Ranking the Top 10 College Football Head Coaches for the 2021 Season

By Dan Vasta in College Football
| July 16, 2021 6:58 am PDT

There are over 120 college football head coaches in the FBS, and many of them are future Hall of Famers. Some are so successful that they could stop coaching now, and they would be considered some of the greatest coaches that have graced the sidelines at their specific schools.

It is never easy to rank coaches because winning is not the be-all-end-all. However, it sure is vital. Most of the premier programs receive accolades and recognition due to winning the biggest of games every year.

Without further ado, here are the best college football head coaches in 2021.

10. Kyle Whittingham – Utah

One of my favorite head coaches in college football has been a consistent threat. He is entering his 17th season in Salt Lake City. That is the third longest-tenured coach in the country. Only Kirk Ferentz and Gary Patterson have been at their current school longer.

Whittingham has won nine-plus games in five of the last seven seasons, which is remarkable. The Utes are not a top 25 program in terms of recruiting rankings. So many other teams in the past have exceeded those rankings. Chris Petersen and Boise State were the kings of exceeding expectations, and the Utes are up there nowadays.

Whittingham is one of the best coaches in the country due to the lack of four and five-star recruits they capture. They continue to stockpile linemen on both sides of the ball that make it to the NFL.

The 2021 season should be fun due to an abundance of talent at the skill players. The Utah offense has been what has held back the team from pursuing national championships.

It should be significantly better due to two major transfers.

  • Charlie Brewer – Quarterback
  • TJ Pledger – Oklahoma

Charlie Brewer is the starting signal-caller but is a transfer from Baylor. He has a ton of experience and has played well against elite competition.

The starting running back will likely be TJ Pledger, formerly an Oklahoma Sooner. The talent he has brought in via the transfer has allowed their program to grow. We know they land JUCO transfers, but they should be a threat in the Pac-12 South.

Whittingham is also known for having a consistently elite special teams unit. The way they dominate field position is impressive, and it has helped them win those games that they have not had as much talent.

Whittingham is not slowing down and will likely continue to garner double-digit win seasons now that we are back to a full slate of games in 2021.

9. Kirby Smart – Georgia

Kirby Smart is entering his sixth season in Athens, and he has seen plenty of success. The expectations have continued to grow, and the hope is the Bulldogs will finally capture their first national championship since 1980.

Going into the 2020 shortened season, the Bulldogs were coming off many positive vibes. They were coming off the most program wins in a three-year span in its history. They also have started in the AP Preseason Top 10 in three consecutive seasons, and a fourth is incoming.

Fourth happens to be exactly where they rank in my preseason college football top 10 rankings, too.

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The program has played in four consecutive BCS/New Year’s Six matchups, as well. That has never occurred before, and they will have a great shot to make it a fifth major bowl in a row.

The defense has carried Smart, and there have not been any better defensive programs aside from Clemson and Alabama. Smart was the defensive guru for Nick Saban and Alabama, and the pair ended up winning four national championships together. Kirby now wants one for Georgia.

The ability to recruit at a national level has been there, but in-game coaching against elite competition has been inconsistent. Many have called him out for letting go of Justin Fields. Instead, he played Jake Fromm for four seasons.

That may have cost them a national title, but they came close with Fromm at the helm.

JT Daniels is an NFL prospect to the degree of Fields if you ask some people. Daniels finished the season on a high note, and there is no reason why Georgia cannot get over the hump this season.

Their front seven is arguably the best in college football. They have an exceptional offensive line more times than not with a loaded backfield. It has come down to the passing game. They were abysmal without Daniels against Florida.

The hope is Daniels checks all the boxes in 2021, and Smart continues the great SEC tradition of winning national titles. 

8. Pat Fitzgerald – Northwestern

Pat Fitzgerald is entering his 16th season in Evanston, and his Wildcats have been one of the better stories in the Big Ten. The talent level does not match up with Ohio State, Michigan, or Penn State. Yet, the Wildcats have been in the thick of things more years than not.

The amount of discipline, smarts, and strategy has been impressive. The defense has been among the most underrated units in the country. They have been flying to the ball like their hair is on fire. That was something Pat Fitzgerald did so well when he played. 

The program is coming off their first AP Top 10 ranking to finish a season since 1995 when Fitzgerald won the first two ever Chuck Bednarik Awards.

Northwestern has really been on a tear the past five years, especially.

Year Record Playoff Result
2020 7-2 Won Citrus Bowl
2019 3-9 N/A
2018 9-5 Won Holiday Bowl
2017 10-3 Won Music City Bowl
2016 706 Won Pinstripe Bowl

Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher were two stud linebackers that have since departed from that Top 10 squad. Greg Newsome, a first-round defensive back, is also gone on defense. Northwestern is the least experienced team in the Big Ten for returning starters (8 total).

Fitzgerald will have his work cut out for him, but he has made his hay as a coach in seasons as such. Brandon Joseph had a sensational freshman season at safety, and he will be a ball-hawk safety on many preseason All-American lists.

Fitzgerald has his team focused in most of their games, and we saw that in their Outback Bowl victory over Auburn. I will look for more of the same with a favorable schedule.

This is a one-of-a-kind coach, and the Wildcats are fortunate to have him. The top coaches in the country usually have elite talent, and Fitzgerald has made the most of his opportunities. He is one of the most productive coaches in the nation, and Northwestern has been blessed to have him on the sidelines.

7. Jimbo Fisher – Texas A&M

Winning a national championship at Florida State with redshirt freshman Jameis Winston in 2013 was one of the better teams we have seen since the BCS era began (1998). The NFL talent the defense had that season was remarkable, but the offense was dropping 50-burgers nearly every week.

Jimbo has had success with several different signal-callers in his time in the SEC. Nothing changed last season as there were solid results with Kellen Mond under center. Mond was not the most talented passer, but Fisher has built so much talent around his quarterbacks that success is a given when he is calling the shots.

Elite programs are built from the inside out. That means the line of scrimmage is not a concern. We saw that for a while at Florida State, and now the same can be said for the Aggies.

Kenyon Green is among the best offensive tackles in the nation. Pass-rushing specialist DeMarvin Leal is a premier NFL prospect, and the Aggies feature one of the better defensive lines in America.

Fisher has stockpiled the talent, and it has led to three straight bowl victories. Coming off a No. 4 ranking last season, they were the top team in America to miss out on the College Football Playoff. They have the fifth-best record in the SEC since Jimbo arrived (17-8).

Here are the teams that are ahead of them in that regard.

  • Alabama
  • Georgia
  • Florida
  • LSU

That’s elite company.

The Gators and Tigers are only a game up on the Aggies in the win or loss column, and I expect that to change this upcoming season.

Expectations are rising in College Station, and the program has answered the bell as of late.

The next goal towards reaching the College Football Playoff would be dethroning Alabama. Under Fisher, Alabama has knocked them off by 69 points in three meetings. Alabama was anywhere from a 17 to a 26-point favorite in those games, which should change this season.

The Aggies will still be double-digit underdogs more than likely, but remaining competitive would be a start if they want to impress the committee. Jimbo has all the tools and will start in the Preseason AP Top 10, so another exceptional season is in store.

6. Matt Campbell – Iowa State

There is so much love for the Cyclones these days. That is due in large part to last season.

They have been relevant for a few seasons now. They have played in the Alamo, Russell Athletic, and Fiesta Bowl these past three seasons. They have been competitive in their regular-season matchups and have all the momentum to make another deep run towards a Big 12 title.

They abused Oregon in Glendale, Arizona. There is a chance they could be playing somewhere sunny in January yet again. Brock Purdy and Breece Hall have been leaders for Campbell. It truly is remarkable how well the team has rallied around their coach.

An excellent play-caller, Campbell wears his emotions on his sleeve. He will run through a wall for his players.

A huge in-state rivalry with Iowa will be fun to watch this season against Kirk Ferentz. A perfect and rapidly improving coach going up against a future Hall of Famer will be a showdown in Ames. Campbell was a trendy name a few seasons ago after he had success with Toledo. The stock is continuing to rise, and we should see another sensational year.

If the Oklahoma Sooners were not so darn good at football, Iowa State would be a trendy pick to play for a national title. Still, even if the team fails to win a conference championship, they should be good enough to win double-digit games.

I might be one of the few that has the Cyclone coach in his top six, but Campbell is worthy. Campbell has been an excellent coach with offensive upside that will thrive in the Big 12 for as long as he would like to.

5. Brian Kelly – Notre Dame

Brian Kelly enters his 12th season in South Bend and has had a few sensational seasons in the process. We have four straight double-digit win seasons with two appearances in the College Football Playoff. Throw in 102 wins overall in 11 seasons, and Kelly is far from the hot seat.

Before reaching the College Football Playoff, Kelly had great success at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati.

Known for his exceptional defenses, he has quietly developed some star-studded quarterbacks over the years. We have seen Dan LeFevour, Tony Pike, Zach Collaros, and Ian Book.

The ability to have experienced and confident signal-callers has paid off for Kelly.

Surrounding himself with exceptional coaches is a positive for Kelly as well. Clark Lea was his premier defensive coordinator, and he has now moved on to become the head coach at Vanderbilt. Protecting their home turf has been a bonus for the Golden Domers.

They are currently on their longest home winning streak since 1942-50. The winning streak is at 24, with their last loss coming against Georgia. That home game against Georgia came down to the wire. The Bulldogs were nearly unstoppable as they ended up playing in the national title that season.

This season has tough challenges with Cincinnati, USC, and North Carolina all on the slate. Those are potentially three Top 10-20 squads by the time they both meet up.

Kelly has become one of the best Irish coaches ever.

He is four wins away from breaking Knute Rockne’s record of 105 wins, which has stood since 1930. Kelly could set the record against Wisconsin or Cincinnati. Kelly seems destined to set the Irish coaching record against a Top 10 Bearcats squad since that was where he once coached.

He will be looking to improve a few negative stats as well, though. The Irish are 0-7 in BCS/New Year’s Six matchups. Notre Dame has not won a bowl against an AP Top 10 foe since the 1994 Cotton Bowl over Texas A&M.

The Irish are 0-9 since that Cotton Bowl victory. Many of those losses have been to absolute juggernaut programs (Ohio State twice, Alabama twice, Clemson, Florida State, LSU, Oregon State, and Colorado). If the Irish were to get closer to a national title, that streak certainly would have to end sooner than later.

4. Ryan Day – Ohio State

The Buckeyes have had a long history of success from their coaches. We have seen Woody Hayes, Jim Tressel, and Urban Meyer. Now Ryan Day has gotten the job done, and the Buckeyes remain one of the elite programs in college football history.

The Buckeyes are still the only program to have never lost eight games in a season. Ryan Day looks like he will keep that streak intact with a record of 23-2 thus far.

Day has had great quarterbacks at his disposal. Dwayne Haskins played for a few games during the Day era as a head coach. Then we saw Justin Fields dominate. Next up will potentially be CJ Stroud.

Stroud is one of the preseason Heisman favorites, and Day has the best pair of wide receivers in the country. Alabama had Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs for a season before Jaylen Waddle, and DeVonta Smith dominated. The Buckeyes tandem will have a chance to be that productive, and it will help whoever is under center.

Day has been a stud on the recruiting trail as well. Posting consecutive top five rankings on the majority of recruiting sites has not hurt either. Life can be enjoyable when you have a haul of talent that the Buckeyes possess, but managing all that talent with the expectations is not a task all coaches can handle with grace. We have seen coaches fall apart after everything was right there for the taking.

Day has a ton of upside and could be in Columbus for a long time with several more chances at winning more national championships.

The program has knocked off Michigan eight consecutive times with wins in 15 of the last 16 matchups. The Buckeyes appeared in the most BCS/NY6 bowls going back to 1998 when the BCS era began with 18, and they also have the most wins with 12.

They have dominated the competition in the Big Ten, and it has come to the point where they will need to get over their SEC struggles. They are 2-11 against the SEC in bowl games. Many of those include premier bowls, such as the national championship or a runner-up caliber of a bowl (see NY6/BCS).

There is not much else to accomplish in the conference, so Day has expanded his goals to a national landscape.

3. Lincoln Riley – Oklahoma

The Sooners are another storied program that has lofty expectations. The top-notch programs seem to avoid tough seasons and find a way to be playing in premier bowls in gorgeous cities during the holiday season. Even after a tough loss or two, Oklahoma has taken advantage of the Big 12.

Despite some flaws, most of the credit belongs to Lincoln Riley.

The Big 12 has not been a dominant conference, and yet Riley has shown continued signs of improving both sides of the ball. Riley had great success with East Carolina before becoming the Oklahoma offensive coordinator.

While he has a ton of talent, he has made the most of it. The ability to spread teams out and complete passes with ease has been impressive. The only thing they will need to improve is getting to the College Football Playoff with more consistency.

Getting there more will allow them to compete for more national titles, and that is the name of the game.

Being a great quarterback whisperer has been an advantage for Riley. That is why he is among the best coaches in the FBS. We have several great signal-callers in the history of Oklahoma, but some of the best have all been under the watchful eye of Lincoln Riley.

Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray both won the Heisman Trophy, and Jalen Hurts was not too shabby either two seasons ago.

There is another player ready to win some hardware in Norman. Insert Spencer Rattler, who is one of the top contenders to win the 2021 Heisman Trophy.

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Rattler could do something that those prior three could not. Winning a national title for the first time since 2000-01 would be sensational.

Riley has lost two games or fewer in every season he has been the head man in charge. Oklahoma has a hell of a defense returning, which gives them a legitimate chance to be the last team standing. 

2. Dabo Swinney – Clemson

This future Hall of Famer has been an absolute godsend for the Clemson Tigers. How many more titles will he win at Clemson?

The amount of winning we have seen from the Tigers in his 14 seasons has been remarkable. Swinney has led his program to six conference championships and six College Football Playoff appearances.

Just look at what he’s done in the last five years specifically.

  • 2020: 10-2, Lost Sugar Bowl
  • 2019: 14-1, Won Fiesta Bowl
  • 2018: 15-0, Won National Title
  • 2017: 12-2, Lost Sugar Bowl
  • 2016: 14-1, Won National Title

Only 16 coaches have coached in 22 or more games as the AP top-ranked team in America.

Dabo Swinney has a record of 18-3 in 21 games as the top-ranked squad. Clemson has a bright future ahead of them, and Swinney certainly looks like he will be the man in the ACC and beyond to lead the Tigers to continued success.

We saw Clemson as winners in 36 straight games before their double-overtime loss at Notre Dame. Clemson has won double-digit games the last ten seasons, and half of those years have seen a dozen-plus victories.

From Tajh Boyd to Deshaun Watson to Trevor Lawrence. Now D.J. Uiagalelei will be under center, and he’s already near the top of the ACC quarterback rankings.

Considering Sam Howell is in the conference, that’s saying something.

Dabo will likely start a new streak with the mobile, strong-armed pocket passer out of California. The Tigers are loaded at wide receiver and will be a top-five defense yet again under Brent Venables.

Outside of a talent edge in the ACC, Venables is one of the best advantages for Swinney. Clemson is one of the safest picks for the College Football Playoff, and records will continue to fall to the waist side with Dabo coaching on a beautiful fall afternoon at Death Valley.

1. Nick Saban – Alabama

We have not seen another dynasty dominate a college football era as Nick Saban has at Alabama. Having been favored in 79 straight games and 151 of their last 152 games, the Crimson Tide have flexed their muscles.

There’s a reason why the Crimson Tide lead the nation when looking at the highest win totals in college football in 2021.

Saban has won 105 consecutive games against unranked foes, with their 2007 meeting with Louisiana-Monroe being the last matchup they lost.

Just look at some of this mind-boggling data.

  • 87 games coached atop AP Poll
  • 79-8 record in said games
  • 23-0 versus former assistants

It will be the 13th straight season that Alabama starts in the preseason Top 5. That has equaled great success on a recruiting and national brand basis. Saban has had 13 consecutive top 10 finishes in the AP Poll, so they have been as consistent of a program as we have ever seen.

They shattered Florida State’s record of 11 straight top 5 preseason rankings a few years back, and that number will continue to soar as long as the program stays in the hands of St. Nick.

Saban has been known for his attention to detail. All of his defenses have ranked among America’s best. It has been rare to witness consistent struggles on that side of the ball, and Saban has stepped up his offensive game for a while now. The amount of speed at wide receiver has been absurd. The world-beaters that have spun the magic bean have been highly entertaining as well.

The seven national titles for Saban (six at Alabama) have been remarkable. It puts him among the greatest coaches in the history of college football.

Florida State once finished the AP Top 4 in 14 straight seasons (1987-2000). The Tide had five seasons in a row before they finished No. 8 after an 11-2 campaign in 2019. The Noles only won two titles in their timespan, compared to the five that Alabama won.

There has been no stopping this powerhouse program with Saban at the helm. How many more titles will Saban own? They are a top two or three favorite every season as of late, and it is almost a given they reach the SEC championship game.

Winning the West puts you a step away from the College Football Playoff. Alabama will likely have that opportunity yet again, and Saban will continue his greatness in Tuscaloosa for as long as he would like.

Other Great College Football Coaches in 2021

  • Dan Mullen (Florida)
  • Kirk Ferentz (Iowa)
  • Paul Chryst (Wisconsin)
  • James Franklin (Penn State)

There are dozens of coaches that I left off the list. Many could have claimed to be on the list from the Big Ten and the SEC. The Pac-12 has a few coaches that could make the same claim, but the Big Ten has been known for their successful coaches, and here they are just missing out on my rankings.

I would not be shocked if they get back in the discussion or crack these rankings in the future. Penn State, Iowa, Florida, and Wisconsin are all right there as programs. They all have winning formulas that should allow for success this season. The only teams I am not overly high on are Penn State and Florida.

Chryst is a coach that has solid upside in the Big Ten West. Wisconsin has the schedule and the perfect game plan to become the next team to surprise us by reaching the College Football Playoff.

It’s crazy to think these coaches can’t crack my top 10 college football coaches for 2021, but that’s a testament to how good this list is.

Saban is the easy call at #1. Dabo Swinney is undeniably right behind him. The order with the rest gets subjective in a hurry, but all these guys belong here.

There are still plenty of good coaches out there, and perhaps they’ll use 2021 as a catalyst to rise up my NCAA head coach rankings next year. Then again, some could simply be some of the top college football coaches on the hot seat.

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