Commentary

KU's Mangino, Illini's Zook top list of best coaching jobs

Updated: November 19, 2007, 2:25 PM ET
By Bruce Feldman | ESPN The Magazine

In the Year of the Stunner, we have plenty of candidates for coach of the year honors. This week's top 10 list best coaching jobs:

Mark Mangino
WD/Icon SMIMark Mangino has the surprising Jayhawks in the thick of the national title picture.

1. Mark Mangino, Kansas: It's OK to take shots at the Jayhawks' nonconference schedule, but you have to be impressed by a program with virtually no preseason hype. They haven't had any of those clunker performances that always seem to snag teams when they finally find themselves in the spotlight. KU is a legit threat to play for the national title -- not bad for a program predicted to finish fourth in the Big 12's other division. On top of that, Mangino's team has battled despite its coach being firmly on the hot seat going into the season. Behind rising star Todd Reesing, a guy virtually everyone else except Mangino passed on, KU is a team that doesn't beat itself and makes plays whenever the opportunity is there. (Mangino also shifted former starting QB Kerry Meier into a hybrid position that has been a nice boost to the offensive package.) Mangino's staff deserves more credit for mining talent out of Texas and Oklahoma to build this program. They don't have a signature win yet, but they do deserve a lot of praise for avoiding all of the pitfalls that have caught everyone else this season.

2. Ron Zook, Illinois: The Zooker is punch line no more. He and his staff loaded up on big-time recruits in the past three years and the Illini are now reaping the benefits. Lost in all of that is how pivotal it is for a young team that had been down so far to learn how to win. Thanks to an outstanding ground game and a formidable defense, Illinois turned in one of the most impressive wins of the season, going to Columbus and taking down the unbeaten Buckeyes. Illinois is set to go from 2-10 to a New Year's Day bowl, which is an amazing turn. In fact, things have turned so fast, Zook might even get a shot at his old school, the mighty Florida Gators in a New Year's Day bowl.

3. Al Groh, Virginia: Talk about dead man walking, Groh seemed like a lock to get canned after his team opened the season losing to Wyoming. However, the Bill Parcells disciple never lost his team, and the Cavaliers kept plugging away, finding an offensive identity and letting a fierce defensive front control games. The result is UVA has won more tight games than any team in college football history. Even if Virginia doesn't beat Va. Tech, there's no denying Groh has had a wonderful season for the surprising Cavaliers.

4. Sylvester Croom, Mississippi State: Another hot seat refuge, Croom's teams had never won more than three games in any of his previous three seasons in Starkville. The Bulldogs also didn't exactly start the season out on a great note, getting smashed at home on a nationally televised Thursday night game against LSU. Making matters worse, injuries thrust Croom to turn to freshman QB Wesley Carroll, who has actually been a revelation, complimenting the power running of sophomore star Anthony Dixon. The MSU D also has been playing with some of the same bite as some of Jackie Sherrill's better teams. That was evident in their two big wins over Auburn and Alabama, helping spark a 6-5 record.

5. Jeff Jagodzinski, Boston College: The Eagles had a few of the pieces needed to be a top 10 team. Most notably, the star QB (Matt Ryan). But don't forget they also are missing some terrific defenders (LB Brian Toal was the biggest loss). Jags did a nice job putting his staff together, emphasizing a physical brand of football, honing a team with a strong running game and a capable run defense. The result is a squad that might just be headed to a BCS bowl.

6. Gary Pinkel, Missouri: Here's a guy who's never gotten much credit. Pinkel's program has been building towards this season for a few years, but to think the Tigers would be in the middle of the national title chase is a stretch. The Tigers offense was expected to be explosive, although freshman WR Jeremy Maclin has been even better than advertised. Mizzou's D, while still shaky, has also improved quite a bit over the course of the season. The Tigers came into the year with a bunch of key players to replace on defense and then at midseason, they lost standout safety Pig Brown, but that hasn't slowed things down much. The season-opening win over Illinois now looks a lot more impressive as does going to Colorado and hammering a CU team that beat Oklahoma.

7. Troy Calhoun, Air Force: Quietly, the 9-3 Falcons have secured their first bowl bid since 2002. Calhoun tweaked the AFA offense and helped spark a potent attack that piled up points and featured diminutive star Chad Hall, who sliced his way to likely win MWC Offensive Player of the Year honors. The Falcons had two huge wins, which helped the program's visibility (TCU and Notre Dame).

8. Dennis Erickson, Arizona State: Yes, he had a ton of starters back, but give credit to the journeyman coach for righting a program that was in a major tailspin last season under Dirk Koetter. Erickson's staff quietly did a nice job of sprinkling in some key defenders in recruiting last season and also got QB Rudy Carpenter back into his comfort zone. The Sun Devils also took a major hit at mid-season losing standout TB Ryan Torain, but the offense has still managed to be pretty dangerous.

9. Randy Edsall, UConn: The Huskies seem like the Big East's version of the Jayhawks. They don't make a lot of mistakes on offense and they play solid, physical defense. The team really has started rolling after getting a few early breaks.

10. Jim Tressel, Ohio State: No coach lost as much firepower as Tressel did, having to replace Heisman winning QB Troy Smith, 1000-yard rusher Antonio Pittman and two star receivers (Anthony Gonzalez and Ted Ginn Jr.). Still, the Buckeyes have received great play from QB Todd Boeckman, and they rode the physical running style of Beanie Wells to give an outstanding defense plenty of support.

Just missed the cut: Brian Kelly, Cincinnati; Mark Richt, Georgia; Jim Grobe, Wake Forest; Bill Lynch, Indiana; Skip Holtz, ECU; Les Miles, LSU; Frank Beamer, VT and George O'Leary, UCF.

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. His new book, "Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting," is on sale now.