Ranking College Football's Head Coaches - 2021
The Elite, On the Cusp & Ascending/Descending
Last year one of my initial columns was a ranking of the top tiers of college football head coaches. Its that time again here as we head – thankfully – toward the 2021 Season. We’re all thankful that it will be a much more normal, conventional season (we hope) after the bizarre COVID-palooza of 2020. Below is my ranking of the top tiers of head coaches. I’m grouping them this way: 1. The Elite, 2. On the Cusp and 3. Ascending/Descending – coaches that are either close to breaking into those top two categories or, perhaps, are descending out of it and need a resurgence. This ranking is a combination of resume, past accomplishments and where they and their programs currently sit.
As I said in my pre-2020 Season ranking there is a pretty clear hierarchy in the sport’s coaching ranks and that continues to be the case at the very top. However, there was some separation that came with our top coach’s seventh national title and there were some coaches who’s rankings were perhaps a little overheated in the bottom of the elite and “on the cusp” categories.
*Big caveat – to be in the first two categories, a coach needs to have been a head coach for more than a year at the FBS(Division 1-A level). This year instead of eliminating Group of 5 coaches or just listing good ones, I did a second listing for them below.
1: Nick Saban (Alabama) – the GOAT. He is. As Ric Flair famously said “you don’t have to like it but learn to live with it.” The 2020 Season featured the biggest challenge any SEC school has likely ever faced with COVID protocols, no spring football, and having to play 10 conference games. Alabama won them all with really just two games where the outcome was at all in doubt after the third quarter. Then they won the SEC title game and crushed both Notre Dame and Ohio State in the playoff to win the national championship. Saban signed another #1 recruiting class and an extension through 2028. He’s showing no signs of slowing down and even at 70, he’d have his pick of any college job and likely a number of NFL ones but he’s staying put.
2: Dabo Swinney (Clemson) – the only other active coach with multiple national titles as well as a run of ACC championships and playoff appearances going back to 2015, Dabo is also showing no signs of slowing down. A disappointing defeat to Ohio State brought the Trevor Lawrence era at Clemson to an early close but Swinney and the Tigers appear to have an excellent successor in D.J. Uiagalelei. They open with Georgia where Dabo will be opposite another elite coach on our list. The ACC may be improving somewhat but it’s still Clemson’s oyster. Dabo and the Tigers ain’t going anywhere soon. Would Dabo leave? Doubtful.
3A: Lincoln Riley (Oklahoma) – Despite Oklahoma’s string of playoff appearances being broken, you could argue that the 2020 Sooners, who beat Florida in the Cotton Bowl to secure an 10 win season and top 3-4 ranking heading into 2021, had to feel good about the rebound they made from a 1-2 start. Riley, the QB whisperer, has Spencer Rattler ready to fire and – credit to him – he recognized the defense had to improve. The Sooners were much improved on defense. If they can be just slightly above-average on defense, they will be back in the playoff. While Riley has never had to build a program from the ground up – which along with lack of a national title is the only other hole in his resume – there is no school in college football other than Alabama and Clemson (and perhaps a couple others on this list) that wouldn’t hire Lincoln Riley if he were a free agent. The same goes with a large percentage of NFL teams as well. It’s clear he’s an offensive wizard and can adapt his schemes to fit his personnel. Only question is whether they can get over the hump before he leaves for the NFL in my opinion.
3B. Brian Kelly (Notre Dame)– What I said in last year’s piece holds true - it’s much harder to win at Notre Dame in the modern era than people realize. Kelly, despite not being a warm and fuzzy guy – has had more success in his ten year run in South Bend than any coach since Lou Holtz and (Holtz’s national title notwithstanding) perhaps since the 1970’s. This is especially true when one considers the landscape of college football now and Notre Dame’s location and stringent academic requirements. Now that Kelly has secured a third Final Four berth after going 1-1 against Clemson – and, by the way, held Alabama to its fewest points of the 2020 Season – he’s really secured this elite status. It’s unlikely he’d leave Notre Dame for a college job but the NFL has occasionally showed interest. What’s most impressive to me is that Kelly has showed the ability to win one way, then after having the program stagnate, bottoming out at 4-8 in 2016. Kelly re-tooled, did some self-regulation and examination, and went to the playoff in 2018 and 2020.
3C: Kirby Smart (Georgia) – Kirby Smart has transformed Georgia from occasional top 5 contender to perennially competing for SEC and national titles. As I said last year, competing is the operative word however. Georgia hasn’t won a national championship since 1980 and after two odd, clunker losses in 2018 and 2019 that kept them from being able to get into the Final Four and being overmatched against Florida and Alabama in 2020 – mostly due to subpar QB play because J.T. Daniels couldn’t go physically, 2021 is a huge year for Kirby and the Dawgs. However, in my book they are set up really nicely as they’ve finally modernized the offense and improved the wide receiver position. Kirby’s recruiting is still on point and there isn’t a better defensive coach
Georgia and Kirby are still in that almost-there phase. However, similar to the Lincoln Riley question – Kirby would be a top choice in nearly every job in the country.
On the Cusp:
6: Dan Mullen (Florida) – Despite a bit of a skid to end the 2020 season, no one can doubt Mullen’s program-building and QB coaching accumen. Florida has been to three straight BCS bowls, as well as winning the SEC East in 2020, and has dramatically improved their facilities and recruiting. What Mullen did in Starkville for Mississippi State alone would have him in at least Tier 3, but his consistency and progress at Florida has him at the top of the “on the cusp” category. Can they regroup from losing offensive leaders like Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts and finish the breakthrough? We’ll see. The Florida-Georgia “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” should be fantastic this year.
7. James Franklin (Penn State) – 2020 was a dismal season for Penn State and Franklin. COVID 19 (and the Big 10’s bizarre pronouncement of cancelling, then uncancelling the season but enacting incredibly restrictive protocols on return-to-play for COVID recovered athletes wreaked havoc on the Nittany Lions. However, Franklin also had a couple of in-game coaching bloopers – including one disastrous clock management situation in Indiana which seems to be his trademark. However, up until last year, Franklin was one of only seven current coaches to take his team to eight straight bowl games in all eight of his first eight seasons as a head coach. One bad year – where it also seems like he may have had an awkward staff fit at offensive coordinator among other issues should not totally tarnish his reputation and it didn’t in the industry. If USC had made a coaching change they would’ve come after Franklin hard. Florida State inquired after 2019. His game management is a step below some of the others on this list but has improved. He’s an elite program builder and recruiter. However, to get back into “elite”, he needs a rebound and to figure out clock management and end of game scenarios.
8. Matt Campbell (Iowa State) – Busting out of the “Others Considered” category, Matt Campbell probably deserved to be on this list even before the breakthrough last year. Iowa State had, for so long, been a graveyard of coaches. A brief couple of moments in the sun in the early 2000’s with Coach Dan McCarney and QB Seneca Wallace gave way to, mostly, a lot of losing save a memorable upset or two along the way. Now, after a Big 12 championship game berth and resounding Fiesta Bowl win (the first major bowl win for Iowa State in a century), building upon several bowl seasons, Campbell is perhaps THE hottest name for a “bigger” job but for now he seems content to stay in Ames. With pretty much the whole team back from last year thanks to COVID eligibility expansion, expectations are sky-high. However, Campbell is not just on this list for Iowa State. He was a winner at Toledo in the MAC before and comes from the Mount Union coaching tree – a DIII powerhouse. Unlike some of the hot name coaches, he’s winning not on the basis of a particular offensive or defensive system so much as establishing a culture of toughness, playing hard and matching schemes to personnel. He has turned down some high profile job interview opportunities the last two seasons including – allegedly – Texas. This is a huge year – a conference title for Iowa State – which would be the first since 1912 – would bump him up even further.
9. Ryan Day (Ohio State)– Day has coached at Ohio State for two seasons and taken the Buckeyes to the College Football Playoff both times with impressive teams built around Justin Fields, including winning the semifinal in 2020 before being crushed by an Alabama team that would have probably beaten anyone. It’s hard to completely evaluate how great of a head coach Ryan Day is because he’s kept a machine going that was handed to him in a similar fashion to Lincoln Brewster but with far less longevity. Plus, Day did not reinvigorate the Ohio State offense in the same way Brewster did coming in as Stoop’s offensive coordinator – although he did improve it. I think Day could have any job he wanted in college football without question – not that anyone would leave Ohio State willingly. This year will be a better test as Ohio State has elite talent coming back and coming as always but lost Fields, Trey Sermon and other leaders on the team. Until Day wins a national title it will probably always feel like he has something to prove but another Big 10 championship and playoff appearance (or similar success) would move him up the leaderboard further. As it is, I’m ranking him “on the cusp”.
10. Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern) - An oversight in my ranking last year, I’ll admit. Northwestern was coming off a rough 3-9 campaign - but it followed several winning seasons. Fitzgerald made some adjustments to his famously stable staff and rode the Purple Wildcats’ famous recipe of tough defense and smart, ball control offense to going 6-1 in the shortened B1G season and scaring the daylights out of Ohio State in the conference title game. They then beat Auburn soundly in the Citrus Bowl for a 7-2 record and a top 15 finish. Fitzgerald in 15 seasons has slowly, at first, but steadily built Northwestern into a perennial bowl team and always a tough out. That’s something that really didn’t happen in any consistent way even when Gary Barnett took the Purple to Pasadena in 1995 or Randy Walker brought the zone read spread to the Big 10 in 2000 - there wasn’t the staying power. Fitzgerald is often talked about as an NFL possibility as he seems unlikely to leave his alma mater for another college job. There can be no doubt that he’s a top 10-15 coach at this level.
11A: Mario Cristobal (Oregon) – Cristobal took Oregon to a second straight PAC 12 championship (albeit under heavily asterisked circumstances due to COVID) and continues to regrow the program back to where it had been under Chip Kelly as far as national brand and elite recruiting. Mario has shown that he’s a strong program builder – going back to his time at Florida International before he was bizarrely let go because of one stepback season. He can recruit, coach fundamentals and represent a major program very well. Last year I asked – “Will he stay?”
He seemed to answer that by turning down strong overtures from Auburn this past offseason and signing a big extension. One big area of improvement he still needs is clock management and end of game. Also – the Ducks struggled at the quarterback position in 2020 – how much of that was lack of practice time and the rushed PAC 12 schedule is anyone’s guess. Clearly, however, Cristobal is a top 10-12 coach in the country and would be a top-tier candidate for any vacancy that may occur in the future. Also, he’s well-positioned to win at a high level at Oregon for quite some time.
11B: Jimbo Fisher (Texas A&M) – Had to move Jimbo up after last year – I had said last year that he was on this list for his Florida State run that included a national title, one of only four active coaches now. I said this - “If A&M breaks through this year (possible with a senior quarterback and a more veteran and talented team than his first two), then Jimbo will rocket up this list.”
The Aggies won 10 games and the Orange Bowl and had a legit argument to be in the College Football Playoff, losing out narrowly to Notre Dame – and I *think* probably rightly. But they ended the season as a Top 5 team and, despite breaking in a new QB this year, the Aggies are a trendy pick to win the SEC West or at least finish second again. Jimbo’s strengths are coaching to his talent, excellent recruiting and in-game management. He does need to find some more dynamism on offense I think to get A&M to be a permanent fixture in the top 10. However, the Aggies may benefit as much as any other team in America from the coming CFB playoff expansion. This is a crucial year for them to establish themselves as a top contender in the SEC more permanently.
13: Paul Chryst (Wisconsin) – Chryst continues to win, and win big, as Wisconsin head coach. As I pointed out in my recent column on Barry Alvarez’s retirement as Badger Athletic Director, Coach Chryst is continuing to build on the Alvarez blueprint but – considering that he’s three coaches after Alvarez’s retirement as head coach – we need to give credit where it is due. Chryst is successfully modernizing the Wisconsin brand – and he may have the quarterback this year to take a further step. COVID 19 problems (and the Big 10’s ridiculously over-cautious protocols for athletes) wiped out a lot of 2020’s potential but my money is on Chryst to keep them moving consistently. He could move up further with a Big 10 Championship and playoff berth but he’s clearly at the top of the “Ascending” tier.
14. Ed Orgeron (LSU) – the biggest “dropper” of this list, I wrestled with how much to punish Orgeron for a thud of a 2020 after possibly the greatest season in college football history with 2019 LSU. Losing a lot of talent, including Joe Burrow AND both coordinators really hurt the Tigers as did problems with COVID19 and other injuries and problems. However, the biggest thing seemed to be Orgeron’s lack of focus and attention to detail in replacing Dave Aranda, the outgoing defensive coordinator. The Bo Pelini hiring…did not work out well. Pelini stubbornly stuck to man to man coverage most of the season with little adjustment. The season started out so badly that the fact that the Tigers won their last two games to finish 5-5 was considered some sign of progress – at least by me. They stunned Florida in the Swamp to knock them out of national title contention and beat a decent Ole Miss team. Is Orgeron Gene Chizik? Or is he able to right the ship like Brian Kelly has at Notre Dame. We will see if 2020 was an unfortunate blip or a sign that he’s so dependent on outstanding coordinators that he doesn’t belong on this list at all. However, two straight great seasons (2018 and 2019) and a national title – again, one of only four active coaches with one – kept him at least on the “Ascending/Descending” list.
15. Kyle Whittingham (Utah)– Continued consistency, Utah under Whittingham was a Group of 5 supernova and then a PAC-12 middle of the pack team for some time until breaking through in 2018 and 2019, winning the PAC-12 South. Whittingham has reinvented the Utes more than once – it will be interesting to see how they come out of the weird PAC 12 2020 season where everyone played so few games but Whittingham would be an attractive candidate in many places in America and has kept the Utes at an above average to very good level throughout their time in the PAC 12, not easy to do.
16A: Mark Stoops (Kentucky) – In last year’s listing I called the job Stoops has done at Kentucky likely the most underrated job in college football. Even in a pandemic year where the Wildcats struggled, Stoops and company found a way into a bowl game where they then beat a very good N.C. State squad. Kentucky is a very difficult place to win consistently but Stoops has done that. They aren’t going to win SEC titles in all likelihood but they are in position to have a really great year every 3-4 with winning or .500 seasons in between. That was unthinkable a decade ago when Stoops took the job. He will always be a name in the coaching search market if he wants to be.
16B: P.J. Fleck (Minnesota) – It would be a mistake to think that Fleck is on this list because of an 11 win season in 2019 exclusively. Yes, Minnesota went 3-4 in an abbreviated 2020 where they were missing a lot of players – and had a decimated defense – but I maintain if Fleck wins 8-9 consistently it more than validates his presence on this “Ascending” list. Looking at what P.J. did at Western Michigan where he take a losing program from 1-11 to 12-1 and a New Year’s Six berth in just three years is a huge factor. He’s put Minnesota on the map and is building a more national brand, particularly in recruiting. However, He IS an acquired taste. Some people find his rah-rah persona phony (I do not). He does need to get back to winning ways to stay on this list – can Minnesota win 8-9 games this year? We’ll see!
Others considered: Tom Allen (Indiana), Bronco Mendenhall (Virginia), Chris Klieman (Kansas State), Dave Clawson (Wake Forest), Mack Brown (North Carolina), Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State)
Fallen Out from 2020:
Jim Harbaugh (Michigan) – Stale and in danger of losing job. A lot of talk about defensive woes against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State in past few years but what Harbaugh REALLY needs is to develop a quarterback.
Gary Patterson (TCU) – Patterson still commands tremendous respect from coaching peers, particularly those on defensive side of the ball but it’s clear that TCU has leveled down, he really needs a jumpstart in 2021 to return to this list.
Group of Five Ranking:
Elite: Luke Fickell – Cincinnati
Ken Niumatalolo – Navy
Jeff Monken – Army
Billy Napier – Lousiana-Lafayette
Bill Clark – UAB
Hugh Freeze - Liberty
On the Cusp:
Jamey Chadwell – Coastal Carolina
Sonny Dykes – SMU
Chris Creighton – Eastern Michigan
Willie Fritz – Tulane
Brent Brennan - San Jose State
(Note 1: Frank Solich – Ohio – Just retired, was definitely on this list as an elite G5 coach, replaced with Brent Brennan.)
(Note 2: Gus Malzahn has not coached a game at UCF yet, it’s quite likely he’d be on this list after this year)
As always, I would love to hear your thoughts. I’ll have predictions and a coaching hot seat ranking out in the coming weeks. Feedback is welcome on Twitter - @ReadyCFB.