First a quick intro to who I am and what perspective I’m writing from - since if you are reading this and know me, it’s probably because of politics. Why college football?
I was born in Mobile, AL and lived in the state of Mississippi for the first eleven years of my life. In the South, you’re often born into a college football family, in much the same way that a kid in Baltimore or Pittsburgh or Boston is born into pro sports team fandom. While I ended up in Maryland and went to a Division III school (Salisbury University – Go Gulls!), my heart and allegiance stayed with my team, the University of Alabama where a lot of my family went. Intense interest drove me to a love for college football in all its forms. The creativity, the color and pageantry – the feel, sights and smells of fall Saturdays – all of it has shaped a lifelong passion for this great sport.
Coaching high school football as an assistant for two years deepened my appreciation for the complexity of the sport and the simplicity of what you’re trying to accomplish on the gridiron. Over the years I’ve devoured books, websites and now podcasts and game replays on YouTube. I hope my creative output conveys a deep understanding, strong opinions and fairness in analysis – other than hate for the Auburn Tigers and Tennessee Volunteers. Seriously.
I look forward to writing about what’s happening across college football, examining trends in coaching and strategy, and breaking down Saturdays in the fall. Feedback is welcome as long as you don’t take any of this too seriously…because I certainly don’t.
Now to the column!
While college football has been through tremendous change in the past decade, we start the 2020’s with a pretty clear hierarchy in the sport’s coaching ranks. Below is my ranking of the top tiers of head coaches. I’m grouping them this way: 1. The Elite, 2. On the Cusp, 3. Ascending/Descending – coaches that are either close to breaking into those top two categories or, perhaps, are descending out of it and need a resurgence. This ranking is a combination of resume, past accomplishments and where they and their programs currently sit and whether most schools would make moves to hire them if they were available and interested.
*Big Caveat 1– to be in the first two categories, a coach needs to have been a head coach for more than a year at the FBS(Division 1-A level), so Ryan Day of Ohio State and Chris Klieman of Kansas State are in section 3. I also did not include any current Group of 5 coaches. It’s hard to compare what Frank Solich has done at Ohio University over the past 15 years to, say, Josh Heupel continuing Central Florida’s run after Scott Frost left or Luke Fickell taking Cincinnati from average to really good. Below this list is a Group of 5 ranking.
**Big Caveat 2 - this list would have dramatically evolved from past two seasons had I been writing. Urban Meyer retired after 2018 season (for now), Chris Petersen retired from Washington in a huge surprise, Matt Rhule left Baylor after taking that program from 1-11 to the Sugar Bowl in three seasons or he would have been in the “Ascending” column, and Tom Herman went from a Sugar Bowl at Texas to a second mediocre season in three years. Also, two years ago I would’ve assumed Chip Kelly and Scott Frost would be at least in the consideration for the third tier but they both have a lot of work to do at UCLA and Nebraska respectively. So with that said - here we go!
1A: Nick Saban – Alabama: the GOAT, even with losing three starting linebackers and a starting interior defensive lineman for the whole season AND Tua Tagovailoa for the last three and a half games, Alabama won 11 games in 2019 in a “down” year. In the decade of the 2010’s Alabama played for the national championship seven times (one of those years they did lose in the semifinal), winning four times. Now, staff turnover and injuries have closed the gap between Saban and everyone else (except the 1B on our list). If Alabama has another season like 2019 this year then he may drop, but the list has to begin here.
1B: Dabo Swinney – Clemson: there’s a case to be made for Swinney to be ahead of Saban as his 2019 ended in the championship game against an other-worldly LSU team. He’s beaten Saban twice in the past four tries, including for two national titles. Clearly Dabo has Clemson running on all cylinders. Why is he 1B? Career accomplishments certainly aren’t where Saban is – yet – and Clemson HAS had the luxury of competing in a much weaker conference the past 3-4 years. With changes at Florida State and improvements at North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech and potentially Georgia Tech, that may start to change. If Dabo and Clemson win another national title, he’ll be #1 undisputed.
3: Lincoln Riley – Oklahoma: has made it to the last three national semi-finals, the last two of which they were pretty soundly defeated in. No matter – there is no school in college football other than Alabama and Clemson (and perhaps Georgia, Ohio State or LSU) that wouldn’t hire Lincoln Riley if he were a free agent. The same goes with a large percentage of NFL teams as well. It’s clear he’s an offensive wizard and can adapt his schemes to fit his personnel. Yes he’s struggled to recruit and coach defense – this past year they seemed to improve somewhat but ran into the LSU buzz-saw.
4: Kirby Smart – Georgia: In just four years, Kirby Smart has transformed Georgia from occasional top 5 contender to perennially competing for SEC and national titles. Competing is the operative word however. Georgia hasn’t won a national championship since 1980 and the last two years has had odd regular season clunker losses (2019 South Carolina and 2018 LSU) that kept them from being able to get into the Final Four after SEC title game losses. That coupled with blowing a two possession lead in the fourth quarter of the 2017 National Championship game (and then the overtime 2nd & 26) means that Georgia and Kirby are still in that almost-there phase. However, similar to the Lincoln Riley question – Kirby would be a top choice in nearly every job in the country.
5: Brian Kelly – Notre Dame: It’s much harder to win at Notre Dame in the modern era than people realize. Kelly, despite not being a warm and fuzzy guy – has had more success in his ten year run in South Bend than any coach since Lou Holtz and (Holtz’s national title notwithstanding) perhaps since the 1970’s. This is especially true when one considers the landscape of college football now and Notre Dame’s location and stringent academic requirements. Winning 9-11 games every year with all factors considered – and showing he can rebound from one bad stinker of a season a couple of years ago - along with an occasional Final Four appearance, keeps Kelly in the elite list.
6: James Franklin - Penn State: is one of seven current FBS head coaches to lead his teams to a bowl game all eight of his first eight seasons as a head coach. This stat may not seem impressive considering how many bowls they are but becomes more so when you realize his first three years were at Vanderbilt, one of the toughest places to win in D-I. He won 9 games there his final year and after a couple of average years starting out at Penn State has led the Nittany Lions to three BCS bowl games in four years and won more than 10 games each season. If USC had made a coaching change they would’ve come hard and Florida State inquired but Franklin stayed put for now. His game management is a step below some of the others on this list but has improved. He’s an elite program builder, recruiter and technical coach.
On the Cusp:
7: Dan Mullen – Florida: After an amazing building job at Mississippi State that saw that program reach heights that only the most feverish Bulldog backer would’ve expected, Mullen took over a pretty downtrodden Florida program that had been through two odd fits previously. He’s not yet beaten Georgia or gotten to the SEC Championship Game, but Florida has won two straight BCS bowls, cleared 10 wins and dramatically improved their facilities and recruiting. What Mullen did in Starkville alone would have him in at least Tier 3, but his consistency and progress at Florida has him in the “on the cusp” category. Will this year be the breakthrough for Florida and Mullen?
8. Ed Orgeron – LSU: Last year’s LSU team was perhaps the greatest single season team in college football history and while they were immensely talented and had a great coaching staff overall, Coach O gets the credit for revamping the team’s offense over the course of his first two and a half years without inserting too much ego to get them to the place where they could take off. I put him “on the cusp” not just because of this past year but because of the 10 win (and was really 11 wins if you consider the Texas A&M debacle at the end of the regular season) Fiesta Bowl Championship season in 2018 as well. He’s not in the elite category because more consistency is needed, but it’s clear Coach O has something special. LSU will definitely take a step back considering the personnel and coaching staff losses they sustained from last year’s team, but a 9-10 win regular season is certainly realistic and possibly more. If he continues winning 10+ and can win the West again, Ed will move into the top tier, which was unthinkable when he got the job in the middle of 2016.
9A: Ryan Day – If Day has another season like his first – a Big 10 Championship and national semifinal appearance and close call – then he’ll move, at least, into the second tier. He’s brought more life to both sides of the ball at Ohio State while continuing the torrid recruiting pace of Urban Meyer.
9B: Mario Cristobal – Oregon: Cristobal had immense success in his most recent season and has a solid resume building the Florida International program from scratch before a bizarre firing back in the 2000’s. He’s at the top of the “Ascending” third tier because it’s clear he can recruit, coach and represent a major program with the best of them. Having had both Group of Five head coaching experience and training in the Nick Saban school as an assistant at Alabama, Cristobal has taken Oregon to the top of the PAC-12 and a Rose Bowl championship in just his second full season in Eugene. Will he stay? It seems he’s there for the long haul at least for now. He does need to improve his game management, including understanding timeouts and the clock – as that has cost Oregon one game in each of the past two seasons. However, he’s clearly a coach that would be envied by most programs.
11: Paul Chryst – Wisconsin: head coaches often don’t get much credit for, in the minds of media and pundits, simply continuing the formula that Barry Alvarez developed in the 1990’s when he rebuilt the program – punishing running game, smart but not spectacular quarterback play, and tough, physical defense. However, credit goes to Chryst for getting Wisconsin back to a BCS/Rose Bowl level after a brief blip during the Gary Andersen years and then a down season in 2018. Chryst also has slowly modernized the Wisconsin offense, although it is still somewhat glacial. He’s won big games, including beating Minnesota last year at what was a high water mark for their new program. Wisconsin probably can’t win a national championship because they don’t have enough local talent available, they have to recruit nationally, but Chryst has them rolling consistently.
12: P.J. Fleck – Minnesota: If you ask Fleck how he’s doing at any given time he’ll say “Elite” and that’s an accurate description of him as a coach. He took Western Michigan from 1-11 to an undefeated season and BCS Bowl and in three years at traditionally mediocre Minnesota got them to 11 wins and a New Year’s Day bowl win over Auburn. Is 10-11 wins sustainable at a place like Minnesota? I’m not sure, but if Fleck wins 8-9 consistently it more than validates his presence on this “Ascending” list. Another big season or two and he may be on the way to a bigger job. He IS an acquired taste, he’s rah-rah and has a bit of a motivational speaker vibe to him – but I’d run through a wall with him any day.
13. Jimbo Fisher – Texas A&M (Descending): After a run from 2012-2016 that would have had him in the Elite category on this list, the last three years have been less than elite for the $75 million man. Obviously at Texas A&M, Fisher walked into a program that had been mired at 7-8 wins for several years. He’s done a lot to turn around their recruiting and hasn’t done badly on the field. A&M has been competitive but has lost to basically any team with better talent, and a couple with less other than possibly a controversial win over LSU at the end of 2018. If A&M breaks through this year (possible with a senior quarterback and a more veteran and talented team than his first two), then Jimbo will rocket up this list. He is one of only four active coaches with a national championship. However, if it continues to be an 8 win plateau, it will be harder to justify having him among the elite.
14. Gary Patterson – TCU (Descending): With a career record of 170-72 spanning four conferences (yes – four, if you count his first game as interim coach – realignment bingo ya’ll!), including an undefeated 2009 regular season an unbeaten 2010 and Rose Bowl championship, and a Big 12 championship in 2014, the resume portion for Gary Patterson says “on the cusp” at least. However the last four years, TCU has been in a bit of a funk – not bad, but not good with the exception of 2017 where they did win 11 games. Without 2017, he might not be on the list. However, Patterson seems to finally have the right QB in place after a couple years of scuffling and the defense (his specialty) will be more experienced this year. He could have his pick of jobs most offseasons still and I expect TCU to improve this year.
15. Kyle Whittingham – Utah: The model of consistency, the Utes under Whittingham were a Group of 5 supernova and then a PAC-12 middle of the pack team for some time until breaking through the last two years and winning the PAC-12 South. Whittingham at one point seemed like his tenure may be getting stale but has reinvigorated the program in the last two years, even overcoming injuries to win consistently. He could’ve moved a couple of times to other programs, if Utah continues to win at the 9-10 game level, will he stay around? Conversely, how much of Utah’s recent surge has come because USC is so down, as is UCLA? Time will tell. For now he’s in this tier.
16. Jim Harbaugh – Michigan (Descending): For all the controversy surrounding Jim and the complaining about him losing over and over to Ohio State, Harbaugh stabilized what had been a crumbling blue blood at Michigan. Now he needs to complete the makeover of the Wolverines offense to more of a spread-power hybrid and get more speed on both sides of the ball. However, Michigan fans should understand that the talent disparity with Michigan and Ohio State has a lot more to do with availability of players in Ohio versus Michigan than Harbaugh’s prowess. Still – Harbaugh has to be considered descending as his teams have not been in the upper echelon since the 2016 season (despite being in the hunt late in the 2018 season).
17: Mike Stoops – what Stoops has done at Kentucky is possibly the most underrated job in college football the past few years, going from a 2-10 beginning in 2013 to 10 wins in 2018 and a bowl-winning season last year after losing several stars to graduation and his starting QB for the last half of the season. It hasn’t always been pretty and he would need more outstanding seasons like 2018 to get into Tier 2, but Stoops deserves immense credit for what he’s done in Lexington.
Others considered: Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State), Bronco Mendenhall (Virginia), Gus Malzahn (Auburn), Matt Campbell (Iowa State), Chris Klieman (Kansas State), Mike Norvell (Florida State), Dave Clawson (Wake Forest)
Group of Five Top 10:
Bill Clark - UAB
Brian Harsin – Boise State
Willie Fritz – Tulane
Ken Niumatalolo – Navy
Jeff Monken – Army
Chris Creighton – Eastern Michigan
Luke Fickell – Cincinnati
Lance Leipold – Buffalo
Billy Napier – Lousiana-Lafayette
Butch Davis - FIU