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NEW ORLEANS – Once upon a time in Rock ‘N’ Roll history, Jerry Lee Lewis of Ferriday, Louisiana, was mad that he did not get to close a show of various stars. Chuck Berry – older by nine years and more established – got that honor right after Lewis.
So Jerry Lee went all out, even more than usual, set his piano on fire, walked off stage, left the audience in a frenzy and properly spent, handed the microphone to Berry and said, “Follow that.”
As great as Berry was, he couldn’t.
Will former Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly do better tonight in his debut as LSU’s coach against Florida State (7:30 p.m. eastern, ABC) than Florida first-year coach Billy Napier did last night?
Kelly, 60 and more established, will close a fabulous full opening weekend of college football, and he may win and look great. But he probably will not match Napier yet.
Napier, 43, is handing Kelly the headsets after virtually setting The Swamp on fire like only Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer before him could Saturday night with a 29-26 upset of No. 7 Utah in Gainesville. The unranked Gators did it in front of the largest crowd at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (90,799) for an opener in history, and it was one of the loudest as well.
Napier also became the first coach in Florida history to beat a ranked opponent in his debut.
And Napier’s first game featured a win over the highest ranked Florida opponent in an opener since 1969 when quarterback John Reaves led the Gators to a 59-34 victory over No. 7 Houston. No Florida team has beat any ranked team in an opener since Coach Charley Pell’s Gators beat No. 15 Miami, 17-14, in 1982.
And this was no fly-by-night Utes team. Utah finished No. 12 in the nation last year at 10-4. And that was the sixth season of 9, 10 or 11 wins since 2014 under Coach Kyle Whittingham, who replaced Meyer when he went to Florida after the 2004 season. And this Gators team was just 6-7 last year with 40-17 and 24-23 losses to average South Carolina and Missouri teams (a combined 13-13 last year).
In other words, Napier is already worthy of stepping on and stepping out on Steve Spurrier-Florida Field like no one else since Meyer, who won national titles in the 2006 and ’08 seasons after Spurrier revolutionized SEC passing football in the 1990s and won the national title in the 1997 season.
“An Opener For The Ages,” beams the headline over veteran Florida beat writer/columnist Chris Harry on the Gators’ website.
“The kind of deafening classics that echo into the North Florida night have been few and far between over the last decade-plus,” Harry wrote, referencing the post-Meyer era of failed coaches Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain and Dan Mullen.
“That’s what made the return of the electric orange-and-blue environment Saturday night such a thrill ride, and the victory over defending Pac-12 champion Utah quite a statement of a start to the Billy Napier era,” Harry wrote.
And the place was rockin’.
“Can you believe they pay us to do this?” Napier yelled to an assistant on the sideline just after linebacker Amari Barney’s diving interception in the end zone with 17 seconds to play sealed the win. Utah and veteran Cameron Rising – the Pac-12 first team quarterback last year – faced a second-and-goal at the 6 before the interception.
“Someone had to make a play,” Burney said. “It happened to me.”
And he didn’t throw an opponent’s shoe down the field in celebration for a critical penalty, which is how No. 6 Florida lost to 3-5 LSU, 37-34, at the Swamp in 2020 under Mullen.
“Pretty good football there, huh? We said it was going to take a team effort to get this done – to build and create momentum,” Napier said, and he was including the fans on that team. “And to create positive energy on the outside. The fans made a difference tonight. They impacted the game.”
Napier was the lead singer, but sophomore quarterback Anthony Richardson played lead guitar like Jimmy Page in only the second concert start of his college career. He hit 17 of 24 passes for 168 yards without an interception and rushed 11 times for 106 yards with three touchdowns, including the go-ahead score for the 29-26 lead from a yard out with 1:25 left.
Napier’s clock management on that 14-play, 75-yard drive over 5:01 was as good as Springsteen counting 1-2-3-4 in his prime.
“The cupboard wasn’t bare here when Dan Mullen left,” Whittingham said. “They have some great players, especially the quarterback.”
But they didn’t play like this, and Richardson obviously didn’t play enough under Mullen.
“If they can keep him healthy, they are going to win a lot of games,” Whittingham said.
In the meantime, Kelly and Napier will always be compared to one another because they started at the same time. And LSU athletic director Scott Woodward could have hired the rising, younger Napier, a Nick Saban disciple, last fall from Louisiana-Lafayette – just 50 minutes from Baton Rouge on I-10 West.
Woodward fired LSU coach Ed Orgeron in mid-October last year – more than a month before Mullen was fired at Florida. Napier clearly campaigned for the job last fall on Baton Rouge radio as his representation worked behind the scenes. Some at LSU were interested. But Woodward was not.
Woodward wanted the home run hire, and Kelly – the first Notre Dame head coach to leave without resigning on his own or being fired since 1907 – was clearly that. But did Woodward look down his nose at a ULL coach as most LSU people do? If that’s why he didn’t hire Napier or even give him a look, then he made a mistake. He should’ve considered Napier, who would have come for a lot less – $7.4 million at Florida to $10 million for Kelly at LSU.
Napier was never offered the LSU job, but had he been offered at the same time he was offered the Florida job, he would have taken Florida – those close to him have intimated. Not necessarily a better job. They’re very similar, but at the time and now, LSU had and has more off-field issues with various, active Title IX-related lawsuits and other corruption, more than usual and more than most. And, hey, DisneyWorld is much closer to Gainesville than Baton Rouge!
Plus, LSU was coming off 5-5 and 6-7 seasons. If Florida doesn’t lose to LSU in 2020, it goes to the SEC Championship Game at 9-1 and has a chance to reach the College Football Playoff.
And from the looks of last night, Mullen has left Napier more than Orgeron has left Kelly.
Maybe Kelly will prove to be the better hire. Maybe it will be Napier. But one thing is certain.
Had LSU hired Napier and Florida hired Kelly, LSU fans would be saying Napier is the next Saban and Kelly is too old and has never been much of an offensive coach with plodding game plans and game manager quarterbacks for the most part. And Florida fans would be saying Napier is not ready, having come from a mid-major, directional school in the Sun Belt.
But, at the moment Napier leads, 1-0. And, you’re up Brian Kelly.