It’s only three weeks into September, but some coaches have already made a name for themselves.
The non-conference slate has been an opportunity for teams to make early statements and these individuals have taken advantage. They’re all trying to change the narrative of last year’s struggles, and have done a miraculous job thus far.
It’s still early and these coaches have their respective teams looking like contenders instead of pretenders, but only time will tell if the cream rises to the top.
Mel Tucker, Michigan State: Being a fairly new coach, who has moved around a bit, made him a wildcard entering the season. After a 2-0 start, Tucker has the Spartans looking like contenders in the Big Ten East. Michigan State dropped 38 points on the road at Northwestern, which was the most it has scored in a Big Ten opener since 2008. There was no hangover afterwards, nor was Tucker looking ahead to Miami when Michigan State smashed Youngstown State by four touchdowns. Kenneth Walker looks like the best running back in the league, after rushing for 321 yards through two games, which ranks fourth in the FBS. This Saturday’s matchup at South Beach will be a great measuring stick for Michigan State. Regardless, the Spartans are vastly improved in year two under Tucker’s leadership.
Sam Pittman, Arkansas: After the Razorbacks lost three of their games by a combined seven points last season, everyone knew the team was trending up. A plethora of starters returned for Sam Pittman’s second year and Arkansas is looking like the surprise team in the SEC. A 20-point win over Rice didn’t move the needle much, but after Arkansas dismantled Texas last week, it put the program back on the map nationally. The Razorbacks even surfaced back in the AP top-25 for the first time since October of 2016. Arkansas has improved the most on defense and has an identity. Now Pittman needs to show last week’s win was no fluke. The Hogs don’t want to be a needle in the haystack, considering the SEC West currently has five undefeated teams and all of them are ranked.
Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech: His name was mentioned on the hotseat by several publications entering the season. Fuente must’ve got the message because the Hokies have been the best team in the ACC thus far. Taking down a top-10 Tar Heel team in week one silenced all of his critics for the time being. After pounding Middle Tennessee by three touchdowns, the Hokies moved up to 15th in the AP Poll, their highest ranking since September of 2018. The rivalry game against West Virginia on the road will tell the College football world if Virginia Tech is pretenders or contenders. Quarterback Braxton Burmeister is getting the job done and the Hokies’ defense is starting to play with some tenacity. Fuente couldn’t have asked for a better start to his sixth year with the program.
Mike Locksley, Maryland: He emphasized at Big Ten Media Days that his team was going to be better. The Terrapins have won their first two games five out of the past six seasons. Maryland has a history of starting out on fire and cooling off midway through the season. However, there’s something different about this year’s version of the Terrapins, and that’s the moxie of quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa. He torched West Virginia’s defense for 333 yards and three touchdowns. Maryland posted a shutout victory over Howard for a second-straight year and Tagovailoa threw for three more scores. Senior Dontay Demus has played like an All-Big Ten caliber wide receiver, with 12 catches for 261 yards and two touchdown receptions through two games. He’s been one of the best deep threats in the league.
Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh: The Panthers have looked like a team on a mission through their first two games. And it all stems from the experience and leadership of senior quarterback Kenny Pickett. He threw for 272 yards and two scores in the season-opening win over UMass. Not to mention Pickett finished with 285 yards through the air and scored three total touchdowns in the shootout victory at Tennessee. With the way Pittsburgh’s schedule sets up, Narduzzi has a chance to be 5-0 heading into a pivotal road clash at Virginia Tech. The Panthers are one of three offense is good enough to keep them in every game on their slate. Narduzzi is a defensive-minded coach, so Pittsburgh will continue to excel on that side of the ball, especially against the run.
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa: The Hawkeyes are the only team in the country with wins over two ranked opponents. Those victories are what catapulted Iowa into the AP top-five for the first time since 2015. Ferentz has the Hawkeyes playing with confidence and they’re looking like the best team in the Big Ten. Iowa has dominated over the past two games. The Hawkeyes’ defense is full of ballhawks, and the unit has picked off six passes, which ranks second in the FBS. Not to mention two of those interceptions were returned for touchdowns. That’s an amazing feat, considering Iowa’s defense has gone up against Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. and Iowa State’s Bock Purdy. Quarterback Spencer Petras continues to improve game by game and Iowa should be 5-0 when Penn State invades Kinnick Stadium.
Chip Kelly, UCLA: The Bruins are looking like the hottest team out of the Pac-12 after their 2-0 start. The blowout win over Hawaii was expected, but when UCLA throttled LSU, Kelly made a statement. His offense has played magnificent, thanks to the addition of Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet. The running back has steamrolled for back-to-back 100-yard performances. Not to mention Charbonnet has averaged a jaw-dropping, 13.1 yards per carry. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson threw for three touchdowns and tight end Greg Dulcich went over 100 yards receiving in the win over the Bayou Bengals. UCLA is starting to resemble Kelly’s Oregon teams that won three conference titles. The Bruins are currently 13th in the AP Poll, their highest ranking since September of 2015.
Greg Schiano, Rutgers: It didn’t take long for him to bring credibility back to the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers is 2-0 for the first time since 2014 and has a leader on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Noah Vedral is one of the most experienced players in the FBS and it has paid off early on. The signal-caller has 283 passing yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions this season. Most importantly, Vedral has remained healthy. On defense linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi has been a nightmare for ball carriers. He picked up where he left off last as the Big Ten’s leading tackler, and has 21 total tackles and two sacks through two games. Schiano’s team won’t be taken seriously until they visit the Big House in week four. Still, if the Scarlet Knights continue at this rate, they’ll make some big noise in Big Ten play.
Chris Klieman, Kansas State: During the offseason he hit the transfer portal hard and established depth on the Wildcats’ roster. It all has paid dividends with Kansas State off to a 2-0 start for the second time in three years under Klieman. The return of super senior quarterback Skylar Thompson has helped the team tremendously. He’s currently sidelined with an injury, but is expected to return at some point this season. Thompson’s absence has put Will Howard back in the starting lineup. Klieman believes Howard has matured a ton since last season and doesn’t expect the offense to miss a beat. Running back Deuce Vaughn has played magnificent, with 244 yards on the ground and four rushing touchdowns through two games. On defense the Wildcats have 10 sacks, which is tied for fifth in the FBS.
Kalani Sitake, BYU: He’s proving last year’s 11-win campaign was no fluke. BYU has started off the season with two-straight wins over Pac-12 opponents, including rival Utah. The Cougars finally snapped a nine-game losing streak in the Holy War. The victory boosted Sitake’s team into the AP top-25 for the first time this season. Sophomore quarterback Jaren Hall has done a great job replacing Zach Wilson thus far, with 347 yards through the air, 128 on the ground and five touchdown passes. Not to mention the Cougars have won 13 of their last 14 games overall. Saturday’s clash against Arizona State will be BYU’s third Pac-12 foe, and second ranked opponent it’ll face this month. Sitake’s success has even got his name mentioned in the new USC job opening. Still, he’s not letting that be a team distraction.
Mike Leach, Mississippi State: The 21 points his team scored in the fourth quarter to rally back on Louisiana Tech raised some eyebrows. However, holding a high-powered NC State team to just 10 points proves Leach has his players ready.