Who are the top 10 coaches in college football?

A straightforward question, but one that generated a wide range of opinions.

In asking our reporters for their top 10, we left the parameters open, allowing them to weigh the factors they thought were important — from past accomplishments to potential future success — however they saw fit.

No matter how you slice it, Kirby Smart of Georgia is the current standard-bearer. No surprise there. But after that, things got interesting.

With points assigned based on our reporters’ votes (10 points for first place, nine for second place and down to one point for 10th place), here are the complete rankings.

1. Kirby Smart, Georgia (100 points)
2. Kalen DeBoer, Alabama (62)
3. Kyle Whittingham, Utah (56)
4. Dabo Swinney, Clemson (50)
5. Mike Norvell, Florida State (49)
6. Dan Lanning, Oregon (37)
7. Steve Sarkisian, Texas (35)
8. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss (29)
9. Lance Leipold, Kansas (28)
10. Ryan Day, Ohio State (27)

Also receiving votes: Brian Kelly, LSU (23); Lincoln Riley, USC (20); Kirk Ferentz, Iowa (7); Luke Fickell, Wisconsin (7); Eliah Drinkwitz, Missouri (6); Mack Brown, North Carolina (3); Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State (3); Jonathan Smith, Michigan State (3); Deion Sanders, Colorado (2); Curt Cignetti, Indiana (1); Chris Kleiman, Kansas State (1); Jon Sumrall, Tulane (1)

Is DeBoer, with just two years at a power conference school, worthy of being No. 2? Is Swinney, who has a stellar track record at Clemson but has slipped the past few years, still among the top four coaches in the country? Ohio State’s Day, with a 56-8 career record, is No. 10? LSU’s Kelly and USC’s Riley don’t even crack the top 10?

We needed answers, so we asked some of our voters about which result surprised them the most, and to defend some of their selections that differed from those of their colleagues.

What ranking surprised you the most?

Chris Low: Ryan Day might not be an obvious top-five selection, but he’s at least somewhere in the vicinity. To see him barely slide into these rankings at No. 10 was extremely surprising. Yes, he has lost to rival Michigan three straight years, but he’s not the first elite coach to have a rough stretch against a rival. Remember, Smart was 1-5 against Nick Saban.

Day held things together for Ohio State in 2018 as acting head coach when Urban Meyer was suspended. Since being promoted to replace Meyer in 2019, Day has won two Big Ten championships and posted 11-plus victories every year except the 2020 COVID season. His Buckeyes lost a heartbreaker to eventual national champion Georgia in the 2022 playoff. There are multiple coaches ranked ahead of Day who haven’t accomplished nearly what he has or matched his consistency in five seasons as Ohio State’s coach.

Adam Rittenberg: People might not like Brian Kelly personally, but the facts overwhelmingly show that he’s a top 10 coach. He twice took Notre Dame to the four-team College Football Playoff, went 34-6 at Cincinnati with an undefeated season, won the SEC West in his first year at LSU, has 13 finishes in the AP top 20 and owns two Division II national titles. I like some of the young coaches in this top 10, but they haven’t accomplished a fraction of what BK has in his career.

David Hale: Dan Lanning seems like a fine coach. He commanded an elite defense en route to a national title as Georgia’s defensive coordinator in 2021 and has been an exceptional 22-5 in two seasons as Oregon’s head man. What’s to argue with? Well, two years and no conference titles is a bit of a thin résumé for the No. 6 coach in the country, isn’t it? His team was torched by Georgia in 2022, lost a rivalry game to Oregon State that same year, and has been unable to topple Washington in conference. The Ducks’ most impressive win outside the Pac-12 was a 1-point win over a shorthanded North Carolina in the 2022 bowl game.

Indeed, here’s the list of Lanning’s wins over teams that ended the year ranked in the AP top 25: 2022 Utah (by 3), 2022 UCLA and 2023 Liberty. Again, no knock on Lanning, who would been an upgrade at nearly every program in the country. But No. 6? I need to see a bit more before we start putting him into the same conversations with Swinney, Whittingham and Norvell.

Harry Lyles Jr.: Dabo Swinney at No. 4 feels high to me, given his unwillingness to adjust to today’s game. I think he’s a great coach, and what he has done at Clemson is legendary work. They need to build a big statue of him on that campus at some point. But if you aren’t willing to do all the necessary things to compete at the highest level of the game, you can’t be top five. There’s a great argument you can’t be top 10 either, especially when one considers what those below Swinney have done and are doing.

Bill Connelly: Honestly, Kalen DeBoer at No. 2 is neither surprising nor undeserved. He has been great at basically every football job he has ever had. But it’s pretty funny to think about the second-best coach in college football inheriting a job in which he has almost no chance of matching his predecessor’s accomplishments. The weight of expectation will make DeBoer’s tenure in Tuscaloosa absolutely fascinating to follow.

Kyle Bonagura: The criteria for selection was up for interpretation, but I’m having a hard time imagining how Deion Sanders received any votes unless it was a light-hearted troll attempt with the protection of anonymity. In Sanders’ debut season, Colorado went 1-8 in the Pac-12 and finished in last place.

Defend your vote

Kyle Whittingham at No. 2

How’s this for sustained excellence? Whittingham earned national coach of the year honors in 2008 (13-0; beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl) and 2019 (11-3; in CFP contention until the Pac-12 title game). He has guided the Utes to top-20 finishes in three decades and built a program that was the Pac-12’s most consistent over the past six years. To have that level of success at a place without the resources of the programs in the sport’s upper echelon is beyond impressive. It’s fair to wonder what heights he might have reached if he was blessed with some of the advantages of the blue-blood schools. — Bonagura

Dan Lanning at No. 3

When I made my list, I didn’t just look at what coaches had done in the past. I considered who I would want coaching my team in the modern landscape, and everything that comes along with it. That’s why my No. 3 coach was Lanning, who had one of the most fun teams to watch last year.

I think Lanning’s path to being a head coach is significant. He has seen how two of the best coaches — Nick Saban and Kirby Smart — do it, and he was the coordinator for some of the best defenses we’ve ever seen at Georgia. Now, he has Oregon in great position to win the Big Ten in its first year in the conference. Just as important, it seems as if he’s made Eugene a premiere destination not just for recruits, but for transfers as well. We’re also talking about someone who may have been Alabama’s first choice to replace Saban. I think Lanning would have ranked higher had he taken that job, based on how high we have Kalen DeBoer (whose ranking is fine by me). — Lyles

Brian Kelly at No. 3


Maybe it’s just me, but winning — and doing so at every level over three decades — counts for something. Kelly won two Division II national championships at Grand Valley State, won two Big East titles at Cincinnati, and took Notre Dame to a BCS national championship game and two more CFP appearances. Most recently, he guided LSU to the 2022 SEC championship game in his first season in Baton Rouge.

Kelly has also proven he can turn around downtrodden programs quickly. (See Central Michigan and Cincinnati.) Even Notre Dame had not won more than seven games in the three seasons prior to Kelly’s arrival in 2010. So anybody who didn’t have Kelly in their top 10 either hasn’t been paying attention, doesn’t particularly like him or is too young to appreciate the difficulty of coaching at a high level over a long period of time. I’ll take proven substance over flash every time. — Low

Lincoln Riley at No. 5

Riley has underwhelmed a bit at USC, and it’s fair to question whether he will figure out the defensive piece of a championship equation. But if we’re putting several offense-centric coaches in the top 10 — DeBoer, Norvell, Lanning, Sarkisian, Kiffin — why leave off the guy with three Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks and a runner-up in Jalen Hurts? Oklahoma led the FBS in scoring (43.7 PPG) and offense (533 YPG) during Riley’s time as coach and offensive coordinator. USC is tied for the national lead in scoring average (41.6 PPG) and ranks second in passing offense (334.3 YPG) during Riley’s tenure. How is he not in the top 10 again? — Rittenberg

Dabo Swinney at No. 3

Well, the shine’s off Swinney, it would seem. After two national titles and six straight playoff appearances, Clemson has reversed course and, in the process, sullied Swinney’s reputation as a miracle worker. Indeed, it’s been a dismal three years in which Clemson is — checks notes — 30-10 with an ACC title and the eighth-best record among power conference programs in that span.

What? Yeah, that’s how great Swinney has been. The standard is so unbelievably high that even a stretch in which only a small handful of teams have been better is considered a failure. Yes, Swinney has kept some of the most recent shifts in the sport’s landscape at arm’s length, but despite the criticism and, yes, the missed playoffs, he has still churned out NFL talent, won a bunch of games and positioned Clemson, once again, to win the ACC and return to the new, expanded postseason. — Hale

Swinney out of the top 10

It all depends on the statute of limitations, right? If we’re judging coaches by their résumés, Swinney should be second on the list at worst. It’s hard to beat two national titles and seven ACC championships. But while he remains a very good head coach, it’s extremely difficult to make the case that he has been anywhere close to one of college football’s 10 best over the past three years. Clemson has finished 14th, 13th and 20th in the past three final AP polls and has retreated from national title contention to one conference title in three seasons and wins in the Cheez-It and Gator Bowls.

Swinney’s refusal to adapt to the evolution in roster management, and his insistence on continuing to build through high school recruiting, is endearing in a way, but it has made Clemson far less nimble than other top programs when it comes to plugging holes from year to year. And right now, it appears that Clemson is merely a top-15 or top-20 program. Most still aspire to that, but it’s an unquestionable letdown for a program that once made six straight CFP appearances. Make no mistake: If we had ranked 15 coaches, I would have had Swinney on the list. But it has been a minute since he was a top-10 coach. — Connelly

Ryan Day out of the top 10

Considering my top 10 included Lance Leipold, Kyle Whittingham and Curt Cignetti, it’s pretty clear I have a thing for the coaches who create big things from harder jobs. Day might have thrived at Kansas, Utah or James Madison too, but all we know is that he inherited a team that had averaged 11.3 wins per year over the previous 12 seasons (and 12.2 over the previous six) and has, in four full seasons, averaged 11.5.

Not just anyone could do that, and Day is clearly a very good head coach. But simply winning a lot of games at Ohio State doesn’t make you one of the 10 best. — Connelly

Kalen DeBoer at No. 10

Perhaps I’m a pessimist. Or, at least, someone who’s seen too many can’t-miss hires miss spectacularly (Jimbo Fisher, Scott Frost, Chip Kelly, Tom Herman, etc., etc.). Yes, DeBoer is a tremendous coach who has won everywhere he’s been at nearly every level of college football. He had Washington a few plays away from a national title last year. He’s great. But … he has coached two years at a power conference school, and now he’s moving to a program where the standard is, shall we say, a tad lofty.

He has never had to recruit in the SEC. He has never been under the microscope that comes with being the Alabama head coach. He has never had to showcase his offense against the type of physically dominant opposition he’ll see nearly weekly in 2024. And, of course, he has never had to follow a legend, and that alone is an incredibly tall task. Should we be surprised if it all works out? Of course not! Again, DeBoer is very good. But the names I have ahead of him — Smart, Swinney, Whittingham, Norvell, Kiffin — have done it longer, are in more stable positions and have enjoyed great success in their own rights. — Hale