Welcome to the point on the college football calendar that we’ve closed the school year and spring practice is a distant memory but remain over 80 days until regular season games begin. What does that mean? Lists of the best and worst of certain things and a whole lot of them.
Bill Bender of The Sporting News released his college football head coach rankings from 132-1 on Tuesday. After just one year as a head coach Marcus Freeman of Notre Dame checked in 30th in Bender’s rankings as the Irish went 9-4 with a Gator Bowl victory in his first season.
Who did Bender rank as his top coaches and who may have showed up a little lower than we think they should have? Here are Bender’s top 35 and our thoughts on each.
Notables to miss top 35
A couple of notables to miss the top 35 in Bender’s rankings are:
Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern – It wasn’t long ago that Fitzgerald was the coach that seemingly did more with less than any coach nationally. 4-20 the last two years combined it appears the Wildcats are just less everywhere than nearly every other Power Five program. Fitzgerald dropped 22 spots compared to a year ago.
Mel Tucker, Michigan State – Beat Michigan once, benefit from an otherwise weak first part of the schedule, and cash in. That’s what Tucker did in 2021 as he earned a huge extension but the days ahead don’t appear bright for Sparty of Tucker’s $95 million contract extension. Tucker went from 22nd to 49th this year.
Joey McGuire, Texas Tech
After a first season that saw the Red Raiders compete and beat Texas, 2023 looks like a year to help establish Texas Tech and McGuire as a force going forward in the soon-t0-be reworked Big 12.
Mario Cristobal, Miami
Cristobal fell from 11th to 34th this summer after a disappointing first year in Coral Gables. With how much Miami benefits from the transfer portal, how good do the Canes have to be in 2023 in order for him to save face?
Bret Bielema, Illinois
His teams might not play the most exciting style of football but they’re always solid on defense and be the more physical team more often than not. It’s no surprise Bielema is doing what Lovie Smith couldn’t at Illinois.
Shane Beamer, South Carolina
Beamer is making it known that football in the state of South Carolina is more than just Clemson. In a traditionally tough place to win, South Carolina has gone 15-11 in his two years after playing just 6-16 ball the two years before his arrival.
Dave Clawson, Wake Forest
Clawson fell seven spots in Bender’s rankings from a year ago but Wake Forest was still plenty respectable in 2022. He may have the titled we previously had given Fitzgerald with the “doing more with less” thing.
Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame
I won’t lie – after Notre Dame’s loss to Marshall last year I was having flashbacks to Bob Davie. A big-name defensive coordinator who hadn’t previously been a head coach. Then Marcus Freeman led the Irish to a 9-2 finish that included a dominating win over then-unbeaten Clemson.
Gus Malzahn, UCF
Malzahn was chased out of Auburn pretty much for not being Alabama and has won 18 of 27 games in two years at UCF. His offensive mind certainly still works in a big way.
Sam Pittman, Arkansas
If the poll was “coaches to get a Coke with” I’d have Pittman in the top-five. A 7-6 final record after being ranked 19th to start last year though has me a bit confused how he remained in the same spot as a year ago according to Bender.
Dave Aranda, Baylor
When you’re not at a traditional football factory it’s hard to win big year after year. Aranda dipped to 6-7 last year after an Armed Forces Bowl loss but that came one year after going 12-2 and winning both the Big 12 and Sugar Bowl. Aranda might not always be 12-2 good but there aren’t 26 coaches I’d rather have.
Chip Kelly, UCLA
Known as an offensive mastermind for quite some time you can’t help but wonder what UCLA might be able to accomplish if Kelly were a bit more of a recruiter. Perhaps their move to the Big Ten will aid that?
Dan Lanning, Oregon
Lanning skyrocketed into the top 25 in large part to quarterback Bo Nix being a Heisman contender for much of 2022. How will Lanning look in year-two without his offensive coordinator (Kenny Dillingham) who left for the Arizona State opening though?
Mike Norvell, Florida State
Norvell has certainly turned the tide of the Florida State program that was lost a few short years ago. As good as they were last year, they won just one game over a ranked opponent. How will Norvell and the Seminoles show with eyeballs on them and targets on their back in ’23?
Kalen DeBoer, Washington
DeBoer restored the roar at Washington and had it not been for TCU, would have gotten even more headlines for their quick turnaround. I don’t have them as my Pac-12 favorite for 2023 but if they do win the conference I can’t help but wonder how much higher he’ll be a year from now considering he went from 61 to 23 in Bender’s rankings.
Dave Doeren, NC State
It hasn’t come with much fanfare or many headlines but Doeren has built NC State into a steady 8-plus win team. The Wolfpack have won eight or more games in five of the last six years. Can they take a step and compete for an ACC crown now is the question.
P.J. Fleck, Minnesota
Love him or hate him, Minnesota has won nine or more games in each of the last three non-COVID seasons. That’s something they did once from 2004-2018.
Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss
Ole Miss struggled down the stretch as the schedule difficulty shot up last year but Kiffin impressed me more in 2022 than any other year because the traditionally pass-happy mind of his developed a dominating run game.
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
You don’t last somewhere as long as Ferentz has without being really good but as football offenses modernize he’s going to only drop as long as he keeps his son as his playcaller.
Chris Klieman, Kansas State
Seriously, is there a better coach in the nation that gets talked about less? Maybe if Kansas State wins the Big 12 again then Klieman, who to me is knocking on the door of the top 10, will get his roses.
Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh
When he’s not busy complaining about something (although I largely agree with his thoughts this off-season) he’s turning Pitt into a stronger program as the Panthers are 26-12 over the last three years.
Mark Stoops, Kentucky
He gets the benefit of playing in the SEC East instead of the West but it takes quite a coaching talent to put fear in the Kentucky head basketball coach’s mind. Stoops is an ultimate case of “what could he do at _____?”
Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State
Still a man at 55-years of age Gundy has had 17-straight winning seasons at Oklahoma State. In case you’re wondering, Texas has finished under .500 four times in that time period.
Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
Uh, pardon me? Listen, Madonna was great at one point as well but if she was performing in my front yard I’d close the blinds. Fisher was great at Florida State obviously but that was a long time ago and his resume from roughly a decade ago doesn’t mean anything about success today.
James Franklin, Penn State
Because he plays in the same division as Ohio State and Michigan, James Franklin doesn’t get the praise he deserves. Has a Rose Bowl champion ever been talked about less than Franklin’s Nittany Lions were a season ago?
Mack Brown, North Carolina
This goes back to the Sam Pittman thing with Arkansas. If I can have a Coke and a smile with a head football coach, Mack Brown is on my short list to do so with. That said, North Carolina has played to or bettered it’s preseason AP ranking under Brown just once in four seasons (started and finished 18th in 2020).
Sonny Dykes, TCU
Dykes grew the SMU program before jumping sides of the rivalry and taking TCU to the national title game in his first season. Expectations drop with a ton of talent gone for the Frogs in 2023 but then again, they weren’t exactly sky-high in 2022, either.
Josh Heupel, Tennessee
There is something about a program that was great during my childhood returning to greatness. Doing so with a national champion quarterback from my childhood only grows that. How long will it take Heupel to unseat Kirby Smart and Georgia in the SEC East as the expectations now grow after the feel-good 2022 season?
Kyle Whittingham, Utah
To me the Utes don’t just enter the 2023 season as the two-time reigning Pac 12 champions but also as the team to beat. Their brand of physicality on both sides of the ball is not often imitated or duplicated in that part of the country.
Luke Fickell, Wisconsin
Fickell was nothing short of great at Cincinnati as he helped guide the Bearcats to an unlikely College Football Playoff appearance in 2021. How will he do in the Power Five though? The good news for him is that he enters the Big Ten West instead of the East.
Lincoln Riley, USC
He scores a lot of points and wins a lot as evidenced by turning USC into an 11-win team in just one year. Until his defense shows up in a big game though I have trouble thinking he’ll ever get much higher – or that USC will win “the big one” under him.
Brian Kelly, LSU
I poke a lot of fun at Kelly but let’s not kid ourselves – he’s one heck of a program builder. Central Michigan, Cincinnati, Notre Dame. And in one year at LSU all he did was upset Alabama and win the SEC West. He’s going to have success on the Bayou whether Notre Dame fans like it or not – but will that success ultimately be a national title? If it’s not then it’ll be hard to consider his jump a success after the reasons he gave for making it.
Ryan Day, Ohio State
Ryan Day is getting ridiculed for not being Urban Meyer and for losing to Michigan two years in a row. He’s not perfect but he builds NFL offenses across the board and get this – was probably a missed field goal away from winning the national championship last year. Not bad for a “down year”.
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
With what he’s done and how he enters 2023 there is no denying that Harbaugh is worthy of the fourth spot. I am curious though – with no non-conference schedule, Ohio State at home, and Georgia losing TONS to the NFL – if not now for Harbaugh and Michigan then will an undisputed national title ever return to Ann Arbor?
Dabo Swinney, Clemson
Swinney would also be on my short list of coaches to have a Coke with because even if he can be annoying at times his “aww, shucks” attitude hits home with me. I have a strange feeling that Clemson, who seems to be being slept on largely nationally this off-season, will have something to say to the nation in 2023 and having both Florida State and Notre Dame at home will help them do that.
Kirby Smart, Georgia
I get it, Saban is the GOAT and automatically gets number one but you have one coach to win you a national title in five years or the world ends – who are you taking? I’m backing Smart in that scenario.
Nick Saban, Alabama
I’m not going to pretend to be upset about Bender putting the greatest college football coach of the modern era at the top spot but I can’t look past the back-to-back titles for Georgia and not have Smart there in terms of the current moment.