Nothing screams “offseason” more than a rankings column in January, but here we are and there’s no way we’re stopping now.
Over the last week, I’ve put together a compilation of rankings: Big Ten, Pac-12, and Big 12 games, future Heisman trophy candidates, and even the best quarterbacks from last season – however, I’ve decided to take it one (giant) step further: coaches.
It’s worth noting that this is an extremely difficult thing to do, with there being no real right or wrong answer in most cases. Compiling a rankings system of the top head coaches in a pool of 128 FBS programs is impossible without at least a little bias; it’s also wildly (and clearly) subjective, considering I’m not inside the X’s and O’s or the other factors that extend beyond belief.
I do, however, know what the biggest factor is when deciding whether a coach gets fired or handed a contract extension: wins and losses. That being said, here are the best college football coaches in the country heading into the 2015 offseason based off what matters the most – sustained success and ability to win big games – with a sprinkle of my much-desired and highly regarded personal opinion.
(Disclaimer: There’s a 99.9 percent chance you will not agree with these rankings. And that’s O.K.)
10. Mark Helfrich, Oregon
Career Record: 24-4 (.857)
Record at Oregon: 24-4 (.857)
2014 Record and Final Ranking: 13-2 (No. 2)
Why: Helfrich proved he could take over Chip Kelly’s team and continue the success with his high-profile players and recruits. Though he didn’t win the national championship, appearing in the final game shows a lot of his coaching ability after falling to Arizona mid-season with a shattered offensive line and ability to regroup and fight through adversity. We’ll see what he’s truly capable of, however, without Marcus Mariota next season and moving forward.
9. Art Briles, Baylor
Career Record: 89-62 (.589)
Record at Baylor: 55-34 (.618)
2014 Record and Final Ranking: 11-2 (No. 7)
Why: From 1996 to 2007, Baylor had a combined record of 35-101 (.257) without a single winning season. Enter Art Briles, who had the Bears back to the postseason by Year 3 (2010) and has now accomplished the school’s first two 11-win campaigns in back-to-back fashion. He might rub some people the wrong way for some of the things he says – Baylor always seems to be the victim – but what he has done on the field for this program (also compared to the rest of the country) is second to none.
8. Chris Petersen, Washington
Career Record: 100-18 (.847)
Record at Washington: 8-6 (.571)
2014 Record and Final Ranking: 8-6 (N/A)
Why: Let’s take a step back and search for some patience before we write Petersen off with Washington. The Huskies don’t play in the WAC/MWC; their in-division competition consists of Oregon and Stanford. Petersen won 92 games in eight years with Boise State, going 5-2 in bowl games with a 2-0 record in the Fiesta Bowl. It’s going to take another year or two for Petersen to build the type of culture and get his breed of players comfortable in his system before we can truly analyze results.
7. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Career Record (including NFL): 102-46-1 (.685)
Record at Michigan: N/A
2014 Record and Final Ranking: N/A
Why: Harbaugh brings immediate credibility and relevance back to a Michigan football program that has longed to get back into the national spotlight since Lloyd Carr retired in 2007. If he can almost instantly turn around the then-decimated Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers, I would imagine he’ll be able to make the Wolverines’ current roster – extremely talented, just under-coached – into a Top 25 team in 2015 at the very least.
6. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
Career Record: 93-48 (.660)
Record at Michigan State: 75-31 (.708)
2014 Record and Final Ranking: 12-2 (t-No. 5)
Why: Dantonio has mentioned several times how close Michigan State is to taking that next step and competing for a national championship, and he’s right – Sparty is close. In 2014, MSU’s only two losses came against Ohio State and Oregon, who obviously played in the CFP Championship Game. In 2013, the Spartans lost a September road matchup at Notre Dame (thanks to some questionable officiating) and then went on to finish 13-1 with wins over the Buckeyes and Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Dantonio is a big reason why the Big Ten is beginning to find its moxy again.
5. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State
Career Record: 58-11 (.841)
Record at Florida State: 58-11 (.841)
2014 Record and Final Ranking: 13-1 (t-No. 5)
Why: Fisher has a BCS National Championship ring, a 29-game winning streak, and a College Football Playoff appearance on his resume, not to mention the possibility of developing what will likely be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft with Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston. The Seminoles had been known for just missing out on big opportunities, and now they can’t seem to leave the spotlight. (Note: Also worth including is Fisher’s damage-control skills.)
4. Les Miles, LSU
Career Record: 131-50 (.724)
Record at LSU: 103-29 (.780)
2014 Record and Final Ranking: 8-5 (N/A)
Why: Winning in the SEC West and competing with Nick Saban for the nation’s top recruits can be tough, but Miles has found a way to make a living out of it. LSU finished with its worst record since 2008 this past season, but the Mad Hatter always has a trick up his sleeve and should have the Tigers back to competing for championships in 2015 – especially if he can solve his quarterback situation (hello Braxton Miller?).
3. Gary Patterson, TCU
Career Record: 132-45 (.746)
Record at TCU: 132-45 (.746)
2014 Record and Final Ranking: 12-1 (No. 3)
Why: In 14 full seasons as TCU’s head coach, Gary Patterson has just five that didn’t end with at least 10 wins. Patterson won in Conference-USA; he won big in the MWC; and now he’s adapted to life in the Big 12 as the clear favorite to win the conference outright in 2015. The reigning College Football Coach of the Year is 7-2 in his last nine bowl appearances (8-5 overall) and should be primed to charge into the offseason with what could be the preseason No. 1 or 2 team in America.
2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
Career Record: 142-26 (.845)
Record at Ohio State: 38-3 (.927)
2014 Record and Final Ranking: 14-1 (No. 1)
Why: I would not argue if you flip-flopped Meyer and Saban, but when you have two coaches as dominate as these two, the only thing you can measure are championships: Meyer has three, and Saban has four. Meyer, the master motivator, was not supposed to win a national title in 2014; even he said that his Buckeyes were a year ahead of schedule. You know what that means: Next season, they’ll be even better. Ohio State is 9-2 against AP Top 30 teams under Meyer and 3-1 vs. the Top 10, including a staggering 6-0 mark as an underdog. If you were to ask me who I think will win another title between Meyer and Saban, I’m putting my money on the former.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
Career Record: 182-59-1 (.754)
Record at Alabama: 91-17 (.843)
2014 Record and Final Ranking: 12-2 (No. 4)
Why: Saban doesn’t need to prove anything; Alabama is 84-11 since his first season (2007) with three (count ‘em: three) national championship trophies. We’re not accustomed to watching the Crimson Tide lose the big games like they have lately, but that’s because we’re used to the narrative of “The Dynasty” ad nausea. At 63, Saban could still have several years of winning left in him – and you know that no matter how much talent Alabama loses at the end of each season, that’s exactly what he will continue to do.
Other Names Worth Noting: Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), Bill Snyder (Kansas State), Steve Spurrier (South Carolina), Mark Richt (Georgia), Bobby Petrino (Louisville), Brian Kelly (Notre Dame), Gus Malzahn (Auburn), Jim Mora, Jr. (UCLA), Dabo Swinney (Clemson), Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M).