1. Mike Norvell, Memphis (5-1) - Currently sitting at the top of the class is former Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell. Mike inherited a Memphis team that finished 3rd in the AAC West, losing 3 conference games, and their bowl game. Not bad considering those losses came against Top 25 teams Houston, and Navy, and AAC East Champion Temple. Coach Norvell faces a similar situation with a road game match up against #25 Navy this week, and upcoming games against #11 Houston, and AAC East leading South Florida. Many expected Memphis to struggle this season due to the loss of QB Paxton Lynch to the Denver Broncos, but that is not the case. Surprisingly Norvell has made them better, especially on defense. Memphis is still lighting up the scoreboard with 241 points scored, but the surprise is they have held their opponents to only 116 points. Much of the turnaround can be attributed to defensive coordinator Chris Ball who has a long track record of success, but give coach Norvell credit for stealing him away from ASU. Norvell was plucked from the coaching tree of the read option innovator himself Rich Rodriguez. His schemes are time tested for smaller faster programs like Memphis to compete against larger programs like Houston. The final chapter has yet to be written on the Tigers 2016 season, but Mike Norvell's introduction has been a big success.
2. Scott Frost, UCF (3-3) - Normally a 3-3 record would get yawns on the coaching meter, but Scott Frost inherited a 0-12 UCF program that had lost its winning ways. UCF had gone from back to back AAC Champions to arguably the worst team in college football, with statistics to back up that claim. UCF had plenty of talent with the most highly recruited players in program history on their roster. What they lacked were coaches with as much talent as the players. Enter former Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost. Coach Frost was already very familiar with the abundance of high school talent surrounding UCF having recruited the state for Oregon. In two months he put together the best recruiting class in program history. Then he installed a potent Oregon offense to maximize the speedy talent he recruited and inherited. But most of all he changed the players mentality from downtrodden to optimistic. Frost's first six games have been a mixed bag of blowout wins, close losses, and one beat down. His three wins were of the blowout variety against teams with losing records. His close losses were of the heartbreak variety. His beat down came at the hands of #3 Michigan on the road. This is a respectable result at the halfway point for a 0-12 team learning to win again with a first time head coach.
3. Seth Littrell, North Texas (3-3) Another team pulling themselves up from the abyss with first time head coach Seth Littrell is North Texas. North Texas ended their inglorious 2015 season at 1-11 looking for a new head coach. For those who don't know the Mike Leach coaching tree Seth Littrell was a off the radar surprise. For those who do it was a slam dunk hire sure to ignite the afterburners of the Air Raid offense. Coach Littrell was fresh off a remarkable turnaround of a stagnant North Carolina offense as assistant head coach when he arrived at UNT. One of his first hires was former Texas Tech QB superstar Graham Harrell who he worked with as running backs coach under head coach Mike Leach. Harrell was working with Leach helping turn Washington State around when he received the SOS from Littrell to become offensive coordinator. Another smart hire was Power 5 veteran coach Mike Ekeler as defensive coordinator. After Georgia shot themselves in the foot firing Mark Richt and staff, Coach Littrell was smart to quickly to take Coach Ekeler off the market. Littrell is currently recruiting hard for the future, recently picking up a hard commit from 6-4 221 dual threat QB Delvin Isadore. Delvin was recently awarded Top Performer at a TCU camp last June. Now there is just way to much brain power at North Texas for them not to become a perennial contender in CUSA.
Last years AAC East Champion Temple got off to a rough start losing to Army in game one, but has shown erratically steady improvement since. Last nights win against UCF sets up a Friday night prime time showdown with USF for the top spot in the AAC East.
Temple was down 25-7 at one point against UCF, but rallied with 19 unanswered points to win 26-25 with a last second touchdown. Temple took advantage of a undisciplined UCF squad who gifted Temple with 12 penalties for 110 yards. Many were of the drive killing variety during critical moments of the game. The unnecessary personal fouls were especially egregious to UCF's fortunes. Temple also stuffed UCF's once promising run game holding them to 86 yards with a 2.4 yard average. Temple nailed the coffin shut on UCF with a 32 second 70 yard touchdown drive to end the game.
Temple was the beneficiary of some coaching errors as well. UCF had time outs to burn in Temple's final drive, but chose not to use them. After the game one defensive player explained that the defense was gassed, and needed a timeout to catch their breath. Even head coach Scott Frosted admitted that he should have called a time out, but was talked out of it by his defensive coordinator. Coaching by committee has its benefits, and its drawbacks. Another drawback was when UCF went up 25-7 the play calling went very conservative with a predictable run, run, pass repetition that Temple could easily exploit.
In the end Temple's never quit lunch pail mentality overcame the favored team through shear determination. This will be a big confidence boost for Temple going into the USF game. UCF needs to regroup and learn how to stop explosive plays if they want to go bowling.
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When UCF needed a new head coach my first choice was Willie Fritz. UCF desperately needed a flexible coach who could mold a system around the players he inherited, not the other way around. With all UCF's highly recruited linemen and running backs it would have been a perfect fit for Willie Fritz's version of the triple option. Plus Coach Fritz was ready to move on from a Georgia Southern team that led the nation in rushing offense. He had finished his job taking GSU from the FCS to the top of the Sun Belt in one season. The same as he had done at every program, at every level he has coached. Willie carried around a remarkable 193-74-1 record as living proof of his abilities. When UCF started floating coaching names from the land of misfit toys it was panic time. Until surprisingly Oregon OC Scott Frost accepted the position. Fortunately Oregon's read option is very similar to Coach Fritz's triple option and can be adjusted to fit the talents of the team. If you have a team best suited to pass, you pass. Best suited run, you run. Can do both, watch out.
Which brings us to the game. Tulane went through some growing pains in its first five games, same as UCF. Tulane's quarterback position was in search of a permanent starter. Finally Coach Fritz has found his man in RS Sophomore Glen Cuiellette. He played sparingly under the former regime, but was a dual threat high school phenom passing for 4,619 yards (50 TD's), and rushing for 568 yards (10 TD's). He took his HS team to the playoffs twice as a starter. In his last two games as Tulane's starter he threw 4 TD's in a 4OT win over Louisiana-Lafayette, and he rushed for 60 yards, passed for 168 yards in a road win over UMass. These are good teams despite their records. Louisiana-Lafayette led Arkansas until the end of the fourth quarter, and UMass led Mississippi State halfway through the third quarter. Last years Tulane team would have lost to both these programs. Coach Fritz has his team heading in the right direction, but has not yet reached his destination. Even still he has his team halfway to a bowl game with seven games left to go. With Willie I'll take those odds.
UCF is in a similar position with a 3-2 record. Other similarities include a first time starting QB, and a program coming off a terrible season with a new head coach. Unfortunately UCF's tailor made system QB wasn't available for UCF's first conference game against ECU due to injury, and may not be available for the Tulane game. Fortunately for UCF, ECU shot themselves in the foot repeatedly handing UCF the game. UCF's backup QB went 11-29 with 2 Int's 0 TD's. That just won't cut the mustard against a well coached Willie Fritz team that will run the clock out on you with veteran running backs, and sure handed receivers. UCF also gave up a generous 488 yards passing. That is sure to be dissected in Willie's film room. Since Tulane doesn't have a full roster of scholarship players due to graduation, and transfers, UCF should be able to wear them down with their depth and relentless run game. But watch out, Willie can out coach you in a heartbeat.
Prediction - Willie Fritz is a wily old fox going up against a young up and comer in Scott Frost. Both have excellent footballs minds, and have a predilection to run first to set up the pass. This could be a trap game for UCF if they prepare for a run heavy offense when Tulane plans to take advantage of UCF's pass defense weakness. Tulane can and will pass on you with great receivers like youngster Terren Encalade (100+ receiving yards last two games) and veteran Devon Breaux (20+ yards per reception vs UCF in 2015). If UCF sells out to stop Dontrell Hilliard and the run game it could be a long day getting burned by the pass. In the end UCF's depth should wear down a undermanned Tulane defense and open up big holes for Wilson and Killins to run through. But if Milton is still out at QB and Tulane doesn't have to respect the pass, or better yet gets turnovers, they have a good chance.
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