Debating who is a better coach is a pastime among college football fans. With players typically staying at schools for a maximum of four years, coaches are the constant in college football. And, for many programs with long-tenured coaches, those coaches can become an extension of the university themselves.
With the 2020 season quickly approaching — assuming it happens on-time or in some normal fashion — here’s our list of the top 25 coaches in college football. You’ll see a lot of familiar faces. It includes coaches who have won national championships as well as those who have become consistent long-term winners at their current programs.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
What, did you think someone else was going to top this list? Only Dabo Swinney has a legitimate case to challenge Saban as the best coach in college football and we’re going with longevity over the standard of recent success.
Despite a “down” 11-2 season that resulted in no SEC West title and a Citrus Bowl, Saban’s winning percentage at Alabama is over 87 percent. And his teams have won 10 or more games in every season but his first in Tuscaloosa. Throw that 7-6 campaign out of the mix and Saban is 150-17 with five national titles in the last dozen years. That’s crazy, crazy good.
2. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
As Saban has gone 150-17 in those last 12 years, Swinney is 130-31 as Clemson’s coach. Fifteen of those losses came in his first three seasons after taking over midway through the 2008 campaign.
After that, Clemson hasn’t won fewer than 10 games in each of the last nine seasons and has been to the last five College Football Playoffs with two national championships. That’s the longest active streak of any program and ties Alabama for the longest streak overall. And — if college football happens as planned in 2020 — it feels like we’re destined for another Alabama-Clemson matchup in this year’s playoff.
3. Ed Orgeron, LSU
Three years ago it would be crazy to think that Orgeron could be this high on the list. But that’s what a national title with what could be the best team in college football history can do for a coach’s status.
The real test for Orgeron and his staff begins in 2020 and beyond. The 2019 champs lost a ton of talent to the NFL, including offensive assistant Joe Brady and Heisman-winning quarterback Joe Burrow. But there are still a lot of good players Orgeron recruited to LSU, including WR Ja’Marr Chase.
Since taking over as LSU’s coach midway through the 2016 season after Les Miles was fired, Orgeron has gone 40-9. That’s a winning percentage few college coaches can match.
4. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma
Both Riley and Bob Stoops have coached Oklahoma teams for three seasons in the College Football Playoff era. Riley’s teams have made the playoff in all three of his seasons while Stoops’ teams have gone once.
That’s not to say that Riley is a better coach than Stoops. The Sooners did, after all, win a national title under Stoops’ watch and make it to two other BCS title games. Riley’s teams have all lost in the CFP semifinals like Stoops’ team did in 2015. But Riley’s offenses are the most fun to watch in college football, and he’s proven that he can modify them for any quarterback, whether it’s Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray or Jalen Hurts.
5. Ryan Day, Ohio State
We’re confident that Day is more than a one-season wonder after succeeding Urban Meyer at Ohio State. He was an easy 3-0 as Meyer’s interim coach to start 2018 and then his team simply went 13-1 in 2019 and were a couple of bounces away from a potential matchup with LSU in the national title game.
Day’s established himself alongside Riley as one of the best offensive minds in college football and signed the fifth-best recruiting class in 2020. More impressively, Ohio State is currently tops in Rivals’ 2021 recruiting rankings and is the only team with three five-star recruits committed.
6. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
The two worst seasons of Whittingham’s tenure came in Utah’s second and third seasons in the Pac-12. The Utes went 5-7 in both 2012 and 2013 and it was fair to wonder if moving from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 was going to knock Utah down a notch.
It has not. The Utes have won at least nine games in five of the last seven seasons and were a Pac-12 title-game loss to Oregon from putting a Pac-12 team in the College Football Playoff for the first time since Washington lost to Alabama at the end of the 2016 season.
7. Gary Patterson, TCU
Recency bias could have Patterson a little too low on this list. Injury-riddled seasons have led to just 12 wins combined in 2018 and 2019 after an 11-3 campaign in 2017 that ended with an epic Alamo Bowl comeback.
Patterson’s Horned Frogs emerged as a power in Conference USA and the Mountain West in the early 2000s before moving to the Big 12. And while there has been an inevitable slight step back after TCU entered a Power Five conference, Patterson’s teams have won 11 or more games three times in eight Big 12 seasons.
8. Kirby Smart, Georgia
All Smart’s done in four seasons at Georgia is go 44-12 and recruited toe-to-toe with Alabama, his former employer. Not too shabby. Only Mark Richt — the man Smart replaced — has gotten off to a comparable start.
Smart also gets some credit for realizing that what happened on offense in 2019 couldn’t continue in 2020. The Bulldogs’ offense should look a lot different this season with new offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Smart could have again relied on a boring offensive formula that helped Georgia get to 12 wins and an SEC East title last season. Instead, with transfer QB Jamie Newman in Athens for one season and USC transfer J.T. Daniels waiting in the wings, it’s clear that the status quo isn’t enough.
9. Dan Mullen, Florida
Yeah, you’re supposed to win at Florida. But Mullen’s team is coming off back-to-back seasons with 10 or more wins. That’s an achievement that Jim McElwain and Will Muschamp can’t claim. Or, quite frankly, any coach that came before Steve Spurrier.
The former Florida offensive coordinator’s success has carried over from Starkville, where he brought Mississippi State to bowl games in his eight of his nine seasons. Before Mullen arrived, MSU had never been to more than two consecutive bowl games.
10. James Franklin, Penn State
Penn State is the clear No. 2 team in the Big Ten East entering 2020. But the Nittany Lions have three 11-win seasons in in the last four and have gone to New Year’s Six Bowls in each of them.
Before he rebuilt a sanction-ridden Penn State program, Franklin was also the only coach in Vanderbilt history to have teams post back-to-back nine-win seasons. Only four Vanderbilt teams have won nine games in a season and before Franklin’s teams won nine games in 2012 and 2013, the most recent nine-win Vanderbilt team was the 1915 edition.
11. Mack Brown, North Carolina
Yeah, Brown is just outside the top 10 on this list. His hire by North Carolina ahead of the 2019 season was greeted with considerable laughter, but all Brown’s team have done was win seven games after the Heels won a combined five games over the previous two seasons. Oh, and UNC signed the No. 16 recruiting class in the country in 2020 and currently has a 2021 class that ranks at No. 8. Brown’s final seasons at Texas weren’t great, but maybe he just simply needed to go back to the school that launched him to that job.
12. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
Fisher is one of three coaches in the SEC West with a national championship. And Texas A&M fans would sure like if it if he could deliver a national title to College Station. Heck, a 10-win season would be a start. Fisher’s Florida State teams won 10 or more games in six of his eight seasons with the team, including the 2013 title. He’s recruiting well at A&M, and the Aggies should hit double-digit wins sooner rather than later, though they may need some help from other teams in the SEC West.
13. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Kelly has had just one hiccup in his time at Notre Dame and the Irish have looked prescient staying with him. All Notre Dame has done after going 4-8 in 2016 is win 33 games over the past three seasons. While Notre Dame’s BCS Championship appearance and College Football Playoff appearance went extremely poorly, the school has won over 70 percent of its games with Kelly as coach.
14. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
If you want to take a look at an extremely consistent program, just look at Iowa’s records under Ferentz. The Hawkeyes have won 10 or more games four times over Ferentz’s 21 seasons with the program and have been under .500 just once in his last 19 seasons with the team. Yeah, Ferentz’s teams aren’t the most exciting to watch, but the success is evident.
15. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota
Fleck has now proven that he can turn two programs around. After a 1-11 season in his first year at Western Michigan, the Broncos went 8-5 in back-to-back seasons before a 13-1 campaign that ended with a Cotton Bowl appearance. Fleck went to Minnesota after that 2016 season and the Gophers have improved from five to seven to 11 wins in his three seasons with the school on the way to being one of the Big Ten West favorites in 2020.
16. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Harbaugh can never seemingly live up to expectations. But his teams have won 10 games in three of his five seasons at Michigan, and Stanford improved by eight games from his first to fourth season with the Cardinal. The sky-high expectations that some college football fans have for him shouldn’t detract from his status as a top-25 coach.
17. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Auburn hasn’t reached the heights it did in Malzahn’s first season with the school in 2013 when the Tigers lost to Florida State in the BCS Championship. But the Tigers have won eight or more games in all but one of his seasons at Auburn and have been ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll at some point during every season of his tenure.
18. Matt Campbell, Iowa State
Has the Big 12’s lack of a second consistent challenger to Oklahoma opened the door for Iowa State to emerge as a top-half team or is that emergence due to Campbell’s arrival? It’s probably a combination of both. Iowa State has won 23 games over the past three seasons. That’s just shy of Iowa State’s 24 wins in three seasons from 1976-78 when Earle Bruce was in charge before heading to Ohio State.
19. David Shaw, Stanford
What does the 2020 season have in store for Stanford? Shaw’s status as one of the elite coaches in college football could be tested after an injury-riddled 2019 led to a 4-8 season and the worst mark of his tenure in Palo Alto. Stanford has won at least 10 games in five of his nine seasons in charge, but that last 10-win season came in 2016.
20. Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia
After what seemed like a surprise decision to leave BYU after 11 successful seasons, Mendenhall has put Virginia in the top half of the ACC. The Cavaliers, coming off an ACC Coastal title, had just their third nine-win season of the 2000s in 2019 after an 8-5 season in 2018. Mendenhall’s BYU teams never finished below .500 and he took Virginia from 2-10 in his first season to 6-7 in 2017.
21. Chris Klieman, Kansas State
Kansas State might have made the hire of the 2018 offseason. Klieman followed four national titles in five seasons at North Dakota State — where his teams went an astonishing 69-6 when he was the head coach — with an 8-5 debut season at Kansas State. Just four coaches have won eight games in a season at KSU: Guy Lowman in 1912, Bo McMillin in 1931, Bill Snyder in a ton of seasons as he brought the program into modern relevance, and Klieman. That’s pretty good company.
22. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State
The coach who has a lot of relationship-building to do with his players has won a lot of football games. And while on-field success has a lot to do with these rankings, we’re not ignoring that Gundy could be a much more well-rounded coach either. On the field, Gundy’s teams have won two-thirds of their games during his 15 years in Stillwater, including six seasons with 10 or more wins.
23. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
In five seasons as Wisconsin’s coach, Chryst’s teams have never won fewer than eight games in a season. After a three-year run at Pitt where his teams won at least six games in each of his three seasons, Chryst came back to Wisconsin to succeed Gary Andersen and has become one of the most successful coaches in school history. No other Badgers coach has won 10 or more games in a five-season span. Chryst also has three Big Ten West titles under his belt.
24. Tom Herman, Texas
The “Is Texas back?” question is always going to linger until Herman’s team wins the Big 12. But he’s 47-19 in his five years as a head coach at both Houston and Texas. Sure, 13 of those wins came in Herman’s first season at Houston, but he’s never had a losing record and his teams have gone 4-1 in bowl games.
25. David Cutcliffe, Duke
Duke didn’t go to a bowl in 2019 and may not go to a bowl in 2020 either. But consider where the Blue Devils were when Cutcliffe got there. Duke had been to just two bowl games since a Cotton Bowl win after the 1960 season when Cutcliffe was hired in 2008. And now the Blue Devils have been to six bowl games over the course of the last eight seasons.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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