We’re 10 weeks into the college football season and with that, the dust is starting to settle and the big picture is coming to form. We know the top Heisman candidates, teams are starting to clinch spots in their conference championship games and the number of contenders for the College Football Playoff is weaning down. There is still plenty of football to be played, and the most exciting part of the season is still to come.
This season, like many others, has featured a shift in the national landscape. Historically dormant programs have risen near the top of the rankings and conference standings, which has set up an unpredictable final two months of the season. In the midst of this shift are the head coaches who have turned their programs around and put their programs in positions to succeed like never before. I would argue that head coaches make all the difference in a winning program and a losing one, and through the first 10 weeks, candidates are starting to emerge as to which head man has done the best job this season.
Mark Stoops, Kentucky Wildcats
When you think of the University of Kentucky, you think about basketball glories and football failures. For years, the Wildcats in the SEC have been looked at as the high school dropout in a family of honor roll students. The annual cell-dwellers and outliers in what is often regarded has the best conference in college football. From 2010 to 2017, Kentucky recorded a 16-48 record in conference play and only played in three bowl games in those eight years.
Stoops, brother of former Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, is now in his sixth season with Kentucky and has taken the program on a full-blown culture change – one that has the Wildcats at 7-2 overall and 5-2 in the SEC. Their five SEC wins are the most they’ve tallied since 1977. Kentucky has shown gradual improvement since Stoops took over in 2013, guiding his teams to bowl games in the last two seasons, but even with that no one expected this kind of a season from the team. This team has notched wins over ranked opponents Florida (snapping a 31-game losing streak to the Gators) and Mississippi State and at one point were ranked No. 11 in the AP poll. Stoops’ squad was one win away from the program’s first berth in the SEC Championship game, but lost last week to Georgia, ending that dream.
Steve Addazio, Boston College Eagles
Addazio is in his sixth season guiding Boston College. In the past, his teams have always been very average – good enough to make it to a bowl game, but not good enough to compete with the best in the ACC. Only once in his previous five seasons did the Eagles finish with a record besides 7-6, in 2015 when his team stumbled to a 3-9 overall and 0-8 conference record.
Addazio’s 2018 team is above-average, to say the least. With a 4-1 conference record, an upset of Clemson this Saturday night would put Boston College in position to control their own destiny to the ACC Championship. With two losses, the team would not likely be considered for the college football playoff even with an unlikely conference championship on their record, but that should not undermine the job Addazio has done. His team’s only bad loss came in a blowout to Purdue (Purdue, who also wiped the floor with mighty Ohio State). Their only other loss was a a close one on the road to a good North Carolina State team. Projected by the ACC media to finish fourth in their division in the preseason, the Addazio-led Eagles have outdone expectations and now try to earn the biggest win in school history with Clemson up ahead.
Mike Leach, Washington State Cougars
Leach has long been one of the most well-respected, innovative, and quirkiest coaches in the nation. He spent ten seasons on the sideline for Texas Tech, where he logged an 84-43 overall record and in 2008 led the team to an 11-2 season and a Cotton Bowl appearance. After his last season with the Red Raiders in 2009, Leach took a two year hiatus from coaching before returning to the sideline for Washington State in 2012. After a rough first three years for the Cougars that only produced a 7-20 Pac-12 record, Leach turned things around as his teams have played in three consecutive bowl games.
This year has been the best representation of a culture-change at Washington State, as the Cougars are 8-1, ranked eighth in the College Football Playoff rankings and with only one loss are still a contender for the Playoff. Leach’s air-raid offense has always produced video-game like numbers through the air and this season has been no different, with his quarterback Gardner Minshew leading the nation in passing yards. The difference this year has been their ability to avoid bad losses, unlike in 2015 and 2016 when they opened consecutive seasons losing to FCS teams. The Cougars control their own destiny to win the Pac-12 North, a division which they were picked to finish fifth in the preseason.
Tom Herman, Texas Longhorns
If not for consecutive losses to Oklahoma State and West Virginia in the last two weeks, Herman’s chances of winning the award would be much higher. Still, this year’s Texas team has come closer to returning to the glory days of winning National Championships than any team since the Colt McCoy era. Herman was hired after a very successful stint with Houston where he went 22-5 and won the Peach Bowl over Florida State in 2015. His first season in Austin was a bumpy ride, with the team finishing with a 7-6 record and fourth in the Big 12.
The 2018 season has shown why the powers at be at Texas decided to hire Herman. After a frustratingly disappointing loss to Maryland to open the season, the Longhorns ran off six straight wins – including an impressive 48-45 win over then-unbeaten Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry. They jumped as high as ninth in the rankings, which is the highest they’ve been ranked since starting the 2010 season at No. 5. Two straight conference losses have all but ended Texas’ chances at a Playoff berth, but the Big 12 title in still within reach, and Herman has the future looking bright.
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan; Brian Kelly, Notre Dame; Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern; Dino Babers, Syracuse; Jeff Tedford, Fresno State; Matt Wells, Utah State