Midseason awards: All-Americans, biggest letdown, best surprise & more
Since we’re at the midway mark, here is my take on the superlatives of the first half of the season.
COACH OF THE FIRST HALF
1. Kyle Whittingham, Utah: Picked by the Pac-12 media to finish fifth in their division, his Utes are undefeated and No. 3 in the nation and have wins over Michigan, Cal, ASU and a blowout victory at Autzen vs. Oregon.
2. Jim McElwain, Florida: The Gators have 15 freshmen and sophomores on their offensive 2-deep and the first-year head coach still has them at 6-1 with a close loss at LSU.
3. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame: No team has been rocked by as many key injuries as Kelly’s. The Irish have lost seven starters, including promising young QB Malik Zaire early in the year, days after losing leading returning rusher Tarean Folston. No matter, the Irish keep rolling on and are 6-1 with only a last-second loss at Clemson in a monsoon on the downside.
4. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan: He got the Wolverines back into the Top 25 in a hurry. The only blemishes are a close loss at Utah and the last-second special teams nightmare against Michigan State.
5. Gary Patterson, TCU: People aren’t giving him enough credit for keeping the Horned Frogs unbeaten despite having lost seven defensive starters, most due to injuries.
BEST PLAYER OF THE FIRST HALF
1. Leonard Fournette, LSU, RB: Despite being the focal point of every opponent’s game plan, the 226-pound sophomore is still averaging over 200 rushing yards per game, over 40 more than any other RB in the country.
2. Trevone Boykin, TCU, QB: The top dual-threat QB in college football, Boykin is averaging 9.11 yards per play and 426 total yards per game, keeping the Horned Frogs undefeated despite all sorts of issues on defense.
3. Dalvin Cook, FSU, RB: As Jimbo Fisher pointed out to me this week, Cook’s running behind almost an entirely new O-line, the ‘Noles have new receivers and a new QB and he’s still averaging 8.7 yards per carry.
4. Myles Garrett, Texas A&M, DE: No defensive player draws more attention from rival OCs and yet the Freaky sophomore still has 11.5 TFLs and 8.5 sacks through six games.
5. Corey Coleman, Baylor, WR: The Bears’ touchdown machine has 16 in six games. Last year’s national leader, CSU’s Rashard Higgins, only had 17 in all of last season.
TOP FRESHMAN OF THE FIRST HALF
1. Christian Kirk, Texas A&M, WR: The SEC’s leading receiver, averaging 102 yards per game, Kirk, also a dynamic return man, wowed coaches in the spring with his maturity and attention to detail and has been everything they thought he might be.
2. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama, DB: Mr. Pick-6 is second in the SEC in passes defended (eight) and also has scored three TDs in four SEC games, pretty impressive for a non-offensive player.
3. Mitch Hyatt, Clemson, LT: Won’t turn 19 till February. Hyatt has emerged as a standout for the unbeaten Tigers, who had to replace basically their entire O-line this season. Despite all the newcomers, Clemson is actually better this season at running the ball and protecting the passer and Hyatt is a big reason why.
4. Josh Rosen, UCLA, QB: Started with a bang with a jaw-dropping display in the Bruins opener, the 6-4, 210-pounder can do things few college QBs can do. Rosen, as expected, has had some rough moments with questionable decision-making (12 TDs, seven INTs) but he’s still been one of the biggest bright spots for the Bruins.
5. Malik Jefferson, Texas, LB: The most talented player in the UT program, Jefferson is second on the team in tackles with 37 and leads the Horns with 5.5 TFLs and in hurries with five. He also returned a fumble for a touchdown against Rice and is tied for the team lead with two sacks.
MOST PLEASANT SURPRISE OF THE FIRST HALF
1. Iowa: The Hawkeyes are undefeated and steamrolling their way to what sure looks like it’ll be a 12-0 regular season thanks in large part to an explosive big-play attack that leads the Big Ten in plays of 40 yards or longer with 12 — which is as many as Iowa had in 13 games last season and only one fewer than the Hawkeyes had in the 2013 and 2012 seasons combined.
2. The AAC: Temple, Memphis and Houston are all undefeated and each has a good win against a Power 5 opponent on its resume. All three teams are in the Top 25 and have coaches seen as rising stars primed to possibly make big jumps to Power 5 jobs. Three years ago, these three teams were a combined 13-22 and all three had losing records.
3. Brandon Harris, LSU, QB: No one’s ever questioned his arm, but there was plenty of skepticism about the sophomore’s consistency and decision-making. Well, so far, so good. Harris was terrific against one of the top defenses in the nation last week vs. Florida. He’s thrown six TDs and zero INTs while taking some heat off Leonard Fournette. Harris is completing 67 percent of his passes in SEC games.
4. Florida: As young as they are, the Gators blasted Ole Miss and have looked like the best team in the SEC East.
5. Michigan: The fact that the Wolverines were the favorite against undefeated Michigan State tells you just how much respect Jim Harbaugh’s team has been getting after becoming the first team in 20 years to notch three consecutive shutouts.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE FIRST HALF
1. The Pac-12: USC, the Pac-12 media’s pick to win the conference, has a three-year starting QB, dynamic skill talent and a fast secondary. Yet the Trojans are 3-3 and no certainty to even win enough games to make a bowl. There’s been another midseason coaching change due to Steve Sarkisian’s off-field issues. Despite Cody Kessler’s experience and weapons, USC is No. 10 in the league in third-down conversions. Oregon is only 4-3 and has been struggling on D, getting blown out by Utah at home. ASU got thumped by Texas A&M in what was a brutal opening week for the league: Stanford, the class of the Pac-12 North, lost to Northwestern; Wazzu, one of the more pleasant surprises from this league, lost to FCS Portland State; Colorado lost to Hawaii.
2. UCF: George O’Leary’s program that won a BCS bowl less than two years ago is 0-7 and gets blown out almost weekly. The Knights lost by 27 against 3-4 UConn, by 14 against 2-4 Tulane and was defeated by FCS Furman, who had dropped 11 of its previous 12 games.
3. Georgia Tech: Just when folks start hyping Paul Johnson’s program, it has a clunker of a season, going 2-5, riding a five-game losing skid.
4. Arkansas: I was tempted to pick Auburn here since the Tigers were the preseason pick to win the SEC and they barely beat FCS Jacksonville State and had a dismal start, but I’ll go with Arkansas. After the way the Hogs finished last season, there was a lot of optimism, but Bret Bielema’s team has come out flat, opening at 2-4 with home losses against Toledo and Texas Tech.
5. Texas defenses: Four of the six worst defenses in the country are from the Lone Star State (UNT, Texas State, SMU and UTEP). Texas Tech, Texas, Rice and UTSA also rank south of the top 100. I get that many of the most prolific offenses are from this state, too, but Texas State surrendered 56 to Southern Miss; UTEP allowed 47 to NM State; and North Texas allowed 66 to FCS Portland State.
BREAKOUT STAR OF THE FIRST HALF
1. Carl Nassib, Penn State, DE: A former walk-on with plans to go to med school, the 6-7, 270-pound Nassib leads the nation in sacks with 11.5, in TFLs with 15.5 and in forced fumbles with five.
2. Paxton Lynch, Memphis, QB: He’s tall at 6-7 and very athletic, but the unheralded former recruit from Florida has blossomed for coach Justin Fuente. His best receivers are all former walk-ons. Lynch has a 13-1 TD-INT ratio. He shredded an athletic Ole Miss D and is generating some big buzz in NFL circles while leading the unbeaten Tigers.
3. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford, RB/KR: Drawing comparisons to Reggie Bush, the 205-pound Stanford sophomore dashed into the Heisman race after running all over UCLA last week.
4. C.J. Prosise, ND, RB: The Irish lost their leading rusher after Week 1 and no one noticed any dropoff because of Prosise — perhaps the best combo of speed and power the Irish have had at tailback in years. He’s run for 922 yards and 11 TDs already, going for 7.2 yards a carry. In the second half of games, Prosise’s average goes up to over 7.6 yards per carry.
5. Matt Johnson, BGSU, QB: Dino Babers’ latest gem, Johnson doesn’t have prototypical NFL size, but the 6-0, 219-pounder whom Babers compares to Doug Flutie can really sling it around. Johnson has a 24-3 TD-INT ratio and leads the nation in total offense.
ALL-AMERICA SQUAD OF THE FIRST HALF
QB: Trevone Boykin, TCU
RB: Leonard Fournette, LSU
RB: Dalvin Cook, FSU
WR: Corey Coleman, Baylor
WR: Josh Doctson, TCU
WR: Will Fuller, ND
OL: Spencer Drango, Baylor
OL: Taylor Decker, Ohio State
OL: Josh Garnett, Stanford
OL: Vadal Alexander, LSU
OL: Jack Allen, Michigan State
DL: Myles Garrett, TAMU
DL: Andrew Billings, Baylor
DL: Carl Nassib, Penn State
LB: Jaylon Smith, ND
LB: Kentrell Brothers, Mizzou
LB: Blake Martinez, Stanford
LB Joe Schobert, Wisconsin
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
DB: Jourdan Lewis, Michigan
DB: Vonn Bell, Ohio State
DB: Jeremy Cash, Duke
K: Ross Martin, Duke
Punter: Tom Hackett, Utah
All-Purpose: Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FS1. He is also a New York Times best-selling author. His new book, “The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks,” came out in October 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB and Facebook.