July 20, 2024

Ranking the Big Ten’s best coaches of 2024

Big Ten best coaches of 2024

Oregon Coach Dan Lanning discusses a previous play during a timeout in the fourth quarter of the Holiday Bowl against North Carolina Wednesday December 28, 2022 at Petco Park. (Lynn Harrington/stayaliveinpower5)

Not only is the Big Ten the most lucrative conference in the nation, but it is also the deepest in the FBS.

With the addition of Oregon, Washington, UCLA and USC, the competition and coaching in the conference will be at an all-time high. Every coach wants to make his mark in the expanded league this fall, but there’ll be a slim margin for error.

Now it’s time to see which coaches will take advantage of the spotlight, or become a needle in the haystack in the 18-team, Big Ten. Which is why the season can’t get here fast enough.

18. DeShaun Foster, UCLA: The 44-year old has been the Bruins’ Running Backs Coach for the past seven seasons. Last year UCLA led the Pac-12, and finished 16th nationally in rushing offense under Foster’s leadership. After all, he knows what it takes to grind out the yards on the ground, being a former two-time, first-team, All-Pac-10 rusher. However, going from being a position coach, to leading the entire program will be challenging. Not to mention Foster is approaching the first season of leading his alma mater with one of the toughest schedules in the expanded Big Ten. The Bruins play nine teams that finished with a winning campaign last season, so Foster has his work cut out for him.

17. Ryan Walters, Purdue: He established himself as one of the best Defensive Coordinators in the game at Illinois in 2022. Although Walters finished 4-8 in his first season as a head coach, the Boilermakers showed some bright spots. A light bulb turned on for Walter down the stretch, and Purdue won two of its’ final three games. Not to mention three of the Boilermakers’ losses were by single-digits. That was promising enough for Purdue fans, but the stellar recruiting class Walters followed up the season with raised several eyebrows. It was one of the top classes in the Big Ten, and the program’s best in recent memory. Now Walters has the momentum to get his second campaign off to a fast start.

16. Bret Bielema, Illinois: The 54-year old was one of the most successful coaches in the Big Ten over a decade ago. That’s when Bielema won 68 games in seven seasons at Wisconsin, including three Big Ten Championships. However, he had a lackluster tenure at Arkansas, and suffered two losing campaigns over the past three seasons with Illinois. Bielema won eight games when he had Ryan Walters as his Defensive Coordinator. It’s obvious the team wasn’t the same without Walters, considering Illinois finished 61st in the FBS in total defense last season, which was a huge step back from third in 2022. Bielema lost five of his final eight games. The Fighting Illini needs a better rushing attack too.

15. David Braun, Northwestern: The program was put under the microscope when Pat Fitzgerald got fired after a hazing investigation, and Braun was named the interim. Everyone left the Wildcats for dead, but Braun pulled the unthinkable and led them to eight wins, which was their most since 2018. The Philadelphia native was 5-5 when Northwestern removed the interim tag, and ended the year on a four-game win streak for the first time since 2017. Not to mention the Wildcats won five of their last six games overall. However, it’s going to be a tough task for Braun to repeat the same success this fall. After all, he’ll be operating with a new quarterback, and a challenging schedule looms.

14. Jedd Fisch, Washington: The 48-year old spent the past three seasons at Arizona, where he made the program relevant again. Fisch started out slow though, and went 1-11 in his first year. However, Fisch won four additional games in his second season, and led the team to 10 victories in 2023. It was the most wins in the program since 2014. Fisch also led the Wildcats to a bowl victory for the first time since 2015. Arizona finished 11th in the final AP Poll, which was its’ highest mark since 1998. Fisch is trying to keep the wheels rolling for Washington, after losing 10 players to the NFL Draft, including three first-rounders. He’s great with quarterbacks too, and has gunslinger Will Rogers now.

13. Curt Cignetti, Indiana: The Pittsburgh native spent the past five seasons at James Madison, and helped the program transition into the FBS. Cignetti put together a stellar campaign last season, in which he led the Dukes to 11 victoires, including a 10-0 start. Not to mention he was named the Sun Belt Coach of the Year in 2023. Cignetti has won 14 of his last 15 games overall. However, the Big Ten will be a big leap in competition for Cignetti. After all, the Hoosiers have only won nine games over the past three seasons, and no bowl appearances since 2020. What should help Cignetti’s cause is the fact that Indiana is no longer stuck in a division with Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.

12. Mike Locksley, Maryland: The Washington D.C. native has come a long way since his disastrous three-year tenure at New Mexico. It’s no mystery that Locksley has built the Terrapins into contenders. After all, he has led Maryland to 23 wins over the past three seasons, which is the most in a three-year span since 2006-08 when Ralph Friedgen was patrolling the sidelines. Not to mention Locksley has won three-straight bowl games. The 54-year old is 28-28 through six-plus seasons with the Terrapins. However, this will be the first time in four years that Locksley will be without quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who’s the program’s career leader in passing yards, and touchdown tosses.

11. Greg Schiano, Rutgers: The New Jersey native is approaching his 16th season overall with the Scarlet Knights, which consists of two separate stints. Schiano is already the program’s all-time winningest coach. He’s 87-95 at Rutgers, but is coming off a solid season. Last year he led the Scarlet Knights to their first winning campaign, and bowl victory since 2014. Rutgers even won six of its’ first eight games. The 58-year old has an impressive resume, and even coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two seasons. As long as the Scarlet Knights have Schiano, people can expect the team to be competitive, physical and disciplined. Now fans are eager to see if Schiano can build off last year’s success.

10. Matt Rhule, Nebraska: The former Penn State linebacker led Temple to two double-digit-win campaigns during his last two years in Philadelphia. Rhule led Baylor to 18 victories in his final two seasons in Waco, which included an 11-win campaign, and a Big 12 Championship Game appearance. He landed at Nebraska after a three-year stint with the Carolina Panthers. Although Rhule ended his first season on a four-game losing streak, he has generated some momentum for 2024. Rhule upgraded the roster with talent from the transfer portal, and phenomenal recruiting. With Tony White leading the Blackshirts again, and Dylan Raiola behind center, Big Red Nation is expecting improvement.

9. PJ Fleck, Minnesota: The 43-year old has had success at two FBS programs. Fleck coached for four seasons at Western Michigan, where he won 30 games, including 13 in 2016, which were the most in school history. He’s 50-34 through seven seasons in Minneapolis. Fleck led Minnesota to 11 victories in 2019, which were the most in the program since 1904. Not to mention he has won all five of his bowl games with the Golden Gophers. However, Fleck is coming off his third losing campaign with the team. Minnesota crumbled down the stretch in 2023, and lost four of its’ final five games. Now Fleck has a brutal schedule this fall that includes North Carolina, Michigan, USC and Penn State.

8. Jonathan Smith, Michigan State: The Californian started slow out of the gates, but built Oregon State back to respectability. Smith went 9-22 in his first three seasons with his alma mater. However, he finished his tenure strong down the stretch, going 25-13 over his final three years with the Beavers. Not to mention Smith led the team to a 10-win campaign in 2022, which hadn’t been accomplished since 2006. Smith is also an underrated quarterback whisperer. Now the 45-year old is attempting to clean up the mess Mel Tucker left behind, and the Spartans finished 125th nationally in total offense. Smith brought along some former Beavers to make a smooth transition to the Big Ten.

7. Luke Fickell, Wisconsin: He was Ohio State’s interim in 2011 after Jim Tressel’s dismissal, and led the team to a 6-7 record. Fickell turned Cincinnati into a mid-major power over a six-year tenure. The Ohio native won 58 games during that span, including two AAC Championships, and an appearance in the Playoffs in 2021. Fickell had a rollercoaster season in his first year in Madison. The 50-year old won four of the first seven games in 2023. However, the Badgers lost four of their final six contests. Wisconsin went from being third nationally in total defense in 2022, to 38th last year. New quarterback Tyler Van Dyke needs to make the splash on offense that Tanner Mordecai couldn’t.

6. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa: He’s approaching his 26th season with the Hawkeyes, and is College football’s longest-tenured coach. Ferentz has longevity that’s unheard of in today’s game, as he continues to make sacrifices along the way, and evolve with the ever-changing sport. The 68-year old has 100-plus Big Ten victories under his belt, and is the program’s all-time winningest coach. Ferentz is 196-119 overall at Iowa, and has 11-straight winning campaigns. The Michigan native has made two Big Ten Championship Game appearances over the past three seasons, and three overall. Not to mention the Hawkeyes have had a jaw-dropping, 89 players selected in the NFL Draft under his watch.

5. Sherrone Moore, Michigan: The 38-year old is the youngest head coach in the Big Ten, but has already proven himself as a winner. Moore has been the Wolverines’ Offensive Coordinator for the past three seasons, but last year he also filled in for a suspended Jim Harbaugh in four games. He led Michigan to victories over Bowling Green, Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State. The Nittany Lions and Buckeyes were top-10 teams when the Wolverines defeated them. However, the NFL drafted 13 players from last season’s undefeated squad. Moore even had to replace two assistants in his first 90 days on the job due to alcohol violations. Regardless, Harbaugh didn’t leave the cupboard bare for Moore.

4. Dan Lanning, Oregon: The Kansas City native was Georgia’s Defensive Coordinator when it won the National Title in 2021. Now Lanning is one of the fastest-rising coaches in the game, after posting back-to-back, double-digit-win campaigns with the Ducks, including two bowl victories. Last season Lanning led Oregon to 12 wins, which were the most in the program since 2019. He also made an appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Lanning’s 22 wins over the past two seasons are the most by the Ducks in a two-year span since 2014-15. The 38-year old was 15-4 against Pac-12 foes. Lanning also recruits like a monster, and brings a deep and talented Duck squad to the Big Ten.

3. James Franklin, Penn State: The 52-year old posted 25 victories in three seasons at Vanderbilt, and has continued his success in Happy Valley. Franklin is 88-39 through 10 seasons with the Nittany Lions, and during that span he has a Big Ten Title, to go along with two Rose Bowl appearances. He has put together five double-digit-win campaigns at Penn State, and is 6-5 in bowl games. Not to mention Franklin is 57-32 against Big Ten opponents. The Nittany Lions have four AP top-10 finishes under his watch. Franklin is also an elite recruiter, that keeps Penn State’s roster full of speed and talent. The Pennsylvania native annually has several of his players taken in the NFL Draft too.

2. Lincoln Riley, USC: He’s a protege of the late Mike Leach, an offensive guru and a quarterback whisperer. After all, Riley is the only coach in the game who has had three Heisman-winning quarterbacks. He led Oklahoma to 55 wins in five seasons, including three Big 12 Titles and three Playoff berths. Riley led the Trojans to an 11-win campaign in 2022, which included a Pac-12 Championship Game appearance. Last year Riley won his first six games, but crumbled down the stretch, and lost five of USC’s final seven contests. Most of the blame was placed on Alex Grinch’s porous defense. However, D’Anton Lynn is leading the unit now, and is coming off an impressive campaign at UCLA.

1. Ryan Day, Ohio State: The 45-year old has posted a 56-8 record through five-plus seasons with the Buckeyes. Day is a jaw-dropping, 40-3 against Big Ten opponents. He has won two Big Ten Titles, and a Rose Bowl. The New Hampshire native has also made three Playoff appearances, and his team played for all of the marbles in 2020. The only knock on Day is losing three-straight to the Wolverines, and no National Championship. However, he had an impressive offseason, and revamped Ohio State’s roster. With two 1,000-yard rushers in the backfield, a quarterback that led Kansas State to a Big 12 Title, plus a stifling defense and Michigan at home this season, Day has to win it all.