Home US SportsNCAAF College football first-half awards headlined by Ohio State, Tennessee coach Josh Heupel

College football first-half awards headlined by Ohio State, Tennessee coach Josh Heupel

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College football first-half awards headlined by Ohio State, Tennessee coach Josh Heupel

There are very few certainties as the 2022 college football season reaches the midway point and turns toward the home stretch of the postseason push.

Well, maybe there are a few.

Picking Georgia to win the SEC East feels like a safe bet. Or is it? Tennessee is suddenly right at the Bulldogs’ heels after an unforgettable win against rival Alabama.

Ohio State will likely take back the Big Ten crown. Or maybe not? The Buckeyes lost to Michigan last season and could easily do so again, especially as the Wolverines’ offense gets a big spark from quarterback J.J. McCarthy.

The Pac-12 is already eliminated from the College Football Playoff race. Really? Oregon might’ve been left by the wayside after losing by 46 points to Georgia in the season opener, but the Ducks have rallied in the past five games. And there’s unbeaten UCLA.

Maybe the only sure thing is this: Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud is going to cruise to the Heisman Trophy after finishing fourth a year ago. That’s no longer a certainty after the Volunteers’ Hendon Hooker had another superb game to lead that upset of the Crimson Tide.

So, with the regular season at its halfway mark it’s a good time to step back, reflect on what we’ve seen and focus on who’s rising, who’s falling and which teams are set to contend for this year’s national championship.

While the second half is impossible to predict, this is what we’ve learned so far:

Best team: Ohio State

Challenged only briefly by Notre Dame in the season opener, the No. 2 Buckeyes have exploded on offense and rebuilt a struggling defense to become the nation’s most consistently dominant team. While the offense makes headlines, a defense led by first-year coordinator Jim Knowles has climbed to fifth nationally in yards allowed per game. While Georgia has a strong case, OSU has been the class of the Bowl Subdivision.

Ohio State wide receiver Emeka Egbuka (2) breaks out against Michigan State for a first down at Spartan Stadium.

Best coach: Josh Heupel, Tennessee

Saturday’s 52-49 win against No. 6 Alabama confirms Tennessee’s place as a legitimate national championship contender in only Heupel’s second year. It’s a remarkable achievement given where the program stood prior to his arrival – not to mention how his hiring was greeted tepidly even by a chunk of the No. 4 Volunteers’ fan base. More specifically, Heupel’s work with Hooker has been the key behind Tennessee’s metamorphosis.

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Biggest surprise: Kansas

Two losses in a row in Big 12 play doesn’t dampen the excitement around the Jayhawks’ best season in well over a decade. Already just one win short of bowl eligibility, Kansas touts a fast-paced and dynamic offense with enough firepower to overcome continued issues on the defensive side. This leap forward has made second-year coach Lance Leipold a prime contender for several current and projected Power Five openings.

Biggest disappointment: Texas A&M

There are no shortage of options – including Oklahoma, Michigan State and Wisconsin, among many others. The honor goes to the Aggies for the preseason hype that has disintegrated amid a 3-3 start that has seen A&M struggle mightily on offense and in getting a top-rated recruiting class up to speed in the SEC.

Texas A&M running back Devon Achane (6) is tackled by a Mississippi State player during the first half of their game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.

Texas A&M running back Devon Achane (6) is tackled by a Mississippi State player during the first half of their game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.

College Football Playoff prediction: Ohio State, Georgia, Clemson, Michigan

Michigan would be the controversial pick. Landing at No. 4 in this scenario would mean the Wolverines lose the season finale to Ohio State — costing them the division championship and a shot at repeating atop the Big Ten — but they have the résumé to stay ahead of several other one-loss teams potentially still in the mix for the final spot in the field. That would include the Pac-12 and Big 12 champions, though it’s going to be hard for those winners to get through the regular season with one loss. What could keep Michigan out of the top four? That’s easy: Tennessee suffers just one loss, to Georgia, and otherwise runs the table.

Best Group of Five team: Cincinnati

The No. 19 Bearcats may not be up to the level of last year’s team, which ran the table in the regular season and became the first Group of Five team to reach the playoff. Even having taken that step back, Cincinnati remains one of only two teams outside the Power Five ranked in the Top 25 in this week’s poll and the favorite to recapture the top spot in the Group of Five and resulting New Year’s Six bowl berth.

Group of Five coach to watch: Jeff Traylor, Texas-San Antonio

Traylor can afford to be picky as he keeps UTSA among the top teams in the Group of Five for the second year in a row. After going 7-5 in his debut in 2020 — one heck of an achievement in the COVID year, especially after UTSA won four games in 2019 — the Roadrunners went 12-2 and won Conference USA last season. This year’s team is 5-2 overall and one of two teams still unbeaten in league play. While the right job may not become available this winter, Traylor’s due to be on the shortlist for a number of Power Five openings.

Power Five assistant coach to watch: Ryan Walters, Illinois

Illinois’ 36-year-old defensive coordinator is the favorite to become the next head coach at Colorado thanks to his work turning the No. 20 Illini into one of the nation’s top units. After holding Minnesota to just 38 passing yards in Saturday’s 26-14 win, Illinois ranks first nationally in yards allowed per game and per play. This defense is the reason why Illinois is in the Top 25 and atop the Big Ten West so soon under coach Bret Bielema.

Next Power Five coach to go: Bryan Harsin, Auburn

Harsin is destined to become the sixth Power Five coach to suffer a midseason firing – the only thing that’s hard to predict is the timing. Now sitting at 3-4 following Saturday’s 48-34 loss to No. 7 Mississippi, Auburn could jettison the former Boise State coach at any moment and press reset after a misguided hire.

Best quarterback: C.J. Stroud, Ohio State

Stroud has thrown for at least two touchdowns in every game, at least four in four games, at least five in three games and six touchdowns once, in last week’s win against Michigan State. Picking up right where he left off last season, Stroud has been the most prolific passer in the country even as Ohio State reloads at the receiver position without a pair of first-round draft picks. Stroud has been so good that he remains ahead of Hooker, who has been spectacular in his own right.

Best freshman: OT Kelvin Banks, Texas

Banks is flashing superstar potential as a day-one starter on Quinn Ewers’ blind side. A five-star prospect with offers from every program of consequence, he’s stepped right into a major role and manned left tackle at a very high level to help spark the No. 21 Longhorns’ resurgence in Steve Sarkisian’s second year.

Most impactful transfer: RB Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama

Alabama wouldn’t be 6-1 and still in the playoff hunt without Gibbs, the former Georgia Tech transfer who has already exceeded all expectations as the Tide’s do-everything superstar. He’s run for 635 yards, pulled down a team-best 27 receptions, averaged 23.4 yards per kickoff return and scored eight times.

Alabama running back Jahmyr Gibbs (1) rushes for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against Arkansas at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Alabama running back Jahmyr Gibbs (1) rushes for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against Arkansas at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Heisman Trophy leaders: Stroud, Hooker, Caleb Williams

Young’s improvisational brilliance for the Crimson Tide has him lurking in this race despite missing almost two games, not to mention Saturday’s loss. But the Heisman debate really centers on Stroud and Hooker, with Williams a distant third. Stroud led by a couple lengths before this past weekend; Hooker has closed the gap and maybe even taken over as the current Heisman favorite. Williams is still in the conversation after the No. 16 Trojans lost to Utah, but he’s way behind the top two.

Best offense: Ohio State

This offense has gained at least 538 yards four times and scored at least 45 points five times in six games. After that sluggish start against the Irish, the Buckeyes have risen to the top of the FBS in yards per play and points per game with an unmatched balance of an elite quarterback and a two-headed running game.

Best defense: Michigan

While the quality of No. 3 Michigan’s defense was never been in doubt amid a hot start against overmatch competition, the weekend’s throttling of No. 16 Penn State makes the Wolverines’ case for being the nation’s best. Michigan has given up more than 300 yards and more than 17 points just once in seven games.

Best Power Five conference: SEC

Yes, again. There’s always an argument for the Big Ten, especially with the Buckeyes and Wolverines taking up space near the top of the coaches poll. But it’s in overall depth that the SEC pulls away: four teams with one or fewer loss, seven teams with five or more wins, six teams in the Top 25 and the possibility that all but two or three teams reach bowl eligibility.

Worst Power Five conference: ACC

No. 5 Clemson has rejoined the playoff chase after an off year. No. 13 Wake Forest is a contender for the New Year’s Six. No. 14 Syracuse has been a huge surprise, Florida State is back in the range of bowl play, No. 23 North Carolina State could still limp to eight wins and No. 22 North Carolina could set school records on offense. But the conference as a whole trails even the Pac-12, which has a stronger top tier and could have two teams on the brink of playoff eligibility heading into the end of November.

Best Group of Five conference: American

The race has tightened with the new-look Sun Belt, especially with James Madison’s shockingly successful debut as a member of the FBS. The access-bowl bid to the New Year’s Six still goes through the American, however, with Cincinnati, Central Florida and No. 25 Tulane tied atop the conference at the midseason mark.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ohio State, Tennessee’s Josh Heupel top college football midway awards

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