LSU punched its SEC title trip by responding to lopsided loss to Vols

Tennessee Athletics photo by Avery Bane / LSU linebacker Micah Baskerville gives chase to Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker during the 40-13 win by the Volunteers inside Tiger Stadium on Oct. 8.
Tennessee Athletics photo by Avery Bane / LSU linebacker Micah Baskerville gives chase to Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker during the 40-13 win by the Volunteers inside Tiger Stadium on Oct. 8.

There were plenty of thoughts racing through the minds of LSU football players on the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 8.

Was making the Southeastern Conference championship game one of them?

"Not right off the bat," senior linebacker Micah Baskerville said this week.

A Western Division crown seemed beyond impossible that day, when Brian Kelly's Tigers were humiliated by Tennessee 40-13 in Baton Rouge. The Volunteers jumped out to a 13-0 lead after the first quarter and built a 37-7 advantage entering the final 15 minutes.

The Tiger Stadium scene was surreal, as the 102,321-seat facility would have essentially been vacant were it not for at least 15,000 orange-clad spectators singing along to "Rocky Top."

"When I think about the Tennessee game, we as a team had already adopted our process that Coach Kelly implemented," junior running back Josh Williams said. "We didn't let Tennessee give us any negative thoughts. We knew we just had a bad game. We just had a few unfortunate plays that made the game look a certain way and that we could have been in the game.

"We knew where our mistakes were. We weren't thinking negatively as a team. We looked at the film and corrected the mistakes going into the next weekend. We really focused harder on that next weekend, and we won."

The Tigers punched their ticket to this Saturday's showdown with top-ranked Georgia inside Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium by how they responded to the most lopsided home loss of Kelly's 19 seasons as a Bowl Subdivision coach. LSU traveled down to Florida after succumbing to the Vols and outlasted the Gators 45-35, and the Tigers returned home to wallop Ole Miss 45-20 in their most complete showing of the season, outscoring the Rebels 42-6 over the final three quarters.

Then came the Nov. 5 visit from Alabama and a 32-31 Tigers triumph that was decided in overtime on Kelly's successful gamble of a 2-point conversion pass from Jayden Daniels to tight end Mason Taylor.

"I had a conversation with a couple coaches and some of the teammates after the Tennessee game," Baskerville said, "and we were like, 'Man, we still have a lot of things to do, and we still have a lot of things we can accomplish.' After that game, we came together and had a little player meeting and talked about still having things that we can accomplish.

"So we came together as a whole, and then Coach Kelly came and talked to us, gave us a great message and told us to finish strong. That's what we're trying to do."

LSU went 6-7 last season, enduring a losing record for the first time since 1999. The luring of Kelly from Notre Dame to replace the ousted Ed Orgeron certainly qualified as a splash hire, but the expectations were understandably modest.

At the SEC's annual media days event in July, the Tigers were picked fifth in their seven-team division, and that selection seemed to receive early justification when they dropped their opener 24-23 in New Orleans to a Florida State team coming off a 5-7 season. Both the Seminoles and Tigers, however, wound up racing past expectations this year with matching 9-3 records.

LSU's hopes for a 10-2 mark were dashed last Saturday night by a 38-23 loss at an underachieving Texas A&M that picked its last game of the season to find its stride, but the Tigers are well ahead of schedule in reaching the SEC championship game in what was supposed to be a foundational year.

"I think it means a lot for LSU that we're competing for the SEC title," Williams said. "We had an upsetting season last year and then a coaching change, and everybody was just giving us no credit. They had no expectations for us this season. For us to just turn it all the way around and actually get to the SEC championship is good for the school. It's good for the football program and recruiting.

"If you would have told me this back in December of last year, then I would have been surprised. Right now, I'm not really surprised because I know all the work that we've put in. We're excited."


Departing receivers

Tennessee receivers Jimmy Holiday and Jimmy Calloway and Alabama receivers Traeshon Holden and Christian Leary have announced their intentions to enter the NCAA transfer portal.

Holiday has played in all 12 games this season for the Vols, tallying six receptions for a 106 yards, with half of that total coming on his lone touchdown against Ball State. The 6-foot, 205-pound junior from Flora, Mississippi, also had 14 kickoff returns, with his long of 34 yards occurring against Florida.

Calloway, a 6-foot, 190-pound sophomore from Morrow, Georgia, had two catches for 20 yards this season, both against Akron.

Holden's departure would be the most surprising, given the 6-3, 214-pound junior from Kissimmee, Florida produced 25 catches for 331 yards and six touchdowns. Leary was a top-100 national signee in 2021 for the Crimson Tide, but the 5-10, 175-pound sophomore from Orlando had just one catch for 6 yards in his 10 appearances this season.


Walter Camp finalists

Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker was named Wednesday among the five finalists for the Walter Camp Football Foundation player of the year, joining Michigan running back Blake Corum and three other quarterbacks: TCU's Max Duggan, Ohio State's C.J. Stroud and Southern California's Caleb Williams.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.