The SDS Top 25: Ranking the best coaches in college football
Editor’s note: SDS Top 25 Week continues with a look at the best coaches in the country. Coming Tuesday: Top 25 players in the SEC and Top 25 QBs in the nation.
It’s subjective. Extremely subjective.
Ranking college football coaches isn’t just one metric. It’s not entirely based on recruiting rankings, total wins, total New Year’s 6 Bowl trips or first-round draft picks. Granted, things like Playoff appearances and national titles carry more weight.
But as I ranked the Top 25 college football coaches, I found myself gravitating to a few things. That is, how a coach elevated the program they took over. Guys like Dan Mullen, Pat Fitzgerald and Dino Babers went into jobs where winning 10 games was virtually unheard of. They got a nice bump for that.
The peak is part of it, too. If you’re an elite coach, you’re still riding that peak. You aren’t someone like Les Miles or Mack Brown, who were great 8-10 years ago, but are now trying to re-establish themselves at lesser Power 5 programs in Year 1.
No first-time coaches made the cut. That means, sorry, Ryan Day. Not this year, Manny Diaz.
And for me, competition matters. I realized that by the time I finished this list, I didn’t have any Group of 5 coaches. That’s not my way of saying there isn’t competition in the Group of 5, but most of the great Group of 5 coaches of the Playoff era are now at Power 5 jobs (Scott Frost, Tom Herman, Matt Campbell, etc.). In order for me to rank a current Group of 5 coach ahead of an exceptional Power 5 coach, they would have needed to have more big stage success than what this crop has.
Underachieving matters. Overachieving matters. Being extremely good at a coach’s area of expertise matters (I’ll get to that more with David Shaw later).
It all gets factored in.
So with that, here are my Top 25 coaches in America, which you’ll surely disagree with:
25. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Career record: 62-30
He’s the toughest person to rank on this list because his peak is way higher than most coaches on this list — only 5 others have been to a national championship — but he’s on the hot seat after a 7-win regular season. Malzahn’s floor is frustratingly low with the talent he has (he failed to have a winning record in conference play in 3 of his 6 seasons as head coach and in the 3 seasons Auburn was a preseason top 10 team, it finished outside of the top 20 every time). But there aren’t many coaches on planet Earth who have defeated Nick Saban twice. The ying and the yang will never end with Malzahn.
24. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Career record: 36-39
Recency bias? Perhaps, but at a basketball school, Stoops just delivered the program’s best season in 4 decades. That was for a team that some (me) predicted to win 5 games. And no, this is ranking isn’t entirely based on one season. Kentucky is in the midst of its best 3-year stretch since 1951. That’s a credit to Stoops, who has found an identity (recruit the overlooked players from Ohio and turn them into studs) and is flourishing with it. The reigning SEC Coach of the Year doesn’t mind the fact that people are going to continue to overlook him and his program. This isn’t one of those places, though.
23. Dino Babers, Syracuse
Career record: 55-35
I’ve declared my love of Babers before, but think about this: Clemson is coming off the great season of the 21st century and the toughest game on the schedule is … at Syracuse? That’s elevating a program. In Year 3, Babers delivered the program’s best season in 17 years. He nearly knocked off Dabo Swinney for the second time in as many years. And let’s not dismiss that Babers won 12 games in Year 2 at Eastern Illinois — Jimmy Garoppolo’s career really took off after Babers arrived in 2012 — and he won double-digit games in Year 2 at Bowling Green. If Babers rips off double-digit wins again, another promotion (or a hefty raise) will be in store. Who wouldn’t want to play for this guy?
22. Scott Frost, Nebraska
Career record: 23-15
Yes, Frost is the only coach on this list who whiffed on a bowl game last year. But he’s also the only coach on this list who took a winless team to a 13-0 season with a New Year’s 6 Bowl victory in just 2 years. Yeah, that still matters. Like Herman, Frost’s Playoff era work as a coordinator certainly adds to his résumé. He fueled Marcus Mariota’s 2014 Heisman Trophy season and he was a key part of getting Oregon to a national championship game. Many have the Huskers as a Top 25 team to start 2019 based on how well they played in the latter half of Frost’s first year. If that’s where Nebraska finishes, Frost will be rising on this list.
21. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Career record: 164-122
There’s nothing sexy about what Ferentz does. He takes 3-star kids, wins a lot of games with them and then watches them have long NFL careers. Rinse, repeat. But there’s a reason he’s the longest tenured coach in America. Since 2001, Ferentz has 5 top 10 finishes, 11 seasons of 8-plus wins and he only had a losing record in conference play 3 times in an 18-year stretch. He’s coming off the best 4-year stretch of his career (37-16 overall, 23-12 in conference play). Was he overpaid for a bit too long? Probably, but considering how limited he is with in-state recruiting and that Iowa had 1 winning season in conference play in the final 7 years of the Hayden Fry era, you can do much worse than Ferentz.
20. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State
Career record: 121-59
I might actually be a little low on Gundy, who turned the Cowboys into one of the steadiest programs of the 2010s. Since 2010, his team averaged 9.4 wins and he made a Pair of New Year’s 6/BCS Bowls. He owns a 13-year bowl streak (9-4) in which his teams earned 7 Top 25 finishes. The T. Boone Pickens boost certainly helped recruits want to come to Stillwater, but Gundy deserves credit for having a relatively high floor because of how he runs that offense. Why isn’t he even higher on this list? He just had his worst season in 12 years.
19. Ed Orgeron, LSU
Career record: 41-36
I realize giving Orgeron credit for the job he’s done isn’t the cool thing to do. Many still want to point to the Ole Miss disaster and the fact that he hasn’t defeated Alabama yet. That’s fine. But the average person doesn’t realize just how good Orgeron has been since taking over for Les Miles. Since LSU was 2-2 and unranked when he took over, Orgeron is:
- 25-9 overall (15-7 in conference)
- 10-6 vs. Top 25 teams
- 10-3 vs. non-Alabama ranked teams
- 5-0 vs. non-Alabama top 10 teams
He just won a New Year’s 6 Bowl and delivered LSU’s best season in 7 years. That was when everybody was predicting the Tigers would fall short of 8 wins for the first time in the 21st century because of doubts about Orgeron facing that daunting schedule. It’s about time we stop waiting for Orgeron to collapse.
18. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Career record: 120-61
I find myself going back and forth with Whittingham. He has been at Utah since the first term of the Bill Clinton administration (he was an assistant from 1994-2004), and after taking over for Urban Meyer’s undefeated squad in 2004, Utah has had more success than I think the average college football fan realizes. Whittingham is 11-2 in bowl games, and he’s one of a select few Power 5 programs with 4 seasons of 9 wins in the Playoff era. And what he did in 2008 during that undefeated season was remarkable (Utah wasn’t even ranked to start the year and then it went into Ann Arbor and won).
Why not even more love for someone who handled the transition to Power 5 extremely well? Since that magical 2008 season, Whittingham hasn’t finished in the top 15. But is he still one of the nation’s best coaches? Absolutely.
17. James Franklin, Penn State
Career record: 69-36
Do I think Franklin is trending in the wrong direction? Yeah. But should I ignore the fact that he rebuilt 2 Power 5 programs this decade? No. Three consecutive bowl berths and a pair of 9-win seasons at Vanderbilt is super impressive. Taking Penn State to a B1G Championship and consecutive New Year’s 6 Bowls is an extraordinary feat given what he walked into during the post-Jerry Sandusky sanctions era. This is the first time this century that the Lions had 3 consecutive top 20 seasons.
But I have my reservations about Franklin because I don’t trust his in-game decision-making (his Ohio State and Kentucky blunders were awful), I think he’s been fortunate to have a loaded staff the past few years (Joe Moorhead was the reason that offense took off after Franklin gave him complete control) and he’s 6-20 against Top 25 opponents as a head coach. This is a pivotal season in the first year of the post-Trace McSorley era.
16. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
Career record: 61-31
Here’s a fun exercise.
“Coach A” is Jim Harbaugh and “Coach B” is Chryst. Interesting, isn’t it?
Chryst is just behind Harbaugh because while they are extremely close in those key categories, the latter has the head-to-head advantage — Harbaugh beat Chryst by 25 last year to improve to 2-1 against him — and the Stanford/NFL stuff is worth something. Is Chryst the best bargain in college football? For my money, he is. This might be a different conversation had Chryst put together another New Year’s 6 Bowl appearance instead of winning 7 regular-season games and finishing unranked for the first time since he arrived in Madison. But still, a pair of New Year’s 6 Bowl victories and 42 wins in a 4-year stretch is nothing to scoff at.
15. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Career record: 67-35
Before you tell me that Harbaugh is the most overrated coach in America, think about this: The guy took over a 5-win team and earned double-digit victories in 3 of his first 4 seasons in Ann Arbor. In his past 6 seasons as a Power 5 coach (dating to Year 3 at Stanford), he’s 58-20 overall and 40-13 in conference play with 3 trips to New Year’s 6 Bowls. Since climbing into the Top 25 in Game 5 in 2015, 43 of Michigan’s 48 games (90%) have been played as a ranked opponent. That’s without counting anything NFL-related, which is still at least a small part of the conversation as we discuss his ability to coach.
Does Harbaugh need to beat Ohio State, win a Big Ten Championship and make a Playoff to be considered a top 10 coach? In my opinion, yes. He knew that when he took the job. With the talent he gets, that’s the expectation, fair or not. No. 15 is a fair spot for someone who has been nationally relevant since he arrived, but is in need of achieving more.
14. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
Career record: 125-68
Dantonio is tricky because 2 of the past 3 seasons have been disappointments following a year in which he won a Big Ten Championship and made the Playoff. Before 2016, Dantonio was probably a top 5 coach in America. Why? He was coming off 3 consecutive top 6 finishes in which he went 36-5 overall and 22-2 against the Big Ten. In 5 of 6 seasons before 2016, he had at least 11 wins. That’s without a single top 10 recruiting class, too. Dantonio did that and made a bowl game in 11 of 12 seasons at a place that had 2 postseason appearances in the 7 seasons of the post-Saban era. He might not be at the level he was early in the Playoff era, but Dantonio is still definitely worthy of Top 25 status.
13. Tom Herman, Texas
Career record: 39-14
Too much too soon? Some might argue yes, considering he’s only 4 years into his head coaching career and the 17-10 overall mark at Texas is nothing to write home about. But Herman, who figures to have a top 10 ranking to start the year after beating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, is trending in the right direction. He already has a pair of top 10 finishes and New Year’s 6 Bowl victories on his résumé, and like any good coach in the state of Texas, he already beat Oklahoma multiple times (once at Houston and once at Texas).
And yeah, maybe I think Herman still deserves credit for the job he did as an offensive coordinator when he engineered a Playoff victory against Alabama with a third-string quarterback. If he can get to a Playoff berth this year, he’ll rise on this list in a hurry. That doesn’t seem far-fetched considering the level he’s recruiting at.
12. David Shaw, Stanford
Career record: 82-26
I know I’m in the minority for not having Shaw as a top 10 coach. Don’t get me wrong. He’s plenty accomplished. An 82-26 record with 5 top 15 finishes in 8 years is not easy, especially at a place with academic hurdles like Stanford. The guy went to New Year’s 6 Bowls in 4 seasons, which was also how many times he was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year.
But here’s where I struggle with Shaw. He took over a 12-win team that had Andrew Luck coming back. That year (2011) and Christian McCaffrey’s final season (2015) were the only times that Shaw, an offensive-minded coach, had a top 30 offense. Here were Stanford’s national scoring offense rankings during Shaw’s 8 seasons as head coach:
- 2011 — No. 7 (Luck’s last season)
- 2012 — No. 72
- 2013 — No. 45
- 2014 — No. 80
- 2015 — No. 18 (McCaffrey’s last season)
- 2016 — No. 84
- 2017 — No. 38
- 2018 — No. 73
As accomplished as Shaw is, I can’t help but wonder how much he benefitted early on from inheriting a win-now program and having a pair of elite defensive coordinators in Derek Mason and Lars Anderson (Stanford has had a top 40 defense every year that Shaw has been there). Nit-picky? Yeah, but that’s what we do when we’re talking about elite coaches.
11. Gary Patterson, TCU
Career record: 167-63
Can you imagine how many New Year’s 6 Bowls Patterson would have gone to had TCU stayed in the Mountain West instead of going to the Big 12? That slot would have gone to the Horned Frogs nearly every season. In 10 seasons from 2008-17, Patterson had an absurd 6 top 10 finishes. At TCU, that’s an amazing feat considering the program had 4 before Patterson arrived (they did win double-digit games the previous season).
The only reason I don’t have Patterson even higher is because in 4 of the 7 seasons since his team joined the Big 12, he had a losing conference record. That includes 2 of the past 3 years, both of which were 6-win regular seasons. But Patterson’s ceiling is still high and his statue is still worthy.
10. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
Career record: 96-70
I realized I’m about to take more heat for this spot than any on this entire list, but hear me out. This is about the “what you inherited” question because I realize a lot of coaches I ranked behind Fitzgerald have more noteworthy accomplishments.
It’s easy to forget just how big of a laughingstock Northwestern was in the 20th century. Outside of that little 2-year run in 1995-96, which Fitzgerald was part of as a player, the Wildcats didn’t have a single season of 9 wins as a Big Ten school. In 3 of the past 4 years, Northwestern won 9 games. Fitzgerald is 36-17 in that stretch (26-9 in B1G) with 3 Top 25 finishes and 3 bowl victories. That’s including a 2018 season in which Northwestern won a division title. The Wildcats have academic limitations perhaps as strong as any Power 5 school, yet Fitzgerald has the program winning more consistently than it ever has. And with that new $260 million athletics facilities upgrade, that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.
9. Dan Mullen, Florida
Career record: 79-49
So take all of those things I said about Fitzgerald and add a New Year’s 6 Bowl victory to it in Year 1 at a premier program. What Mullen did to transform Florida in his first season confirmed what many thought of him at Mississippi State. That is, few in the business are better at maximizing talent. He has the ability to rise on this list if he can win an SEC Championship. Actually, he’ll rise if he just wins a division championship. He’s one of the top offensive minds in the sport, and I think his yearly scoring offense rankings during the Playoff era back it up considering the limited talent he had to work with at Mississippi State:
- 2014 — No. 17
- 2015 — No. 33
- 2016 — No. 56
- 2017 — No. 41
- 2018 — No. 22 (at Florida)
Mullen is the only coach in the top 10 who hasn’t even won a division title, but he’s elevated a pair of programs in the SEC.
8. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Career record: 252-91-2
If you were asking me, who’s the most likely coach to get fired of any I have ranked in the top 15, it’s Kelly. That’s probably why some don’t believe he’s a top 10 coach. He hasn’t won a national title at one of the most historic programs in the sport, and he’s had a couple of humbling encounters spoil undefeated seasons. But since 2007, Kelly has:
- 8 top 20 finishes (3 at Cincinnati, 5 at Notre Dame)
- 7 seasons of double-digit wins
- 5 BCS/New Year’s 6 Bowl berths
- 3 top 5 finishes
- 1 season fewer than 8 wins
Do people realize that from 1994-2009 before Kelly arrived, the Irish only had 1 top 10 finish? I’m not saying that he’s on Dabo Swinney or Nick Saban’s level, especially not from an in-game standpoint, but Kelly isn’t in a different galaxy as some suggest.
7. Mike Leach, Washington State
Career record: 133-83
I know. You think I’m too high on Leach. You look at the raw numbers and wonder why the No. 7 coach in America is only 49-40 at his current job without a conference title. You think I’m giving him too much love because of his personality. Context is needed when comparing Leach’s résumé. He went to a pair of places that had very little history, and he transformed them into nationally relevant, most recently by giving Washington State its first Top 25 finish since 2003.
Let’s not forget how much of a doormat Texas Tech was before Leach arrived (after Year 1, Texas Tech never had worse than the No. 15 scoring offense under Leach):
And at Washington State, Bill Moos hired Leach to take over a program that missed a bowl game in each of the previous 8 seasons. In Leach’s previous 4 years, he’s 37-15 with a 26-10 record against the Pac-12. Leach just had his best offensive season yet leading East Carolina grad transfer Gardner Minshew to a fifth-place finish in the Heisman Trophy voting. Leach, for my money, is the best offensive mind in college football, and I’d take him to run my team any day. Weird rants and all.
6. Chris Petersen, Washington
Career record: 139-33
You know the reason you’ve heard of Boise State? Yeah, that’s because of Petersen, who was the offensive coordinator when it took off in the early 2000s and the head coach when it reached new heights in the latter half of the decade. The fact that he added a Playoff berth to his résumé at Washington certainly added to the notion that Petersen is an elite coach. Quietly, he’s been all sorts of productive since becoming a head coach in 2006:
- 5 top 10 finishes
- 5 BCS/New Year’s 6 Bowls
- 10 seasons of double-digit wins (3 consecutive at Washington)
It’s really the past 3 years that took Petersen to the next level. In that stretch, he’s 32-9 with a 23-5 mark against the Pac-12. He has a winning record against ranked teams (8-6) since the start of 2016. Before Petersen started his streak of 10-win seasons in 2016, the Huskies went 15 years without double-digit victories. He’s elite, and his program will be nationally relevant as long as he’s on the sidelines.
5. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma
Career record: 24-4
There are 3 active coaches with multiple Playoff berths. I’ll get to 2 of them (Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney) later. For now, let’s focus on the other guy. Riley’s accomplishments are known by even the casual fan. They’re unprecedented. Two years, two Big 12 titles, 2 Playoff berths, 2 Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks and 2 No. 1 overall picks. That’s not bad for a guy who’s still 4 years from his 40th birthday.
Now the question becomes if he can do the same thing with a quarterback he recruited. Also, what’s Riley’s ceiling? Despite that offensive prowess in his first 2 years, it didn’t yield a Playoff victory. Perhaps a defensive shakeup will do the trick this year. Or perhaps the presence of Jalen Hurts will take Oklahoma to levels that Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray couldn’t.
4. Kirby Smart, Georgia
Career record: 32-10
Make your 2nd-and-26 or fake punt jokes now. Feel free. Those are knocks against Smart. If neither happened, he would have a top 3 spot on this list. But Smart, who of course beat Riley in Year 2 to earn Georgia’s first national championship berth since 1980, led the program to consecutive top 10 finishes for the first time since 2005. With the level he’s recruiting at, it would be surprising if Georgia didn’t win a national title in the next 3 years.
For now, though, bringing long overdue national championship back to Athens is the thing standing in the way of Smart being in the top 3 on this list. Maybe that’ll happen as soon as … 2019?
3. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
Career record: 92-27
A lot of people don’t see Fisher as a top 3 coach because of the shape that he left Florida State in. It’s a fair criticism. If we’re doing this list last year, I’m not sure I have him in the top 4. But what he did in Year 1 at Texas A&M — he led the Aggies to their best season of the post-Johnny Manziel era — reminded me that Fisher knows what he’s doing. Besides the fact that he’s one of 5 active coaches with a ring (including Miles and Brown), Fisher’s run of 5 consecutive years of BCS/New Year’s 6 Bowls was a rare feat.
And for what it’s worth, I was skeptical about Fisher heading into 2018. I was skeptical about how he’d perform in a new place with a new set of recruiting hurdles. So far, he’s handling those extremely well.
2. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
Career record: 116-30
By now, you know the main numbers.
- 4 consecutive Playoff appearances
- 3 national title berths
- 2 rings
Here are the numbers that blow me away with Clemson, and specifically Swinney:
- 9-2 vs. SEC in past 4 years, including 2-2 record vs. Alabama
- 18-2 vs. ranked teams in past 4 years (only losses to Alabama)
- 30-2 vs. ACC in past 4 years
- Made Playoff with 3 different starting quarterbacks
Remember, it wasn’t that long ago when we were in wait-and-see mode with Swinney because Deshaun Watson left for the NFL. That’s no longer the case. Now, you can find plenty of people who will point to the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship blowout of Alabama and say that Swinney is unquestionably ahead of Saban.
I’m not one of those people, simply because I believe the 2 are entering Round 5 of a heavyweight fight. Swinney dominated the last round, and Saban dominated the round before that. And it’s not like Saban’s 4 consecutive national championship appearances suggest he’s fading. But is Swinney closer than anyone has been to Saban since he rattled off 3 titles in 4 years in 2012? Absolutely.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
Career record: 237-63-1
Surprise, surprise. The G.O.A.T. is No. 1. Yeah, I think the guy who won 5 of the past 10 national championships and played in 7 of the past 10 is still No. 1 in the sport. If you want to cut off your timeline for the past 3 years, you’re welcome to do so. Maybe your timeline only goes back to the start of the 2018 title game when Swinney beat Saban like nobody has before.
But for me, Saban is still as good as there is in the sport. Why? It’s the consistency. The most insane stat I can think of to express his dominance is this: Since losing to No. 19 South Carolina on Oct. 9, 2010, Saban is riding a 77-game winning streak against teams ranked outside of the top 15. And for all the offseason discussion about if he’s the best, yeah, I think it’s significant that he has 3 times as many rings as any active coach in the sport. It would be kind of weird if it didn’t.
The discussion still starts and ends with Saban.