It’s amazing how the college football coaching landscape has changed since the end of the 2019 season. Established coaches such as Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio and Washington’s Chris Petersen have both retired. Meanwhile, notable names like Mike Leach, Lane Kiffin, Eli Drinkwitz and Mike Norvell have all landed new jobs.
Finally, old favorite Greg Schiano has returned to the head coaching ranks, oddly enough at the same program that he once built from the ground up. While many of the old favorites are still in place, plenty of young, promising coaches made massive strides in 2019 and improved their standing significantly. Some are even the highest-paid college football coaches in the nation.
With all of that in mind, let’s rank the 10 best college football coaches in the country heading into the 2020 campaign.
10. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota
After kicking off the season with nine straight wins, Minnesota was one of the biggest stories in college football last year. Naturally, the team’s head coach deserves a lot of credit for that. Fleck took the Golden Gophers a long way in a short time after going 5-7 in his first season in 2017.
There’s a chance that Minnesota becomes a one-season wonder, sure, but Fleck did a similar job when he was at Western Michigan, taking a program that was 1-11 in his first season and getting them to 13-1 and a Cotton Bowl appearance by his fourth year at the helm.
Fleck, who is just 39, looks like the real deal and deserves to be mentioned among the top coaches in the country, in large part because Minnesota isn’t the recruiting hotbed that some other coaches are able to use to their advantage.
9. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
If you can forgive Notre Dame’s 4-8 campaign in 2016, then all you can do is marvel at the job Kelly has done in his decade-long tenure with the Fighting Irish.
While Notre Dame isn’t on par with Alabama or Clemson, Kelly took the Irish to the National Championship Game in 2012 and to the College Football Playoff in 2018. Perhaps more importantly, the Fighting Irish are 33-6 since that disastrous 2016 season.
Notre Dame has finished four of the last five seasons ranked in the top 15, which is a sign that Kelly has been able to manage the program’s high expectations and achieve a sustained level of success.
8. Ryan Day, Ohio State
Urban who? There was good reason to be skeptical of Day taking over for Urban Meyer at one of the nation’s most elite programs. But it looked like business as usual for the Buckeyes last season. It was only one season, but Ohio State steamrolled most of the teams on their schedule in 2019 and arguably out-played Clemson in the College Football Playoff.
Day has answered all of his critics thus far, so there is little concern about Ohio State continuing to be a national powerhouse in 2020 and beyond.
7. Kirby Smart, Georgia
It might be a little unfair, but Smart loses some points because he took over a Georgia program in 2016 that was already in great shape. That being said, Smart deserves plenty of credit for making the Bulldogs the preeminent program in the SEC East — and one that expects to compete for a championship every year.
Over his last three seasons, Smart is 36-7, although the Bulldogs had no business losing a few of those games, which has to fall on Smart. If Georgia had been able to seal the deal in the 2017 CFP and won a National Championship, Smart might be a few spots higher. Nevertheless, he’s still among the second-tier of outstanding college football head coaches.
6. James Franklin, Penn State
Bill O’Brien deserves the assist for stabilizing the Penn State program for a couple of years amidst incredible turmoil. But the last few years have been all Franklin, as he’s returned the Nittany Lions to the national spotlight for all of the right reasons.
Granted, Penn State hasn’t reached the top of the mountain, but the Nittany Lions did win the Big Ten championship in 2016. Plus, going 42-11 over the last four seasons is nothing to scoff at, especially when you share a division with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.
Wins in the Fiesta Bowl and Cotton Bowl in recent years don’t hurt, either. Under Franklin, Penn State has become a safe bet to win double-digit games every year.
5. Dan Mullen, Florida
Let’s keep in mind that Florida was 4-7 in 2017, the year before Mullen returned to Gainesville. Since then, the Gators are 21-5, surpassing even the most optimistic expectations after his return. The only blemish for Florida during that time is losing twice to Georgia and a couple of hiccups at home in 2018.
But it’s hard to deny the amazing job Mullen has done in two short years to get Florida back on track, including a pair of wins in New Year’s Six bowl games. After the job he did at Mississippi State, it shouldn’t be surprising to see the job Mullen has done at a program with more resources.
He’s brought the Gators back to the top 10 and given Florida a far more optimistic future.
4. Ed Orgeron, LSU
It's amazing how quickly someone can rise up the ranks by coaching an undefeated team to a National Championship. Remember the skepticism when Orgeron was first hired at LSU? There were many who thought he wouldn’t last two years, let alone win a title.
In his three full seasons as LSU head coach, Orgeron is an incredible 34-7. The Tigers won the Fiesta Bowl in 2018 and followed it up with a 15-0 campaign in 2019. He’s managed to win over the LSU fan base and is well-positioned to keep the Tigers in a position to compete for championships for the foreseeable future.
3. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma
Riley had big shoes to fill after taking over for Bob Stoops, but he’s somehow managed to make Oklahoma even better during his first three seasons in charge. The Sooners have continued to dominate the Big 12, winning the Conference Championship Game and reaching the College Football Playoff every year during Riley’s tenure.
The 36-year-old offensive savant — think about that for a minute — has coached two Heisman Trophy-winners and maintained a high level of play at Oklahoma for three seasons.
There’s no reason to think Riley won’t be able to finally break through and win a championship in the near future.
2. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
Swinney is so close to the top spot that he can just about taste it, but he’s not there quite yet. That being said, his accomplishments at Clemson are remarkable.
Swinney's taken the Tigers to the CFP title game in four of the last five seasons, winning it all twice — including a 15-0 campaign in 2018 that ended with a blowout win over Alabama.
The ACC’s reputation is part of what hurts Swinney, as Clemson has it a lot easier than some other teams. Then again, it’s not Swinney’s fault that he’s been able to build a program that’s lost just five games in as many years.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
The rest of the pack is slowly starting to close in on Saban after Alabama has failed to win a National Championship in back-to-back seasons. That hasn’t happened to Saban since his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa. However, the Crimson Tide head coach remains the best in the business.
Over the last nine years, Saban has lost a total of just 12 games, most of which were close clashes that probably could have gone either way. Ultimately, the thing that separates Saban from Swinney is that Alabama competes in the ultra-brutal SEC every year, and still, the Crimson Tide keep on ticking.
Saban has created a well-oiled machine that will surely be a contender for the National Championship in 2020
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