The top seven generated the most discussion. Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney were the obvious choices at Nos. 1-2, and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher was a controversial pick at No. 5. Those three coaches have won national championships.
The other four have not. So, that is the question SN would like to explore next. Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly, Ohio State’s Ryan Day and Georgia’s Kirby Smart have had similar levels of success. Which head coach will win a national championship first? Which one breaks joins that national championship fraternity that includes Saban, Swinney, Fisher, LSU’s Ed Orgeron and North Carolina’s Mack Brown?
That would settle a lot of arguments. We took to Twitter to ask the same question.
Which coach best bet to win a FBS national championship first?
— Bill Bender (@BillBender92) June 29, 2021
Don’t argue. Just answer the question.
SN looks at those four coaches and makes it pick:
Kirby Smart, Georgia
Smart received the most votes in the Twitter poll. He’s No. 7 in our rankings, but he’s also the coach who has been closest to a national championship. Georgia is 52-14 the last five seasons and has recruited at an elite level. He’s also 4-0 head to head against the other three coaches on this list. So, what’s the problem? Alabama is. Smart is 0-3 against Nick Saban, and Florida has become a more viable threat with Dan Mullen. With each miss, the comparisons to Mark Richt and the weight of a national championship that dates back to 1980 increase. Still, Smart is gonna break through one of these seasons, right?
Ryan Day, Ohio State
Day received the second-most votes. He’s 23-2 since taking over for Urban Meyer, and it can be argued he’s enhanced the model with back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons and College Football Playoff appearances. Nay-sayers will point out he was handed a stacked deck, but to this point Day has not dropped the cards. The Buckeyes smashed Clemson in the CFP semifinals last season before getting routed by Alabama. Day built the No. 2 recruiting class last year and might have the top class on the way. There is no end in sight for the Big Ten domination, and there is no reason to believe he won’t follow Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer to a national championship in the near future.
Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma
Riley followed the same path after taking over for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. Riley is 45-8 with four straight Big 12 championships, and that came with back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. The Sooners return another loaded offense led by Spencer Rattler, who is the Heisman favorite in 2021. Of course, Oklahoma also is 0-3 in CFP semifinals under Riley, and the program’s national championship drought extends back to 2000. Last year’s Sugar Bowl victory against Florida was a step in the right direction, but Oklahoma still faces the big question every time they get on that stage. Will Riley be the one to answer it?
Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Kelly received the fewest votes, which makes us wonder whether Mullen would have been the better coach to put in the pool. To be clear, Kelly is not overrated. The Irish have won at least 10 games in four of the last five seasons, and two CFP appearances have come with steady improvements in elite recruiting. The Irish are a legit contender, but they haven’t cracked the Alabama/Clemson/Ohio State code on the New Year’s Day Six or CFP stage. Notre Dame hasn’t won a national title since 1988, but Kelly has made progress in that pursuit with each season and has come far closer than any of his three predecessors.
Who wins it all first?
Smart won the Twitter poll, but I would vote for Day. Our staff compiled the 1-130 coach rankings with ballots, and I had Day at No. 3.
The logic here is simple. Day hasn’t lost a Big Ten game yet. The recruiting is on par with Alabama and Georgia. He’ll break through just like Tressel and Meyer did. Sure, he was gifted a national championship-caliber program. That won’t change.
The Buckeyes will have more playoff chances, and they are the only school of those four who has beaten Alabama and Clemson the CFP stage. Notre Dame, Georgia and Oklahoma are 0-5 in CFP games against the Crimson Tide and Tigers. Ohio State is 2-3. Ohio State is a better bet to break through.
Smart, Riley, Day and Kelly will always be competition, and it will be interesting this year given the Bulldogs and Sooners return their starting quarterbacks.
We’ll still give Day the edge over Smart.