College football coaching tiers 2018: From future Hall of Famers to questionable futures

Coaching matters in college football, but an under-appreciated point of the game is that not everyone is coaching for the same things. 

For instance, who's the better coach: Nick Saban or Bill Snyder? One has six national championships, but the other took the worst Division I program at the time and orchestrated the single greatest turnaround in the history of the sport. 

(OK, the right answer is probably Nick Saban, but you get the point.) 

That's what always bugged me about traditional coach rankings. Who's to say the guy coaching for a national championship is automatically better than the one taking two- and three-star recruits and winning nine or 10 games a year? They're accomplishing two entirely different things, usually with different sets of expectations. 

That's why I've decided to once again rank coaches in tiers. It made more sense to group coaches accomplishing similar things than it did to try to decide which one was 10th best or 11th best based on different contexts for data. That's what we're doing again this year. 

Before getting to the tiers themselves, allow me a few (several?) points of clarification. 

  1. I didn't rank every coach. That would sort of defeat the purpose. Besides, not everyone has a classification. 
  2. I stayed away from including any first-time coaches to give them a fair shake. Beyond that, I loosened the requirements so newer coaches going into their second or third years could be added. 
  3. Most of these tiers exist independently of one another. This stems, again, from the idea that different jobs have different benchmarks for success. Clemson's Dabo Swinney and UAB's Bill Clark aren't coaching for the same things, and they aren't building their programs the same way. I'm not going to try to stack them against one another. 
  4. There are no transitive properties. Ranking Joe Coach as the second-best program-builder doesn't mean he's automatically the 25th-best coach by my order. Rankings are relative to coaches similar to them. 
  5. This is all a snapshot of the moment. Many of the names from last year's list are in different spots. Some aren't there at all. There will be a new order next offseason. 

What I'm trying to say is please don't get too mad. OK, here are the tiers. Go ahead and get mad. 

Elites

The Bear Bryant Tier: First-ballot Hall of Famers

RankCoachSchoolCareer recordNational championships

1

Nick Saban

Alabama

223-62-1

6 (5 at Alabama, 1 at LSU)

2

Urban Meyer

Ohio State

177-31

3 (1 at Ohio State, 2 at Florida)

3

Dabo Swinney

Clemson

101-30

1

I added Swinney to this tier after a third straight ACC championship and College Football Playoff appearance. Other than Saban, no other coach can claim as many consecutive conference titles and playoff berths in this postseason era. As a result, Alabama-Clemson has turned into college football's best national rivalry. Since the Tigers are loaded coming into the 2018 season, we could absolutely see Part IV this year. And look, Swinney has unquestionably elevated Clemson's national profile. He recruits at a championship level, employs an excellent staff that develops those recruits into NFL players and wins championships. He's earned this spot. As for Saban and Meyer, their selections don't need a lot of explanation so I won't bother. Next

The Steve Spurrier Tier: Blue-blood champions

RankCoachSchoolCareer recordChampionships

1

Jimbo Fisher

Texas A&M

83-23

1 (national), 3 (ACC)

2

James Franklin

Penn State

60-32

1 (Big Ten)

3

Chip Kelly

UCLA

46-7

3 (Pac-10/Pac-12)

4

Kirby Smart

Georgia

21-7

1 (SEC)

5

Lincoln Riley

Oklahoma

12-2

1 (Big 12)

The above coaches are realistically competing for a lot of the same goals as the ones in the Bear Bryant tier. They just don't have quite the same resume. That leads to an obvious question: Why isn't Fisher in the top tier? He is, after all, one of four active coaches to win a national championship. The truth is he probably would have been if the 2017 season had gone differently. Furthermore, it's been a few years since the Seminoles' championship window. The good news is this move to Texas A&M might be a breath of fresh air for Fisher. And if you got rid of the tiers and strictly ranked the coaches 1-130, he'd be hovering around the top five. He's still highly respected and right there on the cusp. 

  • Franklin built Vanderbilt -- Vanderbilt! -- from the ground up and made Penn State nationally relevant again. Though he doesn't have any playoff appearances, some believe *ahem* he probably should. His record vs. top-25 teams leaves a lot to be desired, but he's improved in that area in the past two seasons. 
  • Kelly is the wild card. It's been a minute since he's coached in college, and his stint at Oregon was as quick as his offenses, but he did a lot to change the game during his time in Eugene.
  • Smart and Riley are still babies when it comes to their head coaching careers, but they've also cut their teeth as assistants under some of the best in the game. Early returns on them have been overwhelmingly positive.

Proven winners

The Barry Alvarez Tier: Success at the Power Five level

RankCoachSchoolCareer recordChampionships

1

Gary Patterson

TCU

160-57

6 (Big 12, C-USA, 4 MWC)

2

Chris Petersen

Washington

129-29

6 (Pac-12, MWC, 4 WAC)

3

David Shaw

Stanford

73-22

3 (Pac-12)

4

Mark Dantonio

Michigan State

118-62

3 (Big Ten)

5

Gus Malzahn

Auburn

54-25

2 (SEC, Sun Belt)

6

Mike Gundy

Oklahoma State

114-53

1 (Big 12) 

7

Mark Richt

Miami (FL)

164-58

2 (SEC)

8

Kirk Ferentz

Iowa

155-118

2 (Big Ten)

9

Dan Mullen

Florida

69-46

10

Bobby Petrino

Louisville

117-48

2 (C-USA, Big East)

11

Jim Harbaugh

Michigan

86-38

12

Brian Kelly

Notre Dame

230-88-2

2 NCAA Division II national

13

Mike Leach

Washington State

122-81

14

Clay Helton

USC

27-10

1 (Pac-12) 

15

Kyle Whittingham

Utah

111-56

1 (MWC) 

Honorable mentions: Tom Herman (Texas), Dave Doeren (NC State), Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern)

Many of these coaches were on this tier a year ago. One major addition is Patterson, and he shot straight to the top. In many ways, Patterson could be considered a program builder. He's one of the longest-tenured coaches in college football and overseen TCU's rise from mid-major giant killer to perennial Big 12 title contender by reinventing himself offensively while maintaining strong defenses. But the Horned Frogs have been in the Big 12 long enough now that there's nothing left to build. Patterson has won at least 11 games in three of the past four seasons, won a share of the Big 12 title in 2014 and got to the Big 12 Championship Game this past season. He's winning on the recruiting trail, too, by pulling in more top-25 classes with blue-chip recruits. 

(Correction: Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst was, believe it or not, originally listed here. At some point in the myriad steps of ranking and re-ranking coaches, he was accidentally omitted. It happens, it just unfortunately happened to him. And the irony of it happening in this particular tier isn't lost. Badger fans, you have been heard, and an apology is due. Since I can't go back and redo the table, please accept this mea culpa as Chryst has absolutely earned -- and previously held -- a spot on this list.) 

The Howard Schnellenberger Tier: Program builders

RankCoachSchoolCareer record

1

Bill Snyder

Kansas State

210-110-1

2

Willie Taggart

Florida State

47-50

3

David Cutcliffe

Duke

103-96

4

Bobby Wilder

Old Dominion

72-37

5

Willie Fritz

Tulane

202-89

6

Bill Clark

UAB

25-15

7

Mike MacIntyre

Colorado

41-59

8

Dave Clawson

Wake Forest

111-109

9

Scott Frost

Nebraska

19-7

10

Jeff Monken

Army

60-42

Honorable mentions: Chris Creighton (Eastern Michigan), Lance Leipold (Buffalo

Snyder will remain the Godfather of all rebuilding jobs until the end of time, but this is the most interesting tier on the list from No. 2 on down. Taggart has been known as a program builder his entire career with stops at Western Kentucky, South Florida and Oregon -- all of which were in bad condition when he found them and are now better off. Now he has a chance to become an elite, national title-winning coach at Florida State. A lot of the same things can be said about Frost and Nebraska. He did wonders in two years at UCF -- a winless program when he took over -- and can now turn his alma mater into a Big Ten title contender. 

The LaVell Edwards Tier: Getting it done outside the Power Five

RankCoachSchoolCareer recordChampionships

1

Rocky Long

San Diego State

129-98

3 (MWC)

2

Ken Niumatalolo

Navy

84-48

3

Bryan Harsin

Boise State

49-17

3 (2 MWC, Sun Belt) 

4

Scott Satterfield

Appalachian State

41-22

5

Charlie Strong

South Florida

63-39

2 (Big East) 

6

Frank Solich

Ohio

155-90

1 (Big 12)

7

Craig Bohl

Wyoming

126-61

3 FCS national

8

Jeff Tedford

Fresno State

92-61

1 (Pac-10) 

9

Troy Calhoun

Air Force

82-60

10

Rick Stockstill

Middle Tennessee

79-72

1 (Sun Belt) 

Honorable mentions: Doc Holliday (Marshall), John Bonamego (Central Michigan), Butch Davis (FIU)

With a couple of exceptions, the coaches in this tier probably aren't going anywhere. And for one reason or another, most of them don't seem to get the credit they deserve. Long, in particular, has been outstanding with three straight 10-win seasons. Two of his players -- running backs Rashaad Penny and Donnel Pumphrey -- respectively finished first and second nationally in rushing yards in the past two seasons. Some coaches have also rebooted their careers in this tier as well. Strong is coming off a big debut season with South Florida and Tedford quietly won 10 games and made it to the Mountain West Conference Championship Game. 

The Hal Mumme Tier: All over the place

RankCoachSchoolCareer recordChampionships

1

Paul Johnson

Georgia Tech

182-93

2 FCS national

2

Bronco Mendenhall

Virginia

107-60

2 (MWC) 

3

Kevin Sumlin

Arizona

86-43

4

Dana Holgorsen

West Virginia

53-37

1 (Big East)

5

Terry Bowden

Akron

171-106-2

6

Larry Fedora

North Carolina

77-53

1 (C-USA)

7

Randy Edsall

UConn

99-113

2 (Big East) 

8

Derek Mason

Vanderbilt

18-31

9

Kliff Kingsbury

Texas Tech

30-33

10

Rod Carey

Northern Illinois

44-24

1 (MAC) 

Honorable mentions: Bob Davie (New Mexico), Skip Holtz (Louisiana Tech

In this tier, sometimes things are good ... and then sometimes things are not so good. These coaches aren't necessarily on the hot seat, but they might not be far off. They may not be a hot coaching name in September, but that might change by November (or vice versa). Some are coaching journeymen. In short, these are the coaches whose careers have been filled with more extreme highs and lows than most of their counterparts. 

Risers and fallers

The Greg Schiano Tier: Coaches moving up

RankCoachSchoolCareer record

1

Justin Fuente

Virginia Tech

45-31

2

Jeff Brohm

Purdue

37-16

3

Matt Campbell

Iowa State

46-29

4

Lane Kiffin

Florida Atlantic

46-24

5

Neal Brown

Troy

25-13

6

Mike Norvell

Memphis

18-8

7

P.J. Fleck

Minnesota

35-29

8

Jason Candle

Toledo

21-7

9

Seth Littrell

North Texas

14-13

10

Blake Anderson

Arkansas State

31-20

Honorable mentions: Justin Wilcox (Cal), Chad Morris (Arkansas

Some of you youngsters may not remember this, but there was a time when Schiano was -- practically on a yearly basis -- the go-to name in the college football coaching rumor mill. Those days are long gone, but the spirit of the Schiano Man lives on (#govols). The coaches in this tier are going to be hot names for the next few years provided they keep up their winning ways. That doesn't necessarily mean they'll leave for another job, but they'll be mentioned often. The standout name here is Kiffin, who won a Conference USA championship in his first season with FAU. Without question, being the offensive coordinator at Alabama was the best thing that's ever happened to his career. It might be another couple of years before his name is associated with bigger jobs, but he's on the upswing. 

The Jim Mora Tier: Jury's still out

RankCoachSchoolCareer record

1

Will Muschamp

South Carolina

43-32

2

Pat Narduzzi

Pitt

21-17

3

Mark Stoops

Kentucky

26-36

4

Mario Cristobal

Oregon

27-48

5

Barry Odom

Missouri

11-14

6

Ed Orgeron

LSU

31-33

7

Kalani Sitake

BYU

13-13

8

Major Applewhite

Houston

7-6

9

Lovie Smith

Illinois

5-19

10

Jay Norvell

Nevada

3-9

Warning: famous last words forthcoming ... I'm cautiously optimistic about Muschamp after South Carolina's 9-4 season. Low-key, he did a darn good job and he might be exorcising some demons from his tenure at Florida. Can Muschamp move up a tier or two this time next year? Otherwise, a lot of the coaches in this tier aren't on the hot seat, per se, but there's a sense of "wait and see." Smith, for example, needs a lot of time to get Illinois to even resemble a Big Ten team. Is he the right guy for the job? We probably won't know realistically for another 2-3 years. 

CBS Sports Writer

Ben Kercheval joined CBS Sports in 2016 and has been covering college football since 2010. Before CBS, Ben worked at Bleacher Report, UPROXX Sports and NBC Sports. As a long-suffering North Texas graduate,... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories