It's a close call for the top spot among ACC coaches.
The coaching depth and talent has improved significantly within the ACC over the last five seasons. The top of the league is headlined by Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Louisville’s Bobby Petrino, and a solid second tier is in place with Miami’s Mark Richt, Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente and Duke’s David Cutcliffe. But the real test of the league’s depth is at the back. Boston College’s Steve Addazio and NC State’s Dave Doeren take the last two spots in the rankings. That’s a pretty good illustration of how deep the ACC is in terms of coaching talent for 2017.
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?
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 conferences. Here are the results for the ACC:
Ranking the ACC's College Football Coaches for 2017
14. Steve Addazio, Boston College
The ACC’s coaching depth is on display when Addazio ranks No. 14 among league coaches. The Connecticut native is 24-27 through four seasons in Chestnut Hill, with only one non-winning record (2015). Addazio started his tenure with back-to-back 7-6 campaigns and the one-year dip to 3-9 was followed by another solid seven-win season. The Eagles are only 2-14 in league play over the last two years and just 10-22 under Addazio’s four seasons. Prior to Boston College, Addazio went 13-11 in two years at Temple and also worked as an assistant at Florida, Indiana, Notre Dame and Indiana.
13. Dave Doeren, NC State
The outlook on Doeren’s tenure at NC State changed significantly late in the 2016 season. The Wolfpack entered mid-November with a 4-4 record but finished the year by beating Syracuse and rival North Carolina to reach six wins. A victory over Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl gave Doeren back-to-back seven-win campaigns and three consecutive trips to postseason games. In four years with the Wolfpack, Doeren has a 25-26 record and a 2-1 mark in bowl appearances. Why the change in outlook? NC State has momentum for 2017 after last season's finish and returns a solid core to push for eight (or more wins) this fall. One area to watch this season is what transpires in league play. NC State is just 9-23 in ACC games under Doeren and has yet to defeat Clemson, Louisville or Florida State in that span.
12. Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia
After spending most of his coaching career out West, Mendenhall took on a new challenge in 2016 at Virginia. As expected, there was a bit of a learning curve in the ACC and a rebuilding project to tend to in Charlottesville. Mendenhall finished 2-10 and ended the year with a seven-game losing streak in his first season with the Cavaliers. Last season was the first time Mendenhall had a losing record and did not guide a team to a bowl game in his coaching career. Mendenhall accumulated an impressive 99-43 mark at BYU, but he will need another year or two to restock the roster and build the program in his image.
11. Dino Babers, Syracuse
Babers is just one year into his Syracuse tenure, but there are positive signs for this program following the 2016 campaign. The Orange finished 4-8 overall and 2-6 in league play, which was headlined by an upset victory against Virginia Tech in mid-November. Syracuse’s bowl hopes were dashed late in the year by an injury to starting quarterback Eric Dungey, while a young defense continued its learning curve by giving up at least 35 or more points in each of the last four games. Babers was regarded for his work on offense and with quarterbacks at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green, and Syracuse’s attack should take off in 2017 with another year to learn the scheme. In five seasons as a head coach, Babers has recorded a 41-24 record. He also has a wealth of experience as an assistant from stops at Baylor, UCLA, Pitt, Texas A&M, Arizona, San Diego State and Purdue.
10. Dave Clawson, Wake Forest
Clawson came to Wake Forest with the reputation as a coach who knew how to rebuild a program. And after three seasons, it’s safe to say Clawson has the Demon Deacons trending in the right direction and poised to become a consistent bowl team in the ACC. After back-to-back 3-9 finishes to start his tenure, Clawson guided Wake Forest to a 7-6 record last season. Additionally, the Demon Deacons capped 2016 with their first bowl appearance since 2011. Wake Forest is the fourth program Clawson has successfully brought improvement to as a head coach. He inherited a Fordham program that went 0-11 in his first year (1999) but improved to 9-3 by 2003. Clawson went 29-20 at Richmond from 2004-07 and also accumulated a 32-30 record in five years at Bowling Green (2009-13).
9. Pat Narduzzi, Pitt
After cycling through three full-time coaches (Paul Chryst, Todd Graham and Dave Wannstedt) from 2010-14, Pitt has found stability behind Narduzzi. The Panthers are 16-10 under Narduzzi’s direction and have recorded back-to-back winning marks in ACC play. Additionally, Pitt has finished outright or shared second place in the Coastal Division in both of Narduzzi’s seasons. While Narduzzi was one of the nation’s top assistant coaches (and defensive coordinators) at Michigan State, he’s still looking to find the right mix on that side of the ball in the Steel City. Pitt finished 10th in the ACC in scoring defense in 2015 and 13th in 2016.
8. Larry Fedora, North Carolina
Fedora and the Tar Heels need to reload after the best two-year stretch in program history since 1996-97. However, Fedora’s acumen on offense should prevent a major drop off on that side of the ball. While North Carolina is likely to slightly regress in the win column with several new faces in key positions on offense, Fedora is still piecing together a solid tenure in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels started Fedora’s tenure with an 8-4 record in 2013, followed by a 7-6 mark in 2013 and a 6-7 season in 2014. But the program won the Coastal Division and claimed 11 wins in 2015 and finished 8-5 last fall. Prior to taking over at North Carolina, Fedora went 34-19 at Southern Miss. He’s 74-44 in nine seasons as a head coach at the FBS level.
7. Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech
Any lingering disappointment from Georgia Tech’s 3-9 season in 2015 was quickly erased last fall. The Yellow Jackets rebounded to 9-4, finished 4-4 in league play and defeated Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl. The nine-win campaign bolstered Johnson’s overall mark to 70-48 at Georgia Tech. Additionally, the program has eight bowl appearances since 2008 and only one losing record in ACC action. Johnson previously went 45-29 at Navy from 2002-07 and 62-10 at Georgia Southern from 1997-01. Johnson has only two losing seasons in 20 years as a head coach.
6. Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech
Replacing a coaching legend like Frank Beamer left Fuente with big shoes to fill in Blacksburg. But after one year, it’s clear the Hokies hit a home run with Fuente. Virginia Tech finished 10-4 in Fuente’s debut and claimed the Coastal Division title with a 6-2 mark in league play. Additionally, the Hokies defeated Arkansas in the Belk Bowl and finished No. 16 in the final Associated Press poll – the program’s first top 25 finish since 2011. Fuente’s strong resume extends to his four-year run at Memphis. After inheriting a team that won three games from 2010-11, Fuente brought immediate improvement to the program. The Tigers finished 4-8 in 2012 and recorded a 3-9 mark after transitioning to the American Athletic Conference in 2013. Memphis went 19-6 over Fuente’s final two years and claimed a No. 25 finish in the final Associated Press poll in 2014. Fuente also had a successful stint as an assistant at TCU under Gary Patterson from 2007-11.
5. David Cutcliffe, Duke
Duke is one of the toughest Power 5 coaching jobs, but Cutcliffe has brought significant improvement to this program since taking over in 2008. The Blue Devils went 15-33 through Cutcliffe’s first four seasons (2008-11), before recording four consecutive bowl trips from 2012-15. In that span, Duke won at least six games every year, including a 10-4 campaign and a Coastal Division title in 2013. The No. 23 finish in the Associated Press poll in 2013 was the first for the program since 1961. The Blue Devils slipped to 4-8 last year, but there’s no reason for concern in Durham. Cutcliffe returns a promising sophomore quarterback in Daniel Jones, and the program is in much better shape than it was when Cutcliffe took the job. With a 44-29 record from a previous stint at Ole Miss, Cutcliffe has a career mark of 96-90.
4. Mark Richt, Miami
Richt’s debut season at his alma mater was a successful one, as the Hurricanes finished 9-4 and No. 20 in the Associated Press poll. A nine-win year is certainly a good start for Richt, but the next goal is something that has eluded Miami since joining the ACC: The Coastal Division title. Even though quarterback Brad Kaaya left early for the NFL, the Hurricanes should be picked near the top of the Coastal for 2017. Can Richt deliver a Coastal title in just his second year at the helm? Prior to taking over in Coral Gables, Richt had a 15-year stint at Georgia. The Bulldogs went 145-51 under Richt’s direction and claimed five SEC East titles. Expect Richt to help Miami’s program return to the top 25 and compete for the ACC title on a consistent basis.
3. Bobby Petrino, Louisville
Petrino’s second act at Louisville has been just as successful as his first stint from 2003-06. The Cardinals were in the mix for the CFB Playoff in early November and finished 9-4 overall. The 7-1 record in ACC play was the program’s best conference record since joining the league in 2014. And of course, quarterback Lamar Jackson claimed the Heisman Trophy after a dominant 2016 season. Since joining the ACC in 2014, Louisville is 26-13 and has not posted a losing mark in conference play. The Cardinals went 41-9 under Petrino’s direction from 2003-06 and claimed two finishes inside of the top 10. Petrino left Louisville for the NFL but lasted only one season (2007) with the Falcons. However, he wasn’t out of work for long, taking over the Arkansas job in 2008. After a 5-7 mark in his first year, Petrino guided the Razorbacks to 29 wins over the final three seasons, including a No. 5 finish in 2011. After his dismissal from Arkansas prior to the 2012 campaign, Petrino sat out that season and resurfaced at WKU in 2013. The Hilltoppers finished 8-4 in Petrino’s only year at the helm, with Charlie Strong’s departure to Texas opening the door for a return to Louisville in 2014.
2. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
It’s a close call between Swinney and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher for the top spot in the ACC. We give a slight nod to Fisher, but these two coaches are essentially 1A and 1B. Swinney has transformed Clemson’s program into an annual top-10 team over the last five years. The former Alabama receiver replaced Tommy Bowden as the program’s coach in 2008 and remained in the full-time role after a 4-3 stint over the final seven games. After a 15-12 mark from 2009-10, Swinney has guided Clemson to six consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins and is 28-2 over the last two years. After a runner-up finish to Alabama in the national championship in 2015, the Tigers claimed the program’s first national title since 1981 by defeating the Crimson Tide in January for the 2016 title. Replacing quarterback Deshaun Watson won’t be easy, but with Swinney at the controls and elite recruiting classes filling in the voids, Clemson isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
1. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State
As we mentioned in the writeup for Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, it’s a coin flip for the top spot in the ACC. Fisher gets the nod as Athlon’s top coach in the ACC, as the West Virginia native enters his eighth season in Tallahassee with a 78-17 record. The Seminoles have won at least 10 games in six of seven years under Fisher and claimed the 2013 national championship. Additionally, Florida State has won the Atlantic Division four times since 2010, made one playoff appearance (2014) and claimed back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl trips (2015-16).