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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Pat Forde

Coach of the Year Candidates by Conference

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (folding chairs no longer sold separately in Starkville):

MORE DASH: Bama, Clemson Stumble | Playoff Paths | Fed-Up Fans

Third Quarter

Coach of the Year Race Updates—Nationally and by Conference

We are three-fourths of the way through the regular season, which means enough results are in the books to take educated looks at the various Coach of the Year sweepstakes. It’s worth noting that a lot can still change between now and the end of November, but this is how The Dash sees it heading into the stretch run:

National Coach of the Year

The leader is TCU’s Sonny Dykes (21), whose team is ranked fourth in the nation in the AP poll after being picked to finish seventh in the Big 12. The Horned Frogs are 9–0 for the first time since 2010, when they won the Rose Bowl and finished second in the polls. Dykes arrived 11 months ago from across the Metroplex at SMU, taking over a program that had gone 16–18 the previous three seasons. The injection of new energy—and a return to explosive offense—has worked wonders.

The other top candidates: Josh Heupel, Tennessee; Kirby Smart, Georgia; Brian Kelly, LSU; Dan Lanning, Oregon; Lincoln Riley, USC; Chip Kelly, UCLA; Willie Fritz, Tulane; Hugh Freeze, Liberty; Lance Leipold, Kansas; Bret Bielema, Illinois.

Dykes’s Horned Frogs are in the driver’s seat in the Big 12, with a shot at the Playoff.

Raymond Carlin III/USA TODAY Sports

American Athletic Conference

Willie Fritz (22)Tulane. Last year’s 2–10 setback moved Fritz from hot coach to hot seat lists. Now he’s back on the good list, with the Green Wave 8–1 and ranked 16th in the AP poll. The most notable triumph was at Kansas State, but the bigger news is Tulane’s perch atop the AAC heading into a huge closing stretch against UCF, SMU and Cincinnati. If the Wave can win the league, they might also claim the Group of 5’s New Year’s Six bowl spot. This is already Tulane’s most wins in a season since 2002, and it could be headed toward its best record since the undefeated season of 1998.

Other contenders: Gus Malzahn, UCF; Luke Fickell, Cincinnati.

Atlantic Coast Conference

Mack Brown (23)North Carolina. Sam Howell departed after last season as the all-time passing leader in school history, yet the Tar Heels have actually gotten better at that position with spectacular freshman Drake Maye. Credit Brown with a recruiting victory in keeping Maye in the family colors (after decommitting from Alabama) and plugging him into a dynamic offense. The Heels have done well enough on offense to counterbalance shortcomings on defense, on their way to an 8–1 record and a two-game lead in the loss column in the Coastal Division.

Other contenders: Dino Babers, Syracuse; Mike Elko, Duke; Dave Doeren, North Carolina State.

Big 12

Sonny Dykes, TCU. See above regarding Sonny.

Other contenders: Lance Leipold, Kansas. Consider this stat emblematic of Kansas’s turnaround: Last year, Leipold’s first at the school, the Jayhawks lost to Oklahoma State and Iowa State a combined 114–10; this year they beat those teams by a combined 51–27. Kansas hadn’t beaten the Cowboys since 2007 and hadn’t beaten the Cyclones since ’14.

Big Ten

Bret Bielema (24)Illinois. The Illini already have seven wins for the first time since 2011 and are one victory away from their first winning Big Ten record since ’07. At 4–2, they’re still leading the West Division heading into a big home game against 3–3 Purdue and own head-to-head wins over the other 3–3 teams (Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota). The Illini are playing a familiar style of BretBall: a league high in rushing attempts (412) and a league low in points allowed (10.4 per game). This was a savvy hire in late ’20 by athletic director Josh Whitman.

Other contenders: Not much of anyone. Maybe Wisconsin interim Jim Leonhard if the Badgers continue their course correction since firing Paul Chryst.

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Conference USA

Jeff Traylor (25)UTSA. Let’s just presume that Traylor and North Texas’s Seth Littrell settled this on the field a couple of weeks ago, when the Roadrunners defeated the Mean Green 31–27. That avenged UTSA’s only conference loss last year and pushed its record the past two seasons to 19–4. The Roadrunners’ only two losses this season are to Houston and Texas. They’re 4–1 in one-score games.

Other contenders: Littrell, who is working on his second annual job-saving rally in the second half of the season.


Scot Loeffler (26)Bowling Green. At the moment, this is a coin-flip choice in a coin-flip league. But at 5–4 and 4–1 in the MAC, the Falcons have a chance for their first winning records overall and in the league since 2015. Along the way, Loeffler has had to deal with blood clots that kept him home from the game against Mississippi State, which came on the heels of a dramatic upset win over Marshall one week after the Thundering Herd won at Notre Dame.

Other contenders: Tim Albin, Ohio; Maurice Linguist, Buffalo; Jason Candle, Toledo; Mike Neu, Ball State.

Mountain West

Andy Avalos (27)Boise State. He got here the hard way, with the Broncos starting the season a shaky 2–2, firing their offensive coordinator and having starting quarterback Hank Bachmeier bail for the transfer portal. At that point, Avalos was moving onto the hot seat early in his second season on the job. Since then Boise State has resumed looking like Boise State, peeling off four straight wins before a loss to BYU on Saturday. Freshman Taylen Green is growing into the QB job.

Other contenders: Craig Bohl, Wyoming; Jeff Tedford, Fresno State; Brent Brennan, San Jose State. This isn’t a very good league right now.


Lincoln Riley (28)USC. This is a close call that will sort itself out in the next couple of weeks. But for now, let’s go with the guy who came in during the offseason and has already doubled his program’s win total from last year. Riley’s ability to attract transfers to his offensive style instantly upgraded the talent, and the execution has followed. One of the most remarkable stats of the season nationally: USC has run 620 offensive plays and committed two turnovers.

Other contenders: Dan Lanning, Oregon; Chip Kelly, UCLA; Kalen DeBoer, Washington.


Kirby Smart (29)Georgia. The Bulldogs set a modern NFL record with 15 players picked in a seven-round draft, including five defenders in the first round. Now here they are right where they left off, undefeated and looking like the best team in the nation by a fairly wide margin. The talent reload is impressive, but so is the commitment to a physically dominant style of play. While upgrading the offense, Georgia has not wavered from being the most punishing team in the country.

Other contenders: Josh Heupel, Tennessee; Brian Kelly, LSU; Lane Kiffin, Mississippi.

Sun Belt

Jon Sumrall (30)Troy. This is a deep and competitive league with more power in the East than the West, but give credit to first-year head coach Sumrall for reversing fortunes at Troy (7–2) and securing the program’s first winning season since 2018. Since losing on a Hail Mary at Appalachian State on Sept. 17, the Trojans have won six in a row and taken the lead in the West Division.

Other contenders: Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina; Kane Wommack, South Alabama. 

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