Everywhere I look I keep seeing folks mention the Coach of the Year award as if it is a two-horse race: Bill Snyder versus Brian Kelly. The cagey old coaching veteran versus the guy who finally seems to have got the Fighting Irish's team production to match their hype.
In this day and age of condensed talking points and folks dialing into a narrative, it makes sense. After all, Notre Dame is Notre Dame, and while Kansas State isn't a high-profile job, the Wildcats do have a Heisman front-runner.
However, the real coach who should be on everyone's ballot is Mike Riley of the Oregon State Beavers. It's no disrespect to Snyder or Kelly, but when it comes to maximizing what he gets out of his players, Riley has to be the leader.
Kelly is operating with high-level, top-of-the-line athletes. He's got ballplayers at every position that would start for most college football teams. No matter how much you like your team's front seven, you'll find a way to make sure Manti Te'o, Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day see plenty of time. On offense, Cierre Wood, the offensive line and of course Tyler Eifert would step on to many a roster and be key players.
You coach the guys you have, and at Notre Dame, luckily for Kelly, he's afforded the opportunity to get players that most coaches never have a legitimate shot with. The same can be said about Kelly's competition in this race, Snyder.
No, Snyder is not pulling top-of-the-line high school talent to Manhattan, Kansas. He's not brushing elbows with Nick Saban and Mack Brown or Lane Kiffin on the recruiting trail. But the coach is most certainly able to get players that most coaches do not have the same access to: junior college prospects.
Ordinarily, coaches can take one or two JUCO players a year. Perhaps, in a year where there is plenty on the line, they can grab four or five JUCO guys.
Snyder, at Kansas State, has upwards of 30 junior college and transfer players—guys who come in as juniors and seniors ready to contribute to his team and already developed.
It may not seem like much, but avoiding the inconsistencies of a freshman or a sophomore is a big deal, and thanks to the type of guy that Snyder can add to his roster, he can fill holes easier than most coaches in college football. Especially along the offensive or the defensive personnel.
Which brings us to Riley. The coach has seven JUCO players and a couple transfers who found a home in Corvallis—not the same "instant fix" that Snyder's situation affords him. Riley also has just one guy on his roster that makes folks drool, Jordan Poyer. The rest of his players are guys that plenty of teams would, and did, pass on in the recruiting game.
In fact, these are the same guys, with the exception of the 2012 signing class, that plugged their way to a 3-9 record in 2011. Plenty of the same guys who went 5-7 in 2010. Now, Riley has his team sitting at 6-1. The Beavers have doubled their win total from a year ago.
The Oregon State Beavers are not a team that went from good to better; they're a team that went from awful to an 11th place spot in the BCS standings.
Kansas State is working its transfer players and riding the dynamic play of Collin Klein to—should it finish undefeated—two more regular season wins than they had a year ago. Notre Dame is maximizing its production on the shoulders of big-time ballplayers and tough football.
Oregon State has found itself in the midst of a magical season on the strength of Riley's brilliant play design and his timely play-calling.
You can't take anything away from Snyder or Kelly. However, Riley entered the season just about dead in the water following four seasons of getting progressively worse. He's worked with his guys, he's made the right moves and now he's got a team that's got its eye on a Rose Bowl and controls its own destiny heading into November.
Not just its own destiny in getting back to a bowl game, although that was the main goal in 2012, but its own destiny when it comes to hosting a Pac-12 Championship Game.
Mike Riley is my guy for Coach of the Year. Barring some sort of catastrophe, a 9-3 finish by the Beavers should win their head coach the award. He's certainly done more with less and made up more ground than most coaches, Snyder and Kelly included.