When it comes to second-year coaches, Urban Meyer and Kevin Sumlin are the names on the tip of everyone's tongue, and rightfully so.
Meyer, the Ohio State coach, is entering Year 2 in Columbus coming off a 12-0 season with a Heisman front-runner and another infusion of high-level talent through recruiting. Meyer has a chance to do something he has already done twice: win a BCS Championship.
Sumlin, a name that comes to many minds, has a team ranked in the preseason Top 10, a defense that has to be rebuilt and a quarterback who has become the most talked-about figure in college football. With Johnny Manziel in the fold, Sumlin certainly has to headline the list as a guy poised to take another step toward big-time success.
Given the schedule, where only Alabama and LSU appear to be likely favorites over the Aggies, Texas A&M is a legitimate top-three team in its division and, with an upset win or two, could find itself in the SEC Championship Game. That's quite a feat for Sumlin and the Aggies, a team that a year ago was expected to have a tough time navigating the conference.
That said, if Manziel is out, Texas A&M could struggle getting the ball to its playmakers. A&M only has one quarterback aside from Manziel who has attempted a pass, and Matt Joeckel's 5-of-11 passing does not make him the clear-cut favorite to win the job.
Watching how the Manziel-A&M-NCAA situation shakes out will be paramount in predicting whether Sumlin can not only duplicate the 11-2 push in 2012 but improve upon it.
However, Meyer and Sumlin are not the only coaches with eyes on elevating their status in Year 2. Several have the teams and the opportunity to help push from quality seasons toward conference championships.
In the ACC, Larry Fedora is a guy with his eyes on a conference title. After getting the Tar Heels to 8-4, 5-3 in the ACC, the coach is gunning for a Coastal Division title and hoping for an Orange Bowl trip.
On offense, his team is built in his image: energetic, fast and versatile. Quarterback Bryn Renner is back, along with an explosive receiving corps led by receiver Quinshad Davis and tight end Eric Ebron. Losing Gio Bernard is a hurdle, but Romar Morris and A.J. Blue are tough runners who will provide a solid balance to the scheme.
For UNC, the defense will be the question mark, as it was a season ago. The Heels surrendered the most points since a 2006 season that saw UNC go 3-9 and head coach John Bunting get fired. Many expect more of a Vic Koenning influence on the defense in Year 2, especially given the hire of Ron West as co-defensive coordinator.
West worked with Koenning, UNC's current associate head coach for defense, at Clemson and Illinois. As West assumes partial control of defense from last year's full coordinator, Dan Disch, look for more of Koenning and West's shared philosophy to emerge.
In the end, North Carolina will score points, but the defense has to get stops to get to Charlotte for the ACC Championship Game.
This is a little off the beaten path, but Tim DeRuyter is next up on this list of guys with a shot to do even bigger things in Year 2. Last season, DeRuyter (after 20 years as an assistant) got his shot to lead a team, and he did just that, helping Fresno State to a tie for first place in the Mountain West. This year, he has plenty of talent back and a conference that is welcoming in new faces.
Outside of an opening date with Rutgers, a late September game versus Boise State and a date at San Diego State in October, the road to the MWC Championship Game for the Bulldogs is paved with teams in transition. There are new coaches at San Jose State and Nevada in the MWC, and Colorado and Idaho among Fresno's non-conference opponents.
If things go DeRuyter's way, he will not only find his team in the first Mountain West Championship Game, but he could land a BCS Bowl bid. It will boil down to quarterback Derek Carr playing well and the team avoiding costly upsets and winning key games along the way.
The Pac-12 is another conference that makes the list, and in a big way. The conference has three second-year coaches who have teams looking to and capable of growing from the previous season's success.
And no, Mike Leach is not one of them.
Jim Mora at UCLA took a team from lowly 6-8 season in 2011 to 9-5 and a Pac-12 Championship Game appearance in his first year in Westwood. Now, with weapons all over the field and a team that truly gets it, Mora is closing in on taking that next step.
The Bruins boast a combination of youth and talented experience that should help the team repeat as Pac-12 South champions. Replacing running back Johnathan Franklin will be no small task, but as Brett Hundley continues to evolve at the quarterback position, the offense should remain explosive.
On defense, UCLA features stout players in its front seven, and what the secondary lacks in total game experience, it makes up for with a high talent level. This Bruins defense has to be ready, because the Pac-12 South is going to be a fistfight in 2013.
It is crowded in the South, and while Mora's Bruins finished atop the league in 2013, Todd Graham's Arizona State team also finished 2012 on an impressive note, winning three in a row. Quarterback Taylor Kelly is back for the Sun Devils, as are leading receiver Chris Coyle and leading rusher Marion Grice. On defense, the entire line returns, including All-American Will Sutton.
In Year 2, look for the wide receivers to break out in Mike Norvell's system, adding to the production the Sun Devils received from Coyle, flexback D.J. Foster and Grice. Improving on the 8-5 season is a real possibility, as the Devils avoid both Oregon and Stanford, giving them one of the Pac-12's more favorable conference schedules. Dates with Notre Dame and Wisconsin will be interesting, but in league play, the Sun Devils are primed to get to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
The other team with eyes on winning the Pac-12 South resides in the same state—Rich Rodriguez's Arizona Wildcats. There is a battle to replace quarterback Matt Scott, but the other pieces on offense are in place. Unlike the Bruins and the Sun Devils, Arizona has a way to go defensively, but Jeff Casteel will push to improve the 3-3-5's production in Tucson.
With three guys on this list, the Pac-12 South could end up being one of the most interesting divisional battles in college football. Add Lane Kiffin fighting for his job at USC, Kyle Whittingham and Utah hoping to get back to a bowl game and Colorado with a new head coach, and things will be hotly contested.
Other second-year coaches to watch include Bill O'Brien, Hugh Freeze, Paul Chryst and Kyle Flood. O'Brien at Penn State cannot technically win a conference championship, but his team has some quality pieces back to an offense that was able to average just under 30 points a game in 2012.
Chryst led a Pitt team that rapidly improved as the first year progressed. Now, moving into the ACC, the team has bought into the system and has a defense that should keep it in plenty of games. In a conference as up and down as the ACC, Chryst will have opportunities to win some close games in the Coastal, something that can help Pitt improve on last year's 6-7 record.
With Flood at Rutgers, the biggest issue will be the loss of some big-time playmakers to the NFL. If his team can come together behind returning quarterback Gary Nova, it has a shot to make the October 10 game at Louisville more than just a spoiler contest. There is talent on the roster—it is more a matter of Flood getting production out of the players and winning games.
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