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Ranking the Big Ten's College Football Coaches for 2018

Urban Meyer, Ohio State Buckeyes Football

Urban Meyer, Ohio State Buckeyes Football

The Big Ten might have the best collection of head coaches among Power 5 leagues for the 2018 season. Ohio State's Urban Meyer takes the top spot in Athlon's Big Ten coach rankings, but Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio and Penn State's James Franklin aren't far behind. And the depth in the league extends to Wisconsin's Paul Chryst and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald in the next tier, followed by Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, Purdue's Jeff Brohm and Nebraska's Scott Frost.  

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin

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.

How did we compile the rankings for the Big Ten coaches? For starters, it's an impossible task. However, we tried to weigh every possible factor into this ranking. 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.

Every team has different built-in resources available, and hierarchy in college football also plays a vital role in how successful programs are. Those factors, along with career biography/resume, success in developing talent and landing prospects on the recruiting trail factored into the ranking. Additionally, how well programs value staff (is the head coach better as a CEO or hands-on approach) and the facilities or program resources matter into forming an outlook of how coaches have performed at different stops throughout their career.

Again, wins and the overall body of work to this point 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 have 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 Big Ten:

Ranking the Big Ten's College Football Coaches for 2018

14. Lovie Smith, Illinois

Smith is just 5-19 as Illinois' head coach over the last two seasons, but a youth movement in 2017 provides some optimism for this fall and beyond. Under Smith's direction, the Fighting Illini are just 2-16 in Big Ten play and averaged a meager 13.1 points a game in league action last fall. In terms of buzz, this was a big-time hire for Illinois. After all, Smith went 81-63 as the Chicago Bears' head coach from 2004-12, including a trip to the Super Bowl in 2006. He also went 8-24 in a two-year run with the Buccaneers from 2014-15.

College Football Rankings: Illinois

13. Tom Allen, Indiana

As an Indiana native, Allen is the perfect fit to lead the program and certainly knows what it takes to win in Bloomington. After bouncing from stops at Drake, Arkansas State, Ole Miss and USF, Allen was hired as the defensive coordinator at Indiana prior to the 2016 season. The Hoosiers showed marked improvement under Allen's watch, cutting their scoring defense from 37.6 points per game in 2016 to 27.2 in '17. Allen was promoted to head coach after Kevin Wilson resigned following the 2016 season. Indiana navigated a brutal schedule and some key injuries to a 5-7 finish, just missing out on the program's third consecutive bowl game.

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12. Chris Ash, Rutgers

Rutgers is one of the Big Ten's toughest jobs, but Ash seems to be on schedule in his third year as the head coach. After a 2-10 overall record and winless mark in Big Ten play in his debut, Ash guided the Scarlet Knights to a 4-8 record last fall. Additionally, Rutgers won three Big Ten games (tied for the most in program history since joining the league) and lost two other games by 10 points or less. The Scarlet Knights were more competitive last season and could push for six victories in Ash's third year at the helm. Prior to taking over at Rutgers, Ash worked as an assistant under Urban Meyer at Ohio State (2014-15) and also had stints at Arkansas, Wisconsin, Iowa State and San Diego State.

College football rankings: Rutgers

11. DJ Durkin, Maryland

After guiding Maryland to a 6-7 record in his first year (2016), Durkin's second team was hit by bad luck and finished 4-8 overall. Injuries at the quarterback position and to standout edge rusher Jesse Aniebonam hindered the Terrapins' ability to take a step forward in Durkin's second year. However, with better luck in the health department, Durkin's third team should return to the postseason in 2018. The Ohio native has experience working under some of college football's top coaches, as he spent time at Bowling Green and Florida under Urban Meyer and at Michigan and Stanford working for Jim Harbaugh. Durkin has quietly raised the profile of Maryland on the recruiting trail. The Terrapins reeled in the No. 18 class in 2017 and inked the No. 28 haul in '18.

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10. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota

Minnesota just missed out on a bowl in Fleck's first season in 2017, finishing 5-7 with three losses by seven points or less. There's no shortage of optimism in Minneapolis with Fleck guiding the program, as Minnesota inked the No. 36 signing class for 2018 -- the program's highest mark over the last five years. Additionally, Fleck seems to be following a similar track to what he accomplished at Western Michigan. After a 1-11 debut in 2013, the Broncos showed steady improvement with back-to-back 8-5 seasons and bowl trips, followed by a breakout 13-1 mark and an appearance in the Cotton Bowl in '16. Fleck has Minnesota trending in the right direction, with six victories and a bowl trip within reach this fall.

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Related: College Football Top 25 Teams for 2018

9. Jeff Brohm, Purdue

It's clear the Big Ten is a deep league for head coaches when Brohm ranks No. 9 in the conference. After working as an assistant at Louisville, FAU, Illinois, UAB and WKU from 2003-13, Brohm landed his first head coaching job with the Hilltoppers in 2013. Under Brohm's direction, WKU emerged as one of college football's top teams on offense and claimed 30 victories from 2014-16. The Hilltoppers won back-to-back Conference USA titles in 2015-16 and finished the season ranked 24th in the polls in '15. Purdue showed marked improvement in Brohm's first year, improving its win total by four games from 2016, finishing 7-6 with a victory over Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl. Brohm will continue to elevate Purdue in the Big Ten West in 2018.

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8. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa

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Ferentz is the nation's longest-tenured head coach going into the 2018 season. During his time in Iowa City, Ferentz has recorded 143 victories, guided the program to 15 bowl trips and finished six times in the final Associated Press top 25 poll. Also, Iowa went to the Rose Bowl in 2015 and has won at least eight games in four out of the last five years. Since 2007, the Hawkeyes have just one losing season (2012). It's a sign of the Big Ten's coaching depth when Ferentz ranks No. 8 in the league. 

College Football Rankings: Iowa Football
Nebraska football coach Scott Frost

7. Scott Frost, Nebraska

It's probably safe to assume Frost will be moving up in these rankings over the next couple of seasons. The former Nebraska quarterback has returned to Lincoln to restore the program to national prominence. Frost has established an outstanding resume in a short amount of time. After a short NFL career, Frost worked as a graduate assistant at Nebraska and Kansas State, followed by a two-year stint at Northern Iowa as a defensive assistant. He joined Oregon's staff in 2009 and was promoted to offensive coordinator in '13. Frost called the plays for the Ducks' high-powered offense until he was hired as UCF's head coach prior to the 2016 campaign. The Knights made dramatic progress in Frost's first year, improving from 0-12 in 2015 to 6-7 in '16. UCF took another big step forward in 2017, finishing 13-0 and No. 6 nationally in the final Associated Press poll. This is one of the top hires for the 2017-18 coaching carousel, as Frost should win in a big way at his alma mater.

Nebraska's college football logo

6. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin

There's no coach better suited to lead Wisconsin than Chryst. After all, he is a native of Madison, played his college ball with the Badgers and worked as an assistant under Barry Alvarez in 2002 and '05, followed by a stint under Bret Bielema from 2006-11. Chryst landed his first FBS head coaching opportunity at Pitt in 2012 and went 19-19 over three seasons with the Panthers. The Madison native left Pitt for Wisconsin in 2015 and has thrived since taking over the program. The Badgers are 34-7 over the last three seasons, including a 13-win campaign in 2017. Additionally, Wisconsin is 22-4 in Big Ten play during that span and has two New Year's Six bowl victories.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Wisconsin

Related: Ranking College Football's Top 50 RBs for 2018

5. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern

Northwestern's program continues to reach new heights under Fitzgerald's watch. The former Northwestern linebacker was promoted to head coach prior to the 2006 season following the tragic death of Randy Walker. After a 10-14 record through his first two years on the job, Fitzgerald has guided the Wildcats to eight bowl games over the last 10 seasons and has just two years of fewer than six wins in that span. Additionally, Fitzgerald has led the program to three seasons of at least 10 victories. Prior to Fitzgerald's tenure, Northwestern had only two years of at least 10 victories and had made just six bowl trips. Last season's 7-2 mark in Big Ten play was the best conference record in Fitzgerald's tenure in Evanston.

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4. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

Sorting out the coaches ranked 2-4 in the Big Ten might be the toughest part of this assignment. Michigan has improved significantly since Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor but is still looking to take the next step and win a conference title. The Wolverines went 10-3 in Harbaugh's debut in 2015 -- up from 5-7 in Brady Hoke's last year. Michigan went 10-3 again in 2016 and came just a couple of plays away from beating Ohio State in Columbus to win the Big Ten East. In a rebuilding year, the Wolverines slipped to 8-5 last fall. With only six returning starters and three quarterbacks receiving snaps due to injury, it's no surprise Michigan slipped to 5-4 in league play in 2017. However, Harbaugh's track record is strong. He went 29-6 in three years at San Diego (2004-06), finished 29-21 at Stanford, including a 12-1 mark in 2010. Additionally, he finished 44-19-1 in four years with the San Francisco 49ers and guided the team to an appearance in Super Bowl XLVII. With one of the nation's best defenses returning, along with the arrival of quarterback Shea Patterson, Harbaugh's team should be in the mix to win the Big Ten title in 2018.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Michigan

Related: Big Ten 2018 All-Conference Team

3. James Franklin, Penn State

After a 14-12 start to his tenure in Happy Valley, Franklin has elevated Penn State back among the nation's top programs. The Nittany Lions are 22-5 over the last two seasons and have earned back-to-back trips to New Year's Six bowl games. Additionally, Penn State claimed the 2016 Big Ten title and have lost only three contests in league play over the last two years. Franklin's credentials with the Nittany Lions are impressive, but don't forget about his stint at Vanderbilt. The Commodores -- arguably the toughest job in the SEC -- went 24-15 under Franklin's watch and finished in the final polls in back-to-back years (2012-13). In addition to his on-field success, Franklin is one of college football's top recruiters.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Penn State

2. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

Michigan State was one of college football's most improved teams last season, recording a seven-win jump from 2016 to '17. With last year's 10-3 record and second-place finish in the East Division in mind, Dantonio jumps back to the No. 2 spot among Big Ten coaches. He's 100-45 since taking over in East Lansing in 2007 and has just two losing records in that span. Additionally, Michigan State has claimed three Big Ten titles since 2010 and earned a trip to the CFB Playoff in '15. Prior to his stint at Michigan State, Dantonio went 18-17 in three years at Cincinnati (2004-06) and worked as an assistant at Kansas (1991-94), Michigan State (1995-2000) and Ohio State (2001-03).

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Michigan State

Related: Big Ten Football Predictions for 2018

1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State

Meyer has been a model of consistency and success at a high level since becoming a head coach in 2001. Over the last 16 years, Meyer has assembled an overall record of 177-31 and has claimed three national championships. One of those titles came at Ohio State, as the Buckeyes won the inaugural College Football Playoff in the 2014-15 season behind third-string quarterback Cardale Jones en route to a 14-1 overall record. Since taking over in Columbus, Meyer is 73-8 overall and has lost just three Big Ten contests. He's claimed two conference titles in that span and has finished just once outside of the top six in the final Associated Press poll. Meyer went 65-15 at Florida from 2005-10, winning the 2006 and '08 national titles. Additionally, Meyer compiled a 17-6 mark at Bowling Green (2001-02) and went 22-2 during an impressive two-year run at Utah (2003-04).

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Ohio State