If an award existed for the Pac-12 South's football coach of the year, Saturday's meeting between Utah's Kyle Whittingham and Arizona State's Herm Edwards would decide the winner.
Much more than a mythical trophy is at stake at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., where the Utes can move closer to clinching their first division title in eight seasons of Pac-12 membership. If the Sun Devils beat Utah (6-2, 4-2 Pac-12), they would own the tiebreaker with the Utes and be in position to qualify for the conference championship game by winning their three remaining contests vs. UCLA, Oregon and Arizona.
That’s not a sentence anyone figured to be writing in November. And if ASU (4-4, 2-3) loses Saturday, Edwards' first season will revert to merely a pursuit of bowl eligibility. The Sun Devils' place in the division race at this stage, though, is a commentary about the disheveled landscape of the South and a case of their mild overachievement.
In other words, Edwards has not messed up the operation. The only explanation for the Sun Devils being picked last in the South in the Pac-12′s official media poll is that voters believed his move from the ESPN campus in Connecticut to the practice field in Tempe was a mistake by ASU.
NO. 16 UTAH AT ARIZONA STATE
When • Saturday, 2 p.m. MDT
TV • Pac-12 Networks
Nobody knows how his hiring will play out in the long term. What’s clear is that ASU is playing decent football, beating Michigan State and USC and never losing by more than seven points.
Whittingham became acquainted with Edwards in recent years through Under Armour events and was as intrigued as anyone when he returned to coaching. “It was interesting, because I wasn't sure he wanted to coach again,” Whittingham said, describing Edwards as “a great guy, smart guy, charismatic; he's a big personality.”
Whittingham regarded ASU's move as “surprising,” he said, “but not like, 'What are they doing?' ”
That was the media's almost universal reaction, and some words have been eaten this season. Considering that no team in the South has more than three conference losses through five or six games, the Sun Devils still could finish last, as forecasted. Yet that prediction seems short-sighted, at the moment. Voters overlooked how ASU finished second in the South with a 6-3 record last year, before coach Todd Graham was fired, and how the Sun Devils returned quarterback Manny Wilkins and receiver N'Keal Harry and had good personnel throughout the roster.
Edwards, 64, contended that he never really stopped coaching, even during his decade as an ESPN analyst of NFL teams. As he said this week, he’s enjoying being outside, as opposed to inside the television studio.
He likes “the teaching part of it, actually coaching on the grass, developing players and coaches, as well,” he said. “When you're a head coach, you actually coach the coaches.”
And he’s allowing his offensive and defensive coordinators to do most of the coaching, as they’re hired to do. His job description resembles the approach of the late LaVell Edwards at BYU, although Herm Edwards is more involved than he may appear on the sideline. He arrives at the office early, studies film and consults the coordinators — “always overseeing things, implementing certain things,” he said.
ASU’s methods are working. And if the Sun Devils beat Utah and advance to the conference title game, Edwards could go from being mocked last December to earning the Pac-12′s official Coach of the Year award in late November.
Records for the conference’s five new coaches in 2018:
• Mario Cristobal, Oregon: 5-3 (2-3 Pac-12).
• Herm Edwards, Arizona State: 4-4 (2-3).
• Kevin Sumlin, Arizona: 4-5 (3-3).
• Chip Kelly, UCLA: 2-6 (2-3).
• Jonathan Smith, Oregon State: 2-6 (1-4).