College Football's Top 25 Head Coaches of 2012

Danny Flynn@FlynnceptionSenior Analyst IDecember 14, 2012

College Football's Top 25 Head Coaches of 2012

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    As we take a look back at the 2012 college football regular season, one thing that jumps out is how many great coaching performances there were this year.

    Whether it was David Shaw leading an Andrew Luck-less Stanford team to a Pac-12 championship, Bill O'Brien doing an outstanding job in his first season taking over a damaged Penn State program or even Brian Kelly leading Notre Dame to an undefeated season, there were plenty of coaches who deserved accolades this year.

    Here's a look at the 25 head coaches who did the best job in 2012.

Honorable Mention

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    Al Golden, Miami

    Bo Pelini, Nebraska

    Chris Petersen, Boise State

    Dabo Swinney, Clemson

    Dan Mullen, Mississippi State

    Jimbo Fisher, Florida State

    Mike MacIntyre, San Jose State

    Rich Rodriguez, Arizona

    Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech

    Todd Graham, Arizona State

25. Gary Andersen, Utah State

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    In the four years before Gary Andersen became head coach at Utah State, the Aggies had won a total of nine games under previous coach Brent Guy. This season, they went 10-2, won a WAC championship and made it to their second consecutive bowl game.

    Andersen has truly done a fantastic job, rebuilding a program that was one of the weakest in the country before he got there.

    If Andersen stays in Logan for the long haul, don't be surprised if he turns Utah State into a Boise State-type annual BCS threat.

24. Art Briles, Baylor

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    Not only did Baylor have to replace the greatest player in school history, Heisman-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III, the Bears also had to figure out how to make up for the loss of the school's all-time leading receiver, Kendall Wright.

    The loss of two star playmakers the caliber of RG3 and Wright, who were both top-20 picks in the 2012 NFL draft, would usually cripple a team's offense. However, most teams don't have an offensive mastermind like Art Briles in charge.

    This year, Briles oversaw a Baylor offense that finished the regular season ranked first in the nation in total offense and fifth in scoring offense. The unit averaged 44 points and 579 yards per game.

    While the Bears' record may have dropped from 10-3 in 2011 to 7-5 this season, they did pull off a huge upset of No. 1-ranked Kansas State, and they finished the season with big wins over Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.

23. Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State

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    Last year, Fresno State went 4-9 under coach Pat Hill, who was fired after the season. This year, the Bulldogs did a complete 360, going 9-3 in Tim DeRuyter's first season as head coach. 

    DeRuyter was able to get the most out of his dynamic offensive trio of QB Derek Carr, RB Robbie Rouse and WR Davante Adams. The team rode a potent offensive attack to a share of the Mountain West championship.

    Fresno State finished the regular season ranked 12th in the nation in scoring offense, averaging 40 points per game.

22. Mike Riley, Oregon State

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    Mike Riley has consistently been one of the most underrated coaches in college football during his time at Oregon State. However, last year, Riley's coaching credibility took a bit of a hit.

    He endured one of the toughest seasons of his coaching career, as his young Beavers team went 3-9.

    This season, Riley's squad was able to bounce back in a big way. Oregon State flipped its record to 9-3, picking up wins over Wisconsin, UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State, and nearly knocking off Pac-12 champion Stanford on the road.

    Riley's team was solid this year, but the Beavers have a chance to truly be special in 2013, given the talented players they have returning at key positions, such as RB Storm Woods, WR Brandin Cooks and DE Scott Crichton.

21. Darrell Hazell, Kent State

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    Kent State certainly wasn't a popular pick to win the MAC East before the 2012 season began. Instead of dreaming about the conference championship game, most Golden Flashes fans were just hoping to see the team's third winning season since 1977.

    They got a pleasant surprise, however, when coach Darrell Hazell led Kent State to an 11-1 run through the regular season, which included a huge upset win over Rutgers, as he guided the team to the MAC championship game in Detroit. 

    Although Kent State ultimately came up short against Northern Illinois and failed to capture a BCS bowl berth, that Hazell led the Golden Flashes to an 11-win campaign was truly remarkable.

    Following the breakout season, the former Ohio State assistant has moved back into the Big Ten to coach the Purdue Boilermakers. Hazell is definitely a coach to watch out for in the coming years.

20. James Franklin, Vanderbilt

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    Before this year, the last time Vanderbilt won eight games in a season was 1982. James Franklin obviously isn't the type of coach who focuses on the past, though. That's why he was able to lead the Commodores to their most successful campaign in 30 years in 2012.

    In just his second season at the school, Franklin has completely changed the attitude of the program and turned Vanderbilt into the type of team that nobody wants to play.

    The Commodores are no longer an SEC doormat. Instead, they're a tough, physical squad that now has the athletes it takes to make some noise in college football's toughest conference.

    Franklin has this program on the rise. However, it won't be long before bigger and more prestigious programs try to snatch him away.

19. Kyle Flood, Rutgers

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    When Greg Schiano announced that he was leaving Rutgers to become the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it appeared to be a huge blow for the Scarlet Knights.

    Schiano may have never taken Rutgers to a BCS bowl game, but he certainly raised the level of the program and made the Scarlet Knights a legitimate threat in the Big East.

    But Schiano's successor, former offensive line coach Kyle Flood, was able to have the type of instant success in his first year that few expected. He led Rutgers to a 9-3 record, and if it wasn't for a second-half collapse against Louisville in the season finale, he would have led the Scarlet Knights to an outright conference championship and BCS bowl berth.

18. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern

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    Pat Fitzgerald doesn't coach at a big power program. In fact, Northwestern could probably be described as one of the least hospitable BCS schools for a football coach due to its strict academic policy, its average facilities and its lack of past success.

    That's what makes what Fitzgerald has done as the leader of the Wildcats so impressive.

    Going into the 2012 season, the 38-year-old head coach had led his team to four straight bowl games. But this year was his best season yet. Fitzgerald led Northwestern to a 9-3 record, which earned the team a No. 20 ranking in the final BCS standings.

    You really have to appreciate what the former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year has done at his alma mater over the past few years. Fitzgerald is clearly one of the young stars in the coaching profession.

17. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina

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    South Carolina didn't win the SEC East and didn't make it to a BCS bowl game, which were two major goals the Gamecocks had before the season. However, any time a team faces a schedule that includes Georgia, Florida, LSU and Clemson and still finds a way to win 10 games, the season has to be considered a success.

    This may have been Steve Spurrier's best coaching job in his eight years in Columbia.

    Spurrier oversaw a team that outscored its opponents by an average score of 31-17 in 2012. Plus, he helped turn Connor Shaw into a dangerous dual-threat quarterback who opposing defenses feared.

16. Gary Patterson, TCU

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    Gary Patterson had to deal with a tumultuous and chaotic offseason at TCU, in which he had to dismiss a few key contributors from the team due to their involvement in a campus drug bust.

    The trouble didn't stop there, however. The Horned Frogs also lost starting QB Casey Pachall, who left the team to deal with personal issues, and top running back Waymon James before October even rolled around.

    With that, you have to give Patterson a ton of credit for how he held his team together and kept the group competing at a high level during TCU's first season in the Big 12.

    Patterson's squad may have only finished the regular season one game above .500. But the Horned Frogs did have impressive road wins over West Virginia and Texas, and they took Oklahoma to the wire on the final Saturday of the season.

15. Les Miles, LSU

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    LSU seemed to lack the same type of swagger that it had during its undefeated run through the regular season last year. For whatever reason, the Tigers just didn't seem as intimidating in 2012 as they were in 2011.

    However, Les Miles still managed to lead his team to another 10-win season, which is his sixth double-digit-win campaign in his eight years in Baton Rouge.

    Even though the Tigers lost a bunch of key defenders from 2011 such as DT Michael Brockers, cornerbacks Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne and safety Brandon Taylor, their defense was once again one of the toughest units in the country, allowing just under 17 points per game.

    If Miles can convince some of his top underclassmen to return for 2013, LSU will most likely enter next season ranked in the top three yet again.

14. Jim Mora, UCLA

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    When UCLA first announced that it had hired Jim Mora as its head football coach, let's just say it didn't exactly thrill the Bruins faithful.

    At the time of the hiring, Mora had not coached in three years after being fired following just one 5-11 season with the Seattle Seahawks.

    It didn't seem as if the Los Angeles native paid any attention to his doubters, however, as he quickly instilled a new toughness and work ethic in his team.

    Mora's much-scrutinized decision to start unproven redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley over experienced senior signal-callers Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut ultimately turned out to be the best decision that he made in his first season in Westwood. Hundley led UCLA to a 9-4 record and a Pac-12 South title.

    The Bruins' most important win of the season was without a doubt over crosstown rival USC, as it was just the team's second over the Trojans since 1998.

    Before the season, everyone around Los Angeles was talking about Lane Kiffin and his USC Trojans. But now, the buzz is all about Mora's Bruins.

13. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma

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    Just like last year, Oklahoma's dreams of winning a national championship went out the window before the calendar even said November. However, the Sooners still had one of the most impressive campaigns of any team in the country in 2012.

    The Sooners lost to two of the nation's best teams, Notre Dame and Kansas State. However, Bob Stoops' squad did beat plenty of notable opponents, including seven teams that ended up in bowl games.

    Stoops' best coaching performance came against rival Texas in the Red River Shootout. Oklahoma proved that it was the much more motivated and better prepared team. The Sooners slaughtered the Longhorns, 63-21.

12. Mark Richt, Georgia

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    We didn't see many "Fire Mark Richt!" signs at the SEC championship game this year. That's because Richt, who has received plenty of criticism from his own fanbase in recent years, quieted the naysayers by leading Georgia to an 11-win season and its second consecutive SEC East title.

    Sure, the Bulldogs weren't properly prepared for a big game against South Carolina, and yes, you can knock Richt for not calling for a spike at the end of the SEC championship game. However, overall, the 12th-year head coach had the type of season that proves he's still the right man for the job in Athens.

11. Dave Doeren, Northern Illinois

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    On one hand, it's sad that Dave Doeren won't be coaching Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl after taking the head-coaching job at N.C. State. On the other hand, Doeren still has to feel great about what he was able to accomplish in 2012.

    After leading the Huskies to an 11-win season last year, Doeren guided the team to its second consecutive Mid-American Conference title. The team's 12-1 record was good enough for the first BCS bowl berth for a MAC school.

    Under Doeren's watch, Northern Illinois finished ranked ninth in the nation in scoring offense and 18th in scoring defense, outscoring opponents by an average score of 41-19.

10. Charlie Strong, Louisville

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    Charlie Strong knew he had work to do when he took the head-coaching position at Louisville following Steve Kragthorpe, who had let the program slide dramatically in the few years prior to Strong's arrival.

    After putting together back-to-back 7-6 seasons in his first two years, Year 3 of the Strong era turned out to be a great success. The Cardinals won their first nine games before finishing 10-2, winning the Big East and earning a berth in the Sugar Bowl.

    Strong is now one of the most desirable coaching candidates in the country. But it seems as if he'd actually like to stay at Louisville for the foreseeable future, as he's reportedly working out the details of a contract extension that would keep him at the school until 2020, according to CBS Sports' Jeremy Fowler.

9. Will Muschamp, Florida

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    Will Muschamp certainly didn't make a great first impression on the Florida fanbase in his first season in Gainesville. Last year, the Gators finished the regular season with a 6-6 record after losing six of their final eight games, including five to SEC opponents.

    The team was able to build some positive momentum going into the offseason, however, by beating Ohio State in the Gator Bowl. The Gators were able to ride that momentum into the 2012 season, as they came out and looked like a completely different team.

    Muschamp, who is one of the best defensive minds in college football, turned the Florida defense into one of the nation's strongest and most dominant units. It's a defense that finished the regular season ranked third in the nation in scoring defense and fifth in total defense, allowing just 13 points and 283 yards per game.

    The Gators were able to ride that stout defense all the way to an 11-1 record and a berth in the Sugar Bowl.

8. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M

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    It didn't seem like many SEC fans expected a lot out of league newcomer Texas A&M this season, and honestly, it was hard to blame them. The Aggies had a new head coach and quarterback and were coming off a massively disappointing season in 2011.

    But that new head coach, Kevin Sumlin, and that new starting quarterback, Johnny Manziel, just so happened to be a perfect combination to give the program the boost it needed.

    Sumlin's offensive system helped turn Manziel into a national star and the Heisman winner, and that was a big reason why Texas A&M surprised everyone and went 10-2 in its first season in the conference.

    The 48-year-old former Houston head coach has proven that he is clearly one of the smartest offensive minds in football. He's a coach to watch out for in the next few years.

7. Chip Kelly, Oregon

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    Chip Kelly had to replace starting quarterback Darron Thomas and star running back LaMichael James in 2012. But those backfield losses didn't seem to have much of an effect on Oregon's high-powered offensive attack.

    Kelly molded Thomas' replacement, redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota, and James' replacement, senior Kenjon Barner, into two of the Pac-12's biggest offensive stars. Mariota, Barner and fellow RB De'Anthony Thomas formed a dangerous three-headed backfield that helped the Ducks average nearly 51 points and 550 yards per game.

    Although Oregon ultimately came up short against Stanford at home to fall out of the national title hunt, Kelly still showed off his coaching chops. He was able to deal with key personnel losses both before the season and during it and guide the Ducks to an 11-1 record and the team's fourth straight berth in a BCS bowl.

    The offensive guru will now likely be a hot name that gets linked to a few NFL jobs this offseason.

6. Bill Snyder, Kansas State

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    If it weren't for Bill Snyder, Kansas State probably wouldn't even have a football program. Before Snyder's arrival in 1989, the Wildcats had become the first major college football program to lose 500 games.

    Since then, however, Snyder has worked his magic and turned the team into a huge success story.

    Although he already had eight double-digit-win campaigns on his resume before the start of the 2012 season, you can easily make the argument that this season was Snyder's best.

    The Wildcats went 11-1, won a Big 12 title and made it to the school's third BCS bowl game.

    Snyder played an integral role in transforming a once lightly recruited quarterback out of Loveland, Colo., named Collin Klein into a national star who ended up finishing in third place in the Heisman voting.

5. Bill O’Brien, Penn State

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    Replacing a legendary coach is certainly an unenviable task, and it's one that few in the profession are actually equipped to handle. This season, Bill O'Brien proved that he could handle it.

    Not only did O'Brien do a tremendous job in his first year replacing one of the most famous coaches in college football history, Joe Paterno, what was truly remarkable was that he was able to do so under the most adverse of circumstances.

    After Penn State received crippling NCAA sanctions during the offseason, many thought that the Nittany Lions would be in store for a long, unsuccessful season. However, O'Brien got his team to gut it out during the adverse times and put together a surprisingly strong 8-4 record, which included a win over Big Ten champion Wisconsin in the final game of the year.

    O'Brien gave the folks in Happy Valley a reason to be happy again. That's arguably his biggest accomplishment, given the emotional toll the tragic sex abuse scandal has taken on the players, the students and the surrounding community over the last year.

4. David Shaw, Stanford

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    Even the most diehard Stanford fans were expecting the Cardinal to experience a significant drop-off in 2012 after losing star quarterback Andrew Luck, who was arguably the greatest player in the program's history. It was impossible to measure what Luck meant to Stanford. But somehow, the team was able to not only survive, but thrive without him.

    After a shaky start to the season, the Cardinal got on a roll in the second half of the year, piling up wins over Oregon State, Oregon and two consecutive victories over Pac-12 South winner UCLA to capture the school's first conference championship and Rose Bowl berth since the 1999 season.

    Shaw displayed great leadership ability and offensive intuitiveness in 2012. The 40-year-old former offensive coordinator definitely proved that he was the right man to succeed Jim Harbaugh, as he's manged to build on the foundation of success that Harbaugh laid in Palo Alto.

    Don't be surprised if you hear the former NFL assistant's name get linked to a few NFL head-coaching openings this offseason.

3. Urban Meyer, Ohio State

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    Urban Meyer's arrival at Ohio State was met with great fanfare and adulation by the folks in Columbus. Buckeyes fans certainly weren't happy with how the Jim Tressel era ended, and they certainly weren't pleased with a 6-7 record in 2011. However, Meyer proved to be just the man to restore the team's status a national powerhouse.

    In just his first year on the job, the two-time national championship-winning head coach led Ohio State to a 12-0 season. He was able to have so much early success mainly because highly athletic dual-threat quarterback Braxton Miller proved to be such a perfect fit for his spread offense.

    With the way Meyer's been recruiting, it looks like the Buckeyes will likely be the top dog in the Big Ten for as long as the coach decides to call Columbus his home.

    Although Meyer's squad wasn't able to prove itself in a BCS bowl game, Ohio State will still likely enter the 2013 season ranked in the top three in the preseason polls.

2. Nick Saban, Alabama

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    Alabama may have lost eight NFL draft picks from last year's national championship team, including stars such as RB Trent Richardson, linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, safety Mark Barron and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.

    However, Nick Saban proved once again this season that the Tide don't rebuild; they simply reload.

    Saban was able to fit all the right pieces together on defense and build another standout unit, which finished the regular season ranked first in the nation in total defense and second in scoring defense, allowing just 246 yards and 10.7 points per game.

    He also helped second-year starting quarterback AJ McCarron transform from a game manager into a true offensive leader.

    The living legend has already solidified his status as one of the greatest coaches in college football history. But if he's able to win his fourth national championship on Jan. 7, it may be time to start calling Saban the best college coach of all time.

1. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame

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    The first two seasons of Brian Kelly's tenure at Notre Dame could be summed up as more frustrating than encouraging. The Irish went 8-5 and made it to the postseason in both years. But outside of a big win over Michigan State early in 2011, there were no notable victories for fans to get excited about.

    That's why expectations in South Bend for the 2012 season were tempered, to say the least. Mainly it had to do with the fact that Kelly's squad had to face a grueling schedule that included five teams ranked in the preseason Top 25—USC, Oklahoma, Michigan, Michigan State and Stanford.

    It also didn't help that the Irish lost star receiver Michael Floyd and were breaking in a new starting quarterback, sophomore Everett Golson.

    This year, however, Kelly was able to get his team to step up on the biggest stages. The Irish handled their business against all the big-name teams on their schedule. Ultimately, they put together a magical 12-0 season that no one saw coming.

    Kelly deserves a great deal of the credit for the team's surprising success.

    After successful stops at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati, the 51-year-old coach has proven that he can handle coaching a big-time national power, and he's also shown that he can revive one of college football's most prestigious programs.