Sporting News released its annual 1-130 Coaches Ranking this week, an exercise that generates heated discussions every time.
The top seven generated the most discussion. Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney were the obvious picks at No. 1-2, and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher was a controversial pick at No. 5. Those three coaches have won national championships.
The other four have not. So that’s the question SN would like to explore next. Lincoln Riley of Oklahoma, Brian Kelly of Notre Dame, Ryan Day of Ohio State and Kirby Smart of Georgia have all had similar levels of success. Which head coach will win a national championship first? Which joins the national championship fraternity that includes Saban, Swinney, Fisher, Ed Orgeron from LSU and Mack Brown from North Carolina?
That would solve a lot of arguments. We turn to Twitter to ask the same question.
Which coach is the best bet to win an FBS national championship first?
– Bill Bender (@ BillBender92) June 29, 2021
Don’t argue. Just answer the question.
SN looks at those four coaches and chooses:
MORE: SEC Coaches Ranking | Ranking of the ten great coaches
Kirby Smart, Georgia
Smart received the most votes in the Twitter poll. He is number 7 in our ranking, but he is also the coach who has come closest to a national championship. Georgia is 52-14 the past five seasons and has drafted at an elite level. He is also 4-0 head-to-head against the other three coaches on this list. So what is the problem? Alabama is. Smart is 0-3 against Nick Saban, and Florida has become a more viable threat under Dan Mullen. With each failure, the comparisons to Mark Richt and the weight of a national championship dating back to 1980 increase. Still, Smart will break through in one of these seasons, right?
Ryan Day, Ohio State
Day received the second majority of votes. He is 23-2 since he replaced Urban Meyer, and it can be argued that he has improved the model with consecutive undefeated regular seasons and college football playoff appearances. Critics will point out that he was handed a stacked deck, but so far, Day hasn’t dropped the cards. The Buckeyes crushed Clemson in the CFP semifinals last season before being defeated by Alabama. Day built the No. 2 recruiting class last year and may have the upper class on the way. There’s no end in sight to the Big Ten’s dominance, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t follow Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer to a national championship anytime soon.
Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma
Riley followed suit after replacing Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. Riley is 45-8 with four consecutive Big 12 championships, and that came with back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. The Sooners return another charged offense led by Spencer Rattler, who is Heisman’s favorite in 2021. Of course, Oklahoma is also 0-3 in the CFP semifinals with Riley, and the program’s national championship drought dates back to 2000. Last year’s Sugar Bowl victory against Florida was a step in the right direction, but Oklahoma still faces the big question every time they step on that stage. Will Riley be the one to answer it?
Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Kelly received the fewest votes, which makes us wonder if Mullen would have been the best coach to put in the group. To be clear, Kelly is not overrated. The Irish have won at least 10 games in four of the last five seasons, and two appearances in the CFP have seen a steady improvement in the elite draft. The Irish are a legitimate contender, but they haven’t cracked the Alabama / Clemson / Ohio state code on the sixth day of the New Year or the CFP stage. Notre Dame hasn’t won a national title since 1988, but Kelly has progressed in that quest with each season and has come much closer than any of his three predecessors.
Who wins everything first?
Smart won the Twitter poll, but I would vote for Day. Our staff compiled the 1-130 coach rankings with ballots, and I had Day at number 3.
The logic here is simple. Day has yet to lose a Big Ten game. Recruitment is on par with Alabama and Georgia. It will break through like Tressel and Meyer did. Sure, he was awarded a national championship caliber program. That will not change.
The Buckeyes will have more playoff opportunities, and they are the only school of those four to have beaten Alabama and Clemson in the CFP stage. Notre Dame, Georgia and Oklahoma are 0-5 in CFP games against the Crimson Tide and Tigers. The state of Ohio is 2-3. Ohio State is a better bet to break through.
Smart, Riley, Day and Kelly will always be in competition, and it will be interesting this year as the Bulldogs and Sooners return to their starting quarterbacks.
We’ll still give Day an edge over Smart.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.