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Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney Lead College Football’s Top Coaches For 2019

College football will be back in a little over two months, and head coaches might not be more important in any sport than they are in college football. These are my top head coaches in the nation heading into the 2019 season.


1. Nick Saban, Alabama

The No. 1 spot is a total toss-up between Alabama’s Nick Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, but Saban’s longevity and six national titles get him the nod. Five of those championships have come at Alabama, where Saban has an insane 87.6% winning percentage in 12 seasons at the school. Since 2010, Saban’s Crimson Tide teams have lost more than one game just twice (three losses in 2010 and two losses in 2013).


Career winning percentage: 78.9% (87.6% at BAMA)


2. Dabo Swinney, Clemson

Saban has the longevity on his side, but Swinney has some time to catch up to him. Swinney has an infectious personality that makes kids want to play for him, and he steadily built Clemson into a bonafide college football powerhouse. Despite losing more talented players to the NFL, Swinney and his staff have prepared guys to step up and make another run after going 15-0 with Trevor Lawrence last season. Swinney has a 79.5% career winning percentage, but he’ll likely be up in the mid-80% range by the time he’s done, as there’s no reason to believe the Tigers will fall off under his leadership.


Career winning percentage: 79.5%


3. Chip Kelly, UCLA

Running an unstoppable fast-paced offense at Oregon (while also playing much tougher defense than many people realize), Chip Kelly won 86.8% of his games with a 46-7 record and a 33-3 record in conference play. After a Rose Bowl loss and a national title game loss his first two seasons as a head coach, Kelly led the Ducks to Rose Bowl and Fiesta Bowl victories before going to the NFL. Now back in college, a 3-9 record at UCLA last season shows this program has a lot of work to do, but it’s a matter of if not when Kelly gets the Bruins on track.


Career winning percentage: 75.4% (86.8 at ORE)


4. Kirby Smart, Georgia

The last couple of seasons, former Alabama assistant Kirby Smart has made his Georgia teams look a lot like the Crimson Tide with the way they play, and the Bulldogs came about as close as possible to winning it all against Alabama two seasons ago. Smart gets his defense to fly around the field and make game-changing plays, while the offense helps set the tone with a physical running game—it’s similar to the way Saban’s squads have played. Last season’s Sugar Bowl loss to Texas was an atypical showing for Georgia under Smart, and it doesn’t knock him down the rankings.


Career winning percentage: 76.2%


5. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma

There’s no question Lincoln Riley took over an ideal situation with the Sooners, transitioning into the head coach role for an established program after a great coach in Bob Stoops, with two consecutive Heisman Trophy winners at quarterback. But Riley’s offense had a big hand in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray winning the Heisman back-to-back, and he’s gone 12-2 in back-to-back seasons for an 85.7% winning percentage. Now Riley gets to coach former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, and Oklahoma is expected to remain one of the best teams in the country.


Career winning percentage: 85.7%


6. Les Miles, Kansas

He could certainly be lower than this, but Les Miles doesn’t get close to enough respect as a former national champion head coach that had to contend with playing in the SEC West against Nick Saban for several years. Overall, Miles’ quarterback situations and passing attacks were a difficulty in Baton Rouge, but his teams always played tough and had a ton of success. Kansas is obviously a basketball school, so it’ll be interesting to see how Miles fares there—it’ll almost certainly take at least a couple of seasons to get into contention, but it might help that the Jayhawks are in a Big 12 conference that doesn’t put an emphasis on defense.


Career winning percentage: 72.1% (77.0% at LSU)


7. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

Michigan State has had 3-9 seasons and 7-6 seasons in two of the past three years, but Mark Dantonio has also had remarkable success during his tenure, helping make the Spartans the top college football program in the state of Michigan (and owning an 8-4 record in the rivalry). After starting his time at Michigan State with four consecutive bowl game losses, Dantonio is 5-2 in his last seven bowl games, and he’s had three Big Ten titles and four division titles since 2010—a great accomplishment in arguably the best conference in the nation. Dantonio is no-nonsense and gets results without a bunch of high-profile recruits.


Career winning percentage: 64.8% (67.7% at MSU)


8. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

The assumption was that Jim Harbaugh would make Michigan a perennial national championship contender within a couple of years, but the program has been relatively disappointing when compared to the expectations. Still, Harbaugh has compiled three double-digit win seasons in his four years leading his alma mater, and the Wolverines are in much better shape than they were during the several years before he took over. Harbaugh is 0-4 against Ohio State, which is the hump he must get over to win the Big Ten and get into the College Football Playoff.


Career winning percentage: 70.1%


9. Chris Peterson, Washington

Chris Peterson is one of the toughest coaches to rank, as he can easily be several spots higher, but somewhere in the back half of the top ten feels about right. Peterson benefited from playing weaker competition at Boise State, but he has a career 80.8% winning percentage (69.1% with Washington). The Huskies have won two of the last three Pac-12 titles and appeared in the 2016 College Football Playoff, but they’re 1-4 in bowl games under Peterson.


Career winning percentage: 80.8% (69.1% at UW)


10. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M

Jimbo Fisher is one of five active head coaches with a national title, so he could certainly be higher than No. 10. Fisher had a dominant run at Florida State, including a stretch of three straight ACC titles in which his team went 39-3, and he has a 77.3% winning percentage for his career. Texas A&M is in good hands, but I admittedly don’t like how his time with the Seminoles concluded with him leaving before the end of a trying 2017 season.


Career winning percentage: 77.3%


11. David Shaw, Stanford

David Shaw had the benefit of taking over for Jim Harbaugh at the right time, with Andrew Luck at quarterback, but he’s still helped Stanford become one of the most consistent programs in college football. The Cardinal have not hit double-digit wins the last two seasons, and the Pac-12 might be getting tougher, but I wouldn’t bet against Shaw getting back into the 11- and 12-win range as national title contenders in the coming years.


Career winning percentage: 77.4%


12. Scott Frost, Nebraska

This final spot could have gone to a number of coaches including Dan Mullen, Gus Malzahn, Gary Patterson, Kirk Ferentz, Tom Herman, and Mack Brown (Brown is the fifth coach with a national title, but it’s difficult to determine his rank after he was out of coaching for five years). Scott Frost led UCF to a stunning 13-0 record in 2017, and it’s going to take some time to build Nebraska back up to its past glory, but it’ll happen at some point. Don’t be surprise if the Cornhuskers make a huge jump to double-digit wins after going 4-8 last year.


Career winning percentage: 60.5% (73.1% at UCF)


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