The definitive ranking of the top 25 coaches in college football

Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports /
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Does LSU football‘s Ed Orgeron rank among the top five coaches in college football?

That’s a question that has a lot of different answers depending on who you ask.

Orgeron has a national championship to his credit, but he also has plenty of failures in his past.

Should those failures affect how we view Orgeron as a head coach?

I think the answer is no. But there are plenty of national analysts who don’t agree.

If you have a subscription to The Athletic, you can check out Stewart Mandel’s and Bruce Feldman’s recent rankings of the top 25 coaches in college football.

There are quite a few areas where I don’t agree with the rankings of either college football writer.

That’s why I decided to do my own top 25 coaches rankings. This is obviously a subjective list. But I tried to look at what a coach has accomplished, and where their respective programs are heading, to come up with my top 25 rankings.

25. Lance Leipold — Buffalo

Lance Leipold is a coach that’s gained a lot of notoriety over the last couple of years. Leipold spent eight years as the head coach at Wisconsin-Whitewater — a Division III program — where he racked up an impressive 109-6 record. He also won six Division III national championships during that span. I don’t care what level of football it is — that’s an impressive feat for any coach. In six years at Buffalo, Leipold is 37-33. Over the last three years, Buffalo is 24-10, which is a sure sign that the program is moving in the right direction.

24. Lane Kiffin — Ole Miss

There’s plenty of controversy surrounding Lane Kiffin as a head coach. There was his bizarre firing from the Oakland Raiders, leaving Tennessee after just one season, getting fired on the tarmac at USC, and his stint at Nick Saban’s coaching rehab. But despite the wild ups-and-downs of Kiffin’s career, one point has remained — the guy can coach offense. It doesn’t matter where Kiffin ends up — Tuscaloosa, Boca Raton, or Oxford — the offense is going to score some points. The biggest question about Kiffin is whether or not he can build something long-term. He’ll get that chance at Ole Miss….as long as he actually sticks around.

23. Mario Cristobal — Oregon

Cristobal is a tough coach to judge. His record at FIU from 2007-2012 wasn’t very good (27-47), but despite getting fired from that job, Cristobal maintained a solid reputation in the coaching community. After spending for seasons on Saban’s staff at Alabama, Cristobal got a shot as Oregon’s offensive coordinator in 2017. In 2018, he was named the head coach after Willie Taggart left for Florida State. Cristobal is 16-5 over the last two years. He hasn’t had a losing season yet in Eugene, but the Pac-12 isn’t what it used to be, either.

22. Bill Clark — UAB

Clark might be one of the most underrated coaches in college football. The Alabama native coached at the high school level until 2007. In 2008, he was named the defensive coordinator at South Alabama, a position he held until landing the head coaching gig at Jacksonville State in 2013. Clark spent one year at Jacksonville State (his alma mater), going 11-4. In 2014, Clark took over at UAB. Clark remained the head coach at UAB when the football program was shutdown (UAB didn’t play in 2015 or 2016). In 2017, after a two-year hiatus, Clark led UAB to an 8-5 record. Clark is 40-22 in five seasons at UAB.

21. PJ Fleck — Minnesota

PJ Fleck can be quite cheesy with his “row the boat” mantra and other motivational tactics. But cheesy or not, it works. The Gophers struggled a bit this past season, going 3-4 in a pandemic-shortened season. But in 2019, Minnesota won 11 games (the program’s most since 1904). That doesn’t happen by accident. Fleck knows how to motivate college athletes. And he’s built a great culture.

20. Paul Chryst — Wisconsin

Paul Chryst is another head coach that’s massively underrated. After going 19-19 in three seasons at Pittsburgh, Chryst took over at Wisconsin and immediately found success. The Badgers went 10-3 in Chryst’s first season at the helm. In 2017, Wisconsin won 13 games. In six seasons at Wisconsin, Chryst has won 10 or more games on four occasions. The former Wisconsin quarterback likely isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, much to the dismay of the rest of the Big 10.

19. David Shaw — Stanford

A bad 2019 season is the only thing that keeps Shaw from being a little higher on this list. Shaw has been incredibly consistent at Stanford. He’s won at least nine games in seven seasons since 2011. The Cardinal have had only one losing season under Shaw (in 2019). And they’ve finished in the top 15 five times. Shaw is a four-time Pac-12 Coach of the year.

18. Mark Stoops — Kentucky

I’m a big fan of Mark Stoops. I’m extremely impressed with what he’s been able to do at Kentucky — a school that is historically tough to win at. Stoops took over at Kentucky in 2013. He’s 49-50 so far during his time in Lexington. That might not sound like a great record, but that’s pretty good at Kentucky. The Wildcats are 23-14 over the last three years. That’s a level of consistency that’s rarely been seen at Kentucky.

17. Mack Brown — North Carolina

When Mack Brown came out of retirement in 2019 to return to North Carolina, I was 100 percent sure it would be a disaster. Brown hadn’t coached since the 2013 season at Texas. A lot of things in college football have changed during that timeframe.

But oh man was I wrong. Brown instantly turned the UNC program around. The Tar Heels are 15-10 over the last two years and the recruiting is continuing to impress (North Carolina signed the No. 14 recruiting class in the country during the 2021 recruiting cycle).

16. Tom Allen — Indiana

Tom Allen is another coach that’s making the best of a tough situation. Wins don’t come easy at Indiana. But Allen has slowly turned the Hoosiers into a contender in the Big 10. Indiana took down Penn State, Michigan, and Wisconsin this past season. And they nearly knocked off Ohio State in Columbus.