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October 12, 2006 With some monumental matchups already played and a number of season-making (or breaking) games coming up, one thing stands out for the programs that are still in the hunt for a national championship: great coaching. Now that we’re at the halfway point of the season and the haves and the have-nots have had ample time to separate themselves from each other, it comes as no surprise that some very familiar coaching names are leading their respective schools toward BCS bowl births and beyond heading into the home stretch.

Of course Mack Brown has his Texas machine rolling once again with the help of a heady freshman quarterback and an unbelievable defense. UT really showed its mettle in a hard-fought and physical win over arch-rival Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout on Saturday, and it seems the Longhorns have clear sailing into the Big XII Championship game for the second year in a row.

Mack has probably done his best ever job of coaching so far in 2006 given his team’s lofty expectations after winning the national championship over USC last year. Many thought his team would take a step back after losing the magnificent #10 from his backfield, but he has relied on his dominant offensive line, running backs, and defense to win games this year, while excellent freshman Colt McCoy gets more comfortable with what he’s doing at quarterback.

In Saturday’s game against Oklahoma, Texas took it to the Sooners and out-hit its neighbors to the north for the second year in a row, managing to limit Heisman candidate Adrian Peterson to well below his season average on the ground. Some credit has to be given to Texas defensive coordinator Gene Chizik for the overwhelmingly physical nature of the unit, of course, but the Texas coaching staff forms together as one big unit like Voltron. And Brown is at the head of everything.

The losing coach from last year’s national championship game, meanwhile, has quietly done a great coaching job in his own right. If there was a year to finally knock USC down a peg or two, this is it. And so far Pete Carroll has been able to build a young squad around a physical and fast defense, ball control, and field position in the absence of the star-studded backfield that was recently lost to the NFL.

There have been a few injuries in the USC ranks as well, but Carroll has found a way to make his 2006 team resemble the 2004 edition that won the Associated Press’ national title after setting a Rose Bowl sack record against Michigan. Carroll’s defensive acumen and game planning has been good enough to keep the Trojans undefeated thus far, while John David Booty gets more and more acclimated with the weapons at his disposal.

The Pac-10 has proven to be a tougher conference this season than it has been over the last few years, and games against Cal and Oregon will be more difficult than was first anticipated for Carroll’s squad. But the men of Troy should be favored in the rest of their games down the stretch, including when the Fighting Irish come rolling into town.

And speaking of Notre Dame, Charlie Weis has done another quality job of maintaining deity-like status at Notre Dame despite the complete absence of a program-defining win to this point.

To his credit though, Weis has shown the ability to get his team to play hard for four quarters, much like the Washington Huskies have done in the Pac-10 under that other coach. But what has set Weis apart from everyone else in the coaching world is his ability and willingness to completely pummel an overmatched opponent in order to keep up Notre Dame’s shiny appearance in the eyes of the fans and media. Against Purdue two weeks ago, he felt the need to fake a field goal for a touchdown from the Boilermaker six yard line, a move that made no sense whatsoever to me. But I will say that I’m from Ohio, and Weis seems eerily similar to a man who coached the Buckeyes named Cooper, a man who had a knack for humiliating the bad teams and humiliating himself against the good ones... Just a quick thought as we trudge through the rest of this column.

And maybe “trudge” is the proper word to describe the season Urban Meyer is having down in Gainseville. With the schedule the Gators are up against, Meyer has his team with the right mentality to get through it all unscathed. Sure there are some tough tests to come, but it could be argued that the toughest part has already been navigated, with the exception of a date in Auburn this weekend. Either way, Florida is taking care of the football, winning the field position battle, taking the ball away, and getting just enough offense to win its games. And all this with a quarterback not truly suited to Meyer’s spread out tastes.

Most impressive has been the team’s excellence on defense and special teams. Much has been made of the merits of the spread offense, but gone overlooked is the Gators' proficiency in the game’s basic fundamentals. The way they play defense and dominate on special teams isn’t going to change much from year to year, Meyer has shown that at least. And although this season isn’t close to being over, I think Meyer has done an excellent job in preparing his players to play well in such high pressure games thus far. And regardless if they win the SEC and play for the national title or not, it’s obvious Florida will be a dominant force in the SEC and a major player in the BCS title hunt for years to come.

But when we speak of “major players,” it would be silly not to include coach Jim Tressel and his Ohio State Buckeyes in the discussion because the man who won a national title with Craig Krenzel under center in 2002 has his eyes set on yet another trip to Arizona in January.

Tressel is the best big game coach in America. Just for some quick context, Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr is 8-2 all time against top 5 opponents over his great tenure so far. Jim Tressel, meanwhile, is 4-1 against Lloyd Carr in the biggest game of both their seasons.

Tressel wins with a ruthless efficiency that makes Ohio State less fun to watch than some others perhaps, but the all-important results can’t be discounted: a 24-7 cakewalk against previously 2nd-ranked Texas and a 38-17 win in a huge primetime road game in Iowa. These victories have his Buckeyes ranked #1 in the polls, and primed to bring Senator Tressel his 2nd national championship appearance in 5 years and his 4th overall BCS appearance during his tenure at Ohio State.

In football, success doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the coaches and the programs they develop that lead to successful years season after season, so it comes as no surprise that these familiar names have teams at the top of the polls once again. Of course there is plenty of season left and nothing will be decided until the season ends in some six weeks from now, but I won’t be surprised if I find myself writing another column on these same coaches come December.

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