Back by popular demand (or at least an absence of protest), we begin the presentation of the annual Most Intriguing lists for college football. First up, the 25 Most Intriguing Coaches of 2014:
1. Charlie Strong, Texas: Hired at a high price to be the stylistic opposite of the charming, arguably soft, inarguably successful Mack Brown. With an assist from the police, Strong has been cleaning house in preparation for fall camp. Will the tough-guy approach help get the Longhorns back among the elite? Is Strong ready for what is arguably the biggest college job in America?
2. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma: Shot his mouth off about the SEC, backed it up spectacularly by routing Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and now has a team some think should return the Sooners to championship status. If not now, will Stoops ever get back to the top of the game?
3. Nick Saban, Alabama: Took two serious body blows to end last season – the Iron Bowl shocker and then the Sugar Bowl “consolation game” embarrassment. Now, with a new quarterback and several holes on defense, can a program that has gone 42-6 in SEC play the last six seasons maintain that level of excellence?
4. Bobby Petrino, Louisville: Back from the abyss, and back at the school he took to great heights while treating it like dirt from 2003-06. Quarterback savant missed out on Teddy Bridgewater but will be expected to make Louisville’s audacious ACC transition immediately successful. Is humility part of Petrino’s equation this time?
5. Jim Mora, UCLA: In just his third year, Mora has a chance to make UCLA a national title contender for the first time since the Gary Beban days in the mid-1960s, perhaps? A third straight win over rival USC would also be a first since 1996-98. This is a big opportunity with quarterback Brett Hundley turning down the NFL and staying in school.
6. Steve Sarkisian, USC: Former Pete Carroll assistant gets a chance to do what the last former Pete Carroll assistant (stumblebum Lane Kiffin) could not: win like Pete Carroll. Sarkisian inherits what should be a stellar defense, and it will be his job to rekindle an offense that has slumped since Matt Barkley left Troy.
7. Urban Meyer, Ohio State: Last time Meyer was upset in a conference championship game with a national title appearance on the line, he wound up in the hospital, briefly retired and saw his Florida program slide out of its role as SEC kingpin. Seemingly more balanced this time around, he and the Buckeyes should bounce back and again compete for league and national championships. If Ohio State isn’t a contender, how will he handle it?
8. Gus Malzahn, Auburn: Boring strategy wonk sure can put an exciting product on the field. He went to the national championship game in his first year as head coach of the Tigers, with a team picked to finish fifth in its division. What does he do for an encore?
9. Will Muschamp, Florida: Which is the real Will Muschamp: the guy who coached the Gators to an 11-2 record and Sugar Bowl berth in 2012, or the guy who went 11-14 in 2011 and ’13? If it’s the latter, Coach Boom could get broomed come November. (If not earlier; remember Jeremy Foley announced that he was getting rid of Ron Zook in mid-season 2004.) He’s neck-and-neck with Brady Hoke to be the highest-profile hot-seat coach in the country.
10. Chris Petersen, Washington: A guy who was at home at an off-radar program, some thought he’d never leave the mid-major Camelot of Boise State. But Peterson finally bit on an offer to upgrade programs and conferences. The move will pay off inevitably, but will it pay off immediately?
11. James Franklin, Penn State: The man following the man who followed The Man in State College inherits a challenging situation from a scholarship standpoint. Can overwhelming charisma and personality help close the talent gap with the best of the Big Ten and get the Nittany Lions back to contender status? Probably. But how long will that take?
12. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State: Has the personality of balsa wood, but a 13-1 record, Big Ten title and Rose Bowl victory do the talking for him. The Spartans have historically cracked under the weight of great expectations: the last six times they’ve started the year ranked in the top 15, they ended it unranked. How do they handle an unusual amount of hype this year?
13. Mark Helfrich, Oregon: An 11-2 debut season would be considered dazzling at most places, but after inheriting a flush hand from Chip Kelly it still left some Ducks fans wondering if Helfrich has the goods to win a Pac-12 title and compete for the national title. With a Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback and a lot of other talent coming back, expectations are high as ever in Eugene.
14. Brady Hoke, Michigan: After two years of diminishing returns, a guy who appeared the perfect fit to correct the Rich Rodriguez error now finds himself on the chopping block. Being a Michigan Man won’t count for much if Hoke can’t reverse his performance trend.
15. Art Briles, Baylor: After the extreme rarity of a conference championship, Briles and his brash Bears are now trying to prove they have staying power among the nation’s elite. The preseason expectation is yes. Is Baylor the new power in Texas?
16. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina: Can’t complete this list without including the Head Ball Coach and head needler of his peers and opposing fan bases. After three straight 11-win seasons but no SEC titles with the Gamecocks, is there another level to attain in the latter stages of his remarkable career?
17. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame: After the surprising 2012 run to the BCS Championship Game, the Fighting Irish slipped back to merely good, not great, in 2013. Kelly has his star quarterback in uniform again after missing last season for academic reasons, but lost both his coordinators. In year five for Kelly, are the Fighting Irish elite or just average?
18. Bryan Harsin, Boise State: Former Petersen assistant gets the chance to continue the Broncos’ improbable success story. The previous three Boise State coaches all won big on the blue turf before moving on, a remarkable run of success at a program of that level. Is Harsin the next big winner in Boise, or does the overachieving finally end on his watch?
19. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern: No coach will be happier for the start of the season than Fitzgerald, if only because it means last year is officially over. Promising 2013 season dissolved into an injury-riddled, 5-7 bust – and then his players started a union movement. If the Wildcats stay healthy, Fitz may have one of the nation’s surprise teams.
20. Bo Pelini, Nebraska: Another high-profile hot-seat coach, it came as a surprise to many that Pelini kept his job. He showed signs of getting his churlish side under control this offseason, including the tremendous Faux Pelini cat stunt at the spring game. But how will he handle the first defeat, or even the first bad officiating call?
21. Les Miles, LSU: The most unpredictable man in the game has a most unpredictable team, with youth all over the skill positions. If prior Mad Hatter form holds, relatively low expectations will be surpassed. His pertinent preseason quote: “I like us. I like us in every game.”
22. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State: After a few years of the outside world watching and wondering, the national championship validated Jimbo as the worthy successor to Bobby Bowden. Now he starts the season ranked No. 1 and possessing a viable chance to equal St. Bobby’s title total in Tallahassee.
23. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech: The Kliff Kingsbury Is Handsome storyline was A) boring and B) played out in 2013. But then Kingsbury admitted on the Dan LeBatard Show in the spring that he has flirted with the moms of recruits and used his looks as a recruiting advantage, so there it is again. After losing his last five Big 12 games in his debut season, it's time to prove he’s more than just a pretty face.
24. David Cutcliffe, Duke: Cutcliffe is not handsome, but has more than proven his substance in dragging Duke from the dregs of Division I to an ACC divisional title and 10 wins a year ago. With some fresh recruiting successes, Cutcliffe has a chance to make good on his lofty goal of creating the Stanford of the East Coast.
25. Jerry Kill, Minnesota: Spent much of last season coaching from the press box while dealing with epileptic seizures, and the Gophers had a memorable 8-5 year – their best season in a decade. With a veteran team returning, Kill will be hoping his health becomes a non-story this year.
Just missed the list: Dabo Swinney, Clemson; George O’Leary, Central Florida; Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M; Mark Richt, Georgia; Derek Mason, Vanderbilt; Bret Bielema, Arkansas; Hugh Freeze, Mississippi; Randy Edsall, Maryland; Kyle Flood, Rutgers; David Shaw, Stanford; Gary Patterson, TCU; Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia; Craig Bohl, Wyoming; Terry Bowden, Akron; Doc Holliday, Marshall.
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