Projecting the most likely coaches to win the B1G's top honor
The last few years, a B1G program has come out of nowhere to rise near the top of the standings and, as a result, elevate its coach to B1G Coach of the Year. It was Pat Fitzgerald in 2018 when Northwestern won the West Division, then PJ Fleck in 2019 when Minnesota cracked the top 10 and finally Tom Allen in 2020 after Indiana also appeared in the top 10.
It’s not always just the coach of the best team that wins this thing, and in fact, it probably won’t be. There is also a minimum standard, though, that a coach has to reach. The last time a B1G Coach of the Year didn’t win at least 8 games was 1988 (Illinois’ John Mackovic). The last time one didn’t finish .500 was 1982 (Northwestern went 3-8 under Dennis Green).
Also note: This is not a ranking of who the best coaches are in the league, but rather, an estimation at who has the best chance at winning B1G Coach of the Year. There is a big difference. For example, Ryan Day is an excellent coach, but I don’t think he has much of a chance at this award given the expectations at Ohio State.
Here are my projections, starting with the least likely:
14. Mel Tucker (Michigan State)
The East is littered with difficult matchups, which is a short way of saying that the Spartans are facing another uphill climb in Tucker’s second season. Every program has some sort of reason to be optimistic (except maybe Michigan), so Tucker is my least-likeliest B1G Coach of the Year.
13. Jeff Brohm (Purdue)
Purdue is going in the wrong direction after a promising start from Brohm. The Boilermakers should be aiming for a bowl game, but that won’t win this award for Brohm.
12. Scott Frost (Nebraska)
There’s not much hope that Nebraska will win enough games for Frost to win this award. Even though former AD Bill Moos said the Huskers should strive for 8 wins, who really believes that is going to happen? Let’s just see Nebraska get to a bowl game first.
11. Bret Bielema (Illinois)
Bielema has won this award before, back in 2006 with Wisconsin. But history says the coach who wins this thing will rack up at least 8 victories. If Bielema gets a program that hasn’t won more than 7 games since 2007 up to that level in his first season, he will be in the running for National Coach of the Year. Anything close to bowl contention would be a great season for the Illini.
10. Ryan Day (Ohio State)
While many consider Day an elite coach in this sport, he probably doesn’t have much of a chance at this award. Ohio State is expected to win the B1G and make the College Football Playoff. Anything less is a failed season; merely meeting that standard won’t turn any heads. Is that fair to Day? Probably not, but that’s life at Ohio State, which hasn’t lost a B1G game under Day. The third-year coach won it in his first year (2019), but that was after he took over for Urban Meyer.
9. Tom Allen (Indiana)
There’s only been one B1G coach to repeat as Coach of the Year in the last 25 years (Paul Chryst in 2016-17). Can Allen pull it off? Maybe. The question is, how much better can Indiana be than last season? The 6-2 campaign in which the Hoosiers cracked the top 10 is probably the program’s ceiling. If Allen can somehow beat Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin (or an equivalent, like Iowa) again, then yeah, Allen will repeat.
8. Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern)
Like Allen’s Hoosiers, the only way for Northwestern to go is down, as Fitzgerald maxed out last season. He did a masterful job flummoxing Justin Fields in the B1G Championship Game and then handling Auburn in the Citrus Bowl. Fitzgerald is that good that maybe he can duplicate last year’s magical season, but it’s going to be extremely difficult. After winning the West in 2018, Northwestern went 3-9 in 2019. With just 8 returning starters, the Wildcats could experience some similar growing pains.
7. Greg Schiano (Rutgers)
Schiano got some well-deserved praise for how quickly he turned around a Rutgers program that had really struggled since joining the B1G. Rutgers went 3-6, but really, it could’ve been 6-3 had it just been a little bit better as 3 of those losses were by one possession (and one was in triple overtime to Michigan). So now where do the Scarlet Knights go from here? Like Indiana and Northwestern, it’s fair to wonder, just how much better can Rutgers really be without a serviceable quarterback? Rutgers may be a year or 2 away before Schiano’s recruiting prowess starts to really pay off.
6. Mike Locksley (Maryland)
Locksley has recruited very well at Maryland, even if it hasn’t quite shown up on the field. Last year’s 2-3 record was deceiving because of how decimated the team was by COVID. Taulia Tagovailoa showed a ton of promise in wins over Minnesota and Penn State. How many B1G teams can say they have a QB who can take over a game like Tagovailoa? The Terrapins will be an interesting team to watch, and if they pull of a few upsets, Locksley’s name will be in the conversation.
5. PJ Fleck (Minnesota)
The darling of 2019 didn’t have quite as good of a 2020, but like many teams, COVID really hurt the Golden Gophers’ depth. Now, Minnesota has 20 starters back, with a proven QB and a beast of a running back. If Fleck can’t win with this group, he will surely lose some of the shine he gained 2 seasons ago. Minnesota could be a surprise team out West.
4. Kirk Ferentz (Iowa)
Iowa has about as tough of a schedule as one can have in the B1G without playing Ohio State. The Hawkeyes drew Indiana and Penn State from the East, which will be two great chances for quality wins (and both are at home). But Iowa travels to West favorite Wisconsin, defending West champion Northwestern and upstart Maryland. Not to mention, Iowa plays at rival Iowa State this year with the Cyclones probably having their best team ever. That’s a long-winded way of saying, Kirk Ferentz will absolutely be in the mix if he can win double-digit games this season. The four-time winner of this award seems to win it every 5 or 6 years, and his last one was in 2015.
3. Jim Harbaugh (Michigan)
There’s a theme with the top 3 coaches on this list: They all lead strong programs coming off uncharacteristically down seasons. There is talent on Michigan’s roster. The problem is that it doesn’t always live up to those star ratings, especially last season. The thing is, Michigan is always a big story, which means any sort of momentum creates a ton of buzz for Harbaugh. If Michigan is ever “back,” Harbaugh will obviously get a good amount of credit. Coming off a disastrous 2-4 season, he’ll have the narrative of a turnaround season if he can actually turn it around.
2. Paul Chryst (Wisconsin)
It’s strange to look at 2020 and recall that Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn state went a combined 10-12. While Wisconsin went 4-3, it probably could’ve been even worse considering how COVID decimated the Badgers. But the good part of that is that it leaves a lot of room for Chryst to engineer a big turnaround. With Graham Mertz hopefully healthy, the typically strong defense and a beast of an offensive line, the Badgers are the favorite in the West yet again, which could result in more hardware for Chryst.
1. James Franklin (Penn State)
Coming off his first season under .500 since 2011 with Vanderbilt, Franklin is surely hungry to make sure that was a one-time thing. Here’s the thing about Franklin’s situation. He doesn’t need to win the B1G to win this award, or even win the East. He doesn’t need to beat Ohio State, though doing so would probably go a long way. If Penn State wins double-digit games this season after finishing under .500 last season, Franklin will have a decent shot at this. Penn State may be the second-most talented team in the B1G, so it’s certainly a strong possibility that he’ll claim this award for the first time since 2016.