Top 25 FBS coaches for 2021: Nick Saban at No. 1, then the debates begin
When was the last time Nick Saban wasn’t the No. 1 coach?
Sporting News ranks the FBS coaches every season, and the last time Saban wasn’t the top coach was 2015. That was the year after Urban Meyer led Ohio State to the first CFP championship, and Saban had something to prove. He’s won three national championships since.
Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney remain at No. 1 and No. 2 for the fourth straight season, but the competition within the top-10 is heating up.
MORE: SN’s Preseason Top 25
A total of five active coaches have won national championships, and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and North Carolina’s Mack Brown also made the top 10. Where does that leave LSU’s Ed Orgeron? That was one of the hot debates on this year’s list.
SN had a six-person panel vote on the top 25 coaches, and we went from there. The Big Ten led the way with seven coaches ranked in our Top 25. The SEC had six, and the Big 12 and Pac-12 had four apiece.
Here is a look at our Top 25 coaches (full 1-130 list will be published Tuesday)
Lowdown: Who else would it be? Alabama remains the standard for all programs to follow, and Saban has led six of his record seven national championship runs in Tuscaloosa. Alabama is 91-8 since the College Football Playoff started, and that comes with three of those national championships. With Saban now extended through 2028, that paints a grim forecast for the rest of college football that a 12-team playoff alone will not fix.
Lowdown: Six straight ACC championships led to six straight CFP appearances, and Swinney continues to lead a Golden Era for Clemson football. The CFP losses to LSU and Ohio State the last two seasons were eye-opening, but the Tigers bring back a more-experienced roster that can prove it in the season opener against Georgia. This is still the most-likely team to reach the CFP given its dominance over the rest of the ACC.
Lowdown: Like Ryan Day, Riley faced impossible expectations when he took over for Bob Stoops. The Sooners have won four straight Big 12 championships, and Riley brings back an offense that has the program looking to break through after four CFP semifinal losses. You could put Day here, but Riley has been at it a little bit longer.
Lowdown: Kelly slipped to No. 20 in our 2018 rankings, but he reinvented his Notre Dame stint with a three-year run that includes a 33-6 record and two Playoff appearances. The Irish have learned from Playoff losses to Clemson and Alabama, and the program continues to evolve. It’s the same track record as the next coach on this list.
Lowdown: Fisher pushed the Aggies to the edge of the College Football Playoff conversation last season, and he’s assembling a roster that should be able to compete for a national championship. The Alabama hurdle remains, but Fisher has built that culture with three straight bowl wins and progressive recruiting classes in talent-rich Texas. He’s back in the top five as a result.
Lowdown: A strong argument can be made for Day as a top-five coach considering the advances the Buckeyes have made in dominating the Big Ten while maintaining the recruiting standard Urban Meyer brought to Columbus. There has not been a drop-off, and Day is the coach we’d bet on to become the next active coach to win a national championship. Expect Day to be in the top five, perhaps even top two, by 2022.
Lowdown: Smart drops three spots despite leading Georgia to a third straight New Year’s Day Six bowl after the CFP championship loss to Alabama. Smart recruits at a top-five level, but the expectation of winning the program’s first national championship since 1980 still remains. Remember, Mark Richt was 52-13 after his first five seasons in Athens. That’s the challenge Smart faces.
Lowdown: Mullen holds the No. 8 spot for the second straight season, which is proof that breaking through for a nSEC East championship is not enough among the top-10 coaches. Mullen has led the Gators to three straight New Year’s Day Six appearances and established a heated rivalry with Georgia, but both schools remain a step behind Alabama. Such is life in the SEC.
Lowdown: Campbell made the biggest jump of any Power 5 coach, and with good reason. The Cyclones are preparing for arguably the most-anticipated season in program history. Campbell has established a winning culture, and the program should build on last year’s Big 12 championship appearance. Campbell will continue to be a candidate for elite Power 5 jobs, and that’s a testament to the winning culture he’s built in Ames.
Lowdown: Brown’s rebuild at North Carolina is way ahead of schedule, and the Tar Heels are projected to make a second straight New Year’s Day Six appearance in 2021. Brown was 28-8 in his final three seasons with the Tar Heels from 1995-97 before taking the Texas job. One could argue the 15-10 record and high expectations heading into 2021 is more impressive.
Lowdown: The Nittany Lions are coming off a disastrous 4-5 season, which knocked Franklin out of our top 10. That took some momentum off a four-year stretch where Penn State had a 42-11 record that would be more conducive to a 12-team Playoff setup. Franklin still consistently puts out the biggest threat to Ohio State on the field in the Big Ten, and that continues to be the elusive next step for the program.
Lowdown: Fitzgerald stayed the course at his alma mater, and the results the last three years have been remarkable.. The Wildcats have won the Big Ten West two of the last three seasons, and a five-year run includes four straight bowl victories. Now, the program has upgraded its facilities. The long-term success is translating into NFL Draft picks, too.
Lowdown: Of the coaches in our Top 25, Fickell made the biggest jump up the rankings. Cincinnati is 31-6 the last three seasons, and Fickell has muscled the American Athletic Conference school into the Playoff discussion while turning away Power 5 job offers. Fickell also has the Bearcats recruiting at a high level. This Group of 5 buster is here to stay.
Lowdown: Orgeron is the toughest coach on the list to rank. The Tigers are just one year removed from a national championship run, but a 5-5 season and off-the-field scandals have made it tough to keep Coach O in the top 10. He was ranked No. 15 heading into the 2019 season. This feels like the right spot after a two-year reset.
Lowdown: Overrated? This is still the right spot for Harbaugh, who took a pay cut in the offseason and still has been unable to catch up to rival Ohio State. The Wolverines were 46-42 in the seven seasons leading up to his arrival. He’s been an upgrade, but can the program reach its first Big Ten championship game? How much time does Harbaugh have left? These questions remain in Ann Arbor.
Lowdown: Oregon is the two-time defending Pac-12 champions, though last year could be considered a disappointment given the Playoff expectations in Eugene. Cristobal has taken the lessons learned from Nick Saban in recruiting and applied that knowledge on the West Coast, and an early-season test against Ohio State will be a chance to prove the Ducks are playoff-ready again.
Lowdown: Chryst remains one of the most-reliable coaches in the Big Ten. COVID-19 cancellations threw off the Badgers in a 4-3 season in 2020, but four 10-win seasons and three Big Ten West championships in six years is a solid benchmark to continue building on as playoff expansion nears. Wisconsin will be a playoff regular if that continues.
Lowdown: Gundy retains his usual spot in the high teens, and that comes with the experience of 15 consecutive winning seasons. The Cowboys are just 14-13 in Big 12 play the last three years, however, and that’s increased the pressure on Gundy to get the program to the Big 12 championship game for the first time.
Lowdown: The Utes were 3-2 last season, which ended a run of back-to-back Pac-12 South championships. Whittingham still owns a 17-6 record in conference play the last three years, and the Utes have proven they can work into the Playoff conversation.
Lowdown: It looked like the longest tenure in the FBS would end, but Ferentz led the Hawkeyes to a 6-2 record in a COVID-shortened season in response. The Hawkeyes are 25-9 the last three seasons, and Iowa is among the Big Ten West favorites in 2021. Ferentz enters his 24th season with the same-old consistent program.
Lowdown: Indiana was one of the few heart-warming stories of 2020, and Allen continues to mold a contender in the most unlikely Big Ten outpost. The Hoosiers are 14-7 with an 11-5 record in conference play the last two years. Allen’s style is appealing. Indiana has a tougher schedule in 2021. The work never stops.
Last year: 17 (-5)
Lowdown: Patterson is a top-25 mainstay given the longevity with the Horned Frogs, but the program has slipped since near CFP appearances in 2014-15. TCU is just 18-17 the last three years, and the competition in the middle of the Big 12 has improved.
Last year: 27 (+4)
Lowdown: How can a coach with a record below .500 make the Top-25? Stoops has led Kentucky to a winning record in five of the last six seasons, and that includes three straight bowl victories. That success comes with 13 NFL Draft picks in the last three years. The Wildcats are a legit top-25 program now, and Stoops’ good work continues.
Last year: 24 (-3)
Lowdown: Shaw’s reputation resonates, but the Cardinal are in a prove-it season after failing to finish better than third in the Pac-12 North each of the last three seasons. Shaw has led Stanford to three Pac-12 championships, but the last one was in 2015.
Last year: 26 (+1)
Lowdown: Helton led the Trojans to a Pac-12 South championship in 2020, but he remains on a lukewarm seat given the expectations at USC. A top-10 recruiting class in 2021 calmed that front, and a CFP berth would keep Helton around long enough to see the 12-team Playoff.
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