College Football: Ranking the top 25 head coaches

New Orleans, LA, USA; Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Kansas State head coach Chris Klieman shake hands during a photo opportunity during the final press conference at the Sheraton Hotel in New Orleans in the lead up to the Sugar Bowl. Ncaa Football Sugar Bowl Coaches Press Conference

  • Nick Saban still reigns supreme: While Kirby Smart is closing the gap, the Alabama head coach gets the nod at No. 1 for being the greatest of all time.
  • Kirby Smart is right behind: Coming off back-to-back national championships, the Georgia leader is close to becoming the best coach in the country.
  • Jim Harbaugh rounds out the top three: He’s led Michigan to two straight Big Ten titles and College Football Playoff berths, and next on the agenda is a national championship.
Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

There are 20 Saturdays until meaningful college football returns — and it can't come quickly enough.

As we wait for Week 0, we’ve already gone over the top-10 returning players at every position, named our way-too-early 2023 All-America Team and presented the PFF College 101 — our annual ranking of the 101 best players from the past season.

Now, it’s time to turn our attention to the sidelines. We’ve already ranked the nation's top-10 offensive coordinators and top-10 defensive coordinators. Here are the top-25 head coaches in college football ahead of the 2023 season.

1. Nick Saban, Alabama Crimson Tide 

While there’s certainly a conversation brewing between Saban and the next coach on this list, the Alabama leader gets the nod here for being the greatest college football coach of all time.

Saban has won a record seven national championships over his head coaching career, and the Crimson Tide have finished top 10 of the AP poll every year since 2008, his second season on the job. Even after losing Bryce Young, Will Anderson Jr. and both coordinators, Alabama is still second in odds to win it all next year (+500 via DraftKings Sportsbook). That’s a testament to Saban's consistent dominance during his tenure in Tuscaloosa.

2. Kirby Smart, Georgia Bulldogs

Smart and the Bulldogs just won their second-straight national championship, and the only head coach to accomplish that feat this century is the man above him on this list. 

Making that even more impressive is the fact that Georgia had a record 15 players taken in the 2022 NFL Draft, including five in the first round. Even with that turnover, the Bulldogs still went a perfect 15-0 in 2022. 

Like Saban, his former boss, Smart has constructed Georgia in a way that it never rebuilds, it just reloads. The Bulldogs are currently the betting favorites to win the national championship next season (+240). If they do, Georgia will become the first school since the Great Depression to win three straight (Minnesota from 1934-1936). After that, it’d be hard to not place Smart at the top of this list, even above the GOAT.

3. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan Wolverines

Harbaugh has led Michigan to back-to-back Big Ten championships and College Football Playoff appearances. Perhaps more importantly to Wolverines fans, they’ve also beaten arch-rival Ohio State twice in a row. Before that, the last time Michigan won the Big Ten was in 2004 and the last time the Wolverines beat the Buckeyes was in 2011. 

The next step for Harbaugh is to bring home a national championship to his alma mater. With one of the best rosters in the country next year, there’s a good chance he’ll do so.

4. Dabo Swinney, Clemson Tigers

Although the last two years haven’t been up to the Clemson standard, it’s important to contextualize how elite of a standard it is.

Clemson finished in the top 10 of the AP poll for seven-straight seasons until 2021. Before Swinney took over, the Tigers last did that in 1990. Clemson has won seven of the last eight ACC championships and a couple national titles under Swinney as well (2016 and 2018). With the best offensive coordinator in the country on his payroll in Garrett Riley and a quarterback with sky-high potential in Cade Klubnik, Swinney could get back to his elite ways this season.

5. Lincoln Riley, USC Trojans

If you’re a quarterback, you’re going to want to play for Lincoln Riley. Three of the last six Heisman Trophy winners have been his signal-callers, including this past year's Caleb Williams

Notable quarterbacks under Lincoln Riley since 2017
Name School Season PFF Grade (Rank in FBS) Heisman Finish Pick in NFL Draft
Baker Mayfield Oklahoma 2017 94.5 (1st) 1st 1st
Kyler Murray Oklahoma 2018 94.6 (1st) 1st 1st
Jalen Hurts Oklahoma 2019 91.8 (2nd) 2nd 53rd
Caleb Williams USC 2022 91.6  (4th) 1st 1st*

*projected 2024 NFL Draft

In five years at Oklahoma, Riley won four Big 12 championships and brought the Sooners to the College Football Playoff three times. In his first season at USC, the Trojans went 11-3 and were one win away from making the College Football Playoff. The year before he got there, USC went 4-8. With the reigning Heisman winner returning, Riley should have the Trojans knocking on the door of the College Football Playoff once again.

6. Brian Kelly, LSU Tigers

Like Riley, Kelly took over an LSU program that went below .500 in 2021. In his first year there, the Tigers won 10 games and the SEC West title. 

Before that, Kelly posted five top-10 finishes since 2009 while at Cincinnati and Notre Dame. He brought the Fighting Irish to three College Football Playoffs and a BCS National Championship game. He’s a proven winner and should have LSU competing for another SEC West championship this season.

7. Ryan Day, Ohio State Buckeyes

Even though Day has three Playoff appearances in four years as Ohio State’s head coach, he hasn’t quite lived up to the level of success that his predecessor, Urban Meyer, had. 

Ohio State has now lost to Michigan twice in a row, which hasn’t happened in 22 years. The Buckeyes have also gone two years without winning the Big Ten after winning the conference four-straight times. If Day doesn’t get either of those monkeys off his back this year, some uncomfortable conversations could happen in Columbus concerning his job security.

8. Kyle Whittingham, Utah Utes

Like Day, Whittingham took over a program from Urban Meyer. Unlike Day, he’s taken them to new heights. 

Utah has won back-to-back Pac-12 championships, the Utes’ first since joining the conference in 2011. In 2008, Utah went 13-0 under Whittingham and finished second in the AP poll as a member of the Mountain West conference. The next step for the Utes is to make their first College Football Playoff appearance.

 9. Luke Fickell, Wisconsin Badgers

Fickell has won at least nine games in his last five years as Cincinnati’s head coach. In 2021, the Bearcats became the first and only Group of Five team to make the College Football Playoff after going 13-1. 

Now, Fickell heads to Wisconsin, where he should have the Badgers competing for Big Ten championships sooner rather than later. 

10. James Franklin, Penn State Nittany Lions

After a couple of down years in 2020 and 2021, Franklin has Penn State once again on the verge of a College Football Playoff berth. 

The Nittany Lions went 11-2 with a Rose Bowl victory this year after winning a combined 11 games in the two years before. Franklin also has four 11-win seasons since 2016. Before taking over at Penn State, he led Vanderbilt to ranked finishes in 2012 and 2013. The Commodores haven’t done that since 1948 and haven’t been able to do so since his departure.

The next step for Franklin is to topple the behemoths of the Big Ten East, Michigan and Ohio State, and bring Penn State to its first College Football Playoff.

11. Josh Heupel, Tennessee Volunteers

Heupel is one of the top offensive minds in the sport right now. The Volunteers posted the second-most efficient offense in the country in expected points added per play. With that explosive attack, Tennessee went 11-2 and finished sixth in the AP poll, its first top-10 finish since 2001. It was only his second year as head coach. Before he took over, the Volunteers were sub .500 in three of the previous four seasons. 

12. Sonny Dykes, TCU Horned Frogs

From 2018-2021, TCU finished with a combined record of 23-24. Dykes turned the program around 180 degrees immediately. In his first year as head coach, the Horned Frogs went undefeated in the regular season and made it all the way to the national championship game. TCU finished second in the AP poll, tied for its best since the Horned Frogs’ only national championship in 1938.

13. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss Rebels

Ole Miss went a combined 20-28 in its four seasons before hiring Lane Kiffin in 2020. In the last two years, the Rebels have gone 18-8 while playing in one of the toughest divisions in the nation, the SEC West. 

Before taking over in Oxford, Kiffin led Florida Atlantic to its first two 11-win seasons since joining the FBS in 2004. Auburn tried to poach him away this offseason, but he decided to stay at Ole Miss.

14. Lance Leipold, Kansas Jayhawks

Leipold has been nothing short of a miracle worker since taking over at Kansas in 2021. From 2010 until 2020, the Jayhawks’ went a combined 21-108. This past season, just his second year at the helm, Kansas made its first bowl game since 2008. It likely won’t be long before a bigger program comes calling.

15. Kalen DeBoer, Washington Huskies

Washington was in a rough place in 2021. The Huskies went 4-8 that season, their worst record since 2008, but during that offseason, Washington hired DeBoer from Fresno State, who wasted no time in turning the team around. In his first year as head coach, the Huskies went 11-2 and finished eighth in the AP poll, their best season since making the College Football Playoff in 2016. DeBoer showed off his offensive brilliance, as the Huskies had the third-most efficient offense in the country this past season after ranking 112th in 2021.

16. Chris Klieman, Kansas State Wildcats

Besides Georgia in the national championship game, the only other team to beat TCU last year was Kansas State, which occurred in the Big 12 championship game. It was the Wildcats’ first conference title in a decade. 

Klieman has won at least eight games in three of his four seasons as Kansas State’s head coach, with his lone losing season coming in the COVID year.

17. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M Aggies

After a successful tenure at Florida State that included a national championship in 2013, Fisher left to become Texas A&M’s head coach in 2017.

His first four years in College Station were mostly successful, finishing fourth in the AP poll in 2020. The Aggies also brought in arguably the greatest recruiting class ever in 2022 with eight five-star recruits. Expectations were high for the Aggies heading into 2022, as they were ranked sixth in the preseason poll. However, Texas A&M was a massive disappointment, as it missed a bowl game this past season. 

This season will be a major prove-it year for Fisher, but he has the track record and a talented roster to be optimistic about a bounceback. 

18. Mark Stoops, Kentucky Wildcats

Normally a basketball school, Stoops has made Kentucky a very respectable football program. Over the last five years, the Wildcats have had two 10-win seasons. Kentucky hadn’t accomplished that since 1977.

19. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State Cowboys

In 18 years as Oklahoma State’s head coach, the only losing season Gundy has had was his first one. He’s won at least 10 games in seven of his last 13 seasons and finished top 10 twice in that span. Before he took over in 2005, the Cowboys only finished that high twice, in 1984 and 1945.

20. Willie Fritz, Tulane Green Wave

Fritz led Tulane to the greatest turnaround in college football history this past season. In 2021, the Green Wave went 2-10 but a year later, they finished 12-2 and won their first New Year’s Six Bowl since 1934, when they were a member of the SEC.

21. Chip Kelly, UCLA Bruins

Kelly was massively successful while at Oregon, leading the Ducks to three top-five finishes in his last three years as head coach from 2010-2012. After spending four years as an NFL head coach for the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers, Kelly returned to the Pac-12 in 2018 to coach UCLA. 

He’s found his groove these past two seasons, going 17-8 and leading the Bruins to their first ranked finish since 2014 this past year. With the No. 2 overall recruit in 2023 coming to play for Kelly in quarterback Dante Moore, the future looks bright in Los Angeles.

22. Dave Clawson, Wake Forest Demon Deacons

In 2021, Clawson led Wake Forest to an 11-3 record, as the Demon Deacons finished No. 15 in the AP poll. At one point in the year, Wake Forest was in the top 10. It was both the first top-10 ranking and first top-15 finish in program history. The Demon Deacons once again cracked the top 10 this past season and finished with an 8-5 record. Clawson took a program once in the basement of the ACC and has had a winning year in six of the last seven seasons.

23. Mike Norvell, Florida State Seminoles

Don’t look now, but Florida State might be back under Norvell. 

The Seminoles are coming off a 10-3 record and No. 11 finish in the AP poll in his third year as FSU’s head coach. It was the Seminoles’ first 10-win season since Fisher was in charge in 2016 and the first winning record in five years. With an ultra-talented roster returning, including a Heisman Trophy candidate under center in Jordan Travis, Florida State is poised to make a run at the College Football Playoff in 2023.

24. Jonathan Smith, Oregon State Beavers

It’s been a long road back to relevance for Oregon State. From 2014 to 2020, the Beavers didn’t have a winning season and went a combined 21-58 in that stretch. Under Smith, Oregon State has had back-to-back winning seasons and finished No. 17 in the AP poll this past season. It was the Beavers’ best finish since 2000.

25. Matt Rhule, Nebraska Cornhuskers

While he didn’t work out in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers, that shouldn’t take away from Rhule’s history of turning college programs around.

At Temple in 2016, he led the Owls to their first conference championship since 1967. And after he took over a scandal-ridden Baylor in 2017, the Bears went 11-3 just three years later and made the Sugar Bowl.

Nebraska is also in desperate need of a rebuild. Once a powerhouse, the Cornhuskers have gone six straight seasons without making a bowl game and 16 years without a New Year’s Six bowl game appearance. 

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