Buckle your seatbelts because this is about to be a long article.
For a long time, the SEC was the dominant conference because of the elite head coaches it had. From Nick Saban and Les Miles in the west to Urban Meyer and Mark Richt in the east, the SEC was incredibly competitive. Now, the SEC appears to have a dearth of quality head coaches. People now argue that the ACC or the Big Ten are the dominant coaching powers, but do the numbers back that up? After having this debate with Jon and Boomer from FOX Sports Knoxville’s Talk Sports last Monday, I took it upon myself to do research into each Power 5 coach and compile statistics on them in order to find out.
Statistics such as winning percentage, conference games, and big bowl wins along with other factors (such as situation, injury, etc.) were used to determine the top five head coaches in every conference. From that, each coach is ranked 1-25 and assigned a point value. The No. 1 coach gets one point, No. 2 gets two, etc. From that I ranked each conference based on the amount of points that they accumulated from lowest to highest. The results weren’t terribly surprising, but they do show a shift in the balance of power in college football.
Power 5 Coach Rankings:
- Nick Saban – Alabama (SEC – 1)
- Urban Meyer – Ohio State (Big Ten – 1)
- Dabo Swinney – Clemson (ACC – 1)
- Jimbo Fisher – Florida State (ACC – 2)
- Jim Harbaugh – Michigan (Big Ten – 2)
- David Shaw – Stanford (Pac 12 – 1)
- Mark Richt – Miami (ACC – 3)
- Chris Petersen – Washington (Pac 12 – 2)
- Mike Gundy – Oklahoma State (Big 12 – 1)
- James Franklin – Penn State (Big Ten – 3)
- Bill Snyder – Kansas State (Big 12 – 2)
- Clay Helton – Southern Cal (Pac 12 – 3)
- Kyle Whittingham – Utah (Pac 12 – 4)
- Gary Patterson – Texas Christian (Big 12 – 3)
- Mark Dantonio – Michigan State (Big Ten – 4)
- Dana Holgorsen – West Virginia (Big 12 – 4)
- Gus Malzahn – Auburn (SEC – 2)
- Jim McElwain – Florida (SEC – 3)
- Bobby Petrino – Louisville (ACC – 4)
- Justin Fuente – Virginia Tech (ACC – 5)
- Dan Mullen – Mississippi State (SEC – 4)
- Mike MacIntyre – Colorado (Pac 12 – 5)
- Kirk Ferentz – Iowa (Big Ten – 5)
- Kevin Sumlin – Texas A&M (SEC – 5)
- Kliff Kingsbury (Big 12 – 5)
No. 1: ACC – 53 points
The ACC has two top-tier head coaches in Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher. Dabo boasts a 4-2 record in New Year’s Six bowl games, a freshly minted national championship, and a 76% winning percentage during his time at Clemson. Jimbo Fisher has made Florida State a consistent threat to win the national championship, and has done so once. He boasts a strong 82.1% winning percentage at Florida State including a 45-12 conference record.
After those two, the third-best coach would be Mark Richt. Although only one season deep into his stop at Miami, Richt came with a strong track record from his years at Georgia. One of the only two coaches in the ACC to win more than 150 games in a career (Paul Johnson), Richt came to Miami with a winning pedigree. This is clear from his career winning percentage of 73.6% and a conference record of 88-30 including his time at Georgia. It’s safe to say that expectations are high at Miami for this season.
Past these “Big Three,” things become a bit murkier. The fourth-best coach is likely Bobby Petrino. It’s clear his strength is offense, and Petrino’s offenses are consistently strong and putting up points. However, his off-the-field issues and his inability to field a strong defense are concerning. For the final spot in the top five, it came down to Paul Johnson and Justin Fuente. While Paul Johnson has the edge in experience, his teams have been wildly inconsistent in recent years. Fuente turned Paxton Lynch into a first round pick at Memphis and won ten games in his first season with the Hokies.
No. 2: Big Ten – 55 points
Much like the ACC, the Big Ten has a top two of elite head coaches. Urban Meyer is the second best coach in college football right now, and Jim Harbaugh is top five. Meyer has lost a grand total of six games since arriving at Ohio State. He has lost six games in five seasons. If that doesn’t scream elite head coach, I don’t know what does. Jim Harbaugh has won ten games each of his two seasons at Michigan. He also turned Stanford from a 1-11 team into a national power, showing his ability to create a sustainable team from nothing. At Michigan, he has far more resources and there’s no reason to believe he won’t get it done.
James Franklin took a Penn State program that was reeling from NCAA sanctions and turned them around. He also went 24-15 at Vanderbilt. (Vanderbilt!) With Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley, look for Penn State to build on last season’s Rose Bowl appearance. Mark Dantonio is a strong fourth option, averaging almost exactly 9-4 in his ten years at Michigan State. He is 2-1 in New Year’s Six bowls, although the one loss was rather embarrassing. Kirk Ferentz has been a staple at Iowa for almost as long as I’ve been alive. While he doesn’t sport an elite winning percentage (59.4%), he has won two conference titles and been to three New Year’s Six bowls, winning two.
One coach to watch this year that could jump Ferentz for the final spot would be PJ Fleck at Minnesota. After leading Western Michigan to the Cotton Bowl and having a WMU player drafted in the top 5 (Corey Davis), look for him to make an immediate impact as he joins the ranks of Power 5 coaches.
No. 3: Pac-12 – 61 points
There is a drop off after the ACC and Big Ten in terms of high profile coaches, but the Pac-12 is full of solid options. The clear No. 1 has to be David Shaw, who has won 70.3% of his games at Stanford, a school that is very difficult to recruit to. He also took Stanford to the Rose Bowl in 3 of his first 5 seasons, posting a 2-1 record. Shaw is easily the most underrated Power 5 coach. Chris Petersen has taken Washington from 8-6 his first season to the college football playoff. Prior to that, he posted a mind boggling 92-12 record at Boise State (88.5%), even winning two Fiesta Bowls.
Clay Helton was originally the interim head coach after Steve Sarkisian was fired, but quickly ascended to permanent head coach. In his first partial season, he posted a 5-1 conference record (5-4 overall). After starting off the 2016 season 1-3, he turned it around and finished 10-0 down the stretch, including a Rose Bowl win over Penn State.
The statistic that surprised me the most during my research was Kyle Whittingham’s 10-1 record in bowl games. Seriously — he’s lost one bowl game in eleven appearances, and it was to Chris Petersen’s Boise State team. Combine that tremendous postseason success with a 104-50 record at Utah, and it’s clear Urban Meyer’s successor belongs in the Pac-12’s top five. Mike MacIntyre’s work at San Diego State alone almost warrants a spot here, as he took them from 1-12 to 10-2 in just three seasons. At Colorado, it took until year four for MacIntyre to break through, going 10-4. His overall record isn’t great at 20-31, but the trajectory is pointing up.
A name to watch in the Pac-12 is Oregon’s new head coach Willie Taggart. After posting several successful seasons at USF, he looks to bring his skillset to a team that has no shortages of offensive weapons, even with Darren Carrington’s dismissal.
N0. 4: Big 12 – 75 points
If Bob Stoops was still coaching, the Big 12 would’ve been right up there with the ACC/Big Ten. However, now the Big 12 lacks a quality fifth best coach and that took them way down the rankings. Frankly, I expected them to end up at fifth. Leading the pack for the conference is Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy. In twelve seasons at Oklahoma State, he is 104-50 with a Big 12 title back in 2011. His team may have even been in contention for a College Football Playoff spot this past season if not for a botched call that resulted in a loss to Central Michigan.
The old man of college football comes in behind Mike Gundy by just a hair, with Bill Snyder at Kansas State. Snyder is the only active FBS coach to win over 200 games at his current school (Ferentz is second with 135) and one of only two to have won over 200 in his career (Nick Saban). With an impressive record of 202-105-1, Snyder is easily one of the most successful coaches in college football history. To put everything in perspective, no other Kansas State head coach has more than 40 career wins. Snyder has taken Manhattan, Kansas to the top of the college football world, something that was not easy to do. His shortcomings lie in his lack of big wins, with just two conference championships, one NY6 bowl win, and no national championships in his 25 years at Kansas State.
Gary Patterson’s name often comes up for head coaching openings, but he has remained at TCU for 17 years now. In those 17 years he has compiled 149 wins to 54 losses and six conference championships. Granted, one of those came in Conference USA and four in the Mountain West, but winning is winning. After a quick adjustment period in the Big 12, Patterson led TCU to a 12-1 record and arguably should’ve had a berth in the first College Football Playoff. Dana Holgorsen has proven himself a good head coach with a Big East title and an Orange Bowl win to his name. However, since joining the Big 12, West Virginia has won 10 games just once — this past season. He has time to prove that wasn’t a mirage, but another 4-8 slump might cost him his job.
By far the worst Power 5 coach on this list is Kliff Kingsbury. His Texas Tech team has never finished higher than 5th in the Big 12, and he holds a sub-.500 career record of 24-26. His best season was his first, with an 8-5 mark. Even with first round quarterback Patrick Mahomes, he could only pull off a 5-7 record this past season. Of all the coaches on this list, he is easily the most likely one to be fired at the conclusion of this upcoming season (or even before).
Tom Herman and Lincoln Riley should ascend this list quickly, but seeing as neither has any experience at their current school they are stuck on the outside looking in for this year.
No. 5: SEC – 81 points
With the best coach in college football, you’d imagine the SEC wouldn’t end up in last place on this list. However, Nick Saban is the exact reason that that is the case. Beyond Nick Saban, the next SEC head coach doesn’t show up on this list until No. 17 with Gus Malzahn. That means that four of the five SEC coaches on this list rank in the bottom nine overall. The situation would be even more dire if each conference wasn’t restricted to five candidates.
It’s clear why Nick Saban is the No. 1 coach in the country. He is 114-19(85.7%) at Alabama with four national championships, plus one from his days at LSU. His reign of terror over the SEC and college football as a whole has caused many schools to blow up their whole operation because he kept beating them (see: Georgia, LSU). This has led to an exodus of quality coaches from the SEC, because they know that as long as Nick Saban is at Alabama it will be difficult to compete for much of anything.
Gus Malzahn is the only other active SEC head coach who has appeared in a national championship game. His 35-18 record at Auburn is good, but not great. After going 12-2 his first season, he has regressed to go 8-5 or 7-6 in each of the past three seasons. It’s possible that he simply captured lightning in a bottle. Having three NFLers in the backfield with Nick Marshall, Tre Mason, and Corey Grant and a whole lot of luck (See: Kick Six, Prayer at Jordan Hare) will do that. Jim McElwain would probably be the next best coach. In his first two seasons he’s won two division titles at Florida. His 19-8 record becomes a little more impressive when you realize that two of those losses were in the SEC Championship Game, but it still isn’t elite. His 13-3 conference record however, is.
Dan Mullen has done more with less than just about any SEC head coach. Starkville, Mississippi isn’t exactly a hotbed for college talent, yet Mullen has taken them to new heights. If you’d told Mississippi State fans when he was hired that one day soon they’d be No. 1 in the nation, they would’ve told you that you were crazy. While his 61-42 record isn’t the best, he’s done well with what he’s been given. He’s one of five active SEC head coaches to have been to a New Year’s Six bowl, and one of three to do it at his current school (Saban, Malzahn).
Bringing up the rear is Kevin Sumlin. While he started off his Texas A&M tenure strong, his teams have had a tendency to falter later in the season. 2016 was different, as he lost his starting quarterback after losing two 5-star backups the previous offseason. How much of that is his responsibility is a different question. Nevertheless, three straight 8-5 seasons have Aggie fans getting antsy. What many people forget is that he’s still won over two thirds of his games (44-21) and has gone toe to toe with the ‘big dogs’ of the SEC West several times.
The SEC’s dark horse would have to be Butch Jones in my eyes. You can call me a homer all you want, but it’s likely true. If Butch wins ten games with his current roster, that would likely vault him over Kevin Sumlin. Even if he only wins nine, he has a chance to jump Sumlin if Texas A&M takes a nosedive this season.
Many would argue that the strength of a conference isn’t determined by individual head coaches. Rather, it is important to look at the conference as a whole. This was an important point that needed to be addressed. The data gathered for each of the Power 5 coaches was compiled into a conference database, as seen here:
There are a few obvious takeaways from this:
- The ACC is far and away the most experienced conference in the country. Conversely, the SEC is far and away the least experienced.
- While the Big 12 boasts the highest winning percentage, it is only 0.4% ahead the ACC in half as many games.
- The Big 12 is the only conference whose coaches have more experience at their current school than in the Power 5. That’s likely due to TCU and Kansas State’s move up from Group of 5 conferences to the Big 12.
- The Pac-12 hires more experienced Group of 5 head coaches, as their coaches have an average of 4.2 years experience prior to being hired at a Pac-12 school.
- The Big Ten comes in at second on the rankings but only ties for one superlative here. That’s likely due to the bottom feeders such as Rutgers dragging the conference down. The 14-6 record in NY6 games is one of the more impressive stats on the list.
- Speaking of, how is the Big Ten so good in big bowl games but so bad in every other one?
- Nick Saban carries the SEC. Don’t believe me?
Without Nick Saban, the SEC would rank last or next to last in every major statistical category, somehow still beating the Big Ten in overall win percentage. This shows the larger problem, that while Saban has brought many titles to the SEC, he has also destroyed it. Mark Richt is in the ACC, Urban Meyer is in the Big Ten, and Les Miles is on television. Not to mention Steve Spurrier leaving South Carolina, Gary Pinkel leaving Missouri, and Hugh Freeze leaving Ole Miss. All of those exits happened for very different reasons, but they all took a wealth of head coaching experience and winning with them. Now the SEC is stuck with a cast of characters like Kirby Smart, Matt Luke, Derek Mason and friends while the ACC and Big Ten enjoy having the elite coaches that once roamed the sidelines of the SEC.
If you’re interested in the raw data gathered during this research on Power 5 coaches, on the following page are screenshots of the Excel document I took notes on. Use it to disagree with me on any of my takes as vehemently as possible. You can find me @jaketidwell97 on Twitter, or you if you’re on Facebook take to the comments section down below. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for taking the time to read!