The SEC ruled college football for the better part of a decade, but other conferences, such as the Big Ten and ACC, have closed the gap.
There are several factors involved, but maybe the most important is coaching. Other programs outside the SEC have committed the financial resources necessary to competing at the sport’s highest levels, both on the field and on the recruiting trail.
That includes spending the money necessary to land the best coaches and supporting them with an army of assistants, analysts, advisors and whatever else is deemed necessary in the college football arms race.
The demands of the job are evolving rapidly, and coaches that don’t adapt can fall behind. With that in mind, who are the best coaches in college football right now? We’re not talking about career achievements here.
What happened six or eight years ago matters little for most coaches. Just think about what has changed in the past 24 months.
The final top 10 in 2014 included Oregon, TCU, Michigan State, Baylor and UCLA. That’s three teams that went 4-8 or worse in 2016, plus two that finished the regular season 6-6. The Ducks and Bears have new coaches, and the other three will be dealing with plenty of scrutiny if their teams don’t improve in 2017.
With that in mind, here are the top 25 head coaches in college football right now:
25. Bill Snyder, Kansas State
Past five years: 43-22, 1 conference title, 5 bowls
Everything around him might be changing, but Snyder continues to succeed. There’s been plenty of turmoil in the Big 12, but Kansas State just won at least nine games for the fourth time in six years. Snyder announced he is battling throat cancer, but doesn’t expect to miss spring practice. He’s one of the best of all time in college football, and remains very much one of the best right now.
24. Bryan Harsin, Boise State
Past five years: 7-5 at Arkansas State, 31-9 at Boise State, 2 conference titles, 4 bowls
There could be six coaches on this list that spent time recently as the head coach at Arkansas State or Western Kentucky. Only four made the top 25, but those two schools have sent five coaches to Power 5 programs since 2010, and Harsin to the most successful Group of 5 program of this century.
Harsin is 4-2 against Power 5 teams with the Broncos, with wins against Arizona, Virginia, Washington and Washington State.
23. Bobby Petrino, Louisville
Past five years: 26-13 at Louisville, 8-4 at Western Kentucky, 3 bowls
Petrino is unquestionably one of the best coaches in the country, but his past still makes people uneasy about celebrating him. He didn’t coach in 2012 because of what transpired the year before at Arkansas. The Cardinals also finished the 2016 season with three straight losses after looking like a playoff contender for a couple of months.
22. Gary Patterson, TCU
Past five years: 40-24, 1 conference title, 4 bowls
The Horned Frogs have won at least 10 games 10 times since 2002. They had huge seasons in 2014 and 2015 but slipped in a mediocre 2016. Patterson has built great defenses in the past, but his teams recently have been known for high-powered offense. TCU has a lot of talent coming back and could reach double digits again in 2017.
21. Jim McElwain, Florida
Past five years: 22-16 at Colorado State, 19-8 at Florida, 2 division titles, 4 bowls
McElwain was 6-0 with Will Grier at quarterback, but is 13-8 since Grier was suspended for PED use. Grier left the program, and the Gators are still searching for answers at the position. There were also some questions about McElwain and his staff on the recruiting trail, but he made some changes, and Florida finished the 2017 cycle strong.
20. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Past five years: 38-25, 1 division title, 3 bowls
He’s had plenty of chances to leave, but Whittingham has been at Utah since 1994. Bronco Mendenhall left BYU, but Whittingham took over for Urban Meyer in 2005 and has even withstood some turbulence with his superiors recently to keep the Utes rolling. They’ve won 28 games in the past three seasons.
19. Les Miles, free agent
Past five years: 39-15, 4 bowls
Miles had some issues at LSU, most notably some questionable in-game decisions and trouble embracing a more modern offense. His biggest problem was that he couldn’t keep up with Nick Saban. He can still recruit and develop players, and paired with the right offensive coordinator, Miles could have another successful run.
18. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State
Past five years: 45-20, 5 bowls
Gundy has turned Oklahoma State into a consistently successful, but just shy of elite, program. The Cowboys were an overtime loss in 2011 away from the breakthrough, but Bob Stoops and Oklahoma have been a problem in three of the past four seasons. Gundy should have one of the best offenses in the nation in 2017, and another chance to contend for a playoff spot.
17. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
Past five years: 40-25, 5 bowls
There are probably five schools in the SEC West where just finishing second to Alabama consistently wouldn’t be good enough. Mississippi State is the exception, and Mullen is one of the best coaches in the league. Dak Prescott’s NFL stardom will probably be a valuable asset in recruiting as well. It needs to be noted that the Jeffrey Simmons situation, a 5-star prospect caught on camera assaulting a woman, was handled very poorly.
16. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
Past five years: 19-19 at Pittsburgh, 21-6 at Wisconsin, 1 division title, 5 bowls
Chryst didn’t win big at Pitt, but he brought some stability to a program that desperately needed it. He has won big at Wisconsin, and nearly won the Big Ten last year. Chryst is going to have another new defensive coordinator, but the Badgers look like the class of the West for 2017. Another season with double-digit wins could push him closer to a spot in the top 10 on this list.
15. Mark Richt, Miami
Past five years: 39-13 at Georgia, 9-4 at Miami, 1 division title, 5 bowls
Richt is another veteran SEC coach whose fan base developed a case of “he’s not Saban-itis.” His first year at Miami included a four-game winning streak, a four-game losing streak and a five-game winning streak. Richt is also rolling in recruiting. Miami currently has the No. 1 recruiting class for 2018. The Hurricanes could finally be a consistent ACC power in the next few seasons.
14. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy
Past five years: 45-21, 2 division titles, 5 bowls
Navy has made the transition from independence to the American Athletic Conference look pretty easy. Niumatalolo has turned down multiple jobs to stay with the Midshipmen. He’s won 20 games in two seasons as an AAC member, and at least eight games every year but one since taking over for Paul Johnson in 2008. This level of sustained success is not supposed to be possible at a service academy.
13. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
Past five years: 46-20, 1 playoff berth, 2 conference titles, 5 bowls
Dantonio probably would have been 6-to-7 spots higher on this list a year ago, but a 3-9 season and now a sexual assault investigation involving a few of his players has cast some doubt after an incredible six-year run. The Spartans have a lot of questions going into next season and not as much coming back as a Big Ten program with this recent track record would suggest.
12. Clay Helton, Southern Cal
Past five years: 16-7, 3 bowls
Helton looked like an odd choice when the Trojans had a chance to reset after tumultuous times with Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. It didn’t look great when USC started this past season 1-3, but much has changed since. The Trojans won nine straight games and quarterback Sam Darnold is a frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy with top-of-the-draft potential. USC continues to be a powerhouse on the recruiting trail as well.
11. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Past five years: 9-3 at Arkansas State, 35-18 at Auburn, 1 championship game berth, 2 conference titles, 5 bowls
Malzahn is certainly the highest coach on this list who will also open 2017 on some dreaded hot-seat lists as well. There’s a little bit of crazy when it comes to expectations in the SEC West at the other schools, but a lot of it when the program is in the same state as Saban’s machine. Auburn couldn’t decide on a quarterback in 2016, and the expected starting running back was kicked off the team at the start of camp. The Tigers still finished tied for second in the West, and Malzahn is still in danger of losing his job if they don’t gain some ground, real or perceived, on the Crimson Tide.
10. Tom Herman, Texas
Past five years: 22-4 at Houston, 1 conference title, 2 bowls
Herman has the least amount of head coaching experience on this list, but he’s already proven he can beat the best teams in the country and recruit blue-chip players despite being at a Group of 5 school. He’s going to have every advantage imaginable at Texas.
9. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma
Past five years: 51-14, 1 playoff berth, 3 conference titles, 5 bowls
Stoops has taken advantage of Texas’ foibles to dominate the Big 12 of late, but Herman will make that tougher. He might even be a tick underrated, just because the Sooners haven’t won a title in a long time. That said, winning a bunch of games with Joe Mixon and Dede Westbrook on the team isn’t a cause for celebration.
8. James Franklin, Penn State
Past five years: 18-8 at Vanderbilt, 25-15 at Penn State, 1 conference title, 5 bowls
Pick an achievement: Winning nine games in back-to-back seasons at Vanderbilt, or winning a Big Ten title in his third year at Penn State. Both are among the most remarkable feats in college football this decade.
The Commodores won nine games two other times, in 1904 and 1915. The scandal in State College before Franklin arrived has been well-documented. Given Penn State’s recent recruiting surge, sustainable success in the Big Ten looks pretty attainable right now.
7. David Shaw, Stanford
Past five years: 53-15, 3 conference titles, 5 bowls
Shaw has won at least 10 games five times in six years. He inherited a great situation when Jim Harbaugh left for the NFL, but Stanford hasn’t had anything close to this level of sustained excellence in its history. Shaw also just added three 5-star prospects in a loaded recruiting class.
6. Chris Petersen, Washington
Past five years: 19-6 at Boise State, 27-14 at Washington, 1 playoff berth, 2 conference titles, 5 bowls
It took Petersen three years to return Washington to the top of the Pac-12, where it hadn’t been since 2000. He built an incredible giant killer at Boise State, and is now among them, with better facilities and more resources for recruiting, and all of the other fixings.
5. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Past five years: 31-16-1 with San Francisco 49ers, 20-6 at Michigan, 1 Super Bowl berth, 2 bowls
There’s plenty of criticism of Harbaugh, but he’s been a huge success in Ann Arbor. Just like he was with the 49ers. And at Stanford. And at San Diego.
He recruits, he develops players and he wins. The rest doesn’t matter as much as his biggest fans and harshest critics try to convince people it does.
4. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
Past five years: 60-10, 1 national title, 2 playoff berths, 2 conference titles, 5 bowls
Swinney has methodically built Clemson into college football’s latest superpower. The Tigers have gone punch-for-punch with Alabama in the past two championship games. They have become one of the few programs that can consistently beat SEC schools for recruits in the South.
3. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State
Past five years: 59-9, 1 national title, 2 playoff berths, 3 conference titles, 5 bowls
Fisher and Swinney might as well be tied for third on this list. Both have accomplished incredible things. Florida State and Clemson are essentially SEC programs operating in the ACC. The Seminoles will begin 2017 as the favorite in the ACC, but Swinney’s Tigers won’t be far behind.
2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
Past five years: 61-6, 1 national title, 2 playoff berths, 1 conference title, 4 bowls
One of the weirdest quirks of the past five years is Ohio State has one Big Ten title. Meyer is 39-2 in conference play in the regular season, but sanctions, Dantonio (twice) and Franklin have kept Meyer from more titles. Regardless, the Buckeyes have become Alabama’s top competitor on the recruiting trail and will open next season as a top contender for a playoff berth again.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
Past five years: 64-7, 2 national titles, 3 playoff berths, 4 conference titles, 5 bowls
The Crimson Tide have won only one of the past four national championships, which is a ludicrous thing to say about any other program in America. Destroying nearly every opponent before losing in the last seconds of the national championship game was a huge disappointment. Alabama’s standard of excellence is as high as any program in the history of the sport.
Choosing just 25 coaches is really hard. There were plenty of great ones who didn’t make the cut. Here’s a few more, in alphabetical order (by school):
Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State
Past five years: 32-18, 1 conference title, 2 bowls
David Cutcliffe, Duke
Past five years: 37-28, 4 bowls, 1 division title
Kirby Smart, Georgia
Past five years: 8-5, 1 bowl
Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech
Past five years: 37-29, 2 division titles, 4 bowls
P.J. Fleck, Minnesota
Past five years: 30-22 at Western Michigan, 1 conference title, 2 division titles, 3 bowls
Larry Fedora, North Carolina
Past five years: 40-25, 4 bowls, 1 division title
Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
Past five years: 37-26, 3 bowls
Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Past five years: 43-21, 1 championship game berth, 5 bowls
Willie Taggart, Oregon
Past five years: 7-5 at Western Kentucky, 24-25 at South Florida, 1 division title, 3 bowls
Jeff Brohm, Purdue
Past five years: 30-10 at Western Kentucky, 2 conference titles, 3 bowls
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
Past five years: 44-21, 5 bowls
Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia
Past five years: 35-25, 4 bowls
Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech
Past five years: 26-23 at Memphis, 10-4 at Virginia Tech, 1 conference title, 2 division titles, 2 bowls
Mike Leach, Washington State
Past five years: 29-34, 3 bowls
Craig Bohl, Wyoming
Past five years: 29-1 at North Dakota State, 14-24 at Wyoming, 2 FCS titles, 1 division title, 1 bowl
ONES TO WATCH
Dino Babers, Syracuse; D.J. Durkin, Maryland; Neal Brown, Troy; Frank Wilson, UT-San Antonio; Jeff Monken, Army