Ranking the Top 25 College Football Coaches Heading into 2015

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2015

Ranking the Top 25 College Football Coaches Heading into 2015

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    It's the players who score the touchdowns, make the tackles and ultimately win the games. But without a great coach guiding them along, on-field talent can only take a team so far.

    That is why being a head coach in college football is a seven-figure job for most of the best in FBS. Yet a lofty salary alone doesn't automatically dictate how good (or successful) a coach is. Otherwise, we wouldn't be reading stories about coaches—cough, Charlie Weisgetting paid millions to not coach after getting fired in the middle of lucrative contracts.

    To determine which are the best coaches in the game, we've ranked them based on what they've done at their current schools, how they've fared for their career and whether they're trending upward or not. We had to draw the line somewhere, though, which is why one thing you will not see here are coaches in their first year with a program, as our rankings are based on performance more than reputation.

    Sorry, Jim Harbaugh.

    Follow along to see which coach made the top of our list heading into the 2015 season.

25. Butch Jones, Tennessee

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    Career record: 62-40

    Butch Jones enters his third year at Tennessee, his third stop on a head coaching career that began at Central Michigan and moved on to Cincinnati. Each of those previous gigs was only for three seasons, but Jones doesn't appear to be heading anywhere else considering what he's slowly building with the Volunteers.

    Last season, Jones oversaw one of the youngest teams in the country, with more than 20 true freshmen participating, including several impact starters. He's dominated on the recruiting trail, landing the fourth-best class this year after ranking seventh in 2014.

    We saw what he was able to do with that last crop of prospects, and now with an even better group headed to Knoxville, Jones has this long-middling program poised to break through and return to its old level of prominence from the 1980s and 1990s.

24. Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana-Lafayette

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    Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

    Career record: 102-37

    What has Mark Hudspeth done in his four years at Louisiana-Lafayette, his first FBS job after previously coaching at the Division II level? Oh, just four consecutive nine-win seasons, each culminating in a bowl victory (the New Orleans Bowl each time).

    The one thing Hudspeth has yet to accomplish is a breakthrough win over a power-conference opponent, going 0-6 against teams from the Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC, which might be the only reason he hasn't been scooped up by a bigger school looking for someone to help right a sinking ship.

    Hudspeth and the Ragin' Cajuns have another pair of opportunities this year, opening at Kentucky and then visiting LSU in October. If he were to succeed in either of those games, expect him to be coaching somewhere else in 2016.

23. Bret Bielema, Arkansas

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    Career record: 78-39

    When Bret Bielema made the choice to leave a pretty good situation at Wisconsin for an uncertain one in Arkansas, it turned a lot of heads and prompted plenty of questions about whether Bielema could handle the rigors of the SEC. It took less than two seasons to see that he was all hog, and he's got the Razorbacks headed in the right direction.

    He lost his first 13 conference games yet kept managing to have his team look better each time out. Then came the breakthrough: back-to-back shutout wins over ranked teams LSU and Ole Miss, and a month later, his team dominated Texas in a bowl game.

    Using a ferocious defense and a run-oriented offense operating behind a massive offensive line, Bielema is getting it done with a different formula from what most coaches use to turn a program around.

22. Justin Fuente, Memphis

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Career record: 17-20

    Don't let the losing record fool you: Justin Fuente is a coach on the rise, and he's not likely to be at Memphis much longer. He's only still with the Tigers following last year's breakthrough season because the up-and-coming 38-year-old wants to see through what he's built, and it's quite an impressive construction.

    Before taking over the Tigers in 2012, the program had won five games over the previous three seasons. His first two teams only won a combined seven games, but the work put in during those years resulted in a rise from 3-9 to 10-3 and the program's first conference title since the early 1970s.

    That turnaround made Fuente No. 1 with a bullet on the list of hot young coaches in FBS, something he has acknowledged comes with the territory. But he's also pointed out why he's not in any hurry to jump to something bigger (and more lucrative).

    "I have a lot of sweat equity invested in this program," Fuente said in December on The Geoff Calkins Show, per Chris Vannini of CoachingSearch.com. "I have a lot of pride in what we've done. We have a fantastic coaching staff. I think we have a great support system to truly build a football program. So it'd have to be something pretty special for me to even look at it."

21. Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech

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    Career record: 165-74

    In an era where innovation and constant adaption seem necessary in order to make it in college football, Paul Johnson is a stubborn old-timer who refuses to change how he operates to better fit in. And that's working just fine for him, thank you.

    Last year, Johnson's old-school triple-option offense, which he's used since he was coaching at the FCS level and at Navy—places where such an approach can help neutralize a lack of talent—produced great results in terms of yards, points and wins. Georgia Tech won the ACC's Coastal Division, took defending national champion Florida State to the wire in the conference title game and then ran over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.

    Johnson couldn't resist poking fun at the nation's top-rated conference after that victory, telling ESPN's Maria Taylor (h/t Sports Illustrated) "and for at least a week or two we don't have to hear about the SEC."

20. Chris Petersen, Washington

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    Career record: 100-18

    Of all active FBS coaches, none reached triple digits in wins quicker than Chris Petersen. He hit that milestone in the final game of the 2014 regular season, a victory over rival Washington State last November that gave him the same number of wins (eight) in his first year with Washington that predecessor Steve Sarkisian didn't achieve until his fifth and final year in Seattle.

    Granted, the 8-6 mark from last year was the worst of Petersen's career, but after eight seasons dominating with Boise State, he was ready for a bigger challenge and has so far showed he's capable of succeeding at the power-conference level.

    This second year will really dictate whether Petersen can hack it, though, because he'll be working with more of his own players and less with what Sarkisian left behind.

19. Charlie Strong, Texas

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    Career record: 43-23

    Yes, Texas had a losing record last season, the first under Charlie Strong, and the Longhorns looked really bad in their bowl game loss to Arkansas. But results aside, the start of Strong's tenure in Austin has to be looked at as a rousing success when compared to the direction the program was heading and when looking at the foundation he's laying out.

    In other words, what Strong did in 2014 with Texas is just the start, and it will only get better. It's an approach that already worked once for him, at Louisville, and looks like it will be successful with Texas as well.

    Strong's hard-line approach to discipline and core values led to many players leaving the program before he ever coached a game, yet this didn't stop recruits from wanting to be a part of his second team for 2015. A top-10 class was signed, chock-full of players who identify with Strong's message and will no doubt lead to rising results in the immediate future.

18. Mark Richt, Georgia

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    Career record: 136-48

    With nine seasons of at least 10 victories and only one losing mark in 14 years, Mark Richt has been wildly successful by national standards. By SEC standards and what has become expected of him by the fanbase, though, Richt is often painted as an underachiever who doesn't have what it takes to make Georgia what it's capable of.

    Because the Bulldogs haven't been part of the BCS or the playoffs since 2007 and haven't been in the SEC title game since 2012, the perception is that he hasn't done much despite usually having one of the best groups of talent in the country. Last year, he had Todd Gurley at his disposal, but because Georgia only won 10 games (never mind the fact Gurley missed four games because of an NCAA suspension and then tore his ACL), it was a bad year.

    This season, he's got Nick Chubb, as he did for much of last year, and expectations are once again high, but if he isn't at least in the SEC championship, it will again be looked at as a disappointment by many. Yet considering how many other power programs have had one or more downturns during Richt's tenure, his continued overall success is deserving of more praise.

17. Les Miles, LSU

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    Career record: 131-50

    Based on eccentricities and creativity alone, Les Miles would be far higher on this list. The coach known as the "Mad Hatter," for a variety of reasons, he is one of the wildest leaders in the game, though his teams haven't been performing as well as they have in the past.

    LSU has lost 11 games in the past three years, and while much of that has been due to the program getting annually pilfered by the NFL, Miles' reputation for developing professional talent is why he continues to land top-tier recruits. This hasn't translated into on-field results of late, but Miles is no less dedicated to success than before, and the recent downturn might actually serve as a great motivator for him to mix things up and get back on top.

    If not, Miles might keep moving down this list—he was third last year—and might be on his way out in Baton Rouge, according to Bleacher Report's Ben Kercheval.

    "2015 may not be a year in which Miles gets fired if he doesn't meet expectations," Kercheval wrote. "However, it could be the year when the countdown clock officially starts ticking—and when it becomes abundantly clear that the good just isn't good enough anymore."

16. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State

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    Career record: 46-31

    College football has always been big in Mississippi, yet the success hasn't always matched the interest. But last year saw the state become the center of the sport's world with Ole Miss and Mississippi State getting off to unbeaten starts and MSU reaching No. 1 in the nation for the first time.

    Both Dan Mullen and Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze have been instrumental in this revolution, but Mullen's work has stood out more because of the perseverance he's shown over a longer time period and a tougher road to navigate out of Starkville than it would be from Ole Miss' Oxford campus.

    Mullen hasn't been able to land recruits at the same rate and quality as Ole Miss or other SEC teams, having the conference's 12th-best recruiting class last year and ranking eighth in the league for 2015. But as important as landing talent is to success, even more so is the ability to cultivate it, which is what has Mullen where he is in our rankings.

15. Bill Snyder, Kansas State

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    Career record: 187-94-1

    Bill Snyder retired from Kansas State in 2005 and shortly thereafter had the school's football stadium named in his honor. He came back to the sidelines four years later and has been as good (if not better) than during the first run, when he transformed the Wildcats from an afterthought to a perennial contender.

    He's now a Hall of Famer, getting inducted this past winter, and despite being 75, he shows no signs of slowing down or hanging up his trademark windbreakers.

    Snyder has seen the college game go through countless changes and upgrades since his first season in Manhattan in 1989, yet rarely during his run has he seemed anywhere remotely close to being behind the times.

14. Mark Helfrich, Oregon

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    Career record: 24-4

    Mark Helfrich had some big shoes to fill when he was tabbed to replace Chip Kelly at Oregon, and as recently as five months ago, it didn't look like he was going to be able to do it. At least, that's how media in that state were looking at it after the Ducks were upset at home by Arizona in October.

    "Right now, the University of Oregon shouldn't be worried about whether it can climb with one loss back into the national playoff hunt," wrote John Canzano of The Oregonian. "It should be worried about whether the coaching staff has what it takes to keep Oregon as relevant as it should be."

    Three months later, Oregon was playing for a national title. And Helfrich's refusal to panic after one loss was a key to that championship appearance.

    One of the more even-keeled coaches in the game, certainly at the power-conference level, Helfrich didn't let that shocking loss (or the reaction it got locally) affect his approach. As a result, the Ducks were able to maintain the level that Kelly had gotten them to, and Helfrich seems poised to keep them there.

13. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona

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    Career record: 146-98-2

    The only coach on this list who has a firing on his resume, Rich Rodriguez's ranking is probably as high as it is in spite of that termination because of how he's let that blemish influence the rest of his career. Getting fired from Michigan before having a chance to establish himself has been a big reason he's done as well as he has at Arizona.

    With the Wildcats, Rodriguez has reached bowl games in all three seasons, something two other coaches at the school had done before but never right at the beginning of their tenure. Rodriguez has achieved this by infusing his intense approach with humility that came from his three years at Michigan, while also tapping into how he built West Virginia up before that.

    Rodriguez has turned Arizona into a relevant program, something it hadn't ever really been before, and he's doing it by turning unheralded recruits (Ka'Deem Carey, Scooby Wright) into superstars.

12. Todd Graham, Arizona State

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    Career record: 77-41

    Now that he appears to have found a place to put down roots, instead of coaching out of a suitcase, Todd Graham is showing at Arizona State why he has been a coach that so many programs have wanted despite his tendency to move around.

    With the Sun Devils, Graham has won 28 games in three seasons, the program's best run since the early 1970s. He's done it with an aggressive approach to defense, a willingness to be diverse and multidimensional on offense and a level of confidence that might seem cocky to outsiders but to his players is met with intense dedication.

    Anyone who is willing to rock a pop star-type headset on the sidelines is someone who doesn't lack for nerve.

    Prior to Graham's arrival at ASU, the team had a reputation for getting flagged at alarming levels, but in his tenure, the Sun Devils have ranked in the top 10 each season in fewest penalty yards.

11. Jim Mora, UCLA

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    Career record: 29-11

    It hasn't taken long for Jim Mora to turn Los Angeles back into a two-team college football town. His three-year record with UCLA is the best stretch the program has had since the late 1980s, and it came at a time when rival USC was going through its own transition and enabled the Bruins to rise with less of a need to have to compete for attention.

    Mora's quick success at UCLA made his name a hot ticket for potential NFL openings this past offseason, but sticking around to taste the fruit he's cultivated is a huge boost to the program and also helps his own reputation. With so many coaches constantly looking for the next best thing, his choice to stay adds to his renown.

    "With Mora coming back, the Bruins won't need to find a new identity," Bleacher Report's Kyle Kensing wrote. "They can focus on continuing to develop the current and proven successful model."

    That model is a direct reflection on Mora, who is intense and driven and shows that in how he coaches.

10. Gus Malzahn, Auburn

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    Career record: 29-10

    Gus Malzahn is coming off the worst season of his brief head coaching career, but that's saying something when going 8-5 counts as a bad year. The season before that, he had Auburn in the national championship game, and with the moves he made in response to the 2014 performance, he's apt to get the Tigers back into the title hunt quickly.

    Though he's built his reputation on being one of the most innovative offensive minds in the game, Malzahn recognized the importance of having a strong defense in order to truly compete in the SEC. That prompted him to quickly scoop up Will Muschamp after he left his job as Florida's head coach, tapping into Muschamp's strong reputation as a defensive guru.

    This will make the 2015 Auburn team one that's almost run by two head coaches, though it will still be Malzahn at the wheel. And while he's got a predilection toward running the ball, he's adapting the offense to fit with the personnel in place by shifting to a more pass-oriented attack this season with Jeremy Johnson expected to be the team's quarterback.

9. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame

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    Career record: 216-77-2

    Brian Kelly is like a lot of the coaches who preceded him at Notre Dame in that he came to the school as a coach on the right and quickly had success. How he differs from most of the Fighting Irish's most recent coaches is that he appears equipped to overcome the backslide that has occurred since his best performance.

    Kelly got Notre Dame into the 2013 BCS title game after going unbeaten during the 2012 season, his third at the school, but since then has seen his win total drop to nine the following year and eight last season. Bob Davis, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis all trended downward after big years, and their inability to return to prominence cost them their jobs.

    How does Kelly plan to avoid repeating history? It will come through a combination of intensity, drive and a willingness to bring in good people to work around him, such as new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford from Boise and former Irish players Todd Lyght and Autry Denson.

    "It appears Kelly has taken last year's performance personally," wrote Bleacher Report's Keith Arnold. "After watching Everett Golson regress throughout the season and the Irish offense perform well below his expectations, he's looked outside his office walls to solve the problem."

8. Gary Pinkel, Missouri

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    Career record: 186-103-3

    When Gary Pinkel came to Missouri from Toledo in 2001, he was in his late 40s and at a point in his career where he wanted a new challenge. He succeeded in turning the Tigers into a regular contender in the Big 12. A little more than a decade later, he was presented another opportunity to prove himself as a coach.

    And after one get-acclimated season, Pinkel has accomplished what seemed improbable: making Missouri a perennial player in the SEC.

    Missouri is the two-time defending East Division champion, giving the school at least a share of five division crowns in the past eight years. There haven't been any conference titles yet, but the success these past two seasons has Mizzou poised to become the standard in the East despite being as far west as any team in the conference.

    Pinkel will be 63 when he begins his 15th year at the school this fall, yet he's coaching like someone 20 years younger.

7. Gary Patterson, TCU

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    Career record: 132-45

    Gary Patterson got his start at TCU when the school was still in the Western Athletic Conference, and he is the reason the Horned Frogs not only earned an invite to the Big 12 but have become a player in that league and not just someone to help fill out the lineup.

    He won in Conference USA and the Mountain West, getting TCU into BCS games, but then faced a bump in the road at the start of the move to the Big 12. But then Patterson made the necessary adjustments, which included deferring to others and buying into the need to have a more diverse offense. He brought in co-coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham, who paired with Patterson's defensive acumen to make the 2014 Frogs one of the most improved teams in the country.

    They were also one that was very deserving of a playoff spot, something Patterson has continued to point out since getting snubbed for the semifinals. But those comments aren't so much about sour grapes as an indication of how invested he is in the TCU program he's seen through numerous league moves and profile upgrades.

    "We wanted to be in the playoff, but I'm not sure the way it all was handled that TCU didn't gain even more from not being it in," Patterson told The Associated Press (h/t ESPN). "There's a lot of positives that came out of how everything turned out."

6. Dabo Swinney, Clemson

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    RICHARD SHIRO/Associated Press

    Career record: 61-26

    All of the stress that came with the start of Dabo Swinney's career at Clemson seems to have paid off, because now he's become one of the most consistent winners in the game and a coach who can be counted on to win at least 10 games every season.

    Swinney took over the Tigers midway through the 2008 season, after Tommy Bowden jumped ship six games into the campaign, and he got them into a bowl. He won the ACC's Atlantic Division the next year, leading to a huge bump in expectations, then finished below .500 the following season.

    Since then, though, it's been all positive for Swinney and Clemson. Four straight 10-win seasons, two trips to the Orange Bowl and an increasing national reputation have made Swinney one of the best in the country, and this has paid off in improved recruiting—the Tigers' 2015 class was ranked eighth by 247Sports. After beating rival South Carolina last season, Clemson might also be a leg up in in-state supremacy.

5. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State

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    Career record: 58-11

    The highest ranked of our head coaches who have only had one such job, Jimbo Fisher continues to rise up the list even though his team wasn't able to repeat as national champion. He did still manage to get the Seminoles through another regular season without a loss and made the playoffs, only to run into a buzzsaw in the form of Oregon.

    But even more impressive last year was the work Fisher did in keeping his players focused on the task at hand rather than giving in to the growing interest in the program. The lights shined brighter than ever on the Seminoles in 2014, not just because they were defending champs but also because of the presence of a mercurial figure in Jameis Winston and his numerous headline-making off-the-field actions.

    Fisher did what a program leader is expected to do in such a situation, which was to stand between his team and the media firing squad and take all of the shots to his own bow. He ardently defended his school, his players and his decisions yet never let this extra responsibility affect the game plan for that week's contest.

4. Art Briles, Baylor

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    Career record: 89-62

    For almost every other coach on this list, the school he's at was either quite good at football before he arrived or has had plenty of success in the past. And then there's Art Briles and what he's done at Baylor, which to put it bluntly is pick it up off the scrap heap and remodel it to where it's as shiny as any new car at the dealership.

    Baylor is coming off two straight Big 12 titles (or shares of them), which is exactly two more than the program had in its previous 18 years. The three 10-win seasons in the past four years tripled the school's existing total in that category.

    But to truly understand what Briles has accomplished at Baylor requires a stroll into McLane Stadium, the $266 million on-campus facility that the success he's brought to Waco helped build. Combined with the attention that came with having a Heisman-winning quarterback—Robert Griffin III—this has turned what previously had been the least successful of Texas' power-conference programs into the one that's fastest on the rise.

3. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

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    Career record: 93-48

    In a state where maize and blue have been the primary colors for so long, Mark Dantonio has turned much of the Great Lakes State toward the dark green hue that Michigan State wears. In doing so, he's enabled Michigan's little brother to rise up and gain the upper hand in the fight for in-state supremacy, while also turning the Spartans into a perennial national power.

    Aside from a one-year lull in 2012, Dantonio's Spartans have had at least 11 wins every season since 2010. That stretch includes a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl, as well this past year's Cotton Bowl victory in which MSU rallied from a three-touchdown hole in the fourth quarter to beat Baylor.

    Dantonio has done it with a stoic-yet-intense demeanor that doesn't give away how proud he is of his team's performance, since any elation is masked behind a stone face of intense concentration. And this approach has endeared him to his players, prompting some who almost assuredly would have been high draft picks—quarterback Connor Cook, defensive end Shilique Calhoun—this spring to return to school and play one more year for Dantonio.

2. Nick Saban, Alabama

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    Career record: 177-59-1

    Two years in a row without a national championship? Nick Saban must be slipping, right?

    Not at all. If anything, the fact that Saban hasn't managed to play for a title since the end of the 2012 season should make his upcoming Crimson Tide team even more dangerous, because a coach of his mettle doesn't settle or become complacent; he is constantly striving to be the best.

    With four national titles—three at Alabama, one at LSU—and nine 10-win seasons in his last 12, Saban is nowhere near the point in his career where he's on the way down. If he were, the amazingly detailed coverage of Alabama football would have spotted some cracks in the foundation, but that isn't the case when you see Saban landed another No. 1 recruiting class and has taken steps to ensure he keeps up with today's college football trends by hiring Lane Kiffin as his offensive coordinator and embracing the notion of a mobile quarterback.

    To discount Nick Saban is to ensure defeat at his hands.

1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State

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    Sharon Ellman/Associated Press

    Career record: 142-26

    Urban Meyer has re-established the "The" in The Ohio State University, bringing the Buckeyes their first national championship since 2002 last season. And the performance wasn't a fluke, as in Meyer's three years with the program he's lost a scant three games, including only one to a Big Ten opponent.

    But Meyer isn't atop this list just because of what he has done in his short tenure in Columbus. If that were the first place he'd had success at this level, it would be one thing, but Meyer has excelled everywhere he's been, even at the outset of his career when he won 17 games in two years at Bowling Green.

    He had an unbeaten season with Utah, getting it into a BCS bowl, then won two national titles with Florida. Now he's done it again, with one of the most storied programs in the country, and it took hardly any time at all.

    "There are probably 45 teams in FBS football where Urban Meyer would make the playoff," Clay Travis of Fox Sports wrote. "He's just that good."

    Team recruiting rankings per 247Sports.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.