Ranking college football's best coaches: No. 15-11
College football is all about the head coaches.
Men like Nick Saban and Urban Meyer are the real stars of the sport, and those men are well-compensated.
But which FBS coach is the best? We’ll reveal our choice for the Top 15 coaches in college football, starting with No. 15-11.
Also considered: Steve Spurrier (South Carolina), Gary Pinkel (Missouri), Jim Mora (UCLA), James Franklin (Penn State), Brian Kelly (Notre Dame), Justin Fuente (Memphis), Ruffin McNeill (East Carolina), Doc Holliday (Marshall).
NO. 15: MARK HUDSPETH, LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE
Record as a head coach: 102-37
Best season: 9-4 as the Sun Belt co-champion and New Orleans Bowl winner in 2013.
Notable player: QB Terrance Broadway
The case: Hudspeth took North Alabama to the Division II quarterfinals or semifinals in five of seven seasons. Then after an assistant coaching stop at Mississippi State, he’s become perhaps the hottest lower-tier FBS coach. He’s produced four consecutive 9-4 seasons, with New Orleans Bowl wins each year.
NFL.com independently polled five executives before the season on the best up-and-coming college coaches, and two of them tabbed Hudspeth.
Said one executive: “He really seems to have the pulse of his team, but he doesn’t micromanage. He’s a creative offensive guy and he can recruit. That’s not an easy place to win and he’s done just that.”
Plus, can you really leave out a 46-year-old who bench-pressed 370 pounds earlier this year? I mean, are you telling this guy he’s not one of the best?
NO. 14: RICH RODRIGUEZ, ARIZONA
Record as a head coach: 146-98-2
Best season: 11-1 at West Virginia in 2005, as the Mountaineers won the Big East title and beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to finish the season ranked in the AP Top 5.
Notable player: RB Ka’deem Carey
The case: RichRod’s offenses have been among the best in the country everywhere he’s coached. A pioneer of the run-oriented spread offense, he won Big East titles in four of his last five years at West Virginia, claiming 32 wins from 2005-07. At Arizona, he’s beaten Oregon twice in three seasons and won a division title this year in a fierce Pac-12 South.
Which brings us to Michigan. RichRod went 3-9 his first season after replacing Lloyd Carr and installing a completely different system. By his third season, he got the Wolverines back to a bowl game, but never beat Ohio State or Michigan State. Brady Hoke went 11-2 with RichRod’s players the next season and then went 20-18 in subsequent years.
RichRod has hit home runs at two of three power-conference jobs and was in poor position at his third. Don’t be surprised if Arizona wins a Pac-12 title under his care, assuming someone doesn’t hire him away from Arizona first.
NO. 13: DABO SWINNEY, CLEMSON
Record as a head coach: 61-26
Best season: 11-2 at Clemson in 2013, as the Tigers finished second to Florida State in the ACC’s Atlantic Division, but beat Ohio State in the Orange Bowl to close the season as a Top 10 program.
Notable player: WR Sammy Watkins
The case: Swinney took a borderline Top 25 program and turned it into a perennial Top 15 team. An excellent recruiter, Swinney consistently stocks offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ offense with premiere skill players. The last three seasons, he’s beaten LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma in bowl games.
Clemson is 6-2 or 7-1 in ACC play in five of Swinney’s six full seasons. If not for a poor record against Florida State and South Carolina, he’d be even higher on this list. He’s won 42 games the last four seasons and reached double-digit wins this year despite losing a plethora of talent on offense.
NO. 12: CHARLIE STRONG
Record as a head coach: 43-23
Best season: 11-2 at Louisville in 2012, as the Cardinals beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl as Big East co-champions.
Notable player: QB Teddy Bridgewater
The case: Strong, a long-time defensive coordinator under Lou Holtz and Urban Meyer, made a name for himself as a head coach at Louisville. The Cardinals went 23-3 the last two seasons before Strong replaced Mack Brown at Texas.
Still relatively inexperienced as a head coach, Strong is a disciplinarian who has developed a reputation for producing some of the country’s best defenses. He was able to develop Bridgewater and WR DeVante Parker at Louisville as well.
He’s cleaned up the Longhorns, which got a reputation for being soft in Brown’s last few years. Texas finished 6-7 with a bowl loss in Strong’s first season, but he sent a strong message (pun intended) by kicking a handful of players off the team. Headed toward a Top 10 recruiting class this year, if Strong can find and develop another Bridgewater at Texas, he’ll move up this list.
NO. 11: GARY PATTERSON
Record as a head coach: 132-45
Best season: 13-0 at TCU in 2010, as the Horned Frogs beat a loaded Wisconsin team in the Rose Bowl and finished the season ranked No. 2 in both major polls.
Notable player: QB Andy Dalton
The case: Patterson and TCU dominated in the WAC, C-USA and MWC, churning out hard-nosed defenses that led the team to six conference titles and nine years ranked in the final AP Top 25 during his first 12 seasons as head coach.
The Horned Frogs, along with Boise State, were the top dogs outside of the BCS conferences. The transition to the Big 12 was rough, as TCU went 4-8 in 2013 and missed a bowl game for the first time in nine seasons. But Patterson revamped his offense, bringing in coordinator Doug Meacham, and TCU exploded this season, finishing as co-Big 12 champions and nearly making the inaugural College Football Playoffs.
Patterson claims an incredible eight seasons with at least 11 wins and five Top 10 finishes. He’s now proven he can win at any level of college football as well.