Top 25 college football coach rankings for 2024: Kirby Smart takes over No. 1 from Nick Saban

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For the first time since 2015, Nick Saban is not ranked No. 1 on Sporting News' annual Top 25 FBS coach rankings. 

Of course, Saban – who held that top spot for eight consecutive years – retired this offseason. In fact, none of the coaches who were ranked in the top 10 of those rankings in 2015 are head coaches at the FBS level now. Jim Harbaugh – who was ranked No. 4 in 2023 before leading Michigan to a national championship and leaving for the NFL – also is gone. 

So, who is No. 1 now? It was a fairly easy choice. Georgia's Kirby Smart inherits the top spot after leading the Bulldogs to two national titles in the last three seasons. Clemson's Dabo Swinney – who won national titles in 2016 and 2018 – and Mack Brown – whose national title was with Texas in 2005 – are the only other coaches with a ring on this list.

The rest is wide open to interpretation. Where do you put Kalen DeBoer – Saban's successor at Alabama? What about Ohio State coach Ryan Day? How far did Texas coach Steve Sarkisian move up the rankings? Those were the debates we sorted out. 

The SEC has the most coaches in our top 25 with eight. The Big Ten is second with six, followed by the ACC and Big 12 with five apiece. There is one independent coach in the Top 25. 

To determine rankings, Sporting News looks at a coach's overall record, record at the current school and a three-year record to determine a loose baseline in the subjective process. Career accomplishments, program expectations and the old "this guy or this guy" arguments come into play.  It's not a perfect science, but it's our science, one we have stuck to since 2015. 

Here are The Sporting News' top 25 coach rankings ahead of the 2024 college football season: 

MORE: Ranking all 134 coaches ahead of 2024 season

The Sporting News Top 25 coaches for 2024 

1. Kirby Smart, Georgia 

Last year:

Record: 94-16 

Lowdown: Smart is the logical choice to inherit the No. 1 ranking. The Bulldogs are 42-2 the last three seasons – and the only two losses were to Saban. Smart has won two national championships and built a dynasty that nearly mirrors his mentor, and the Bulldogs are equipped to make another run in the first year of the 12-team College Football Playoff. Smart will cross the 100-win mark at Georgia this season. 

MORE: Kirby Smart becomes sport's top paid coach at $13M per year

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2. Dabo Swinney, Clemson 

Last year:

Record: 170-43 

Lowdown: Criticize the use (or lack thereof) of the transfer portal all you want, but the game hasn't passed Swinney by quite yet. Clemson is 30-10 the last three seasons, and a five-game winning streak to end the season showed this program will still be a factor in the ACC in the expanded playoff. Swinney is the only other coach on this list with multiple national championships, too – which allows us to defend this position for one more year. 

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3. Kalen DeBoer, Alabama  

Last year: 23

Record: 37-9

Lowdown: Yes, replacing Nick Saban is an impossible task. Is DeBoer up to it? He's 34-6 the last three seasons between Fresno State and Washington – and he led the Huskies to a CFP championship game in just two seasons. It's also worth pointing to his 67-3 record at Sioux Falls in the NAIA. Winners win, and DeBoer has won at every stop. The SEC stage is the next step for the 49-year-old reigning Sporting News Coach of the Year

MORE: Top 12 programs of the 10-year four-team CFP era

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4. Ryan Day, Ohio State 

Last year: 5

Record: 56-8

Lowdown: Let's not twist this too much. Day has a .875 winning percentage – which is the highest of any FBS coach with at least 50 victories. He has three CFP appearances and a CFP championship appearance. Of course, the three-game losing streak to Michigan has become the focus – one that led to an unprecedented response in the transfer portal for the Buckeyes this offseason. Day also hired mentor Chip Kelly to be his offensive coordinator. That's a coaching move that could lead to Ohio State's first national championship since 2014. 

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5. Brian Kelly, LSU 

Last year: 6

Record: 165-68 (20-7 at LSU) 

Lowdown: Kelly has put together seven consecutive seasons with 10 or more victories between Notre Dame and LSU. Detractors would say Kelly still hasn't done enough to push those teams into the national championship conversation. The last two offseasons have featured sound bites that have led to wide-spread criticism, the most-recent centering on Kelly's views on NIL and the transfer portal. Through all that, Kelly continues to be a consistent winner who still needs that FBS national championship to silence the critics.

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Steve Sarkisian
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6. Steve Sarkisian, Texas 

Last year: 41 

Record: 71-49 (25-14 at Texas) 

Lowdown: No Power 4 coach made a higher jump than Sarkisian on this list, and that is going to evoke some debate. Is one playoff run through the Big 12 enough to proclaim Texas back under Sarkisian? The Longhorns have amassed more talent through recruiting and the transfer portal, and so far Sarkisian has finessed the QB dynamic between Quinn Ewers and Arch Manning. Or will the jump up to the SEC be too much? Sarkisian is one of eight SEC coaches in our Top 25. This spot is tenuous as a result. 

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7. Kyle Whittingham, Utah 

Last year: 9

Record: 162-79 

Lowdown: Meet the top-ranked coach in the newly-realigned Big 12. Whittingham has guided the Utes through the Mountain West Conference and Pac-12, and success has followed. Utah did not win a third straight Pac-12 championship last season, but Whittingham was still able to put together an eight-win season without starting quarterback Cam Rising. Is this the best program that didn't make the four-team CFP? That is the power of Whittingham.

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8. Mike Norvell, Florida State 

Last year: 24

Record: 69-32 (31-17) 

Lowdown: Norvell is trending upward for the second straight season. The Seminoles were 13-0 in the regular season and snubbed from the College Football Playoff, but Norvell led Florida State to the ACC championship and revived the rivalry with Clemson at the top. That should continue in 2024 and beyond – no matter how the legal battle with the conference unfolds. Norvell has led his teams to four seasons of 10 wins or more the last six years between stints at Memphis and Florida State. 

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9. Lincoln Riley, USC 

Last year: 7

Record: 71-18 (19-8 at USC)

Lowdown: Is this too harsh on Riley despite the prolific win-loss record? It's about a defense. USC ranked 94th in scoring defense in 2022, and it got worse last season at 121st. Will the D'Anton Lynn hire as the new defensive coordinator make an impact with the Trojans making the move to the Big Ten? Riley did win four Big 12 championships from 2017-20, but that does not mean much to their new conference competition. 

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10. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss 

Last year: 20

Record: 95-49 (34-15 at Ole Miss)

Lowdown: Kiffin is ranked between the coaches of two former employers, but most people have their mind made up about the Ole Miss coach before reading this. Truth is he's been good in the portal era. The Rebels are 29-10 the last three seasons, and the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl victory over Penn State was a step toward something more in Oxford. The Rebels are 6-6 against Top 25 teams the last three seasons, and three of those losses are to Alabama and Georgia. The Nov. 9 matchup against the Bulldogs might be the next opportunity for Kiffin to prove it in a top-10 game. 

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11. Josh Heupel, Tennessee 

Last year: 10

Record: 55-20 (27-12 at Tennessee)

Lowdown: Tennessee fans might not like Heupel below Kiffin, but it's a coin flip of sorts given the last two seasons. Heupel drops one spot out of the top 10, but that does not diminish what he has accomplished in a short time at Tennessee. The Vols have steadied the program with a quarterback-centric offense. Now, it's Nico Iamaleava's turn. Tennessee was 0-3 against ranked SEC opponents last season after finishing 4-1 the previous season. 

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12. Dan Lanning, Oregon 

Last year: 25

Record: 22-5

Lowdown: Is this too low? Lanning has made an impression with Oregon with a strong two-year run that has netted an .805 winning percentage. Smart, Day and DeBoer are the only other coaches in the Top 25 with career winning percentages above 80%. Lanning has an aggressive style – yes, the fourth-down calls against Washington are part of that – that makes this a polarizing choice. The Ducks ranked in the top 10 in the FBS in scoring offense and scoring defense. If that continues, then this program will have another national title shot sooner rather than later. 

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13. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State 

Last year: 15

Record: 168-79

Lowdown: Gundy hasn't been in the top 10 on this list since 2017, but his longevity and track record have made him a fixture in the Top 25. The Cowboys have enjoyed 18 consecutive winning seasons, and they reached the Big 12 championship game for the second time in three years in 2023. With Texas and Oklahoma gone, this is a real chance for Oklahoma State to flex in the Big 12 for the next several seasons. A victory in the Big 12 championship game is the next elusive step. 

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14. James Franklin, Penn State 

Last year: 13

Record: 112-54 (88-39 at Penn State) 

Lowdown: Franklin's ranking on this list has varied between 11 and 17 the last four years, and it's a familiar narrative by now. Penn State is 32-16 since 2020, which is a half-game better than Texas in the same stretch. The Nittany Lions are 21-5 the last two seasons, and four of those losses are to Ohio State and Michigan. Franklin has built a Big Ten contender that would have been a playoff regular in a 12-team setup for the last decade. Will Penn State maintain that standing in the 18-team Big Ten? 

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15. Luke Fickell, Wisconsin 

Last year: 8

Record: 70-31 (8-6 at Wisconsin) 

Lowdown: Fickell was in the top 10 the previous two seasons after a run at Cincinnati that included the first Group of 5 playoff appearance, and that is reflected in a 30-10 record the last three seasons between the two stops. The jump back to the Big Ten is an adjustment, however, and Fickell faces challenges in getting the Badgers back to the top of the Big Ten. Keep an eye on how Fickell continues to develop that talent. Wisconsin has just five NFL Draft picks over the last two seasons. 

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16. Sonny Dykes, TCU 

Last year: 11

Record: 89-72 (18-9 at TCU) 

Lowdown: Is this enough of a correction for Dykes? The Horned Frogs are one year removed from a run to the College Football Playoff championship game, but the sequel was a 5-7 season where some of that one-score luck ran out. Still, Dykes has four winning seasons the last five years between the stints at SMU and TCU and the new-look Big 12 offers a chance for the Horned Frogs to be a perennial conference championship contender. The program has thrived under that setup. 

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17. Chris Klieman, Kansas State 

Last year: 18

Record: 39-24

Lowdown: The Wildcats were 9-4 last season after winning the Big 12 championship in 2022, and the opportunity to be a playoff regular exists in realignment. Kansas State is 13-5 in Big 12 play the last two seasons, and three of those losses were to Oklahoma and Texas. The new look will be a favorable setup for Klieman, who was 69-6 at North Dakota State before moving up to the FBS with the Wildcats. 

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18. Jeff Brohm, Louisville 

Last year: 39

Record: 76-48 (10-4 at Louisville) 

Lowdown: Brohm returned to his alma mater and led the Cardinals to the ACC championship game in his first season. That comes one year after leading Purdue to the Big Ten championship game. In that two-year stretch, Brohm is 4-2 against ranked teams with the only losses coming to Michigan and Florida State. Brohm's knack for working the transfer portal with Louisville has worked, but the back-to-back losses to end last season were a reminder there is work to be done. 

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19. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa 

Last year: 19

Record: 196-119

Lowdown: Ferentz stays in the same spot entering his 26th season with the Hawkeyes. Is it too high considering Iowa ranked 132nd in the FBS at 15.4 points per game? Or is it about right considering the defense ranked fourth in the FBS at 14.8 points per game? The Hawkeyes are 28-13 the last three seasons – which is an identical record to Utah. That includes a pair of 10-win seasons. Will the offense improve under offensive coordinator Tim Lester? That's the question for the next stage of Ferentz's long-standing tenure. 

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20. Mark Stoops, Kentucky

Last year: 16

Record: 73-65

Lowdown: Stoops was ranked No. 14 two years ago, but he's slipped a few spots each season since. We know the drill by now. Kentucky's only losing season since 2016 was the COVID-19 impact 2020 season. The Wildcats have made eight straight bowl appearances. So, why the drop? Kentucky has plateaued a 7-6 record and 3-5 mark in SEC play each of the last two seasons. You can only reward that for so long before asking for more progress. 

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Mack Brown
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21. Mack Brown, North Carolina 

Last year: 12

Record: 282-149 (38-27 in second stint at North Carolina)

Lowdown: Brown is the last national championship coach on this list, he's moving closer to 300 wins and has produced two NFL quarterbacks in Sam Howell and Drake Maye in his second stint with the Tar Heels. However, North Carolina is 23-17 the last three seasons, which means Brown has the lowest three-year winning percentage among these Top 25 coaches. It is difficult to balance those two factors, but this is the right landing spot. 

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22. Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame 

Last year: 30

Record: 19-8

Lowdown: Freeman moves into the Top 25 after a 10-win season in Year 2 at Notre Dame – and the Irish will have high expectations heading into Year 3. Freeman has improved recruiting in two seasons with a top-10 class in 2024 and a potential top-five class in 2025. Notre Dame coaches are judged by games against ranked teams, and Freeman is 6-4 against Top 25 and 2-3 against top-10 teams. There is room for improvement there, but don't be surprised if Freeman is in the top-10 next year. 

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23. Eli Drinkwitz, Missouri 

Last year: 47

Record: 40-22 (28-21 at Missouri)

Lowdown: This is a big jump for Drinkwitz, who guided the Tigers to a 11-2 season with a Cotton Bowl victory in 2023. The Tigers have made four straight bowl appearances, and Drinkwitz has managed to enhance the school's recruiting in the SEC. Missouri is 5-7 against top-25 teams last season, a record that looks better when you consider three of those losses are to Georgia. It's OK to be a little skeptical, and the challenge for Drinkwitz is replicating that success in the 16-team SEC. 

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24. Dave Doeren, NC State 

Last year: 22

Record: 9-4

Lowdown: Doeren has put together nine winning seasons in 11 years with the Wolfpack, and that includes a .500 or better record in ACC play six of the last seven years. Doeren has maintained a solid program – but they have yet to break through for that conference championship season despite preseason hype on a handful of occasions. NC State is 23-4 at home the last four years – but that included losses to Notre Dame and Louisville last season. 

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25. Lance Leipold, Kansas 

Last year: 36

Record: 54-54 (17-21 at Kansas)

Lowdown: Why would a coach with a .500 career record in the FBS be in our Top 25? Consider that it has been done in Buffalo and Kansas. The Jayhawks are 15-11 with back-to-back bowl appearances the last two seasons at a program that has never made three straight bowl appearances. Kansas is a real threat to win the Big 12 in Leipold's fourth season. That is the reason why his name turns up any time a Power 5 opening pops up. The winning track record dating back to Wisconsin-Whitewater speaks for itself.

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Bill Bender is a national college football writer for The Sporting News.