Ranking the 10 best coaches of the CFP era: Kirby Smart leads the way

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There are plenty of great head coaches in college football, but with Nick Saban now retired and Jim Harbaugh back in the NFL, that list has taken a hit.

With those departures in mind, who’s the new best of the best?

On the latest edition of “The No. 1 College Football Show with RJ Young,” host RJ Young provided his top-10 coaches of the College Football Playoff era (2014 season-present).

10. Colorado HC Deion Sanders

RJ’s thoughts: “All he did at Jackson State was win. Now, yes, Colorado is a step up. It is a tougher conference than the SWAC, but winning is winning … we’re talking about what Shedeur [Sanders] might do next year because Prime had an opinion about it. We’re talking about changing the home visit to ‘you visit me,’ because Prime decided he was going to do that. He is changing the rules of college football by simply doing what he wants to do, and everybody’s got an opinion about it. That is the kind of leverage you can’t buy.”

9. Oregon HC Dan Lanning

RJ’s thoughts: “I’m so impressed with that guy … he [Lanning] was the first call that they [Alabama] wanted to make when Nick Saban decided he wanted to retire … then you look at what Dan Lanning was able to recruit to Oregon and the kind of money that they’re able to spend, you got Dillon Gabriel and Dante Moore over there. You were able to keep your outstanding offensive [and] defensive coordinator, Will Stein [and] Tosh Lupoi, respectively, and are continuing to build on that, and Dan Lanning wants it like Kirby Smart wants it; that’s scary given what Oregon’s willing to do to go win football games.”

8. Florida State HC Mike Norvell

RJ’s thoughts: “What he was able to do in the ACC last year, going undefeated, gave Florida State fans a win I never thought they would get, and it wasn’t on a football field. FSU Twitter gets mad about everything, rightly or wrongly — mostly wrongly — but they were right to be aggrieved last year because that man coached that team to an undefeated season and a conference championship [and] was left out of a four-team playoff; Mike Norvell did that, and because Mike Norvell did that he was also a guy that got a phone call to be the next head coach at Alabama, [but he] chose to stay at Florida State.”

Deion Sanders leads RJ Young’s top 10 current CFP era coaches

7. LSU HC Brian Kelly

RJ’s thoughts: “[He is] one of the winningest coaches in the sport going back to what he was able to do at Grand Valley, but even so, he was great at Notre Dame, coached them to the playoffs, coached them to some really great seasons. Then [Kelly] goes to LSU, turns out a Heisman winner in Jayden Daniels. I’m not sure what the sauce is for Brian Kelly, but he knows what the sauce is because he’s able to make it work north of the Mason-Dixon line [and] south of the Mason-Dixon line coming out of Massachusetts. I have nothing to say but good things about what he’s been able to do at LSU, especially given the circumstances; [he’s] just got to find a defensive coordinator and keep a lid on defense.”

6. USC HC Lincoln Riley

RJ’s thoughts: “The way that he [Riley] left after the loss to Oklahoma State [in 2021] will always go down in Sooner history as a day of great shame. However, he is one of the great football coaches in our sport. Given the talent that he can turn out, given the people that want to play for him, given the style of offense that he runs and that he is still chasing … they’re [USC] on a tear recruiting, and he has added to that defensive staff with D’Anton Lynn, Matt Entz, Eric Henderson, and others, to put together a staff I think is capable of winning a conference championship in the Big Ten in Year 1. Can he put it all together with Miller Moss? We will see.”

5. Texas HC Steve Sarkisian

RJ’s thoughts: “Another guy who got a phone call to be the next head coach at Alabama and said ‘nah, I’m good at Texas.’ … not only did they [Texas] go into Tuscaloosa and get a W [last year], they won a Big 12 Championship on the way out [and] made the College Football Playoff for the first time. Steve Sarkisian and Lincoln Riley both deserve to be on this list right where they are for what they’re able to do at the quarterback position, outstanding playcallers, very imaginative in what they’re able to do with scheme. And then they got defensive guys — at least at Texas — that can hold a candle to other offenses. Pete Kwiatkowski was an outstanding hire for Steve Sarkisian, and they continue to turn out dudes. I think that he’s in position to go into SEC play and compete for a conference championship. And he’s able to do that at Washington; he’s able to do that at SC for a little while; now, he’s able to do it at the University of Texas after winning a National Championship as an offensive coordinator at Alabama.”

4. Alabama HC Kalen DeBoer

RJ’s thoughts: “Outstanding two-year run at Washington, but this is Alabama. And not only is it Alabama, I need to remind y’all that Alabama will get you up out of the paint for losing to Auburn the way that Ohio State fans looking at Ryan Day going ‘we will get you up out of the paint for losing to Michigan one more time.’ … Alabama football is the economy in the state. The regions understand this. That is what Kalen DeBoer’s walking into. I think, on its face, that makes you one of the four most important, but if not great coaches in our sport, but it’s gonna be tough sledding in this SEC given what he lost in the portal and what they’re going to have to try to do in 2024 to be competitive enough to play and/or win the SEC Championship Game this year.”

Why Alabama chose Kalen DeBoer

3. Ohio State HC Ryan Day

RJ’s thoughts: “I have been a tremendous proponent of Ryan Day. In many respects, I have been a tremendous defender of Ryan Day because his résumé is ridiculous; it’s stacked. He wins games. … you know what C.J. Stroud was able to do; you know what the late Dwayne Haskins was able to do; you know what Justin Fields was able to do. Marvin Harrison Jr. is one thing. Garrett Wilson is another. Chris Olave, another. And then the defense that they were able to put out on the field, to say nothing but being able to win in recruiting and to continue to add to that staff guys that we know, guys that we respect like Chip Kelly. But Ohio State fans are going ‘yo, RJ, what have you done for me lately? Cause all I remember is the thing you’re not saying: he lost to Michigan three times in a row. We don’t let that happen. Like, that’s not a thing that we get to let go.’ I understand. I get it. However, I don’t know who you’re gonna get that’s gonna do a better job [than Ryan Day].”

2. Clemson HC Dabo Swinney

RJ’s thoughts: “This is a man who refused to go into the transfer portal and would be very loud about that fact. This is a man who did not allow recruits to take visits once they committed to Clemson. These are things that worked before the portal. These are things that worked before Name, Image and Likeness, but that ain’t the world we live in anymore. To use Dabo’s parlance, [you are] little old Clemson. You’re gonna be reminded that you are little old Clemson if you keep not winning the ACC Championship, because we already don’t think that much of the ACC; we already don’t think that much of you for losing to Florida State; and we already are ready to say ‘maybe the Clemson era has come and gone given what you lost.’ You lost your coordinators in Tony Elliott, Jeff Scott and Brent Venables. Garrett Riley’s still trying to figure it out. Wes Goodwin, we’ll see. You’ve got players, but you got to get it right this year, or you might not be on this list next year.”

1. Georgia HC Kirby Smart

RJ’s thoughts: “[Smart] went on one of the great two-year runs that we’ve ever seen in the sport given what kind of competitive nature we have in it, how hard it is to win football games, to understand what he was able to do in 2021 and 2022 at Georgia I think is remarkable because I remember a time when Georgia was alright. They weren’t as bad as Alabama once was, but you didn’t expect Georgia to win a National Championship. Now, we’re all just gonna pencil them into the playoff, and we’re all gonna pencil them into the National Championship Game because that is what Kirby Smart has been able to do. It’s his mountaintop right now. What I’m curious about going into 2024 and the expanded playoff is, can you defend it? We’ll find out. Can’t wait.”

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