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Ranking the Big Ten's College Football Coaches for 2016

Urban Meyer

Urban Meyer

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.

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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 Big Ten:

Ranking the Big Ten's Football Coaches for 2016

1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State

With 50 wins, a national championship and three top-five finishes in the Associated Press poll in the last four years, Meyer continues to set the bar high for success in the Big Ten. Ohio State is 50-4 overall under Meyer’s watch and has lost only one regular season league contest over the last four years. Success at a high level is something Meyer has experienced at each stop in his coaching career. In two years at Bowling Green, Meyer guided the Falcons to a 17-6 record and went 22-2 in two seasons at Utah. At Florida, Meyer won 65 games in six years and claimed two national titles (2006 and 2008). Despite heavy personnel losses in 2016, Meyer won’t allow Ohio State to slip too far in the win column, which should allow the Buckeyes to compete for another playoff bid this fall.

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Related: Athlon Sports College Football Top 25 for 2016

2. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

As expected, it didn’t take long for Harbaugh to return Michigan back among the nation's best. The Wolverines finished 10-3 in Harbaugh’s first season – a five-game improvement from the previous year. Additionally, the 10 wins last season nearly matched the program’s combined victory total from 2013-14 (12). And the expectation level is high going into 2016, as the Wolverines are picked among the favorites to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Prior to Michigan, Harbaugh won 44 games in four seasons with the 49ers, transformed Stanford into a top-five team over four years and also went 29-6 at San Diego. Winning at a high level (and right away) is nothing knew for Harbaugh.

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3. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

Dantonio has elevated Michigan State to new heights and the Spartans have emerged as an annual contender for the Big Ten title. Under Dantonio’s watch, Michigan State is 87-33 since 2007 and claimed the conference title for the second time in three seasons in 2015. Additionally, last year’s 12-win campaign resulted in a trip to the College Football Playoff. Dantonio has guided the program to at least 11 victories in five out of the last six seasons and has only one losing record (2009) in his tenure in East Lansing. The Spartans lose a handful of key players from last year’s playoff team, but Dantonio should keep Michigan State among the top 10-15 teams in the nation.

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Related: Ranking the Big Ten Quarterbacks for 2016

4. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa

Ferentz’s tenure at Iowa seemed to be at a crossroads entering 2015. After an 11-2 finish in 2009, the Hawkeyes failed to win more than eight games in a season over the next five years, which included a 4-8 mark in 2012. And after a 7-6 record in 2014, Ferentz’s seat was starting to warm. However, Ferentz and Iowa responded with a school-record 12 wins, fell just short of winning the Big Ten title and made the program’s first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1990. Since taking over in 1999, Ferentz has recorded a 127-87 record and has only one losing season since 2001.

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5. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern

A quick peek at Northwestern’s year-by-year history provides plenty of insight into why Fitzgerald deserves a spot among the Big Ten’s top coaches. The Wildcats have made 12 bowl trips in program history, with six coming under Fitzgerald’s watch. Additionally, two of the program’s four double-digit win seasons occurred in Fitzgerald’s tenure. Overall, the former Northwestern linebacker has guided his alma mater to a 70-56 record and two top 25 finishes in the Associated Press poll. Winning at Northwestern isn’t easy, but Fitzgerald has transformed this program into a consistent bowl team.

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6. James Franklin, Penn State

After a 24-15 three-year stint at Vanderbilt, high expectations surrounded Franklin’s arrival at Penn State. However, improvement has been tough to come by for the Nittany Lions over the last two seasons. Penn State has posted back-to-back 7-6 records under Franklin, but the program was still digging out from recent NCAA sanctions. Entering 2016, Penn State’s overall depth has improved with back-to-back top 20 signing classes, and Franklin is attempting to fix the offensive woes by hiring Joe Moorhead as the program’s new play-caller. Franklin didn’t have the instant success most predicted at Penn State, but there’s still plenty of time for the third-year coach to get the Nittany Lions closer to Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in the Big Ten East pecking order.

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7. Mike Riley, Nebraska

A 6-7 record in his first season at Nebraska certainly isn’t what Riley had in mind. However, a deeper look at the Cornhuskers’ 2015 season shows this team wasn’t far from eight or nine wins. Six of Nebraska’s seven losses came by eight points or less, with the close defeats largely fueled by a minus-12 turnover margin. With small improvement in the turnover department, the Cornhuskers should be able to rebound back into the right side of the winning column in 2016. Prior to Nebraska, Riley went 93-80 at Oregon State – one of the Pac-12’s toughest jobs – and also spent time in the NFL as a head coach with the Chargers. And here’s another positive sign for Nebraska: The Cornhuskers are off to a great start on the recruiting trail for the 2017 signing class. Riley didn’t inherit a team stocked with depth and was hit by some bad luck last year. 2016 should provide some better insight into the direction of this program under Riley’s watch. 

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Related: College Football's Top 15 Wild Card Teams to Watch in 2016

8. Kevin Wilson, Indiana

Things are looking up for Indiana after the Hoosiers reached the postseason for the first time in Kevin Wilson’s tenure. After a 1-11 debut in 2011, Indiana has made progress under Wilson’s watch, finishing with at least four wins in each of the last four seasons. That may seem like a small feat, but this job is the toughest in the Big Ten East and has only two bowl appearances since 1994. Indiana has been more competitive under Wilson, and he was rewarded with a contract extension at the end of the 2015 season. Additionally, the program is investing more into facilities and stepped up in assistant salaries to hire Tom Allen as the program’s new defensive coordinator. The Big Ten East isn’t forgiving, but Indiana will be a tough out for the rest of the division with Wilson continuing to push this program to improve over the next few years. 

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9. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin

Chryst had a solid debut in his return to Madison, as the Badgers finished 10-3 and capped the 2015 season with a victory over USC in the Holiday Bowl. Chryst is entrenched in the program, as he’s a Madison native, played his college ball with the Badgers and spent time as an assistant at Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez in 2005 and with Bret Bielema from 2006-11. However, Chryst will be tested in 2016, as Wisconsin takes on a brutal schedule, including a non-conference game versus LSU and crossover matchups in Big Ten play against Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State. Prior to taking over for Gary Andersen at Wisconsin, Chryst went 19-19 in three years at Pittsburgh. So far, so good for Chryst at his alma mater.

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10. D.J. Durkin, Maryland

Durkin was considered one of the rising stars in the assistant ranks over the last few seasons and lands at a program (Maryland) with some upside. The Ohio native comes to College Park after one season at Michigan, where he coordinated a Wolverine defense that ranked third in the Big Ten in fewest points allowed. Prior to Michigan, Durkin worked for five seasons at Florida and also spent time at Stanford (2007-09) and Bowling Green (2005-06). Durkin has a lot of work ahead in 2016 after Maryland finished 3-9 last year. However, Durkin hired a good staff and should be able to utilize his experience as an assistant under two of the nation’s best coaches – Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh – to help Maryland improve over the next few seasons.

Related: Grading College Football's New Coach Hires for 2016

11. Lovie Smith, Illinois

Even though the timing (March) was unusual, new athletic director Josh Whitman wasted no time putting his stamp on the program. On his first official day on the job, Whitman fired Bill Cubit and made a standout hire by bringing Smith to Champaign. While Smith hasn’t coached in college since 1995, he brings plenty of name value to Illinois, which should add credibility on the recruiting trail. In 11 seasons as a head coach in the NFL, Smith went 89-87 and guided the Bears to a Super Bowl appearance in 2006. It may take a year for Smith to adjust to the collegiate ranks, and he’s already getting a late start due to the March hire. However, he hired a good staff to ease the transition and there’s plenty of potential for this program to improve in the Big Ten West.

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12. Chris Ash, Rutgers

The Big Ten East Division is one of college football’s toughest divisions, and Rutgers is facing an uphill battle to compete with Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State on an annual basis. But after making more headlines for off-field news than actual on-field results in 2015, this program took a step in the right direction by cleaning house in the athletic department. New athletic director Patrick Hobbs picked Ash as Kyle Flood’s replacement, and the Iowa native seems to be the right fit for the Scarlet Knights. Ash is well versed in the division after spending the last two years at Ohio State as a co-defensive coordinator and he also has a prior stop in the Big Ten from three seasons at Wisconsin (2010-12). Ash also has stops on his resume from stints at Arkansas (2013), Iowa State and San Diego State. This is his first opportunity to be a head coach at the FBS level, but Ash has worked for one of the nation’s best coaches (Urban Meyer) and seems to have the right blueprint and long-term vision to help this program.

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Related: Big Ten's Top 10 Assistant Coach Hires for 2016

12. Tracy Claeys, Minnesota

Jerry Kill’s sudden retirement was a setback for a Minnesota program that enters 2016 with four consecutive bowl trips. But the Golden Gophers are hoping to continue Kill’s success with one of his long-time assistants – Tracy Claeys. The Kansas native worked under Kill for 20 years and also served as the program’s interim coach in 2013 and once again in 2015. Under Claeys’ watch, Minnesota finished 2-4 over its final six games last season, including a 21-14 victory over Central Michigan. However, the Golden Gophers were competitive against Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin. Claeys has big shoes to fill in replace his mentor, but Minnesota returns 14 starters and has a favorable schedule that should allow the program to reach at least six wins in 2016.

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14. Darrell Hazell, Purdue

Purdue is a tough job, but Hazell looked like the right coach to help this program take a step forward when he was hired in 2013. Prior to becoming the head coach for the Boilermakers, Hazell worked at Ohio State under Jim Tressel as an assistant from 2004-10 and went 16-10 at Kent State (2011-12), including an impressive 11-3 season in 2012. But success at Purdue has been tough to come by for Hazell. The Boilermakers are just 6-30 over the last three years and have only two Big Ten wins in that span. Hazell is on the hot seat entering 2016, but there’s some optimism with 16 returning starters and new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

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