Top 25 college football coach rankings for 2023: Why Nick Saban is No. 1 instead of Kirby Smart

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Brian Kelly, Kirby Smart, Jim Harbaugh
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To loosely quote Nick Saban, “We're not going to, so quit askin'.'” 

At least for one more year. Saban is ranked No 1 in The Sporting News annual coach rankings heading into the 2023 season. This is the eighth consecutive season we put Saban in the No. 1 spot, but this is the closest the debate has been in the College Football Playoff era. Smart – who has led Georgia to consecutive national championships – has closed the gap and made this a real debate. If you side with Smart, then you have a case. Clemson's Dabo Swinney – the only other coach with multiple national championships – is No. 3. He has company, too. 

The SEC has the most coaches in our top 25 with seven. The Big Ten is second with six, followed by the ACC with five, Pac-12 with four and Big 12 with three.

What are the criteria we use? Sporting News looks at a coach's overall record, record at the current school and a three-year record to gauge that ranking. Of course, career accomplishments, program expectations and the old "this guy or this guy" arguments come into play, too. It's not a perfect science, but it's our science. We're sticking to it, at least for this season. 

Here are The Sporting News' top 25 coach rankings ahead of 2023: 

MORE: Ranking the top 25 quarterbacks for 2023

The Sporting News Top 25 coaches for 2023 

1. Nick Saban, Alabama

Last year:

Record: 280-69 (189-27 at Alabama) 

Lowdown: Alabama has gone two seasons without a national championship, and any perceived panic speaks to the ultimate standard Saban has set in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide have a 115-12 record and a .906 winning percentage in the College Football Playoff era and are the only school with a winning percentage above .900. Alabama also is 37-4 the last three seasons – which is just half game behind Georgia. There is a case to put Kirby Smart at No. 1 given the Bulldogs are on top, but Saban remains the top college football coach of all time. 

2. Kirby Smart, Georgia 

Last year: 3

Record: 81-15 

Lowdown: Should Smart be No. 1? It's a legitimate debate in the present tense. Georgia will be No. 1 in most preseason polls after winning its second straight national championship. The Bulldogs have 25 NFL Draft picks the last two seasons, and Smart has compiled a 37-3 record since 2020. The 47-year-old coach is one of just three coaches with multiple national championships, and he's put his own personal touch on Saban's model at Alabama. A third straight national championship would force our hand.

MORE: Dylan Raiola, No. 1 QB in class of 2024, commits to Georgia 

  Saban, Alabama Smart, Georgia
Years 2007-13 2016-22
Overall record 79-15 81-15
SEC record 46-10 48-9
SEC titles 2 2
National titles 2 2

3. Dabo Swinney, Clemson 

Last year:

Record: 161-39

Lowdown: Swinney slander is increasing given the Tigers have missed the College Football Playoff the last two seasons and had their 40-game home winning streak snapped. Clemson did win an ACC championship last season, and the Tigers are 31-8 the last three seasons and 73-7 in ACC play since 2014. Swinney also is a member of the two-time national championship club. The rest of the coaches in the top 10 have combined for one national championship. 

4. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan 

Last year: 9

Record: 103-46 (74-25 at Michigan) 

Lowdown: Like Swinney, it took Harbaugh time to get Michigan on track in recruiting, the Big Ten and the rivalry with the Ohio State. It's hard to argue with the results of the last two seasons. The Wolverines have won back-to-back Big Ten championships after consecutive wins against the Buckeyes, and Harbaugh has evolved in recruiting with the help of the transfer portal. Last year's playoff flop against TCU also is on the record, and it remains on Harbaugh to break through for a national championship. 

5. Ryan Day, Ohio State 

Last year: 4

Record: 45-6

Lowdown: Day has critics, but what fan-base would not take a .882 winning percentage, three College Football Playoff appearances and an offense that continues to churn out NFL talent at every position group. The Buckeyes were one missed field goal away from playing TCU for the national championship in 2022. Day will get more College Football Playoff chances. About the Michigan matter? Despite the two-game losing streak, it's a good bet Ohio State will be favored when they head to Michigan Stadium on Nov. 25. 

6. Brian Kelly, LSU

Last year: 6

Record: 155-65 (10-4 at LSU) 

Lowdown: Remember that narrative Kelly wouldn't fit at LSU? The one that was complete with bad Southern accents and cringey recruiting videos? Kelly proved those wrong with 10 wins in his first season at LSU – and that continues a streak dating back to Notre Dame where Kelly has won 10 or more games in seven of the last eight seasons. Kelly took the job with the Tigers with the intention of winning a national championship, and it's fair to say he is ahead of schedule heading into Year 2. 

7. Lincoln Riley, USC 

Last year: 7

Record: 68-13 (11-3 at USC) 

Lowdown: Riley holds the same spot after an impressive first year at USC. He is one of five coaches with a career winning percentage over .800, and he has developed three Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks in Caleb Williams, Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield. It's a matter of time before he adds to his total of CFP appearances. Why is Riley not higher? The Pac-12 championship loss to Utah and Cotton Bowl collapse against Tulane allowed questions about the defense to resurface. Will that change at USC? 

MORE: Why 2024 CFP dates are doomed to fail

8. Luke Fickell, Wisconsin 

Last year: 9

Record: 63-25 (1-0 at Wisconsin)

Lowdown: Fickell compiled a 31-5 record at Cincinnati the last three seasons, which proved the Bearcats were not a one-time fluke. The Bearcats also sent 16 players to the NFL Draft in that stretch. Instead of taking the Notre Dame job, Fickell is leveling up at Wisconsin – which should be an ideal place for that no-nonsense program-building skills in the Big Ten West. Fickell turns 50 in August. He's now an established coach who has to prove it all over again in the Big Ten. 

9. Kyle Whittingham, Utah 

Last year: 10

Record: 154-74

Lowdown: Here is how it works with Whittingham. We spend the entire offseason praising how underrated he is and the longevity of the program – then we forget about that when the season starts and pick everybody else. Whittingham stays in the top 10 in our list. The Utes have the best record in the Pac-12 in the CFP era at 78-35, and they have won back-to-back conference championships. Utah has missed on a few opportunities to make the CFP, but they should be a regular when expansion arrives. In the meantime, prepare for another cycle of success for Whittingham and Utah in 2023. 

10. Josh Heupel, Tennessee 

Last year: 27

Record: 46-16 (18-8 at Tennessee) 

Lowdown: Too high or too low? You can ask questions, and that's why this feels right. Heupel had a break-through season with Tennessee, and given the mess he inherited in Knoxville, a victory against Alabama and an Orange Bowl win in Year 2 is amazing. Heupel's quarterback-friendly offense is attracting five-star recruits, too. The loss to Georgia was a reality check, but the Vols have stability on the sideline for the first time since Phillip Fulmer. Heupel has a career winning percentage of .742. This is not a one-year thing.

11. Sonny Dykes, TCU 

Last year: 42

Record: 84-65 (13-2 at TCU) 

Lowdown: Dykes enjoyed the most memorable year of his long, winding road of a coaching career in 2022. The Horned Frogs became the surprise story of the season with a run to the CFP championship game in Dykes' first season, and he earned Sporting News Coach of the Year as a result. TCU had eight players selected in the 2023 NFL Draft. Dykes is 38-12 the last four seasons between stints at SMU and TCU. 

12. Mack Brown, North Carolina

Last year: 15

Record: 274-144 (30-22 in second stint at North Carolina) 

Lowdown: Brown – like Saban – is closing in on the 300-win mark. He led the Tar Heels to nine wins and a trip to the ACC championship game, and he has another year with Drake Maye at quarterback. That's two straight NFL quarterbacks he's helped develop. Brown's tenure with the Tar Heels has had ups-and-downs on the field, but he remains a first-class coach in the era of NIL and the transfer portal. He's also one of five national championship-winning coaches in the game. 

13. James Franklin, Penn State 

Last year: 17 

Record: 91-49 (67-34 at Penn State) 

Lowdown: Franklin dropped six spots in 2022 and moved back up four spots this year. That's the shuffle expected given the results. Penn State went 11-11 in 2020-21, and that sandwiched around 11-win seasons in 2019 and 2022. Franklin is under contract through 2031, and expectations are high in Happy Valley after last year's Rose Bowl victory. Penn State continues to struggle against Ohio State and Michigan. Franklin is 4-14 against the Big Ten East powers. Will that change in 2023? 

14. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M 

Last year: 8

Record: 122-44 (39-21 at Texas A&M) 

Lowdown: Fisher dropped out of the top 10 after a 5-7 season in 2022. Yes, Fisher is among the coaches on this list who has won a national championship, but that was in 2013 at Florida State. He has yet to win more than nine games in a single season at Texas A&M. Last year was a disaster, but a close loss to Alabama on the road showed this program isn't far off. Now, Fisher is counting on new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino to jump-start the offense. At minimum, this will be entertaining. 

15. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State 

Last year: 12

Record: 156-75 

Lowdown: Gundy dropped three spots, but he has 17 straight winning seasons at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys did fade in the back half of 2022 with five losses in their last six games, but Gundy has put together a 27-11 record the last three seasons. He's still able to maximize the talent on his roster, and they should stay on as a perennial Big 12 power when Texas and Oklahoma leave for the SEC. 

16. Mark Stoops, Kentucky 

Last year: 14

Record: 66-59

Lowdown: Stoops drops two spots, but his body of work at Kentucky remains impressive. The Wildcats finished 7-6 in 2022, which gave them their sixth winning season in seven years. Kentucky has reached a bowl game every year in that stretch, and Stoops has leveled up the recruiting and NFL talent development. It's not going to be easy in the SEC East with the re-emergence of Tennessee, but Stoops' spot here holds. 

17. Pat Narduzzi, Pitt 

Last year: 23

Record: 62-41

Lowdown: Narduzzi enters his ninth season with the program. He has settled in at Pitt with a nice run the last three seasons that includes a 26-12 record, ACC championship and a New Year's Day Six appearance. The Panthers have been .500 or better in ACC play each of the last five seasons, and Narduzzi has emerged as a strong voice not just for the program, but for college football as a whole. 

18. Chris Klieman, Kansas State 

Last year: 37

Record: 30-20 

Lowdown: Klieman is another riser on this list, and that comes after a Big 12 championship season. The Wildcats' only losing season under Klieman was in 2020. He has taken the lessons learned from winning four FCS national championships at North Dakota State and put them into action with Kansas State. He's also upheld the 14-game winning streak against Kansas. Now, Klieman will need to deal with increased expectations in the Big 12. 

19. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa 

Last year: 14 

Record: 186-115

Lowdown: Ferentz enters his 25th season as head coach of the Hawkeyes, and he is under more scrutiny after fielding an offense that averaged 17.7 points per game in 2022. Iowa still won eight games – including a 21-0 shutout of Kentucky in the Music City Bowl. The Hawkeyes have won eight or more games in seven of the last eight seasons, and they went 6-2 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. Iowa also made some key additions in the transfer portal, including Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara. The upcoming season is huge for Ferentz perception wise. 

20. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss 

Last year: 16

Record: 84-46 (23-13 at Ole Miss) 

Lowdown: Kiffin bumps down five spots after moving up 10 spots in 2022, which suggests this is the sweet spot. Kiffin has established himself as a top-25 coach, and he's enjoyed three seasons of 10 wins or more between stints with FAU and Ole Miss. The Rebels are 4-6 against ranked teams under Kiffin, but last year's four-game losing streak to end the season cannot be ignored. Kiffin is less polarizing than earlier in his career, but he still has to prove it every year in the SEC West. 

21. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota 

Last year: 27 

Record: 74-49 (44-27 at Minnesota) 

Lowdown: Sometimes it's easy to forget Fleck is just 42 years old. He's entering his seventh season at Minnesota, and the Gophers have enjoyed back-to-back nine-win seasons. Minnesota also has won Paul Bunyan's Axe against Wisconsin in three of the last five years. Minnesota also is 4-0 in bowl games under Fleck. The drawback? Despite a wide-open Big Ten West, the Gophers have not been able to break through to the Big Ten championship game. 

Dave Doeren
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22. Dave Doeren, NC State 

Last year: 26

Record: 95-48 (72-54 at NC State) 

Lowdown: Doeren has enjoyed winning seasons eight of the last nine years at NC State, and he should pass 100 victories for his career this season. The Wolfpack are a steady program, but they have yet to break through and win an ACC championship. Doeren has done an excellent job of developing more NFL talent within the program, and NC State is 18-2 at home the last three seasons. The Wolfpack eventually need to take that next step. 

23. Kaleb DeBoer, Washington 

Last year: 61

Record: 23-8 (11-2 at Washington) 

Lowdown: DeBoer is the highest riser in the top 25, and this is not an over-reaction. DeBoer led the Huskies to an 11-2 record and had one of the nation's hottest teams in the FBS with a seven-game win streak to end 2022. He's developed outstanding quarterbacks at Fresno State in Jake Haener and now Michael Penix Jr. at Washington. DeBoer had a 67-3 record at Sioux Falls at the NAIA level before working his way up the FBS ladder. 

24. Mike Norvell, Florida State 

Last year: 43

Record: 56-31 (18-16 at Florida State) 

Lowdown: Norvell appeared to be on the hot seat at Florida State, but a 10-win breakthrough in 2022 could be the start of something special. The Seminoles closed last season with a stretch of six wins where they scored 35 points or more. Quarterback Jordan Travis will keep that going in 2023. Norvell has won 10 or more games in three of the last five seasons dating back to his time at Memphis. Sometimes patience if required. 

25. Dan Lanning, Oregon 

Last year: 48

Record: 10-3 

Lowdown: Lanning is another Pac-12 coach on the rise. He led the Ducks to a 10-3 record in his first season, and he kept it together after the 49-3 reality check in the opener against Georgia. The development of transfer quarterback Bo Nix into a Heisman Trophy candidate was a major plus, and the fact offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham isn't too far behind on the rankings after taking the Arizona State job suggests Lanning might have his own coaching tree in the next decade. Lanning's recruiting has also been outstanding early in his tenure at Eugene.

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