Ranking the Top 25 offensive play-callers in college football
Coaches have had more time to plan, study film and get creative this offseason than ever before thanks to the ongoing COVID pandemic. So which coaches will make the most of all that time?
The coaches who have the best players and deepest rosters should have the most success, but rarely does the action play out that simply in the fall.
The most successful play-callers consistently find ways to get their best players the ball in advantageous situations. Which coaches do the best job of accomplishing that goal?
That’s what I attempted to answer with this ranking.
While leaning on their previous levels of success engineering dangerous offenses, here’s how we rate the nation’s best offensive play-callers heading into the 2020 season. Head coaches are on the list as long as they call the plays.
Note: The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) will be referenced throughout this article. The FEI rates teams on overall performance, as well as on offense and defense, based on opponent-adjusted possession efficiency, representing the per-possession scoring advantage a team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent.
No. 25: Mike Bobo, OC, South Carolina
Bobo would have rated much higher during his time in Athens calling the plays, but we are far removed from the glory years of the Mark Richt era at Georgia. The luster has come off Bobo a bit in recent seasons at Colorado State, but he’ll immediately have more talent to work with in Columbia. He also managed to bring some of his former Rams with him via the graduate transfer process, which should help serve to hasten the implementation of his offense. With college football shifting more and more to wide-open, spread offenses, the Gamecocks plan to shift the other direction and go under center and run out of the I-formation under Bobo. Now we wait to see if going against the grain pays off for South Carolina, as Will Muschamp’s job could very well depend on it.
No. 24: Eli Drinkwitz, HC, Missouri
There’s a reason the 37-year-old Drinkwitz has managed to quickly work his way up the coaching ladder: He has an outstanding reputation as an offensive play-caller after successful stops at Boise State, NC State and Appalachian State. The Mountaineer program Drinkwitz inherited last fall was loaded, but he deserves credit for managing the play-calling duties and head coaching responsibilities for the first time in his career. Drinkwitz’s QB, Zac Thomas, had a 28-6 touchdown to interception ratio last season and his running back, Darrynton Evans, now suits up for the Tennessee Titans after being selected in the 3rd round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Taking over a Mizzou program that ranked outside the top 80 nationally in offensive efficiency will be the toughest test of his career, but if Drinkwitz turns around that unit in a single offseason, he’ll rank much higher on this list next year.
No. 23: Ivin Jasper, OC, Navy
Jasper might be unknown to many, but the 2nd-longest tenured coordinator in the nation led the best running attack in America in 2019. The longtime quarterback coach and Navy coordinator led a unit that averaged over 37 points per game and was the No. 10 most efficient offense in the nation. Jasper’s star quarterback, Malcolm Perry, passed for 1,084 yards and rushed for an incredible 2,017 yards and 21 touchdowns on his way to being selected by the Miami Dolphins in the 2020 NFL Draft. Jasper’s Navy offense set the program record for total rushing yards (4,687) and ranked No. 1 nationally in that category during an 11-2 campaign last season.
No. 22: Graham Harrell, OC, USC
Harrell might be the reason Clay Helton still has a job as the Trojans didn’t miss a beat after JT Daniels was lost for the season during the 2019 opener. Instead of going into the tank after losing the face of the program, Harrell inserted freshman Kedon Slovis into the lineup and the young signal-caller tossed for 3,502 yards with a touchdown to interception ratio of 30-9. A rising coaching star, Harrell received interest from Texas and the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason. The Trojans had the No. 15 most efficient offense in the nation in his first season running the offense — USC rated 87th in that category in 2018.
No. 21: Steve Sarkisian, OC, Alabama
Alabama’s offense burned up the scoreboard again last season, but it’s unclear how much of that is a credit to Sarkisian’s coaching. The Crimson Tide had the most gifted quarterback in school history, 2 receivers who were drafted in the first round, 2 more who soon could be selected in the 2021 NFL Draft and a blindside blocker who now protects for Baker Mayfield in Cleveland. None of that should take away from the job Sarkisian has done, but it simply makes him tough to evaluate. We’ll find out a lot more about his level of expertise this season with Mac Jones or Bryce Young under center.
No. 20: Joe Moorhead, OC, Oregon
Clearly Moorhead was a poor fit culturally at Mississippi State and his offense failed to consistently perform against the nation’s toughest defenses, but you shouldn’t overlook the fact that at times, the Bulldogs managed to have success with arguably the worst set of receivers and tight ends in the league and several tough injuries at the quarterback position. Before taking over in Starkville, Moorhead’s final Penn State offense rated No. 5 nationally in offensive efficiency and he could very well prove to be the best coordinator hire of the offseason for a rising Oregon program in the Pac-12. We’ll just have to wait until the spring, at least, to find out.
No. 19: Steve Ensminger, OC, LSU
The angst from Baton Rouge can be sensed as Ensminger is ranked in the back half of this list, but 1 season of greatness does not outweigh a coach’s track record. LSU put together the best season of offensive football in college history and Ensminger deserves credit for his role, but we’ll get a better understanding of his value this season with Joe Burrow, Joe Brady, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and the majority of the Tigers’ offensive line now in the NFL. The week Ensminger was promoted to offensive coordinator after Ed Orgeron took over in Baton Rouge, the offense was ignited immediately, and Coach O quickly switched back to Ensminger following the ill-fated Matt Canada experiment. All of that speaks to the value Ensminger brings to the LSU program, which has gone a combined 25-3 in the past 2 seasons.
No. 18: Jimbo Fisher, HC, Texas A&M
Fisher’s ranking might lean a bit too heavily on his reputation and not the overall job he’s turned at A&M, but that could soon be changing if the Aggies live up to the offseason hype in 2020. Fisher has helped Kellen Mond improve, but Mond has yet to take that significant jump many have expected. Fisher inherited plenty of talent in College Station, but it’s fair to question how many of those players fit in his offensive scheme. Last fall, several freshmen burst on to the scene and if those players continue to improve and the next wave of talented A&M freshmen emerge, Texas A&M could have one of the better offenses in the SEC West this fall.
No. 17: Kirk Ciarrocca, OC, Penn State
P.J. Fleck was widely praised following Minnesota’s breakout season, but a share of that credit should be directed toward Ciarrocca, the OC in 2019. In Ciarrocca’s offense, quarterback Tanner Morgan had a breakout campaign, topping 3,000 yards with 30 TDs to just 7 interceptions. Receiver Rashod Bateman, who broke several Minnesota freshman records, followed that up by breaking program sophomore records. Minnesota had the No. 7 most efficient offense in the nation in 2019. Big Ten foe James Franklin was so impressed with the job Ciarrocca did at Minnesota, he hired the coach to run Penn State’s offense.
No. 17: Billy Napier, HC, Louisiana
Napier has been a hot name in coaching circles for the job he has done building up the Louisiana program. Louisiana only lost to 2 teams last fall, Mississippi State (in the opener) and Appalachian State (once during the regular season and again in the Sun Belt title game) and averaged 37.9 points per game. Louisiana had the No. 14 most efficient offense in the country last fall. Junior QB Levi Lewis had a 26-4 touchdown to interception ratio and the team had 10 players catch at least 10 passes in 2019.
No. 16: Kendal Briles, OC, Arkansas
After the debacle that was the Chad Morris era (his offense was scheduled to be 70-75% installed in Fayetteville by the end of the season had he managed to stay on that long), Pittman’s hire of Briles could have have been more well-received. The offensive coordinator has taken a winding road to get to The Hill. This fall will mark his 5th stop in 5 years, but every step of the way Briles has managed to quickly implement his offense and improve the numbers from the previous season. Working with that many quarterbacks is a challenge, but working with 5 completely different units and producing speaks highly of Briles’ ability to teach his system and get players to execute his vision.
No. 14: Scott Satterfield, HC, Louisville
The reigning ACC Coach of the Year (Satterfield also was named Sun Belt Coach of the Year in 2018) managed to improve Louisville’s ACC record from 0-8 to 5-3 in his first year. First-year starting quarterback Malik Cunningham had a 22-5 touchdown to interception ratio, receiver Tutu Atwell was named First-Team All-ACC and running back Javian Hawkins increased his production from 8 rushing yards to 1,525 all in their first year in Satterfield’s system. Louisville rated No. 112 nationally in offensive efficiency in 2018 and improved to No. 23 in 2019.
No. 13: David Cutcliffe, HC, Duke
Duke failed to replace Daniel Jones’ production and the team’s offensive numbers reflected that last fall, but few programs could suffer a loss of that magnitude and continue to put up big numbers. The Blue Devils are certainly not on that plug-and-play level. Despite losing the 6th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Cutcliffe managed to scheme up his Duke offense well enough to score at least 41 points in 4 of the team’s first 6 contests last fall with first-year starting QB Quentin Harris.
No. 12: Sonny Dykes, HC, SMU
Dykes’ system never gained solid footing at Cal, but he has managed to bounce back in a big way at SMU after leading the Mustangs to a 10-win season in his second season. Last fall, SMU set single-season school records for scoring (544), scoring average (41.8), rushing touchdowns (35), total first downs (322) and total touchdowns (73), and tied the record for passing touchdowns (35).
No. 11: Andy Ludwig, OC, Utah
One of the most underrated assistants in the nation, Ludwig’s Utah offense rated No. 16 nationally in offensive efficiency according to FEI. In his first year running Utah’s offense, the unit averaged 34.6 points per game in Pac-12 games, which rated No. 3 in the league. At Vanderbilt, Ludwig helped develop Kyle Shurmur into one of the best quarterbacks in school history while Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney were 2 of the better players at their respective positions in the SEC. The Commodores were rated as the No. 37 most efficient offense in 2018 and dropped to No. 110 following Ludwig’s departure.
No. 10: Tony Elliott, OC, Clemson
Clemson is loaded with talent, might have had the best quarterback in college football not named Joe Burrow last season and play in a weak league, but at some point, you still have to credit the overall consistency of the offense under Elliott. Clemson’s offense rated No. 5 nationally in efficiency according to FEI. In 10 games, the Tigers scored at least 40 points last season.
No. 9: Eddie Gran, OC, Kentucky
There is nothing more impressive than when a defense knows what’s coming yet still can’t stop it. That’s exactly what Kentucky’s offense managed to pull off last season after the Wildcats suffered injuries to every single scholarship quarterback on the roster and lost 3 consecutive games to open SEC play. Moving starting receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. to quarterback might have seemed like an act of desperation, but it worked wonders. The Cats went 6-2 down the stretch thanks in large part to the offensive running drawn up by Gran and his staff. Without worrying about a passing threat, defenses were free to load up the box, but only Georgia’s outstanding defense managed to smother Gran’s offense. There is no doubt coordinators from around the nation have spent a good portion of the offseason studying the Kentucky running system in the hopes of installing parts of the attack.
No. 8 Jim Chaney, OC, Tennessee
One of the more veteran assistant coaches in the SEC, Chaney’s ability to adapt to his personnel is one of his strongest strengths as a play-caller. Last season, Tennessee’s offense leaned heavily on getting the football to receivers Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway. This season, look for the Volunteers to do a 180 and lean on the running game as Chaney might have the best offensive line in the SEC to work with this fall. Tennessee’s offense was far from the best unit Chaney has fielded during his time in the SEC, but that tends to happen when you start 4 quarterbacks during the season. Even Jennings technically got a start for the Vols in 2019. If Tennessee gets consistent play from any of its QBs this fall, this unit could be among the most improved in the conference.
No. 7: Phil Longo, OC, North Carolina
Starting a true freshman quarterback in the first year of a completely new coaching staff would be a recipe for disaster at most programs. At North Carolina with Phil Longo calling the plays, Sam Howell threw for an FBS true freshman-record 38 touchdowns along with 3,641 passing yards. Impressive stuff, but maybe we should have seen it coming from Longo’s offense.
While Shea Patterson is easy to write off as a bust for many, he performed well in Longo’s offense at Ole Miss before being injured. That injury forced a little-known junior college transfer named Jordan Ta’amu to play. Once again, Longo’s system worked well and Ta’amu threw for 5,800 yards with a touchdown to interception ratio of 30-12 in a season and a half of action. Ta’amu is now a member of the Kansas City Chiefs. Many Ole Miss fans were done with Longo well before he left Oxford. However, the Rebels went from ranking 16th nationally in offensive efficiency to 53rd (according to FEI) in just one season after he left Oxford for Chapel Hill.
No. 6: Jeff Brohm, HC, Purdue
Purdue’s offense had a rough year last fall, but that shouldn’t take too much luster off Brohm’s stock as a play-caller. Injuries decimated the offense. Most notably, star receiver Rondale Moore was limited to 4 games. Few programs have the talented depth to overcome losses of that magnitude, and Brohm’s program certainly isn’t one of them at this stage of the building process.
No. 5: Mike Norvell, HC, Florida State
It’s not often you see a successful Group of 5 program lose a coach to a Power 5 program and find a way to maintain momentum. Not only did Norvell accomplish that at Memphis after the Tigers lost Justin Fuente to Virginia Tech, but he improved the program during his run despite losing assistants annually to Power 5 teams. At Memphis, Norvell showed the ability to get his best players the ball in a number of ways, maximizing the talents of Tony Pollard, Darrell Henderson, Patrick Taylor Jr. and Kenny Gainwell. He also developed quarterbacks as Brady White and Riley Ferguson played their best football after transferring to Memphis. The Tigers ranked 8th nationally in offensive efficiency last season according to FEI. His start at FSU has been rocky, but he’s a masterful offensive mind.
No. 4: Dan Mullen, HC, Florida
It might be hard to remember, but Florida’s offense was a disaster not that long ago. For 2 coaching tenures, the Gators had the defenses to compete for a national title, but, unfortunately, also had the offenses to compete for a Sun Belt title. Mullen inherited a quarterback fans were ready to move on from and made him one of the better passers in the league. Then, Mullen was forced to play a quarterback who hadn’t started since his freshman season of high school and went 9-2 with Kyle Trask under center. Keep in mind, Florida struggled to run for the vast majority of the season yet finished with 11 wins. Mullen is capable of adjusting to his personnel nearly as well as any coach in the country and he proved that yet again last season in Gainesville.
No. 3: Mike Leach, HC, Mississippi State
The Air Raid is finally returning to the SEC, and if Mississippi State’s offensive line holds up during the Leach era, there’s a good chance the Bulldogs are going to set a number of school and conference passing records in the years to come. Leach’s system isn’t overly complex, but it’s proven to be among the best passing attacks in the country spanning multiple decades, conferences and locales. Washington State’s offense was rated No. 11 nationally by FEI and senior QB Anthony Gordon, who had 5 career attempts entering the 2019 season, threw for 5,579 yards and 48 touchdowns.
SEC defenses should doubt the offense Leach is bringing to the league at their own risk. There’s a reason the scheme is taking over the NFL, where they know a thing or two about defense, too.
No. 2: Ryan Day, HC, Ohio State
Day is early into his head coaching career, but he’s already engineered one of the best offenses in Big Ten history — and he did it with a quarterback starting for the first time in college in his first year in the Ohio State offensive system. The Buckeyes definitely had a talent advantage over every opponent it faced leading up to its latest appearance in the College Football Playoff, but the unit was so productive, it still managed to rate No. 1 nationally in FEI (which is adjusted for the level of competition). What that means is, despite having an advantage in talent, Ohio State never played down to the competition. The Buckeyes also played better late in the system, averaging over 53 points per game in the month of November playing 4 conference opponents.
No. 1: Lincoln Riley, HC, Oklahoma
Another year, another Sooner quarterback went on to be named a Heisman Trophy finalist before being drafted by an NFL team. Jalen Hurts didn’t win the Heisman and wasn’t been a first-round pick like the 2 signal-callers who preceded him in Norman, but the job Riley did helping develop Hurts in one season might prove to be his best coaching job yet. Hurts registered his best season as a passer and led an OU offense that averaged more than 42 points per game in 2019. According to FEI, Oklahoma’s offense ranked as No. 4 nationally in offensive efficiency.