As arguably the best college football job in America, Texas is charged with calling just about anyone to gauge interest, because it's the sort of program that needs to make the game's best coaches say no. So as the search continues -- possibly including the two national championship coaches, Jimbo Fisher and Gus Malzahn -- it's a good time to take stock of the current coaching landscape.
Here's the scenario: Every head coach in college football suddenly becomes a free agent. You're a major athletic director. Who do you call to run your program? Obviously, circumstances differ from job to job, and a great coach like Chris Petersen may actually be drawn to Washington over USC. But as a general exercise, let's rank the top coaches based on 1) their background, 2) their success, 3) their potential, 4) their age. This is not simply a ranking of who are the best coaches right now, although that's a significant part of it. It's an unscientific ranking of who you'd want to hire now to lead your program going forward, which is why Steve Spurrier (68, probably headed to a golf course in the near future), Bill Snyder (74) and Frank Beamer (67) are not included, although an argument could certainly be made for Spurrier. Bobby Petrino could also be included, but does anyone really want to hire him?
1. Nick Saban, Alabama. At 62, Saban is hardly young anymore, but there's yet to be any proof that he's actually on the downside of his career. Four total national championships (one at LSU, three at Alabama), with Alabama acting as the dominant team of the last half decade, prove that Saban is the best coach in the game and one of the greatest coaches the sport has ever seen. His teams may not be the most aesthetically pleasing, because of his machine-like, detail-oriented approach, but ultimately it's become obvious that they're the best. There's a reason Alabama will start paying him $7 million per year.
2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State. Meyer's exit from Florida -- both the health aspect and the shape the Gators were left in -- will always raise some doubts, but otherwise Meyer's record speaks for itself. He won two national titles at Florida after impressive two-year stints at Bowling Green and Utah, and since taking over at Ohio State, the Buckeyes have lost only one game (this month's Big Ten championship). In 12 years, Meyer is 128-24, with six seasons with one or no losses. And even in one of the years Florida went 9-4, Meyer coached a Heisman winner in Tim Tebow. Despite one "retirement" already, Meyer is still only 49, and he spent the last decade known as one of the most innovative offensive coaches in the nation, helping to popularize the spread option.
3. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State. In four seasons since replacing a legend, Fisher, 48, has rebuilt Florida State into a top-10 program, and there's little reason to expect he can't continue that success. He's gone 44-10, with 12 wins, including the Orange Bowl, last season, and now an undefeated team and the Heisman winner so far this season. Fisher has built the Seminoles in the mold of the dominant Alabama teams of this era, which shouldn't be surprising, as Fisher first made a name for himself as offensive coordinator at LSU under Saban. They may be in the ACC, but at this point the Seminoles look every bit like the dominant SEC teams of this era.
4. Gus Malzahn, Auburn. Malzahn has been through a rapid ascent in the coaching world. First hired out of the high school ranks by Houston Nutt at Arkansas, Malzahn's offensive acumen has been confirmed through stops as coordinator at Tulsa and Auburn (where the Tigers won a national title in 2010) and now head coach for one year at Arkansas State and one at Auburn. Of course, Malzahn doesn't have a ton of head coaching experience, but in one year he took Auburn from 3-9 to the BCS championship game. Some luck was involved, sure, and Auburn easily could have finished 9-3 instead of 12-1, but Malzahn's up-tempo spread running scheme is the best in the business.
5. David Shaw, Stanford. It's still unclear whether Mark Helfrich can sustain the success achieved by Chip Kelly at Oregon. At division rival Stanford, Shaw has done a brilliant job keeping what Jim Harbaugh built, humming along as one of the most consistently great programs in the country. Since taking over, Shaw has gone 34-6 with three straight BCS bowl appearances despite the difficult recruiting standards. In a conference filled with modern spread schemes and innovative coaches, Shaw builds his Cardinal teams from the inside out, as Stanford's strong offensive line and defensive front seven make it perhaps the most physical team in the country.
6. Chris Petersen, Washington. The shine has worn off a little bit, with Boise State finally falling back to earth at 8-4 this season, but Petersen's only 49, and this was his first season out of eight not winning at least 10 games. It was a remarkable run in Boise, where Petersen built on the foundation Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins created to make Boise State the premier non-AQ team of the 21st century, with two undefeated seasons, two Fiesta Bowls and a resume featuring numerous wins over power programs with significantly more resources. Now, we finally get to see what Petersen can do with Pac-12 resources and a deeper recruiting pool at Washington. He's made his mark by converting diamonds in the rough into perfect fits for his program; now he automatically gets access to more acclaimed talent.
7. Art Briles, Baylor. After a long career coaching high school football in Texas, Briles was a late bloomer, but in 11 years now as a college head coach he has consistently churned out record-breaking offenses while bringing Baylor a Big 12 championship. Briles is 78-60, and over the last several years he's developed Baylor from one of the worst BCS programs to one of the most exciting teams in the sport, with a Heisman winner and an 11-1 season. At 58, he's older than many on this list and is one of the most innovative offensive minds in football.
8. Les Miles, LSU. There are plenty of valid reasons to question the 60-year-old Miles as a coach. Like Andy Reid in the NFL, his gameday decision making can leave a lot to be desired, with baffling clock management and occasional unnecessary risks, not to mention overall struggles of the offense until he hired Cam Cameron. But his unconventional approach generally has worked, and few coaches do a better job connecting with players and actually having fun with the sport. Plus, his recruiting has allowed LSU to be the next closest thing to Alabama during the Saban era.
9. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish unsurprisingly regressed in 2013, falling to 8-4 without quarterback Everett Golson, a year after getting all the breaks in a perfect regular season. The BCS title game season is the exception so far, as he also won eight games in his first two seasons in South Bend, but it was never going to be easy. Despite Notre Dame's national appeal, nobody has led the Irish to consecutive 10-win seasons since Lou Holtz in the early 1990s. Kelly remains an accomplished offensive mind who has won everywhere he's gone. With Golson back next year, the offense may finally start to go in the direction he wants with more up-tempo spread looks.
10. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M. Going 10-6 in two SEC seasons was apparently good enough for a new contract worth $5 million per year, but the 49-year-old Sumlin has won 10 games in three out of six seasons as a head coach, twice at Houston and once at Texas A&M. His offenses have been prolific, and he's an ace recruiter with an engaging personality. Next year will be interesting in his first season at A&M post-Johnny Manziel, but he has the program in the best position since the Southwest Conference folded.
11. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma. No, Oklahoma isn't as powerful as it was in the early 2000s, when Stoops elevated the Sooners to a place among the best of the best, but the consistency in Norman is remarkable. Oklahoma is undoubtedly a great job, but it's not as easy to win there as a place like Texas or Ohio State. Stoops has dominated the Big 12 for more than a decade, winning at least 10 games in 12 of 15 seasons with nine BCS games. While there have been big-game struggles, Oklahoma ultimately won the BCS-era war with Mack Brown and Texas.
12. Bill O'Brien, Penn State. Bill Belichick disciples have gained a reputation for failing as head coaches, but that's not true for O'Brien, who has made the best of a difficult situation. Facing unprecedented NCAA sanctions, O'Brien has kept Penn State above water, going 15-9 in two seasons and pulling off impressive recruiting classes despite limited scholarships. He put former walk-on Matt McGloin into the NFL, and now he's coaching five-star recruit Christian Hackenberg into a star. He has plenty to prove still, but the most concerning thing for any AD is the prevalent whispers that he'll end up in the NFL as a head coach -- whispers that also confirm how much potential he has as a head coach.
13. Charlie Strong, Louisville. The 53-year-old Strong had to wait far too long to get a shot at a head coaching job, and now it's no surprise that Louisville has fought so hard to keep him. After two 7-6 seasons, Strong has won 11 games each of the last two years, including a Sugar Bowl win over Florida. Even without Teddy Bridgewater moving forward, it appears Strong has built a sustainable program that will continue to make him a hot name in coaching searches -- not that he has a desire to leave a team he got to the ACC.
14. Mark Richt, Georgia. Richt is a lesser version of Stoops, without the national championship or the conference championships (two, none since 2005). Georgia has hung around the top tier of the SEC without winning much of anything, but Richt has won 10 games in eight of 13 seasons with three BCS appearances -- although none since 2007 -- and has never missed a bowl or finished worse than third in the SEC East. Championships are the goal, of course, but consistently contending isn't nothing, even if the big-game wins haven't always come.
15. James Franklin, Vanderbilt. If you can go to three straight bowl games at Vanderbilt, in the SEC, it seems reasonable to think you can win somewhere with much greater resources. Franklin's energy has rubbed off on a Vandy program that has little historical success to its name, and while the Commodores are hardly SEC contenders, simply getting to bowl games and being a legitimate week-to-week competitor is a massive step forward for the program. At just 41 years old, he has a long, bright future ahead.
16. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State. Aside from a maddening inability to beat Oklahoma (one win in nine tries), Gundy's tenure in Stillwater has been a success, no matter what Sports Illustrated reports try to do. Barry Sanders aside, Oklahoma State has had little historical success, and -- with the help of T. Boone Pickens' money -- the Cowboys have morphed into a winner under Gundy, hitting 10 wins three of the last four seasons while repeatedly sending assistant coaches to bigger things.
17. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State. The Spartans fell to 7-6 last season, but it was partially a product of bad luck with a lot of close losses. This season proved, again, that Dantonio is capable of putting together one of the best defenses in college football. He did it under Jim Tressel to win a national title a decade ago, and now he's won at least 11 games in three out of the last four seasons, with the Spartans' first Rose Bowl since the 1987 season on tap Jan. 1.
18. Al Golden, Miami. Golden still has to win something at Miami, but he has stabilized a program rocked by a prolonged period of uncertainty thanks to the NCAA's messy handling of the Nevin Shapiro scandal. While the Hurricanes have yet to get to the ACC title game, Golden has taken them from 6-6 to 7-5 to 9-3, and this is after he brought Temple to rare respectability. He's a great recruiter, with Miami poised to haul in one of the nation's best classes, and at 44 he's still on the rise.
19. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech. It is extremely early, of course, and after a hot start, Texas Tech fell apart against a tougher schedule down the stretch, finishing 7-5 with lousy defense. But there were signs of things to come: Despite juggling young quarterbacks, Texas Tech was often one of the most prolific passing teams in the country. Kingsbury played under Mike Leach and coached Johnny Manziel to a Heisman, and at 34 years old, he has seemingly unlimited potential as a head coach with the status of perhaps the brightest, most creative young offensive mind in college football.
20. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern. The awful finish to a season with high expectations certainly hurt Fitzgerald's reputation, but high expectations are a good reason to believe Fitzgerald is a great coach in the first place. The Wildcats have a thin margin for error and struggled through injuries for much of the season, but Fitzgerald, at just 39 years old, had taken them to five straight bowl games and won 10 games in 2012. One bad season doesn't change the confidence he's given a program that is at a disadvantage in the Big Ten.
21. Gary Patterson, TCU. Patterson's stock has taken a hit with the move to the Big 12, but it shouldn't be a total surprise that the Horned Frogs have run into some trouble with the transition. So, while a bad 4-8 season is obviously a concern, Patterson has built up enough clout over the last decade-plus in leading TCU to two BCS bowls, including a Rose Bowl win to cap an undefeated season, as well as regularly leading some of the nation's best, most well-coached defenses.
22. Todd Graham, Arizona State. The job jumping and the mishandled Pitt exit will continue to be brought up until Graham gets to a major bowl, but all of that hides the fact that he's a talented coach who won 10 games in three of four seasons at Tulsa and won the Pac-12 South in his second season at Arizona State. The Sun Devils were out-manned physically at times (hello, Stanford), but Graham has built a speedy lineup that's still building depth. There's reason to believe he can build a consistent contender if he stays.
23. Jim Mora, UCLA. His hire wasn't widely praised at the time, but Mora gave UCLA an immediate boost, winning 18 games so far in two seasons to earn a contract extension as soon as the Washington (his alma mater) job opened. There's a good chance Mora can stand toe-to-toe with USC as the Trojans move into the Steve Sarkisian era, perhaps creating a run of high-stakes rivalry games in Los Angeles.
24. Butch Jones, Tennessee. Give it time. Tennessee showed clear signs of progress in Jones' first season, and there's no question that he inherited a messy situation in the aftermath of the Lane Kiffin/Derek Dooley debacles. Jones is recruiting well, with the Vols set to sign one of the nation's top classes in February, and while they went 5-7 in his debut, they did it against an absolutely brutal schedule that featured Alabama, Auburn and Oregon on top of the SEC East slate. His previous success at Central Michigan and Cincinnati came in following the footsteps of Brian Kelly, but he's good enough to win on his own in Knoxville.
25. David Cutcliffe, Duke. Cutcliffe isn't the hire you make to win national titles, but he's proven over a long career as an assistant and a head coach that few are better with the technical aspects of the game. Duke lacked top talent this year, and it also played in a mediocre ACC Coastal, but the fact that the Blue Devils advanced to the ACC title game is proof enough that Cutcliffe is one of the finest coaches in football.
26. Dabo Swinney, Clemson. If Nick Saban leaves Alabama anytime soon, Swinney would likely be an obvious candidate for the Crimson Tide. A former Bama wide receiver, Swinney spent six seasons as receivers coach for Tommy Bowden, before rising to the permanent head coaching job after Bowden was run out of town. The Tigers have won 10 games three years in a row, and Swinney has proven to be an excellent face of the program, although his greatest success as coach has come with star coordinators at his side (offensive coordinator Chad Morris could very well end up on this list soon).
27. Gary Pinkel, Missouri. Perhaps it was unfair to put Pinkel on the hot seat in his second SEC season. The Tigers struggled with injuries in 2012, leading to a 5-7 debut in the SEC, but Pinkel built a talented roster that engineered a significant turnaround to contend for the national championship and win the SEC East. Pinkel has won with prolific offenses, and while a BCS bid has eluded him, 2012 aside, he's been consistently good at a program that has rarely been strong.
28. Gary Andersen, Wisconsin. The Badgers really didn't pick up a big win in Andersen's first season, but by all accounts he appears to be the right man to continue the wave of success built by Barry Alvarez and carried forward by Bret Bielema. Andersen took Utah State from a whole lot of nothing to 11-2 in four seasons, and all three of his losses this season were by one score. It's up to him to simply continue keeping Wisconsin's powerful running game rolling, and it certainly did in 2013.
29. Larry Fedora, North Carolina. Perhaps Fedora left Southern Miss in bad shape, but it continues to be one of the most remarkable stories in the sport that, after Fedora went 12-2 and won the Conference USA title, Southern Miss proceeded to go winless under Ellis Johnson and 1-11 under Todd Monken the last two seasons. Fedora, who is among the Mike Gundy offensive coordinators to graduate to a head coaching job, is an acclaimed offensive mind, and he's still reshaping a program that's been mired in scandals.
30. Bret Bielema, Arkansas. Bielema's personality can rub some the wrong way, but it's hard to argue with his results at Wisconsin, considering that he took the Badgers to three straight Rose Bowls (although the last one came with an 8-6 record and Ohio State and Penn State both ineligible in the division). He wouldn't fit everywhere, but despite the weird, unexpected switch, Arkansas isn't a bad spot for his power running teams.
Next: Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss; Mike Leach, Washington State; Steve Sarkisian, USC; Rich Rodriguez, Arizona; Mark Helfrich, Oregon; Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana-Lafayette; Mike Riley, Oregon State; Bronco Mendenhall, BYU; Brady Hoke, Michigan; Mike MacIntyre, Colorado.