June 16, 2024
College football's 20 best head coaches of 2024

Texas Coach Steve Sarkisian reacts to a replay review during the third quarter against Iowa State Saturday November 18, 2023 at Jack Trice Stadium. (Lynn Harrington/stayaliveinpower5)

It’s about teaching, providing direction, and spreading knowledge.

Head coaches are the face of the program, and a successful tenure requires the support from fans. They have to be leaders, strategic recruiters, great game day motivators, and naturals at developing talent.

Now the stakes are higher for these 20 individuals this upcoming season with Playoff expansion, conference realignment, the transfer portal and NIL. Regardless of the circumstances, they’re all prepared to build off last season’s success.

20. Lance Leipold, Kansas: The 60-year old won 37 games in five seasons at Buffalo, including 24 in his final three years. Leipold is approaching his fourth season with the Jayhawks, and is coming off back-to-back bowl appearances. He led Kansas to nine victories in 2023, which was the program’s first winning season in 15 years. The Jayhawks even defeated an AP top-10 team at home for the first time since 1984. Not to mention the Jayhawks finished ranked in the final AP Poll for the first time since 2007. Leipold has increased Kansas’ win total every year on the job, and will field his best team yet this fall. His success is mind-boggling, considering he’s accomplishing it all at a basketball school.

19. Sherrone Moore, Michigan: The Kansas native only coached four games last year, but two of those were the Big Ten’s most pivotal matchups of the regular season. During Jim Harbaugh’s suspension, Moore led Michigan to victories over Bowling Green, Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State. He even cried after defeating James Franklin. His wins against the Nittany Lions, and the Buckeyes were special because they were both ranked in the AP top-10 at the time. Moore is off to a hot start too, considering he’s 4-0 in Big Ten play. Harbaugh is with the Los Angeles Chargers now, and 13 players were drafted off last year’s National Championship team, so Moore has his work cut out for him.

18. Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame: The 38-year old has won 19 of his 27 games with the Golden Domers. Freeman is doing a great job as Brian Kelly’s successor, with two-straight bowl victories, and has Notre Dame trending up. The Fighting Irish won five of their final six games of 2023, and finished ranked in the final AP Poll for the past two seasons. Freeman has also lured in two-straight top-10 recruiting classes. Now that the College Football Playoff will expand to 12 teams this upcoming season, Freeman and the Fighting Irish are in a perfect position. Not having to join a conference, and reaching postseason glory with at least 10 wins is like killing two birds with one stone for the program.

17. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss: The Lincoln native generated a 7-6 record in one season with Tennessee. Kiffin won 37 games as USC’s coach. He has yet to suffer a losing campaign with the Rebels. Kiffin is approaching his fifth season at Ole Miss, and has compiled a 34-15 record. He even posted two double-digit win seasons, including two top-15 finishes in the final AP Poll during that span. Kiffin is the self-proclaimed ‘Portal King’ with the way he lures in transfers, and turns them into All-SEC caliber players. The 49-year old is also a quarterback whisperer, and has one of the brightest offensive minds in today’s game. With Nick Saban no longer around, Kiffin can potentially become a force in the SEC.

16. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa: The 68-year old is the longest-tenured coach in the FBS, and approaching his 26th season with the Hawkeyes. Ferentz is the program’s all-time winningest coach. Not to mention he also ranks third all-time in wins among Big Ten coaches. Ferentz is arguably the best at doing more with less, considering he turns under-the-radar athletes into All-Big Ten performers, and NFL Draft picks. The Michigan native has made two appearances in the Big Ten Championship Game over the past three seasons. Ferentz has generated three 10-win campaigns over the past five years. Not to mention the Hawkeyes have finished ranked in the final AP Poll five of the past six seasons.

15. Josh Heupel, Tennessee: The former Oklahoma quarterback is one of the best offensive gurus in the SEC. Heupel won 28 games in three seasons at UCF. He’s approaching his fourth season with the Volunteers, and has compiled a 27-12 record, including two bowl wins. Heupel won 11 games in 2022, including a victory over Alabama. Not to mention the Volunteers have finished in the AP top-20 for the past two seasons. His last two recruiting classes were ranked in the top-15 nationally. Heupel’s system is very quarterback-friendly, and the tempo allows the offense to run countless plays a game. Now the Volunteers may have their best quarterback since Peyton Manning in Nico Iamaleava.

14. Chris Klieman, Kansas State: It’s no mystery that the 56-year old knows how to win Championships. Klieman won a jaw-dropping, four FCS Titles at North Dakota State before he landed at Kansas State. He has done a marvelous job as Bill Snyder’s successor, winning 39 games over the past five seasons, including a Big 12 Championship in 2022. Klieman is undefeated against rival Kansas. Not to mention he has led the Wildcats to two bowl victories over the past three years. Although Klieman doesn’t recruit at a high level, he gets his players to perform to the best of their abilities. Which is why the Iowa native is projected to field one of the best teams in the expanded Big 12 this upcoming season.

13. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State: The former Cowboy quarterback, who played alongside Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, has been patrolling the sidelines in Stillwater since 2005. Gundy is already the program’s all-time winningest coach, with a 166-79 overall record. He knows the Big 12 like the back of his hand, and understands what it takes to be successful in the conference. Gundy’s offense is always entertaining to watch, and through all of the years he continues to evolve with the game, which explains his longevity. The 56-year old has only won one Big 12 Title through 23 seasons on the job. However, the Cowboys played in the Big 12 Championship Game in 2023. Now the league will be wide open.

12. Mack Brown, North Carolina: Although he’s the oldest head coach in today’s game, and will turn 73 before the season starts, he continues to win at a high level. Brown has been a head coach at Appalachian State, North Carolina and Texas. He won 69 games during his first stint with the Tar Heels. Brown helped Ricky Williams win a Heisman at Texas. The Tennessee native led the Longhorns to two Big 12 Titles, and a National Championship in 2005. The Hall of Famer also made a National Title appearance in 2009. Brown has led North Carolina to a bowl game in every season since his return to the program. His former quarterbacks Sam Howell and Drake Maye, were both NFL Draft picks.

11. Kyle Whittingham, Utah: The former BYU linebacker is tied with Gundy as the nation’s second-longest tenured coach. Whittingham took over for Urban Meyer in 2005, and hasn’t looked back. He has won a jaw-dropping, 162 games with the Utes. Whittingham is also one of the best at doing more with less. The 64-year old doesn’t recruit at a high level, but continues to post winning campaigns. Utah has won two Pac-12 Titles over the past three seasons. On top of that, 30 Utes have been drafted over the past eight years, including five last month. Whittingham is also a special teams guru, and the Utes are physical on both sides of the ball. Fans are expecting Utah to takeover the Big 12 this fall.

10. Dan Lanning, Oregon: Despite only being a head coach for two seasons, he’s having tremendous success, and his stock continues to rise. The Ducks couldn’t have asked for a better successor to Mario Cristobal, with Lanning posting back-to-back, double-digit win campaigns. He led Oregon to 12 victories last season, which were the most in the program since 2019. Lanning has also won two bowl games. Although he’s a defensive-minded coach, the Ducks have posted video game numbers on offense, and finished second nationally in points and yards per game in 2023. With stellar recruiting, and the addition of quarterback Dillon Gabriel, fans expect him to make a splash in the Big Ten.

9. James Franklin, Penn State: He accomplished the unthinkable, and won 25 games in three seasons at Vanderbilt. The Commodores have only been to two bowl games since Franklin left after the 2013 season. The 52-year old has been with the Nittany Lions for the past 10 seasons, and posted a 88-39 record during that span. Not to mention he has five double-digit win campaigns in Happy Valley. Franklin recruits at a high level, and continues to put a plethora of players in the NFL. His success has been impressive, considering the number of times he’s changed Coordinators during his tenure. With the Playoffs expanding to 12 teams, he could potentially reach postseason glory.

8. Mike Norvell, Florida State: The 42-year old won 38 games in four seasons at Memphis, including an AAC Title. Norvell is approaching his fifth season at Florida State, and has won 19 of his past 20 games. The Seminoles are coming off a stellar campaign, in which they completed a perfect regular season, and won an ACC Title. It’s unfortunate that the Playoff Committee didn’t give Norvell’s team a chance to play in the semifinals. However, he showed why his name belongs in the conversation with the elite coaches. Although there were 10 Seminoles selected in last month’s NFL Draft, Florida State fans shouldn’t expect a drop off, considering Norvell has lured in two top-10 recruiting classes.

7. Steve Sarkisian, Texas: His coaching resume dates back to Pete Carroll’s dynasty at USC in the early 2000’s. Sarkisian was Tyrone Willingham’s successor at Washington, and helped the program emerge out of the Pac-10 cellar. He led the Huskies to bowl eligibility in his final four seasons in Seattle. Sarkisian returned to Los Angeles, coached the Trojans for 18 games, and won 12. Now he’s approaching his fourth season with the Longhorns. Last year Sarkisian led Texas to 12 wins, and a Big 12 Title for the first time since 2009. The Longhorns also clinched their first-ever, berth in the Playoffs. Sarkisian will likely be fielding his best team yet, as Texas prepares to make a huge splash in the SEC.

6. Lincoln Riley, USC: He’s the only individual on this list who has coached three Heisman winners. Riley is an offensive genius, and arguably the best quarterback whisperer in today’s game. The 40-year old learned from the late great Mike Leach on how to amplify the passing game. Riley’s offense is entertaining to watch, and full of explosive plays. He took over for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, and won a jaw-dropping, 55 games in five seasons, including three Big 12 Titles, and three Playoff appearances. Riley has won 19 games over the past two seasons at USC, including 11 in 2022. The only knock on Riley is his inability to field an elite defense, but he replaced Alex Grinch with D’Anton Lynn.

5. Brian Kelly, LSU: The 62-year old has been one of the most successful coaches in College football over the past 20 years. Kelly won two Division II National Titles at Grand Valley State. He also led Central Michigan to a MAC Title in 2006. The Massachusetts native led Cincinnati to an undefeated regular season in 2009. He’s also Notre Dame’s all-time winningest coach, with a 102-39 record through 12 seasons, which included a BCS National Championship Game appearance, and two Playoff berths. Kelly is approaching his third season with the Bayou Bengals, and has led the team to back-to-back, 10-win campaigns. Not to mention he helped Jayden Daniels become LSU’s third Heisman winner.

4. Ryan Day, Ohio State: The New Hampshire native showed promise when he led the Buckeyes to three victories during Urban Meyer’s suspension in 2018. Day took over head-coaching duties full time in 2019, and hasn’t looked back. He’s a jaw-dropping, 53-8 over the past five seasons, and played for all of the marbles in 2020. Not to mention Day has two Big Ten Titles, to go along with three Playoff appearances. Day continues to keep Ohio State’s offense explosive, and does great work with his quarterbacks. The only hardware missing from Day’s portfolio is a National Championship. So Day assembled an all-star team through the portal this offseason, and now it’s National Title or bust.

3. Dabo Swinney, Clemson: The Alabama native is one of two coaches on this list with two FBS National Titles. Swinney is the longest-tenured coach in the ACC, and started out as an Interim in 2008. He has posted a 170-43 record with the Tigers, which includes a jaw-dropping, eight ACC Titles, and six Playoff appearances. Not to mention Swinney has put countless players in the NFL throughout his tenure. Although Swinney has been one of the most successful FBS coaches of the past decade, the Tigers aren’t elite like they were five years ago. Some blame it on Swinney’s refusal to evolve with the times, including the transfer portal and NIL. Regardless of the matter, he’s still a future Hall of Famer.

2. Kalen DeBoer, Alabama: The 49-year old has a tremendous resume, and it appears the best is yet to come. DeBoer compiled a 67-3 record at Sioux Falls, which included three NAIA National Championships. He coached 18 games at Fresno State and won 12. DeBoer has spent the past two seasons at Washington, where he went 25-3. The South Dakota native has won 21 of his past 22 games overall. The Huskies’ 14 victoires last season set a school record. DeBoer also won a Pac-12 Title, and made it all the way to the National Championship Game. Now the stakes are higher, considering DeBoer is replacing the greatest college coach of all time, and leading a blueblood SEC program.

1. Kirby Smart, Georgia: With Nick Saban and Jim Harbaugh no longer around, it appears he’s the new king of the sport. After all, Smart is 94-16 through eight seasons with the Bulldogs. He also has two SEC Titles, a 15-0 season, and back-to-back, National Championships under his belt. Smart has won 46 of his last 48 games overall. Not to mention he’s the best recruiter in today’s game, and keeps a roster full of five-star talent. The 48-year old has had a jaw-dropping, 63 Bulldogs selected in the NFL Draft throughout his tenure. Smart knows the SEC like the back of his hand, because he has competed in the league as a player, an assistant and a head coach. Georgia is the No. 1 power in the game.

Honorable Mention

Brent Venables, Oklahoma: He showed a tremendous improvement from year one to year two with the Sooners, and increased their win total by four games. Now Venables will face is his toughest test yet, heading into the SEC with a brutal schedule looming.

Jeff Brohm, Louisville: The 53-year old won 36 games in five seasons at Purdue, which included three bowl appearances and a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game. Last year Brohm led his alma mater to a berth in the ACC Championship Game in his first season.

Eliah Drinkwitz, Missouri: The Arkansas native is approaching his fifth season with the Tigers, and has yet to suffer a losing campaign. Drinkwitz led Missouri to 11 wins last year, which were the most in the program since 2014. He clearly has the Tigers trending up.

Jonathan Smith, Michigan State: He made his alma mater respectable again before he left to coach the Spartans. Smith has won 25 games over the last three seasons at Oregon State, which included three bowl games. Now the stakes will be higher in a deep Big Ten.