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College Football Coach Rankings 2020: Big Ten

Jim Harbaugh
My "Coach Rankings 2020" aims to compile a definitive list of the best coaches in the sport in each Power Five league. To do this, I tried to weigh the current trajectory of the coach's program, past success at current school and former schools, as well as recruiting impact. Obviously this list is highly subjective, and there should be plenty of spirited debate about which order these coaches fall. I continue the series with the Big Ten, a conference with a lot of proven names, but not a clear-cut No. 1 coach.

1. Ryan Day, Ohio State
Record at Ohio State: 16-1
Record Overall: 16-1
Notable Accomplishments: One Conference Title, One CFB Playoff Appearance, Big Ten Coach of the Year (2019)

It says a lot about Ryan Day that he has already risen to No. 1 on this list after just one full season leading Ohio State. But, that's the type of respect you get when you win 16 of your first 17 games with Ohio State, with the only loss coming in the CFB Playoff semifinal to Clemson. Not only has Day impressed with his impressive command of the Buckeye offense, but his energy on the recruiting trail has been notable as well. Ohio State is always going to be a major player on the trail, but Day has elevated their ability to land big-name prospects. They currently rank No. 1 in the 2021 recruiting class rankings, a group that currently includes the No. 3 DE, No. 2 RB, and No. 1 OG. With the way his career trajectory is going, Day looks like he'll be locked in place in Columbus for a long time, with a lot of wins still yet to come.

2. James Franklin, Penn State
Record at Penn State: 56-23
Record Overall: 80-38
Notable Accomplishments: One Conference Title, 4 Straight New Year's Six Bowl Appearances

It's easy to forget how rocky James Franklin tenure began in Happy Valley, as two consecutive 7-6 campaigns were viewed as highly disappointing among the Penn State faithful. Since then, all Franklin has does is lead the Nittany Lions to four straight New Year's Six Bowls, while winning a Big Ten Title in 2016. The recent run is one of the best in Penn State's history, a school with a rich football tradition that has worked to clean themselves up following the Jerry Sandusky scandal. What makes it even more impressive is that Franklin has done it in a Big Ten East Division that may be one of the best in college football. Ohio State continues to be as dominant as ever, Michigan is back to respectability, Michigan State is always tough and even the lower-tier teams can provide a shock. The next step for Franklin is to take the next step and lead PSU to a Playoff berth; they came incredibly close in 2016, and will be in the mix again in 2020.

3. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Record at Michigan: 47-18
Record Overall: 105-45
Notable Accomplishments: 2 Conference Titles, NFL Coach of the Year (2011)

Jim Harbaugh has rubbed people the wrong way with his style of in-your-face coaching throughout his career, but it's difficult to deny how impressive his rise up the coaching ladder has been. He went from San Diego to Stanford and then the NFL before returning to his alma mater in Ann Arbor. And, for the most part, he has done a very fine job with the Michigan Wolverines. They've finished ranked four out of the five years he's been there, and came agonizingly to Big Ten Championship Game appearances in both 2016 and 2018. However, one giant obstacle continues to stand in his way: Ohio State. He has yet to beat the Buckeyes since taking over at Michigan, and it's clear that it remains his No. 1 goal at this point in his career. Whether he's able to do it relies on Harbaugh's ability to evolve; he's always favored an old-school approach to the game, but one that tends to fall apart when it faces off against the athletes OSU can put on the field. His commitment to opening up the offense under new OC Josh Gattis indicates that Harbaugh understands he must change his ways to really get over the top at UM. Whether he's able to do so will define his tenure at not only Michigan, but also possibly his coaching career as a whole.

4. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Record at Iowa: 162-104
Record Overall: 174-125
Notable Accomplishments: 2 Conference Titles, One Big Ten West Division Title, 4-Time Big Ten Coach of the Year (2002, 2004, 2009, 2015)

In a coaching profession where parity is the norm, Kirk Ferentz represents amazing consistency and resolve. He has been at his post in Iowa City for over two decades now, and is still churning out a consistent winner. Since 2007, Ferentz has recorded just one losing season a (4-8 2012) and he's won six bowl games. Included in that span was the surprising 2015 campaign, where Iowa came out of seemingly nowhere to go 12-2, earn a Rose Bowl berth, and come very close to a Big Ten Title. There's nothing flashy or exciting about the way that the 64-year-old coaches, but it's hard to argue that it isn't effective. Winning as much as Ferentz has in an unforgiving Big Ten is extremely impressive, and it doesn't look like he is slowing down at any point soon.

5. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota
Record at Minnesota: 23-15
Record Overall: 53-37
Notable Accomplishments: One Conference Title, Big Ten Coach of the Year (2019)

P.J. Fleck is another guy that has a tendency to rub some people the wrong way with his slogans and catchphrases, but it's worked so far at Minnesota. After an underwhelming debut campaign, Fleck has improved the Gophers from 7-6 to an 11-2 mark in 2019, the best the program has achieved in legitimately decades. To cap it all off by beating Auburn in the Outback Bowl said a lot about what the program can be now and in the future. Fleck and the way he has built the program also seems to indicate staying power; he has expanded Minnesota's recruiting footprint nationally. A look at some of the top players on this team heading into 2020 shows talent coming from all around the United States in Tanner Morgan (Kentucky), Rashod Bateman (Georgia), Daniel Faalele (Florida), Jordan Howden (Nevada) and Mohamed Ibrahim (Maryland). That's huge for a program that has struggled to get big-time talent to come north to the Twin Cities, the talent they need to field consistent contenders in the Big Ten.

6. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
Record at Wisconsin: 52-16
Record Overall: 71-35
Notable Accomplishments: 3 Big Ten West Division Titles, 2-Time Big Ten Coach of the Year (2016, 2017)

Paul Chryst, a Madison native and UW alum, has coached at all different locales in the game of football. He's been in the WLAF, CFL, NFL, Division III and Division I, displaying an ability to lead a wide variety of teams to success. But, he appears to have a permanent home back at Wisconsin, where he has recorded double-digit victories four out of the five years that he has been the head coach. Chryst has kept the Wisconsin tradition of a power-run offense and physical defense alive, one that still racks up wins in the Big Ten. It will be interesting to see whether he can lead UW to the next step, not just making the Big Ten Championship Game, but winning one. In order to do that, the Badgers must continue to upgrade their talent at the offensive skill positions, and bringing in talents like Graham Mertz and Jalen Berger is a great place to start.

7. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
Record at Northwestern: 99-79
Record Overall: 99-79
Notable Accomplishments: One Big Ten West Division Title, Big Ten Coach of the Year (2018), College Football Hall-of-Famer

Although Pat Fitzgerald is fresh off a brutal 3-9 2019, he has proven his worth during a 15-year run as head coach of his alma mater. He took over a Northwestern program that was in the dumps, and turned them into a fairly consistent contender. The Wildcats have appeared in nine bowl games under his leadership, with three straight victories from '16-'18. The highlight came during the 2018 season, when Northwestern recovered from a disappointing non-conference slate to go 8-1 in the conference and make a Big Ten Championship Game appearance. As Fitzgerald looks ahead to 2020, like other old-school, defensive-minded coaches like himself, he's hoping to try and modernize his offense. New offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian was brought in to improve the conference's worst offense, a group that was absolutely putrid throughout last fall. If the Wildcats are able to show significant improvement, it will tell us a lot about Fitzgerald, and his ability to evolve as a head coach. Despite being locked into his role as head coach, Fitzgerald's willingness to change is ever-important in modern college football.

8. Jeff Brohm, Purdue
Record at Purdue: 17-21
Record Overall: 47-31
Notable Accomplishments: 2 Conference Titles, 5 Bowl Game Appearances

A former NFL and XFL quarterback, Jeff Brohm has impressed in his rise from college coordinator to college head coach. Brohm got his first head coaching job at Western Kentucky, following Bobby Petrino, putting together three impressive seasons. Prior to his arrival, Purdue had won a total of nine games in four seasons, but Brohm has engineered a quick turnaround. He went to a bowl game his first two seasons in West Lafayette, before a down 2019 campaign. However, I don't think last fall should hurt his stock too much, as the Boilermakers suffered through the injury bug and lost a number of close games. What really has impressed me about Brohm is the fact he's been able to upgrade the talent level so quickly while at Purdue. Guys like Rondale Moore, David Bell and George Karlaftis are simply not guys that would have come to this school under previous coaching staffs, but Brohm has really changed the feeling and persona around the program. Purdue's ability to keep him away from other job offers, such as his alma mater Louisville, is a major success.

9. Tom Allen, Indiana
Record at Indiana: 18-20
Record Overall: 18-20
Notable Accomplishments: 2 Bowl Appearances, Most Single-Season Wins at Indiana since 1993

When Tom Allen took over at Indiana, it looked like a pretty significant challenge for the Indiana native. His predecessor, Kevin Wilson, had gotten the Hoosiers to back-to-back bowl games before being fired, but they were still looking up at most of the Big Ten East, and there were concerns about the way that Wilson had run the program. Allen did an okay job his first two years on campus, going 5-7 in both, but came just short of the postseason in both years. With the pressure on him elevated going into 2019, Allen and the Hoosiers responded with their best season since 1993. They won eight games, went over .500 in the conference, and played in a very respectable bowl game. While the season ended in a disappointing manner with Tennessee coming from behind to beat them in the bowl, it was still an unquestioned success. Now, Allen will be tasked with keeping the momentum going. Indiana could settle in nicely in the division as a consistent fourth place-squad who can take shots at the Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan tier pretty consistently. For a basketball school that has struggled to ever develop consistently good football on the field, that would be a pretty nice spot to be in under Allen.

10. Scott Frost, Nebraska
Record at Nebraska: 9-15
Record Overall: 28-22
Notable Accomplishments: "National Champion", One Conference Title, Home Depot Coach of the Year Award (2017)

Scott Frost's coaching resume has been pretty volatile over this past half-decade, with incredible highs but some real low points in his first two years at Nebraska. Frost earned a lot of credit for his work at UCF, where he quickly transformed a team that had previously gone 0-12 into one of the sport's most consistent Group of Five contenders. He did it in a very exciting way too; he opened up the UCF offense into a fast-paced, fearless group that decimated opponents with their speed on the perimeter. It seemed only natural that his arrival in Lincoln, where he once starred as a player, would bring the same type of success. Nebraska is one of the sport's well-regarded blue bloods, and Frost had loads of talent to work with. However, college football is a weird sport, and even the coaching fits that look the best on paper don't always work out the way most expect. Frost opened up with a 4-8 debut, but last year's 5-7 mark was significantly more disappointing, as the 'Huskers opened the year with a Top 25 ranking and were viewed as the media's Big Ten West pick. That puts a lot of pressure on Frost entering Year 3, but Nebraska still has a ton of holes on defense and a ton of question marks on their offense. The administration appears to still believe Frost is their guy, and he could quickly change the perception of himself with a successful year. But, he just hasn't done enough in his two seasons with the Cornhuskers to warrant a higher ranking here.

11. Greg Schiano, Rutgers
Record at Rutgers: 68-67 (0-0 in second stint)
Record Overall: 68-67
Notable Accomplishments: Home Depot Coach of the Year (2006), Former Big East Coach of the Year (2006)

There was no coaching carousel hire this past off-season as unsurprising as Greg Schiano returning to his roots at Rutgers. From 2001-2011 Schiano was the head coach of the Scarlet Knights and built them into a fairly consistent contender in the old Big East. They played in six bowl games under Schiano's leadership, and their 11-2 2006 will forever go down in program history as a special team. Schiano eventually took the jump to the NFL, but he has since returned to college as Ohio State's D-Coordinator and a short-lived stint as Tennessee's head man. It is going to be a fascinating watch to see how Schiano aims to build up Rutgers this time around. For one thing, the Big Ten East is a significant step-up from the old Big East, and Rutgers has struggled to even stay on the field with most of their league opponents. Secondly, more and more programs are going into the state of New Jersey and having success, making it extra important that Schiano is able to lock down the state as a recruiter. Schiano is a very energetic guy and passionate football coach, and he did great things in his first go-around. Whether this stint looks like Mack Brown's at UNC on the plus-side, or Randy Edsall's second stint at UConn on the down side, remains to be seen.

12. Lovie Smith, Illinois
Lovie Smith

Record at Illinois: 15-34
Record Overall: 15-34
Notable Accomplishments: Former NFL Coach of the Year

What makes ranking college football head coaches so difficult is curious cases like Lovie Smith. As the first African-American to coach an NFL team in the Super Bowl, Lovie is somewhat of a coaching legend. But, that hasn't necessarily translated to success during his tenure at Illinois, as Smith has found himself perennially on the hot seat. To be fair to Lovie, Illinois was in a pretty disastrous place before his arrival, and he has made pretty consistent progress. The Illini returned to a bowl game for the first time since 2014 this past fall, and they've undertaken an interesting method to bring talent to Champaign. Instead of bring in unproven high school recruits, the Illinois staff has instead leaned on the transfer portal to bring in talent. So far, they've already brought in former high-profile recruits such as Oluwole Betiku (USC), Luke Ford (Georgia) and Brandon Peters (Michigan). The jury is still certainly out on whether this method can work in big-time college football, but if it does, Smith deserves a lot of credit. Using unconventional methods can sometimes work really well in college football and for a program like Illinois, it seems worth the risk.

13. Mel Tucker, Michigan State
Record at Michigan State: 0-0
Record Overall: 5-7
Notable Accomplishments: 2 National Championships as Assistant

Mark Dantonio's decision to retire following the 2019 campaign wasn't very surprising, but the Spartans decision to bring in Mel Tucker as his replacement was. That isn't to say that Tucker is unqualified for the position, but Michigan State had to up their offer to 5.5 million per year, making him one of the better earners in the league. Tucker has a resume that includes stops in both the NFL and college, and he spent 2016-2018 as the defensive coordinator at Georgia. But, he has only spent one season in his entire career as head coach, which was this past year at Colorado. The Buffaloes didn't disappoint but they didn't really impress either, as their 5-7 record was about what most expected. Tucker's move to the Big Ten East will gain him significantly more compensation, but also significantly more pressure. We still haven't seen how Tucker runs his programs, and how well he is able to recruit. Michigan State is certainly a place that you can win at, but Tucker must do a little bit more to work his way up any coach rankings.

14. Mike Locksley, Maryland
Record at Maryland: 3-9
Record Overall: 6-40
Notable Accomplishments: Broyles Award (2018)

Maryland brought in Mike Locksley prior to 2019 for the work he had done with the Alabama offense previously, and because of his connections to the talent-rich "DMV" area (D.C., Maryland, Virginia). But, in doing so, they had to overlook his one previous coaching stop: a tenure at New Mexico, where he went 2-26. New Mexico is a tough place to win, so that shouldn't necessarily kill Locksley's career, but his one season return to College Park (interim for six games in 2015) wasn't exactly inspiring. The Terrapins started off hot before losing their final seven games. They were absolutely shelled in a couple of those games, including a 59-point drubbing by Ohio State and a 47-point loss to a Nebraska team that didn't go to a bowl game. To be fair to Locksley, he does appear to be making inroads on the recruiting trail, as he brought in a strong class during the 2020 cycle that includes five-star receiver Rakim Jarrett. He also brought in Taulia Tagovailoa over the off-season, the well-regarded younger brother of Tua. Now, Locksley has to show some tangible progress on the field. If the Terps don't even sniff a bowl game in Year Two, the pressure is already going to be on.

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