Coaches take center stage

Great coaching performances at Clemson, Navy and Kansas have helped lead those teams to potential bowl bids.

Originally Published: November 24, 2003
By Mel Kiper Jr. | Special to ESPN Insider

There shouldn't have been any doubts about Tommy Bowden being the ideal coach for the Clemson Tigers. But if there were, they were erased when the Tigers ran South Carolina off the field on their way to a dominating 63-17 victory.

Tommy Bowden and Tye Hill celebrate Clemson's shocking win over FSU.
The doubts should have ended when the Tigers shocked the college football world with an upset victory over Florida State. But the critics were still quick to criticize because of Clemson's 45-17 loss to Wake Forest.

Now, with the rout of South Carolina, the Tigers are closing out the 2003 regular season with tons of momentum as they head into their bowl game and next season. Don't forget that Bowden has a host of excellent young players who are starting to come into their own as well as developing standout QB Charlie Whitehurst.

Duke raising the roof
Isn't it about time Duke interim head coach Ted Roof had the interim tag taken off his title? Roof, the former Blue Devils' defensive coordinator, has the team playing its best football of the year under his direction.

They scared the daylights out of N.C. State before losing 28-21, were tied 6-6 at Tennessee late in the third quarter before losing, and rolled all over Georgia Tech 41-17. And then, after a lopsided loss to Clemson, the Blue Devils bounced back to close out the regular season with a satisfying 30-22 win over North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk!
It's been eight years since the Kansas Jayhawks have been to a bowl game. But that could change because they reached the six-win plateau with a 36-7 victory over Iowa State.

Offensive guru Mark Mangino has quickly turned things around at Kansas. He's improved the Jayhawks from 2-10 last season to a 6-6 record that included several competitive losses.

Much of the credit should go to their outstanding senior QB Bill Whittemore. He's completed 62.6 percent of his passes with 16 TD strikes and just four interceptions. In addition to those fabulous numbers, he also finished as their third-leading rusher with 450 yards on the ground and nine additional TDs. What's even more impressive is he returned from a broken collarbone to key their victory over Iowa State with 306 yards of total offense.

While Whittemore was sidelined, Mangino was forced to go with highly regarded freshman Adam Barmann. The talented freshman completed 67 percent of his passes proving to Mangino things are in good shape at the QB position for at least the next few seasons.

Another plus going into 2004 is the key group of offensive standouts will probably return, including their two top rushers (Clark Green and John Randle) and their top three receivers (Brandon Rideau, Charles Gordon, and Mark Simmons).

Cal perseveres
Despite the seemingly critical graduation losses of QB Kyle Boller as well as 10 defensive starters, including DE Tully Banta-Cain and DB Nnamdi Asomugha, Jeff Tedford's Cal Golden Bears have still been able to put together a solid 2003 campaign.

The highlight, of course, was their monumental upset of USC in overtime on September 27th, but also keep in mind that all six of their losses were extremely competitive and against teams with bowl aspirations.

One of the teams that defeated Cal was Utah, where Urban Meyer has directed the Utes to a 9-2 campaign in just his first season as their head coach. In addition to Tedford and Meyer, you also have to take note of the job turned in by Rocky Long at New Mexico. After a 1-3 start that included competitive losses on the road to Texas Tech (42-28) and Washington State (23-13), the Lobos proceeded to win seven of their last eight games.

Tulsa looking golden
While we're talking about outstanding coaching jobs that were turned in this season, don't let what Steve Kragthorpe accomplished in his first year at Tulsa fall under the radar.

After finishing with a dismal 1-11 record in 2002 that saw the out-manned Golden Hurricanes allow 31 or more points in nine games, Tulsa has responded under Kragthorpe's leadership. They finished the regular season with a 8-4 record.

Outside of the expected one-sided losses on the road against Minnesota and Arkansas to start the season, Tulsa's only other losses were to a quality 10-1 Boise State team and an improved Nevada squad that has a 6-5 record heading into next week.

Defensively, the Golden Hurricanes have been keyed by an athletically gifted and extremely active linebacking corps, led by senior MLB Jorma Bailey, along with newcomers Michael LeDet and Nick Bunting on the outside. LeDet, who came to the Golden Hurricanes from the JUCO ranks, recorded 77 stops, while the freshman Bunting finished with 74 tackles. This season Bailey, LeDet, and Bunting combined for 27 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, and 3 interceptions.

Offensively, the key performers have been QB James Kilian, RB Eric Richardson, and WR Romby Bryant. Richardson, a senior, is now the Golden Hurricanes second all-time leading rusher, only behind former Tulsa standout Michael Gunter. The Golden Hurricanes are projected to go to the Silicon Valley Bowl.

Midshipman playing well
I've always believed what happens over the final four weeks of the season often can be used as an accurate indicator for next season. This is especially true when a team is competitive late in the season and shows promise moving into the offseason.

A great example is Navy. Looking back at the latter stages of the 2003 season, they nearly upset Notre Dame, lost to bowl-bound Wake Forest by just three points, and completely dominated Army 58-12.

So despite going just 2-10 overall last season, the Midshipmen caught fire late and were able to ride that momentum into the 2003 campaign. And now look at them: Navy is 7-4 heading into the Army game.

All year, I've been raving about junior FB Kyle Eckel as one of the top players at his position in all of college football. Against Central Michigan he went out and proved it again. In a dominant 63-34 victory, Eckel carried the ball 18 times for 167 yards.

Mel Kiper Jr.

Football analyst