Ranking college football coaches is something we've been doing at CBS Sports for years now, which makes our rankings ahead of the 2021 season particularly interesting as they may be the least volatile we've ever seen. There's still plenty of movement, don't get me wrong, but there are usually numerous coaches moving in and out of the top 25 each year.
With the 2021 season approaching, there are only two new entries into this year's top 25. Part of the reason for a lack of volatility inside the top 25 may have been a hesitancy to punish coaches with established track records too harshly for any possible setbacks during a strange 2020 season ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, while the names are the same, there are some dramatic swings regarding where these coaches are ranked.
As for how the rankings are decided, a panel of college football writers from CBS Sports and 247Sports submit ballots and vote. The ballots are compiled, and the rankings are final and irrefutable. OK, so they aren't irrefutable, that's impossible. Every single voter has their own criteria for ranking coaches. Some value accomplishments on the field above all else, while others may give greater weight to recruiting prowess or the possibility of future success.
If you missed our ranking of Power Five coaches from 65-26,.
|P.J. Fleck: His stock took a pretty significant hit after Minnesota followed up an 11-2 season with a 3-4 record last year. Still, as we'll see a lot in the rankings, it's hard to know how much to hold a down 2020 season against any coach. Minnesota was dealing with a lot of missing players early in the year, so it's hard to gauge whether Fleck has rowed the boat onto some rocks or if they just hit some turbulent seas for a bit. 2020 rank: 15 (-10)|
|David Shaw: He has experienced a steady decline in our rankings in the last few years. Shaw was still a top-10 coach in 2019, hanging on at No. 9 after a 9-4 season. Since then, though, Stanford has gone 8-10 overall and 7-8 in the Pac-12. The program hasn't performed up to the standard that Shaw helped put in place, and he's now barely managing to hang on to top-25 status. 2020 rank: 19 (-5)|
|Jim Harbaugh: Like nearly everybody else, my opinion of Harbaugh has dropped in recent years when it comes to these rankings. I think this might be a little too low, but when it comes to Harbaugh, everything seems embellished one way or the other. I had him at No. 17 on my ballot. I mean, he went 2-4 last season, but Michigan has still been a solid top-20 program during his tenure. The inability to beat Ohio State looms large for obvious reasons, but we don't seem to hold that against other Big Ten coaches like we do Harbaugh. 2020 rank: 12 (-11)|
|Mark Stoops: Old Steady Stoops remains at No. 22. Last year, he was one of the biggest climbers in our rankings, coming up from No. 39. It doesn't seem like anybody was interested in holding a 5-6 season against him, but I wonder what will happen if the Wildcats have similar results this year. 2020 rank: 22 (E)|
|Herm Edwards: Here's a fun exercise. Compare the reaction to Harbaugh's hire at Michigan when it happened to the reaction to Arizona State hiring Herm. Harbaugh was a grand slam hire, while Edwards was met with bewilderment. Yet here we are with Edwards ranked higher than Harbaugh a few years later. It's an excellent example of how expectations can skew your view of a coach because Edwards is only 17-13 at Arizona State and 11-11 in conference play. His best season of 8-5 in 2019 matches Harbaugh's worst record at Michigan. And yet ... 2020 rank: 30 (+9)|
|Tom Allen: No coach climbed higher in our rankings this season than Allen. And it's a rise that shouldn't have been difficult to predict. Going 8-5 in 2019 was enough to bump Allen up from No. 61 to No. 46 last year, and now he's cracked the top 20 after going 6-2 and taking the Hoosiers to the Outback Bowl. Any time you can lead Indiana to a record of 11-5 in the Big Ten over two seasons, people are going to take notice. 2020 rank: 46 (+26)|
|Gary Patterson: It's been three seasons in a row now that I've expected a Patterson slide that hasn't come. Now, don't get me wrong, he's moving in the wrong direction. Patterson had been at No. 8 in 2019 and dropped to No. 16 last year before sliding another three spots this season. That's a big drop, but considering TCU has fallen from Big 12 contender to Big 12 also-ran, I thought that perception might hurt him on our ballots. It seems our collective memory isn't as short when it comes to Patterson as it is with some others. 2020 rank: 16 (-3)|
|Paul Chryst: He is perpetually underrated. Chryst has gone 56-19 in six seasons at Wisconsin and won three division titles. He's led the Badgers to three New Year's Six games in that span, yet he cannot crack the top 15 of our rankings. Some of our voters seem to think Chryst inherited a blueprint and has just followed it, and that hurts his standing in their eyes. I had Chryst at No. 8 on my ballot, so I suppose I respect what he's accomplished in Madison more than my colleagues. 2020 rank: 17 (-1)|
|Kirk Ferentz: You almost get the sense that Ferentz's consistency works against him in these rankings. You know what you're going to get with Iowa every single season: at least seven wins, plus every six seasons or so, you can throw in a 10-win season. The Hawkeyes followed up a 10-win season in 2019 with a 6-2 record in 2020, yet Ferentz still dropped three spots. 2020 rank: 14 (-3)|
|Mario Cristobal: I mean, Cristobal won the Pac-12 despite not even winning his division. How many other coaches can say that? Of course he's going to climb! Seriously, Cristobal's won two Pac-12 titles now, and he's shaken up the recruiting game in the conference. While a College Football Playoff berth still eludes him, the way things are going, nobody would be shocked to see Oregon get back to the CFP in the next few years. 2020 rank: 24 (+8)|
|Mike Gundy: Considering some of the off-field issues surrounding this team before the 2020 season began, going 8-3 might have been one of Gundy's more impressive accomplishments in Stillwater, and he's done quite a lot while there. I think this is a pretty solid spot for Gundy. For all his success at Oklahoma State, he's only won the conference once and there does seem to be a ceiling his teams just can't break through. He's solidly top 20, if not quite top 10. 2020 rank: 13 (-2)|
|Kyle Whittingham: The names of his players change, and even the conference in which they play changed that one time, but Whittingham's results at Utah have been remarkably consistent. He's won three Pac-12 South titles in the last six years, and the Utes were considered playoff contenders for a large portion of the 2019 season. There isn't a program in the Pac-12 South that's done a better job taking advantage of USC's lack of success than Whittingham's. 2020 rank: 11 (-3)|
|James Franklin: It's only natural for Franklin to drop in the rankings after the worst year of his tenure at Penn State. The Nittany Lions finished last season 4-5, but it needs to be pointed out that the team started 0-5. Considering the circumstances of last season, it would have been easy for a team to quit, but the Lions finished strong. That says a lot about the culture Franklin has built. 2020 rank: 9 (-4)|
|Mack Brown: It's funny how records look different depending on which school you're at. At Texas, going 15-10 over two seasons put Mack on the hot seat. At North Carolina, it's got him climbing toward the top 10. Of course, trajectory plays a role in that, too, and this is a North Carolina team heading in the right direction. If the Heels take another step forward in 2021, you can probably count on Mack joining the top 10 next season. 2020 rank: 20 (+8)|
|Ed Orgeron: While it's not the biggest fall from one of our coaches as far as placement is concerned, you can argue that going from No. 4 to No. 11 in one season is the most significant drop as far as quality. Orgeron went from being on the top of the world following a national title win to people wondering how much longer he's going to last in Baton Rouge. It felt like Coach O couldn't do anything wrong in 2019 and that it all balanced out by him not being able to do anything right last season. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, and it will be interesting to see what 2021 brings for Orgeron and the Tigers. Consider, though, that Coach O was ranked 30th before the national title season. 2020 rank: 4 (-7)|
|Dan Mullen: He finally wins the SEC East ... and drops two spots in the rankings. Being fair to Mullen and our rankings, his drop was not due to his performance but rather because two coaches jumped him in the rankings after tremendous seasons, pushing him down. While an 8-4 record in 2020 was the worst of Mullen's three seasons in Gainesville, you can easily argue it was his best season with the Gators. I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that if the Florida wins the East again in 2021, Mullen will rise quite a bit in these rankings. 2020 rank: 8 (-2)|
|Matt Campbell: Does this seem as aggressive to you as it does to me? Don't get me wrong: I think Campbell's a terrific coach and has done an outstanding job in Ames. That's why I have him 16th on my ballot, because as good as he's been, other coaches have accomplished more. For all Campbell has done, though, does he deserve to be in the top 10 and ahead of coaches with national and conference titles? If he wins the Big 12, you'll hear no argument from me about him being ranked this high, but I'd be lying if I say there's a bit too much "forecast" in this ranking right now. 2020 rank: 25 (+16)|
|Pat Fitzgerald: It looks like my colleagues have finally caught on. I've had Fitzgerald in my top 10 for years, yet my fellow voters remained unconvinced. It's amazing what a second division title in three years at Northwestern can do to change perceptions. Seriously, considering what Northwestern was before Fitzgerald took over, what he's accomplished is one of the more impressive coaching performances we've ever seen. Fitzgerald has squeezed every single ounce of potential out of this program ... and maybe even more. 2020 rank: 21 (+13)|
|Kirby Smart: We're starting to see our voters reach the point where Kirby needs to show them more. He advanced to the College Football Playoff National Championship in his second season with the Bulldogs and has recruited at an elite level. But the program has stalled a bit in recent seasons and failed to win the SEC East in 2020. It enters the 2021 season as a title contender once again, but you can only be a title contender for so long without winning one before patience wears thin. Maybe JT Daniels proves to be the difference-maker for Smart in Athens? 2020 rank: 6 (-1)|
|Jimbo Fisher: When Jimbo left Florida State for Texas A&M, he said he would compete for national titles. The Aggies got close to playing for one last season, finishing just outside the College Football Playoff. It's exactly the kind of trajectory Texas A&M fans want to see in their program, and it sets a new set of expectations in the future. However, the 2021 season will be interesting for Jimbo as he must replace a veteran QB while still trying to win games in the SEC West. 2020 rank: 7 (+1)|
|Brian Kelly: There was once a time when fans could complain that Notre Dame was constantly overrated, and they were right. Thanks to Kelly, it's no longer the case. Kelly has led the Irish to two CFP berths in the last three years, and he also led them to the ACC Championship Game in their only season as a member of the conference. There's still a bit of a gap between the Irish and the elite programs, but that gap seems to narrow slightly with each passing season. 2020 rank: 5 (E)|
|Ryan Day: I had been one of the voters holding Day back last season because I took a more patient approach. I felt that Day had inherited a pretty nice program from Urban Meyer, and I wanted to see how he maintained it. Well, two playoff berths and a title game loss later, and I'd say he's doing pretty well. Hell, you could say he's doing some things better than Meyer. Ohio State is easily one of the three best programs in the country, and Day has only made that more obvious since taking over. 2020 rank: 10 (+6)|
|Lincoln Riley: I thought his stock might take a slight hit after missing out on the CFP for the first time, but it seems our voters are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt after winning his fourth Big 12 title in four seasons as coach. The Sooners will once again enter the 2021 season expected to win the Big 12 and reach the playoff, but I wonder how long Riley can stay at No. 3 in these rankings without winning a playoff game. 2020 rank: 3 (E)|
|Dabo Swinney: The only thing easier than putting Nick Saban at No. 1 on your ballot is putting Dabo Swinney at No. 2. Is there any other choice? At this time last season, we were wondering whether Swinney was one more national title away from surpassing Saban, but the Crimson Tide coach has widened the gap a bit following his latest title. Still, Dabo is Dabo, and he's turned Clemson into a dang ol' juggernaut. It's one of the most impressive jobs of building a program that we've ever seen. 2020 rank: 2 (E)|
|Nick Saban: If he's not already the greatest to ever do it, he's likely to be considered so when (if?) he hangs up the headset. Just think about it for a bit. Since winning his first national title at LSU in 2003, Saban has never gone three consecutive seasons coaching at the college level without winning at least one national title. It's astounding. What makes it more special is that a lot of people, in all walks of life, experience success and think they never have to change. If it ain't broke, why fix it? Saban's different. He saw the writing on the wall and realized he had to change the way he approached the game if he wanted Alabama to stay on top. He did exactly that, and he's still winning because of it. 2020 rank: 1 (E)|