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The line separating the favorites and the second tier of Coach of the Year contenders is firmly drawn halfway between the six strongest candidates—three are on the doorstep, and three have ground to make up. But the final month of the regular season has a funny way of erasing deficits in individual award races. This week, no one has more to gain than Al Golden, as his Hurricanes get set to host Florida State, the defending champs and authors of a 25-game winning streak. Golden is lurking at No. 5 in this week’s rankings, but watch how fast he ascends if Miami delivers its biggest win in a decade this Saturday at Sun Life Stadium.
6. Bobby Petrino, Louisville
Petrino gets back in the hunt, displacing Boston College’s Steve Addazio, who he defeated last week in Chestnut Hill, 38-19. Losses to the two best teams on the schedule, Florida State and Clemson, have put a hard cap on how high Petrino can elevate in November. However, he’s done a solid job in his Louisville return, navigating offensive injuries, while adapting to life in a new league. Petrino will finish the campaign with a rookie, Reggie Bonnafon, under center now that Will Gardner has been lot to a knee injury.
Signature Moment: Doubling-up BC in Boston last weekend
5. Al Golden, Miami
This is it. This the moment Golden and his staff have been building toward the past four years. The Hurricanes are peaking at an opportune time, as unbeaten and third-ranked Florida State makes the 500-mile trek south to renew one of college football’s hottest rivalries. Miami has battled back from a slow start, and it’s done so with a true freshman at quarterback and an emerging that got little respect in the offseason. If the ‘Canes make a national splash this weekend, they could see the ‘Noles again on Dec. 6 in the ACC Championship Game.
Signature Moment: Being the only team to defeat Duke so far in 2014
4. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
Has Swinney peaked in this space? He’s done an outstanding job of rallying the troops, answering a 1-2 start with six straight wins. And he’s done so despite the absence of rookie sensation QB Deshaun Watson over the last three games. But Swinney has elevated Clemson to a point place where 10-win seasons are the norm, and beating ranked opponents is the measuring stick. Since the Tigers fell to Georgia and Florida State, who sat Jameis Winston, they must beat Georgia Tech this week and South Carolina on Nov. 29 for their coach to inch higher north.
Signature Moment: The current six-game winning streak, half of which came without Watson
3. Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech
Johnson has the Yellow Jackets playing as well as anyone in the ACC right now, reeling off three lopsided wins over Pittsburgh, Virginia and NC State following a brief mid-October slump. Tech still has a pulse for taking the Coastal Division, winning 10 games and earning an Orange Bowl berth. The Yellow Jackets have two litmus tests left, No. 19 Clemson on the Flats this Saturday and No. 15 Georgia on rivalry weekend in two weeks. If Johnson wins both, he’ll be no worse than runner-up for Coach of the Year.
Signature Moment: Routing Pitt, Virginia and NC State the last three weekends
2. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State
What more can Fisher do this season? The coach hasn’t lost a game since Nov. 24, 2012, yet he’s been forced to defend his team as well as the job being done by his staff. Clearly, this is not the same collection of talent that ran the table and won the 2013 national championship. This edition is less multi-dimensional and far more reliant on a single player, QB Jameis Winston. So, isn’t that more of a reason for Fisher to get credit for guiding his team through myriad landmines on the schedule?
Signature Moment: Becoming the first team to beat Notre Dame in 2014
1. David Cutcliffe, Duke
Few seem surprised by the fact that the Blue Devils are closing in on another Coastal Division crown. And that might be Coach Cut’s greatest achievement in Durham. Duke is now expected to win in the fall, quite a turnaround for a program that’s forever lived in the shadow of the university’s basketball program. The Blue Devils have overcome departures and crushing injuries to lose just once this season. They’ve survived four consecutive close games, a trait of well-coached teams, to shrink to three their magic number for winning the division.
Signature Moment: Bouncing back from the Miami loss to win four straight games