Ranking the best college football coaches: From national contenders to overachievers

Illustration by ESPN

College coaches love to talk about how great things are this time of year. A new season looms. Everyone is 0-0.

But while they all start with the same record, they are not all equal.

I've wanted to do a college coach ranking for some time, but I needed the right format. National Top 25 lists are fine and somewhat insightful, but I never understood how coaches from schools with vastly different resources -- and realistic goals -- could be lumped together in a single ranking. How do you fairly compare Alabama's Nick Saban and Army's Jeff Monken, or even outstanding coaches in the same conference, such as Clemson's Dabo Swinney and Wake Forest's Dave Clawson?

Other factors include longevity and overall background. Some coaches start at -- or close to -- the bottom and work their way up, while others, such as Georgia's Kirby Smart, Ohio State's Ryan Day and Lincoln Riley of Oklahoma and now USC, inherited turnkey programs ready to compete nationally. Baylor's Dave Aranda won the Big 12 in only his second season as an FBS coach, so how should he compare to those who have done the job much longer?

The goal of the following ranking is to be both smart and fair. Coaches are ranked in four categories, within which I tried to identify the best 10 truly comparable candidates. I evaluated coaches based on consistency, championships won, AP Top 25 finishes and other metrics. The rankings are weighted toward recent performance, but I also included some coaches whose overall profiles merited inclusion despite some struggles lately. Coaches who genuinely impacted the sport, and whose achievements at certain programs haven't been replicated since their departures, were typically given extra credit.

Coaches cannot appear in more than one category. First-time head coaches are not ranked here, so you won't see Oklahoma's Brent Venables, Notre Dame's Marcus Freeman and others. Only current FBS head coaches are eligible.

Each of the four categories will be defined.

Let's get started.

Jump to a tier:
National contenders | Next up
Overachievers | Fast starts