Football coaches don’t often land noms for coach of the year awards in their first year on the job. But they also don’t often pilot a team to an undefeated season and a top-10 ranking.
That’s the position Josh Heupel finds himself in 12 months after being tapped as UCF’s next head coach. The American Heart Association on Thursday announced Heupel was one of seven finalists for the 2019 Paul “Bear” Bryant Award, the only coaching award handed out after the bowl season ends.
He’s up against Bill Clark of University of Alabama-Birmingham, Brian Kelly of Notre Dame, Jeff Monken of Army West Point, Nick Saban of the University of Alabama, Dabo Swinney of Clemson University and Jeff Tedford of Fresno State University.
The nomination isn’t the first for Heupel, whose squad sits at 12-0 and has already notched an American Athletic Conference Championship.
The 40-year-old South Dakota native was also a finalist for the Associated Press Coach of the Year award. He placed third behind Kelly and Saban.
Heupel had some big shoes to fill after former coach Scott Frost aced the 2017 season with a 13-0 record and earned UCF its third American Athletic Conference Championship and a claim to the national title.
When Frost left to coach at Nebraska, his alma mater, he took his staff along with him, making a repeat a tall order.
By all accounts, Heupel has delivered.
Pending the outcome of the 2019 Fiesta Bowl, where UCF faces the No. 11 LSU Tigers, Heupel could match his predecessor and get UCF another entry in the record books — if the trip to Glendale nets the squad another W, Heupel would only be the third FBS coach to go undefeated in his first season as a head coach.
The others: Larry Coker’s debut as the Miami Hurricanes HC in 2001 and Chris Petersen’s first year helming the Boise State Broncos in 2006.
If recruiting is any indication, the Knights’ on-the-field success looks primed to continue in year two of the Heupel era. Wednesday netted the program a crop of recruits that bumped them past Memphis for the AAC’s top recruiting class.
When the second National Signing Day rolls around next year, UCF’s 2019 class could break the top-50 in recruiting — that’s a marked improvement from last year, when the Knights finished with the No. 2 class in the conference behind Cincinnati and No. 62 overall.
The winner of the 2019 Paul “Bear” Bryant Award will be announced Jan. 9 during an awards ceremony in Houston. Members of the National Sports Media Association choose the winner by vote.