The SDS Top 25: Ranking the best offensive play-callers in college football
Editor’s note: SDS Top 25 Week continues with a look at the nation’s best offensive play-callers. Later Wednesday: The Top 25 defensive play-callers in the country.
It’s no secret that fans and ADs love a coach who knows how to light up the scoreboard. That alone annually provides the best offensive coordinators the opportunity to run their own program. Don’t be surprised if many of the coordinators listed below soon elevate to become head coaches calling the plays for their program in 2020.
No. 25 Steve Sarkisian, OC, Alabama
Sarkisian has been away from the college game for a few seasons, but he showed enough as the play caller with the Atlanta Falcons to earn a place on this list. Given the talent on hand he’ll have to work with next season in Tuscaloosa, he’s a safe bet to be among the highest risers on the list by the time the 2019 college football season ends.
No. 24 Phil Longo, OC North Carolina
The former Ole Miss OC has some critics, but his offenses find the end zone. To Longo’s credit, his offense didn’t miss a beat when Shea Patterson was lost for the season in 2017. We’ll never know how good those units could have been, but following the NCAA sanctions, the program’s talent and depth was significantly tested. The former Ole Miss OC accepted a new challenge in 2019 as he was hired by Mack Brown this offseason to rebuild North Carolina’s offense in Chapel Hill.
No. 23 Eddie Gran, OC, Kentucky
Kentucky’s offense was the Benny Snell show last year, but even though defenses knew what was coming, they failed to stop it more often than not. That’s a credit to Gran and his ability to draw up successful running schemes and working with an inexperienced quarterback in the nation’s toughest conference. This season will put Gran’s skills to the test, as Kentucky has to get more out of Terry Wilson if the Wildcats are going to once again surprise in the East.
No. 22 Derek Dooley, OC Missouri
Dooley’s hire was one of the biggest question marks last season, but it worked out brilliantly for Barry Odom. Drew Lock continued his progression and went on to the NFL, the team’s running game was a monster at times and Kelly Bryant signed on at Mizzou to play for Dooley despite having offers to play, and likely start immediately, for Auburn, Arkansas and Mississippi State. If Dooley manages to turn Bryant into an NFL prospect, he could very well be a head coach this time next year.
No. 21 Rich Rodriguez, OC, Ole Miss
Rich Rod hasn’t been a full-time OC since 2000, otherwise he’d likely rank higher on this list. Unfortunately for the Ole Miss coordinator, he won’t have any grace period as he’s tasked with rebuilding an offense that lost nearly its entire passing attack. The Rebels will likely completely shift gears on offense next fall and if Rodriguez manages to successfully turn his unit into a respectable SEC unit, he’ll see his stock rise considerably on this list next season.
No. 20 Ryan Day, HC, Ohio State
There’s a reason Ohio State didn’t have a national search following the latest “retirement” of Urban Meyer. Day, a Chip Kelly protege, could be running an NFL offense if he so desired but instead will run the Buckeyes’ offense next season in Columbus. If you somehow missed it, Dwayne Haskins put up some historic numbers last season including 4,831 passing yards with a 50-8 touchdown to interception ratio. Ohio State scored 40 or more points in eight games last season.
No. 19 Andy Ludwig, OC, Utah
Arguably the SEC’s most underrated coordinator last season, Ludwig left for greener pastures out West and is now set to lead Utah’s offense next season heading into what could be a historic season for the Utes. Ludwig developed Kyle Shurmur into a solid SEC passer in recent seasons. He also quietly showcased some of the best position players in the SEC last season as Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Jared Pinkney and Kalija Lipscomb could all make cases to being the best players at their positions in the league.
No. 18 Joe Moorhead, HC, Mississippi State
It’s fair to say Moorhead’s stock took a slight hit last season after he was introduced to Hail State fans as one of the best offensive minds in college football. If not for the heroics of Mississippi State’s defense last season, Moorhead’s debut season would have been an epic failure. While it’s far too early to make a complete judgment on Moorhead’s hire, it’s time for him to show what his offensive system can do in the SEC after taking back the play-calling duties from Luke Getsy, who left Starkville after only one season to return to the NFL.
No. 17 David Yost, OC, Texas Tech
This might not be a name many are familiar with, but he’s one to watch moving forward after leading Utah State to the No. 2 scoring offense in the nation last season (47.5 points per game). Yost followed Matt Wells to Texas Tech and we’ll quickly find out if his system translates to the wide open Big 12.
No. 16 Dan Enos, OC, Miami
There’s a reason Nick Saban picked Enos to replace Mike Locksley this offseason and both Jim Harbaugh and the Alabama coach hired the former Arkansas OC following the firing of Bret Bielema in Fayetteville. Enos is respected in coaching circles as one of the best play-callers in the game. Outside of Razorbacks fans, few might recall how poorly Brandon Allen was viewed before Enos took the OC job at Arkansas, but the QB left the program following an outstanding senior season and parlayed that into an NFL career. Enos then helped Austin Allen find similar success before injuries derailed his senior season. Both Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts have praised Enos’ coaching ability at times last season.
No. 15 Tony Elliott, co-OC, Clemson
There’s plenty of coaching talent on Dabo Swinney’s staff and Clemson’s offensive play-caller ranks near the top of the list. The schemes drawn up during the latest College Football Playoff deserve respect and Elliott deserves praise for engineering an offensive performance against a Nick Saban defense not seen since his arrival in Tuscaloosa. If Clemson manages to do it again next season, Elliott will likely have his pick of jobs next offseason.
No. 14 Jim Chaney, OC, Tennessee
One of the more experienced play-callers in the nation is back for his second stint on Rocky Top and his hire could be the one that makes Jeremy Pruitt’s hire in Knoxville successful. The best aspect of Chaney’s offensive scheme is he’s willing to adapt to the personnel, which many coaches refuse to do. Tennessee could be a pass-heavy offense in 2019 with the return of veteran QB Jarrett Guarantano and all of his key targets, then quickly turn into a run-heavy team the following season, depending on who returns. If Pruitt trusts Chaney enough to turn over the offensive scheme to his play-caller, the results should pay off immediately for the Vols.
No. 13 Dana Holgorsen, HC, Houston
If West Virginia had fielded a respectable defense during his tenure in Morgantown, the Mountaineers might have won something under Holgorsen’s leadership. Holgorsen’s resume as an offensive play-caller is outstanding, as he’s engineered 8 quarterbacks to seasons of 4,000 or more passing yards and 10 to seasons of 30 or more touchdowns. A fresh start in Texas could result in some historic results coming for the Cougars offense in the coming seasons.
No. 12 Kendal Briles, OC, Florida State
Lane Kiffin’s debut season at FAU drew plenty of media attention, but the head coach has been quick to praise Briles’ for the program’s offensive success that season. Briles left FAU after only one season and quickly turned Houston into a top 5 scoring offense after the Cougars ranked No. 65 the previous season. Willie Taggart has handed Briles the controls to FSU’s offense this offseason after Tennessee showed interest in the former Houston OC.
No. 11 Gus Malzahn, HC, Auburn
Malzahn has an opportunity to move up this list if he can bring back some of the play-calling magic he displayed early in his career … or during the Music City Bowl last season against Purdue. It wasn’t that long ago that Malzahn was viewed by some as the best offensive mind in the SEC, but it’s hard to get a read on how heavy-handed he was with his most recent offensive coordinators on The Plains. If Auburn gets its running game going and Malzahn turns the quarterback position from a question mark to a strength using either freshmen, he’ll deserve a big bump up this list.
No. 10 Mike Norvell, HC, Memphis
Arguably the best G5 head coach/play-caller in the nation, Norvell’s Memphis team had a “down season” but still won 8 games last season. Despite the fact Norvell’s coaching roster is annually picked over by Power 5 programs — Auburn, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Notre Dame have hired coaches off Norvell’s staffs in recent seasons — the Tigers remain a factor in the AAC thanks to his offense. Memphis had the No. 7 scoring offense in the nation last season after averaging 42.9 point per game.
No. 9 Chip Kelly, HC, UCLA
Kelly’s stock has fallen following his debut season at UCLA, but given how many freshmen and sophomores the Bruins featured, it might not be long before the former Oregon coach jumps up this list.
No. 8 Chip Long, OC, Notre Dame
Notre Dame made its way to its first College Football Playoff appearance last season thanks in large part to Chip Long’s balanced offensive attack. The team’s decision to change quarterbacks in the middle of the season, going from Brandon Wimbush to Ian Book, could have resulted in disaster, but thanks to Long’s management, Notre Dame excelled following the change. The offense averaged more than 37 points per game in the final 9 regular-season games following the QB change.
No. 7 Jeff Brohm, HC, Purdue
What Brohm has done in just 2 seasons at Purdue, 13-13 overall with a 9-9 Big Ten record, is remarkable considering the program had won just 9 games overall in the 4 seasons before he showed up. He doesn’t have a roster full of explosive players yet, but he has maximized the talent he does have, most notably with freshman All-American Rondale Moore.
No. 6 Scott Frost, HC, Nebraska
Following his departure from Oregon, the Ducks’ offense has yet to recover despite having a quarterback many anticipate will be a first round-pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. After building a punchless UCF program into a G5 powerhouse, Frost has positioned Nebraska to make a similar short turnaround building around sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez.
No. 5 Jimbo Fisher, HC, Texas A&M
If you want to play quarterback in the NFL, there are not many better to learn from than Texas A&M’s head coach. This time last year many assumed Kellen Mond was eyeing his next destination, but after only one season working his new coach, the Aggies’ QB might be only a season away from becoming a top NFL Draft prospect. Fisher asks more from his quarterbacks than most, but those who can handle it have proven the coach’s methods work extremely well.
No. 4 Mike Leach, HC, Washington State
While he didn’t invent the Air Raid offense, Mike Leach arguably perfected it, and his impact across the college football and NFL landscape continues to grow. It never ceases to amaze how much production Leach gets out of his quarterbacks, most of whom arrive with little to no fanfare. While he might never have elite talent to work with, Leach consistently puts his Washington State teams in contention to compete in the Pac-12. No coach has consistently done more with less than Leach.
No. 3 Dan Mullen, HC, Florida
For my money, Dan Mullen is the SEC’s best offensive mind after being in the league for more than a decade and proving he understands the 2 major keys to a successful offense: the QB and the running game. The list of quarterbacks Mullen has successfully mentored is long, but his offense’s ability to run extremely well is often overlooked, which has been key in the development of his passers. Nick Fitzgerald fell apart without him last season while Feleipe Franks emerged in Gainesville in his lone season playing for Mullen.
No. 2 David Cutcliffe, HC, Duke
Coach Cutcliffe might very well be the most underrated coach in the nation. What his Duke program has accomplished during his tenure is truly remarkable given the state of the program he inherited. There’s a reason high school All-American quarterbacks often have Duke among their finalists. There’s no coach in the nation who has a longer track record of excellence coaching college quarterbacks than Duke’s head coach.
No. 1 Lincoln Riley, HC, Oklahoma
There’s no better offensive mind in college football than Oklahoma’s head coach. Riley has led consecutive quarterbacks to Heisman Trophy seasons while developing them into surprising No. 1 overall selections in the NFL Draft. There’s a reason elite quarterback prospects are lining up to play for Riley as both Jalen Hurts and Spencer Ratler, the nation’s No. 1 QB prospect for the 2019 recruiting cycle, are now Sooners: They want to be developed by the best. As long as Riley is in Norman, look for the Sooners to have one of the best offenses and some of the best quarterback play in the nation.