Coaches who picked up the pieces down the stretch
Some coaches should never be counted out regardless of how rough the road gets on their journey.
Everyone loves a comeback story and there’s nothing like fading into the shadows and then resurfacing back in the spotlight. All of these coaches struggled early on in the season, but with determination and perseverance, they were able to carry their teams to the finish line.
David Shaw, Stanford: The Cardinal had an unfamiliar year in 2019 and entered this season on a four-game losing streak. It looked murky for Shaw’s team after they started out 0-2. However, he kept his players focused, they persevered the rest of the way and won four-straight games to close out the season. Not to mention all of those victories came on the road. Now Stanford is beginning to resemble the program that won 86 games over the past decade. Despite not receiving enough recognition for what he accomplished, Shaw still solidified that he’s one of the best coaches in the Pac-12. Unfortunately the Cardinal decided to opt out of a bowl game, but there’s no denying that Shaw led them to an amazing turnaround. The 48-year old coach has finished with a winning record in eight of the last nine seasons with Stanford.
James Franklin, Penn State: The Nittany Lions started out this season as a top-10 team, but quickly dropped out of the polls after they lost their first five games. Injuries, players opting out and pandemic complications all played a part in Penn State’s shortcomings. Franklin faced a lot of criticism because naysayers thought the Nittany Lions underachieved. However, Franklin didn’t let his players hang their heads and rallied his team to a solid turnaround. The Nittany Lions played inspired down the stretch and won four-straight games to end the regular season. Penn State outscored the opposition 145-69 during that span and Franklin’s resilience didn’t go unnoticed. It was finally the Nittany Lions that fans were expecting to see from the start. Nonetheless, Franklin was able to silence most of his critics and his team looked rejuvenated. His late season success is something the program can build on heading into 2021.
Kyle Whittingham, Utah: The Utes early struggles came as no surprise, considering everyone was expecting them to take a step back after losing half of their team to the NFL. Inexperience and lack of senior leadership proved to be damaging, as Utah started out 0-2. The offense played with inconsistency and the defense couldn’t stop teams from scoring. The Utes averaged 19 points per game over their first two losses. However, a light bulb came on and Utah averaged 37.6 points per game over its’ final three wins. Utah also handed Colorado its’ only loss and it was on the road in the blistering cold. Whittingham’s knowledge and longevity in the league is why the Utes turnaround shouldn’t come as a surprise. Utah decided to opt out of a bowl game option, but at 3-2, Whittingham still secured his seventh-straight winning season.
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa: He was the most scrutinized coach during the off season and the program was put under a microscope. From parting ways with a longtime assistant, to dealing with allegations of mistreatment from former players, it seemed like a team distraction was inevitable for Iowa. It didn’t help Ferentz that the Hawkeyes dropped their first two games and his star receiver got arrested. However, the 65-year old coach kept his players focused and the Hawkeyes finished the regular season as one of the hottest teams in the Big Ten. Not to mention Iowa won six-straight conference games for the first time since 2015. Ferentz also secured another winning season under his belt, which isn’t too shabby for the longest-tenured coach in the FBS. He even overcame COVID and earned his 100th win during the process. That’s a display of strength and determination by a coach.
Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma: The Sooners have ruled the Big 12 with an iron fist for the past two decades. However, it didn’t look that way after Oklahoma started 0-2 in conference play for the first time since 1998. Quarterback Spencer Rattler had freshman growing pains and Riley’s team even fell out of the top-25 for three weeks. The Sooners appeared to be on the verge of underachieving until Riley made the necessary adjustments. Oklahoma went on to win seven-straight games, including the Big 12 Championship and is currently ranked No. 8 in the AP Poll. Riley’s team showed grit and persevered through the Big 12 meat grinder, which is a great reflection on the 37-year old coach. Although there’s no Heisman favorite or Playoff berth this time around for the program, Riley still displayed his best coaching this season. Oklahoma will be a preseason top-three team in 2021.
Ed Orgeron, LSU: Last season’s National Champions took a huge step back this fall as expected. The Bayou Bengals had several issues on and off the field. From injuries, to several players opting out, plus a self-imposed bowl ban, Orgeron had a lot on his plate as the losses stockpiled. The Bayou Bengals had to play a tough schedule regardless. However, no one expected LSU to storm into the Swamp and hand Florida its’ second loss. The shootout win in Death Valley over Ole Miss showed the team’s potential. Although the Bayou Bengals finished the season with a non-winning record for the first time since 1999, they showed enough promise to be top-10 caliber for 2021. Despite there being light at the end of the tunnel, the program parted ways with Defensive Coordinator Bo Pelini. After all, LSU’s defense finished 13th in the SEC in total yards allowed.
Herm Edward, Arizona State: The Sun Devils couldn’t catch a break for most of the season. Arizona State had several games cancelled because of pandemic complications. The one-point loss in the season-opener at USC quickly diminished the buzz the team had approaching this fall. The Sun Devils completely fell off the map as if they weren’t even participating in the season. Somehow it ignited a fire under Edwards’ team and they played inspired ball over their last two games on the road. The 70 points Arizona State scored on rival Arizona was its’ most ever as a Pac-12 member. Edwards team followed that up with 43 points against Oregon State. The Sun Devils have offensive firepower, but it’s unfortunate they didn’t get many games to show what they can truly do. No bowl game this year, but Edwards still has his team trending up for next season.