Who is the best coach in college football?

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For the first time since its inception, the College Football Playoff could very well feature a final four without Alabama, Clemson, or Ohio State. There hasn’t been this much parity in quite a long time. There’s actually never been a time in college football with more change on the horizon. NIL has completely adjusted the way programs recruit. Transferring has never been easier, and conference realignments over the next few years will drastically reconfigure the landscape of college football, which makes it the perfect time to debate who the best coach in college football is.

When he left Flordia State, Jimbo Fisher was considered one of the premier coaches in football. He beat Alabama last season, and he’s shown an ability to put together some of the best recruiting classes in the nation with the endless NIL resources that oil money can buy. But he’s fallen short in a big way this season. The Aggies began the year with playoff aspirations but will finish without appearing in a bowl game. Pressure is building in College Station, and Fisher has under-delivered since taking over the program.

Luke Fickell won Coach of the Year honors in 2021. Outside of his first season with the Bearcats, he boasts a 53-10 record during his time at Cincinnati. He led the program to the Group 5’s first appearance in the College Football Playoff and has regularly sent prospects to the NFL since taking over. With Fickell taking over Wisconsin, we could finally see someone in the Big 10 West challenge Ohio State and Michigan. What he does with the Badgers will ultimately define his career.

Lincoln Riley is considered the brightest offensive mind in college football. He left a blueblood Oklahoma program that experienced loads of success for the bright lights of Hollywood. He compiled a 37-7 record with the Sooners, leading them to three straight playoff appearances. And all he’s done in his first season with Southern California is potentially lead the program to its first College Football Playoff berth. However, he can’t be considered the best coach in college football without a championship.

Brian Kelly has an argument for the best coach in college football but faces the same roadblock as Riley. He’s Notre Dame’s all-time winningest coach, one of the most storied programs in college football history. Over his last four seasons in South Bend, he boasted a 44-7 record but left for the most competitive conference in football, an all-time gutsy, career-defining move. And he’s already put his stamp on the SEC West, winning the division in his first season in Baton Rouge, including beating Nick Saban and Alabama in Death Valley. He should be able to maintain pace in recruiting with the best of them, given the hotbed of talent in Louisiana and the school’s resources. The Tigers have won a championship under its last three coaches, and if Kelly can bring LSU its fourth since 2003, he’ll catapult to the top of these lists. For now, he can’t be considered the top coach in college football.

Ryan Day has handled the changing of the guards from Urban Meyer beautifully. His offense is a top quarterback prospect’s dream, and he’s shown an ability to still recruit at the highest level. The Buckeyes have gone 45-5 under Day and don’t look to be slowing down. However, the only thing that matters at Ohio State is winning championships and beating Michigan — something Day hasn’t done. Michigan has established dominance over its rivals in the past two seasons. As Jim Harbaugh would say, Day was born on third base. There’s no way he can be considered the best coach in college football.

Harbaugh has a case for being a top coach in college football, but like many of the coaches on this list, championships hold his resumé back. He led the Wolverines to their first win over Ohio State since 2011, first Big Ten championship since 2004, and first-ever College Football Playoff appearance. Now, he’s beaten Day in back-to-back seasons and looks primed to head back to the College Football Playoffs. He’s an elite coach, just not the best.

Dabo Swinney is quickly falling down these lists. A few seasons ago, he was giving Nick Saban a run for his money at the top. Since 2011, Clemson hasn’t had a season with fewer than double-digit wins, including four bids to the College Football Playoff with two championships. Clemson fans expect to win ten games; it’s still an elite program. But, in the past two seasons, Clemson has taken a step back. Without generational quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Deshaun Watson, Swinney is just an above-average coach succeeding in a weak conference. Still, his resumé is still good enough for a top-three ranking.

The debate for the best coach in college football is between Nick Saban and Kirby Smart. The Godfather of the sport is 112-12 in the College Football Playoff era. Saban has shown an inhuman ability to sustain the highest levels of success despite sifting through coordinators for the better part of the last decade. He’ll surely join a very short list of coaches with 300 wins. Alabama has been a machine under Saban, and it’s not going to run out of steam because of a down year in 2022.

It’s just the second time in more than a decade Saban has lost two inter-conference games; the man shits out 10-win seasons. Nobody should expect the Tide to underachieve for long. They’re still perennial championship contenders. Saban has had a stranglehold on the conference for basically his entire tenure. He’s the perfect combination of Xs and Os, recruiting, and motivation in college football, but his disciple might be even better in those areas. And it’s why I believe Kirby Smart will officially take the crown following this season when the Dawgs win their second championship in as many years.

Kirby Smart is the best coach in college football. In the seven years since he took over, he’s compiled a 70-10 record, not including an 8-5 finish in his first season. Nobody develops talent like Smart, and if you’re wondering why Alabama’s defense has taken a step back in recent seasons, look no further than the Dawgs. Georgia is pumping out elite defensive talent, and last year’s championship defense was one of the best units in college football history.

Smart is the only coach in college football that rivals Saban in terms of being elite as a CEO, with Xs and Os, recruiting, and motivating his players. He’s the ideal coach in those facets. And to put a cherry on it, it’s at his alma mater. Smart has consistently put together the best recruiting classes in the country, develops talent as well as anyone, and has finally climbed the mountain and won a National Championship. To make it even sweeter, it was against Alabama and Nick Saban. But credit to Saban and Alabama: the blueprint in Tuscaloosa has been replicated in Athens. Smart learned for years under Saban, so it’s a compliment that the pupil is taking the mantle from the master.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the missteps of Kirby Smart, though. He’s been criticized for his conservative play calling at times, which ultimately led to losing to Alabama in his first National Championship. Those criticisms continued with his handling of Justin Fields, which ultimately led to the No. 1 high school recruit transferring to Ohio State and leading the Buckeyes to a title game. But Smart’s plan from Day 1 was simple: play defense, run the ball, and manage the game. And it’s worked. Bringing Athens a national championship for the first time since 1980 put Smart in the conversation, and the first back-to-back champion since Alabama will catapult him to the top of the list.

Smart might not be there yet, but we could be experiencing a changing of the guards. However, as we saw with Dabo Swinney and Clemson, maintaining the success that Alabama and Nick Saban have had for this long is incredibly challenging. We’ll see if Kirby Smart has the stamina to do this as long as Saban.

Photographer: Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire
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