Ranking the top 25 Power Five college football coaches entering the 2020 season

This is not our first rodeo ranking Power Five college football coaches here, but we have seen more movement in the top 25 over the last couple of years than ever before. The reasons for this are simple: The sport is losing a lot of its most respected coaches.

Before the 2019 season, it was Urban Meyer -- who never finished ranked lower than second -- stepping down at Ohio State. This year, both Chris Petersen (No. 3 in 2019) and Mark Dantonio (No. 13) left their posts. That's opened up a bit more wiggle room for other coaches to break through, and quite a few have done just that.

While we continue the long slog through the offseason in mid-May, we continue unveiling our 2020 rankings of the 65 coaches in the Power Five conferences (plus Notre Dame).

As for how these rankings are decided, our crew of CBS Sports college football writers voted on them. Regarding the criteria used to rank the coaches, there is none specifically. This is a highly subjective exercise based on what each voter believes makes a great coach -- winning record, recruiting chops, up-and-coming talent -- leading to a wide range of results on some.

And before we get to the top 25, be sure to check out the coaches ranked 65-26.

Top 25 Power Five Coaches
25
Matt Campbell: He hit a bump for the first time in our rankings. Campbell had been a quick riser over the years. Way back in 2017, he was coming off a 3-9 season at Iowa State and ranked No. 41. An 8-5 season bumped him to No. 30, and another 8-5 season saw him climbing to No. 19 last year. Now, after going 7-6 last season, he drops to No. 25. It's an odd situation. There's a general consensus that he's an up-and-comer, but his Iowa State teams are 23-16 the last three years. You start to wonder if he's hit a ceiling in Ames. 2019 rank: 19 (-6)
24
Mario Cristobal: Nobody should be surprised to see Cristobal rise into the top 25 after winning a Pac-12 title in his second season with the Ducks. He's helped restore the program to a Pac-12 power, and he's done so by recruiting at a level seldom seen in the conference outside of USC. Of course, we might learn a lot more about Cristobal in 2020 since he has to replace nearly his entire offensive line and a four-year starter at quarterback, who happened to be a first-round draft pick. Another conference title could have him approaching top-10 status next year. 2019 rank: 41 (+17)
23
Bronco Mendenhall: This is a ranking that may surprise some, but Mendenhall deserves to be this high. He's only 25-27 in four seasons at Virginia, but the program's trajectory matters more than the overall record. He's improved the team each season, going from 2-10 his first year to 9-5 last year. The Cavaliers won the AAC Coastal in 2019, and it was the first time Virginia had won nine games in a season since 2007. The team's Orange Bowl appearance was the first time the Cavs had played in a BCS/New Year's Six bowl game during the BCS/CFP era. 2019 rank: 26 (+3)
22
Mark Stoops: I don't think it can be overstated how impressive a coaching job the 2019 season was for Stoops at Kentucky. This program entered 2019 with the highest expectations it had for itself in a long time and then watched injuries take away multiple quarterbacks. All Stoops did was change his whole offense to fit the talents of Lynn Bowden, and it was successful enough to finish with eight wins. Our voters obviously took notice. Kentucky's now won 18 games over a two-season stretch for the first time since the 1976-77 campaigns. Stoops will be the winningest coach in program history by the end of the 2021 season if he keeps up that rate, passing some guy named Bear Bryant, who won 60 games with the Wildcats. 2019 rank: 39 (+17)
21
Pat Fitzgerald: Northwestern went 3-9 last season, so there was no way in the world Fitz wasn't going to slide in these rankings. I think the most complimentary thing that could be said about what he's done for Northwestern as a football program is that we're now surprised when the Wildcats go 3-9. It used to be that winning nine games was a shocking result. Now, it's an expectation. While it's doubtful Northwestern can ever reach a level to where it's competing for Big Ten or national titles every year, it's hard to imagine a coach out there who could have done more for the program. 2019 rank: 16 (-5)
20
Mack Brown: He is one of the most interesting cases out there. First, you have to determine whether you're ranking him based on what he accomplished in the main part of his career at North Carolina and Texas ... or where you think he is now. All of which makes for a surprising result in our poll. Last year, Brown was ranked No. 33. This year, he climbs 13 spots to No. 20. Leading the Tar Heels to a 7-6 mark a year after they went 2-9 is commendable, but if you felt he was No. 33 last year, is it enough to justify this climb? Particularly in relation to what he has already accomplished? 2019 rank: 33 (+13)
19
David Shaw: This is not the trajectory you hope to see. Shaw had been a mainstay of our top 10 the last few years, but after dropping two spots to No. 9 last year, he didn't only fall out of the top 10 entirely but dropped 10 whole spots. From 2011-16, Shaw's Stanford teams went 64-17, winning three Pac-12 titles. In the three seasons since, they've gone 22-17, bottoming out at 4-8 last year. After winning at least 10 games in five of six seasons, the Cardinal have gone three straight without doing it once. Skepticism about whether Shaw can get Stanford back to that level is evident in our rankings. 2019 rank: 9 (-10)
18
Gus Malzahn: He is a coach who garners a wide range of opinions, all of which seem to be defensible. You can make an argument for having him creep up near your top 10 just as well as you could for leaving him outside your top 25 entirely. It's a microcosm of how so many Auburn fans view him themselves. He can be on the hot seat one week and redeem himself completely by beating Alabama the next. 2019 rank: 24 (+6)
17
Paul Chryst: Another special case, one in which you feel like he's never getting as much credit as he deserves for what he's done at Wisconsin, but at the same time, you guard yourself against giving him too much props. In the end, you get a deserved spot in the top 20, but not the top 15, and that seems about right. He's 52-16 at Wisconsin and has won three division titles in five seasons, but you still don't get the sense his program is on the same tier as Ohio State. You aren't even sure you'd put it up there with Penn State. Until he breaks through with a conference title, it's hard to imagine he gets much higher than this. 2019 rank: 23 (+6)
16
Gary Patterson: It wasn't that long ago when you looked at Patterson and saw somebody who had taken TCU not only from the Mountain West to the Big 12 but also had the Horned Frogs on the precipice of being a College Football Playoff contender. Unfortunately, there hasn't been as much of that in the last four years with a 29-23 record -- and that's including a mark of 11-3 in 2017. The Frogs are also 18-18 in Big 12 in that timeframe. Last year, they missed out on a bowl game for the first time since 2013. It's hard to hold on to top-10 status with results like that. 2019 rank: 8 (-8)
15
P.J. Fleck: Our voters are rowing the boat. Fleck climbs 29 spots in the rankings this year, more than all but one coach (we'll get to him later). I had him at 23 on my ballot, so I think 15 might be a little too high, but it's not hard to understand. Some will think this is an overreaction to an 11-win season at Minnesota, but it's not the one season alone. It's an 11-win season at Minnesota after previously taking Western Michigan to a 13-win season and Cotton Bowl appearance. He's now proven at both the Group of Five and Power Five levels that he can build a program. What we find out now is if he knows how to maintain one. 2019 rank: 44 (+29)
14
Kirk Ferentz: This is an argument for sustained excellence. Ferentz has been at Iowa for 21 seasons, and he's had consistent results. While he hasn't been able to maintain the pace that saw him win 31 games and two Big Ten titles from 2002-04, he's proven that he can develop players. Iowa is rarely found at the top of recruiting rankings, yet somehow it's sending players to the NFL year after year. On the one hand, I can't help but wonder how Ferentz might fare in these rankings if he was coaching at a school with more inherent advantages as far as its ability to recruit. On the other hand, I can't wrap my mind around seeing anybody who isn't Ferentz on the sideline at Iowa. The man is the program. 2019 rank: 22 (+8)
13
Mike Gundy: An interesting case compared to guys like Patterson and Shaw. Like those two, he's had a couple of subpar seasons compared to the standard he's set within his program. Unlike those two, he hasn't suffered as much for it in our rankings. Following a 10-3 season in 2017 -- his third straight 10-win season -- Gundy finished 11th. He dropped a spot to 12 after going 7-6. Now, after an 8-5 season in 2019, he drops one more place to No. 13. Part of it is likely due to Shaw and Patterson being top-10 coaches before and having further to drop. But the other part of it must be the mullet. Like, you can only knock a guy so much when he has that kind of flow. 2019 rank: 12 (-1)
12
Jim Harbaugh: I've said plenty of times that, fairly or not, the world at large tends to spend more time focusing on what Harbaugh hasn't done at Michigan than what he has done. I don't think he's gotten enough credit for turning the program around, which isn't to say there's not plenty of work left. All that said, I was still surprised to see him climb in the rankings after a 9-4 season and failing to beat Ohio State again. I also can't help but wonder what happens if he does beat Ohio State. He might jump into the top 10. 2019 rank: 15 (+3)
11
Kyle Whittingham: There's no doubt that the way the season ended left a sour taste in the mouths of Utah players and fans. It also led to a lot of people who seemed too eager to say, "I told you so," about the Utes. But don't you think we should stop and think about how Kyle Whittingham had Utah on the brink of a playoff berth last season? He has helped navigate the program from the Mountain West to Pac-12, and he's been at the helm of the best program in the Pac-12 South for the last six years. The same Pac-12 South that is home to USC. Since 2014, Utah has won 55 games to USC's 51. That's not the way this is supposed to work! Whittingham is one of the most underappreciated coaches in the country, but he isn't with this panel. 2019 rank: 18 (+7)
10
Ryan Day: He climbs higher than any other coach in the rankings this year, moving all the way up to No. 10 from No. 45. Considering the season he had in his first full year as Ohio State's coach, it's not hard to understand why. Still, this might be a little too high. I had Day at No. 15 on my ballot. I respect and appreciate what he did last year, but it's not like he inherited a bad situation. Urban Meyer built quite the team. I'm more interested in seeing how things look two or three years from now. If Ohio State's still where it is now, Day will deserve to be ranked a lot higher than this. 2019 rank: 45 (+35)
9
James Franklin: He took over a Penn State program still dealing with the repercussions of the horrific acts of Jerry Sandusky. After an understandably slow start to his tenure, Franklin has turned things up a notch the last four years. The Nittany Lions have gone 42-11 since 2016, winning a Big Ten title, a Fiesta Bowl and a Cotton Bowl. However, what they haven't done yet is get to where they want to be ultimately: the CFP. It doesn't feel like they're that far off, however, and that's why Franklin gets so much respect from our panel. 2019 rank: 11 (+2)
8
Dan Mullen: If you look at the coaches in our top 10, there's one glaring difference between Mullen and the others. He's the only one yet to win a conference title as a head coach. So why is he ranked this high? Well, the short answer is that, if he had been able to win a conference title at Mississippi State, he would already be in the top five. What he did accomplish with the Bulldogs was impressive with or without the trophies, and now that he's coaching the Gators, he's in a position where he's better equipped to get them. Mullen has quickly restored Florida as a threat in the SEC East with 21 wins in his first two seasons. You can't help but feel that the conference title will come eventually. 2019 rank: 10 (+2)
7
Jimbo Fisher: He won a national title at Florida State in 2013, which goes a long way toward his position in these rankings. Still, while Fisher deserves credit for helping restore Florida State to its status as an ACC power, he also must accept his share of the blame for where the program was when he left it. All of which makes him a compelling case when trying to figure out where he belongs in these rankings. He dropped two spots this year, and you have to imagine that he'll continue to fall if he keeps losing four or five games a year with the Aggies. He's recruited well enough that we should start seeing improved results soon. 2019 rank: 5 (-2)
6
Kirby Smart: You could make a convincing argument that Smart is a few plays away from being in the top three of these rankings right now. That's how close Georgia was to winning a national title in 2018. While it didn't happen, in a few short years, Smart has Georgia in a position where it's considered an annual title threat. There were even some who saw the Dawgs as the heir apparent to Alabama's throne in the SEC should that dynasty ever end. LSU threw a bit of a wrench in those plans last year, but Georgia's ceiling is still sky-high under Smart. 2019 rank: 6 (EVEN)
5
Brian Kelly: Think about the storied history of Notre Dame football. You know the names of Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz, but did you realize how close Kelly was to having more wins with the Irish than any of them? Now, officially, he's not close. The NCAA vacated Notre Dame's wins in 2012 and 2013, but in the world where we don't pretend those games didn't happen, and that Notre Dame didn't win them, Kelly has 92 wins in South Bend. That's 13 fewer than Rockne's 105, which means there's a good chance Kelly will pass Rockne during the 2021 season. He took over a program that found itself on the brink of becoming a historical relic and has restored the shine to the golden dome. 2019 rank: 7 (+2)
4
Ed Orgeron: Orgeron climbs 26 spots to No. 4 in our rankings, and gosh, I just can't figure out why that happened! Maybe it has something to do with winning a national title last year with what might have been the greatest team in college football history? That's just a theory, though. OK, in all sincerity, Orgeron is a fantastic story. Nobody thought he'd be a head coach again after his failure at Ole Miss, and many believed LSU blew it when they missed out on Jimbo Fisher and then Tom Herman, instead retaining Orgeron full-time after a stint as interim coach. But Orgeron did something so few people are capable of accomplishing. He not only recognized his past mistakes, but he actively went out of his way to solve them. He looked at his program, saw the shortcomings and found ways to improve it. Then he reaped the rewards. 2019 rank: 30 (+26)
3
Lincoln Riley: His Oklahoma teams have yet to break through with a win in a CFP game, but you can't ignore the fact he's led the Sooners to the playoff in each of his three seasons. He's one of only four coaches to have coached in at least three CFP games. Two of those other three are ranked ahead of him on this list, and the other one is no longer coaching (Meyer). That explains why he's ranked so high here, but he's going to have a difficult time maintaining this position if his success in the Big 12 doesn't start translating to the national stage as well. 2019 rank: 4 (+1)
2
Dabo Swinney: While discussing these rankings on the "Cover 3 Podcast," I asked my two co-hosts (and fellow voters) Chip Patterson and Barton Simmons what it would take for them to rank Swinney ahead of Saban. They both had the same answer I did. If Swinney wins another national title before Saban does, it would be hard not to place him higher. Swinney's story isn't all that dissimilar to the one we just saw play out with Orgeron at LSU. He took over as an interim coach in 2008, and when Clemson gave him the job full-time, the most common reaction was "really?!" It turns out it was a really good decision. His Clemson teams have more seasons with at least 14 wins (four) than they do with fewer than 10 (two). Swinney's done such a fantastic job at Clemson that we assume it's going to win the ACC every year and reach the playoff. The only thing in doubt is whether it'll win a national title. 2019 rank: 2 (EVEN)
1
Nick Saban: The thing about sitting on the throne is that everybody else wants your spot, which makes it so difficult to keep it. Year after year, coaches and programs are coming. They're trying to be the next Alabama. Well, to this point, Saban hasn't lost his spot. He's won five national titles with the Crimson Tide and six overall. The program he's built at Alabama has been so dominant that, when it missed out on the College Football Playoff for the first time in history, you could almost hear a gasp across the entire country. Alabama is the standard to which every other program holds itself, and that's due to the expectations Saban sets forth for his program. Until it falters, fat chance unseating the king. 2019 rank: 1 (0)
CBS Sports Writer

Tom Fornelli has been a college football writer at CBS Sports since 2010. During his time at CBS, Tom has proven time and again that he hates your favorite team and thinks your rival is a paragon of football... Full Bio

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