10 candidates for college football Coach of the Year

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (Perspective sold separately at North Carolina State, where the illegal shift penalty was a good call):

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With just three weeks of the regular season remaining, the national Coach of the Year race has been whittled to a manageable number of candidates. The Dash runs through the top 10 COY favorites:

Kirby Smart (21), Georgia. In Smart’s second season, the Bulldogs are 9-0 for the first time since 1983. (That team lost the 10th game to Auburn, which is certainly a parallel the current ‘Dogs would not like to repeat Saturday.) Georgia is undefeated not with star 2016 recruit Jacob Eason at quarterback, but true freshman Jake Fromm. Smart has astutely replicated the blueprint of his former boss, Nick Saban, building this team with defense and the running game. Greg McGarity’s controversial decision to fire Mark Richt in order to hire Smart is playing out well.

Mark Richt (22), Miami. Turns out Richt’s Georgia departure has been win-win. The Bulldogs are better, and so are the Hurricanes. They’re 8-0 for the first time since 2002, and the 18-point victory over Virginia Tech on Saturday in front of a raucous home crowd was the surest sign yet that “The U” is making a legitimate comeback. Richt is making it work with a first-year starting quarterback (Malik Rosier) and without starting running back Mark Walton, lost for the year in early October to injury. Miami’s opportunistic and athletic defense is winning the day. Turnover chains for everyone.

Brian Kelly (23), Notre Dame. His rebuild-or-bust season has been a smashing success. The Fighting Irish are 8-1, with a single loss by a single point against Georgia, and have dominated every other opponent. On the hot seat after a 4-8 debacle in 2016, Kelly performed a radical makeover of the program — three new coordinators, and a new personal outlook. The purple-faced sideline screamer was out, and a more positive and serene Kelly was in. The results speak for themselves, and may lead to a College Football Playoff berth.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has the Irish in prime position for a spot in the College Football Playoff spot. (AP)
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has the Irish in prime position for a spot in the College Football Playoff spot. (AP)

Gary Patterson (24), TCU. After straying briefly from his bedrock, defense-first principles in an attempt to keep up with the point-a-minute Big 12, Patterson has come back home. His 8-1 Horned Frogs are on pace to be the first Big 12 team in eight years to surrender fewer than 300 yards and 15 points per game (though those averages will be difficult to maintain after playing Oklahoma on Saturday). Patterson is shooting for his third season of double-digit wins in the last four, and seventh in the last 10.

Matt Campbell (25), Iowa State. Nobody really expected the Cyclones to have their first winning season since 2009, and they sure didn’t expect it when they entered October having to start a third-string quarterback who had thrown two college passes in four years. Yet here Iowa State sits at 6-3, one victory away from locking up a winning record, and two victories away from the school’s best season since 2000. Campbell, in his second season after four at Toledo, could be a coveted commodity on the job market shortly.

Lincoln Riley (26), Oklahoma. The youngest head coach in college football has handled the pressure of replacing Bob Stoops remarkably well. The 33-year-old Riley has somehow made the Sooners’ high-octane offense even better, despite losing an 80-catch wide receiver and two running backs to the NFL. Riley already has won at Ohio State and at Oklahoma State, probably the best pair of road wins anyone has this season. And if the Sooners handle TCU on Saturday, Riley should have a Big 12 regular-season title on his résumé, too.

Scott Frost (27), Central Florida. In 2015, the Knights were 0-12. Last year, their first under Frost, they went 6-7. This year: 8-0, with very winnable games the next two weeks. UCF is the highest-scoring team in the nation, averaging 48.5 points per game, and is the heavy favorite to pull down a New Years Six bowl invitation. The hard (OK, likely impossible) part will be keeping Frost when Florida, Nebraska and who knows who else comes calling after the season.

Jeff Tedford (28), Fresno State. The former California coach has made the most of his second act, radically remaking a Fresno program that was 1-11 last season. The Bulldogs are 6-3 and leading the West Division of the Mountain West, playing dramatically better defense than Fresno has played since the late 1980s. Tedford also is doing good work in his specialty area, coaxing efficient quarterback play out of Oregon State transfer Marcus McMaryion.

Mark Dantonio (29), Michigan State. Much like Kelly at Notre Dame, Dantonio is authoring a strong rebound season from a self-inflicted disaster year. The Spartans were 3-9 last year, 7-2 thus far this season, with victories over Michigan and Penn State and in a tie for first in the Big Ten East. If Michigan State can win at Ohio State on Saturday, it will be strongly positioned for its third divisional title in the last five years. (Dantonio’s ridiculous non-discipline of serial problem driver/starting running back LJ Scott diminishes his COY candidacy.)

Lane Kiffin (30), Florida Atlantic. Hey, give the smart aleck his due. FAU (6-3) is one victory away from its first winning season since 2008 and in the mix for just the second conference title in school history. (Pending the outcome against Florida International on Nov. 18, this spot could flip to FIU’s Butch Davis, another first-year coach with an interesting past. Davis has the 6-2 Panthers bowl eligible for the first time since 2011.) You may also have noticed it’s been a heck of a year for coaches in the state of Florida — unless you’re Jim McElwain or Jimbo Fisher.

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