Once upon a time, around this point in the summer, I preempted my usual Mailbag format for a week in favor of something sure to grab readers' attention. Call it my version of a TV sweeps stunt. But my annual list of the "10 best and five worst" coaches heading into the season eventually faded away, in part because the 10 best didn't change much from one year to the next, but more so because -- unintentionally -- the "five worst" section inevitably stole all the spotlight. (It gave this Charlottesville, Va., columnist, for one, fodder for a day. In fact, readers should probably just stop this column now since it "... wasn't written by someone I know to be extremely knowledgeable of college football.")
But enough time has passed to merit a 2013 preseason edition (and to break it apart from the Mailbag), and as the exercise below shows, the "10 best" list has changed considerably in six years. Most notably, the No. 1 coach at that time (Pete Carroll) is in the NFL now, while the new No. 1 (Nick Saban, of course) was in the NFL then. As for the "five worst," I must be getting soft in my old age. I'll still provide five names, but I'm listing them alphabetically so as to avoid branding someone "the worst coach in college football." Readers can decide that for themselves.
Before I get into my list, it's necessary to revisit the methodology behind these admittedly subjective rankings. Please note that they represent the best and worst coaches right now. They are not career achievement awards. Picture an inverted triangle, with the most recent season on the top line (the widest), the 2011 season below that, and so on. Each season is thus weighted a little bit heavier than the last. Someone like Mack Brown, who easily made this list six years ago, is nowhere to be found because his past three mediocre seasons are more relevant today than his 2005 national title. That said, I do like to see more than a one- or two-year track record before anointing a coach. Consider it my lesson learned from Charlie Weis.
As for my criteria -- well, it varies. National coach of the year awards tend to go to guys deemed to have overachieved at their respective school, as doing more with less is an obvious sign of effective coaching. There are plenty of those guys here. But make no mistake, it still takes a strong leader to consistently win at a traditional powerhouse. This list offers a mix of both.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama. He's won four BCS championships (2003, '09, '11, '12) over his last eight seasons in the college ranks and turned Alabama, and LSU before it, into a recruiting machine. Saban's teams' dominance in the past two title games against previously undefeated foes LSU and Notre Dame is a testament to his preparation skills, and his program's infrastructure -- relying on an enormous support staff to maximize efficiency -- has become a model for the rest of the sport.
2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State. While the brash and often outspoken 48-year-old certainly has his share of critics, it's hard to argue with his résumé. Meyer has gone 116-23 (.828) at four different schools, posting undefeated seasons at both Utah (2004) and Ohio State (2012) to go with a pair of BCS titles at Florida (2006 and '08). While initially viewed as a spread-offense guru, he is now renowned for his unique ability to charm and connect with both recruits and players, something that's produced consistent success.
3. Chris Petersen, Boise State. Now entering his eighth season in charge of the Broncos, Petersen has gone 84-8 to rack up an insane .913 winning percentage. Last year's team -- the first in the post-Kellen Moore era -- was one of the biggest rebuilding projects he's had, and it still finished 11-2. Petersen has no equal when it comes to player development. Boise never sniffs the top of the recruiting rankings and yet has produced seven first- or second-round NFL draft picks under his watch.
4. Gary Patterson, TCU. Here's what I wrote about Patterson in 2007: "Does anyone get less credit for running a consistently successful program than this guy?" And that was before two BCS bids, an undefeated 2010 campaign and an impressive transition to the Big 12. While the Horned Frogs still have plenty to prove following a 7-6 debut in their new league, Patterson has long since demonstrated that he's one of the top defensive minds the sport has seen over the past decade.
5. Bill Snyder, Kansas State. I know I said this list isn't based on career achievement, but it's hard not to bring up Snyder's '90s miracle work in Manhattan -- particularly now that he has engineered a second surprising turnaround. The Wildcats, 39-45 from 2004-10 (three of those seasons under Ron Prince), went a combined 21-5 in Snyder's third and fourth years back at the helm, including capturing last year's Big 12 title. There's no magic formula or trademark strategy at Kansas State. Snyder simply wins.
6. Les Miles, LSU. While the Mad Hatter's diction and game management can be bewildering at times, his eight-year tenure in Baton Rouge has been nothing short of extraordinary. The Tigers have won at least 10 games in all but two seasons, going 47-17 in SEC play, and reached two BCS championship games, winning one (2007). Miles' program is a fixture near the top of the annual recruiting rankings and churns out a virtual assembly line of prized NFL prospects.
7. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M. I have a feeling he'll be even higher on this list in a couple of years. Sumlin is the consummate CEO coach, imparting his vision (an up-tempo offense, attacking defense) to his staff and hiring excellent coordinators to execute it. Like Meyer, his charisma and confidence rub off on players. After leading both Houston (in 2011) and A&M (last year) to their best seasons in decades, Sumlin is now recruiting at a previously unattainable level in Aggieland.
8. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma. This ranking may seem a bit low for a guy who has won eight Big 12 titles and compiled an .801 winning percentage, but the Sooners have shown some cracks since reaching the 2008 BCS championship game -- especially over the past two seasons (though they still won 10 games in both 2011 and '12). Stoops came up as a defensive coach, but his program has long ranked among the nation's most powerful and innovative on offense.
9. Bobby Petrino, Western Kentucky. He's back after a year spent in exile, and while Petrino isn't likely to rank among anyone's top coaches in the charm or ethics departments, his offensive game-planning and play-calling aptitude is hard to dispute. In eight seasons as a college head coach, he has produced four top-12 teams and done so at two schools -- Louisville and Arkansas -- that were hardly fixtures in elite territory before his tenure. Best of luck, future Sun Belt and Conference USA opponents.
10. Art Briles, Baylor. Briles doesn't get nearly the national recognition he deserves, particularly considering just how astonishing Baylor's rise would have seemed just four years ago. The Bears failed to post a winning record in their first 14 seasons in the Big 12; they've gone 25-14 in the three seasons since, twice knocking off top-five teams, producing a Heisman winner and maintaining one of the nation's most explosive offenses even after RGIII's departure.
The five worst coaches (in alphabetical order)
Tim Beckman, Illinois. I may be jumping the gun here, but Beckman -- hired at Illinois following a pair of eight-win seasons at Toledo -- has done little to inspire confidence either on the field (2-10 in 2012) or on the recruiting trail with the Illini.
Ron English, Eastern Michigan. Patience is a virtue in Ypsilanti, Mich., where the Eagles have gone 10-38 (7-25 in the MAC) in four seasons under the former Michigan and Louisville defensive coordinator.
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa. The 2009 Orange Bowl proved an aberration in Ferentz's otherwise unimpressive recent tenure. Take away that one 11-2 season and the Hawkeyes are 47-41 since 2005 under their $3.6 million-per-year coach.
Lane Kiffin, USC. Any confidence inspired by a breakthrough 10-2 campaign in 2011 was shattered by last year's 7-6 implosion, when Kiffin's USC squad -- without question -- finished as the biggest underachiever in the country.