The college coaching hierarchy has changed quite a bit in the past year. Baylor’s Art Briles, universally regarded as one of the sport’s top coaches, is out. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh is in. Houston’s Tom Herman went seemingly overnight from national championship offensive coordinator to heralded head coach. Steve Spurrier went from South Carolina’s savior to self-fired retiree. Here now is my ranking of the sport’s Top 20 coaches heading into the 2016 season. Note: I place much more emphasis on recent performance than career achievements.
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Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
The former mentor to star QBs Alex Smith and Tim Tebow developed Dak Prescott into the most accomplished QB in Bulldogs history. In turn, Mississippi State went 19-7 the past two seasons, the program’s best two-year stretch since 1999-00.
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Tom Herman, Houston
I’m not keen on including a guy based off one season -- but it was a heck of a season. Herman led the Cougars to a 13-1 record and Peach Bowl upset of Florida State in his head-coaching debut. Power 5 schools were impressed enough to start courting him already.
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Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
The Rebels are coming off consecutive New Year’s Six bowl berths and have enjoyed their best three-year run -- 27-12 from 2013-15 -- since the early ‘70s. Freeze has proven particularly adept at recruiting and at beating Nick Saban’s Tide the past two seasons.
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Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Whittingham led the Utes to national prominence (including a 13-0 record and final No. 2 ranking in 2008) while in the Mountain West and now produced consecutive Top 25 seasons in the Pac-12. His teams are annually among the most physical in the country.
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David Cutcliffe, Duke
The once-bungling Blue Devils did not go to a bowl game from 1995-2011. They’ve since gone to four straight under Cutcliffe and in 2013 won 10 games and a division title. Before that, he delivered Ole Miss its most recent 10-win season (in 2003) prior to last year’s.
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Ken Niumatalolo, Navy
A model of consistency, Niumataololo has won at least eight games in seven of his eight seasons. Moving into a conference, the AAC, for the first time in 2015, the Midshipmen enjoyed his best season yet with an 11-2 record, division title and bowl win over Pitt.
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Bobby Petrino, Louisville
The offensive innovator is a career .719 coach who took Louisville (in 2006) and Arkansas (in 2010) to BCS bowls and a combined four Top 12 seasons. Under Petrino’s direction, the Cards have gone 10-6 in ACC play in two seasons since moving up from the AAC.
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Les Miles, LSU
Last year, LSU AD Joe Alleva tried to run off a national Top 15 coach. Miles’ Tigers have gone a modest 17-8 the past two seasons, but before that rolled off four straight double-digit win seasons. Over 11 years, Miles has won nearly 70 percent of his SEC contests.
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Chris Petersen, Washington
A rough first two seasons at Washington make it hard to justify the lofty ranking Petersen held throughout his eight-year, 92-12 tenure at Boise State. The fact the Huskies, 7-6 in 2015, enter the season a Top 20 team is due largely to voters’ respect for Petersen.
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Bill Snyder, Kansas State
The 76-year-old is second to none when it comes to miraculous program resurrections. More recently, K-State has dropped off a bit since its 2012 Fiesta Bowl season, going 23-16, but it would be foolish to count out the Wildcats as long as Snyder’s still there.
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Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Kelly has managed to do what his past three successors could not and achieve sustained success with the Irish. This despite a seemingly endless set of unforeseen obstacles, from key players’ academic suspensions to crushing injuries the past two seasons.
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Bob Stoops, Oklahoma
Just when Sooners fans were about to revolt following a miserable 2014, Big Game Bob showed he’s still got it by overhauling his staff and reaching the playoff last year. It marked Stoops’ ninth Big 12 title in 17 seasons and fifth BCS title game/CFP appearance.
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Dabo Swinney, Clemson
The Tigers were perennial underachievers before the infectiously upbeat Swinney transformed the program. Clemson’s 14-1 record and national title game appearance in 2015 marked the latest milestone in a 56-12 run since 2011.
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David Shaw, Stanford
The Cardinal’s moment in the sun was supposed to end when Andrew Luck left after Shaw’s first season. Instead, he’s gone 54-14 in five seasons, won three Pac-12 titles in four years and put an innovative spin on his Bill Walsh-influenced pro-style offense.
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Jimbo Fisher, Florida State
Fisher gets overlooked mainly because it’s impossible to overachieve at talent-rich FSU, but he’s still the one landing the recruits and churning out NFL prospects. The ‘Noles are 68-14 under his watch, including a national title and 29 straight wins from 2012-14.
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Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
The sport’s No. 1 sub-tweeter checks in at No. 5 on this list after leading the Wolverines to a five-win improvement in his first year on the job. Prior to that, he took Stanford from a 1-11 team the year before his arrival to a 12-1 Orange Bowl season in his fourth year on the job.
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Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
The Spartans’ boss does not get nearly enough acclaim for a run that now includes two of the past three Big Ten championships and 11 or more wins in five of the past six seasons. For perspective, the program had won 10 games only twice prior to his arrival.
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Gary Patterson, TCU
Perhaps most impressive about the defensive guru’s 15-year run is that he won at a high level in Group of 5 conferences, adjusted, and is now doing it again in the Big 12. All told, his Horned Frogs have won at least 11 games in nine of the past 13 seasons.
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Urban Meyer, Ohio State
The only other active coach with multiple national titles (2006 and ’08 at Florida, 2014 at Ohio State) is a staggering 50-4 in four seasons in Columbus. On top of the title seasons, he’s also notched two undefeated records (2004 at Utah, 2012 Ohio State).
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Nick Saban, Alabama
Not only has he won four national championships in seven years, but dating to his 2003 crown at LSU, Saban has won five over his last 11 seasons as a college head coach. And it’s now been nine years since he lost more than three games in a season.