-ranked Tigers drop the 8th-ranked, previously 7-1 Vols that had already thumped top-10 ranked Cal in the first game of the season and managed to beat both UGA and ‘Bama in October.

Naturally, Russell orchestrated a ridiculous 15-play, 80-yard TD scoring drive that drained more than seven minutes off the clock to take the lead with less than 10 seconds remaining in the game.

Then, in 2017, Tennessee got lambasted 30-10, at home, in the midst of a driving rain storm. It was the first game following Tennessee’s firing of Butch Jones, who drove the car through a winless conference schedule season that interim coach Brady Hoke was more than obliged to park with a loss to Vanderbilt in the final game of the year.

Now, though, the script has maybe flipped. It’s LSU breaking in a new coach, and it’s Tennessee coming into this year’s game undefeated and ranked in the top-10.

Since it’s been a while since the Vols have gotten a crack at the Tigers, I thought it would be fitting to enlist our contemporaries at And The Valley Shook, SB Nation’s home for all things LSU, for some insight into Saturday’s game.

  1. The last few years down there in the Bayou have been a bit, well, interesting. How’s the transition been, going from the “GO TIGAHS,” born-and-bred Louisianian, prodigal-son-returned Ed Orgeron — who brought LSU a National Championship, with some help from Joe Burrow, Joe Brady and Steve Esminger — to a prickly, carpetbagger Brian Kelly who’d never coached below the Mason-Dixon line?

Yeah I mean I get all the weird culture doesn’t fit jokes and all that but Nick Saban is from West Virginia and that didn’t stop him from winning a title here (remember Bama no matter how many titles he wins in Tuscaloosa we had him first!); Skip Bertman was born in Detroit and won six national titles in baseball at LSU. What I’m saying is nobody here is going to care about Kelly’s background if he wins and so far he’s 4-1 and 2-0 in the league.

2. Speaking of Orgeron — how’s he polling with the fans these days? Obviously, the championship buys one considerable equity, but did it generate enough long-term goodwill to keep him in the fans’ good graces, despite the unseemly circumstances surrounding the decision for the parties involved to, allegedly, mutually agree to part ways? This dynamic is interesting for us because Tennessee also has a somewhat fractured relationship with a former National-Championship-winning coach in Philip Fulmer, albeit for different reasons.

Not great, I imagine most people are glad he’s disappeared off to Destin or Boca. 2019 was incredible and we’ll always be grateful for it, but ‘20 and ‘21 were disasters and Ed’s firmly in the Larry Coker/Gene Chizik right place, right time club. It doesn’t help that for two solid years O was constantly embarrassing himself and the program off the field: the photographs of him in bed with women, or poolside with women; challenging UCLA fans to a fight on his way inside the Rose Bowl; hiring Bo Pelini in 2020 and admitting he didn’t interview him. But all that could have been...maybe not excused but spun as “oh that crazy Coach O ain’t he a real character?!” if he won. But he wasn’t and that’s the real reason why he’s not here anymore.

3. Hendon Hooker’s TD-to-interception ratio is 13:1. Tennessee leads the nations in offensive yards per-game and ranks nationally in points per game. What’s LSU DC Matt House’s plan here?

House is going to have to cook up something real spicy here for LSU to pull off the upset. The LSU corners were a question mark coming into 2022 but so far have held their own, though admittedly the Tigers haven’t seen an offense as good as Tennessee’s. I’d imagine to help out his corners he’ll be willing to send five or six and let guys like BJ Ojulari and freshman sensation Harold Perkins try to meet up at the quarterback.

4. LSU’s No. 7 jersey is always reserved for somebody the young folks might just simply call the player “him.” Leonard Fournette, Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Grant Delpit — the list of guys who got to don the prestigious digit goes on and on. This season, it’s Kayshon Boutte rocking it. So why does he have just 11 catches in four games? Is Brian Kelly playing the long con and waiting to unleash him against Tennessee’s sometimes hapless defensive backfield?

I don’t think Boutte’s lack of production has been by design and that’s concerning. It’s been a combination of things: transfer QB Jayden Daniels being gun shy; new OC Mike Denbrock not calling the type of plays to get Boutte involved; Boutte himself not seeming totally engaged. No matter where you want to place blame it all adds up and it’s taking LSU fans back to peak Les Miles era football where the Tigers have these incredible receivers but unable to get them the ball for one reason or another. But Boutte’s probably the best player on either team’s roster and if LSU is to pull this off he’ll have to reintroduce himself to the college football world.

5. Some Tennessee fans will likely recognize LSU EDGE BJ Ojulari’s name when it gets called (hopefully not often) on Saturday. Ojulari was committed to Tennessee for about a month back in late 2019 before flipping and subsequently signing with LSU. He led the team in sacks last year and finished second in tackles-for-loss as a sophomore. This year, he has six sacks in three games, which means he has just three fewer sacks than Tennessee’s entire team, and he’s done it in one fewer game. Tell us what he means to the LSU defense and about his overall impact on the program.

Ojulari is one of my favorite players to come into the program in recent years. He represented LSU at SEC Media Days this summer, is a team captain, and wears the #18 jersey which is a huge deal to the LSU football program: that number is worn by the person who best represents what it means to be a Tiger. On the field he’s the best pass rusher LSU’s had since Arden Key and is a likely first round pick come April. In short he’s a great Tiger on the field, and a greater one off it. It’s just a shame his first two years were ruined by the overgrown frat bro masquerading as head coach.

6. Brian Kelly leaned heavily on the transfer portal to augment his roster coming into his first season with the Tigers. Which of those incoming transfers has had the biggest impact?

I mean Jayden Daniels is the easy answer because he’s your starting quarterback but let’s look elsewhere. LSU’s secondary lost its top four corners from last year (Derek Stingley Jr. and Cordale Flott to the draft, Dwight McGlothern and Eli Ricks to the transfer portal) and only had two scholarship corners after the Texas Bowl. In comes Mekhi Garner from UL-Lafayette and all he’s done is be PFF’s top graded coverage corner in the SEC. Greg Brooks, formerly of Arkansas, came over and is holding down the nickel corner role and has really brought in some attitude and swagger that peak LSU-DBU had.

7. This one is from the Twitter feed, and it just so happens to be from Matt, who’s a contributor here at Rocky Top Talk. Matt asks: “What is the key matchup that could decide this game for either side? (Tennessee secondary vs. LSU WRs, LSU pass rush vs. Tennessee o-line, etc)”

It’s gotta be can the LSU passing game get going. LSU had 85 passing yards against Auburn last week and I’m not exaggerating at all when I say you can count on one hand how many they had in the second half. I count at least four future pros playing wide receiver for LSU and someone, literally anyone, has got to get it going Saturday. If Tennessee wants to make this a track meet that’s fine, but LSU had better make sure they can throw the ball too because otherwise they’ll get run out of their own building.

8. What were your initial thoughts on the Brian Kelly hire, and if they’ve changed since then, how so? It’s pretty common for football coaches to be the big, bad wolf disguised as Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. But even for football coaches’ standards. Kelly has a pretty slimy history, with the Declan Sullivan sticking out as especially bad. Now, we’ve certainly had our share of unseemly people involved with our football program, too, so this isn’t a “pot calling the kettle black,” thing. It’s not an attack on LSU or the decision to hire Kelly or even a shot at him — I’m just interested in how you feel about it all in a general sense.

At first I kind of thought “oh goddammit” because I wanted Dave Aranda to come back home or see just how high Billy Napier’s ceiling was or bring Lane Kiffin’s beautiful offense to Baton Rouge and see if he couldn’t scheme LSU to a championship. But then I thought you know Brian Kelly’s won an awful lot of games at difficult places. Kelly may not have the potential to really boom like a Napier/Aranda/Kiffin, but he’ll bring something LSU hasn’t had in a while: consistency. To the people saying “what you just want to go 9-3/10-2 every year” I say yes! I do! Because that means you’re a really good program. LSU’s had great teams in the Les Miles/Ed Orgeron eras but they haven’t been a great program and yes there is a difference. Plus think of it this way: if Les Miles can win a title and play for another one, and Ed Orgeron can win a title at LSU, don’t you think Brian Kelly, a much better coach than those two, can do the same? Because I do.

9. What’s your feel for how the game plays out? And which team do you think this game means more for, in a big-picture sense?

So I do think Tennessee wins, but I think a win for LSU would mean more. This first year under Brian Kelly is all about resetting the program and getting guys to buy in. And so far I think they have: you don’t overcome a 13-0 deficit to Mississippi State and 17-0 deficit on the road against Auburn (plus the near comeback against Florida State) without guys being bought in. 2022 isn’t about wins and losses...that said I do think a win over a top 10 team will do wonders for the program’s trajectory. You’re supposed to beat Southern and New Mexico and Mississippi State and a bad Auburn team. But if you can beat Tennessee or Ole Miss, someone at or above your weight class, then I think we’ll really see guys buying in.