Which current Power 5 head coaches are the best and worst vs. the Top 25?

By Amy Daughters -

Of the 68 Power 5 head coaches coming into 2023, how many do you think have a career winning record vs. ranked opponents?

A third? A half? Three quarters?

If you limit the conversation to those current head coaches who have faced a minimum of ten Top 25 opponents over the course of their careers – which reduces the field to 49 – the answer is 18 percent, or only nine elite individuals.

What remains (other than one guy with a .500 record vs. ranked foes) are 39 head coaches, or a whopping 79 percent of the most experienced field, with a career losing record vs. the Top 25.

Factoring in compensation (we’ve utilized USA Today’s College Football Head Coach Salaries from 2022), the highest paid coach with the worst career record vs. ranked opponents is Penn State’s James Franklin who is No. 8 in total pay (a cool 8.5 million) despite a 13-20 record (30.2%) vs. the Top 25. And while that includes a forgivable 1-8 mark during his stint at Vanderbilt (2011-13), Franklin is a not-so-great 12-22 (35.3%) vs. ranked opponents through his first nine seasons in State College.

At the other end of the spectrum is Chris Klieman who is 5-6 (45.5%) vs. the Top 25 in four seasons at Kansas State while coming in at only No. 50 in total pay (3.7 million).

THE BEST

(10) Mel Tucker – Michigan State50.00% (8-8)

Mel Tucker was 2-2 vs. ranked foes during his single season at Colorado (2019) and is 6-6 in his three seasons thus far at Michigan State. Though he’s keeping his head above water, he’s only pumped out one winning record in East Lansing – the 11-2 mark in 2021 – despite being the fifth-highest paid coach in the FBS (9.5 million smackaroos).

T(9) Brian Kelly – LSU – 51.56% (33-31)

Brian Kelly has had four FBS head coaching stops posting a 0-1 record vs. ranked teams at Central Michigan (2004-06), a commanding 8-4 mark vs. Top 25 opponents at Cincinnati (2006 bowl game plus 2007-09), a 23-24 record during his run at Notre Dame and then a 2-2 mark in his first season in Baton Rouge. He’s the fourth-highest paid head coach earning 9.8 million dollars in total pay.

T(9) Jimbo Fisher – Texas A&M51.56% (27-25)

Jimbo Fisher was a respectable 17-13 vs. the Top 25 during his run at Florida State (2010-17) but has dropped to a 10-12 (45.5 %) mark in his five campaigns at Texas A&M. While last season’s 5-7 finish resulted in much gnashing of teeth for Aggie fans, Fisher did go 3-2 vs. ranked opponents. All that said, with the No. 6 ranked total pay (nine million bucks), the residents of College Station, Texas have the right to expect more.

(7) Josh Heupel – Tennessee53.33% (8-7)

After posting a 1-2 record vs. ranked foes during his three seasons at UCF (2018-20), Heupel is an impressive 7-5 (58%) vs. Top 25 teams over his first two seasons at Tennessee. The Vols played seven clubs that were ranked at game time last year, earning a 6-1 record with the only loss coming at (1) Georgia. Heupel was listed at No. 29 in the salary database in 2022 (five million dollars), but his recent success earned him a nine-million-dollar deal, making him one of the top ten highest paid coaches in the game.

(6) Chip Kelly – UCLA55.56% (20-16)

Chip Kelly blazed a trail to a 15-6 (71%) record vs. ranked foes in his four seasons as the head man at Oregon (2009-12). Compare that to his performance at UCLA in five years – a 5-10 (33.3%) mark. Kelly comes in at No. 20 in compensation with a total pay of 5.6 million dollars.

(5) Dabo Swinney – Clemson61.67% (37-23)

Though there are four P5 coaches ahead of Dabo Swinney in the career Top 25 winning-percentage only one – Nick Saban – has participated in more ranked games as he has with 60 since taking over at Clemson in 2009. The Tigers have only failed to beat a ranked opponent during one season of Swinney’s 15 years, posting a 0-3 record in 2014 with losses at (12) Georgia, at (1) Florida State, and at (24) Georgia Tech. Swinney is the second-highest paid FBS coach with a 10.5-million-dollar paycheck.

(4) Lincoln Riley – USC66.67% (16-8)

After posting a 14-5 (73%) record vs. Top 25 opponents in his five seasons at Oklahoma (2017-21), Lincoln Riley’s performance dropped off slightly in his first year at USC with a 2-3 (40%) mark. The only ranked foe the Trojans faced before mid-November last season was (20) Utah, a 43-42 road loss. They wrapped up the regular season with wins at (16) UCLA and vs. (13) Notre Dame before losing in the Pac-12 title game to (12) Utah and then falling to (14) Tulane in the Cotton Bowl. Riley’s salary isn’t included in the database due to USC being a private institution.

(3) Nick Saban – Alabama68.28% (99-46)

Love him or hate him, Nick Saban’s sustained success is astounding. After posting an 8-13 record (38%) vs. ranked opponents at Michigan State (1995-99) (he improved to 4-2 – 66% – in his final season in East Lansing) Saban went 14-8 (63%) vs. the ranked at LSU (2000-04) and is 76-22 (77.5%) vs. the Top 25 in 16 seasons thus far at Alabama. It earns him the highest total pay in college ball, a hefty 10.95 million American dollars.

(2) Kirby Smart – Georgia71.79% (28-11)

In 2016, Kirby Smart took over a Georgia program that had posted a 38-35 (52%) record vs. the Top 25 in the 15-year Mark Richt era. After getting off to an improved 9-7 (56%) start vs. ranked foes in his first three years at the helm, Smart put his foot on the gas and hasn’t looked back yet posting a 19-4 (82%) record vs. the Top 25 since 2019. Smart came in at No. 3 in the 2022 salary rankings with a total pay of 10.2 million dollars.

(1) Ryan Day – Ohio State72.73% (16-6)

Ryan Day has only lost to six ranked teams since taking over at Ohio State late in the 2018 season with all but two of the defeats coming against clubs ranked in the Top 3. Both exceptions came in 2021 – a home loss to (12) Oregon and a roadie at (6) Michigan. Speaking of the Wolverines, and which side of the Ohio/Michigan state line can claim coaching superiority, did you know that Harbaugh is 16-18 (47.1%) vs. the Top 25 in eight seasons at Michigan and 22-24 (47.8%) overall as a head coach in the FBS? That’s a full 25 percent reduction in wins vs. the Buckeye’s head man. Day is No. 7 in total pay (8.7 million) while Harbaugh is No. 9 (8.1).

THE WORST

(10) Justin Wilcox – Cal25% (4-12)

Justin Wilcox has only won four Top 25 games in six seasons as the head guy at Cal – a 21-17 home win over (21) Oregon in 2020, a 20-19 road victory over (14) Washington in 2019, a 12-10 home win over the (15) Huskies in 2018, and a 37-3 victory at home over (8) Washington State in 2017. Wilcox is ranked No. 38 in the total compensation database, pulling in 4.2 million dollars.

(9) PJ Fleck – Minnesota20% (4-16)

After posting a 1-5 (16%) record vs. the Top 25 at Western Michigan (2013-16), PJ Fleck’s fortunes have improved only marginally to a 3-11 (21%) mark during his first six seasons at Minnesota. He hasn’t beaten a Top 25 team since Nov. 27, 2021, scoring a 23-13 win over (18) Wisconsin. Fleck pulls in five million dollars in total pay, the No. 31 mark overall.

T(7) Billy Napier – Florida18.18% (2-9)

With only one season as a P5 head coach under his belt, it seems a bit unfair to include Billy Napier on our list. But the numbers don’t lie – after posting a 1-4 record vs. Top 25 opponents at Louisiana (2018-21), Napier went 1-5 vs. the ranked during his debut in Gainesville, the only win coming in the opener, a narrow 29-26 home victory over (7) Utah. Napier is a lofty – and now precarious – No. 11 in total pay with 7.27 million dollars annually.

T(7) Eliah Drinkwitz – Missouri18.18% (2-9)

While Eliah Drinkwitz didn’t face a Top 25 opponent during his triumphant single 13-1 season at Appalachian State in 2019, he’s played 11 since taking over at Mizzou in 2020. The only wins thus far have come at (25) South Carolina, a 23-10-win last season, and vs. (17) LSU, a 45-41 barn burner in 2020. Drinkwitz’s total pay is four million dollars, No. 45 in the FBS.

(6) Scott Satterfield – Cincinnati15.38% (2-11)

Scott Satterfield takes over at Cincinnati after winning just two games over ranked opponents in nine seasons as an FBS head coach. Satterfield went 0-7 vs. the Top 25 in his tenure at Appalachian State (2014-18) and 2-7 (22%) in his three seasons at Louisville (2019-22). The wins came via a 62-59 decision at (19) Wake Forest in 2019 and a 48-21 home victory over the (10) Demon Deacons last season. Satterfield made 3.25 million dollars (No. 55) in total pay at Louisville in 2022 and is set to make a comparable amount at Cincinnati.

(5) Greg Schiano – Rutgers12.9% (4-27)

Greg Schiano is 0-9 vs. the Top 25 since returning to Rutgers in 2020. The last time the Scarlet Knights scored a win over a ranked squad with Schiano at the helm was Nov. 12, 2009, when they – as a Big East program – hosted (23) USF and blanked the Bulls 31-0.  Schiano ranked No. 44 in total pay in 2022, earning four million dollars.

(4) Tom Allen – Indiana11.54% (3-23)

Tom Allen has had 26 opportunities to take down a Top 25 opponent in his six seasons at Indiana and has only been successful on three occasions. The trio of triumphs all came during the COVID-compromised 2020 season, a 36-35 home win vs. then (8) Penn State, a 38-21 victory over (23) Michigan, and a 14-6 decision at (18) Wisconsin. Allen pulls in 4.3 million dollars in total pay, No. 35 overall.

(3) Matt Rhule – Nebraska11.11% (2-16)

Matt Rhule’s two wins vs. the Top 25 as a FBS head coach came not during his three years at Baylor (2017-19) but instead during his four seasons at Temple (2013-16), downing (21) East Carolina in 2014 and at (20) Navy in 2016. Rhule posted a 0-11 mark vs. ranked opponents in Waco, which somehow got him the head job at the NFL Carolina Panthers where he went 11-27 from 2020-22. His starting salary at Nebraska is 5.5 million dollars.

(2) Jeff Hafley – Boston College10% (1-9)

Jeff Hafley has been at Boston College since 2020 and has successfully converted just one of his 11 tries to knock off a ranked opponent, rolling in to (17) NC State as 18-point underdogs last season and scoring a 21-20 victory.  Hafley is one of the lowest paid P5 head coaches, his 2.9-million-dollar salary coming in at No. 57.

(1) Mike Locksley – Maryland – 8% (2-23)

Mike Locksley’s head coaching career began at New Mexico where he went 0-7 vs. the Top 25 from 2009-11. His first stint at Maryland, when he was the interim for the final six games of the season, produced a 0-2 mark vs. ranked opponents. Since being named the Terrapins’ permanent head coach in 2019 Locksley is 2-14 vs. the ranked, the only two wins coming in 2019, a 63-20 beatdown of (21) Syracuse and in 2022, a 16-12 decision over (25) NC State in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.  Locksley makes four million dollars in total pay, No. 43 in the FBS.

Historical data courtesy of Sports Reference/College Football.

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Comments (2)

By my count I get Dion Babers at Syracuse as 4-17 (and was 0-2 at Bowling Green), which would kick Wilcox out of the bottom 10.