5 college football coaches on the rise, 4 picks for the playoff

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (“Long-Term Herm” T-shirts sold separately in Tempe):

[More Dash: Losing streaks snapped | Contender or pretender? | G5 teams on the rise]



When Arizona State fell behind Michigan State 13-3 late in the third quarter Saturday night, there was no panic. There was poise, resilience, determination and execution. And there was belief in the Sun Devils’ new coach, Herm Edwards (1).

“I think these players trust me,” Edwards said afterward.

Arizona State methodically wore down then-No. 15 Michigan State in the fourth quarter, embarking on three long scoring drives and shutting out the Spartans. They kicked the winning field goal on the final play, and Edwards had perhaps the sweetest victory for any coach thus far in the 2018 season.

His hiring last winter was ridiculed nationwide — truth be told, The Dash was not a fan, either. Edwards is 64, hadn’t coached in a decade, and hadn’t coached college football since the 1980s. His only identity with young people was as a glib, entertaining but decidedly old-school analyst on ESPN. There was little reason to believe this would work, and even less when his staffing plans began to fall apart.

But guess what? With a sample size of exactly two games, things are going far better than expected.

Arizona State is 2-0 and ranked for the first time in three years. The Sun Devils currently lead the nation in rushing defense, allowing just 32.5 yards per game and 1.07 yards per carry. Last year under Todd Graham, ASU was 78th in rushing defense and allowing more than five times as many yards per game. This appears to be a tougher team under Herm.

Herm Edwards has the attention of the Pac-12 and everybody else now. (AP)
Herm Edwards has the attention of the Pac-12 and everybody else now. (AP)

As his team heads out on the road the next two games (at San Diego State this week, at Washington next), Edwards has at least earned a greater benefit of the doubt. Will he end up being the next Pete Carroll (2) — a widely panned hire at USC after a middling NFL career, who went on win multiple national championships? Probably not. But he joins a list of current coaches who were underwhelming hires then, and exceeding expectations now:

Dabo Swinney (3), Clemson. He was a wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator, not a play caller, when he was elevated to replace Tommy Bowden — first as the interim in 2008, then the full-time coach in ’09. All he’s done since then is build the second-most successful program in the nation, behind Alabama. Swinney’s record is 103-30, he’s won a national championship, and he’s guided Clemson to each of the past three College Football Playoffs. He may well be there a fourth consecutive time this season.

Paul Chryst (4), Wisconsin. His roots ran deep with the program — Madison native, former Wisconsin player and assistant, son of a former Wisconsin player and assistant — but his track record after three seasons at Pittsburgh was the epitome of mediocrity: The Panthers were 19-19. That was after the program went 24-15 the three previous years. Yet here is what Chryst has become since coming home: a two-time Big Ten West champion, a three-time bowl champion and coach of a team with an AP top 10 ranking the past 22 straight games.

Ed Orgeron (5), LSU. Outside of Louisiana, this hire went over like sauerkraut in gumbo. Orgeron had completely bombed as head coach at SEC West rival Mississippi, and a relatively successful interim stint at USC wasn’t enough to make anyone forget that. Nor was a similarly good-not-great interim run at LSU after the firing of Les Miles in 2015. But after being turned down by Tom Herman, who went to Texas instead, LSU turned to Orgeron and the results have been good for a consolation prize (while not yet attaining the school’s lofty standards). Orgeron’s record as full-time coach at LSU: 11-4. Herman’s record at Texas: 8-7. Tigers fans have pointed that out just a few times this month.

Tony Sanchez (6), UNLV. Vegas had failed to win at football with every conceivable kind of hire, so it went the high school route with Sanchez. That choice was widely panned, especially among those who remember the Gerry Faust bust at Notre Dame. But Sanchez has incrementally improved the product, taking over a program coming off a 2-11 season and going 3-9, 4-8 and 5-7 his first three seasons. Thus far this year the Rebels are 1-1 after a competitive game at USC and a blowout of UTEP. If he can lead UNLV into its first bowl in five years, that’s significant progress.


If the season ended today, this would be The Dash’s College Football Playoff bracket:

Top seed Georgia (7) vs. No. 4 seed Auburn (8) in the Orange Bowl.

The Bulldogs (2-0, 1-0 in the SEC) rocket into the bracket and up to the top spot after the most impressive win thus far this season — total domination on the road at South Carolina, a team many believe was poised to challenge Georgia in the SEC East. The Bulldogs led 14-0 after three minutes, then pushed the lead to 31 points in the third quarter. It was a definitive statement about the pecking order in the SEC East. Last week’s ranking: unranked. Next up: Middle Tennessee.

Auburn (2-0) retains its spot in the playoff based on that opening weekend win over Washington. That was a tough victory over a quality opponent, and it likely will pay dividends all season in terms of schedule strength. On Saturday the Tigers rolled over FCS Alabama State, 63-9. Last week’s ranking: No. 2. Next up: hosting LSU in a huge SEC West game.

No. 2 seed Alabama (9) vs. No. 3 seed Clemson (10) in the Cotton Bowl.

Yes, The Dash demoted the Crimson Tide (2-0). That’s because Alabama doesn’t yet have what Georgia has: a big win in a hostile setting. ‘Bama has been brilliant, especially offensively, in crushing Louisville and Arkansas State — this is the first time in 93 years the Tide has scored 50 or more points in its first two games. But until the body of work fleshes out a little more, Alabama is behind Georgia. Last week’s ranking: No. 1. Next up: at Mississippi, where the past two trips have been dicey, in the kind of game Georgia played this past Saturday.

Clemson (2-0) has a higher quality win than Alabama, having hung on against Texas A&M in College Station on Saturday night. But the Tigers are dinged a bit in the assessment because they were frankly fortunate to escape with the victory. Clemson benefited from a controversial touchback on an Aggie fumble near the goal line, and also from a no-call on a blatant offensive pass interference that set up one touchdown. That’s enough to keep the Tigers behind the Tide for the time being. Last week’s ranking: unranked. Next up: Georgia Southern.

Methodology: If your favorite team hasn’t played a Power Five opponent, it is not yet ranked. If your favorite team has not played away from home, it is not yet ranked. Check those boxes, and we’ll talk next week.

Also considered: LSU, Virginia Tech, Duke, Mississippi State, Penn State, West Virginia, Colorado, Maryland, Kentucky, Indiana, California, Cincinnati, Eastern Michigan. (All of whom are undefeated and have played at least one game on the road and/or against Power Five competition.)

Impressive, but haven’t left home: Oklahoma, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Stanford, Arizona State.

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