Ranking the Top 25 Current College Football Coaches
Even though players are ultimately who decide games, the head coach is responsible for everything that happens on the field and in recruiting.
Sometimes, it's a bad thing—and the coaching carousel is an annual reminder of that disappointing fact. The best coaches, however, have found a path to consistent success and enter 2021 as some of the most recognizable names in college football.
And on this fine offseason day, let's rank 'em.
The order is subjective but uses recent performances, career accomplishments and recruiting success as factors. Additionally, program history is considered. Winning at Kentucky or Vanderbilt, for example, is historically a major challenge.
Note: All records do not include NCAA-adjusted wins.
Tier 5: The Recent Risers
25. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati
Seemingly ready to soar, Fickell has built Cincinnati into a high-level program just outside of national-title contention. Over the last three seasons, the Bearcats have posted a 31-6 record while finishing with a top-four AAC defense each year.
24. Lane Kiffin, Mississippi
Kiffin reignited his coaching career as Alabama's offensive coordinator in 2014 and has since enjoyed a steady rise. He earned a pair of Conference USA titles at Florida Atlantic from 2017-19 and immediately turned Ole Miss into one of the nation's most productive offenses last season.
23. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota
In his first year at Western Michigan, the Broncos trudged to a 1-11 record. Three seasons later, WMU went 13-0 and appeared in a New Year's Six Bowl. Fleck parlayed the success into a Big Ten job at Minnesota in 2017. Two years later, the Golden Gophers won 11 games for the first time in 115 years.
Tier 4: The High-Floor Club
22. David Shaw, Stanford
Since replacing Jim Harbaugh in 2010, David Shaw has kept Stanford as a solid mid-tier program. While the Cardinal have cracked double-digit wins only twice since 2014, the only non-2020 season without eight victories is 2019. Through 10 years, he's amassed a 90-36 record. Returning the team to legitimate Pac-12 contention would edge Shaw higher in this category.
21. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Save for Bear Bryant's tenure in the early 1950s, Kentucky has rarely had more than an occasional bright spot until Stoops, who is starting his ninth season in Lexington. Now, the Wildcats are consistently good. Sure, that's not as glamorous as "national-title contender," but context is important. Kentucky won seven-plus games from 2016-19, including a 10-win 2018.
20. Gary Patterson, TCU
Perhaps this is a reflection of an 18-17 stretch since 2018 and unfairly low, considering Patterson has a 178-74 record in 21 years at TCU. He's overseen the transition from the WAC to Conference USA to the Mountain West to the Big 12. Patterson's ability to identify and develop less-recruited players is stellar; TCU has 55 draft picks in the last two decades.
19. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Prior to an awful 2020, Harbaugh straddled the expectation-created line of underperformance and success. From 2015-19, Michigan collected a 47-18 record. That's really good! But it also included an inarguable trend of losing to the best competition, which is really bad! Until the Wolverines dethrone Ohio State, Harbaugh's job security will be uncomfortable, at best.
18. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Ferentz has built a reliable program that narrowly falls shy of the biggest goals. During his 22 years, Iowa has averaged 7.6 wins per season and failed to attain bowl eligibility in just three seasons. However, the Hawkeyes have only shared a Big Ten title in 2002 and 2004, then flirted with the College Football Playoff in 2015 after winning the conference's West Division. The baseline success cannot be ignored, but Iowa always hopes for a little more.
17. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
Similar to its above Big Ten rivals, Wisconsin hasn't yet cracked the "championship contender" barrier but has been consistently strong in Chryst's tenure. Through six seasons, he's amassed an impressive 56-19 record with four 10-win years. The next step is winning the Big Ten and reaching the CFP.
Tier 3: Your Favorite Coach's Favorite Coach
16. Mack Brown, North Carolina
The 2005 national champion with Texas has North Carolina off to a strong start. Brown inherited a program with consecutive nine-loss seasons but has notched a 15-10 mark and dramatically strengthened UNC's recruiting in just two years.
15. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
The successor to Urban Meyer in 2004, Whittingham has enjoyed a fantastic run over 17 years. He enters 2021 with a 134-66 record. Other than last year's 3-2 campaign and 5-7 seasons in 2012 and 2013, Whittingham's teams have never finished worse than 7-6.
14. Mario Cristobal, Oregon
While he's best known for consecutive Pac-12 titles and a 2019 Rose Bowl victory at Oregon, Cristobal had a productive run at Florida International, too. He took over an 0-12 team in 2007 and reached back-to-back bowls by 2011. Cristobal's next challenge is lifting Oregon into perennial national title contention.
13. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State managed a 4-7 record in Gundy's debut season (2005), and it's never come close to that bad again. In the last 15 years, the Cowboys have ended 7-6 or better with six 10-win seasons and a consistent stream of top-30 offenses—including eight of them since 2010.
12. James Franklin, Penn State
Franklin has done a remarkable job at his last two stops. First, he turned Vanderbilt into a quality SEC team and twice matched the program record of nine victories. Then, in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, he reshaped the Penn State program into a Big Ten contender again. Penn State is 60-28 under his leadership and won the 2016 conference title.
11. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
Fitzgerald is a tough evaluation because his overall record (106-81) is noticeably worse than his peers on this list. However, few coaches do a better job developing their talent. Since 2015, Northwestern has four postseason AP Top 25 rankings, a pair of 10-win seasons and two Big Ten Championship Game appearances.
Tier 2: Championship-Caliber Coaches
10. Matt Campbell, Iowa State
Easily the most prominent college-to-NFL candidate these days, Campbell has a reputation that only continues to improve. After a 35-15 stretch at Toledo, he landed at Iowa State—which had a single winning record in the previous decade. During his five seasons, the Cyclones are 35-28 and in 2020 made the program's first-ever trip to the Big 12 Championship Game.
9. Dan Mullen, Florida
Mullen is a bright offensive mind who's enjoyed considerable success at both Mississippi State and Florida. While in Starkville, Mullen's teams matched a school record of 10 wins in 2014 and made eight straight bowls. Florida has a 29-9 record, three appearances in New Year's Six games and an SEC East title in Mullen's three years.
8. Ed Orgeron, LSU
Orgeron had a rough run at Ole Miss from 2005-07, but he tallied 6-2 records as both USC's interim coach in 2013 and LSU's in 2016. The latter resulted in Coach O taking the full-time job, and he responded with a steady build toward 2019's national title. Sustained success would be the key to Orgeron rising in the rankings.
7. Kirby Smart, Georgia
From a recruiting perspective, Smart is unquestionably elite at building a staff and landing top-level talent. Since an 8-5 debut in 2016, Smart has compiled a 44-9 record with three division crowns, two SEC titles and a national runner-up finish.
6. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Kelly has a long history of high-level achievements. He won a MAC title at Central Michigan in 2006 before a pair of Big East championships with Cincinnati. Since taking over at Notre Dame in 2010, Kelly has assembled a 102-39 record with a trip to the BCS National Championship Game and two CFP appearances.
5. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
Although his Florida State tenure ended in underwhelming fashion, Fisher had a terrific eight-year run in Tallahassee. The Seminoles went 83-23, won three ACC titles and the 2014 BCS Championship Game. Since then, he's notched a 26-10 mark at Texas A&M and put the Aggies on the brink of the CFP in 2020.
Tier 1: The Big Names
4. Ryan Day, Ohio State
Would we feel differently about Day if he hadn't replaced Urban Meyer? Probably! But a 23-2 record and two College Football Playoff trips in two-plus seasons is impossible to overlook. Ohio State's offenses have thrived under Day's direction, and the Buckeyes have stayed a national force in recruiting.
3. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma
Similar to Day, Riley inherited a comfortable situation from Bob Stoops. Riley, though, already had a rising profile as a coordinator at East Carolina and Oklahoma before landing the promotion. That offensive acumen has produced two Heisman Trophy winners, another finalist last year and the 2021 favorite—oh, and four straight Big 12 titles with a 45-8 overall record in four seasons.
2. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
Beyond the obvious No. 1 choice, Swinney is the only active coach with multiple national titles. He engineered the rise of Little Ole Clemson into anything but that. He heads into 2021 with seven ACC titles, including six straight. Clemson is 140-33 with two national championships and six CFP trips in his 13 seasons.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
Also a national champion at LSU in 2003, Saban has created a powerhouse at Alabama. During his 14 seasons, the Crimson Tide are 170-23 with seven SEC titles and six national championships. There simply is no debate about the No. 1 spot.