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Kirby Smart is college football’s best coach. But who’s No. 2?

The answer isn’t clear but is worth discussing after the recent exits of Nick Saban and Jim Harbaugh.
 
Is FSU football's Mike Norvell the No. 2 coach in the country? What about LSU's Brian Kelly?
Is FSU football's Mike Norvell the No. 2 coach in the country? What about LSU's Brian Kelly? [ JOHN RAOUX | AP (2023) ]
Published Jan. 26

College football lost one of its most colorful characters and best coaches Wednesday when Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh left for the Chargers, two weeks after another big name (Nick Saban) retired from Alabama.

With both gone, Georgia’s Kirby Smart is the clear No. 1 coach in the country; he’s a two-time national champion with seven consecutive top-seven finishes.

But who’s No. 2?

Here’s our case for and against some of the best options in a surprisingly shallow pool:

Mike Norvell, Florida State

Mike Norvell turned around Florida State and led Memphis to its best season ever.
Mike Norvell turned around Florida State and led Memphis to its best season ever. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP (2023) ]

Record: 69-33 overall (31-17 at FSU)

The case for: He inherited a mess in Tallahassee and has improved the Seminoles every season, culminating with a 13-0 start, an ACC title and at least two national coach of the year awards. Memphis has only three top-25 finishes in school history; Norvell was responsible for two of them.

The case against: The 8-13 start to his FSU tenure weighs him down, even if you grade on a curve because his first season was during the pandemic. His four seasons with double-digit wins doesn’t stack up to others on the list.

Ryan Day, Ohio State

Ryan Day has an astounding record at Ohio State but three consecutive losses to Michigan.
Ryan Day has an astounding record at Ohio State but three consecutive losses to Michigan. [ NOAH K. MURRAY | AP (2023) ]

Record: 56-8

The case for: His .875 winning percentage is the best on this list, and he has never finished outside the top 10. The Buckeyes have made the College Football Playoff in three of his five full seasons, advancing to the title game once and narrowly missing it another time.

The case against: His three-game losing streak to Michigan doesn’t sit well. And as good as the Buckeyes have been, you can argue they’ve underachieved given their elite talent and resources.

Dabo Swinney, Clemson

Clemson's Dabo Swinney is one of only three active coaches who have won a national title.
Clemson's Dabo Swinney is one of only three active coaches who have won a national title. [ Times (2017) ]

Record: 170-43

The case for: Swinney, Smart and North Carolina’s Mack Brown are the only active coaches with national championships (Swinney has two). He hasn’t finished unranked since 2010 and has built the Tigers to where 9-4 is a disappointment.

The case against: His results are trending down. From 2012-20, Clemson had only one season with three losses. The Tigers have dropped at least three games every year since then.

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Kalen DeBoer, Alabama

Kalen DeBoer and Tampa Bay Tech alumnus Michael Penix Jr. starred together at Washington.
Kalen DeBoer and Tampa Bay Tech alumnus Michael Penix Jr. starred together at Washington. [ DAVID BECKER | AP (2023) ]

Record: 37-9 (0-0 at ’Bama)

The case for: Ignore his 3-3 debut at Fresno State in the COVID season, and DeBoer is 34-6 as a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) head coach. He immediately resurrected Washington and took the Huskies to the national title game in Year 2. He also went 67-3 and won three NAIA national championships at Sioux Falls.

The case against: Is No. 2 too high for someone with only three full seasons as an FBS head coach?

Brian Kelly, LSU

Brian Kelly celebrates capped off his second season at LSU with a ReliaQuest Bowl win at Raymond James Stadium.
Brian Kelly celebrates capped off his second season at LSU with a ReliaQuest Bowl win at Raymond James Stadium. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]

Record: 186-69 (20-7 at LSU)

The case for: Add in his time at Division II Grand Valley State, and his 304 wins are the most of any active coach. Kelly has won at least 10 games in a dozen seasons, including a 12-0 year at Cincinnati. He steered the Notre Dame to a BCS national title game and two playoff appearances.

The case against: His Tigers tenure has been good but not great — five losses by at least two scores and no top-10 finishes. That’s a little underwhelming at LSU.

Lane Kiffin, Mississippi

Lane Kiffin has the second-best winning percentage in Rebels history.
Lane Kiffin has the second-best winning percentage in Rebels history. [ JOHN BAZEMORE | AP (2022) ]

Record: 96-49 (34-15 at Mississippi)

The case for: His Rebels won a school-record 11 games last season (including one over Kelly), and he has the second-highest winning percentage (.694) in program history. Kiffin also won 11 games twice at Florida Atlantic, which has never had even a 10-win season without him.

The case against: An unimpressive 28-15 stint at USC remains on his record. Does he need to challenge for a playoff spot before he deserves a No. 2 ranking?

Other notables

Kyle Whittingham has made Utah one of the nation's steadiest top-25 programs.
Kyle Whittingham has made Utah one of the nation's steadiest top-25 programs. [ RICK BOWMER | AP (2023) ]

Dan Lanning is 22-5 at Oregon but has only been a head coach for two seasons.

Steve Sarkisian took Texas to its first playoff appearance, but a 71-49 career record (including time at USC and Washington) hurts his cause.

• USC’s Lincoln Riley had a compelling case last year but not after going 8-5.

• Though Utah’s Kyle Whittingham has been remarkably consistent, he has only two top-10 finishes in 19 years.

Lance Leipold making Kansas relevant is one of the best coaching jobs in decades, but you’d have to look past his 54-54 FBS record.

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