Lately, Brian Kelly has stumped for LSU’s quarterback whenever he has gotten the chance. Jayden Daniels could win the Heisman Trophy in a couple of weeks, so the coach promotes him, doing his part to spread Daniels’ case for the award.
The latest example came in his news conference Monday after Daniels scored eight touchdowns and accounted for 509 total yards against Georgia State. Kelly took a question about whether or not wide receiver Malik Nabers also should be a candidate, and by the end of his answer, he had brought up Daniels again.
“If you want to look at numbers, Daniels’ numbers are starting to pull away from everybody,” Kelly said. “He’s nearly 1,000 yards in total offense ahead of the next candidate. If we want to look at numbers, this race is starting to distance itself.”
Indeed, with one week left in the regular season, Daniels leads the Football Bowl Subdivision with 4,591 total yards. He has 901 more than Washington quarterback Michael Penix and 924 more than Oregon quarterback Bo Nix, two of the other potential winners.
The Heisman is within reach, and Daniels has one more game at 11 a.m. Saturday in Tiger Stadium to establish his case before the other candidates potentially play in conference championships.
It won’t be an easy one because of Texas A&M’s defense. But that challenge could help Daniels secure the award while No. 15 LSU tries to win 10 games for the second straight season.
“In terms of their versatility, in terms of what they do, this is the best defense we’ll see,” Kelly said.
LSU has played a couple of particularly tough defenses. Florida State now ranks 12th nationally with 16.9 points allowed per game, and Alabama has allowed 17.4. LSU lost to both while being held to an average of 26 points per game, though Daniels had to leave early in the fourth quarter against Alabama with a concussion.
Texas A&M has similar numbers, and in some areas, better ones than anyone LSU has faced.
The Aggies have allowed 19.5 ppg, which ranks 26th nationally and third among LSU’s opponents. They are holding teams to 28.8% on third down, the seventh-best percentage in the country. Florida State (26.9%) was the only team LSU played with a better third-down defense.
The strength comes upfront. With a stout defensive line, Texas A&M has recorded 40 sacks and 94 tackles for loss, both top 3 nationally and the most in the Southeastern Conference. Kelly highlighted the versatility of the Aggies’ defensive linemen, saying they can move anywhere from nose guard to defensive end.
“That’s the strength of their defense is the versatility, the depth that they play on the defensive line and they’re aggressive,” Kelly said. “They mix things up very well, especially their third-down packages. You’ve got to be on your toes. You certainly have to do a really good job in protections and protecting the quarterback. You’ve got to be able to find a way to mitigate some of the potential negative plays.”
Texas A&M has been susceptible at times. It gave up 48 points to Miami and 38 to Ole Miss, both games it lost on the road. But against six other SEC teams, it allowed 17.5 points per game.
With this defense, Texas A&M has a chance to upend LSU’s remaining goals for the second straight season. Last year, the Tigers were ranked No. 5 and had already clinched a spot in the SEC championship. They were favored on the road against a four-win team, hoping to reach a New Year’s Six bowl and maybe sneak into the College Football Playoff. Instead, Texas A&M sprung a 38-23 upset.
“It was our first year of learning how to deal with success,” Kelly said. “We’d already wrapped up the SEC West title. I think maybe we didn’t handle success the right way.”
The circumstances are different now. LSU plays at home, and it already has lost the SEC West. Meanwhile, Texas A&M fired coach Jimbo Fisher last week. It then named co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Elijah Robinson as the interim coach through the end of the season.
When talking about why he chose Robinson, Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork said he recently spoke with an NFL scout during practice. The scout told him he was “fixated” on the defensive line and how the players were being coached.
It’s that same defensive line LSU has to handle for the team to have a chance at 10 wins and for Daniels to put the final touches on his Heisman campaign.
“You can spend the day thinking about, ‘Well, A&M is without a head coach. What’s their mindset? How are they going about this?’ I’ve been in this long enough to know whatever side of that they come out on really doesn’t matter,” Kelly said. “It’s about how we prepare. I believe if we do a great job preparing and we perform at our level, we’re going to have success.”