College football's most intriguing coaches

Back by semi-popular demand (my editor and a guy down the street said they liked it), we have the second annual Most Intriguing Series previewing the 2013 college football season. With a month to go until the games begin, we're kicking off the series with my list of the 25 most intriguing coaches:

1. Nick Saban, Alabama. Pretty simple. If the Crimson Tide wins a third straight national title, fourth in five years and Saban's fifth as a head coach, he will make a serious argument for being the greatest coach in the 144-year history of the sport. Even if he doesn't want to talk about it.

2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State. It's a close call which is growing faster: Meyer's reputation as the nation's greatest rebuilder or his reputation for coaching scofflaws. A summer full of questions about Aaron Hernandez and an outbreak of legal problems for the Buckeyes will give way to an autumn of user-friendly scheduling and a chance to start his Ohio State tenure 25-0 (at least).

3. Mark Helfrich, Oregon. After spending his entire career in press boxes watching someone else lead a team, the rookie head coach heads to the sidelines to take over a national title contender. No new head coach walks into a better situation than Helfrich, who now must prove he can Win The Day as frequently and dazzlingly as Chip Kelly did.

4. Mack Brown, Texas. One of the giant figures in the game has been cut down to ordinary size the past three seasons, going 22-16 in that time after a nine-year run of double-digit victories. Brown believes his program is back as a national contender this year. It needs to be, or the end of his Texas tenure might not come on his terms.

5. Bobby Petrino, Western Kentucky. From savant-level coach to scandal-ridden pariah, Petrino begins his career comeback well off the main stage. But look at the opportunity at his disposal: WKU opens with Kentucky and Tennessee – two schools that wanted no part of Petrino when hiring other coaches last winter. Upset a pair of SEC teams and Petrino may suddenly be a hot name on the job market once again. And past precedent says there's nothing Bobby loves more than shopping himself for jobs.

6. Lane Kiffin, USC. Last year, he was No. 1 on the Most Intriguing list. After thoroughly botching a season that began with national title aspirations, Kiffin remains in the Top 10 as a guy very much in danger of being fired from one of the Cadillac jobs in America despite USC athletic director Pat Haden's recent vote of confidence. Kiffin's many recruiting successes in three years at USC must turn into on-field successes right now, or someone else will be coaching the Trojans in 2014.

7. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M. Nobody's star is rising faster in the college football coaching ranks than Sumlin's. After helping turn Johnny Manziel into an instant Heisman Trophy winner and the Aggies into instant SEC contenders, the expectation now is a run at national title contention. If some holes have been filled in pass protection and pass rush – and Manziel hasn't partied himself into a sophomore slump – that has a chance of happening this year.

8. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame. Since January, Kelly has seen his Fighting Irish destroyed in the BCS Championship Game, flirted with the NFL, endured the Manti Te'o PR debacle and lost his starting quarterback to academic disciplinary measures. Now the challenge is whether Notre Dame can reverse that negative momentum and return to the Top 10, re-establishing itself as a perennial contender.

9. Charlie Strong, Louisville. He turned down Tennessee (and others) for a massive new contract, then started earning it with an upset romp of Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Now armed with his most experienced team in four years on the job, Strong has the talent (and soft schedule) to run the table. If the Cardinals get a lot of help from attrition in power leagues, they could have a shot at playing for the national title.

10. Bret Bielema, Arkansas. The most shocking job change of the offseason was Bielema's stealth move from the comfort of Wisconsin, where the Badgers had reached three straight Rose Bowls, to the raging inferno of the SEC West, where the Razorbacks have won just three division titles in 21 seasons. Bielema's cocky, combative air should be an interesting mix with the smoldering focus of Saban and unpredictable oddity of Les Miles.

11. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma. After Stoops reeled off several controversial comments in the spring – most notably saying talk of SEC supremacy is "propaganda" – it was fair to wonder whether he had overdosed on bitter pills or wandered into early senility. A semi-rebuilding season for the Sooners may further test Stoops' mental stability – and his eroding stature as one of the elite coaches in the game.

12. Jim Mora, UCLA. In year one he jolted the power structure in Los Angeles, winning nine games and beating USC for just the first time in six years. UCLA scored more points in one game against the Trojans than the Bruins had scored in the previous five meetings combined. Can UCLA now take the next step and reverse long losing streaks to Pac-12 North kingpins Oregon and Stanford?

13. Les Miles, LSU. No Most Intriguing List would be complete without the Mad Hatter, whose oddball personal style is nearly matched by his team's unpredictability. Miles brought in NFL offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to upgrade quarterback Zach Mettenberger and the play-calling as a whole. But the Tigers also need to fix a pass defense that collapsed late last year. There appears to be no fixing Miles' fractured syntax.

14. Gary Andersen, Wisconsin. Handed the keys to a perennial winner, Rocky Mountain lifer Andersen must prove he can handle the jump up from Utah State to the Big Ten. Given the difficulties of winning at his previous stop, you have to like his chances. If he can get some decent quarterback play at a position that was pretty sketchy last season, the Badgers can challenge Ohio State for the Leaders Division title.

15. David Shaw, Stanford. Life after Harbaugh was fine. So was life after Luck. Which means it's officially time to stop doubting Shaw and start embracing him as one of the brightest young leaders in the college game. If some receivers and running backs step up, Stanford appears ticketed for a fourth-straight season of double-digit victories and BCS bowl berths. And that is amazing.

16. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State. The Seminoles had their first BCS bowl win and first 12-win season since 1999 – and still failed to live up to expectations. Upset losses to rival Florida and middling North Carolina State can do that. Thus a coach with a 31-10 record still has something to prove, and must try to do it with a quarterback who has never thrown a college pass and a slew of new starters in the defensive front seven.

17. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State. Coach Charming has had a lovely offseason: he flirted with other jobs in a transparent power play with his bosses; severely limited the transfer options of quarterback Wes Lunt; and is still dealing with a civil lawsuit from a housing contractor who says he was fired for wearing an Oklahoma baseball shirt when he showed up to work on Gundy's house in 2011. But if new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich fits in and some running backs step up, the Cowboys could win the Big 12 for the second time in three years.

18. Hugh Freeze, Mississippi. He's made an instant impact (and some instant enemies) in the SEC, upgrading Ole Miss from two wins to seven in his first season and then setting the South on fire in recruiting. Now some of those star recruits are on campus and vying for immediate playing time as the Rebels tackle a suicidal early schedule. By Oct. 19, Ole Miss will have played at Vanderbilt, at Texas, at Alabama and at Auburn, plus home games against Texas A&M and LSU.

19. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina. The Head Ball Coach is always interesting. This year the question is whether his program's steady rise from consistent winner to Top 25 to Top 10 can go any higher. With All-Planet defensive end Jadeveon Clowney in his last semester on campus, the sense of urgency is high. But the schedule is challenging, and the linebackers and running backs are very young.

20. Dabo Swinney, Clemson. He's matured from excitable young boy to proven winner, with 21 victories the last two years and a validating Peach Bowl triumph over LSU. But with quarterback Tajh Boyd back and experience on both lines, the Clemson faithful would like a victory over hated rival South Carolina (he's 0-4) and a run at a national title. There is no dress rehearsal with Georgia as the season opener.

21. Mark Richt, Georgia. In terms of personality, he is the anti-Spurrier – as inherently uninteresting as the Head Ball Coach is interesting. But after coming tantalizingly close to the national title last year, his team is loaded on offense and favored to win the SEC East again. The endless fluctuations in Richt's approval rating among Georgia fans should be long gone, but check back after a brutal first month (at Clemson, vs. South Carolina, vs. LSU).

22. Tommy Tuberville, Cincinnati. The old Southern charmer unexpectedly pulled up stakes at Texas Tech, moving north on the map and sideways at best in the game's hierarchy. He inherits a good team in a league that is accustomed to losing coaches of Tuberville's stature, not hiring them. Best bet to challenge Louisville looks like the Bearcats.

23. Gus Malzahn, Auburn. After one season at Arkansas State, the architect of Cam Newton's offense is back on The Plains as the head coach. The Tigers were awful at quarterback last year, so Malzahn seems like a great choice to fix that. But how far and how fast can a 3-9 team bounce back after being outscored 150-21 in its last three SEC games of 2012?

24. Butch Jones, Tennessee. He wasn't the first choice. Or the second. Perhaps not even the third. But Jones was a winner at Cincinnati and should be an immediate improvement over Derrick Dooley, who talked a good game but rarely coached one. Problem is, there is a lot of improving to do before the Volunteers are back among the better teams in the SEC.

25. Willie Taggart, South Florida. This has a chance to be the Stealth Hire of the Year in college football. The charismatic, confident Taggart arrives from Western Kentucky to stop the Bulls' slide into irrelevance. Give him a couple of recruiting classes and it will happen. Then good luck trying to keep Taggart in Tampa.

Just missed the list: Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech; Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State; Sonny Dykes, California; Kirk Ferentz, Iowa; James Franklin, Vanderbilt; Brady Hoke, Michigan; Will Muschamp, Florida; Chris Petersen, Boise State; Steve Sarkisian, Washington; Charlie Weis, Kansas.

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