Ranking all 130 college football head coaches is an impossible task. However, as Athlon Sports has done for each of the last seven seasons leading up to the start of the upcoming year, we set out to sort out every FBS head coach from No. 1 to the bottom.
And as expected, for the seventh straight year, Alabama’s Nick Saban takes the top spot. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney are next, followed by Washington’s Chris Petersen and TCU’s Gary Patterson to round out the top five.
When evaluating and ranking all 130 coaches, we established a simple criteria: Everything is considered. This is not simply a list of coaches ranked by accomplishment or wins. While those aspects are important, it doesn’t provide a complete picture of how successful coaches are. Winning 10 games at Alabama is different than winning 10 games at Kentucky. Also, every program has a different amount of resources available. Hierarchy in college football also plays a vital role in how successful programs are. It’s always easier for programs with more built-in advantages to contend for a national title on a more consistent basis.
Success with any college football team starts with coaching. Even if a program doesn’t have the resources of the nation’s elite jobs, a good coach can elevate a program into national title contention. However, similar to any position on the field, statistics may not tell the full story when judging a coaching tenure.
Every team has different built-in resources available, and hierarchy in college football also plays a vital role in how successful programs are. Those factors, along with career biography/resume, success in developing talent and landing prospects on the recruiting trail factored into the ranking. Additionally, how well programs value staff (is the head coach better as a CEO or hands-on approach) and the facilities or program resources matter into forming an outlook of how coaches have performed at different stops throughout their career.
Again, wins and the overall body of work to this point are important. But our rankings also take into account a blank slate. If you start a program from scratch, which coach would you hire knowing what they have accomplished so far and their career trajectory? Remember, you don’t get the assistants — only the head coach. And head-to-head wins or last year’s position in the 130 coach list do not matter for this ranking.
Athlon’s editorial staff has voted on a ranking of coaches for all 10 conferences and the six FBS Independent programs. Here are the results for 130 coaches for 2018:
2018 Coach Rankings
15. Bill Snyder, Kansas State
Just how important is Snyder to Kansas State football? Consider this: Prior to Snyder’s arrival, the Wildcats had just one bowl trip in program history and won just nine games over the previous six years. However, Kansas State has thrived under Snyder’s direction. Snyder guided the program to 11 consecutive bowl games from 1993-2003, including two trips to the Fiesta Bowl. Additionally, K-State’s ’03 team claimed the Big 12 title and finished 11-4 overall. Snyder retired following the 2005 season but returned to the sidelines in Manhattan in 2009. The Wildcats have continued to have success in Snyder’s second act, claiming the Big 12 title in 2012 and playing in eight straight bowl games. Snyder is 210-110-1 since taking over as Kansas State’s head coach. In addition to his ability to develop players and maximize the talent on the roster, Snyder has found a way to win consistently at one of the Big 12’s toughest jobs.
14. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State
Gundy has recorded a 114-53 overall record since taking over at his alma mater prior to the 2005 season. Oklahoma State has won at least seven games in each of the last 12 years and has not posted a losing mark since 2005. Additionally, Gundy has helped to elevate the program into a consistent top 25 team. The Cowboys have finished in the final Associated Press poll seven times under his watch, including No. 3 in 2011. Oklahoma State also has four 10-win seasons over the last five years. Gundy’s 114 victories are the most by any coach in program history.
13. Mark Richt, Miami
The U is a program on the rise with Richt at the controls. The Hurricanes are 19-7 over the last two seasons, with a 12-4 mark in ACC play. Miami won the Coastal Division title in 2017 for the first time since joining the league. Additionally, the Hurricanes were in the mix for a spot in the CFB Playoff deep into last season. Richt arrived in Coral Gables after accumulating a 145-51 record at Georgia from 2001-15. Under Richt’s direction, Georgia won two SEC titles (2002 and ’05), recorded at least double-digit victories in nine seasons and finished No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll in 2007. Richt has already made a difference in just two years at Miami. Look for the upward trend to continue in 2018.
12. Chip Kelly, UCLA
Kelly has returned to the collegiate ranks following a stint in the NFL and a stop as a college football analyst for ESPN. How long will it take Kelly to elevate UCLA into Pac-12 title contention? If the past is any indicator, it won’t be long. Kelly went 46-7 at Oregon from 2009-12 and won at least 12 games in each of his last three seasons. The New Hampshire native is widely regarded as one of college football’s top offensive-minded coaches. Kelly went 26-21 with the Eagles from 2013-15 and finished 2-14 with the 49ers in ’16. UCLA’s hire of Kelly was one of the top coaching moves for the 2017-18 carousel. This should work out well for the Bruins.
11. David Shaw, Stanford
Shaw continues to raise the bar for success at Stanford. After taking over following Jim Harbaugh’s departure to the NFL, Shaw is 73-22 over the last seven years and guided the program to three Pac-12 titles. Additionally, the Cardinal have not won fewer than eight games under Shaw’s watch and also have three trips to the Rose Bowl. Stanford is also 49-14 in Pac-12 action since the start of Shaw’s tenure in 2011.
10. Kirby Smart, Georgia
Smart makes a huge jump in the coach rankings following a successful 2017 season. In his first year at the helm in 2016, Georgia finished 8-5 overall and 4-4 in SEC play. However, Smart’s second team was only a couple of plays away from winning the national championship, falling 26-23 in overtime to Alabama. The Bulldogs finished 13-2 overall, claimed the SEC title and dominated rivals Georgia Tech and Florida by a combined score of 80-14. Georgia is also winning on the recruiting trail. After finishing with the No. 7 class in 2016, the Bulldogs inked the No. 3 haul in ’17 and claimed the best class by the 247Sports Composite this cycle. Smart was one of the nation’s top assistant coaches at Alabama prior to his arrival in Athens and is one of college football’s top defensive minds. After two years, it’s clear he’s on a fast track to a place among the top coaches in the nation and has Georgia (his alma mater) poised to contend for a playoff spot once again in 2018.
9. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Sorting out the coaches ranked 2-4 in the Big Ten might be the toughest part of this assignment. Michigan has improved significantly since Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor but is still looking to take the next step and win a conference title. The Wolverines went 10-3 in Harbaugh’s debut in 2015 — up from 5-7 in Brady Hoke’s last year. Michigan went 10-3 again in 2016 and came just a couple of plays away from beating Ohio State in Columbus to win the Big Ten East. In a rebuilding year, the Wolverines slipped to 8-5 last fall. With only six returning starters and three quarterbacks receiving snaps due to injury, it’s no surprise Michigan slipped to 5-4 in league play in 2017. However, Harbaugh’s track record is strong. He went 29-6 in three years at San Diego (2004-06), finished 29-21 at Stanford, including a 12-1 mark in 2010. Additionally, he finished 44-19-1 in four years with the San Francisco 49ers and guided the team to an appearance in Super Bowl XLVII. With one of the nation’s best defenses returning, along with the arrival of quarterback Shea Patterson, Harbaugh’s team should be in the mix to win the Big Ten title in 2018.
8. James Franklin, Penn State
After a 14-12 start to his tenure in Happy Valley, Franklin has elevated Penn State back among the nation’s top programs. The Nittany Lions are 22-5 over the last two seasons and have earned back-to-back trips to New Year’s Six bowl games. Additionally, Penn State claimed the 2016 Big Ten title and have lost only three contests in league play over the last two years. Franklin’s credentials with the Nittany Lions are impressive, but don’t forget about his stint at Vanderbilt. The Commodores — arguably the toughest job in the SEC — went 24-15 under Franklin’s watch and finished in the final polls in back-to-back years (2012-13). In addition to his on-field success, Franklin is one of college football’s top recruiters.
7. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
Michigan State was one of college football’s most improved teams last season, recording a seven-win jump from 2016 to ’17. With last year’s 10-3 record and second-place finish in the East Division in mind, Dantonio jumps back to the No. 2 spot among Big Ten coaches. He’s 100-45 since taking over in East Lansing in 2007 and has just two losing records in that span. Additionally, Michigan State has claimed three Big Ten titles since 2010 and earned a trip to the CFB Playoff in ’15. Prior to his stint at Michigan State, Dantonio went 18-17 in three years at Cincinnati (2004-06) and worked as an assistant at Kansas (1991-94), Michigan State (1995-2000) and Ohio State (2001-03).
6. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
Texas A&M aimed high and successfully landed its top coaching target of the 2017-18 carousel, as Fisher left Tallahassee for a 10-year, $75 million dollar deal in College Station. As the contract indicates, the Aggies want to be a serious player in the SEC West. With standout facilities and fertile recruiting territory, Fisher should have no trouble helping this program move forward in the SEC over the next few years. Fisher had a tough assignment at Florida State, replacing legendary coach Bobby Bowden in 2010. After going 19-8 over his first two seasons, Fisher guided the program to three consecutive ACC titles (2012-14) and a perfect 14-0 season in 2013 to claim the national title. Injuries derailed Fisher’s final year in Tallahassee, as Florida State finished 7-6 overall. However, Fisher’s career mark at Florida State was an outstanding 83-23. It’s no secret the SEC West will present new challenges for Fisher. However, he’s already off to a strong start on the recruiting trail and there’s enough talent to be a top 25 team in 2018.
5. Gary Patterson, TCU
Patterson enters 2018 as the nation’s second-longest tenured coach and takes over the top spot in Athlon’s Big 12 coach rankings. The Kansas native took over as TCU’s head coach for the 2000 bowl game and has guided the program through three different conference transitions. The Horned Frogs moved from the WAC to Conference USA prior to 2001 and shifted to the Mountain West in ’05. The program landed in the Big 12 before the 2012 season, and through all of the changes, TCU hasn’t missed a beat with Patterson at the helm. He’s guided the program to a 160-57 record and has just three losing seasons in 17 years as the head coach in Fort Worth. TCU has also claimed at least a share of six conference titles, finished No. 2 nationally in 2010 and just missed out on the CFB Playoff in ’14. In addition to his success as a head coach, Patterson is one of college football’s top defensive minds and has guided TCU’s defense to rank consistently among the best in the nation.
4. Chris Petersen, Washington
Washington is a program on the rise with Petersen at the helm. The Huskies are 22-5 over the last two years, including a 12-win season and a trip to the CFB Playoff in 2016. Washington finished 10-3 last year, which gave the program its first back-to-back seasons of double-digit victories since 1990-91. Petersen is 37-17 since taking over in Seattle and has lost only three Pac-12 games over the last two years. Prior to taking over at Washington, Petersen went 92-12 at Boise State from 2006-13. During that span, the Broncos played in two BCS bowls and finished No. 4 nationally in 2009.
3. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
Clemson has joined the ranks of college football’s annual contenders under Swinney’s direction. The Alabama native was promoted to interim coach in 2008 following the dismissal of Tommy Bowden. After a 4-3 mark in the final seven games of that season, Swinney guided the Tigers to a 9-5 mark in 2009 and the Atlantic Division title. Clemson went 16-11 over the next two seasons but has not won fewer than 10 games in each of the last six years. The Tigers have claimed three consecutive ACC titles, won the 2016 national championship and have earned a trip to the CFB Playoff in each of the last three years. Swinney is 101-30 since taking over in Death Valley and has Clemson poised to challenge for the national title once again in 2018.
2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
Meyer has been a model of consistency and success at a high level since becoming a head coach in 2001. Over the last 16 years, Meyer has assembled an overall record of 177-31 and has claimed three national championships. One of those titles came at Ohio State, as the Buckeyes won the inaugural College Football Playoff in the 2014-15 season behind third-string quarterback Cardale Jones en route to a 14-1 overall record. Since taking over in Columbus, Meyer is 73-8 overall and has lost just three Big Ten contests. He’s claimed two conference titles in that span and has finished just once outside of the top six in the final Associated Press poll. Meyer went 65-15 at Florida from 2005-10, winning the 2006 and ’08 national titles. Additionally, Meyer compiled a 17-6 mark at Bowling Green (2001-02) and went 22-2 during an impressive two-year run at Utah (2003-04).
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
Saban is the easy pick as the SEC’s No. 1 coach and there’s really no debate about his place in the hierarchy of college football coaches in 2018. With five national titles in nine seasons at Alabama, the West Virginia native continues to set the bar high for the rest of college football. In addition to winning national championships, Saban has lost only 12 games over the last nine years and has not won fewer than 10 games during that span. Remarkably, Alabama has only one season of more than two losses (2010) since 2008. Prior to taking over in Tuscaloosa, Saban went 48-16 with a national championship at LSU from 2000-04, compiled a 34-24-1 mark at Michigan State (1995-99) and went 9-2 at Toledo in 1990. He also had a two-year stint with the Dolphins, finishing 15-17 overall from 2005-06. At age 66, Saban doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. He’s one of the top defensive minds in the nation, continues to reel in elite talent and produces teams capable of winning the national title every year. Whenever Saban decides to retire, his resume is likely to be the best of any coach in college football history.
Source: Athlon Sports