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January 7, 2011

Second-season success becoming a trend

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.

No matter what happens in Monday's BCS championship game between Auburn and Oregon, a second-year coach is guaranteed to win a national title for the fourth time in the past 11 seasons.

Auburn's Gene Chizik or Oregon's Chip Kelly will join a fraternity that already includes Oklahoma's Bob Stoops (2000), Ohio State's Jim Tressel (2002) and former Florida coach Urban Meyer (2006).

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.

Second time around
The Auburn-Oregon BCS championship game assures that a second-year coach will win the national title for the fourth time since 2000. Plenty of other coaches over the past decade also have made major climbs during the second years in their tenure. Here's a look at Big Six teams that will enter the 2011 season with second-year coaches.
Coach: Butch Jones. Record: 4-8
Buzz: While other teams thrived under first-year coaches this season, Cincinnati went backward under Jones. After winning back-to-back Big East titles for Brian Kelly in 2008 and '09, Cincinnati dropped five of its last six games in 2010.
Florida State
Coach: Jimbo Fisher. Record: 10-4
Buzz: Florida State's the most likely team on this list to make a serious BCS run next season. The Seminoles showed tremendous improvement on defense this season and return plenty of starters on both sides of the ball. They should be favored to win the ACC.
Coach: Turner Gill. Record: 3-9
Buzz: Kansas has nowhere to go but up after a disastrous 2010 season, but the Jayhawks appear a long way from bowl contention. Kansas was outscored 103-24 in its last three games.
Coach: Joker Phillips. Record: 6-6 (with BBVA Compass Bowl vs. Pitt on Saturday)
Buzz: Kentucky's chances of showing major improvement next season likely depends on whether junior WR Randall Cobb -- one of the nation's most versatile offensive weapons -- returns to school.
Coach: Charlie Strong. Record: 7-6
Buzz: Five of Louisville's six losses this season were decided by eight or fewer points, so the Cardinals could take a major step forward next fall. The Big East figures to be up for grabs, so why couldn't Louisville make a run at the title?
Notre Dame
Coach: Brian Kelly. Record: 8-5
Buzz: A four-game winning streak to close the season has provided plenty of reason for hope, particularly since most of the key players from the Irish's vastly improved defense will be back in 2011. Kelly must decide on a starting quarterback and hope star WR Michael Floyd returns to school.
Coach: Skip Holtz. Record: 8-5
Buzz: USF's chances of winning the Big East in Holtz's second season likely depend on whether QB B.J. Daniels becomes more consistent. His Meineke Car Care Bowl performance against a tough Clemson defense offers cause for optimism.
Coach: Lane Kiffin. Record: 8-5
Buzz: QB Matt Barkley and WR Robert Woods should give USC one of the best pass-catch combinations in the country next season, but the Trojans must get better on defense. They also have to hope an appeal reduces some of those NCAA sanctions.
Coach: Derek Dooley. Record: 6-7
Buzz: Tennessee finally has a settled quarterback situation now that true freshman Tyler Bray has taken over. Will the lessons from losses to LSU and North Carolina help the Vols develop a killer instinct?
Texas Tech
Coach: Tommy Tuberville. Record: 8-5
Buzz: Texas Tech continued to throw the ball effectively in the first season of the post-Mike Leach era, but defense was a big problem. Tuberville's track record suggests the Red Raiders eventually will do a better job of stopping people.
Coach: Mike London. Record: 4-8
Buzz: London and his staff look to have the recruiting ability to get Virginia back on track, but London probably will need a couple of seasons to complete this rebuilding process.
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.

FSU needs to replace All-America guard Rodney Hudson and quarterback Christian Ponder, but the Seminoles figure to open 2011 as the ACC favorite. A preseason ranking in the top 15 seems likely.

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, USF and Tennessee also built some late-season momentum under new coaches that could pay off in 2011.

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 smegargee@rivals.com.

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