Sunday, May 19, 2024

Ranking the top 25 Power Four college football coaches entering the 2024 season

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25 Matt Campbell: The longtime Iowa State coach’s standing in our rankings has varied over the years. He’s gone from underrated to slightly overrated and back to underrated again. Perhaps this year he’s found his equilibrium? The Cyclones bounced back from a rough 4-8 mark in 2022 that saw Campbell drop to 35 to finish 7-6. So, he returns to the top 25 this year. Campbell’s done such a strong job at Iowa State over eight seasons that you forget how difficult a job it’s been historically. What I’m wondering is how things will change for the program with Oklahoma and Texas leaving the Big 12. 2023 rank: 35 (+10) 24 Marcus Freeman: Another one of our climbers. Freeman had his first 10-win season with the Fighting Irish last year and is now 19-7 over his two full seasons. Most importantly, last year didn’t include any odd losses to teams like Marshall. Freeman and his staff have built a lot of positive momentum on the recruiting trail and landed a top transfer quarterback each of the last two seasons; ex-Duke QB Riley Leonard was this year’s get. Next on the list? A College Football Playoff appearance. 2023 rank: 38 (+14) 23 Josh Heupel: Seeing how recency bias works in these rankings is always fun. Heupel leaped to No. 16 last year after the Volunteers went 11-2 and won the Orange Bowl, and I’d have argued he was ranked a little too high. Then the Volunteers follow it up with a 9-4 season, which was more than respectable, and he nearly drops out of the top 25 altogether. What changed aside from the record? This is the area where Heupel should’ve been ranked last year, but my bet would be that another nine-win season will have him drop a few spots. 2023 rank: 16 (-7) 22 Sonny Dykes: We all could’ve seen this one coming. Dykes was the biggest climber last season after leading TCU to the national title game, but he dropped 11 spots after going 5-7 in 2023. If not for all the changes at the top of our rankings, I wonder if Dykes would’ve fallen out of the top 25 entirely. I’m not arguing he should’ve, but some of our voters were too reactive last year. 2023 rank: 11 (-11) 21 Eli Drinkwitz: The Alpha Nerd, as we like to call him on the Cover 3 Podcast, makes a huge jump in our rankings. After going 17-19 in his first three seasons at Missouri, the Tigers went 11-2 last year, finished second in the SEC East and beat Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl. As a result, Drink climbs 30 spots! That’s tied with Jedd Fisch for the second-largest jump this season (the biggest is yet to come). I wonder if we have another Heupel situation. What happens to Drinkwitz if Missouri finishes with eight or nine wins this season? 2023 rank: 51 (+30) 20 Mark Stoops: Considering the university didn’t want to pay John Calipari’s buyout, and then Calipari left to take the Arkansas job, can we now say definitively that Kentucky is a football school? The fact I say that only half-jokingly is a testament to the job Stoops has done in Lexington. Stoops is 73-65 with two 10-win seasons in 11 years with the Wildcats, and he’s 71-55 after a 2-10 first season. Things have evened out in the last two seasons, but Stoops still has respect from our panel. 2023 rank: 18 (-2) 19 Jeff Brohm: Few coaches are as consistent across multiple spots as Brohm, which indicates how good he is. Brohm went 17-9 in his final two seasons at Purdue, winning the Big Ten West in his final season. He then returns to his alma mater and immediately leads Louisville to a 10-win season and the ACC Championship Game. Some will point to Louisville’s schedule last season, but plenty of teams catch “breaks” in their schedule every year; most don’t take advantage, however. Brohm’s teams always squeeze every ounce of potential out of themselves. 2023 rank: 33 (+14) 18 Kirk Ferentz: For years, Ferentz was ranked highly due to the respect for his consistency. You don’t have to like how Iowa plays, but it was difficult to argue against the results. That respect wavered a bit last season, but Ferentz is back in everybody’s good graces now. The Hawkeyes won 10 games again last year despite one of the worst QB situations in the Power Five, so Ferentz climbs back into the top 25. He’s 196-119 in 25 seasons at Iowa, but the landscape is about to change significantly now that the Big Ten has dropped the divisions. 2023 rank: 30 (+12) 17 Luke Fickell: This ranking reflects our voters expecting too much too quickly. Fickell took the Wisconsin job last season, two years removed from leading Cincinnati to the CFP, and people expected big things from the Badgers. I do not want to pat myself on the back too much, but I spent all last offseason trying to temper expectations because it’s difficult to overhaul a program’s entire identity in one offseason. That showed in the results last year as Wisconsin went 7-6. Now Fickell drops down to 17th, which is too steep, in my opinion. This is still the same coach who led Cincinnati to the CFP and went 42-8 in his final four seasons there. He’s going to win games at Wisconsin, too. 2023 rank: 9 (-8) 16 Dave Doeren: The NC State coach finally gets some overdue credit. He’s always hovered around the bottom of our top 25 or just outside it, and now he finds himself firmly entrenched in it thanks to all the changes at the top. Coaches who take mid-tier programs and overachieve never get enough credit, in my estimation, and the consistency Doeren has established at NC State — where he spent most of his time in a division with Clemson and Florida State — is one of the most impressive things any coach in the country has done. I’m glad to see Doeren getting closer to the top 15. 2023 rank: 25 (+9) 15 Mike Gundy: I am so excited to see what happens with Gundy and Oklahoma State now that Oklahoma and Texas have left the Big 12. Gundy has had a tremendous career in Stillwater. He’s coming off a 10-4 season, the eighth time the Cowboys have won 10 games in a season during Gundy’s 18 seasons. Do you know how many times Oklahoma State won 10 games before then? Three times, all under Pat Jones in the early ’80s. Still, for all that success, Gundy only has one conference title. While the Cowboys have long been established as one of the best programs in the league, they can remove that “one of” part. 2023 rank: 17 (+2) 14 Lane Kiffin: Listen, Lane, I know you’re reading this, but please don’t take this personally. I don’t get why you’re annually ranked higher than some of the other coaches in these rankings. Kiffin is a top-25 coach, but the top 15 feels like too much. Kiffin won two conference titles at FAU but had a 5-7 season sandwiched in between. In nine seasons at Power Five schools, he’s never won a division title, let alone a conference. That said, Ole Miss is coming off an 11-win season and has absolutely crushed it in the portal this offseason. There’s a reasonable buzz about the Rebels earning a playoff berth this year. But, if they don’t and Lane is still ranked this highly next year, my colleagues and I will have words. 2023 rank: 14 (0) 13 Chris Klieman: When Bill Snyder retired the second time, there was concern from Wildcats fans about how the program would move forward, and for good reason. Snyder built the program from essentially nothing, and things did not go well following his first retirement. Klieman has quickly quieted those fears. The Wildcats followed up their 2022 Big Ten title with a 9-4 mark last season and enter 2024 as one of the favorites to win the new-look Big 12. That’s the expectation Klieman’s program has set moving forward. 2023 rank: 12 (-1) 12 Lance Leipold: I love the rivalry aspect of our rankings this season. We have Iowa and Iowa State in our top 25 and Kentucky and Louisville coaches next to each other. Now, we have Kansas and Kansas State back-to-back. I’m sure Wildcats fans won’t have strong opinions about Kansas’ coach being ranked ahead of theirs! I’d argue Klieman should be ahead of Leipold thanks to that conference title, but I don’t begrudge any of our voters for their Leipold love. Four years ago, Kansas football was viewed as a dead-end wasteland where coaches on the backside of their careers went for one final paycheck. In three years, Leipold has changed the outlook of the program entirely. Kansas is looked at as a team that could win the Big 12 and get to the playoff. 2023 rank: 23 (+11) 11 James Franklin: I think Franklin’s ranking was saved a bit by so many big-name coaches no longer being around. He’s been in or near the top 10 for most of his time at Penn State but drops slightly out of it this season following a 10-3 campaign. Franklin may be the poster coach for how coaches would be perceived nationally if we had an expanded playoff from the start. He’s had plenty of success at Penn State but has failed to break through the Michigan and Ohio State ceiling. If we’d had a 12-team playoff the entire time, Franklin and the Nittany Lions would have had at least five appearances. 2023 rank: 10 (-1) 10 Lincoln Riley: This is one of the bigger surprises for me. I understand why Riley would drop after USC went 8-5 last season and failed to build a strong enough team around Caleb Williams, but this is still the same Riley who has won four conference titles and reached the playoff four times. There are very few coaches remaining in the sport with that kind of resume, so to see Riley ranked here behind other coaches without resumes half as impressive is an overreaction to one bad season. Outside the shortened COVID season, last year was the first time a Riley-coached team failed to win at least 10 games. 2023 rank: 4 (-6) 9 Dan Lanning: Yes, Lanning is one of the coaches I’m surprised to see ranked higher than Riley, but I love him, too, so I’m not going to complain. Lanning is 22-5 in his two seasons with the Ducks and is one of the more aggressive game day coaches in the country, which I will always appreciate. This program still needs to get over the hump to break through and win a conference title or reach the playoff, but the Ducks enter the Big Ten with one of the most talented rosters in the country. Many view them as the second-best team in the league already, and wouldn’t you know it, Lanning’s the second-highest-ranked coach in the league in our rankings. 2023 rank: 36 (+27) 8 Mike Norvell: I wonder where the College Football Playoff Selection Committee would have Norvell ranked? I am firmly on Team Florida State Should’ve Been In The Playoff, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t bothered by how the Seminoles approached the Orange Bowl afterward. It didn’t affect how I viewed Norvell in these rankings; he climbed from the top 20 to the top 10 this year. Norvell has put together a masterclass in the transfer portal the last couple of seasons and reinvigorated a Florida State program that desperately needed a jolt. 2023 rank: 19 (+11) 7 Kalen Deboer: You don’t have to be a genius to have seen this climb coming from DeBoer. First, he led Washington to a Pac-12 title and the College Football Playoff National Championship. Then, he left to replace Nick Saban at Alabama. When that happens, you’re going to climb in the rankings. While DeBoer is a terrific coach, I’ve always thought you don’t want to be the guy who replaces The Guy, so it’ll be interesting to see how things go in Tuscaloosa. Will DeBoer be given the support and leeway he needs? If Alabama’s smart, he will because he’s won everywhere he’s gone. 2023 rank: 31 (+24) 6 Kyle Whittingham: A stalwart of our top 10. Utah saw its run of consecutive Pac-12 titles come to an end last season, but one 8-5 season won’t do much to change the way our panel thinks of Whittingham. He has been in charge at Utah since 2004 and has had the program competing near or at the top of two different leagues. Now he’ll get a crack at a third. There’s a reason people look at Utah as a team that can win the Big 12 in its first season, and that reason is Kyle Whittingham. 2023 rank: 7 (+1) 5 Steve Sarkisian: No coach took a bigger leap in the rankings than Sarkisian. After being ranked 37th last season, Sark jumped 32 spots to 5th this year. That happens when you win the Big 12 and reach the College Football Playoff at Texas. That said, while I respect the job Sark has done in Austin, and continues to do, this is slightly too high. Sark is one of the coaches I’d have behind Lincoln Riley. Last season was the first time a Sarkisian team won a conference title or won 10 games. It was a great year, and I’m optimistic about the program’s direction in this new era, but I’d like to see a more consistent track record of success before putting somebody this high. 2023 rank: 37 (+32) 4 Brian Kelly: The LSU coach would be the first person to tell you he expects better results than we’ve seen from his first two seasons in Baton Rouge, but the Tigers have gone 20-7 in these two years. It’s not like they’ve stunk. Last year, Jayden Daniels won the Heisman Trophy, but individual achievements weren’t the goal. This team wants to win SEC and national titles. That’s one of the biggest reasons Kelly left Notre Dame — where he reached the CFP twice — for LSU. It’s safe to say that if the Tigers don’t earn a playoff berth in 2024, the heat will turn up on Kelly’s seat. 2023 rank: 6 (+2) 3 Dabo Swinney: Dabo stays at No. 3 this year, but the spot feels tenuous. Had Nick Saban and Jim Harbaugh stuck around, would he still be in the top three? I’m skeptical. Swinney does things his way, and I don’t blame him because when you’ve had as much success as he’s had doing it his way, it’s natural to resist change. That refusal to adapt, however, played a role in Clemson failing to win at least 10 games last year for the first time since 2010. There are four teams who have yet to accept an incoming transfer this offseason. Three of them are service academies. Clemson is the fourth. 2023 rank: 3 (0) 2 Ryan Day: I’m not the only one who finds this mildly humorous, am I? Ohio State failed to beat Michigan or win the Big Ten for the third straight season in 2023. It missed out on the College Football Playoff, too. Yet Day climbs six spots to No. 2, ahead of a coach with two national titles to his name. I don’t say this as a way to denigrate Day. If you have him outside your top five, I’d question your sanity, but the fact he climbs to the top two this year with the way things have been going in Columbus is cruel irony. Of course, Ohio State is all-in on the 2024 season and has wrecked shop in the transfer portal. There’s a very real chance Day could add a national title to his resume this year. 2023 rank: 8 (+6) 1 Kirby Smart: The easiest vote on the board, but there’s also some humor to Kirby’s ascension as well. Smart won back-to-back national titles in 2021 and 2022 but couldn’t get past Saban in the rankings. In 2023, Smart and the Dawgs lost to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, missed out on the playoff and Smart climbed to No. 1. I don’t know that we’ll ever see another program have the kind of success that Saban’s Alabama had in the expanded playoff era, but if there’s a coach and program to bet on doing it, I don’t see how you’d put your money on anybody but Smart and Georgia right now. 2023 rank: 2 (+1)

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