Power Ranking the 2011 College Football Coach of the Year Candidates

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistSeptember 30, 2011

Power Ranking the 2011 College Football Coach of the Year Candidates

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    College Football Coach of the Year is a title that might seem secondary to most coaches, but usually the award is emblematic of his team's successes on the field. It might seem a bit unfair that only one coach receives the title “Coach of the Year,” as every season there are a handful of coaches deserving of recognition for their efforts.

    We're already a quarter of the way through the 2011 college football season, and most teams are wrapping up their non-conference play. While it's probably too soon to tell who is the odds-on favorite to win the COTY award this season, it's never too early to begin power ranking the coaches based on their team's early season performance.

    Here is our 2011 College Football Coach of the Year Power Rankings after the first month of the season.

Dennis Erickson, Arizona State

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    Dennis Erickson has the Sun Devils in control in the Pac-12 South division, and the impressive ASU team now has the easiest path in the South to the Pac-12 title game this season.

    The No. 25 Sun Devils already have a win against a ranked opponent—Missouri—under their belts this season, and a win against USC will provide some much-needed legitimacy for Arizona State should it reach the title game (as USC is ineligible to participate in the Pac-12 Championship Game this season).

    The only other undefeated teams in the Pac-12 South are the pretty bad UCLA Bruins and Colorado Buffaloes.

    The expectations for ASU this season were admittedly high. Last year, ASU posted a disappointing 6-6 record, but a closer look at the 2010 Sun Devils shows a different story. Four of the losses last year were by a combined nine points, and Arizona State returned every offensive starter this season and most defensive starters as well.

    Arizona State's only loss thus far was a narrow defeat at 4-0 Illinois.

    A Pac-12 title berth and possible BCS trip would do wonders for the rebuilding process of a tradition-rich program in Tempe. Much of the success in the rebuilding process is thanks to Dennis Erickson.

Brady Hoke, Michigan

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    First-year “Michigan Man” Brady Hoke has his Wolverines at 4-0 and ranked No. 18 in B/R's Top 25 after four weeks.

    While both of these feats are fairly impressive given Michigan's recent history, it's also not starkly different from U-M starts during the Rich Rodriguez years in Ann Arbor.

    Anyone who is watching the Wolverines can honestly say they are seeing some improved play from the maize and blue, but it's far too early to determine if U-M will shake off the specter of past seasons and maintain the momentum into the second month of the season.

    If Michigan keeps winning come Big Ten conference play, you can expect Michigan's Top 25 ranking to quickly climb, and Hoke's COTY chances along with it.

Skip Holtz, South Florida

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    South Florida surprised many by beating a ranked Notre Dame team in the season opener in South Bend.

    An equal number of people were surprised by Notre Dame's lack of ability to simply hold on to the football, though, so there are plenty of naysayers out there when it comes to the Bulls.

    Still, South Florida beat Notre Dame, and it beat three other teams as well before heading into Thursday night's Big East opener against Pittsburgh.

    After a disappointing 44-17 loss against Pitt and falling to 4-1, Skip Holtz and the Bulls will likely fall from the Top 25. However, an 0-1 start in the Big East isn't the end of the world, nor is it the end of the season for USF.

    The entire season for the Bulls may come down to the regular season finale against West Virginia. It's possible that both teams could enter that game with near-spotless Big East records and Top 25 rankings.

    If Holtz is able to guide the Bulls to the school's first-ever BCS game this season by winning the Big East, you can expect him to be a strong candidate for COTY honors.

Paul Rhoads, Iowa State

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    When Gene Chizik left Iowa State for Auburn, Paul Rhoads was not retained by Chizik as Auburn's defensive coordinator. Instead, Rhoads was hired to replace Chizik at Iowa State.

    One of the more surprising undefeated teams so far this season, the 3-0 Cyclones have found themselves receiving votes in numerous polls, including the B/R Top 25. That's a far cry from their usual position as a Big 12 doormat.

    After a narrow 20-19 win over FCS Northern Iowa to begin the season, there were many people in Iowa who figured it would be another long season for the Cyclones. But after a thrilling 44-41 overtime victory against Iowa and a 24-20 win over defending Big East champ Connecticut, Iowa State has turned a few heads.

    By far the biggest test of the young season will come this weekend as Iowa State hosts the Texas Longhorns—another 3-0 team that Iowa State sneaked one past last season.

    Iowa State's string of success may not last, but as long as it does, Paul Rhoads deserves recognition for his work in Ames.

Art Briles, Baylor

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    Art Briles is in his fourth season as the head coach for the Baylor Bears, and 2011 seems to be starting much the same way 2010 did for the Bears. After posting a combined 8-16 record in his first two seasons at Baylor, the Bears are 10-6 over their past 16 games.

    Last season, Briles led his Bears to their first winning record in 15 years, and the improvements for Baylor are continuing this season.

    After an impressive opening-week win against TCU, the Bears have dispatched two weaker opponents from the Lone Star State—Rice and FCS Stephen F. Austin.

    The Bears' undefeated 3-0 mark so far this season, combined with the impressive play of quarterback Robert Griffin III, has earned Baylor the No. 15 spot in the B/R Top 25.

    The real test for Briles will be the Big 12 part of the schedule. Last season, Baylor posted a 5-3 record in the conference but wasn't really close to the top teams in the Big 12, losing to Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas A&M to close out the regular season before losing in the Texas Bowl to Illinois.

    Briles already has improved his team's non-conference record this season, posting an undefeated 3-0 mark heading into the conference schedule. If the Bears can improve against top Big 12 competition, the Bears may be headed for another winning season followed by a big bowl trip.

Dabo Swinney, Clemson

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    Dabo Swinney has Clemson off to a somewhat surprising 4-0 start.

    Not only did Clemson end Auburn's nation-leading win streak earlier this season, the Tigers were also able to knock off a wounded Florida State squad last week to take control in the ACC Atlantic and have risen to the No. 13 spot in the B/R Top 25 on the strength of a 4-0 record that includes two wins over two then-ranked opponents.

    Swinney has his Tigers in perfect position in the ACC, and they now control their own destiny in the conference. The Tigers have never missed a bowl game under Swinney but have ended the season in the Top 25 only once, when they were ranked No. 24 by the AP at the end of the 2009 season.

    The fate of Clemson could be decided this weekend when the No. 13 Tigers take on the No. 11 Virginia Tech Hokies. A marquee win over a very good Hokies team could propel Swinney into the top echelon of college football coaches this season.

Bret Bielema, Wisconsin

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    The strike against Bret Bielema has been that Wisconsin has always been a “not quite” team under his leadership.

    Last season, the Badgers finally broke through and won the Big Ten title, but they were forced to share it with Ohio State (before the Buckeyes vacated their share) and Michigan State—the latter of which beat Wisconsin during the regular season.

    Wisconsin was still able to earn a trip to Pasadena but came up short against the BCS-busting TCU Horned Frogs.

    This season, Bielema and the Badgers are expected to compete for the Big Ten championship and another BCS berth. As usual, the road to the Big Ten championship is filled with pitfalls and potential speed bumps. This weekend the No. 6 Badgers host No. 8 Nebraska in the Cornhuskers' first-ever Big Ten conference game.

    An early test for Bielema and the Badgers will set the tone for the rest of the Big Ten season.

    A win against the Huskers will certainly help Wisconsin's chances for a Big Ten Championship Game berth, and it should provide ample proof that the Badgers deserve their lofty ranking in the polls.

Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State

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    Mike “The Man” Gundy has certainly had an eventful career thus far at Oklahoma State. Now in his seventh year as head coach of the Cowboys, Gundy has built the program into a top-five contender, and the Cowboys are ranked No. 5 after the first four weeks with an impressive win against then-No. 7 Texas A&M last weekend.

    The Cowboys have improved every season under Gundy, and last season the Cowboys finished 11-2 and No. 10 in the final coaches' poll.

    So far this season, Oklahoma State is building off its 2010 successes, and it's 15-2 over its past 17 games.

    While Oklahoma State's Big 12 schedule certainly isn't a “gimme,” it's clear that the regular season finale against in-state rival and currently No. 2-ranked Oklahoma looms large for Gundy's COTY and his team's BCS prospects.

    If a win against Texas A&M has Mike Gundy dancing, we wonder what he'll do if Okie State wins the Big 12 and earns a BCS trip...

Chris Petersen, Boise State

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    Just as it seems Boise State is a perennial contender to crash the BCS party, Chris Petersen always finds himself in the conversation for COTY recognition.

    And why not?

    No other FBS coach can claim the same win percentage over the past five-plus seasons. Much like the schoolyard barb of “my dad can beat up your dad,” Boise State fans can honestly claim that “our coach can beat up your coach,” at least when it comes to winning football games.

    So far, Petersen is 64-5 as head coach of the Boise State Broncos. There's no coach in the FBS that comes close to that win percentage (.928), and only Lance Leipold of Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater beats Petersen's win percentage amongst active NCAA coaches (60-3, .952).

    Petersen's Broncos have also finished in the Top 10 three of his five seasons and have never failed to reach a bowl game.

    This season, Boise State has perhaps its best chance of reaching the BCS National Championship Game. With a win over then-No. 22 Georgia and looming contests against Nevada, Air Force, TCU and San Diego State, the Broncos are doing the best they can to prove to the pollsters that they finally deserve a shot at the big prize.

    So far, there are at least a few converts. In the most recent B/R Top 25, No. 4 Boise State received two first-place votes—two more than No. 3 Alabama.

    If Boise State can, as expected, finish the regular season undefeated yet again, expect Petersen's name to be at the top of many COTY lists.

Les Miles, Louisiana State

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    The surprising Tigers have fought through off-field distractions and a gauntlet of ranked non-conference opponents to a 4-0 record and a No. 1 ranking in the B/R Top 25.

    The fact that LSU has been able to achieve a high level of success—beating then-No. 3 Oregon, then-No. 25 Mississippi State and then-No. 16 West Virginia during the first four weeks—speaks volumes about Les Miles and his ability to keep his team together, focused and ready to play any team that steps on the field against LSU.

    Even though LSU has the inside track right now in the SEC towards the BCS title game, its path is absolutely fraught with danger.

    LSU has Florida and Arkansas coming to Baton Rouge, while facing Tennessee and Alabama on the road.

    While the debate will continue about whether or not the SEC has the toughest conference schedule in the nation, you won't find a sane person that would call it “easy.”

    Miles must continue to have his team well prepared in order to guide LSU to its third BCS National Championship Game in search of its nation-leading third BCS title.

    Because LSU has had one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the nation, combined with its difficult SEC schedule all mixed in with the off-field issues with which the Tigers have had to contend, should LSU punch its way though to the BCS title game in New Orleans, there's probably no other coach in the nation that can make a better case for Coach of the Year.

    That's why Les Miles leads our COTY power rankings after four weeks.