From Steve Spurrier’s 1996 national championship at Florida through Les Miles’ 2007 breakthrough at LSU, 11 of the 13 national championship winning coaches lifted the sport’s holy grail for the first time in their careers. Only Tom Osborne (1997) and Bobby Bowden (1999) doubled up, and eight straight national title winners – depending on how much stock you put in USC’s 2003 AP title – were first-timers from 2000 through ’07.
But beginning with Florida’s 2008 national championship (Urban Meyer’s second in Gainesville) only two coaches – Auburn’s Gene Chizik and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher – have joined college football’s most exclusive club. Blame Urban and Nick Saban. However, there’s an entire roster of accomplished, capable coaches on the cusp of joining Saban, Meyer, Miles, Spurrier, Stoops and Fisher. The odds say one of them will.
The only question: which one?
1. Gary Patterson – Coach P has done just about everything a coach can do in his decade and a half at TCU: multiple national coach of the year awards, multiple major bowl victories, two Top 3 finishes, and half a dozen conference titles across three leagues while bringing his university’s profile along for the ride. But, the all-important but, he hasn’t won a national title and he hasn’t had a player claim a Heisman Trophy. And he’s never been closer, with a preseason No. 2 ranking (not that it actually means anything) and the returning Heisman front-runner in quarterback Trevone Boykin. In what appears to be a dead heat between TCU and Baylor, Patterson earns the edge over Art Briles by virtue of the Frogs’ tougher non-conference schedule and home date with the Bears on Black Friday.
2. Art Briles – It’s a great sign of Briles’ progress in Waco when his two best players are defensive linemen. The combination of Andrew Billings, Shawn Oakman, plus an offense led by Seth Russell and a host of playmakers will be enough to sleepwalk through September and October. Then it gets difficult: trips to Kansas State, Oklahoma State and TCU, donnybrooks all of them, sandwiched around a home date with Oklahoma. As we’ve seen the last two seasons, Baylor’s schedule does not leave them room for error, especially late in the season.
3. Mark Dantonio – Pat Narduzzi is gone, but the rest of the gang is still here – most importantly Connor Cook, the most talented quarterback Dantonio has employed in his now nine seasons in East Lansing. The schedule sets up well for Michigan State: a visit from an Oregon team still looking to find its post-Marcus Mariota footing on Sept. 12, and then eight straight games in which Sparty will be favored leading into a Nov. 21 visit to The ‘Shoe. If – if, if, if – the Spartans are undefeated heading into that date and if – if, if, if – Ohio State and Oregon are close to their 2014 versions, a nice showing would put Michigan State at the top of the line among one-loss teams.
4. Mark Richt – Richt’s best teams have suffered the worst timing: the 2005 one-loss, SEC championship outfit sentenced to share a universe with all-timer USC and Texas teams, the 2007 club that would have taken all comers by the end of the year, and the 2012 team that came one snap shy of blitzing through an overmatched Notre Dame team instead of Alabama. Georgia can avenge that loss by beating the Tide on Oct. 3 in Athens, and a Georgia team that beats Alabama has no business not winning the SEC East. Especially not one with Nick Chubb at running back and a defense in year two under Jeremy Pruitt. From there, the task becomes playing a good 60 minutes in the SEC championship and waiting to learn if they’re headed to Dallas or Miami.
5a-e. Gus Malzahn, Hugh Freeze, Bret Bielema, Kevin Sumlin or Dan Mullen. Cheating a bit here, but how can you possibly choose? Whomever wins the SEC West and later the SEC title will have a space at the table reserved for them. From there, the winner will just have to hope they can overcome the disadvantage of only having a month off between their SEC schedule and a national semifinal (wink, wink).
6. David Shaw – If – if, if, if – Stanford can pair an offense that averaged 38 points a game over a three-game, season-ending winning streak with a typical Stanford defense, the schedule sets up well for the Cardinal. The Pac-12 North is less egalitarian than the rough-and-tumble South, and Stanford gets Oregon in Palo Alto. A finishing kick with Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame – all at home – could give Stanford enough momentum to overcome a season-opening loss.
7. Mark Helfrich – Sure, Mariota is gone, but recent history suggests that could actually be a boon for Oregon’s title hopes. Seven of the last 10 quarterbacks to play for a national title were in their first year as a starter. There is that September trip to Michigan State to deal with, but the Ducks’ Pac-12 schedule and the timing of that visit will offer plenty of time to play catch-up if necessary.
8. Dabo Swinney – The overwhelming preseason ACC favorites also employ the overwhelming preseason ACC player of the year in quarterback Deshaun Watson. Chad Morris is gone, yes, but Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott are immersed enough in the system to keep things humming (again, this is where a hopefully healthy Watson helps), and Brent Venables remains one of the most consistently underrated coordinators in the country. The schedule helps, too. Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and Florida State must all visit Death Valley.
9. Rich Rodriguez, Todd Graham, Steve Sarkisian and Jim Mora – Same logic as the SEC West applies here. The gaggle of Pac-12 South coaches are only downgraded because a nine-game league schedule makes winning the Pac-12 with only zero or one losses harder than winning the SEC.
10. Bobby Petrino – Petrino jumped from nine to 11 wins between years one and two at Lousville, and from five to eight over the same stretch at Arkansas. He won nine games in his (second) first season at Louisville, so do the math. The schedule is brutal out of the gate – vs. Auburn in Atlanta followed by home dates with Houston and Clemson, at Florida State on Oct. 17 – but softens significantly from there.