College Football Heads Into The Conference Championships

Why isn’t Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo the hottest young name on the market that big-time programs are targeting for their next coaching hires?

For the past few weeks, with Texas’ Charlie Strong and LSU’s Ed Orgeron’s job status up in the air, all we heard about was Houston’s Tom Herman, who eventually landed the Longhorns gig in the wake of Strong’s firing.

If you’ve been paying attention, the hot names being tossed around are Temple’s Matt Rhule, Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck, Western Kentucky’s Jeff Brohm, Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield, Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and a host of others. When the hot jobs open up at major programs this offseason, those are the guys that will be discussed the most.

Noticeably absent from the debate is Navy’s head coach, Niumatalolo. If someone is thinking outside of the proverbial box though, they need to take a long, hard look at the man in charge of what’s going down at the Naval Academy.

The Midshipmen scored 75 points in beating SMU this weekend with their wicked triple-option offense. Last week, they hung 66 points up in a win against East Carolina. They run up in opposing defenses with criminal intent like Detective Alonzo Harris’ crew. They look legit on the outside, but they’re bringing more than you bargained for once they come knocking. During the month of November, they’ve punted the ball about as much as Tone-Loc dropped a corny hit record – twice to be exact. Navy, 9-2, is now ranked No. 16 in the most recent AP poll. 

Niumatalolo has an overall record of 68-37, despite playing with true student-athletes who are much smaller than the teams they regularly face. He is the all-time winningest coach in Navy history and is the only coach in the history of the Army-Navy game to start his coaching career 8-0 against the other Academy. Last year, they won a school-record 11 games, culminating in a 44-28 win against Pitt in the Military Bowl.  The first Samoan collegiate head coach on any level, he’s the real deal.

Speaking of the relevant-real-deal-Holyfield, USC junior Adoree’ Jackson got busier than a horny rabbit this weekend, scoring on a 55-yard punt return, 97-yard kickoff return and as a wide receiver, taking a short pass 52 yards into the end zone for another score in the Trojans 45-27 beating of Notre Dame. And by the way, the dude is one of the best cornerbacks in the country. Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers gets all of the shine in terms of his versatility on offense, defense and special teams, but Jackson is right up there with him on terms of having the supreme skills to pay the bills.

USC has now won eight in a row, they’re unbeaten in October and November, and they own a victory over Colorado, who will face the Washington Huskies, who they’ve also beaten, in the Pac-12 Championship. Jackson is likely headed to the NFL, as is the Trojans prolific junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. It’s hard to see them turning down guaranteed money as high draft picks, but if they decide to come back to school next year, with freshman quarterback Sam Darnold playing like a future pro as well, USC would be an early-season favorite for a playoff birth in 2017. 

All of these folks screaming that Jim Harbaugh is overrated after Michigan’s 30-27 double-overtime loss to Ohio State are dumber than any Adam Sandler movie ever made. Do folks remember the 5-7 squad that Harbaugh inherited from Brady Hoke, the one that he immediately turned into 10-3 squad that destroyed Florida 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl during his initial season with the Wolverines last year?

And this season, he walked into the Ohio State game with the No. 3 spot in the playoff rankings. Yeah, Michigan lost in one of the greatest, most thrilling games of this legendary rivalry, to the No. 2 team in the country. But for them to even be in this position in only his second year of leading a program that had fallen on harder times than Navin Johnson in The Jerk is remarkable. 

This is the guy that went 22-2 during his last two years at the University of San Diego, the same guy that in his first season at Stanford, led the Cardinal, a 41-point underdog, to 24-23 win over Pete Carroll’s powerhouse USC squad that was ranked No. 1 in the country. I guess folks don’t remember the 11-1 season he engineered in Palo Alto in 2010, with their only loss coming to an undefeated Oregon juggernaut that went on to play in the national championship game. They must also be a little fuzzy about his tenure with the 49’ers, who hadn’t had a winning record or a playoff win since 2002. All he did was lead them to a 13-3 record during his first year in 2011, with a berth in the NFC championship game. The next year, he had them in the Super Bowl.

Harbaugh is simply one of the best football coaches around. To say that he’s overrated is sillier than Pee Wee Herman. Stop the nonsense. Please. The Big Ten is the best conference in college football right now, and for Michigan to even be in the discussion for a playoff berth up until the final regular season game, and now likely heading to a prestigious bowl game, speaks to the man’s uncanny ability. If you’ve ever uttered the words, “Jim Harbaugh can’t coach,” check this out, you’re a moron as far as football is concerned.

And man-oh-manichewitz, how special was Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel against the Wolverines?

His performance was the ultimate example of big-time players making big-time plays in big-time moments. 

And why is the national media not slobbering over the job that James Franklin has done with Penn State this year, getting them to the Big Ten Championship Game? What he and the Nittany Lions have been able to accomplish, with a limited roster while dealing with the NCAA sanctions and fallout from the Jerry Sandusky sexual assault scandal is beyond remarkable. Recruiting is on the upswing and they look very strong heading into 2017 and beyond. Nick Saban is, hands down, the Coach of the Year. But Franklin is not far behind as far as I’m concerned. 

Another top coach who deserves props is Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck. Four years ago, he inherited a team that went 1-11. Currently undefeated at 12-0, if they can dust off Ohio in the MAC title game, they’ll be heading to the Cotton Bowl.

Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre has done a great job as well this year, leading the Buffaloes to the Pac-12 championship game. Undefeated at home this year, the last time they accomplished that was when Craig Mack was dropping that brand new flava in ya ear back in ’94. 

By this time next week, we’ll know who’s in the playoffs and who’s been left out in the cold.

Despite not winning the Big Ten, Ohio State is in, as is Alabama. If Clemson and Washington win out, they’ll be in as well.

But the word “If” is the biggest two-letter word in the English language. College football is known for its crazy finishes. So expect the craziness to continue this weekend. 

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