Utah's Kyle Whittingham takes the top spot for 2020
The Pac-12 features a fair amount of uncertainty in its coaching ranks for 2020, but there's no debate at the top. Utah's Kyle Whittingham is the unquestioned No. 1 coach going into this fall, with Stanford's David Shaw and Oregon's Mario Cristobal rounding out the top three. Arizona State's Herm Edwards checks in at No. 4, followed by California's Justin Wilcox at No. 5. The Pac-12 features three new coaches for 2020 - Washington's Jimmy Lake, Washington State's Nick Rolovich and Colorado's Karl Dorrell - along with UCLA's Chip Kelly and USC's Clay Helton looking to get their respective programs back on track.
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 Pac-12 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 a different variety or 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 career biography 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 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 Pac-12:
Ranking the Pac-12's College Football Coaches for 2020
12. Karl Dorrell, Colorado
Colorado is the second stint for Dorrell as a head coach in the Pac-12. The California native previously led UCLA from 2003-07 and compiled a 35-27 mark over five years. The Bruins won at least six games in each of Dorrell’s five seasons, including a 10-2 mark in 2005. Dorrell has accumulated a wealth of coaching experience from stops at UCF (1989), Arizona State (1994), Washington (1999), Vanderbilt (2014), and in the NFL with the Broncos (2000-02), Dolphins (2008-11 and 2019), Texans (2012-13), and Jets (2015-18). Dorrell worked at Colorado from 1995-98 as the program’s offensive coordinator and also spent frim '92-93 tutoring receivers in Boulder.
11. Kevin Sumlin, Arizona
Sumlin is more accomplished than some of the names above him on this list, but the Wildcats are a disappointing 9-15 in his two years in Tucson. Arizona is also just 6-12 in Pac-12 play during that span and finished last in the Pac-12 South with a 2-7 mark in conference action last fall. Sumlin landed his first head-coaching gig at Houston in 2008. The Cougars posted three winning records over his four years at the helm, including a 12-1 mark in 2011. After going 35-17 at Houston, Sumlin took over at Texas A&M in 2012. The Aggies started Sumlin’s tenure on a high note with an 11-2 mark and No. 5 overall finish in the Associated Press poll. However, the program never won more than nine games in each of the next five seasons and finished .500 or worse in SEC play every year during that span. Sumlin’s overall record as a head coach is 95-58 going into 2020.
10. Jimmy Lake, Washington
Lake is a coach on the rise but one that also inherits big shoes to fill in 2020. The California native was promoted to head coach after Chris Petersen decided to retire after the 2019 season. Lake joined Petersen’s staff at Boise State as a defensive backs coach in 2012 and followed him to Seattle in the same capacity in ’14. After working four years with the Huskies’ defensive backs, Lake was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2018. Under Lake’s direction, Washington ranked near the top of the Pac-12 in scoring defense in back-to-back years and consistently developed some of the league’s top talent in the secondary. Lake also is regarded for his work on the recruiting trail and spent time at Montana State and in the NFL with the Buccaneers and Lions as an assistant coach. The 2020 season will be his first as a head coach at the collegiate level.
Related: Pac-12 2020 All-Conference Team
9. Jonathan Smith, Oregon State
Smith heads into his third season in Corvallis after a year of marked improvement and signs the program is clearly headed in the right direction. The former Oregon State quarterback inherited a rebuilding project and finished 2-10 in his debut in 2018. However, the Beavers were significantly better last fall. Smith guided the team to a 5-7 record, which included a 4-5 mark in Pac-12 play. Oregon State just missed on a bowl with three of its seven losses coming by three points or less. Both sides of the ball showed improvement last season and another step forward should lead to the program’s first bowl trip since 2013.
8. Nick Rolovich, Washington State
Washington State is one of the Pac-12’s toughest jobs, but Rolovich is the perfect fit to replace Mike Leach. The former Hawaii quarterback spent the last four years as the head coach for the Rainbow Warriors and guided the program to a 28-27 mark. In that span, Hawaii had three seasons of at least seven wins, went to three bowl games and won the Mountain West’s West Division in 2019. Additionally, the 10-win campaign in 2019 was the program’s highest single-year total since 2010. Prior to taking over as Hawaii’s head coach, Rolovich worked in Honolulu as an assistant from 2008-11 and later spent time at Nevada (2012-15). Rolovich won with limited resources at Hawaii and that should benefit him well at Washington State. Additionally, he has a strong track record on offense, and even though his Run-and-Shoot scheme differs from Leach’s Air Raid attack, the Cougars should put up plenty of points in 2020 and beyond.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2020
7. Clay Helton, USC
It’s no secret Helton enters 2020 under pressure to get USC back atop the Pac-12. The Trojans are 40-22 under Helton’s watch but just 13-12 over the last two years. Additionally, the program has not finished in the top 25 in back-to-back seasons. Helton guided the team to 21 victories from 2016-17, which also included the Pac-12 title in '17. Prior to arriving as an assistant at USC in 2010, Helton served in a similar capacity at Duke (1996), Houston (1997-99), and Memphis (2000-09).
6. Chip Kelly, UCLA
Kelly’s return to college coaching was greeted with enthusiasm and widely considered one of the top hires of the coaching carousel prior to the 2018 season. However, Kelly’s high-powered offense has struggled to find its footing, and the Bruins are just 7-17 the last two years. That’s a far cry from Kelly’s successful stint at Oregon (2009-12), which saw him guide the Ducks to a 46-7 mark with an appearance in the national championship game in 2010. After his run at Oregon, Kelly left to be the Eagles head coach in 2013. Philadelphia won the NFC East and finished 10-6 in his debut. But after repeating that record in 2014, the Eagles slid to 6-9 the following year. Kelly then was hired by the 49ers but was fired after the team went 2-14 in 2016.
5. Justin Wilcox, California
California has made steady progress under Wilcox’s watch and heads into 2020 as a potential top-25 team. The Golden Bears finished 5-7 in Wilcox’s debut in 2017 but improved to 7-6 in ’18 and went 8-5 last fall. Wilcox came to Berkeley after stints as a defensive coordinator at Boise State, Tennessee, Washington, USC, and Wisconsin. Considering his background and track record on defense, it’s no surprise California has showed marked improvement on that side of the ball. In the year prior to Wilcox’s arrival (2016), the Golden Bears surrendered 42.6 points a game. However, that number declined to 28.4 in ’17, 20.4 in ’18, and ended up at 21.9 last fall. Addressing an offense that has not finished higher than 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring in each of the last three years remains Wilcox’s top priority for 2020.
4. Herm Edwards, Arizona State
There were plenty of skeptics – Athlon Sports included – when Edwards was hired at Arizona State in 2018. However, the move has paid off, as the Sun Devils are trending up going into the 2020 season. Edwards guided the program to a 7-6 record in 2018 and finished 8-5 last fall. The Sun Devils are 9-9 in Pac-12 play under Edwards but picked up a huge upset over Oregon last November and also won at California in late September. Edwards also recruited a top-25 class to Tempe for the 2020 cycle, which only adds to the momentum established over the last two years. Prior to taking over at Arizona State, Edwards went 54-74 as a head coach in the NFL with the Jets and Chiefs.
3. Mario Cristobal, Oregon
Cristobal has brought stability and established a strong culture since taking over at Oregon. The Miami native arrived in Eugene as an assistant coach before the 2017 season and was promoted to head coach after Willie Taggart left for Florida State prior to the bowl game. Cristobal guided the Ducks to a 9-4 record in his debut (2018), but the program took a big step forward last fall with a 12-2 mark and a Pac-12 title. Oregon also defeated Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and finished fifth in the polls. Cristobal is an excellent recruiter and has reeled in back-to-back top-15 classes, which places the Ducks at No. 1 in the Pac-12 in roster talent going into 2020. Cristobal spent time as an assistant at Miami, Rutgers and Alabama and also worked as FIU’s head coach from 2007-12. At one of Conference USA’s most difficult jobs, Cristobal went 27-47 but guided the program to its first bowl trip in 2010 and returned to the postseason in ’11. Cristobal is 48-54 overall as a head coach at the FBS level.
Related: Pac-12 2020 All-Conference Team
2. David Shaw, Stanford
Stanford’s 4-8 mark in 2019 was the program’s first season of fewer than eight wins since taking over as head coach in 2011. Consistency and winning at a high level have been two hallmarks of Shaw’s tenure on the Farm. The Cardinal have won 10 or more games five times under Shaw’s direction and are 86-34 overall. Additionally, Stanford won the Pac-12 title in 2012, ’13 and ’15 and finished in the top 10 in each of those three years. Shaw played his college ball at Stanford and arrived in Palo Alto prior to the 2007 season as an assistant on Jim Harbaugh’s staff. Considering his track record, the 2019 season seems like a one-year blip than a sign of things to come.
1. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Entering his 16th season on the sidelines in Salt Lake City, Whittingham is 131-64 overall and has just two losing seasons since taking over as the full-time head coach in 2005. The Utes are also coming off their best season since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. The program finished 11-3, claimed its second Pac-12 South title in a row and came within one victory of a potential berth in the CFB Playoff. Utah has posted a winning record in Pac-12 play in five out of the last six years and has four finishes in the top 25 in that span. Whittingham also guided the program to a perfect 13-0 mark and No. 2 finish in the final Associated Press poll in 2008. Even though Utah enters 2020 with a significant chunk of talent to replace, Whittingham’s track record suggests this program is still going to be a factor in the 2020 Pac-12 title race.