- No watch list is more useless than the one for Coach of the Year. Here are 10 coaches who actually have a decent shot at bringing home the hardware.
Of all the silly preseason watch lists that college football has, the most useless is the one put out for the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year. There are 19 men on it. They’re all really good coaches. Thing is, this award often goes to someone who takes a team that’s seemingly off the radar or isn’t getting enough due in the preseason. Just look at the last four winners: Sure, Nick Saban won in 2014, but the year before, David Cutcliffe got the nod for engineering Duke’s turnaround, and in the last two years Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre have earned the honor for pulling off unexpected runs.
So, we’re gonna flip it and examine the 10 guys we think have the best shot to win this award who are not on the preseason Dodd watch list.
1. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State: If you asked me to name the seven best coaches in college football right now, six of the names are on that 19-man watch list (Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Dabo Swinney, Jim Harbaugh, Chris Petersen and David Shaw). The one guy curiously excluded is Fisher. He has to replace star running back Dalvin Cook, but he gets back the best defensive player in college football in Derwin James, who missed most of 2016, and the Seminoles are loaded with talented D-linemen. Their non-conference schedule is nasty, though, opening with Alabama and closing at SEC East champion Florida. They also have to go to defending national champ Clemson. If Fisher can get them to the College Football Playoff, which I think is possible, he’ll have made a pretty strong case to win the Dodd.
2. Charlie Strong, South Florida: Strong was a hot coach at Louisville and then had three tumultuous seasons at Texas. Now he inherits a rebuild that was ripening just as Willie Taggart was hired away by Oregon. Quarterback Quinton Flowers is outstanding, and running back D’Ernest Johnson is a fantastic all-around back with excellent change of direction, strength and soft hands. The Bulls should be favored in every game. Their toughest road game will either be at East Carolina or UCF, with Houston and Tulsa also posing formidable challenges. If the Bulls do run the table, Strong will have a lot of folks buzzing about what’s going on in Tampa.
3. Matt Luke, Ole Miss: The former Rebels O-lineman took over this program last month after Hugh Freeze resigned in the wake of an ugly scandal. And that scandal came in the wake of Ole Miss’s still unfolding ugly NCAA scandal. Worse still, no SEC team has fewer returning starters than the 11 Ole Miss is bringing back. I think if Luke can get Ole Miss to eight wins and steady this ship, he will not only get strong consideration for this award but also probably keep the coaching job for more than just this season. Don’t bet against him. Word is that with Freeze out, some inside the program feel like a dark cloud has gone away. Luke’s team will be led by one of the most talented young QBs in college football in Shea Patterson, and there’s plenty of good skill talent around. This team could win more than its share of shootouts. The schedule has four very winnable non-conference games, the toughest being what will be a late-night (Ole Miss time) game at Cal. They also get games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky from the East, and only three of their games come against preseason ranked opponents.
4. Jason Candle, Toledo: One of the five Dodd finalists last year came from the MAC: Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck. The 37-year-old Candle, a product of Division III power Mount Union, will be the conference’s hot coaching commodity this year. The Rockets should be explosive on offense, led by QB Logan Woodside and an excellent group of receivers including Cody Thompson and Jon’Vea Johnson. Seven starters return on defense, including All-MAC linebacker Ja’Wuan Woodley. The Rockets could be this year’s Western Michigan, although their non-conference schedule is even more taxing than the Broncos’ was last year, with road trips to Nevada and Miami sandwiched around a game against a Tulsa team that won 10 games in 2016. They also have to visit Ohio, the preseason favorite in the MAC East, and that game comes six days after playing Northern Illinois.
5. Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia: Most folks see the Big 12 race again coming down to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, the teams with the two best QBs in the league. The Cowboys have ridiculous firepower surrounding Mason Rudolph, and the Sooners have one of the country’s best offensive lines in front of Baker Mayfield. Will Grier, the former starting QB at Florida, is poised for a big year in Morgantown running a very user-friendly system with a good stable of backs. The big challenge will lie with a defense that only has three starters back, and one of those is standout linebacker David Long, who SI reported last month will be sidelined for at least the first month of the season with a meniscus injury. The good news: Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson may have the best group of safeties in the Big 12. If WVU can get past the opener against Virginia Tech, the Mountaineers probably won’t face another ranked opponent until late October at Oklahoma State, and by then that young defensive front should have some seasoning.
6. Tom Herman, Texas: The Horns are getting some hype in Herman’s debut season, coming in at No. 23 in the preseason coaches poll. Charlie Strong didn’t leave the cupboard bare—in fact, he left it better than he inherited it. Still, this is a Texas program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2013. The Longhorns bring back 10 defensive starters and seven offensive starters, including the best offensive tackle in college football in Connor Williams and a group of receivers that is the best Herman’s ever had. The Vegas experts have their win total at 7.5. I’d take that over. Also, it wouldn’t shock me if Herman’s team goes to L.A. in September and knocks off USC. The Trojans will be coming off a game against Stanford, the most physical team in the Pac-12, and Herman is 6–0 as a head coach against ranked opponents.
7. Mike Riley, Nebraska: The Big Ten has four teams in the preseason top 10, with Wisconsin (No. 10) being the only team in the West getting any hype. Riley’s team only has 10 starters back—No. 114 among FBS teams—but they are my sleeper team in the Big Ten. The Huskers have a very gifted QB in Tanner Lee, a former starter at Tulane who has NFL tools. They also have plenty of speed with young playmakers Tyjon Lindsey and Jaylin Bradley looking like they’re ready to give the offense a jolt. Nebraska gets Wisconsin and Ohio State at home—unfortunately, those are back-to-back games. The toughest road game is in mid-November at Penn State.
8. Mike Norvell, Memphis: The AAC has proven to be a good breeding ground for young coaches, and Norvell is a fast-riser with a budding star QB in Riley Ferguson. The Tigers will get a chance to make some noise when UCLA heads to Memphis on Sept. 16 for a game that kicks off at 9 a.m. Bruins time.
9. Willie Taggart, Oregon: After only winning four games last season, the Ducks hired Taggart to shake things up, and that’s exactly what he’s done. He inherits a stud running back in Royce Freeman and a talented young quarterback in Justin Herbert. The new Ducks staff is loaded with high-energy guys, and defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt worked wonders at Colorado. I don’t think Taggart needs to overtake Washington in the Pac-12 North to have a shot at this trophy, but if he can get to nine or 10 wins, he’ll be in the running. Oregon hosts Nebraska in Week 2 and then has to visit Wyoming and Josh Allen the next week. The Ducks also have to visit Stanford and Washington, but at least they don’t have to play USC.
10. Chad Morris, SMU: After going just 2–10 in his first season, Morris has continued to overhaul a program that was falling apart when he arrived in 2015. Still, this team was only picked to come in fifth preseason in the West Division of the AAC, and their Vegas win total sits at five. I’m a bigger believer than that. They have a bona fide star in supersized wide receiver Courtland Sutton, and I expect quarterback Ben Hicks to be much sharper this fall after than he was when a season-ending injury to Matt Davis forced him into action last September. Hicks is much more physically ready to handle the load now, and he has been pushed by Arkansas transfer Rafe Peavey. There’s also more depth on defense. In addition, the Mustangs have four of their first five games at home to try to get some momentum.