Should Georgia’s Kirby Smart be ranked No. 1 on Sporting News’ annual 1-133 Coach Rankings?
It became a legitimate debate with Alabama’s Nick Saban for the first time. Smart has two straight national titles, but Saban is arguably (and in our opinion is) the greatest college football coach of all time. It’s a close call, but Saban is No. 1 in our rankings for the eighth consecutive season.
The rest of our rankings turned up a few movers. Michigan State’s Mel Tucker dropped 27 spots, and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and Miami’s Mario Cristobal dropped 23 spots each. Washington’s Kalen DeBoer moved up 38 spots, the biggest jump up for a Power 5 coach. Duke’s Mike Elko moved up 35 spots, and Florida State’s Mike Norvell moved up 34 spots.
Among first-year coaches, Nebraska’s Matt Rhule (No. 46), Arizona State’s Kenny Dillingham (No. 56) and Colorado’s Deion Sanders (No. 59) have the highest rankings.
SN looks at a coach’s overall record, record at the current school and a three-year record to gauge that ranking. Of course, career accomplishments, program expectations and the old “this guy or this guy” arguments come into play, too. It’s not a perfect science, but it’s our science and we’ve been doing it longer than Saban’s reign at the top.
MORE: Ranking the top 25 quarterbacks for 2023
Here are Sporting News’ 1-133 coach rankings ahead of 2023 (last year’s ranking is in parentheses):
133. Kenni Burns, Kent State (NR)
132. Biff Poggi, Charlotte (NR)
131. Alex Golesh, South Florida (NR)
130. Trent Diler, UAB, (NR)
129. Eric Morris, North Texas (NR)
128. G.J. Kinne, Texas State (NR)
127. Tim Beck, Coastal Carolina (NR)
126. Ken Wilson, Nevada (131)
125. Don Brown, UMass (130)
124. Danny Gonzales, New Mexico (122)
123. Stan Drayton, Temple (128)
122. Mike Bloomgren, Rice (120)
121. Timmy Chang, Hawaii (126)
120. Joe Moorhead, Akron (104)
119. Scott Loeffler, Bowling Green (121)
118. Ricky Rahne, Old Dominion (111)
117. Butch Jones, Arkansas State (118)
116. Terry Bowden, Louisiana-Monroe (115)
115. Dana Dimel, UTEP (109)
114. Mike MacIntyre, FIU (116)
113. Michael Desormeaux, Louisiana (129)
112. Rich Rodriguez, Jacksonville State (NR)
111. Jim McElwain, Central Michigan (90)
110. K.C. Keeler, Sam Houston (NR)
109. Sonny Cumbie, Louisiana Tech (84)
108. Tim Lester, Western Michigan (100)
107. Thomas Hammock, Northern Illinois (89)
106. Mike Neu, Ball State (95)
105. Barry Odom, UNLV (NR)
104. Brian Newberry, Navy (NR)
103. Kevin Wilson, Tulsa (NR)
102. Chuck Martin, Miami, Ohio (102)
101. Will Hall, Southern Miss (124)
100. Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan (106)
99. Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee State (105)
98. Maurice Linguist, Buffalo (119)
97. Shawn Elliott, Georgia State (89)
96. Jay Norvell, Colorado State (74)
95. Tom Herman, FAU (NR)
94. Ryan Silverfield, Memphis (85)
93. Brent Brennan, San Jose State (99)
92. Craig Bohl, Wyoming (97)
91. Clay Helton, Georgia Southern (82)
90. Tim Albin, Ohio (123)
89. Rhett Lashlee, SMU (114)
88. Blake Anderson, Utah State (70)
87. Curt Cignetti, James Madison (113)
86. Charles Huff, Marshall (93)
85. Kane Wommack, South Alabama (110)
84. Shawn Clark, Appalachian State (51)
83. Jason Candle, Toledo, (92)
82. Jerry Kill, New Mexico State (96)
81. Tyson Helton, Western Kentucky (83)
80. Mike Houston, East Carolina (86)
79. Brady Hoke, San Diego State (73)
78. Andy Avalos, Boise State (94)
77. Jeff Tedford, Fresno State (81)
76. Dana Holgorsen, Houston (66)
75. Jeff Monken, Army (65)
74. Jedd Fisch, Arizona (69)
73. Jon Sumrall, Troy (112)
72. Jim Mora Jr., UConn (91)
71. Zach Arnett, Mississippi State (NR)
70. Ryan Walters, Purdue (NR)
69. Troy Taylor, Stanford (NR)
68. Brent Pry, Virginia Tech (80)
67. Brent Key, Georgia Tech (NR)
66. Greg Schiano, Rutgers (63)
65. Tony Elliott, Virginia (62)
64. Clark Lea, Vanderbilt (76)
63. Dino Babers, Syracuse (75)
62. Jeff Hafley, Boston College (44)
61. Scott Satterfield, Cincinnati (43)
60. Justin Wilcox, Cal (60)
59. Deion Sanders, Colorado (59)
58. Tom Allen, Indiana (46)
57. Jamey Chadwell, Liberty (52)
56. Jeff Traylor, UTSA (53)
55. Willie Fritz, Tulane (101)
54. Kenny Dillingham, Arizona State (NR)
53. Troy Calhoun, Air Force (67)
52. Neal Brown, West Virginia (47)
51. Jake Dickert, Washington State (77)
50. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern (28)
49. Mel Tucker, Michigan State (22)
48. Mike Locksley, Maryland (56)
47. Eli Drinkwitz, Missouri (36)
46. Matt Rhule, Nebraska (NR)
45. Billy Napier, Florida (32)
44. Mike Elko, Duke (79)
43. Matt Campbell, Iowa State (20)
42. Brent Venables, Oklahoma (49)
41. Steve Sarkisian, Texas (41)
40. Jonathan Smith, Oregon State (54)
39. Jeff Brohm, Louisville (40)
38. Hugh Freeze, Auburn (50)
37. Kalani Sitake, BYU (29)
36. Lane Leipold, Kansas (59)
35. Joey McGuire, Texas Tech (78)
34. Mario Cristobal, Miami (11)
33. Bret Bielema, Illinois (55)
32. Shane Beamer, South Carolina (33)
31. Dave Clawson, Wake Forest (24)
30. Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame (35)
29. Gus Malzahn, UCF (45)
28. Sam Pittman, Arkansas (28)
27. Dave Aranda, Baylor (19)
26. Chip Kelly, UCLA (38)
MORE: Why 2024 CFP dates are doomed to fail
Top 25 Coaches for 2023
25. Dan Lanning, Oregon
Last year: 48
Lowdown: Lanning is another Pac-12 coach on the rise. He led the Ducks to a 10-3 record in his first season, and he kept it together after the 49-3 reality check in the opener against Georgia. The development of transfer quarterback Bo Nix into a Heisman Trophy candidate was a major plus, and the fact offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham isn’t too far behind on the rankings after taking the Arizona State job suggests Lanning might have his own coaching tree in the next decade.
24. Mike Norvell, Florida State
Last year: 43
Record: 56-31 (18-16 at Florida State)
Lowdown: Norvell appeared to be on the hot seat at Florida State, but a 10-win breakthrough in 2022 could be the start of something special. The Seminoles closed last season with a stretch of six wins where they scored 35 points or more. Quarterback Jordan Travis will keep that going in 2023. Norvell has won 10 or more games in three of the last five seasons dating back to his time at Memphis. Sometimes patience if required.
23. Kaleb DeBoer, Washington
Last year: 61
Record: 23-8 (11-2 at Washington)
Lowdown: DeBoer is the highest riser in the top 25, and this is not an over-reaction. DeBoer led the Huskies to a 11-2 record and had one of the nation’s hottest teams in the FBS with a seven-game win streak to end 2022. He’s developed outstanding quarterbacks at Fresno State in Jake Haener and now Michael Penix Jr. at Washington. DeBoer had a 67-3 record at Sioux Falls at the NAIA level before working his way up the FBS ladder.
22. Dave Doeren, NC State
Last year: 26
Record: 95-48 (72-54 at NC State)
Lowdown: Doeren has enjoyed winning seasons eight of the last nine years at NC State, and he should pass 100 victories for his career this season. The Wolfpack are a steady program, but they have yet to break through and win an ACC championship. Doeren has done an excellent job developing more NFL talent within the program, and NC State is 18-2 at home the last three seasons. The Wolfpack eventually need to take that next step.
21. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota
Last year: 27
Record: 74-49 (44-27 at Minnesota)
Lowdown: Sometimes it’s easy to forget Fleck is just 42 years old. He’s entering his seventh season at Minnesota, and the Gophers have enjoyed back-to-back nine-win seasons. Minnesota also has won Paul Bunyan’s Axe against Wisconsin in three of the last five years. Minnesota also is 4-0 in bowl games under Fleck. The drawback? Despite a wide-open Big Ten West, the Gophers have not been able to break through to the Big Ten championship game.
20. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss
Last year: 16
Record: 84-46 (23-13 at Ole Miss)
Lowdown: Kiffin bumps down five spots after moving up 10 spots in 2022, which suggests this is the sweet spot. Kiffin has established himself as a top-25 coach, and he’s enjoyed three seasons of 10 wins or more between stints with FAU and Ole Miss. The Rebels are 4-6 against ranked teams under Kiffin, but last year’s four-game losing streak to end the season cannot be ignored. Kiffin is less polarizing than earlier in his career, but he still has to prove it every year in the SEC West.
19. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Last year: 14
Lowdown: Ferentz enters his 25th season as head coach of the Hawkeyes, and he is under more scrutiny after fielding an offense that averaged 17.7 points per game in 2022. Iowa still won eight games – including a 21-0 shutout of Kentucky in the Music City Bowl. The Hawkeyes have won eight or more games in seven of the last eight seasons, and they went 6-2 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. Iowa also made some key additions in the transfer portal, including Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara. The incoming season is huge for Ferentz perception-wise.
18. Chris Klieman, Kansas State
Last year: 37
Lowdown: Klieman is another riser on this list, and that comes after a Big 12 championship season. The Wildcats’ only losing season under Klieman was in 2020. He has taken the lessons learned from winning four FCS national championships at North Dakota State and put them into action with Kansas State. He’s also upheld the 14-game winning streak against Kansas. Now, Klieman will need to deal with increased expectations in the Big 12.
17. Pat Narduzzi, Pitt
Last year: 23
Lowdown: Narduzzi enters his ninth season with the program. He has settled in at Pitt with a nice run the last three seasons that includes a 26-12 record, ACC championship and a New Year’s Day Six appearance. The Panthers have been .500 or better in ACC play each of the last five seasons, and Narduzzi has emerged as a strong voice not just for the program, but for college football as a whole.
16. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Last year: 14
Lowdown: Stoops drops two spots, but his body of work at Kentucky remains impressive. The Wildcats finished 7-6 in 2022, which gave them their sixth winning season in seven years. Kentucky has reached a bowl game every year in that stretch, and Stoops has leveled up the recruiting and NFL talent development. It’s not going to be easy in the SEC East with the re-emergence of Tennessee, but Stoops’ spot here holds.
15. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State
Last year: 12
Lowdown: Gundy dropped three spots, but he has 17 straight winning seasons at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys did fade in the back half of 2022 with five losses in their last six games, but Gundy has put together a 27-11 record the last three seasons. He’s still able to maximize the talent on his roster, and they should stay on as a perennial Big 12 power when Texas and Oklahoma leave for the SEC.
14. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
Last year: 8
Record: 122-44 (39-21 at Texas A&M)
Lowdown: Fisher dropped out of the top 10 after a 5-7 season in 2022. Yes, Fisher is among the coaches on this list who has won a national championship, but that was in 2013 at Florida State. He has yet to win more than nine games in a single season at Texas A&M. Last year was a disaster, but a close loss to Alabama on the road showed this program isn’t far off. Now, Fisher is counting on new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino to jump-start the offense. At minimum, this will be entertaining.
13. James Franklin, Penn State
Last year: 17
Record: 91-49 (67-34 at Penn State)
Lowdown: Franklin dropped six points in 2022 and moved back up four spots this year. That’s the shuffle expected given the results. Penn State went 11-11 in 2020-21, and that sandwiched around 11-win seasons in 2019 and 2022. Franklin is under contract through 2031, and expectations are high in Happy Valley after last year’s Rose Bowl victory. Penn State continues to struggle against Ohio State and Michigan. Franklin is 4-14 against the Big Ten East powers. Will that change in 2023?
12. Mack Brown, North Carolina
Last year: 15
Record: 274-144 (30-22 in second stint at North Carolina)
Lowdown: Brown – like Saban – is closing in on the 300-win mark. He led the Tar Heels to nine wins and a trip to the ACC championship game, and he has another year with Drake Maye at quarterback. That’s two straight NFL quarterbacks he’s helped develop. Brown’s tenure with the Tar Heels has had ups-and-downs on the field, but he remains a first-class coach in the era of NIL and the transfer portal. He’s also one of five national championship-winning coaches in the game.
11. Sonny Dykes, TCU
Last year: 42
Record: 84-65 (13-2 at TCU)
Lowdown: Dykes enjoyed the most-memorable year of his long-winding road of a coaching career in 2022. The Horned Frogs became the surprise story of the season with a run to the CFP championship game in Dykes’ first season, and he earned The Sporting News Coach of the Year as a result. TCU had eight players selected in the 2023 NFL Draft. Dykes is 38-12 the last four seasons between stints at SMU and TCU.
10. Josh Heupel, Tennessee
Last year: 27
Record: 46-16 (18-8 at Tennessee)
Lowdown: Too high or too low? You can ask questions, and that’s why this feels right. Heupel had a break-through season with Tennessee, and given the mess he inherited in Knoxville a victory against Alabama and an Orange Bowl win in Year 2 is amazing. Heupel’s quarterback-friendly offense is attracting five-star recruits, too. The loss to Georgia was a reality check, but the Vols have stability on the sideline for the first time since Phillip Fulmer. Heupel has a career winning percentage of .742. This is not a one-year thing.
9. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Last year: 10
Lowdown: Here is how it works with Whittingham. We spend the entire offseason praising how underrated he is and the longevity of the program – then we forget about that when the season starts and pick everybody else. Whittingham stays in the top 10 in our list. The Utes have the best record in the Pac-12 in the CFP era at 78-35, and they have won back-to-back conference championships. Utah has missed on a few opportunities to make the CFP, but they should be a regular when expansion arrives. In the meantime, prepare for another cycle of success for Whittingham and Utah in 2023.
8. Luke Fickell, Wisconsin
Last year: 9
Record: 63-25 (0-0 at Wisconsin)
Lowdown: Fickell compiled a 31-5 record at Cincinnati the last three seasons, which proved the Bearcats were not a one-time fluke. The Bearcats also sent 16 players to the NFL Draft in that stretch. Instead of taking the Notre Dame job, Fickell is leveling up at Wisconsin – which should be an ideal place for that no-nonsense program-building skills in the Big Ten West. Fickell turns 50 in August. He’s now an established coach who has to prove it all over again in the Big Ten.
7. Lincoln Riley, USC
Last year: 7
Record: 68-13 (11-3 at USC)
Lowdown: Riley holds the same spot after an impressive first year at USC. He is one of five coaches with a career winning percentage over .800, and he has developed three Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks in Caleb Williams, Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield. It’s a matter of time before he adds to his total of CFP appearances at Oklahoma. Why is Riley not higher? The Pac-12 championship loss to Utah and Cotton Bowl collapse against Tulane allowed questions about the defense to resurface. Will that change at USC?
6. Brian Kelly, LSU
Last year: 6
Record: 155-65 (10-34 at LSU)
Lowdown: Remember that narrative Kelly wouldn’t fit at LSU? The one that was complete with bad Southern accents and cringey recruiting videos? Kelly proved those wrong with 10 wins in his first season at LSU – and that continues a streak dating back to Notre Dame where Kelly has won 10 or more games in seven of the last eight seasons. Kelly took the job with the Tigers with the intention of winning a national championship, and it’s fair to say he is ahead of schedule heading into Year 2.
5. Ryan Day, Ohio State
Last year: 4
Lowdown: Day has critics, but what fan-base would not take a .882 winning percentage, three College Football Playoff appearances and an offense that continues to churn out NFL talent at every position group. The Buckeyes were one missed field goal away from playing for the national championship in 2022. Day will get more College Football Playoff chances. About the Michigan matter? Despite the two-game losing streak, it’s a good bet Ohio State will be favored when they head to Michigan Stadium on Nov. 25.
4. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Last year: 9
Record: 103-46 (74-25 at Michigan)
Lowdown: Like Swinney, it took Harbaugh time to get Michigan on track in recruiting, the Big Ten and the rivalry with the Ohio State. It’s hard to argue with the results of the last two seasons. The Wolverines have won back-to-back Big Ten championships after consecutive wins against the Buckeyes, and Harbaugh has evolved in recruiting with the help of the transfer portal. Last year’s playoff flop against TCU also is on the record, and the remains on Harbaugh to break through for a national championship.
3. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
Last year: 2
Lowdown: Swinney slander is increasing given the Tigers have missed the College Football Playoff the last two seasons and had their 40-game home winning streak snapped. Clemson did win an ACC championship last season, and the Tigers are 31-8 the last three seasons and 73-7 in ACC play since 2014. Swinney also is a member of the two-time national championship club. The rest of the coaches in the top 10 have combined for one national championship.
2. Kirby Smart, Georgia
Last year: 3
Lowdown: Should Smart be No. 1? It’s a legitimate debate in the present tense. Georgia will be No. 1 in most preseason polls after winning its second straight national championship. The Bulldogs have 25 NFL Draft picks the last two seasons, and Smart has compiled a 37-3 record since 2020. The 47-year-old coach is one of just three coaches with multiple national championships, and he’s put his own personal touch on Saban’s model at Alabama. A third straight national championship would force our hand.
MORE: Dylan Raiola, No. 1 QB in class of 2024, commits to Georgia
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
Last year: 1
Record: 280-69 (189-27 at Alabama)
Lowdown: Alabama has gone two seasons without a national championship, and any perceived panic speaks to the ultimate standard Saban has set in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide have a 115-12 record and a .906 winning percentage in the College Football Playoff era and are the only school with a winning percentage above .900. Alabama also is 37-4 the last three seasons – which is just half game behind Georgia. There is a case to put Kirby Smart at No. 1 given the Bulldogs are on top, but Saban remains the college football coach of all time.