Senior College Football Columnist

Top 10: The race for national Coach of the Year honors

As we get closer to conference title games, it's time to start looking ahead at some award races. This week's Top 10: the chase for national Coach of the Year honors. CBSSports.com will announce its postseason team and individual awards on Dec. 17.

1. Gus Malzahn, Auburn: The Tigers, who were picked by the SEC media in the preseason to finish fifth in the SEC West, are ranked No. 7 in the country. They also had zero players make the first-team all-conference team in the preseason. Yeah, I'd say first-year coach Gus Malzahn has turned some folks' heads. The one-time Auburn OC, who, along with Cam Newton, helped spark the Tigers' BCS national title run three years ago, returned to the Plains to take over a program that had flat-lined under his former boss Gene Chizik, going 3-9 last season. I expected the Tigers to be much improved, but not quite this much. Auburn, which averaged 19 points per game last season, has more than doubled that to 39 ppg. Same as the case with Gary Pinkel's Missouri team, Auburn didn't even rate anywhere in the preseason poll, where 53 programs got at least one point and now the Tigers have crept into BCS title talk.

2. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State: Finally, it appears the Seminoles are going to live up to the preseason hype. The Noles have dominated the ACC, having faced three ranked opponents (at the time of the game) and won by a combined margin of 155-28. People can take shots at the Noles' league (ACC), but winning at Clemson, as a healthy Georgia team found out in the opener, is not easy. Maryland, which has fallen apart after a strong first month, has again been decimated by injuries. Don't forget this FSU team lost more players to the NFL Draft (11) last offseason than any program in the country and they ranked No. 112 in starters returning. Also worth noting is the Noles are rolling despite being led by a freshman QB and working through a reshuffled staff with six new assistants.

3. Art Briles, Baylor: First Baylor produced a Heisman Trophy winner. Now, the Bears are in the national title picture. That's how great of a coach Art Briles is. His team leads the nation in offense and is ranked No. 9 in defense. Only one opponent has been within four touchdowns of Baylor this season, and that opponent, Kansas State still lost by 10. Baylor's doing it all with a first-year QB, Bryce Petty and only one starting D-lineman back from 2012. Not bad for a program that didn't even make the preseason Top 25.

4. Gary Pinkel, Missouri: So much for that speculation that the 61-year-old Pinkel was on the hot seat after a 5-7 debut season in the SEC. Truth is, Pinkel's team was decimated by injuries in 2012 and this was a program that averaged 10 wins the previous five seasons. He also tweaked his offensive staff in the offseason making Josh Henson his new OC, pushing for a more physical brand of football. If not for a stunning rally by Connor Shaw and South Carolina, the Tigers would be unbeaten and in the heart of BCS national title talk. Even still, they are 9-1 despite having had to play a big chunk of their SEC schedule without veteran QB James Franklin. Freshman Maty Mauk jumped into the lineup and started the next four games, and now coming off a bye week Franklin is expected to be ready to get back to starting. Despite the QB shuffle, the Tigers have been terrific in taking care of the ball this season with just 11 turnovers and have gone from ranking No. 57 last year in turnover margin to No. 4. Having a gifted crop of super-sized wideouts and a deep and talented D-line has also helped. Fifty-three teams got at least one point in the USA Today preseason coaches poll. Mizzou didn't.

5. David Cutcliffe, Duke: A year ago, he won ACC Coach of the Year honors after his Blue Devils became bowl eligible for the first time since 1994. That Duke team finished 6-7. This squad is 7-2 and has a decent shot to finish 10-2. Duke? 10-2? How is it happening or how is it even possible? Cutcliffe has his best O-line in six seasons in Durham and his best defense, allowing a respectable 22 ppg. The crazy part is Duke's doing it with a secondary that relies on four freshmen. An emerging star is 5-8 DB DeVon Edwards, a guy who only had one FBS offer -- from Duke -- and has already scored three TDs this season.

6. George O'Leary, UCF: The Knights only had 11 starters back as they moved into a new, supposedly tougher league, but it's been smooth sailing. O'Leary's team has three very nice wins this season: on the road at Penn State, at No. 8 Louisville (the team everyone thought would trample the rest of the conference) and last week against then-7-1 Houston. The Knights' lone defeat was by three points against No. 12 South Carolina. An 11-1 season looks very likely.

7. Pete Lembo, Ball State: One of the better-kept secrets in FBS football, the 43-year-old former Georgetown Hoya took over a Ball State program that was 6-18 the previous two seasons before he'd arrived and he has continued to elevate the Cards. This year, they're 9-1 (he also led Ball State to the highest APR in school history) and had a dominant showing in crushing Virginia in Charlottesville. Lembo has done it all with a crew of guys who few in major college football noticed. BSU's starting tailback, Jahwan Edwards, had only Division II offers and followed the staff from Elon, where Lembo coached previously, to Ball State. A big chunk of Lembo's starting 22 only had one FBS offer -- from Ball State. BSU also starts former walk-ons at center, middle linebacker and slot receiver.

8. Ed Orgeron, USC: The craziest 180 in sports since George Costanza's bizarro "opposite" philosophy landed him a job with the New York Yankees, Orgeron took over after Lane Kiffin was canned five games into the season. Orgeron promptly has done almost the exact opposite of everything Kiffin -- and Orgeron himself had done in his own three-year tumultuous run at Ole Miss. As the 52-year-old explained to me a few weeks ago he's learned not to chase ghosts and instead keep the big picture in mind. Gone are the days when he worked everyone into the ground and instead he's been relentless upbeat and enthusiastic. He's gotten star performances from players previously buried on the depth chart in running back Buck Allen and defensive lineman J.R. Tavai. His team also is taking much better care of the ball, only committing two turnovers in his five games as head coach, after surrendering nine in the first five. Under Orgeron, the Trojans thumped Oregon State, 31-14, the program's first win in Corvallis since 2004. All of a sudden the guy who seemed like he had no shot at landing the full-time USC head coaching job, is a legit candidate now, according to multiple sources. And if his team can somehow knock off Stanford this weekend (a big if), he actually would give the Trojans' brass a lot to think about. He'd also probably be the Pac-12's Coach of the Year.

9. Tracy Claeys, Minnesota: Unlike Orgeron, Claeys isn't technically an interim head coach, he is considered by Minnesota it's "acting" head coach since the Gophers still have head coach Jerry Kill in the program. Claeys added the new title and role after the Gophers head man took a leave of absence to manage his epilepsy. The Minnesota defensive coordinator is receiving an additional $13,000 a week as acting head coach and he's proving to be quite the bargain. After losing on Oct. 5 to Michigan, the Gophers (8-2) have gone on a four-game Big Ten winning streak to match the program's longest win streak in conference play since 1973.

10. (tie) Curtis Johnson, Tulane: It hasn't taken very long for the former Saints assistant to get the Green Wave program turned around. Tulane hadn't won more than four games in a season since 2004, but Johnson's team eclipsed that barrier by early October thanks in large part to a team full of youngsters making plays on defense. The Green Wave got bowl eligible by beating preseason C-USA favorite Tulsa on Oct. 26. (They also have nice wins over North Texas and East Carolina -- teams that are a combined 14-5.) Since then, Tulane has dropped two games, both on the road, and that's why Johnson's a little further down this list than he would've been a few weeks ago.

10. (tie) Tony Levine, Houston: After a rough debut season, Levine hasn't exactly had a lot go his way. On the eve of the season, Houston lost its best player, RB Charles Sims, who bolted for West Virginia. Then, veteran QB David Piland's playing career ended due to concussions. But Levine and new OC Doug Meacham have coaxed stellar play out of true freshman quarterback John O'Korn and Levine's other new coordinator hire, DC David Gibbs has forced more turnovers than anyone in the country.

Just Missed the Cut: Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State; Dan McCarney, UNT; Urban Meyer, Ohio State; Nick Saban, Alabama; Rod Carey, NIU.

 
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