Via Athlon Sports:
With the completion of Week 7, the first half of the 2012 college football season is officially in the books. As expected, there have been plenty of surprises from the first two months of action and no shortage of preseason picks gone awry. With West Virginia's loss on Saturday, the race to win the Heisman Trophy is wide open, with Ohio State's Braxton Miller taking a slight lead over Geno Smith. Alabama and Oregon are the favorites to play for the national championship, but both teams still have plenty of hurdles left to clear the rest of the way. While a lot will happen over the second half of the year, it's time to step back and take a look at some of the top performers and disappointments for 2012.
Heisman frontrunner: Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
Geno Smith’s Heisman hopes didn’t completely disappear in Lubbock, but they certainly took a hit, especially considering West Virginia lost by 35 points to an unranked team. Due to Smith’s setback, Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller takes a slight edge as the new Heisman frontrunner. The sophomore has thrown for 1,271 yards and 11 scores, while adding 912 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. Miller ranks 17th nationally with 311.9 total yards per game and also places third nationally in rushing yards by a quarterback. Most importantly, the sophomore has delivered in the clutch this season. With Ohio State still searching for playmakers around him, Miller has produced big plays late in games against California, Michigan State and Nebraska to lead his team to victory. The Ohio State coaching staff would like to reduce Miller’s workload to keep him fresh for the final five games of the year, but the sophomore is simply too valuable and too much of a playmaker to take away his touches.
Next four candidates: Geno Smith, Collin Klein Manti Te'o, De'Anthony Thomas
Offensive Player of the Year – Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
Since Braxton Miller is listed as our Heisman favorite, we thought we would spread the wealth and give Smith the nod as our offensive player of the year for the first half of the season. Despite the disappointing showing at Texas Tech, the senior has thrown for 2,271 yards and 25 scores this year. Smith is completing 75.3 percent of his passes and has yet to toss an interception through the first six games. With match-ups against Kansas State and Oklahoma in the second half of the year, the senior will have a chance to climb back into the Heisman mix, along with pushing West Virginia into contention for a BCS bowl.
Honorable mention: Braxton Miller, Collin Klein
Defensive Player of the Year: Manti Te’o, LB, Notre Dame
Te’o has been simply outstanding this year, as he is the heart and soul for one of the nation’s best defenses through the first seven weeks of the season. The senior leads Notre Dame with 59 stops, has recorded two tackles for a loss, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Te’o’s impact goes beyond the box score, especially in terms of leadership and was a key cog in Notre Dame’s goal-line stand over Stanford in Week 7. It’s not often a defensive player is a serious Heisman contender, but if Te’o continues to perform at this level, he should be one of the five finalists for college football’s most prestigious award.
Honorable mention: Jadeveon Clowney
Coach of the Year: Mike Riley, Oregon State
After finishing 2011 with a 3-9 record, the expectations were low in Corvallis. Even though Mike Riley had resurrected the program from one of the worst in the nation to respectability, some wondered if he should be on the hot seat if Oregon State got off to a slow start this season. Fast forward to October, and the Beavers are in the thick of the Pac-12 title hunt. Oregon State is one of 12 unbeaten teams and quietly has one of the best resumes in the nation with victories over Wisconsin, UCLA, Arizona, Washington State and BYU. The Beavers are a much-improved team in the stat box, ranking fourth nationally against the run and are averaging 83.9 yards more per game on offense. Oregon State has a shot to be unbeaten when it plays Oregon on Nov. 24, but the biggest takeaway through the first seven weeks is Riley remains one of the Pac-12’s best coaches.
Honorable mention: Brian Kelly, Urban Meyer, Will Muschamp, Bill Snyder
Best Coaching Hire: Urban Meyer, Ohio State
As expected, Meyer and Ohio State have been a perfect combination. The Buckeyes had plenty of talent last season, but the uncertainty surrounding the coaching staff and inexperience of quarterback Braxton Miller contributed to a disappointing 6-7 record. Meyer’s spread attack has ignited an offense that was conservative under former coach Jim Tressel, while turning Miller into a Heisman frontrunner. Ohio State’s defense still needs some work but help is on the way from another impressive recruiting class. Even though the Buckeyes are banned from postseason play, Meyer has this team poised to claim a top-five finish at the end of the year.
Honorable mention: Bill O'Brien, Kyle Flood, Hugh Freeze, Kevin Sumlin
Biggest surprise: Notre Dame
It’s a tossup between Oregon State and Notre Dame for this honor, but since we gave Mike Riley the coach of the year spot, let’s give some credit to the Irish. Notre Dame is off to its best start since beginning 8-0 in 2002. High expectations surrounded the Irish last season, but Brian Kelly’s team didn’t quite meet those goals, finishing 8-5 with a loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl. However, the Irish are on track to finish with at least 10 victories and make a BCS bowl appearances. Kelly developed an impressive resume at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati with high-scoring offenses, but it has been the defense leading the way for Notre Dame in 2012. The Irish rank second nationally in scoring defense and are allowing just 287 yards per game. The offense needs to show improvement if Notre Dame wants to challenge for a national title, but a 10-2 season and a BCS bowl would go a long way towards making the Irish a yearly top-10 team once again.
Honorable mention: Duke, Florida, Oregon State, Penn State, Rutgers
Biggest disappointment: Auburn
No one anticipated Auburn would compete for the national title in 2012, but the Tigers weren’t expected to be this bad either. Auburn is off to its worst start since 1998, opening the year 1-5 with a narrow 31-28 win over Louisiana-Monroe as its only bright spot of the season. Both sides of the ball are to blame, as the Tigers rank 115th nationally in scoring offense and 78th nationally in total defense. Auburn’s quarterback play has been a disaster, and there’s too much talent on this defense to be ranked 12th in the SEC in yards allowed after six games. The Tigers have recruited as well as anyone in the SEC but the results on the field aren’t matching up. With only two winnable games remaining on the schedule, Auburn will likely miss out on a bowl game for the first time since 2008. Even though Gene Chizik won a national title in 2010, he may not be back for 2013.
Dishonorable mention: Arkansas, Michigan State, South Florida, Virginia Tech
Breakout player: Mike Gillislee, RB, Florida
Although Florida’s defense has been stingy this year, the real reason for the Gators’ turnaround has been the offense. Gillislee had 920 career rushing yards coming into the season but has been a workhorse through the first six games. The senior has 615 yards and seven rushing scores on 120 attempts, while catching four passes for 26 yards. Gillislee’s best performance came in the win over LSU, rushing for 146 yards and two touchdowns on 34 attempts. The senior’s performance is a key reason why Florida is second in the BCS standings and is one of college football’s top national title contenders.
Honorable mention: Taylor Kelly, Venric Mark
Top Freshman: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Life in the SEC was supposed to be tough for Texas A&M. However, the emergence of Johnny Manziel has quickly turned the Aggies from a likely .500 finish into a solid top-25 team. The redshirt freshman has thrown for 1,680 yards and 14 touchdowns, while adding 676 yards and 10 scores on the ground. Manziel has tossed only three picks and is completing 69.3 percent of his throws. In addition to his stats, Johnny Football has produced several highlight-reel plays and will be a handful for the rest of the SEC over the next three-plus seasons.
Honorable mention: Todd Gurley, Brett Hundley, Marcus Mariota, Devonte Fields
Coach on the Hot Seat: Joker Phillips, Kentucky
Phillips has experienced some bad luck this season, as the offense has lost two quarterbacks (Maxwell Smith and Patrick Towles), while several young players have been forced to step into significant playing time on both sides of the ball. However, the Wildcats haven’t been competitive in SEC competition and suffered a crushing 32-31 defeat to Western Kentucky in Week 3. Although Phillips led Kentucky to a bowl game in his first season, he is just 6-13 since 2010 and the program has fallen behind Vanderbilt in the new 14-team SEC.
Dishonorable mention: Gene Chizik, Derek Dooley, Frank Spaziani, Jeff Tedford
Worst Coaching Hire: Ellis Johnson, Southern Miss
Johnson seemed like a strange fit at Southern Miss when he was hired and so far, the results have matched those initial feelings. The Golden Eagles have played a difficult schedule but are off to a miserable 0-6 start. Southern Miss has struggled to be competitive most of the year, before taking UCF to two overtimes in Week 7. Johnson’s career record as a head coach is 17-34, with previous stints at Gardner-Webb and The Citadel resulting in four .500 or worse seasons. It’s unlikely Johnson will be fired after one year; however, he may not last past 2013 if Southern Miss has another losing season.
Dishonorable mention: Tim Beckman, Norm Chow, Carl Pelini, Charlie Weis
From Hot Seat to Low Pressure: Randy Edsall, Maryland
Edsall had a disastrous start to his tenure at Maryland, as the Terrapins went 2-10 last season and 25 players have left the team since his arrival. However, Maryland appears to be one of the most-improved teams in the ACC, doubling its win total from last season with a 4-2 record through six games. With starting quarterback C.J. Brown sidelined for the year with a torn ACL, the Terrapins have been forced to start true freshman Perry Hills at quarterback, but the young passer has held his own and continues to get better with each snap. Even if Edsall doesn’t lead Maryland to a bowl game this season, it’s clear the program is headed back in the right direction.
Honorable mention: Tommy Tuberville
National Title frontrunners: Alabama vs. Oregon
There’s a lot of football left, but Alabama and Oregon hit the halfway point of the season as the favorites to meet in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Jan. 7. The Crimson Tide’s schedule is very favorable, with a road trip to LSU on Nov. 3 the toughest game the rest of the year. The Ducks have a few more landmines on their schedule, starting with a Thursday night game at Arizona State this week. Oregon also travels to USC, California and Oregon State in the regular season. If both teams manage to navigate the rest of the schedule unbeaten, each will have to survive a conference title game. Alabama has avoided the top teams from the East Division this year, but a match-up against Florida or South Carolina is no cupcake. If Oregon makes it to the Pac-12 title game, a rematch against USC appears likely. If this is the national title match-up, these two teams have never met and it will be Oregon’s second championship appearance against an SEC squad.
Newcomer (JUCO) – Morgan Breslin, DE, USC
The defensive line was one of USC’s top concerns in the preseason, but Breslin has emerged as a force in his first season out of the junior college ranks. The Diablo Valley (Calif.) transfer has 26 tackles, 12 tackles for a loss and seven sacks through the first six games. Breslin has been one of the Pac-12’s top defenders through the first half and his play will be especially critical down the stretch, as USC takes on Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA and Notre Dame in November.
Honorable mention: Bo Wallace, Cordarrelle Patterson, Will Smith, Deion Belue
Coach on the Rise: Willie Taggart, Western Kentucky
When the coaching carousel begins later this year, expect Taggart’s name to be floated for many of the top vacancies. The Hilltoppers have won 12 out of their last 14 games, with the only losses coming to Alabama and LSU. In the two seasons prior to Taggart’s arrival, Western Kentucky was 2-22. The Hilltoppers are in good position to make their first bowl appearance since moving to the FBS level in 2008, but keeping Taggart will be a challenge with a couple of marquee jobs likely to be open at the end of the year.
Honorable mention: Gary Anderson, Sonny Dykes, Darrell Hazell, Mike MacIntyre
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