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January 7, 2011
MORE: BCS Title Game Central
Trying to find a potential sleeper pick to win the national title next season? Here's a tip: Look for a team whose coach is entering his second season on the job.
Chizik and Kelly have something else in common with the other three coaches: They weren't expected to win a national title so soon in their tenures. Florida's 2006 team started the season ranked seventh by The Associated Press and eighth in the coaches poll, but the others began their championship runs outside the top 10. Ohio State's 2002 team was 12th in the coaches' poll and 13th in the AP poll at the start of the season. Oklahoma began the 2000 season ranked 19th by the AP and 20th in the coaches' poll. Oregon was 11th in both major preseason polls this season, while Auburn was ranked 22nd by the AP and 23rd in the coaches' poll.
This trend bucks the conventional wisdom that coaches can't make their biggest impact on a program until they're working with their own recruits. Meyer, Stoops and Tressel showed that's not necessarily true.
And this trend isn't limited to guys who won national titles in their second year. Plenty of other coaches during this decade also made huge strides in their second year on a job, even if they didn't win a title.
The 2004 Utah team went undefeated and won the Fiesta Bowl in Meyer's second and final season at Salt Lake City before Florida lured him away. After going 8-4 in 2000 as a first-year coach at LSU, Nick Saban led the Tigers to a 10-3 record that included an SEC title and a Sugar Bowl crown in his second season. LSU went on to win a BCS championship two years later.
A similar pattern would continue for both LSU and Saban. When Saban left LSU for the NFL's Miami Dolphins after the 2004 season, LSU hired Les Miles away from Oklahoma State. LSU won the Sugar Bowl in Miles' second season and captured a national title in his third season.
Saban spent just two seasons with the Dolphins before Alabama lured him back to the SEC. Alabama went 7-6 in Saban's first season, then went 12-2 and earned a Sugar Bowl bid in 2008 before winning the national title last season.
USC followed the same path in its rise to power during Pete Carroll's coaching tenure. The Trojans went 6-6 in Carroll's first season and improved to 11-2 with an Orange Bowl title in his second season before finishing the 2003 season atop the AP poll.
All of this should be good news for Florida State fans.
Of the 25 teams in the final BCS standings of the season, Florida State was the only one with a first-year coach. Eight offensive starters and eight defensive starters from the Seminoles' 26-17 Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over South Carolina figure to return for the second season of Jimbo Fisher's tenure. Florida State also is expected to sign a top-five recruiting class next month.
Notre Dame also has reason to believe it could contend for a BCS bid next season after going 8-5 in its first season under Brian Kelly. The Irish closed Kelly's first season on a four-game winning streak. Kelly already has BCS experience from leading Cincinnati to consecutive Big East titles in 2008 and '09. Notre Dame could return as many as nine offensive starters and seven defensive starters from their 33-17 Sun Bowl victory over Miami.
Louisville's 31-28 Beef 'O'Brady's Bowl victory over Southern Miss capped the first season of Charlie Strong's tenure. Skip Holtz guided USF to an upset of Miami late in the regular season and a 31-26 triumph over Clemson in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Both teams realistically could challenge for the Big East title next season.
Tennessee ended the regular season on a four-game winning streak before losing a 30-27 double-overtime heartbreaker to North Carolina in the Music City Bowl. The emergence of true freshman quarterback Tyler Bray offers hope that the Volunteers could make major strides next season in a wide-open SEC East race.
Do any of these teams look like legitimate 2011 national title contenders? Not really.
Then again, at this point last year, who would have figured Auburn would be playing for the 2010 championship?
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.