1-Nick Saban (Alabama) – His run at Alabama reminds me of Rick Pitino’s basketball stay at Kentucky. Saban has brought the glory days back in Tuscaloosa. He has three career national titles, two at Alabama and he’s not slowing down anytime soon. Along with Urban Meyer and Les Miles, he’s one of the nation’s best recruiters and motivators these days. And I’ll take Saban’s weekly game plans over anyone’s not named Steve Spurrier.
2-Steve Spurrier (South Carolina) – His 7-for-12 mark in winning SEC’s from 1990-2001 at a school (Florida) that had never won the conference title before his arrival is nothing short of sensational. He’s also the only head coach in modern days (1989 to be exact) to lead Duke to an ACC title. And now he’s getting it done at South Carolina, guiding the program to its first 11-win season in 2011 despite losing his best player (Marcus Lattimore) in October. Where Lou Holz and countless others couldn’t get it done, Spurrier is now thriving with the Gamecocks, who have a legit shot at winning their first SEC Championship in 2012. And, oh yeah, Spur Dog has a touch of personality and he’s a must-listen with a microphone in front of him.
3-Chris Petersen (Boise State) – What he’s doing at Boise St. is absolutely incredible. Since replacing Dan Hawkins, Petersen has led the Broncos to a 73-6 record and four of those losses were decided by three points or less. Three would’ve been BSU victories if not for missed field goals at crunch time. Petersen has upgraded BSU’s schedule and compiled a 7-1 record against BCS foes, including wins against Oklahoma (Fiesta Bowl), at Oregon, at Va. Tech (Washington D.C.) and at Georgia (Ga. Dome).
4-Les Miles (LSU) – Sure, Miles is abysmal when it comes to making clock-management decisions. However, when you create a team that’s so nasty like last year’s outfit, you don’t have to concern yourself with those situations because you’re beating teams by 3-4 touchdowns every week. And when it comes to making tough decisions, most notably ones that work, Miles is the best. He’ll break out a fake punt or field goal at anytime and they always seem to hit for big plays. Most importantly, his teams play hard and fast and love to play for him. In other words, his pros far outweigh his comical cons.
5-Bob Stoops (Oklahoma) – The knock on Stoops-ey (as Spurrier calls ‘em) is his teams have regularly come up short in the biggest games of his career (besides the 13-2 win over FSU to win the nat’l title), but there’s something to be said for almost always being in the mix. The Sooners are going to be a top-10 team again this year and that’s basically a given on Stoops’s watch. Finally, there’s plenty to be said for loyalty and Stoops has turned down more than a dozen jobs (college and pro) while at OU over the last decade and change.
6-Chip Kelly (Oregon) – There’s a reason Kelly turned down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers even when his best players (RB LaMichael James and QB Darron Thomas) had just turned pro. That’s because Kelly has the Ducks on a roll and they’re reloading rather than rebuilding in 2012. His offense is dynamic and he’s recruiting extremely well. In three years, Kelly has turned Oregon into a borderline perennial top-five program.
7-Urban Meyer (Ohio State) – Does Oscar deserve better? Probably. But when you get eaten up and spit out by the grind of the SEC, you’re going to take some hits. And whatever happened to all those volleyball games Urby was going to go to in ‘retirement?’ Anyway, there’s no doubt he can recruit and motivate with the best of ‘em. He has a pair of national titles that prove that to be fact. However, I’m not a fan of his offensive philosophy (it says here that Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin would’ve thrived in any offense at the collegiate level), not enamored with the manner in which he left Florida and certainly not fond of the shape he left the program in. All that said, he’ll probably have the Buckeyes dominating the Big Ten by 2014.
8-Gary Patterson (TCU) – He’s won five conference titles in 11 years. He’s stayed the course at TCU when other job offers have come his way. He’s racked up victories galore and now has a chance to make his mark in the Big 12. There’s nothing not to like about Gary Patterson and the Horned Frogs, who will immediately compete for Big 12 supremacy.
9-Brett Bielema (Wisconsin) – The Badgers haven’t missed a step since Bielema replaced Barry Alvarez. He’s won 60 games and a pair of Big Ten titles in six years. Madison is a great college town but due to the frigid weather, let’s not act as if it’s the easiest place to recruit the country’s top-tier talent. The Badgers are fortunate to have Bielema.
10-Frank Beamer (Virginia Tech) – The Hokies are the only ACC program that’s perennially been in the nation’s Top 15 over the last decade. You can always count on Va. Tech to play excellent defense (Bud Foster should get plenty of that credit), great special teams and almost always win in Blacksburg. Beamer is Va. Tech and that’s been a good thing for the Hokies for a long time.
Just missed the cut…
Bill Snyder (Kansas State) – He’s been remarkable at KSU for 20 years and he might have done his best work to date in 2011.
Lane Kiffin (USC) – The Lame Chafin’ Days are over. Kiffin has matured and admitted he behaved like an ‘idiot’ while at Tennessee. Now he’s become an excellent play-caller, a bulldog recruiter and has one of the top jobs in America. He might win his first national championship in 2012.
Mike Gundy (Oklahoma St.) – He’s no longer remembered for the infamous ‘I’m a man, I’m 40!’ rant. Those days are long gone. Gundy is now known for being one of the country’s best offensive minds. His Cowboys were the nation’s third-best team in 2011.
Mike Leach (Washington St.) – Tough job, but it won’t take this genius long to work his magic. (This seems like the appropriate spot to give a shout-out to Craig James, one of the biggest d-bags to ever walk the planet!)
Brady Hoke (Michigan) – He led Ball St. to an unbeaten season (before jumping for San Diego St. prior to the bowl game) and then gave the Aztecs program a huge jolt in a quick, two-year stay. Then in 2011, he led the Wolverines to 11 wins following three years of complete mediocrity under Rich Rodriguez.
Paul Johnson (Ga. Tech) – Love his moxy. Johnson is a great fit at Ga. Tech because his offense can thrive with 3-star recruits.
On the rise…
James Franklin (Vanderbilt) – Instantly took a 2-10 team to just its second bowl appearance since the early 1980s. Then Franklin brought a quartet of four-star recruits to a program that had bagged just a pair of 4-star prep players in the last decade. (Neither of those made it to campus, by the way, as Marcus Dixon was wrongly convicted of a crime and a RB out of Tampa was murdered in Ybor City). Simply put, Franklin has done miraculous work in his first 18 months on the job.
Jimbo Fisher (FSU) – Nothing spectacular but solid work so far, especially on the recruiting trail. He could make a big jump this year if E.J. Manuel becomes a big-time QB. (I have my doubts, though.)
Will Muschamp (Florida) – That’s right, I’m a believer. There’s no need to rewind the 2011 campaign. The reality is the Gators had ‘no shot’ when senior John Brantley got injured and true freshmen had to play QB in losses to Alabama, LSU, Auburn and FSU. It says here that UF is poised for a big jump under Muschamp’s leadership in 2012 and 2013.
Larry Fedora (North Carolina) – The Tar Heels found a good one in the former So. Miss head coach who has been directing high-octane offenses for nearly a decade.
Charlie Strong (Louisville) – I’m thinking the Cardinals will return to the success they had under Bobby Petrino (41-9 in four-year stretch) in the next 2-3 years.
Kyle Whittingham (Utah), Jim Grobe (Wake Forest) Phillip Fulmer (unemployed), Bronco Mendenhall (BYU), Troy Calhoun (Air Force), Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern), Tommy Tuberville (Texas Tech), Ellis Johnson (So. Miss)
Gene Chizik (Auburn), Dan Mullen (Mississippi St.), Charlie Weis (Kansas), Rich Rodriguez (Arizona), Dennis Franchione (Texas St.)