Ranking the Top 25 college football coaches in 2020
Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Top 25 week continues with the ranking of the best coaches in all of college football.
Yes, everyone is getting ranked.
That means even if a team has a coach with a canceled season, he’s still able to be ranked among the Top 25 coaches in college football. After all, it’s not their fault their season got canceled. We shouldn’t penalize them.
Ranking the Top 25 coaches in college football is still an interesting discussion topic, regardless of who is playing this fall and who isn’t. In the future, this year is going to make it extremely difficult to evaluate coaches moving forward, even if everyone winds up playing this school year. A conference-only win percentage for this year will be more important. We’ll inevitably see streaks of double-digit win seasons end for some coaches. Shoot, we could even see bowl streaks end depending on how all of that plays out.
Just so we’re clear, the word “best” isn’t always “most accomplished.” If I did a ranking of the most accomplished coaches, that’d be pretty boring. But in my opinion, I’d rather have Dan Mullen than Jimbo Fisher, especially after what I’ve seen from them the past 3 years. I’d trust Mullen to win more games than Fisher with all things equal.
Are all things ever equal for coaches? Of course not. Everyone inherited different situations, schools have different histories and resources, schedules are mostly regional, etc.
Are there times when a coach’s accomplishments speak for themselves? Sure. A coach with 5 consecutive Playoff berths probably knows what he’s doing.
So, let’s rank some coaches:
25. Scott Satterfield, Louisville
I considered a lot of coaches for this No. 25 spot. Matt Campbell, Mike Gundy and Luke Fickell just missed the cut. But I went with Satterfield, who took a 2-win Louisville team that was predicted to finish dead last in the Atlantic Division and instead won 8 games. That was an incredible statement in Year 1 when it appeared the Cardinals would struggle after whiffing on Jeff Brohm (another person who was considered for this spot). Satterfield looks like a steal already, especially considering his track record of cranking out Sun Belt titles and double-digit win seasons at Appalachian State.
24. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota
Fleck is the first person to admit that he’s not for everybody, but consider this. He’s not even 40 years old and he already took Western Michigan to a New Year’s 6 Bowl and he earned a top-10 finish at Minnesota. I repeat, he did that at Western Michigan and Minnesota. That’s darn impressive. His Year 3 in the Twin Cities was a memorable one. They’re rowing the boat like crazy in Minneapolis, and understandably so. It would have been fun to watch Fleck’s squad in a non-pandemic year with Tanner Morgan and Rashod Bateman back. Still, Fleck might be slightly underrated now.
23. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Malzahn is always one of the trickiest guys to rank. On one hand, he has the single-season ceiling of Kirby Smart having played for a national title. Granted, that was pre-Playoff era. In the 6 years since that magical season, he has just 1 top-10 finish. Had Bo Nix truly taken off as a freshman, that would have been a testament to Malzahn. Instead, Auburn’s defense did the heavy lifting and Nix was inconsistent from start to finish. Let’s see what Malzahn’s Chad Morris roll of the dice ends up looking like by season’s end.
22. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
It was the worst offseason of Ferentz’s career. Period. If we’re being honest, plenty of coaches in his position wouldn’t have survived the lack of action he took after several former players took to social media to speak out against the racist culture within the program. It forced Ferentz to fire his strength coach of 2 decades Chris Doyle, who was the highest paid person at his position.
Having said that, Ferentz quietly produced a 10-win season last year. That was his first time recording consecutive Top 25 finishes in a decade. Few coaches do more with less recruiting talent than Ferentz.
21. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Man, 2019 should have been the year for Whittingham. He had a squad loaded with experience who had a potential Playoff shot heading into the Pac-12 Championship. Then Utah laid an egg in a blowout loss to Oregon and it got trucked by Texas in the Alamo Bowl. Woof.
Whittingham is still an extremely solid coach having averaged 9.2 wins per year during the Playoff era, but 2019 felt like such a missed opportunity to earn the program’s first top-15 finish since 2008. It would have been interesting to see how he would have bounced back from that.
20. Gary Patterson, TCU
I was already lower on Patterson than most heading into 2019. I saw him as a borderline top-15 guy because he had 4 seasons of losing conference records in the 7 years since TCU joined the Big 12. Well, a 5-7 season didn’t exactly help that. I know, I know. I’m being too harsh on someone with 3 top-10 finishes in the Playoff era. That’s quite the feat, especially at a place like TCU. That makes him one of the better coaches in the country, no doubt.
But at the same time, we’re talking about someone who is 29-23 overall and 18-18 in Big 12 play the past 4 years during a time when the Big 12 hasn’t exactly had much depth. An elite coach should have a higher floor than that.
19. Mario Cristobal, Oregon
I’m a Cristobal believer. His teams aren’t like Chip Kelly’s Oregon squads, but that’s OK. As we saw last year, they’re physical at the line of scrimmage, and they don’t let anyone push them around. It’s not all Justin Herbert. Cristobal won a Rose Bowl and earned his first top-5 finish thanks in large part to a top-10 defense. The Pac-12 champs were a Seth Williams touchdown away from earning a Playoff berth.
He’s not as accomplished as guys he’s ranked ahead of like Patterson, Whittingham and Ferentz, but I’d argue Cristobal’s Oregon teams have a higher floor and even more potential than those programs. He took over a team that had a losing record in Pac-12 play and turned it into an annual Playoff contender in 2 years.
18. Tom Herman, Texas
This is another tricky coach to rank because I think we forget about how Herman led a Houston squad to a New Year’s 6 bowl victory. That season, Houston beat Baker Mayfield’s Oklahoma squad and Lamar Jackson’s Louisville squad. We can’t forget about that. But has Herman lived up to expectations at Texas yet? No. He’s 25-15, and 2 of those 3 seasons saw Texas win no more than 7 regular-season games. That’s not great.
It probably didn’t help that Ed Orgeron beat Herman’s squad en route to a national title. It wasn’t long ago that Herman was the home-run hire and Orgeron was considered the backup plan. Things changed. Herman is in need of a Big 12 title in Year 4 to change the perception that he’s not maximizing his resources at Texas.
17. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
I can make every argument for or against Harbaugh. Want the argument against him? He’s winless vs. Ohio State. Four consecutive bowl losses. One top-10 finish in 5 years. Want the argument for him? He won 73% of his Big Ten games. He finished in the top 20 for the 4th time in 5 years. He won double-digit games in 3 of 5 seasons, and he only dipped below 9 wins once (2017).
Harbaugh is always going to be considered overrated until he beats Ohio State. That’s reality. He knows that. But Harbaugh isn’t on the hot seat, and his floor is much higher than people give him credit for.
16. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
Yikes, 2019. After Fitzgerald went 36-17 overall and 26-9 in Big Ten play with 3 Top 25 finishes the previous 4 seasons, the bottom fell out. The offense was a disaster, and a team that lacked depth couldn’t recover from a rash of injuries. Even as a defensive-minded guy, that still falls on Fitzgerald. To go from Big Ten West champs to 1-8 in conference play was, um, alarming.
I’m still admittedly higher on Fitzgerald than most because I know how historically awful Northwestern was for so much of the 20th century, and if he ever made himself available, big-time programs would pounce on the opportunity to land him.
15. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Yes, I’d rather start my team with Stoops than Herman or Harbaugh. That’s how much I believe in what he has built at Kentucky. There’s a reason Florida State wanted Stoops. He took over the SEC doormat that went 0-8 in conference play and led the program to its first winning SEC season in 4 decades. That’s not a typo. And last year, all he did was take a team with major turnover that got off to an 0-3 SEC start … and he won 8 games … with a wide receiver playing quarterback.
That’s a testament to someone who has total control of the culture of his program. Here’s an interesting side-by-side for you to sit on:
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Coach “A” is Jimbo Fisher and Coach “B” is Stoops. I’d argue doing that at Kentucky as opposed to doing that at Florida State and Texas A&M is a bit more challenging, too. Stoops’ program might not have a ceiling to be a yearly top-15 team, but if you think Kentucky is falling off the face of the earth anytime soon, you haven’t been paying attention.
14. David Shaw, Stanford
Last year was a mess. The K.J. Costello injury was part of that, but I tend to think elite coaches don’t have a 4-win floor that deep into their tenures. Shaw suffered a losing Pac-12 record and missed a bowl game for the first time. That’s for someone who earned 5 finishes inside the top 12 at Stanford. That’s not easy. That’s why he’s ranked this high.
But I always come back to this for those who say he should be in the top 10. Shaw inherited a 12-win team that had Andrew Luck returning for it. Take that 2011 season with Luck and the 2015 season with Christian McCaffrey in peak form. Those are the only 2 times in 9 years that an offensive-minded head coach had a top 30 offense:
- 2011 — No. 7 (Luck’s last season)
- 2012 — No. 72
- 2013 — No. 45
- 2014 — No. 80
- 2015 — No. 18 (McCaffrey’s Heisman runner-up season)
- 2016 — No. 84
- 2017 — No. 38
- 2018 — No. 73
- 2019 — No. 108
That makes 3 of the past 4 seasons in which Stanford’s offense didn’t even crack the top 70 in scoring. The floor is different at a place like Stanford because of the academic hurdles, but to suffer 5 losses of at least 3 scores was a troubling dose of reality.
13. Mack Brown, UNC
Return of the Mack … it is … return of the Mack. Yes, Brown’s return was well-documented. He deserved it. North Carolina was picked to finish 6th in the Coastal and all Brown did in Year 1 was turn expectations around with a 7-win season, which included giving Clemson its only real ACC challenge. Including his first UNC stint and his time at Texas, Brown has 10 finishes inside the top 10 with a national title. Obviously he’s more accomplished than the vast majority of coaches in the country considering he’s 1 of 5 active FBS coaches with a ring.
At the same time, he just coached for the first time since he got burnt out at Texas in 2013. Since that national title, he has 1 Top-25 finish in the past 5 seasons he coached, 4 of which were obviously at Texas. That has to count for something.
But the way Brown is recruiting is remarkable, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that he’s building something unique in Chapel Hill.
12. James Franklin, Penn State
I’ll admit that Franklin proved me wrong last year. Dead wrong. I was selling any Franklin stock I had left after the way 2018 ended, but winning 11 games and earning a top-10 finish was impressive. Super impressive. Those achievements get overlooked with this system, but they shouldn’t. Not many coaches can claim 3 New Year’s 6 bowl berths and 3 top-10 finishes in the past 4 years.
The reason I’m still not quite as high on Franklin is I think his ceiling is limited. Some of his late-game decisions are still maddening, and it’s a reason he’s just 3-6 vs. Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State the past 3 years. With how well he recruits and sells that program, I do believe there’s something frustrating about not being confident in a head coach who’s trailing with the season on the line. Before 2019, he had 5 wins against top-25 teams (5-20) in 8 years as a Power 5 head coach. Stoops had that many in his previous 4 seasons at Kentucky, while Fitzgerald and Mike Leach had that many in the previous 2 seasons at Northwestern and Washington State, respectively.
Still, you can do much worse than building your program around Franklin. Shoot, 2 struggling Power 5 schools (for different reasons) did that and were better for it.
11. Ryan Day, Ohio State
To be fair, we’re talking about someone who just finished Year 1 as a head coach. The fact that there’s a legitimate argument for him to crack the top 10 is unbelievable. Day is going to be climbing this list in no time. He was set to make a massive jump if he’d been able to have a fall season with Justin Fields back. Day became the first Power 5 coach in the Playoff era to go 9-0 in conference play and win a conference title. Ohio State’s hope was that he’d be their Lincoln Riley. Shoot, he might be better than Riley.
The only reason — and I mean the only reason — that Day isn’t in the top 10 is because it was just 1 year. Granted, it was 1 year in which he nearly earned a College Football Playoff National Championship berth. As long as the wheels don’t come off once Urban Meyer’s recruits leave, Day is in shape to be top-5 worthy in no time.
10. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
Sure, let’s make it another Big Ten coach. Why not? Chryst has 4 seasons of double-digit wins in his first 5 seasons in Madison. He also has been to a New Year’s 6 bowl in 3 of the past 4 seasons. An overall win percentage of .765 is pretty darn good for a 5-year start in a Power 5 conference (Dabo Swinney was .701 in his first 5 full seasons at Clemson). I think we take that for granted because of what Bret Bielema did during his time at Wisconsin, but it shouldn’t be overlooked.
Some will say, well, Chryst will never win the big one at Wisconsin. He’s always going to be a notch below Ohio State. Maybe he will be. All I know is that there are a ton of programs that would love to annually have New Year’s 6 expectations with a conference title to play for. There very few programs that can do that without the aid of 4- and 5-star recruits. By the way, Chryst is starting to add more of those than ever. Wisconsin’s ceiling could be raised in a very short time.
9. Mike Leach, Mississippi State
Does Leach’s brand help him in public perception? Absolutely. But for the rest of this blurb, I’ll make no further remarks about his personality and instead just focus on the on-field accomplishments.
OK, LAST thing. I promise.
Mike Leach on Gardner Minshew’s mustache: pic.twitter.com/OvdfOSEFEv
— Yahoo Sports College Football (@YahooSportsCFB) November 10, 2018
Mustaches aside, we’re talking about an offensive-minded coach who had a top-10 passing offense in all 8 seasons at Washington State. That of course includes Gardner Minshew, AKA the guy who Nick Saban recruited to be his 3rd string quarterback as a grad transfer. Instead, Minshew chose to play for Leach and finished in the top 5 of the Heisman Trophy voting. Leach has 12 seasons of 8-plus wins as a Power 5 head coach at Washington State and Texas Tech. I repeat, he did that at Washington State (0 bowl games in 8-pre-Leach seasons) and Texas Tech (4 Top-25 finishes in 45 pre-Leach seasons). He peaked with 11-win seasons at both programs.
It remains to be seen how well Leach’s Air Raid will translate to the SEC, but his track record as arguably the best offensive mind in the sport is second to none. His programs might not have the ceiling of others in the top 10, but in terms of someone being able to step into any situation and elevate a basement program, Leach is as proven as there is in the business.
8. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
This is such a challenging rank on a variety of levels because Fisher is responsible for one of the greatest single-season performances in college football history. His 2013 Florida State team was up there for most dominant champions ever. That’ll probably keep Fisher in the top 10 as long as he’s under contract at Texas A&M.
But nearly 7 years removed from that, I’d argue that it’s been somewhat disappointing. During the 6 years of the Playoff era, Fisher has 1 New Year’s 6 bowl victory and he has 3 finishes outside the top 15. After winning that overtime game against Clemson with Jameis Winston suspended back in 2014, Fisher is 0-8 against Clemson and Alabama. His teams simply have not been on Dabo Swinney or Nick Saban’s level. In the first 4 years of the Playoff era, that was the standard he was expected to measure up to. Some would say a $75 million check at a place with all the resources possible means that Fisher’s success should still be measured against those 2.
This is an extremely pivotal year for Fisher at Texas A&M. It’s been 5 years since his teams had any sort of Playoff shot in mid-October. Now would be an ideal time to get some of that early-2010s FSU juice back.
7. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
I think that we as college football fans assume that it’s easier to win at Notre Dame than it really is. Sure, the history is there. The uniforms are iconic. The list of successful pros speaks for itself. But in the TV rights era when so many teams have caught up to Notre Dame or even passed the program in terms of revenue, we tend to downplay the modern challenges of that job with those academic hurdles.
Kelly, despite his somewhat annual spot on national hot-seat lists, has been better than you probably realize. He averaged 11 wins the past 3 seasons. He’s 33-6, and all of those losses came against ranked teams. The 2017 thriller against eventual runner-up Georgia was the only loss in South Bend. Kelly did that despite the fact that Fisher poached Mike Elko off his defense, and Notre Dame had 7 offensive players drafted in 2018 and 2019. What Kelly has done since that disastrous 2016 season is impressive.
As long as Saban and Swinney are around, no, I don’t expect the Irish to get on that level, but that shouldn’t take away from an incredibly successful body of work that Kelly put together in South Bend.
6. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma
There’s a case to be made that Riley, after 3 years on the job, already is a top-5 coach. In fact, most doing any sort of a ranking would say that’s a lock. The guy produced 2 Heisman Trophy winners, and Jalen Hurts was the runner-up in 2019. Three consecutive Big 12 titles and Playoff berths are no joke. If there were a draft for coaches you could have for the next 10 years, Riley is probably 1 of the first 3 picks.
But here’s the thing that holds me back from putting Riley into the top 5. Despite all of that talent at the quarterback position, he lost to 3 different SEC teams with the season on the line. That LSU game was astonishing. A month to prepare and Riley’s team looked like a Group of 5 squad, which was night and day compared to what Florida did to actually play a competitive game at night in Death Valley.
I do wonder if we’ve seen Riley’s ceiling, which isn’t to say 3 consecutive Playoff berths isn’t worth celebrating. It absolutely is. Riley is an elite coach. But last year at least made me question what his 3-year résumé would look like in the SEC.
5. Dan Mullen, Florida
I’m higher on Mullen than you are. I know. What about the lack of success against Top 25 opponents? How can he be a top-5 coach nationally if he’s never won a division title? Is he ever going to recruit like Kirby Smart? I get it. I get all of it.
There are a few things that stand out with Mullen. One, he’s the best coach in Mississippi State history and you can’t convince me otherwise. Mullen took a program that finished inside the top 20 once in the previous 28 years and then did so 3 times in 9 years. Eight consecutive bowl berths at a place with consecutive bowls on just 3 other occasions is a darn impressive feat.
And at Florida, Mullen just became the first coach to win consecutive BCS/New Year’s 6 bowls in his first 2 years on the job. As in, he was the first coach in all of college football to do that. He did that despite the fact that his starting quarterback suffered a season-ending injury in September, and he turned to Kyle Trask, who hadn’t started a game since 9th grade. Compare that to Florida State or Michigan in 2017. Fisher and Harbaugh couldn’t recover after their starting quarterbacks went down early. Great coaches find a way. Mullen did that.
If I’m an athletic director, there aren’t 5 guys in America who I’d rather hire to run my program than Mullen. It’s as simple as that.
4. Kirby Smart, Georgia
Sometimes I feel like Smart is the SEC’s version of James Franklin. Or Franklin is the Big Ten’s version of Smart. Whatever. Both coaches are exceptional recruiters who are second-to-none at establishing a culture. They’re going to win a ton of games, and they’ll rarely lose one that they shouldn’t. Of course, though, both fanbases question how they’re going to find a way to torpedo things in a close game against elite competition. Smart still needs to shake that.
But despite that cloud that hangs over him a bit, which could be something that Smart grows out if with more reps as a head coach, the numbers the past 3 years are staggering:
- 3 consecutive SEC East titles
- 17-1 vs. East (3-0 vs. Florida)
- 3 consecutive top-7 finishes
- 21-3 in SEC play
- 11 wins vs. ranked teams
- 6 wins vs. top-10 teams
- 1 national runner-up
Riley and Swinney are the only other coaches with 3 consecutive top-7 finishes. As for what gives Smart the edge over Riley, I’d argue the 2017 Rose Bowl certainly matters. Getting to a national championship in the Playoff era is no joke, and neither is going 21-3 in the sport’s toughest conference in a 3-year stretch. Smart is an elite coach any way you draw it up.
3. Ed Orgeron, LSU
Before you tell me that Orgeron didn’t have anything to do with that historic offense and that he’s getting too much credit, answer this: Who brought Joe Brady on board to overhaul the offense? Who recruited Joe Burrow after spring ended back in 2018? That’s what I thought.
Winning a national title is one thing. Putting together the best season in college football history puts a coach in elite company. Orgeron is absolutely on the short list for best coaches in America. How could he not be? Orgeron has 12 wins against top-10 teams since he became LSU’s full-time coach in 2017. This should put that in perspective:
Since he was hired as LSU’s full-time coach in 2017, Ed Orgeron has as many wins vs. top-10 teams (12) as Jimbo Fisher, Tom Herman, Dan Mullen, Lincoln Riley, James Franklin, Jim Harbaugh and Brian Kelly COMBINED.
Dude earned that payday.
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) January 24, 2020
If you’re still of the belief that Orgeron is the same coach that he was at Ole Miss, I hate to break it to you, but Saban isn’t the same coach he was when he was at Michigan State, and Pete Carroll isn’t the same coach he was with the New England Patriots. Orgeron isn’t a 1-year wonder, no matter what his critics say.
2. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
I mean, where do you want to start? The 5 consecutive Playoff appearances? The 4 national title berths during the Playoff era? The 2 rings? I’d love to hear any argument for why Swinney isn’t one of the top 2 coaches in all of college football. Like, can anyone make that case without making some sort of jab at the ACC? And if so, what do they say about the 6 Playoff victories the guy has?
The more interesting question is of course Swinney vs. Saban for No. 1. Had Swinney capped off last year with a national title, yes, I believe I would have had him at No. 1 on this list. Winning 3 national titles in 4 years changes things. Having an active streak of that carries a bit more current weight than a coach who did that at the start of the decade … like Saban. But instead of Swinney beating the most accomplished national championship participant of the Playoff era, his squad actually performed worse than Alabama did against LSU in 2019. Take that for what it is. Consider it a reminder that winning 3 rings in 4 years is something that we might not see again for a long time.
For what it’s worth, I don’t have any problem with some declaring Swinney the best coach in college football. I have Swinney and Saban even during the Playoff era, and obviously the latter was far more accomplished before that. For now, that gives Saban a slight edge.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
Is it boring to still have Saban at No. 1? Sure. Did missing a New Year’s 6 Bowl bring out the “dynasty is dead” crowd? Absolutely. But for my money, he’s still the best to ever do it, and I’d hardly call 2019 a collapse. Alabama went into the regular-season finale with a 5-point loss to the best team in college football history. Then without its best quarterback in program history, the Crimson Tide lost on the road by 3 points to a top-15 team. That’s not making excuses for Saban. It was a bad year by Alabama standards.
At the same time, Alabama just had multiple regular-season losses for the first time in 9 years. It missed the title game for the first time in 5 years. We’re still talking about a team that averaged 13 victories per year during the Playoff era and just had its 12th consecutive top-10 finish. We’re still waiting on Saban to lose to a non-top 15 team for the first time since 2010. Since that happened, Saban’s teams appeared in 6 national titles and of course, they won 4 of them.
Maybe a new decade brings a different phase of Alabama football where those expectations are adjusted. Who knows? Perhaps this weird season will make the path even clearer for a Saban vs. Swinney showdown.
The battle for No. 1 isn’t slowing down anytime soon.