Success with any college football team starts with coaching. Even if a program doesn’t have the resources of the nation’s elite jobs, a good coach can elevate a program into national title contention. However, similar to any position on the field, statistics may not tell the full story when judging a coaching tenure.
This is not simply a list of coaches ranked by accomplishment or wins. While those aspects are important, it doesn’t provide a complete picture of how successful coaches are. Winning 10 games at Alabama is different than winning 10 games at Kentucky. Also, every program has a different amount of resources available. Hierarchy in college football also plays a vital role in how successful programs are. It's always easier for programs with more built-in advantages to contend for a national title on a more consistent basis.
A couple of other factors to consider when ranking coaches: How well are the assistants paid? A staff with two of the nation’s top coordinators could be a sign the head coach is better as a CEO and may not be as strong in terms of developing gameplans. How is the coach in the X’s and O’s? Can the coach recruit? Are the program’s facilities on par with the rest of the conference? Much like assistants, a program needs good facilities to win big. If a team is winning at a high level with poor facilities and a small budget, it reflects positively on the head coach. Is the coach successful at only one stop? Or has that coach built a solid resume from different jobs?
Related: Athlon Sports Top 25 Teams for 2016
Again, wins are important. But our rankings also take into account a blank slate. If you start a program from scratch, which coach would you hire knowing what they accomplished so far and their career trajectory? Remember, you don't get the assistants - only the head coach. And head-to-head wins do not matter for this ranking. Athlon's editorial staff has voted on a ranking of coaches for all 10 leagues. Here are the results for the ACC:
Ranking the ACC's College Football Coaches for 2016
1. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State
Fisher has returned Florida State to a spot among the nation’s elite. In six seasons under Fisher, the Seminoles are 68-14 and have won at least 10 games in five of those years. Additionally, Florida State won the 2013 national championship, made the College Football Playoff in 2014 and played in a New Year’s Six Bowl (Peach) last season. Fisher is not only a strong recruiter and a sharp offensive mind, he’s got an eye for identifying talent and moving players from one side of the ball to another or to a different position to find the best fit for their skill set. After winning 10 games in a rebuilding year, Fisher has Florida State poised to contend for a playoff spot and a national title in 2016.
2. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
Swinney continues to raise expectations at Clemson. The Tigers fell just short in their quest to win the national title last season and are loaded for another run in 2016. Under Swinney’s watch, Clemson has shed its underachieving label. The Tigers have won at least 10 games in each of the last five seasons and claimed the 2011 and 2015 ACC Championships. Swinney has surrounded himself with a good staff of assistants, including one of the nation’s top defensive minds in Brent Venables. Clemson’s recruiting is also trending up. The Tigers average a 13.2 finish nationally over the last five seasons, which is second in the ACC to Florida State (4.6).
3. Bobby Petrino, Louisville
If this list was just based on the X’s and O’s ability of a coach, Petrino would be ranked No. 2 in the ACC over Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. In his second stint with the Cardinals, Petrino – regarded as one of the nation’s top offensive-minded coaches – is 17-9 over the last two seasons and has Louisville projected to finish among the nation’s top 25 teams for 2016. Petrino also has stops on his resume from Arkansas (2008-11) and WKU (2013), with a four-year run at Louisville from 2003-06. Entering 2016, Petrino has the program on stable ground and poised to be a consistent top 25 team over the next few seasons.
4. David Cutcliffe, Duke
Thanks to Cutcliffe’s nine-year run with the Blue Devils, Duke is no longer an easy pick to finish in the cellar of the ACC Coastal. Prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival in 2008, the Blue Devils recorded 13 consecutive losing seasons. Cutcliffe guided the program to 15 wins in his first four years, before leading Duke to a 6-7 mark and a bowl trip in 2012. Since 2012, the Blue Devils are 27-13 and have played in three consecutive bowls, with an ACC Coastal title in 2013.
5. Mark Richt, Miami
Despite winning 145 games in 15 seasons at Georgia, Richt was dismissed at the 2015 regular season. While Richt won plenty of games at Georgia, a change of scenery (for both parties) and a return to his alma mater isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Richt seems to be energized by transition to Miami, and his return to Coral Gables should help this program take a step forward. The Hurricanes are still looking for their first trip to the ACC title game, and Richt should be the right coach to get this team back in contention for division titles and top 25 finishes. Another bonus for Miami in the coaching transition: Richt plans on calling the plays in 2016.
6. Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech
Fuente has big shoes to fill in replacing Virginia Tech coaching legend Frank Beamer. However, as Fuente’s four-year run at Memphis showed, he’s certainly capable of keeping Virginia Tech near the top of the ACC. Fuente inherited a Memphis program that was in disarray and won three games in the two years prior to his arrival. The Tigers showed steady improvement under his watch, winning four games in 2012 and transitioned to the American Athletic Conference in 2013. Memphis went 3-9 in the tougher AAC but finished 19-6 from 2014-15. The Tigers’ 10-win season in 2014 set a new program high for wins and also resulted in Memphis’ first top 25 finish in the Associated Press poll. Fuente is also regarded for his work with quarterbacks and played a key role in Andy Dalton’s development at TCU during his stint as the offensive coordinator from 2009-11.
7. Larry Fedora, North Carolina
Fedora delivered a breakout year in his fourth season in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels finished 11-3, won the Coastal Division and finished No. 15 nationally in the Associated Press poll. The 11-win season was a huge boost for Fedora after 6-7 mark in 2014. Fedora has a solid 32-20 record over the last four years and has never finished below .500 in ACC play. Prior to North Carolina, Fedora had a successful stint at Southern Miss, recording a 34-19 mark in four seasons. The Tar Heels face a tougher schedule and have a few key personnel question marks to address, but Fedora’s team opens 2016 as the favorite in the ACC Coastal.
8. Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech
A case could be made for Johnson to rank higher among his ACC counterparts here, but the Yellow Jackets are coming off their worst season (3-9) since a 1-10 mark in 1994. Despite the disappointing 2015 campaign, Georgia Tech is 61-44 under Johnson’s direction and is just one year removed from winning 11 games and the Orange Bowl in 2014. Additionally, the Yellow Jackets have just one losing season (2015) in ACC play under Johnson. A quick turnaround in 2016 wouldn’t be a surprise with Johnson’s track record, as he went 62-10 in five seasons at Georgia Southern (1997-01) and 45-29 at Navy (2002-07) before landing at Georgia Tech in 2008.
9. Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh
Narduzzi ranks ninth among his ACC counterparts for 2016, but the second-year coach should move up this list in future seasons. In his first year in the Steel City, Narduzzi led Pittsburgh to an 8-5 overall record and a second-place finish in the ACC’s Coastal Division. Three of the five losses last season were by a touchdown or less, with the other two defeats coming at the hands of Notre Dame and Navy (in its home stadium in the Military Bowl). Narduzzi has Pittsburgh trending in the right direction and should have this team positioned for another run at eight or nine wins in 2016.
10. Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia
Mendenhall might be one of the nation’s most intriguing coaches to watch in 2016. Virginia’s decision to hire Mendenhall to replace Mike London was arguably the biggest surprise of the offseason coaching carousel. Mendenhall has spent most of his career out west, including stops as an assistant at Oregon State, Northern Arizona, New Mexico and BYU. Mendenhall was promoted to head coach at BYU in 2005 and led the Cougars to 99 wins over the last 11 years. Mendenhall has a strong track record of success and is regarded for his work with defenses. However, the schedule will be tough on annual basis and adapting to a new recruiting area and conference opponents will require a transition period.
11. Dino Babers, Syracuse
Babers is one of the top coaching hires in the 2015-16 coaching carousel and comes to Syracuse after a successful two-year stint at Bowling Green. The Orange needed to get this hire right, as the program can’t afford to fall too far behind in the top-heavy ACC Atlantic. Under Babers’ watch, the Falcons won back-to-back MAC East titles and finished 18-9 from 2014-15. Prior to Bowling Green, Babers went 19-7 in two seasons at Eastern Illinois (2012-13) and also made stops as an assistant at Baylor, UCLA, Pittsburgh, Texas A&M and Arizona. Babers’ four-year stint at Baylor as an assistant under Art Briles proved to be one of the most influential stops in his career and helped the California native emerge as one of the nation’s top offensive minds. Babers led Bowling Green’s offense to an average of 42.2 points a game last season and also developed Jimmy Garoppolo into a NFL draft pick while at Eastern Illinois. Hiring Babers should help get Syracuse moving back in the right direction.
12. Steve Addazio, Boston College
After starting his tenure at Boston College with back-to-back 7-6 records, the Eagles regressed with a 3-9 mark in 2015. However, it’s unfair to penalize Addazio too much for last year’s record, as the Eagles were hit hard by injuries on offense and averaged only 9.1 points in ACC contests. Can Addazio quickly get Boston College back on track? The defense ranked among the nation’s best last year and still returns enough of a core (six starters) to prevent a huge drop in production. Additionally, the addition of transfer quarterback Patrick Towles should provide some stability to the offense. Prior to Boston College, Addazio went 13-11 in two years at Temple and also worked as an assistant at Florida, Indiana and Notre Dame.
13. Dave Doeren, NC State
Doeren replaced Tom O’Brien at NC State after a successful two-year stint at Northern Illinois and has made steady progress over the last three seasons in Raleigh. The Wolfpack went 3-9 in Doeren’s debut but rebounded with an 8-5 mark in 2014 and finished 7-6 last year. Additionally, NC State has recorded back-to-back bowl trips and has inked three consecutive top 50 recruiting classes. While there are signs of progress, Doeren is just 6-18 in conference play and has yet to defeat a Power 5 opponent that finished a season with a winning record. The 2016 schedule is challenging, and the Wolfpack have to break in a new quarterback with Jacoby Brissett out of eligibility. This fall should provide good insight into just how far this program has developed under Doeren’s watch.
14. Dave Clawson, Wake Forest
Clawson wasn’t going to be able to immediately turn around Wake Forest in his first two seasons, but there have been signs of improvement. The Demon Deacons are 6-18 under Clawson’s direction and have recorded back-to-back 1-7 records in ACC play. But the program’s depth and talent level is improving, as evidenced by four losses coming by eight points or less in 2015. Clawson is a proven winner from three prior stops – Bowling Green, Richmond and Fordham – and has a blueprint for getting Wake Forest back in contention for winning seasons. With a favorable schedule ahead in 2016, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Demon Deacons hit the six-win mark.