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LSU Tigers head coach Brian Kelly leads the team out of the tunnel before the game against the New Mexico Lobos on Saturday, September 24, 2022 at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Brian Kelly understands what the next month means to his first LSU football team.

As much as the Tigers’ recent comeback win over Mississippi State showed an improved group and confirmed their resilience, the Southeastern Conference gauntlet arrives this weekend.

Beginning with a road game at Auburn, LSU enters a difficult stretch after a mostly comfortable month at home. It hosts Tennessee and Ole Miss teams that will likely be ranked and travels to Florida. After an open date, the Tigers welcome Alabama and play at Arkansas, another team currently ranked in the AP Top 25.

The six games will determine how far a rebuilding program can go this season.

“This month will tell us a lot, right?” Kelly said Monday. “We've got an SEC slate in front of us over the next four weeks, which will challenge us to a new level. We'll certainly find out even more about our grit and what kind of football team this will continue to grow to be.”

Kelly usually delivers a message during his weekly news conferences or emphasizes a general theme about what he wants to see from his team in these early stages. On Monday, he recognized what LSU’s players have done so far, saying he told them he felt “proud” of their ability to embrace a new regime and all the changes that came with it.

By doing so, Kelly wanted to acknowledge the consistency needed to win the last three games while looking to the challenge ahead.

“Even though this is a modest winning streak of three games, it should be noted that these guys are doing everything possible to make sure that LSU football regains its place,” Kelly said. “They're working really hard at it, but there's still a lot of work ahead of us.”

After a messy season-opening loss to Florida State, Kelly will bring a competitive team into this difficult stretch after LSU showed signs of improvement over the past three weeks.

The defense suddenly looks like one of the better units in the SEC after struggling with tackling and communication in the first game. Even without rising star defensive lineman Maason Smith, LSU has gotten pressure inside, played solid pass coverage and tackled well in open space to get off the field on third down.

LSU shut down Mississippi State’s pass-heavy offense in the second half, and now it’s coming off its first shutout since 2018. The Tigers have allowed 257 total yards per game, which ranks 11th nationally and third in the SEC behind Alabama and Georgia. ESPN’s SP+ metric, which measures efficiency, has LSU’s defense at 14th in the country.

“For the past two weeks, we've been playing great,” safety Greg Brooks Jr. said. “Going into SEC play, this is going to be a huge step for us.”

The offense has more lingering questions, but many of them were addressed the past two weeks. The offensive line used the same starters in consecutive games for the first time this season, and LSU finally established tempo for an entire game against New Mexico.

The Tigers came out fast and urgent last weekend, and the approach helped quarterback Jayden Daniels have his best game as a passer even though he didn’t throw a touchdown.

Daniels has improved over the past month. While his legs remain an important element, LSU continues to develop him so his dynamic rushing ability and arm complement one another.

Kelly thought Daniels looked more decisive and comfortable against New Mexico. He highlighted a red zone throw to Jaray Jenkins, who was the fourth receiver in the progression, and a quick screen to Malik Nabers as signs of progress.

“He's running when he needs to,” sophomore wide receiver Jack Bech said. “Everybody knows how good of a playmaker he is with his feet, but I think y'all saw how good of a playmaker he was with his arm.”

But everything will get tested by the rest of the SEC. The defense at every level. The overhauled offensive line. Daniels. The special teams units that still have issues.

Auburn presents the first true road game of the year, and there may be soggy conditions Saturday night with Hurricane Ian moving through the Gulf. Tennessee has a vertical passing game that will put stress on the secondary. Florida is on the road. Ole Miss has a balanced team. Alabama is Alabama. Arkansas has improved.

Kelly knows he does not enter this gauntlet with a perfect team. LSU is thin at defensive tackle, the offensive line and safety. This was still the roster with less than 40 scholarship players eight months ago, and injuries at those positions could be costly.

But Kelly has seen encouraging signs. He complimented the players for that reason Monday. And now, as much as these games present a challenge, they also offer the chance for LSU to return to prominence.

“You know the old Mike Tyson line 'everybody has a plan until they get hit in the mouth,' right?” Kelly said. “We're going to have to stick with our plan and stick with our process every single day because we're going to get hit in the mouth, and we're going to have to trust it and keep going.”

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