Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Who can pass Kirby Smart? Ryan Day, Kalen DeBoer among contenders to supplant college football’s coaching king

When Nick Saban retired in January, the title of best coach in college football was briefly vacant for the first time in more than a decade. Saban’s shadow has hung over the sport for years, but it was time for new blood to emerge. 

Fittingly, the apple comes straight from the tree. Saban’s protégé and former defensive coordinator, Kirby Smart, now holds the top spot for himself. The Georgia coach leads the only program to repeat as champions in the College Football Playoff era, and he was the first former Saban assistant to topple the king. With Saban out of the picture, Smart now reigns supreme. 

Georgia recently affirmed Smart as college football’s top coach by giving him the biggest contract in the sport — a 10-year, $130 million monster that exceeds No. 2 (Clemson‘s Dabo Swinney) by $1.5 million a year. For the rest of college football, that length has to be the scariest factor on the board. Smart is only 48 years old and could conceivably coach for the better part of the next three decades. For comparison, Saban won his first title at 52. 

“I continue to be grateful and humbled by our administration’s commitment to our football program,” Smart said in a statement. “The current culture in collegiate athletics is ever-changing and as challenging as it has ever been, so I truly appreciate the leadership that our team is continually provided. I have an immense pride for representing my alma mater and look forward to that relationship continuing for many years to come.” 

Granted, expecting a Saban-like run at Georgia is filled with assumption. Before Saban, only the great Paul “Bear” Bryant went on a similar tear. No other coach since 1970 has eclipsed even three titles; Urban Meyer is the only other to reach the mark in the unified national title game era (since 1998). 

Adding more intrigue, the 12-team playoff is a complete unknown. It’s unclear whether the expanded field will make reaching the top easier or more difficult for the elite. The only guarantee? A 12-team CFP will provide more challengers along the way hoping to knock Smart from his perch. 

There’s certainly a chance that Smart holds onto the top spot in the sport for the next decade. Saban held the mantle nearly unopposed for nearly 15 years after trouncing Meyer’s Florida Gators in the 2009 SEC Championship Game. However, here are a few of the names who are best poised to challenge Smart for the top spot in the coming years. The first group of names are national championship contenders at big-time programs who could throw their hat in the ring soon. In the second group, we take out our crystal ball and look to the future for some surprise names. 

Immediate contenders

Ryan Day, Ohio State: Day’s tenure at Ohio State has been defined by falling short in key spots against a rival. Losing “The Game” against Michigan each of the last three years and failing to win the Big Ten since 2020 has tarnished his reputation, but perhaps not beyond repair.

Day’s story actually compares favorably to Smart, who repeatedly fell short to Alabama before finally breaking through in the 2022 CFP National Championship for the Bulldogs’ first title since 1980. And, like Smart, Day and his staff have recruited at an absurd level. The numerical gap between Ohio State and Texas A&M — the No. 3 and No. 4 teams, respectively, in the 2023 247Sports Team Talent Composite — nearly matched the gap between the Aggies and Notre Dame, which finished with the 11th-ranked class in that cycle. For the Class of 2025, Ohio State holds commitments from three of the top six overall players. Day also has a ridiculous track record developing quarterbacks, with three straight players (Dwayne Haskins, Justin Fields, C.J. Stroud) developing into first-round picks. 

Day’s 2024 team has all the makings of a squad ready to break through. At least five players with high NFL Draft potential opted to return in the pursuit of a national title. Michigan, meanwhile, is reloading after coach Jim Harbaugh left for the Los Angeles Chargers. When Day, 45, finally breaks through, college football could have its signature coaching rivalry with Smart. 

Steve Sarkisian, Texas: When Texas is rolling, it may be the best job in college football. Sarkisian proved to be the right coach to finally wrangle all the resources and build a winner in Austin as the Longhorns enter the SEC. Texas won its first Big 12 championship since 2009 under Sarkisian’s watch and enters its new league with one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the sport. 

As it so happens, Sark gets an opportunity to challenge the king right away. The Longhorns host Georgia on Oct. 19 in a battle of title contenders, both in the SEC and national landscape. A dominant showing would launch Texas to the top of college football and give Sarkisian a legitimate chance to contend for the No. 1 coaching spot heading into the CFP. 

Circling back though, Texas is an elite job … when it’s rolling. Infighting and external pressure always remains a threat for the Longhorns with a highly engaged booster corps. Athletic director Chris Del Conte has kept everyone happy, but keeping the peace will also be critical to Sark’s challenging of Smart. Luckily, Sarkisian learned from the best politician in the business (Saban) during his time in Tuscaloosa.

Kalen DeBoer, Alabama: DeBoer is new to Alabama, but he sure isn’t new to winning. He led Washington to a 25-3 record in two seasons with a pair of top-10 finishes and an appearance in the 2024 CFP National Championship. His trajectory matched Smart’s at Georgia, but DeBoer took over a worse situation at UW and found success even faster. 

Now, DeBoer’s coaching chops will be put to the test at perhaps the top program in college football history. Unlike most of the other coaches on this list, DeBoer has no history recruiting elite level talent. His only experience at a power school before getting the Washington job was as offensive coordinator at Indiana. How he handles the transition from Saban will be telling. 

But talk to personnel around college football and they’ll tell you winning is winning. DeBoer has a 104-12 career record with three NAIA national championships. Outside of the pandemic season, his worst record as a coach was 10-3 at Fresno State in 2021. Also notable: DeBoer is 49 years old. If DeBoer finds success, the coaches at Alabama and Georgia could be wrestling for the next decade. 

Dan Lanning, Oregon: Lanning is the hottest name in college football after two years at Oregon, reaching a 22-5 record at just 38 years old. He worked under both Saban and Smart during stints at Alabama and Georgia, respectively, giving him a unique perspective and the tools to be great. Perhaps most impressive, Lanning has recruited at an elite level, securing the No. 3 high school class in 2024. 

That said, Lanning is 0-4 against DeBoer and Smart combined, which has kept him from winning conference titles or earning CFP trips. Lanning’s squad quietly needs a signature win — or at least a better one than 4-8 Colorado. Circle Oct. 12 against Ohio State. Regardless, the trajectory is pointed straight up for the young coach. 

Mike Norvell, Florida StateNorvell is the last no-brainer addition to the list after leading Florida State to an undefeated 13-0 ACC championship season. Of course, losing 63-3 to Smart’s Bulldogs in the Orange Bowl after a wave of opt-outs won’t make the job of reaching the top spot much easier, but repairing the smoldering crater in Tallahassee to a national contender through a unique blend of transfer portal and development earns him a spot. 

The biggest questions facing Norvell actually might center on the future of Florida State and the ACC. The administration has been open and actively trying to supplement their resource base, but the future of FSU is certainly murkier than others on the list. Win a national title, though, and these questions quickly go away. 

Dark horse candidates

Jedd Fisch, Washington: Time to go off board. Fisch quietly built a monster at Arizona behind some major recruiting wins and shrewd evaluations. Now, he takes his show to Seattle and into the Big Ten. Fisch has a long track record in the NFL, but he matches it with the player development and family atmosphere you see in the best college programs. His unique approach has led to solid results, including the first 10-win season in Tucson in a decade. 

While Fisch is a solid fit at Washington after a lengthy career on the West Coast, keep an eye on his alma mater: Florida. Landing with the Gators down the road would give him a real chance to grow into the Smart tier of coaches. 

Chris Klieman, Kansas StateIs it possible for a coach to reach No. 1 in the nation without winning an FBS national championship? Maybe not, but the work Klieman is doing in Manhattan, Kansas, should be top of mind. Klieman has won 27 games over the past three seasons with consecutive top-20 finishes and the program’s first Big 12 title in a decade. The success has allowed the Wildcats to be even more selective in recruiting, landing players like quarterback Avery Johnson and transfer Dylan Edwards

Kansas State could become among the biggest winners of the expanded CFP in the coming years. The Big 12 champ is virtually guaranteed a spot and bye, and the Wildcats will have a chance nearly every year. If the ‘Cats are the new heavyweight of the Big 12, Klieman should at least get into the conversation near the top. 

At 56, Klieman also has a few years on comparable program builders like Utah‘s Kyle Whittingham (64) and Kansas’ Lance Leipold (59). Iowa State‘s Matt Campbell (44) is a total wild card, though. 

Jon Sumrall, TulaneFrankly, Sumrall should already be a power-conference coach. The Huntsville, Alabama, native went 23-4 in two years at Troy with consecutive conference titles. For comparison, the Trojans went 10-13 over the prior two seasons to his arrival. Sumrall is a hard-nosed, defensive coach who is an expert at problem solving. Tulane can quickly reach the CFP under Sumrall’s watch, which should also get him notice from elite programs around the sport. 

Glenn Schumann, Georgia defensive coordinator: Want to go really off the board? By all accounts, Schumann could be the next Smart. Schumann, 34, worked as a student assistant at Alabama starting in 2008 and quickly earned the trust of Saban and Smart. When Smart finally got his first head coaching job, he snagged Schumann to coach linebackers at just 26 years old.

Now, Schumann is a rising star in the industry and potential game changer if he finds the right program. Granted, history is littered with failed top assistants who could not recapture the magic of their mentors, but Schumann is worth the gamble. Lanning’s success, for example, only makes Schumann more attractive. 

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