The top 10 college football coach rankings heading into the bowl season has Penn State’s James Franklin assuming the top spot for the first time all year.
Fourteen weekends of action. The typical ups-and-downs of a college football season. Many coaches were unable to withstand the rigors of a demanding job that never ceases to unleash new challenges. A handful of others, in places like Happy Valley and Boulder and Kalamazoo, raised the bar beyond all preseason expectations. They are the difference-makers, the managerial game-changers and the leaders who best maximized their personnel.
With the regular season now a part of history, it’s time to unveil who has earned the right to be named the 2016 National Coach of the Year, and which of his closest competitors have a beef about not being ranked higher.
Closing In on Top 10:
Dabo Swinney (Clemson), Matt Rhule (Temple), Craig Bohl (Wyoming), Scott Frost (UCF), Ken Niumatalolo (Navy), Bobby Wilder (Old Dominion), Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia), Bob Davie (New Mexico), Willie Taggart (South Florida), Chris Creighton (Eastern Michigan) and Frank Wilson (UTSA)
10. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
Solid overall season. Rough finish that could haunt Chryst and his kids right through the bowl game. The staff did well to get the Badgers to the Big Ten Championship Game, overcoming key injuries and a lack of continuity and consistency behind center. However, when Wisconsin stood just 30 minutes from wrapping up a conference title Saturday, it was outplayed and outcoached by Penn State in a crushing 38-31 loss. This year might be epitomized by those two quarters in Indianapolis, which would be a shame because Chryst did a very nice coaching job in his second year in Madison.
9. Clay Helton, USC
It’s not in Helton’s nature to gloat, but who would fault him after answering suggestions he was on the chopping block by winning the regular season’s final eight games? The team that started 1-3 ended it as hot as anyone in America, beating both Pac-12 division winners, Washington and Colorado. Plus, Helton wasn’t the only first-year difference-maker at Troy. He also helped develop and turned loose redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, who threw 24 touchdown passes while quickly morphing into a budding franchise quarterback.
8. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma
Stoops could have lost his team after it began the year 1-2, including a home rout at the hands of Ohio State. Instead, he rallied the troops, one step at a time until they secured a second straight Big 12 championship with Saturday’s Bedlam victory over Oklahoma State. The Sooners finished the regular season with nine consecutive victories, and the areas that plagued them in September, the O-line and the secondary, solidified as the season unfolded. Stoops has now won 10 Big 12 titles in 18 years, but this spot is not a career achievement, rather recognition for keeping a veteran team focused when it could have unraveled.
7. Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech
The Hokies put forth a valiant effort in the ACC Championship Game, losing by only a touchdown to Clemson. Sure, it stings to come so close, yet fall short. However, the future is bright again at Virginia Tech, and that’s because Fuente is at the helm of the program. The Hokies not only surprised by winning the Coastal Division with a new coach and a new quarterback, but they also won road games at North Carolina, Pitt and Notre Dame. And with Fuente developing talent, Tech’s nagging offensive issues under predecessor Frank Beamer are no longer worries in Blacksburg.
6. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
Yeah, yeah, Meyer has access to some of the nation’s best talent. But the Buckeyes were as youthful as anyone in the country after a dozen of their ex-players were selected in the NFL Draft. And with youth often comes inconsistency and stretches of futility. However, Ohio State stumbled just once, Oct. 22 in Happy Valley, and then recovered to win the final five games, including over Jim Harbaugh and Michigan. With virtually no senior leadership, the Buckeyes are playoff-bound, which is a testament to the coaching acumen and guidance provided by Meyer and his staff.
5. P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan
More than a century of football has been played in Kalamazoo. No season was better than this past one, when Fleck helped turn the Broncos into a national storyline. Western Michigan capped a perfect season Friday night by holding off pesky Ohio to win the MAC for the first time in 28 years. The victory also positioned Western Michigan to capture the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl berth. Fleck has been a transformational leader, whose message and positivity will continue resonating in these parts even if he accepts an offer at a larger program this month.
4. Chris Petersen, Washington
For the first time since 2000, the Huskies are Pac-12 champs, completing an impressive turnaround that Petersen began three years ago when he left behind the comfort of Boise State. Yeah, Washington was a trendy choice to surprise this season, but the staff succeeded in keeping the kids focused from wire-to-wire and actually raising the bar by making a playoff run. Plus, the Huskies showed no carryover effect from their lone loss, Nov. 12 to USC, routing Arizona State, Washington State and Colorado by at least 26 points to close the year.
3. Nick Saban, Alabama
Thirteen up. Thirteen down. The Tide continues to showcase remarkable, almost robotic consistency, a direct correlation to the man who’s led the program for the past decade. Everyone gunned for the defending champs in 2016, and only Ole Miss nearly three months ago came within a touchdown of an upset. There are so many different ways to measure Saban’s greatness, both tangibly and intangibly. How about ambushing Florida, 54-16, in Atlanta in a game Bama was favored by more than three touchdowns and probably didn’t have to win to punch a playoff ticket? Oh, and this year’s national championship run is being led by a true freshman, QB Jalen Hurts, on offense.
2. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado
The Buffs were dominated by Washington, 41-10, in Friday’s Pac-12 Championship Game. But the outcome in Santa Clara does nothing to change just how transformational MacIntyre was in his fourth season in Boulder. He turned Colorado, a perennial doormat picked in the preseason to finish last in the South Division, into a complete program on both sides of the ball. That the Buffaloes were still playing football on championship weekend qualifies as arguably the biggest surprise of 2016, with a ton of the credit going to MacIntyre, defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt and the entire staff.
1. James Franklin, Penn State
There’s no quit in Franklin’s kids. Not after slipping to 2-2 following a lopsided Sept. 24 loss to Michigan. And certainly not this past weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium. In a metaphor for a most improbable season in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions battled back from a three-touchdown deficit to shock Wisconsin, 38-31, behind the clutch passing of Trace McSorley. Penn State, not the Wolverines or the Buckeyes, stand atop college football’s toughest conference this fall. And that unlikely turn of events is why Franklin is worthy of being named the 2016 National Coach of the Year.