LSU seeking win No. 10 at Texas A&M, but the Aggies could be a tough out
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At the start of the 2022 college football season, Texas A&M and LSU were at the opposite ends of the spectrum.
The Aggies were ranked No. 6 by the Associated Press and No. 7 in the Amway Coaches Poll.
LSU, with new head coach Brian Kelly, was unranked.
A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher was optimistic, with a solid group of returning seniors interspersed with the nation’s No. 1 2022 recruiting class that had just one 4-year college transfer (former LSU starting QB Max Johnson).
Kelly knew his team would be a work in progress since his 30-man signing class had 15 true freshmen and 15 4-year college transfers.
Midway through the 12-game regular season as injuries began to pile up and Fisher having to play many young, inexperienced players, A&M was unranked at 3-3 overall, 1-2 in the SEC West and two games into what became a six-game losing streak.
LSU was 4-2 and 2-1 in the SEC West, sneaking into a No. 25 ranking before then-No. 8 Tennessee whacked the Tigers 40-13 in game six.
But thanks to heavy contributions from 4-year transfers as well as four freshmen starters, a lack of major injuries and returning veterans buying into Kelly’s system, LSU (9-2, 6-1) has won five straight games. It enters tonight’s 6 p.m. regular season finale at Texas A&M (4-7, 1-6) as the SEC West champion sitting 5th in the College Football Playoff rankings.
“After we lost to Florida State (24-23 in the Sept. 1 season opener in the Superdome),” LSU defensive end BJ Ojulari said, “Coach Kelly tells us the locker room `There's no need to panic. We know our potential. We know what we have to do. We're going to keep applying the process each and every week.'
"Later on, we start to see the benefits of just locking in everyone buying into that process. Coach Kelly did a great job keeping us mentally focused each week. I definitely think we took big leaps, even through the adversity we faced in the beginning of the season.”
LSU’s 4-year transfers transformed a team with just 38 scholarship players on the roster at last season’s Texas Bowl to a squad that won the West Division after being picked in the preseason to finish fifth.
Starting quarterback Jayden Daniels, an Arizona State transfer, has accounted for 3,117 total offense yards (64.6 percent of LSU’s total offense) and 26 TDs (55.3 percent of the Tigers’ TDs). He and starting left guard Miles Frazier (Florida International) have started all 11 games this season.
Backup right guard Tre’Mond Shorts (East Tennessee State) has played in 11 games and reserve running back Noah Cain (Penn State) is tough between the tackle ball carrier who has scored 7 TDs.
Defensively, five of LSU’s top 11 tacklers are 4-year transfers. Five defensive backs – Greg Brooks Jr. and Joe Foucha (both Arkansas transfers), Mehki Garner (Louisiana-Lafayette), Jarrrick Bernard-Converse (Oklahoma State) and Colby Richardson (McNeese State) have combined for 41 starts, 155 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions and 15 pass breakups.
Then, there’s Missouri transfer Mehki Wingo, who has started the last 10 games after Maason Smith’s season-ending injury in the opening loss to FSU. Wingo has become one of the SEC’s best defensive tackles (40 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 4 pass breakups).
Finally, Notre Dame transfer punter Jay Bramblett (44.6 yards per punt, 15 downed inside the opposing team’s 20, 11 punts of 50 yards or farther) has been a clutch field-flipper.
“Many people have asked us many times about the transfer portal,” Kelly said. “It's one of the areas that can really get you in trouble or really can get you out of trouble. It got us out of trouble because we took great character kids that could represent our program in a positive way both on and off the field.
“When you go into the transfer portal, you better know what you are getting. If you don't, then shame on you.”
As far as LSU’s lack of injuries, Kelly said it’s a matter of being smart about off-season training.
“If you want to be better in November, you better have a comprehensive plan that takes 365 days into account,” Kelly said. “So, January and February and March you're not out doing crazy things like overtraining. You are training appropriately with your football team so when you get to these (in-season) days you don't have soft tissue injuries that keep your kids out of practice.
“And I think it's how you practice, making sure that your players take care of themselves. I can tell you that in our spring we didn't know how to practice, and we learned how to practice the right way, so we would be at this point and have the players available in the month of November and getting stronger as we went along.”
For Texas A&M, a mass of injuries (especially at quarterback and other offensive and defensive playmaking positions) doomed the Aggies.
A&M started the season 3-1, rebounding from a stunning 17-14 home loss to Appalachian State in game two and recording wins over then-No. 13 Miami (17-9) and then-No.10 Arkansas (23-21).
It helped the Aggies climb back to No. 17 in the polls, but a 42-24 loss at unranked Mississippi State started an unfathomable six-game losing streak (all SEC losses) that ended with A&M struggling for a 20-3 win over lowly UMass last Saturday.
Along the way, the Aggies lost multiple players to injury as well as team suspensions on a weekly basis. There were many sustaining season-ending injuries including Johnson.
A majority of the injured players were upperclassmen, so Fisher had to use many true freshmen from his No. 1 nationally ranked recruiting class. While the class was talented, Fisher didn’t sign any 4-year transfers but Johnson.
The lack of experience and consistent week-to-week health has taken A&M to the bottom of the SEC’s Western Division. The Aggies' offense is last in the 14-team SEC and 108th nationally in scoring (21.4 points per game) and 13th in the league and 96th nationally in total offense (355.3 yards per game).
Despite rumors that Fisher may be fired – probably not true because A&M would have to pay him an $86 million buyout of 10-year fully guaranteed $95 million contract extension he signed Sept. 1, 2021 – he’s tried his best to fight through to today’s last regular season game.
“You're disappointed, you're trying to always find answers anytime,” Fisher said. “You're not where you want to be. You're constantly looking, pushing, challenging, evaluating, changing, thinking.
“It makes you evaluate everything you do what you do. You understand that you can't let circumstances define who you are. You can never let the circumstances define who you are. Now, it's doesn't mean you're content with them.”
LSU, which has lost to A&M in its last two trips to College Station, is a 10-point favorite. But Kelly is wary of the Aggies and has made sure his team feels the same way.
“They (A&M) don't have the wins that they wanted, but all they need is one, and that's to beat LSU,” Kelly said. “This is their last game of the year against their rival.
“They'll play their absolute best against us, and we'll have to meet and exceed our play.”