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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LSU football
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15. Hugh Freeze — Liberty

I know that some not-so-great things went down at Ole Miss when Hugh Freeze was the head coach. And I know the end of his tenure there was controversial. But if you put all of that stuff aside, there’s no doubt that Freeze can coach. He’s one of the few coaches that’s beat Nick Saban multiple times at Alabama. And he’s 18-6 at Liberty in two seasons. Someone is going to give him a chance at a Power-5 program again in the near future.

14. Kyle Whittingham — Utah

Kyle Whittingham is easily one of the most underrated coaches in college sports. The California native has been at Utah since 1994. He took over as the Utes’ head coach at the end of the 2004 season when Urban Meyer left for Florida. Over the last 16 years, Whittingham has suffered only two losing seasons. And he’s led Utah to top 25 finishes on seven occasions. In 2008, Utah finished as the No. 2 program in the nation after going 13-0.

13. Pat Fitzgerald — Northwestern

Here’s another entry on the underrated list. Pat Fitzgerald has been the head coach at Northwestern since 2006. During that time span, he’s led the Wildcats to 10 bowl game appearances. Fitzgerald had a tough go of things in 2019, finishing with his worst record yet as a head coach (3-9), but he rebounded in 2020 to lead Northwestern to a 7-2 record.

12. James Franklin — Penn State

I have a hard time deciding if James Franklin is overrated or underrated. At this point, I’m going with slightly overrated. There’s no doubt that Franklin is a good coach. He worked wonders at Vanderbilt. And he has three 11 win seasons at Penn State. But it feels like he just doesn’t have what it takes to get over the hump. This past season, the Nittany Lions went 4-5. It was a strange year (dealing with COVID-19), so I don’t want to read too much into that losing season. But I’ll need to see some vast improvement from Penn State in 2021 to move Franklin up the list.

11. Luke Fickell — Cincinnati

Luke Fickell put up back-to-back 11 win seasons in 2018 and 2019, seemingly confirming that he’s one of the top coaches in college football. But despite those impressive back-to-back seasons, I was still skeptical of Fickell — until this past season. Fickell navigated a tough season as well as anyone. And he won a lot of games. Cincinnati went 9-1 this past season. And they really should’ve been Georgia in the Peach Bowl. Things just didn’t go the Bearcats’ way in the fourth quarter.

10. Kirby Smart — Georgia

Kirby Smart is 52-14 in his first five seasons as Georgia’s head coach. He should be higher on this list, right? Well, not necessarily. Smart is an incredible recruiter. Georgia had the No. 1 class in the nation in 2018 and 2020. The Bulldogs had the No. 2 class in the nation in 2019. Smart, however, had only made the College Football Playoff once during his time in Athens. Georgia’s best season under Smart was in 2017. The Bulldogs have been consistently good over the last few years, but if Smart continues at this pace, the comparisons to Mark Richt will inevitably begin.

9. Dan Mullen — Florida

There’s an argument for Smart over Mullen, but I don’t think it’s a strong one. Smart’s had more success in the SEC, but Mullen took over a tougher situation. And Mullen also proved at Mississippi State that he’s an elite college football coach. Mullen has come up short a couple of times at Florida, but it’s clear he has the Gators poised to be a major threat in the SEC for the foreseeable future.

8. Ryan Day — Ohio State

Ryan Day took over a dream situation at Ohio State, so it’s hard to give him too much credit. But it’s also impressive that the Buckeyes haven’t missed a beat under Day. The New Hampshire native is 23-2 at Ohio State (including a three-game stint in 2018 as the Buckeyes’ acting head coach). I don’t care who coached the team before — that’s an incredibly impressive record.

7. Jimbo Fisher — Texas A&M

I’ve been down on Jimbo Fisher at times. But the more I look at his career, the more I realize what a solid head coach he has been for years. Fisher has a national championship at Florida State. And he has turned Texas A&M into a legitimate threat in the SEC West. It took a couple of years to get things going in College Station, but last year’s 9-1 season proved that Fisher can compete with the big boys in the SEC.

6. Brian Kelly — Notre Dame

It’s hard to deny that Brian Kelly is one of the top coaches in college football. He’s been able to find consistent success at Notre Dame, which isn’t an easy place to win consistently (thanks to the tough academic standards). The Irish have reached the College Football Playoff twice under Kelly.