Ranking the Top 25 college football coaches heading into 2021
We’re changing things up this year.
Instead of getting into a back-and-forth wherein I dig deep into subjective rankings that you’ll probably disagree with, “positive vibes only” is the approach we’ll use when ranking the Top 25 college football coaches in 2021.
I’m going to simply list 1 thing I like about each coach. That can be based on something 2020 showed us, or it can be based on something the past decade showed us.
Ranking coaches, for those who have done it, is difficult. Why? Some of it is based on who is the most accomplished person. You can look at someone like Kirk Ferentz and say his longevity at Iowa with 168 career wins and 9 AP Top 25 finishes make him more accomplished than someone like Matt Campbell, who just delivered his first Top 25 season as a head coach.
And what about Jimbo Fisher? Shouldn’t he be ahead of Ryan Day because he has a ring and Day doesn’t?
Past accomplishments matter, yes. But these are 2021 rankings. We can add some current context to this.
I base these rankings on if I were an athletic director, who would I want to lead my program tomorrow? That’s ultimately what this should be about. If you were lining up to draft coaches to build a program under the same 5-year contract with the same resources, who would be picked first?
With that in mind, here are my Top 25 coaches in college football for 2021:
25. PJ Fleck, Minnesota
One thing I like — Fleck led top-15 finishes at Western Michigan and Minnesota before turning 40 years old. Oh, and he did it within 4 years at both places. Say what you want about his energy — Fleck says often that he’s “not for everyone” — but that’s a remarkable recruiting pitch.
24. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
One thing I like — Remember. Positive vibes only here. How about the fact that during the 2010s, Harbaugh spent 6 seasons coaching at the Power 5 level, and 5 of those teams earned top-20 finishes. Those 6 seasons during the 2010s also included a conference record of 40-13. As easy as it is to poke fun at the Michigan coach, those numbers are darn impressive.
23. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss
One thing I like — In the past 7 seasons he operated in offense, it finished ranked in the top 16 in scoring 5 times. Only 1 of those 7 seasons failed to produce a top-30 offense (2018 Florida Atlantic). During that stretch, Kiffin’s starting quarterback averaged 3,380 scrimmage yards per season. That’s an elite offensive mind.
22. Gary Patterson, TCU
One thing I like — Besides the fact that Patterson owns the Big 12’s most recent top-10 defense nationally (yes, in 2014)? TCU has 10 finishes inside the top 10 of the AP Poll, and Patterson owns 6 of them. That’s why they built him the statue, and that’s why going 18-17 (12-15 vs. Big 12) in the past 3 years didn’t drop him from this list. Whoops. Positive vibes only.
21. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati
One thing I like — Here’s the list of coaches riding a streak of 3 consecutive AP Top 25 finishes:
- Luke Fickell
- Kirk Ferentz
- Dan Mullen
- Kirby Smart
- Dabo Swinney
- Nick Saban
Now raise your hand if you did that at a Group of 5 program and are freshly removed from a top-10 finish? OK, that was too specific. You can put your hand down, Luke. You’re legit.
20. Mario Cristobal, Oregon
One thing I like — When you recruit 3 consecutive top-11 classes, you put yourself in a position to win 3 consecutive Pac-12 titles and appear in 3 consecutive New Year’s 6 bowls. Granted, Cristobal is still working on achieving that 3-peat. Even though 2020 should probably have a bit of an asterisk on it in the Pac-12, Cristobal is a solid 2021 away from accomplishing something that Chip Kelly did a decade ago.
19. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
One thing I like — How do you become the longest-tenured FBS head coach? In Year 17, you begin a 6-year run in which you produce a Big Ten record of 35-17. That 6-year conference record was even better than Ferentz’s 2002-07 stretch that included 3 top-10 finishes (he was 31-17 in Big Ten play).
18. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
One thing I like — Besides the 5 seasons with 9-plus wins during the 7 years of the Playoff era? How about the fact that from 2017-20, Utah had 21 players selected in the NFL Draft — the same exact amount as Georgia — despite the fact that none of those players were from top-30 recruiting classes. Whittingham can absolutely develop with the best of them.
17. James Franklin, Penn State
One thing I like — Even though the full-time switch to the 12-game regular-season schedule benefited Franklin, it’s incredible to think that he had 3 seasons with 11 wins in a 4-year stretch, which Joe Paterno last accomplished at Penn State in 1971. Franklin’s Big Ten winning percentage (.623) is actually only a shade worse than Paterno’s (.638). And that’s the last Franklin-to-Paterno comp we’ll make today.
16. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
One thing I like — Here’s the list of SEC coaches who held their respective jobs for 9-plus years entirely during the 21st century:
- Mark Stoops, Kentucky (2013-present)
- Nick Saban, Alabama (2007-present)
- Steve Spurrier, South Carolina (2005-15)
- Mark Richt, Georgia (2001-15)
- Les Miles, LSU (2005-16)
- Dan Mullen, MSU (2009-17)
Yes, that 21st century caveat excludes people like Tommy Tuberville (1999-2008) and Houston Nutt (1998-2007). Still, though. That’s some elite company for Stoops, who is 20-22 vs. SEC competition in the past 5 years, all of which included a bowl game. At a place with 1 winning SEC season in the last 40 years (Stoops did that in 2018), that’s why he deserves immense credit for what he built in Lexington.
15. David Shaw, Stanford
One thing I like — Palo Alto. Just kidding. Not about liking that area of the country, though. That’s for real. I like that in 10 years at Stanford, Shaw had a winning record in Pac-12 play 9 times, and he did so with just 1 top-15 class during the Playoff era. That’s why Shaw has been at Stanford longer than any head coach before him, even Pop Warner himself.
14. Matt Campbell, Iowa State
One thing I like — Besides the fact that Campbell just gave Iowa State its best AP Top 25 finish in program history? OK. Before 2017, Iowa State appeared in the AP Top 25 in 3 of the previous 35 seasons. Campbell, who started in Ames in 2016, led Iowa to a Top 25 appearance in each of the past 4 seasons. And in all likelihood, that’ll continue if and when Iowa State earns its first preseason top-10 ranking in school history.
13. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
One thing I like — Since the start of the 2015 season, here are the coaches who won more games at their current school than Chryst (56):
- Nick Saban (79)
- Dabo Swinney (79)
- Brian Kelly (57)
Yep. That’s a pretty darn good list.
12. Mike Leach, MSU
One thing I like — History tells us that Year 1 with Leach is always rough, so don’t let a poor 2020 cover up the fact that in his 19 seasons as a head coach — 12 of which produced 8-plus wins at non-power programs — his teams failed to have a top-5 passing offense a total of just 3 times (2000, 2012, 2020). What do all of those years have in common? They were all Year 1 at a new program.
11. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
One thing I like — In the past 9 years, Fitzgerald’s teams finished in the AP Top 25 5 times. From 1953-2011, the Wildcats earned 2 Top 25 finishes … and Fitzgerald was the All-American linebacker on both of those teams. Build the statue already.
10. Mack Brown, UNC
One thing I like — “Like” isn’t a strong enough word for Brown’s dance moves. He’s a top-10 coach at postgame celebrations. Easily. As for the 1 thing I like about his ability to coach? How about Brown taking 5 years off, and then returning at age 67 with a modern offensive approach from former Ole Miss offensive coordinator Phil Longo, and putting up consecutive offenses that rank in the top 1/4 in FBS in his first 2 seasons.
9. Ed Orgeron, LSU
One thing I like — Even after a disastrous 2020 season, Orgeron still boasts 13 wins vs. top-10 teams in 4 seasons as LSU’s full-time head coach. From 2017-19, he had more such wins than Lincoln Riley, Tom Herman, Dan Mullen, Jim Harbaugh, Jimbo Fisher, James Franklin and Brian Kelly combined. That Florida game last year was a reminder that one mustn’t throw shoes and also, you can never count LSU out against anyone (with the exception of Alabama last year).
8. Dan Mullen, Florida
One thing I like — He was the first coach to start at a new place by winning consecutive New Year’s 6/BCS bowls. Then he went off and won his first division title and led the nation’s No. 1 passing attack. Mullen dropped a bit on this list for me in part because of some of the off-the-field incidents of 2020, but we’re still talking about an elite offensive mind who showed that he can coach up virtually any style of quarterback.
7. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
One thing I like — Against non-top 5 teams in the past 3 years, Kelly is 32-1. That’s a floor that most programs won’t ever sniff. Kelly is going to continue to get heat for not beating Alabama and Clemson, but we’re not appreciating how good he is to be able to do that at Notre Dame, where top-10 classes are by no means a given.
6. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma
One thing I like — Since he took over the Sooners’ offense in 2015, Riley has never:
- A) Lost the Big 12
- B) Produced an offense worse than No. 6 nationally
- C) Had a QB with a quarterback rating worse than 172.6
- D) Finished worse than No. 7 in the AP Top 25
- E) All the above
It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”
5. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
One thing I like — He just led the Aggies to their best AP Top 25 finish in 81 years. It’s also true that when you sign a fully guaranteed contract for $75 million, Playoff berths are the expectation. But considering where Fisher was at this point last year — on the heels of arguably 3 consecutive (somewhat) disappointing seasons (including his final year at FSU) — that 2020 season was still a monumental year for Fisher’s status as an elite coach.
4. Kirby Smart, Georgia
One thing I like — In the past 4 years (2017-20), Smart has 2 losses against a team that finished outside of the top 10 of the AP Poll. One was last year against Florida, which finished No. 13. So yeah, as much as Georgia historically has this reputation as the team that blows it against weaker competition, Smart really hasn’t been that guy. In Mark Richt’s best 4-year stretch in Athens (2002-05), he had 5 such losses.
3. Ryan Day, Ohio State
One thing I like — Here’s the list of active coaches to start off by earning consecutive Playoff berths:
- Ryan Day
- Lincoln Riley
Now consider this. You might think that’s not really a big sample size because we’re limiting it to a 7-year window. But of the 65 Power 5 teams, how many have had the same coach throughout the Playoff era? Thirteen. In other words, 52 teams have gone through at least 1 coaching change, and Day is part of a 2-person club. In that 2-person club, Day is the only one who also won a Playoff game. Pretty good.
2. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
One thing I like — Nobody else has a current streak of 6 consecutive top-4 finishes. Here’s that active list of consecutive top-4 finishes (“active” is the key word there):
- Clemson, 6
- Ohio State, 3
- Alabama, 1
- Texas A&M, 1
Um, yeah, no wonder why Swinney isn’t crazy about expanding beyond the 4-team Playoff. If you want to exclude Notre Dame from being an ACC team, Swinney has an active streak of 30 consecutive wins against conference foes dating to the Syracuse loss in 2017. That’s a solid foundation for a top-4 finish.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
One thing I like — If you’ve heard me say this before, I apologize. Saban’s most impressive feat is not that he hasn’t lost to the SEC East since South Carolina in 2010. It’s that he hasn’t lost to a team outside of the top 15 of the AP Poll since that wild day in Columbia. That’s a full decade of beating teams that undoubtedly had nothing to lose, yet Saban is perfect in those games. That’s better than just beating 2 or 3 East opponents per year.