Forde-Yard Dash: Coach of the Year Race Expands With All Conferences in Play

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (“We Like The Fake Spike” T-shirts sold separately in Kalamazoo):

MORE DASH: COVID Mulligans | Playoff Picture | Separation Saturday

THIRD QUARTER: COACH OF THE YEAR RACE, UPDATED

We are in the final month of games prior to bowl season, and the list of candidates for national Coach of the Year honors is actually getting longer, not shorter, now that all conferences have joined in. A brief Dash breakdown of the top contenders:

Tom Allen (21), Indiana. The Hoosiers are 4–0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1987, paving the way to the program’s biggest game since 1967 when they play Ohio State on Saturday. They have beaten Penn State and Michigan in the same season for the first time ever. Their defense is on pace to allow the fewest yards per play (4.97) this century. And if any coach looks like he’s having more fun than Allen this season, The Dash hasn’t seen him.

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Brent Brennan (22), San Jose State. The Spartans at 4–0 is even more unlikely than the Hoosiers—last time San Jose State did it before now was 1955. If they can make it 5–0 at Fresno State Saturday, that would be a first since 1939. Brennan took over a struggling program and went 3–22 his first two seasons, then started turning the corner at 5–7 last year. The current team is no joke—San Jose has won every game by double digits, thanks to a vastly improved defense. Brennan is also making it work by mixing and matching two quarterbacks: SEC grad transfer Nick Starkel leads the Mountain West in pass efficiency, while backup Nick Nash is the team’s leading rusher.

Jamey Chadwell (23), Coastal Carolina. Of the 130 programs in FBS, only a few ranked behind Coastal coming into 2020 in terms of accomplishments or relevance. Now look at the Proud Roosters: 7–0 and rolling into a Sun Belt showdown with established power Appalachian State. Chadwell landed quarterback Grayson McCall, a two-star recruit from Charlotte, redshirted him to develop, and now has a top-10 passer nationally in terms of efficiency. Chadwell had a strong track record on lower levels of college football; he’s showing that his plan translates to the FBS level as well.

Karl Dorrell (24), Colorado. The sample size is very small, but Dorrell has the Buffaloes off to a 2–0 start in his first year on the job. He went 12 seasons between head-coaching gigs, now he’s making the most of his second chance. His quarterback, Sam Noyer, played sparingly at the position in 2017 and ’18 and was moved to safety last year by Mel Tucker. He’s second in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency and second among quarterbacks in yards per play at 8.05.

Luke Fickell, Cincinnati. Michigan State wanted him and couldn’t get him, and now every blue blood program that has an opening should be after Fickell—with no guarantee he’d leave Cincy. He’s won 30 of his last 35 games, including all seven this season. Fickell’s fourth team is the one he’s been building toward, with yet another stout defense and his most explosive offense to date. (At 41.6 points per game, the Bearcats are on pace to break the school scoring record.)

Pat Fitzgerald (25), Northwestern. Last time the Wildcats were 4–0, Fitz was a hard-ass linebacker. Now he’s overseeing what could be the biggest win-loss turnaround of the year. The 2019 Northwestern team was Fitzgerald’s worst, going 3–9, forcing him to fire longtime offensive coordinator Mick McCall and snag Indiana grad transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey. It was a productive change. Pass efficiency has gone from 84.53 to 131.12, and scoring has gone from 16.3 to 28. But the defense has been the real difference maker, leading the nation in pass defense among teams that have played more than two games.

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Hugh Freeze, Liberty. The school’s football media guide features testimonial quotes from a couple guys who haven’t had a great 2020—deposed school president Jerry Falwell Jr. and outgoing U.S. president Donald Trump. But Freeze has had a hell of a year. The Flames are 8–0, scoring two of the school’s three all-time wins over Power 5 opponents (Syracuse and Virginia Tech). The man can coach, especially the offensive side of the ball. He will now do everything in his power to get the South Carolina job or any other Power 5 opening that should occur.

Doc Holliday (26), Marshall. He’s won a lot of games over the last decade at Marshall with offense, but his program has evolved defensively and this is his best unit yet on that side of the ball. The Thundering Herd lead the nation in points allowed (10.1) among teams that have played more than two games, and rank second in yards allowed per play (4.22). Nobody has come closer than 10 points to Marshall, with three manageable regular-season games remaining.

Brian Kelly (27), Notre Dame. Kelly’s tenure in South Bend needed no further validation, but he got it anyway with the double-overtime triumph over No. 1 Clemson. Now the Fighting Irish have their highest ranking in eight years and perhaps their most complete team in 27 years. Steady, smart recruiting and a broad-based approach to program building have brought Kelly to a place where, if the Irish make the College Football Playoff, they may be able to hang with the competition this time.

Dan Mullen (28), Florida. It has been pointed out this week that through 32 games, Mullen’s 26–6 record at Florida is the same as both Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer—and those guys won national championships. Mullen has the Gators on track to compete in that realm once again, thanks to a pitch-and-catch offense that rivals anything Spurrier’s Fun ’N’ Gun teams produced. It would take a major upset in the final four weeks of the regular season to knock Florida out of playoff contention before getting its shot at Alabama, in what should be a win-and-you’re-in SEC title game.

Philip Montgomery (29), Tulsa. It’s a joyous thing when you start the season with your name on hot seat lists and end it on Coach of the Year lists. That’s where Montgomery is, thanks to a four-game winning streak that has gotten downright dramatic lately. A last-minute touchdown (and an officiating error in their favor) helped the Golden Hurricane escape East Carolina, then a 21-point second-half rally got them past SMU. At 4–0 in the AAC, Tulsa controls its own destiny in search of the league regular-season title. Montgomery’s career parabola is now just about complete, having gone 6–7, 10–3, 2–10, 3–9, 4–8 and currently 4-1.

Sam Pittman (30), Arkansas. He’s the stealth hire of 2020, a guy who had never even been a major-college coordinator before getting this shot. Pittman broke the Razorbacks’ 20-game SEC losing streak last month, and has the formerly miserable Hogs 3–4 against a challenging schedule. (It should be noted that their worst performance of the season was last week at Florida, a game Pittman missed after contracting COVID-19.) Games against LSU and Missouri the next two weeks give Arkansas the chance to finish .500 or better for the first time since 2016.

MORE DASH: COVID Mulligans | Playoff Picture | Separation Saturday