Bill O'Brien: Coach of the Year Candidate?

Mike Pettigano

In his first year on the job at what seemed to be a broken program in the eyes of many, Bill O'Brien is 4-2 and his name is already starting to creep up in awards talk.

January 5th:

Four days after an embarrassing TicketCity Bowl (RIP) loss to Houston, Penn State announces the hire of Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien to succeed Joe Paterno and Tom Bradley as the new head coach of the storied, yet newly troubled program. Fans are met with shock. Message boards go crazy asking "Who?!" and "How?!" when names like Mark Richt, Chris Petersen, Dan Mullen and Jon Gruden were being floated around. Even Darren Rovell gets in on the act.

October 6th:

Nine months and a day later, the O'Brien-led Nittany Lions score 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to come back from an eleven-point deficit and upset Northwestern, 39-28. It's the team's fourth-straight win after opening the season with consecutive losses to a MAC team in Ohio and a kicking-heartbreaker to Virginia. And with that win, the debating begins.

Is Bill O'Brien a Coach Of The Year candidate? Well, let's ask him:

Q: Coach, not sure if you've heard it, but there's a lot of buzz around you for National Coach of the Year honors. What's your take on that?

Coach O'Brien: We're 4-2 and we have murderer's row coming up here, starting with Iowa. There's a lot of great coaches in this country. I've only coached six games my whole career. That's the farthest thing from my mind.

A coach who deflects a question with talking about how good the next team they're playing is? I suppose some things never change.

But it is a valid question. Of course, there is no doubt he will be considered for Big Ten Coach of the Year along with Urban Meyer and possibly Pat Fitzgerald, depending on how Northwestern does for the rest of the season. Looking at the conference, Penn State and Ohio State have been the only real bright spots in a year where a Michigan team may be the Big Ten best bowl team. Eesh.

But nationally? The fans seem to think so. And if you watched the game on Saturday, there were even vague mentions of it coming from the talking heads at the Worldwide Leader. But with two losses already under his belt and games against Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin still looming, will he have the record to warrant it? Will it matter just because of the success story? Never count the media out of swaying opinion. Let's take a look at his competition, though.

Urban Meyer, Ohio State -- Believe it or not, the man with two national championships under his belt has never won the AP or Bear Bryant awards for COTY. In his first year at Ohio State, he has led the Buckeyes to an undefeated record and while they can't go to a bowl, the Buckeyes still seem hellbent on winning the Big Ten Leaders division as they showed Nebraska this past week. The October 27th Penn State-Ohio State matchup might very well determine which coach receives the conference honor and it may be a stepping stone to the national one as well.

Bill Snyder, Kansas State -- Maybe it's just that old men roaming the sidelines will tug at my heartstrings for forever or maybe it's that he still eats like a 21-year old college student, but I love Bill Snyder. The winner of the inaugural AP honor in 1998 when Michael Bishop was running his offense, Snyder has the chance to become the first coach to win the Bryant Award twice (Saban has won the AP twice). After knocking off Oklahoma in their conference opener, Kansas State is now leading the Big 12 with West Virginia. Those two teams will match up in a couple weeks to determine the top dog in the conference. A conference championship, undefeated season and BCS bowl berth would give the 73-year-old a great shot at the award.

Brian Kelly, Notre Dame -- Yeah, I hate writing this paragraph as much as you hate reading it, but Notre Dame is undefeated and is ranked in the top-10 of the polls. Kelly deserves the attention he is garnering. Their wins aren't pretty, but their second-ranking defense led by Manti Te'o is. They have a murderer's row of their own coming up with games against Stanford, BYU and Oklahoma coming up, but a BCS berth is definite if Notre Dame comes out relatively unscathed.

Steve Spurrier, South Carolina -- As I've written in past national reviews, the Ol' Ball Coach is back, but he has changed his philosophy entirely. Instead of the Fun-and-Gun he made famous at Florida, Spurrier has put faith in his running quarterback Connor Shaw, vicious running back Marcus Lattimore and one of the top defenses in the country led by Jadeveon Clowney. While anything can happen in the SEC, a road to the conference title game looks imminent as of now. It took awhile, but Steve Spurrier has finally built a national title contender in Columbia.

Frank Solich, Ohio and Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech and Larry Coker, UTSA -- Three coaches from small schools who all have undefeated records and have the chance to make noise in the BCS picture. Louisiana Tech and Texas-San Antonio play each other on November 3rd, so one of those teams will take a loss. Ohio is halfway to making good on Holly Anderson's prediction that Ohio would go undefeated, one that was widely ridiculed by Penn State fans. If the Big Ten doesn't get a team into the top-16 of the BCS rankings, which isn't out of the realm of possibilities, you may see one of these teams playing in a top bowl which is enhance the resume of that team's coach.

Mike Riley, Oregon State -- The Beavers have surprised many by starting out the season undefeated, but star quarterback Sean Mannion will miss time due to knee surgery. If they can weather the storm, great, but expect Riley and his team to fade away in the coming weeks.

Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia -- He can't stop a defense to save his life, but his offenses are sure fun to watch. Due to missing one half of his coaching brain (he probably lost it at the craps table), I doubt he has a real chance at winning. But the 'Eers are undefeated and he at least deserves a mention.

So, Bill O'Brien faces stiff competition, but if Penn State wins out and a couple things bounce the Nittany Lions way and everyone loves our football team again by December, you never know.


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