Ranking the top 25 offensive minds in college football
As rumors swirl about Chip Kelly and Jon Gruden possibly joining the SEC East, many are discussing the type of presence they would bring. As offensive minds, those two are a couple of the most highly regarded in the sport.
If they do end up taking college jobs, they’ll instantly be among the best offensive minds in NCAA football.
But for this ranking, we’ll limit the field to those who have either been a college coordinator or head coach in the last 365 days.
Ranking the top 25 offensive minds is not simply a matter of finding the nation’s prolific offenses. Did the coach implement his own system? What kind of talent did he have to work with? Does he have a track record in multiple places? All of those factors went into this.
Consider this the last ranking of college offensive minds that doesn’t include Kelly or Gruden (right?).
25. Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech
This list wouldn’t be complete without an appearance from Johnson, who has been operating his spread option offense for over 30 years. The five-time conference coach of the year winner (three at Georgia Tech, two at Georgia Southern) led the nation in rushing three times at Navy and twice at Georgia Tech. He never finished outside the top 10 nationally in rushing in his nine completed seasons at Georgia Tech, nor has his offense ever failed to lead the ACC. Others have copied forms of Johnson’s attack, but he keeps trucking along.
24. Willie Taggart, Oregon
Taggart didn’t have to reinvent the wheel at Oregon, but he did a masterful job rebuilding South Florida. He took over a program that won one conference game the year before. By the time he finished in Tampa in 2016, he had built the Bulls into a top-20 team. After Power 5 coaches didn’t think Quinton Flowers could play quarterback, he proceeded to become the most prolific quarterback in program history in Taggart’s “Gulf Coast Offense.” That offense set 33 program records while finishing seventh in scoring in 2016.
23. Mike Norvell, Memphis
Norvell is certainly one of the top up-and-coming coaches in the business, thanks to the job he did keeping Memphis among the top few Group of 5 programs in the country. Justin Fuente laid the foundation for Memphis’ offensive turnaround, and all Norvell has done is build on it. The Tigers are averaging 42 points per game this year, and Norvell will inevitably get a chance to revamp a Power 5 offense in the very near future.
22. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Harbaugh might not run an incredibly innovative offense in theory, but his ability to rebuild an offense can’t be overlooked. He did it at San Diego, he did it at Stanford, he did it at San Francisco, and he did it at Michigan. We can talk Super Bowl appearances and Andrew Luck, or we can just look at what he did with Jake Rudock. Harbaugh turned Iowa’s backup into a second-string NFL quarterback in one season. Brandon Peters could be the next to thrive under Harbaugh’s tutelage.
Wait, did I say he wasn’t innovative?
21. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State
I know, I know. Recency bias doesn’t work in Jimbo’s favor. If his Deondre Francois-less offense didn’t rank last in the ACC this year, Fisher might be even higher on this list. Don’t overlook what Fisher did in the previous 16 years. Once upon a time, LSU cranked out NFL quarterbacks when Fisher was the offensive coordinator. Once upon a time, Florida State competed for national titles with Fisher’s future NFL quarterbacks. I mean, the guy made Christian Ponder a first-round draft pick. That alone might be worth a top-25 spot.
20. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
If we did “the best offensive minds last week,” Malzahn is No. 1 and it’s not close. Interestingly enough, though, many would’ve been making “square peg in a round hole” references had Jarrett Stidham struggled against Georgia. Still, the guy led a national championship runner-up season with Keith Marshall. He’d be higher on this list if his Jeremy Johnson/Sean White era wasn’t so disastrous. But Malzahn is back to stumping defensive coordinators and leading a top-20 offense.
19. Chad Morris, SMU
Winning at SMU ain’t easy. Just ask any coach from the last 30 years. Producing a top-10 offense at SMU is no small task, and that’s exactly what Morris is doing this year. Morris took the unconventional path to eventually getting the offensive coordinator position at Clemson. The former Texas high school football coaching legend became an integral part of building Clemson’s national title squads (he left for SMU a season before the runner-up season). Oh yeah. He recruited and developed Deshaun Watson, too.
18. Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia
If this was a list of “best college hair,” Holgorsen would be No. 2. I mean, he’s no Mike Gundy.
It was under Gundy that Holgorsen developed into one of the top offensive coordinators in the country. That 2010 Oklahoma State team produced school records in total yards (first in FBS), scoring (third in FBS), passing yards (second in FBS), pass completions and pass attempts. Perhaps Holgorsen’s most impressive work is happening this year, with Florida castaway Will Grier leading the No. 7 offense and No. 5 passing game.
17. Bobby Petrino, Louisville
I’d love to be inside Petrino’s mind (that extends beyond football). Lamar Jackson, a former 3-star recruit who somehow got out of the state of Florida, is Petrino’s crown jewel. But Petrino’s résumé extends beyond one ridiculously talented Heisman Trophy winner. Arkansas’ best moments of the 21st century came under Petrino, which might not have happened if he had been able to coach Michael Vick during his lone season with the Atlanta Falcons. Petrino can win with mobile quarterbacks like Jackson and with pocket passers like Ryan Mallett. That’s the mark of a great offensive mind.
16. Matt Canada, LSU OC
Canada’s wild pre-snap activity might not be Ed Orgeron’s jam, but he’s one of the top-paid coordinators for a reason. The job he did with Nathan Peterman at Pitt was nothing short of incredible. Something tells me Peterman, who just was named the Buffalo Bills starter, owes Canada a steak dinner or two. Canada might not have the résumé that these other coaches do, but he produced high-powered offenses at Indiana and Northern Illinois. For one reason or another, his complex offense just never really found a more permanent home. LSU fans hope it’ll be in Baton Rouge.
— SpreadOffense.com (@SpreadOffense) September 3, 2017
15. Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech
Fuente is one of the hottest names in the coaching business for good reason. Fuente completely rebuilt a horrific Memphis program, much like Taggart did at USF. A lot of the work Mike Norvell is doing is because of the foundation that Fuente put in place. Don’t forget that Fuente was the offensive mastermind behind those Andy Dalton-led TCU squads. He definitely isn’t Frank Beamer 2.0. Fuente is leading a Virginia Tech offense that’s averaging 31.5 points per contest. The only question is whether he’ll turn Virginia Tech into a consistent top-15 program or if he’ll leave for an even bigger job.
14. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
I wonder how Michigan fans would feel about Rich-Rod’s spot on this list. Take away that bizarre chapter of his career, and Rodriguez is easily one of the top offensive minds of the last 20 years. His West Virginia squads lit up the scoreboard, and his Arizona squads have done the same. One could question if Rodriguez should’ve been a bit more flexible with his handling of a pocket passer like Mallett, but one can’t deny how good his running games have been and continue to be. The Wildcats have the top running offense of the non-service academies.
13. Mark Richt, Miami
Yeah, the turnover chain is all the rage, but don’t forget that Richt’s got an offense that’s averaging 33 points per game. And even though he was pushed out of Georgia, the guy had some pretty prolific offenses. The Matthew Staffords, Todd Gurleys and A.J. Greens of the world aren’t doing what they’re doing without Richt. Before his 15 seasons in Athens, Richt led five top-5 scoring offenses as Florida State’s offensive coordinator, too. The dude can flat out coach offense.
12. David Cutcliffe, Duke
Tennessee doesn’t have the high standards it has today without Cutcliffe. Period. His offenses helped turn the Vols into national champs. The Mannings probably aren’t the top family of quarterbacks in football history without Cutcliffe’s impact on them. And while the 63-year-old Cutcliffe is more in the “lifetime achievement” division, don’t discount what he’s done at Duke. He brought the Blue Devils their first bowl victory since 1961, and he led the program’s most prolific offenses in school history. Cutcliffe puts a lot of faith in his quarterbacks to read defenses at the line of scrimmage, which is perhaps the biggest common denominator of his decades of offensive prowess. It’s hard to believe Cutcliffe never played football (along with three other coaches on this list).
11. Scott Frost, UCF
Where do I start with Frost? How about the fact that he was the offensive guru behind Marcus Mariota’s Heisman Trophy campaign in 2014? Still think that was just a product of Oregon? OK, what about the fact that in his second season after inheriting 0-12 UCF, Frost is currently leading the No. 1 scoring offense in America? Want me to stop asking questions?
Frost’s offensive exploits are not in question, and neither is the fact that he’s in line for a major pay day in the immediate future.
10. Kevin Wilson, Ohio State OC
There’s a reason that even after Wilson’s odd departure from Indiana, Urban Meyer pulled out all the stops to land him. For the past 10-plus years, Wilson has been one of the top offensive leaders in the sport. He was the coordinator for Sam Bradford’s Heisman Trophy campaign at Oklahoma, and he was the leader behind several high-powered offenses at Indiana. The Hoosiers set school records in virtually every offensive category in 2015, a feat Wilson pulled off without 4- and 5-star recruits. While the Buckeyes have been inconsistent in 2017, they’re still ranked fifth in scoring offense. Wilson knows what he’s doing.
9. Joe Moorhead, Penn State OC
If Penn State was still undefeated, a lot of people would be claiming that Moorhead was deserving of the top spot on this list. The job that he’s done transforming an extremely mediocre Penn State offense is outstanding. Not all of that was on Saquon Barkley, who didn’t really get rolling until Moorhead got him involved in the passing game. We saw Trace McSorley go from unknown first-year starter to household name in his first season in Moorhead’s spread offense. The Lions wouldn’t have been anywhere near the Rose Bowl without the former Fordham head coach. It’s only a matter of time before Moorhead is running his own Power 5 program.
8. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma
Some might’ve said that the 34-year-old Riley wasn’t qualified for the Oklahoma job with just two seasons of coordinator experience under his belt. Baker Mayfield and a whole bunch of others would disagree with that notion. Riley might be young, but his offensive attack might be the most dangerous in all of college football right now. Ask Ohio State about that. Riley learned plenty under mentors Bob Stoops and Mike Leach, and the Sooners are alive and well in the Playoff race because of it. Soon, Riley will have a walk-on turned Heisman Trophy winner on his rapidly growing résumé.
7. Tom Herman, Texas
Don’t judge Herman’s stock on his win-loss record in his first season at Texas. In a few short years, I believe his program will be scoring like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Why? Herman’s success at Ohio State and Houston speaks for itself. The guy won a national title with a third-string quarterback at Ohio State, which earned him the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant. Herman thrives with mobile quarterbacks. Whether it’s J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones, Greg Ward Jr. or even future star Sam Ehlinger, Herman’s list of prolific quarterbacks will balloon for years to come.
6. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
The man, the myth, the Mullen. That’s not a thing, but maybe it should be. Mullen’s ability to turn overlooked recruits such as Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald into stars has been well documented.
He’s already Mississippi State’s best coach ever, and as long as he’s there, he’s going to continue to crank out top-25 teams at a place that’s not exactly rich with history. But let’s get back to the offense. That Tim Tebow guy was pretty good under Mullen, too. The Gators haven’t been the same since Tebow or Mullen left. There’s a reason for that.
5. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State
He’s a man, he’s Gundy. The mullet-rocking, air-it-out, take-no-prisoners Oklahoma State coach is a yearly lock to lead one of the nation’s top offenses. A year before Gundy became the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator, OSU ranked 95th in scoring. Within two years, his group ranked No. 13. Gundy will likely finish with his 13th offense ranked among the top 25 in scoring since he became the Cowboys’ coordinator in 2001. He’s definitely more than an epic hairstyle and a classic quote.
4. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
Meyer has had some tremendous coordinators under him over the years, three of whom are in the top 10 of this list. But let’s not forget that Meyer has been arguably the best offensive coach of the 21st century. That’s been the case at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State. His spread offense has been home to some truly spectacular skill players. The quarterbacks (Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Braxton Miller, Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett) get a lot of love, but perhaps the most unique element of Meyer’s scheme has been his use of the H-back position. Meyer found ways to maximize the abilities of guys such as Percy Harvin and Curtis Samuel, which was no small task. And anybody questioning Meyer’s place on this list can look at his three rings.
3. Chris Petersen, Washington
All that fun that Boise State had back in the day was with Petersen at the helm. Besides being the mastermind behind arguably the greatest gadget play in postseason history … wait a minute, let’s watch that again.
Petersen spent 13 years at Boise State, where he turned the program into a national brand. That high-flying offense only continued when Petersen took the Washington job. Like many of the coaches on this list, Petersen used a spread attack that utilized some explosive playmakers on the outside. He might not have learned from some all-time greats, but that didn’t prevent him from leading Washington to a Playoff berth in his third season. He’s already the Pac-12’s highest-paid coach, too. The past, the present and the future is bright for Petersen.
2. Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic
You knew it was coming. Kiffin’s personality has taken college football by storm, and so has his offense. It was Kiffin who changed Nick Saban’s offensive principles. That’s perhaps his most impressive accomplishment (that 2015 national title was pretty sweet, too). Saban liked Kiffin’s offense so much that he brought in Brian Daboll to pick up where Kiffin left off. That’s saying a lot. (I still miss these looks — photo below — so much).
Say what you want about Kiffin’s history, but there’s a reason that Tennessee, USC and even the Oakland Raiders called his number. The guy schemes extraordinarily well. And for what it’s worth, his FAU Owls are 7-3 with the No. 10 scoring offense in America.
1. Mike Leach, Washington State
We all need more Mike Leach in our lives. The pirate-loving, former law student might not have had true football roots (he never played), but Leach’s approach to offense revolutionized the game. His air-raid offense is still being used by teams across the country, including at his old stomping grounds. His Texas Tech team led the nation in passing in six of his 10 seasons in Lubbock, and not with any blue-chip quarterback recruits.
After his extremely controversial firing, Bill Moos hired Leach to continue his revolutionary offensive ways in Pullman. At arguably the Pac-12’s worst program, Leach led the second-most prolific passing attack in NCAA history during his third year. He had a top-10 passing offense all five seasons at Washington State, and is currently operating the No. 3 passing offense in America.
Leach is so much more than just college football’s most entertaining personality. Nobody knows offense better than Leach.