In the preseason, I wrote a piece about what to expect from each of college football's first-year coaches. After Chris Klieman's Kansas State Wildcats took down Oklahoma on Saturday, I figured this was a good time to check on how they're all doing. From upsets to tanking to hospital beds in press boxes to, of course, a serious national title run (so far), it certainly has been an eventful collective first season.
Let's walk back through where I set the bar for each first-year head coach in the offseason -- and how I categorized each team's expectations -- and where they stand now.
Contend for a national title
Ohio State (8-0)
Head coach: Ryan Day
Preseason SP+ projections: seventh overall (projected win total: 10.5)
Current: first (11.5)
Judging teams solely on how they've looked in 2019, the Buckeyes have been college football's gold standard.
Make a run at a division or conference title
Appalachian State (7-0)
Head coach: Eliah Drinkwitz
Preseason SP+ projections: 29th overall (projected win total: 9.9)
Current: 33rd (10.9)
Drinkwitz inherited the Sun Belt's best program from Scott Satterfield and has kept it rolling in his own way. The offense has been brilliant all season, and the defense has caught fire of late.
Head coach: Dana Holgorsen
Preseason SP+ projections: 70th (6.4)
Current: 66th (4.2)
With the news that star quarterbackD'Eriq Kingand receiver Keith Corbin would redshirt after four games, Holgorsen more or less introduced tanking to college football. But here's the thing: The Cougars have been pretty decent since the announcement. There probably isn't a bowl bid in the works or anything, but that was the case pre-tank, too.
Head coach: Manny Diaz
Preseason SP+ projections: 20th (8.8)
Current: 30th (6.9)
Broadly, Miami has been about as good/flawed as expected. The weirdness, however, has been off the charts. The Hurricanes have outgained three conference opponents and gone 0-3 in those games, and they have been outgained by two ACC opponents and gone 2-0 in those games. Figure that out.
Northern Illinois (3-5)
Head coach: Thomas Hammock
Preseason SP+ projections: 73rd (6.9)
Current: 102nd (51st)
NIU has missed out on a bowl bid only once in the past 11 seasons. SP+ gives the Huskies only a 33% chance of avoiding making it two in 12.
Head coach: Rod Carey
Preseason SP+ projections: 62nd (7.5)
Current: 53rd (7.3)
In terms of expectations vs. reality, this season has gone about as planned. The wins over two ranked-at-the-time teams, Maryland and Memphis, and the loss to Buffalo, however, were a creative combo.
Head coach: Chip Lindsey
Preseason SP+ projections: 94th (6.6)
Current: 97th (5.0)
It's a full-on Year Zero for Troy's defense, and while the offense has provided flashes, it hasn't been good enough to make up the difference.
Utah State (4-3)
Head coach: Gary Andersen
Preseason SP+ projections: 43rd (7.4)
Current: 64th (6.9)
The Aggies were 4-0 against non-Power 5 opponents heading into Week 9, but an outright listless performance at Air Force has the rest of the season looking a little precarious.
Make a run at 6-6
Head coach: Will Healy
Preseason SP+ projections: 118th overall (projected win total: 4.3)
Current: 110th (5.4)
A huge win over North Texas in Week 9 gave the 49ers a shot in the arm after a four-game losing streak. SP+ gives the 49ers a 47% chance of reaching bowl eligibility.
Coastal Carolina (3-4)
Head coach: Jamey Chadwell
Preseason SP+ projections: 117th (4.2)
Current: 104th (5.1)
The Chanticleers have fallen from 3-1 to 3-4, and their odds of bowling have shrunk to 34%. The loser of this week's Troy-Coastal game is all but hopeless when it comes to reaching 6-6.
Head coach: Mel Tucker
Preseason SP+ projections: 69th (4.5)
Current: 73rd (4.1)
The Buffs nearly beat USC this past weekend after getting blown out twice in a row. The offense is exciting but can't overcome a dreadful D (and most of the reasons for that exciting O will be gone after 2019).
East Carolina (3-5)
Head coach: Mike Houston
Preseason SP+ projections: 112th (5.1)
Current: 116th (4.2)
The Pirates are about where they were expected to be, though a dreary home loss to USF in Week 9 all but finished off hopes of a bowl run.
Kansas State (5-2)
Head coach: Chris Klieman
Preseason SP+ projections: 75th (4.9)
Current: 34th (7.7)
Klieman's first Wildcats squad has already beaten an SEC team on the road (Mississippi State, but it still counts) and a top-5 Oklahoma at home. They are holding their own in a Big 12 with an enormous middle class.
Head coach: Hugh Freeze
Preseason SP+ projections: 110th (5.7)
Current: 99th (7.2)
Freeze began the season by coaching from a hospital bed in the press box while his team was shut out on the field. But the Flames are 5-1 since an 0-2 start and are all but assured bowl eligibility despite the stink of losing badly to Rutgers.
Head coach: Mike Locksley
Preseason SP+ projections: 68th (4.6)
Current: 56th (3.9)
In Maryland's three wins this season, the Terps have outscored opponents by an average of 54.3. In five losses, they've been outscored an average of 41-14. It has been a unique go-round.
North Carolina (4-4)
Head coach: Mack Brown
Preseason SP+ projections: 66th (4.5)
Current: 50th (6.4)
Brown's first season back on the sideline has featured three seasons' worth of close games. Seven of eight contests have been decided by one score, and they've won enough of them to make bowl eligibility likely.
Texas State (2-5)
Head coach: Jake Spavital
Preseason SP+ projections: 100th (5.5)
Current: 108th (3.9)
Last season's team was rock solid on defense and horrid on offense. This year, the defense has regressed to the mean, but the offense has barely improved. Bad combo.
Texas Tech (3-5)
Head coach: Matt Wells
Preseason SP+ projections: 54th (6.5)
Current: 45th (4.8)
Between another QB injury and a mind-numbingly awful ending at Kansas on Saturday, Tech's season has gone off course, a victim of the Big 12's extreme 2019 depth.
West Virginia (3-4)
Head coach: Neal Brown
Preseason SP+ projections: 45th (6.0)
Current: 78th (4.1)
Preseason expectations were modest, but they ended up too high for a team with all sorts of QB questions and not enough ready-made talent to overcome QB questions.
Western Kentucky (5-3)
Head coach: Tyson Helton
Preseason SP+ projections: 106th (5.2)
Current: 87th (7.1)
Helton's success has been overshadowed by that of others in bigger jobs, but even after the Hilltoppers' heartbreaking loss at Marshall on Saturday, they still have decent division title odds and excellent bowl odds.
Head coach: Tom Arth
Preseason SP+ projections: 121st overall (projected win total: 3.6)
Current: 128th (0.9)
SP+ gives the Zips a 33% chance of finishing 0-12. The bar for this season wasn't high, and Akron's not going to clear it.
Bowling Green (2-6)
Head coach: Scot Loeffler
Preseason SP+ projections: 128th (3.0)
Current: 127th (3.1)
Better than Akron, at least!
Central Michigan (5-4)
Head coach: Jim McElwain
Preseason SP+ projections: 123rd (3.4)
Current: 111th (6.4)
McElwain has the Chips playing a little above their talent level, and in the MAC, being No. 111 in SP+ is good enough to reach a bowl.
Georgia Tech (2-5)
Head coach: Geoff Collins
Preseason SP+ projections: 79th (4.3)
Current: 98th (3.2)
It was very obvious that Tech wasn't going to enjoy much of 2019, and the loss to The Citadel certainly emphasized that. But the Miami win gives the Jackets at least a LITTLE bit of proof-of-concept for the stretch run.
Head coach: Les Miles
Preseason SP+ projections: 108th (2.8)
Current: 84th (3.6)
Miles has done just well enough in Lawrence to highlight his biggest misstep to date: hiring Les Koenning as his offensive coordinator (after first choice Chip Lindsey took the Troy head coaching job). He fired Koenning after only six games -- which included a 12-7 loss to Coastal Carolina -- and replaced him with creative young Brent Dearmon. After two games and 85 points, it's pretty clear Dearmon should have had the job all along.
Head coach: Scott Satterfield
Preseason SP+ projections: 82nd (4.2)
Current: 61st (6.7)
If there were three finalists for the First Year Coach of the Year award, they would be Day, Klieman and Satterfield. Satterfield is obviously benefiting from the wretched state of the ACC (see below), but the Cardinals are a game from bowl eligibility and, per SP+, have a 21% chance of winning eight or more games. Going from a destitute 2-10 to that is impressive, no matter the conference strength.
Head coach: Walt Bell
Preseason SP+ projections: 125th (3.6)
Current: 130th (1.2)
UMass almost certainly didn't hire Bell with the thought of winning big immediately. That's ... uh ... good.
The ACC Coastal is just too ACC Coastal this year
For a few weeks now, I've been sharing my friend Justin Moore's (@tfgridiron on Twitter) simulations regarding what we need to make a giant, six- or seven-way ACC Coastal tie (preferably everyone at 4-4) a realistic possibility. In Week 7, we needed Miami to beat Virginia, and we got it. In Week 8, Virginia Tech beat UNC as preferred. Last week, we requested three results -- Miami over Pitt, Louisville over Virginia, and Duke over UNC -- and got two of them.
The result of our wishes being mostly granted: a sweet, beautiful mess. Virginia and UNC "lead" this leaderless division with 3-2 records, Virginia Tech and Pitt are a half-game back at 2-2, Duke and Miami both come in at 2-3, and Georgia Tech, despite general awfulness (98th in SP+), is just 1.5 games back at 1-3.
Virginia visits UNC this week, and the winner will be the outright favorite entering the home stretch. But at 41st and 50th, respectively, in SP+, there's no reason to think either still couldn't be caught.
I asked Justin once more to look at the most four-win-favorable results for this coming week's games. Here's what he produced.
"The overall odds of six finishing 4-4 are 1-in-1055. If Georgia Tech beats Pitt and UNC beats UVA, it moves to 1-in-375. Neither of those? 1-in-2700."
Go Jackets, and go Heels.
A moment to pause and appreciate video game glitches
Consider this a mid-column palate cleanser. When it comes to pure, WWE 2K20-level, "WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?" plays, the college football gods were extremely generous in the bounty they gave us in Week 9. Behold:
Texas Tech literally handed Kansas the game for no reason whatsoever.
Shea Patterson, on his way to a huge, easy win, intentionally threw backward and with the wrong hand.
Purdue's Danny Corollo showed us what happens when you forget to hit the button at both the top AND bottom of the punting meter.
Duke-UNC gave us a nice example of what happens when you test out a game's new functionality in a real game without practicing it first.
San Jose State's Bailey Gaither basically reached through an Army defender to score, which has to be a glitch of some sort.
There were also a couple of "throw the video game controller and turn the stupid game off forever" plays. For instance, we had Florida State nearly scoring on a play my intramural flag-football team drew up one time.
We also had Campbell forcing overtime (and eventually winning) against Gardner-Webb with a Michigan State-Michigan recreation.
And of course, there was Chase Young's create-a-player impersonation in Ohio State's domination of Wisconsin.
Bless you, college football, for your ever-living ridiculousness.
How do you field a college football offense when you've solved the college football offense?
More than any other great defensive team, Michigan State appears built to perfectly solve what you might call the generic CFB offense. The Spartans maintain the same 4-3 structure at almost all times, which helps to keep things as simple as offenses want to keep them. They fill their gaps perfectly up front and stop the run without committing extra numbers to the box. They handle the run-pass option and inside/outside zone run plays as well as anyone.
Mark Dantonio's squad stops the things a college football player can typically do. To score on the Spartans, then, you have to figure out how to do things a college football player/team typically can't. You want to live on difficult deep outs or some extreme no-back formation that peels defenders out of the box? Fine, go ahead and try it. But they're going to suffocate the stuff you probably want to do the most.
Think about what this means when you're Dantonio, and you still have to field an offense. You know every flaw in the generic college football offense, which means you probably either can't stand that offense or don't want to offer any solutions for other teams by running offensive plays that can beat your defense in practice.
Take away that stuff, though, and you're not left with many options. Dantonio has forever chosen a regressive system built around running on first down, running on second, and converting short passes on third down. But with each passing year, the run game gets worse and the third downs get longer.
From 2014 to 2018, MSU went from 12th in offensive SP+, to 30th, to 55th, to 72nd, to 112th. This season the Spartans have "improved" to 85th, but in their past three games, against Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State, they scored 17 points total. The defense remains strong, but it eventually gave up at least 28 points in each of these three games as well.
Dantonio underwent a fascinating (and somewhat hilarious) thought experiment this offseason, giving a lot of his assistants new roles and hoping that State could solve its offensive problems in-house. The Spartans now throw a bit more on early downs and work at an average tempo instead of dramatically slow. But it doesn't appear to have made that much of a difference, and that's probably not surprising considering the primary problem is the box he has painted himself into.
What do you do if you're Dantonio, and there's no way you can bring yourself to modernize in the ways that an LSU or USC have recently? It's not as if there aren't still options. If you want to lean into your base instincts a bit (i.e. run the damn ball and defend), you still have options.
You could choose a system like Boston College's, with breakneck tempo, run-heavy tendencies, and enormous backs (and, granted, no better recent track record of damaging good defenses).
You could pluck someone from the Scott Satterfield or Willie Fritz trees. Satterfield's Louisville and App State teams have been run-heavy but creative and successful, and Fritz has modern option football throughout his résumé. His current offensive coordinator, Will Hall, is destined for a bigger job soon.
You could say forget it all and go with the triple option. No, seriously! Hire Navy's Ivin Jasper and make your team the biggest pain to prepare for in the power conferences. Granted, recruiting triple-option personnel might make it harder for your offensive scout team to prepare your defense for other offenses. But if your D takes one step back while your O takes three forward, that's a net gain.
Either way, it's pretty clear that the path forward for Dantonio (if he wants one; he is nearing retirement age, after all) is going to require making more systemic offensive changes.
Are we realizing how big Minnesota-Penn State is going to be?
The Big Ten is narrowly behind the SEC in terms of average SP+ rating. The usual suspects -- Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan -- are ranked pretty highly as always, but another fascinating (and run-heavy!) team has joined the party recently. After stumbling through the first month, barely beating South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern and nearly blowing a huge lead against Purdue, Minnesota has caught fire.
P.J. Fleck's Gophers have yet to play anybody better than Nebraska -- go ahead and stock your "AIN'T PLAYED NOBODY" response cannons -- but I always say that how you've played is more important than who you've played, and Minnesota has been brilliant.
In the past four weeks, Minnesota has beaten Illinois, Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland by an average score of 42-10. I said in the preseason that the Gophers were the high-upside up-and-comer that we were pretending Nebraska was, and after a sloppy start, they have gone about proving that upside once more.
Now comes the hard part. After a bye, Minnesota plays host to Penn State in the biggest game in the 10-year history of TCF Bank Stadium. It's probably the biggest Minnesota home game in any stadium since ... 2004 (No. 18 Minnesota vs. Penn State)? 1985 (No. 20 Minnesota vs. No. 9 Ohio State)? 1968 (No. 16 Minnesota vs. No. 2 USC)? 1961 (No. 5 Minnesota vs. No. 7 Purdue)? A long time, no matter what.
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