The retirement of Nick Saban deprives the football world of the best head coach of all-time. While it’s seemingly impossible for another coach to match Saban’s legacy, the best college football coaches in 2024 will try to follow in his footsteps.
Saban was universally recognized as the best college football coach until he walked away. With the legend gone, the likes of Kirby Smart, Brian Kelly and even Kalen DeBoer with the Alabama Crimson Tide will now try to prove they are the top dog in NCAA football. While the college football season is months away, we can still evaluate and rank the top coaches in the sport.
Here’s our ranking of the best college football coaches entering 2024.
Best college football coaches 2024
10. Dan Lanning, Oregon Ducks
- Dan Lanning record: 22-5 (.815) overall, 2-0 in bowl games
- Dan Lanning salary: $7 million
The best thing that happened to the Oregon Ducks football program might’ve been Mario Cristobal leaving for the Miami Hurricanes. Oregon posted a respectable 35-13 record under Cristobal, including a pair of seasons with double-digit wins over five years. Cristobal’s replacement, former Georgia Bulldogs defensive coordinator Dan Lanning, has already replicated that in his first two seasons. Oregon still needs to win the big game with Lanning – losses to Washington in 2023 and Oregon State in 2022 still sting – but the Ducks’ head coach has the roster and staff to take the Ducks to the College Football Playoff next season.
9. Steve Sarkisian, Texas Longhorns
- Steve Sarkisian record: 71-49 (.592) overall, 25-14 with Texas Longhorns
- Steve Sarkisian salary: $9-plus million (2030)
The Texas Longhorns are back in large part because of Steve Sarkisian. Before his arrival, Texas Football had a .432 winning percentage with Charlie Strong followed by a .640 mark with Tom Herman. With Sarkisian (.641), the Longhorns are coming off a 12-win season and their first appearance in the College Football Playoff. Sarkisian has proven adept at pulling in top talent via both the transfer portal and recruiting, all while building a great coaching staff. If the Longhorns’ coach can keep Texas near the top of the SEC in 2024 with Quinn Ewers and Isaiah Bond, Sarkisian could move up a few spots in 2025.
Related: Texas Football schedule 2024
8. Dabo Swinney, Clemson Tigers
- Dabo Swinney record: 170-43 (.798) with Clemson Tigers, 12-8 in bowl games
- Dabo Swinney salary: $10.884 million
A majority of rankings will put Dabo Swinney up with the best college football coaches, placing him in the same company as Kirby Smart. We’re not as bullish. Yes, Swinney turned around a football program with a .615 winning percentage under Tommy Bowden into a two-time national champion with eight ACC titles. However, we’re more skeptical of Swinney in the modern game. A college football coach who is opposed to the transfer portal and allows Clemson to fall behind on paying players through NIL is putting his team at a disadvantage. If you’re not willing to do whatever it takes to maximize your program’s chances of winnings and your hit rate on quarterbacks and coordinators plummets, we can’t consider you a top-five coach in ’24.
7. Lincoln Riley, USC Trojans
- Lincoln Riley record: 74-18 overall (.804), 19-8 with USC Trojans
- Lincoln Riley salary: $10 million (estimated)
The 2023 USC Trojans season hurt Lincoln Riley’s standing among the best college football coaches and for good reason. For one thing, Riley saw a bottom-20 defense in 2022 under defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and chose loyalty over making a much-needed change, which cost USC dearly. We also point to some of the situational numbers, including the Trojans’ offense ranked 29th in third-down success rate (43.36%) and 32nd in red-zone scoring rate. All of that with an 8-5 record when you have a once-in-a-generation talent at quarterback is a letdown. However, Riley is still on pace to finish top-20 all-time in winning percentage and coaching three Heisman Trophy winners also puts him in rare territory.
6. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss Rebels
- Lane Kiffin record: 96-49 overall (.662), 34-15 with Ole Miss
- Lane Kiffin salary: $8.75 million
It’s been a bumpy road for Lane Kiffin, but he’s undeniably one of the best college football coaches right now. From leaving the University of Tennessee for the USC Trojans in the middle of the night to being fired by the athletic director at an airport terminal and then a stint at FAU, Kiffin’s been on a rollercoaster ride. It’s worth it for the destination. The Ole Miss Rebels finished as a top-10 team in 2023 and Kiffin has proven to be a master in the dark arts of the transfer portal. If the Rebels win double-digit games next season, which is realistic, they’ll have more seasons with 10-plus wins under Kiffin (three) than they had from 1972 to 2020. That’s why Kiffin is one of the best head coaches in college football.
Related: Heisman Watch 2024
Top 5 coaches in college football 2024
5. Mike Norvell, Florida State Seminoles
- Mike Norvell coaching record: 69-33 overall (.676), 31-17 with Florida State Seminoles
- Mike Norvell salary: $10 million
A protege of Todd Graham at Arizona State, Florida State Seminoles coach Mike Norvell has quickly built his own legacy in college football. He landed his first head-coaching gig with the Memphis Tigers, reaching a bowl game in four consecutive seasons with a combined .704 winning percentage. He was then tasked with cleaning up Willie Taggart’s mess at Florida State. After winning 8 games form 2020-’21, Norvell delivered 10- and 13-win seasons to the Seminoles. If he can take Florida State to the College Football Playoff next season, even after losing so much talent to the NFL, Norvell will have a claim to being one of the five best college football coaches in 2025.
Related: Salute to Troy podcast
4. Ryan Day, Ohio State Buckeyes
- Ryan Day record: 56-8 overall (.875)
- Ryan Day salary: $9.96 million
Beating the Michigan Wolverines is all that matters to Ohio State Buckeyes fans. Losing three straight games to that bitter rival has led to Buckeye Nation calling for a coaching change. However, let’s not forget that Ohio State has two Big Ten titles and three College Football Playoff appearances in six seasons, along with four years with 11-plus wins. Day might not belong in the same tier as the top head coaches in the sport, but he’s also on pace to have one of the highest winning percentages in Buckeyes’ history and Ohio State remains a pipeline to the NFL. If the Buckeyes fire Daye, he won’t be out of work long.
Related: Heisman Trophy winners
3. Brian Kelly, LSU Tigers
- Brian Kelly record: 186-69 overall (.729), 20-7 with LSU Tigers
- Brian Kelly salary: $9.5 million
Brian Kelly-coached teams have one of the highest floors in college football. At Cincinnati (2007-’09), the Bearcats had three double-digit win seasons. Following consecutive eight-win seasons early at Notre Dame, Kelly delivered seven seasons with 10-plus wins, including in his last five seasons with the Fighting Irish. Now at LSU, he’s winning 10 games every year. Kelly will hit double-digit wins consistently for just about any program he coaches. However, the ceiling is the CFP Semifinal. Perhaps things will change after Kelly made the much-needed change at defensive coordinator, but the absence of championship success is a blemish on this resume.
2. Kalen DeBoer, Alabama Crimson Tide
- Kalen DeBoer record: 37-9 overall (.804). 25-3 with the Washington Huskies
- Kalen DeBoer salary: $10-plus million
The most unforgiving job in sports might be coaching football at the University of Alabama. Nick Saban’s run from 2007-’23 might’ve helped some forget about the gauntlet of coaches this program burned through after Bear Bryant stepped away (six), but this job took a toll on everyone. Expectations will always be at Saban levels for Crimson Tide fans, making this a daunting task for Kalen DeBoer.
With that said, the Crimson Tide still have one of the best college football coaches right now. As the Sioux Falls head coach, the Cougars went 67-3 with three NAIA championships in five seasons with DeBoer. At Fresno State, he went 3-3 in his first season then turned the Bulldogs into a nine-win team. In two years with the Washington Huskies, a 25-3 record and a national championship appearance. DeBoer wins everywhere.
1. Kirby Smart, Georgia Bulldogs – Best college football coach
- Kirby Smart record: 94-16 overall (.855), 9-2 in bowl games
- Kirby Smart salary: $11.25 million
Kirby Smart is the best coach in college football. Before his arrival, the University of Georgia football program hadn’t won a national championship since 1980 with only two conference titles (2002, ’05) from 1983-2016. The Georgia Bulldogs are the new dynasty of college football. Under Smart, Georgia has six seasons with double-digit wins, a stellar 9-2 record in bowl games and two national championships. Meanwhile, Georgia has brought home a top-three recruiting class in each of the last two years and they are getting multiple players drafted in Round 1 of the NFL Draft every spring.
The lone blemish on Smart’s resume -1-5 record vs Nick Saban – doesn’t even matter now that Saban has retired. If there’s a draft of college football coaches, Smart is the No. 1 overall selection and unlike with Harbaugh, his team doesn’t have to worry about Smart leaving for the NFL.