<
>
Insider

Most underrated coaches of 2012

Urban Meyer was at the center of a remarkable, and yet doomed-to-be-overlooked OSU campaign. Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

I admittedly didn't spend much time examining my Heisman ballot; there wasn't much need. But the vote for coach of the year? That was a far more difficult one to cast. I ultimately went with Penn State's Bill O'Brien, for obvious reasons, but Notre Dame's Brian Kelly, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Stanford's David Shaw, among others, did outstanding jobs and merited serious thought.

Beyond that top tier, a number of coaches who didn't get voted as coach of the year even in their respective conferences did exemplary work. Here is a countdown of the most underrated coaching jobs in 2012.


10. Art Briles, Baylor Bears

On the surface, the 7-5 season is nothing special in the jumbled Big 12. But the Bears, replacing all sorts of offensive firepower from the breakout 2011 team, won four of five to complete the regular season and they were competitive in the one loss, a 42-34 defeat at Oklahoma. They were on the short list of hottest teams in America, with the blowout upset of then-No. 1 Kansas State headlining the resumee
.

<p.Briles is known for his wide-open attack, and it was often effective with Nick Florence, who took over for Robert Griffin III, but the running game is what led to a good deal of success in the final weeks. Baylor was 19th in the country in rushing, averaging 225 yards a game, and that was buoyed by the team going for 939 yards in the final three games -- against Kansas State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.

All that said, if Mike Gundy's Oklahoma State team had beaten Briles and the Bears in the season finale, it might have been Gundy in this space. What Gundy and offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who just took the head coaching job at Southern Miss, did with three inexperienced quarterbacks was impressive. However, when the Cowboys slipped a bit down the stretch, the Bears were on the way up.


9. Kyle Flood, Rutgers Scarlet Knights

We sort of broke our rule here, because Flood was named the Big East's co-coach of the year, with Louisville's Charlie Strong. But we believe his efforts still were undervalued, so we're including him.

Some coaches I recently spoke with thought the Knights might take a step or two back after Greg Schiano left to go to the NFL. The coaching peers told me there's typically skepticism whenever a coach is promoted to head coach from a line position (Flood was previously Rutgers' offensive line coach). In this case, the whispers of doubt quickly fell silent.

Robb Smith, previously the team's linebackers coach, gets a special nod in this section because the Knights often won with defense. They finished first in the Big East in scoring defense and second in total defense.

It sure seems as if Flood will continue what Schiano began, but it'll be interesting to see what happens once the program shifts to the Big Ten.


8. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern Wildcats

Maybe it's just me, but it seems Northwestern quite possibly had the quietest nine-win season in the country.

Beyond the wins, consider the losses. The Wildcats' worst loss was 11 points at Penn State, and that was closer than the score demonstrates. The others? One point against Nebraska and in OT at Michigan. Not once in 2012 did a team beat the Wildcats with any degree of assurance it was clearly a better team.

One coach agreed with me that the decision to sometimes move quarterback Kain Colter to other positions in an effort to get the best players on the field was gutsy -- and also effective. Sometimes coaches are fearful when it comes to getting creative, but Fitzgerald often coaches with the same emotion with which he played. It's refreshing, especially in a league that sometimes needs some spice.

Fitzgerald, who has the program in its fifth consecutive bowl game, continues to win despite the tougher academic requirements in Evanston. Then again, being a former NU player probably helps him understand the environment well enough to identify prospects with the standards in mind.


7. Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State Bulldogs

Something that stuck out to me in reviewing Fresno's sterling 9-3 regular season was that the Bulldogs had only one 10-plus-win season in Pat Hill's 15 as coach. Just one. And DeRuyter, whom many coaches I know respected greatly as a defensive coordinator, can get there in just one year with a bowl victory against outmatched SMU.

Fresno is in a sense a difficult place to win, because it's difficult to draw high-end talent to that part of the state. At the same time, it's not the toughest place, because the academic standards are less stringent. Regardless of where that balance falls, DeRuyter inherited an excellent talent in quarterback Derek Carr, the younger brother of former Fresno star David Carr. After 36 TDs and five picks, Carr appears NFL-ready even if he has indicated he might stay for his senior season.

Beyond Carr, the same sort of question extends to DeRuyter. How long can Fresno keep him? He seems to have far more earmarks as an up-and-comer, compared to Hill, who was content to stay and help the program build over time. The 2012 season, the immediate turnaround to go from four wins to perhaps double digits, was impressive regardless of what the future holds.


6. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina Gamecocks
With a bowl win against Michigan (the Gamecocks are five-point favorites), South Carolina would win 11 games for the second consecutive year after the program won no more than 10 in 100-plus years of playing the sport. Let that sink in for a moment.

The Gamecocks did it last season and are on the verge of repeating it without their best offensive player, Marcus Lattimore, who tore knee ligaments at midseason in 2011 and 2012. Just as I said a year ago, give Spurrier credit for adapting. He's still involved in offensive play calling, obviously, but his willingness to go toward a zone-read system has allowed for more consistency because his Fun 'n' Gun from the Florida days was looking more and more dated.

Additionally, the defense really didn't miss much of a beat after the previous coordinator, Ellis Johnson, left for Southern Miss. Lorenzo Ward deftly handled the unit, which was aided greatly by the expected breakout of defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (13 sacks).

Fans are still crowing, too, about defeating rival Clemson for the fourth straight time, something that hadn't happened since 1951-54. Relatively speaking -- the program still has just one conference title -- Spurrier has ushered in a golden age for South Carolina football.


5. Jim Mora, UCLA Bruins

Mora was among the last hires in the last rotation of the coaching carousel, and that forced some last December to doubt whether he was the correct choice. He didn't have any college experience, so there was nothing to suggest he was anything other than a placeholder in the eyes of critics.

And now? I have an editor who is insistent in comparing him to Pete Carroll, who likewise went from a middling pro-coaching career with experience as a defensive coordinator to a stellar college record (only to retreat back to the NFL; we'll see on that part).

Here's what I know: When I visited the Rose Bowl in May for UCLA's spring game, I noticed a departure in negative energy, especially for the team's previously bogged-down offense.
Those feelings transitioned to the season, too. The Bruins finished fourth in the Pac-12 -- just ahead of USC -- in scoring offense; that's serious progress. They might have a 2013 Heisman contender in quarterback Brett Hundley.

Energy has been boosted in Westwood; UCLA was just a win against Stanford from a return to the BCS. The Bruins were in the Pac-12 title game in 2011, too, but that was laughable; this time felt a lot different. It felt legitimate.


4. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss Rebels

The Rebels had won just one SEC game in the two seasons prior to Freeze's arrival, and they responded by winning three in Freeze's first year in Oxford.

All right, so it's not as if beating bad Auburn, bad Arkansas and so-so Mississippi State are anything to really brag about, but you've got to start somewhere if you're Ole Miss. Previously, it was wins over Ole Miss that didn't count for much. Plus, the Rebs played to the horn with Texas A&M, LSU and eight-win Vandy. Being close, the moral victories tacked onto the actual ones, is something palatable after going 2-10 in 2011. It's progress.

How'd Freeze, someone perhaps previously best known for being the high school coach in "The Blind Side," do it? Fellow coaches told me this month that it was an attitude and system change. Nick Saban might not like up-tempo offenses, but young players do. The Rebels bought in early, and Freeze took advantage of the speed his team did possess. If Ole Miss lands the type of recruiting class it thinks it will, the program could take another step in the not-too-distant future.


3. Mike Riley, Oregon State Beavers

Riley created some early-season COY buzz, and he still merits credit for taking a 3-9 team in 2011, which had him in some hot-seat list discussions, to a 9-3 season in 2012. The seat is hot no more for Riley, who was rumored last week to be a subject of interest to Wisconsin, a team that lost early in the season in Corvallis.

Also note that Riley and his staff had to deal with the midseason injury to quarterback and NFL prospect Sean Mannion, though that led to some back-and-forth between Mannion and Cody Vaz once Mannion was again healthy.

Still, this was perhaps the second-most physical Pac-12 team and defense, in particular, to Stanford, the league champ. In fact, the Beavers were second only to the Cardinal in the Pac-12 in terms of scoring defense (19.8 points a game). Sophomore end Scott Crichton, who had 9.0 sacks, was a tone-setter.

I remember Riley most this season for his ability to keep things light, like when he took the team to In-N-Out after the win at UCLA. It reminded me of postgame food stops on the bus in high school. Sometimes it's nice to see that somewhere the game still looks like a game. That's easier said than done when guys are sometimes coaching for their livelihoods under intense pressure, as Riley probably felt he was, heading into this season.


2. James Franklin, Vanderbilt Commodores

I still recall when Franklin strode confidently into our ESPN.com room in July at SEC Media Days. He knew that taking Vandy to a bowl game in his first season demonstrated that he was onto something at a place where winning isn't exactly the norm.

That said, he said it, and so did quarterback Jordan Rodgers, Aaron's younger brother: It was just another losing season for the Commodores, who dropped the bowl game and finished 6-7, despite some measurable success. Well, I'm curious to see Franklin's energy next July, when he walks into the room after an eight-win season that could go to nine if the 'Dores defeat N.C. State in the home-held Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.

Coaches I spoke with recently were split on Franklin. Some believe it's a smoke-and-mirrors job, the product of an OK team beating bad teams. But some -- more, I'd say -- are legitimately impressed because of the difficulty of the job itself; 8-4 for an academically inclined program in the SEC? Are you serious?

Who cares how you get to eight wins, right? That's impressive. And it earned Franklin a raise.
A new goal for Vandy in 2013: Get invited to a bowl game outside the Volunteer State's borders.


1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State Buckeyes

We seem to forget they just went 12-0. Regardless of the NCAA restrictions, which perhaps could alter the sense of pressure, that's quite an accomplishment for a coach who just arrived on the scene.

But, you know, maybe this isn't altogether surprising. We knew, after all, that 2013 Heisman hopeful Braxton Miller was a custom fit for Meyer's offense.

What's most credit-worthy: Ohio State held together for 12 consecutive games. Did the team have some close games? Sure did -- seven by a touchdown or less. But credit the Bucks for winning, regardless of the style. Only two teams managed that, and in similar fashions, actually: Slop it up, find a way.

What does Meyer's first year and the undefeated season mean, really? Ohio State already figured to do well for its 2013 class. Think 12-0 will hurt? It's currently fifth, according to our RecruitingNation folks, behind only Florida, USC, Notre Dame and Alabama. The Buckeyes appear to be back, as if 12-0 implied anything less. But we'll know for sure next fall.