Rhett Wilkinson

Utah's Whittingham: Middle Of The Pac(-12)?

Created on Jun. 25, 2013 2:53 PM EST

Don’t rely on Athlon Sports to provide any sort of cohesion with their rankings of Pac-12 coaches — at least not year-to-year.

Five coaches dropped five-plus spots since last year. Stanford’s David Shaw jumped from ninth to first after just his second year in Palo Alto. Oregon State’s Mike Riley went from seventh to second for improving a rushing defense. Arizona State’s Todd Graham is now in fourth after being 10th in 2012, with the only apparent difference being his leading the Sun Devils to their first winning season since 2007.

Two fresh faces are significantly separated (Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre at six and Cal’s Sonny Dykes at 10) even though they each guided equally successful teams last season — in the same conference. In the Western Athletic Conference, MacIntyre finished second with San Jose State and Dykes finished third with Louisiana Tech.

Then there are the plummeters. Though Athlon noted that he is “the toughest coach in the Pac-12 to rank,” USC’s Lane Kiffin is now 11th after being second — second! — in 2012, when his Trojans still produced a winning season.

Utah’s Kyle Whittingham joins Kiffin in the “you-won’t-find-this-on-their-profile-page” category. The ninth-year Utes coach jumped from fourth to ninth after a 5-7 season that saw three different quarterbacks start a game, including freshman Travis Wilson. Until then, Whittingham, who succeeded Urban Meyer after his team became the first BCS buster in 2005, had directed teams to seven straight bowl appearances — and seven bowl wins.

ESPN’s Kevin Gemmell wrote that Whittingham joins Dykes, seemingly lucky to be in the right spot, mentioning that “we’ve seen how Utah has had issues since moving from the Mountain West.” Perhaps: Whittingham is 13-12 overall and 7-11 in conference play in Utah’s first two years in the BCS. But consider his larger body of work: His overall record at Utah (71-32) makes his .689 winning percentage superior than everyone in the conference except Shaw, who has gone 23-4 in his two seasons at Stanford. Along the way, he’s had that stunning two-score Sugar Bowl victory over favored Alabama in 2009, when he was the American Football Coaches Association’s Coach of the Year. The Utes finished second in the Associated Press poll after that season, with 16 first-place votes,

So where does Whittingham truly belong among this year’s group?

Those ranked below Whittingham still belong there. Dykes nor new Oregon head man Mark Helfrich (12th), who was promoted from offensive coordinator after Chip Kelly left for the Philadelphia Eagles, have proven themselves in the league. The best argument for anyone to place higher than Whittingham may belong to Kiffin. The former Oakland Raiders head man guided USC to an 18-7 record during his first two years after drastically improving Tennessee’s offense and producing a winning Volunteers team in 2009. Athlon mentioned that Kiffin was also graded so low because of various scandals that wore down the Trojans last season.

Shaw works as top dog — especially since the Cardinal had suffered seven straight losing seasons before Jim Harbaugh (now leading the San Francisco 49ers) led Stanford to back-to-back winning seasons in 2011 and 2012. The jury’s still out, however, since Shaw has relied on Harbaugh’s players. Whittingham’s BCS appearance came with many of his own, rather than Meyer’s.

Riley may be well-respected, but he does have a mediocre career 81-67 record with the Beavers, with just one double-digit win season in 12 years in Corvallis (Whittingham has three in his eight years). There are few people more liked in the industry than Riley,” Athlon says. That’s a good reason for such a high ranking?

Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez is 134-93-2 with five different programs, including an 8-5 mark last year with the Wildcats. He’s 83-53 in 11 years in the BCS — also with West Virginia and Michigan. Perhaps what gives Rodriguez the edge is his 60-26 mark in seven years with the Mountaineers, including four Big East titles. However, the Big East during RichRod’s time in Morgantown might have not been any better than the Mountain West during the same time frame. Same goes for when Whittingham was in the league, when TCU also busted the BCS twice. If Kiffin should be docked for controversy, then it’s key to mention the issues surrounding Rodriguez' departure involving a lawsuit just four months after Rodriguez had signed a long-term extension with the university.

Arizona State’s Todd Graham went 8-5 with the Sun Devils last season after a mediocre 2011 with Pittsburgh. His 36-17 mark from 2007-10 with Tulsa may be most comparable to Whittingham’s tenure in Salt Lake City, but that comes without a BCS-level run and with a program still of lesser status than the research institution’s. The difference between these two may depend on how each coach’s team performs this season — especially with the Sun Devils a favorite to win the Utes’ Pac-12 South Division.

Whittingham and Washington State’s Mike Leach may boast the same alma mater (BYU), but their coaching styles are vastly different. Yet, their overall successes as head coaches are similar, with Leach going 84-43 with the Big 12’s Texas Tech from 2000-09 before a 3-9 campaign last fall with the Cougars. Whittingham’s defense-first mentality should make an interesting clash against Leach’s aerial approach again this season —  hopefully more compelling than it was last year, when the Utes took a 49-6 early November blowout  in Rice-Eccles Stadium.

If not meteoric, MacIntyre’s rise with San Jose State may have rivaled Kal-El’s space travel as the former proved to be the savior of the San Jose State program. Still, his 11-2 campaign that garnered a national ranking last season followed back-to-back losing affairs, at 1-12 and 5-7 in 2010 and 2011, respectively. And given how broken Colorado’s program has been in the last handful of years, Athlon will almost assuredly rank “Coach Mac” lower than Whittingham next year.

Yet another fellow BYU graduate, Washington’s Steve Sarkisian, certainly doesn’t merit a higher ranking than Whittingham after going just 26-25 in his first four years in Seattle. While Sarkisian may have brought the Huskies program its first winning season since 2002 with a 7-6 mark in 2010, three straight 7-6 (5-4 Pac-12) records have created a stagnant feel. Whittingham has a better season-by-season mark leading the Utes excepting last fall.

By going 9-5 with UCLA in his first year as a collegiate head coach, Jim Mora provided a season that has been average for Whittingham. What may put Mora over the top is that UCLA came just a few plays from beating Stanford in the Pac-12 title game. Still, they were, at most, the third-best team overall, after a 12-1 Oregon team that shared the Pac-12 North title with the Cardinal. Mora will distance himself from Whittingham if the Bruins finish markedly higher than the Utes in the Pac-12 South.

In a league full of accomplished coaches, Whittingham puts as good a feather in his own cap. And there’s not a Pete Carroll that ranks undoubtedly higher than him. In a list that, unlike the Athlon poll, takes into consideration a career’s body of work (rather than a knee-jerk evaluation of what happened mere months ago), Whittingham essentially ties with Shaw, Riley, Rodriguez, Graham, Leach, Mora and Kiffin. He’s still better than MacIntyre, Sarkisian, Dykes and Helfrich. Riley may rank higher mostly because he’s endured with his program a few years longer. Shaw’s record the last two seasons ultimately speaks for itself. Rodriguez’ impressive work in the BCS with West Virginia also gives him the edge —despite the Big East vs. Mountain West comparisons. And Kiffin still has been successful in three years with USC.

For his entire body of work and with three new head coaches taking the Pac-12 field this season, Whittingham should hardly drop from where Athlon had him in 2012.

Football.com’s new-and-improved rankings:

1. Mike Riley, Oregon State: For longevity — not because he’s “well-liked”

2. David Shaw: Probably first if he wins the Pac-12 North again

3. Rich Rodriguez: Another good season with Arizona makes Michigan look like an aberration

4. Lane Kiffin: The scandals keep him from ranking higher

5. Kyle Whittingham

6. Jim Mora: With a possible rise into the top three if UCLA wins the Pac-12 South again

7. Mike Leach: Body of work at Texas Tech

8. Todd Graham: Body of work at Tulsa not equal to body of work at Texas Tech

9. Steve Sarkisian: Pac-12 mediocrity just enough to keep him out of the bottom quarter

10. Sonny Dykes: New to league, but better track record than MacIntyre

11. Mike MacIntyre: New to league, one stellar year in his three as a head coach

12. Mark Helfrich: First-year head coach

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