After four ACC football programs changed coaches for the 2022 season, two more programs changed coaches for the 2023 season.
Who are the best (and worst) college football coaches in the ACC? Here are rankings for all 14 coaches:
1. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
161-39 Overall; 11-3 in 2022 as ACC champion
What is there to say about a falling giant? Clemson was one of the defining programs of the last decade of football, and Dabo Swinney was the main architect.
The spoils: Seven ACC titles and two national championships from 2015-22, not to mention numerous Coach of the Year nods. Anyone would take those results.
Clemson has been to the mountaintop under Dabo, and it might get there again. But it’s hard to ignore the gap between the national juggernaut Clemson was five years ago and the regional power it more closely resembles now.
Among the reasons for such a decline: Brent Venables, a key championship piece, is over in central time.
Coach Swinney might still be the best of the ACC, but this present iteration of Clemson is likely far from the best of Dabo.
2. Dave Doeren, NC State
95-58 Overall; 8-5 in 2022
There’s a real case to make that Dave Doeren is the best coach in the ACC. Doeren is coaching a football team at a basketball school with a middling budget and no real aspiration to become a true powerhouse.
In that role, Doeren has delivered eight winning seasons in nine years. He’s also become one of the most consistent producers of NFL talent in the ACC. The guy just doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.
3. Mack Brown, North Carolina
274–144–1 Overall; 9-5 2022 as Coastal Division champion
We know that the ceiling with Mack Brown is a championship-caliber coach and program. With Drake Maye and Sam Howell quarterbacking the offense as Heisman favorites, in addition to Brown’s helmsmanship, North Carolina has been a real player in the Coastal Division.
If the ACC had better conference depth right now, Mack Brown and a good quarterback likely wouldn’t be enough of a formula to compete. North Carolina’s defense, for example, would need a big improvement to compete.
Instead, the ACC is in a downturn, and Mack Brown’s retirement plan in Chapel Hill is a perfectly competent — if limited — conference contender.
4. Mike Norvell, Florida State
56-31 Overall; 10-3 in 2022
Norvell won 38 games at Memphis in four years, and he’s improved his record at Florida State each year he’s been there — from 3-6 in his COVID debut to 5-7 in 2021, up to a 10-win season last year.
That was Florida State’s first 10-win season since 2016, which was Jimbo Fisher’s last full season in Tallahassee. It’s clear that Mike Norvell knows what he’s doing and that his formula for success has translated to FSU.
Now, college football odds analysts must answer the obvious next question: Is the ceiling for Norvell’s Seminoles the same as it was when Fisher was running the show?
College football fans should get an early glance in one of the best games of Week 1.
5. Mario Cristobal, Miami (FL)
67-67 Overall; 5-7 in 2022
There will be critics who hold Cristobal’s first year at Miami against him. Historians and Hurricane apologists will point to the early 2000s and say that a good coach could kickstart that version of Miami quickly and cleanly.
I’m not that optimistic about a distracted Miami market. College football has changed a lot in the last 25 years, and the mysticism of The U just doesn’t hold the same cultural resonance that it once did.
We know Cristobal is a good coach. He won a competitive Pac-12 at Oregon two years in a row; he won the Sun Belt with very little at FIU. He’s been part of Saban’s machine in Tuscaloosa; he knows the Florida recruiting scene extremely well.
All the pieces are here. So how long does it take for Cristobal to execute? And what does modern success at Miami actually look like?
6. Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh
62-41 Overall; 9-4 in 2022
Since moving to the ACC 10 years ago, I’ve never really understood why Pitt hasn’t seized control of the Coastal Division. Miami has been rebuilding for decades; Virginia Tech’s run is over, undone by an explosion of competition for in-state recruits from newcomers like James Madison, ODU, and Liberty.
There’s a clear, longstanding power vacuum in this division, and Pitt has the history and fertile recruiting ground to step in and take control.
I think Narduzzi could be on his way to such a result. He’s won 20 games and a conference championship over the last two seasons. The level of competition might not be all that tough, but empires have been built on less.
7. Dave Clawson, Wake Forest
149-132 Overall; 8-5 in 2022
Clawson, like Doeren, is simply grinding out winning seasons at a school that doesn’t give him equitable resources to compete. Wake Forest has one of the smallest football budgets in the ACC.
Still, Clawson has delivered six winning seasons in the last seven years, including an ACC Championship Game appearance in 2021.
I’m skeptical about how competitive the Demon Deacons will be in 2023, but Clawson’s track record over the last decade is filled with much more good than bad.
8. Jeff Brohm, Louisville
66-44 Overall; 8-5 in 2022 at Purdue
Louisville has had some extreme ups and downs over the last 10 years in both football and basketball, perhaps more so than any other P5 program.
Hiring Jeff Brohm away from Purdue could be a huge stabilizing factor. The Boilermakers had exactly two six-win seasons in the nine years prior to his arrival; then, in six years under Brohm’s leadership, Purdue was bowl eligible in four of six years. (One of the other two was the 2020 COVID season, when the Big Ten played only six games to begin with.)
Jeff Brohm will need to bring some structure to an errant program, but he should be able to carve out some success for the Cardinals.
9. Mike Elko, Duke
9-4 in 2022 as first-time head coach
Duke was picked to finish dead last in the Coastal in 2022, behind even Georgia Tech. But instead of opening his career as a head man in total irrelevance, Mike Elko posted a 9-4 inaugural coaching season that included wins over Miami, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, and UCF.
I don’t want to overreact to one season, but Elko’s 2022 campaign was extremely impressive. If he can post regular winning records at Duke, he will fly up this list.
10. Brent Key, Georgia Tech
4-4 overall as 2022 interim coach
Georgia Tech was listless under the now-fired Geoff Collins for the last few years, so I was a bit surprised when Georgia Tech ripped off an all-things-considered impressive 4-4 record under interim coach Brent Key.
Evidently, the athletic department was pretty impressed, too, since it gave him the full-time gig after that.
I’m not really sure what the ceiling is on a program like Georgia Tech, living in the shadow of this current version of Georgia, with a high degree of academic rigor. But it seems like Key can turn the Yellow Jackets into a tough out, and in this current college football landscape, that’s not nothing.
11. Dino Babers, Syracuse
73-65 overall; 7-5 2022 + bowl loss
I thought Babers was a dead man walking headed into last season after three consecutive losing seasons and no real institutional momentum to speak of.
Babers proved me wrong, securing a 7-5 regular season before losing in the Pinstripe Bowl to Minnesota. But a look at Babers’ records over the years shows that we’re doing a whole lot of remembering on that 10-win season in 2018, and a whole lot of ignoring on five losing seasons in the last seven years.
Babers is potentially on the college football hot seat this season.
12. Brent Pry, Virginia Tech
3-8 (1-6) in 2022 as first-time head coach
Virginia Tech is a much harder job than it was 20 years ago. Blacksburg is remote; competition for recruits is stiff; momentum is non-existent.
There’s a non-zero chance that Kenny Brooks’ women’s basketball team is going to be the hottest ticket in Virginia Tech athletics for a few years, which would be a big departure for a football-obsessed culture like VT alumni.
Brent Pry could end up being a decent head coach, but this was always going to be a multi-year rebuild at Virginia Tech, and I can’t exactly award points for progress that I haven’t seen yet.
13. Tony Elliott, Virginia
3-7 (1-6) in 2022 as first-time head coach
Tony Elliott might be the exact kind of thoughtful, brilliant leader that UVA needs. It’s way too early to tell either way.
However, I was struck at the time of his hire — and still am now — at how light his coaching resume seems. The 43-year-old spent five years as an FCS wide receivers coach, then spent nine years as a running backs coach for Clemson from 2011 to 2019.
He was also a co-offensive coordinator with the equally young Jeff Scott from 2015 to 2019, which seems a bit like throwing two inexperienced guys at a job instead of just hiring one skilled guy.
Anyway, Elliott became sole offensive coordinator for Clemson in the weird 2020 season, then got the nod to associate head coach/OC for 2021. UVA nabbed him in the great Clemson brain drain of 2022.
I’m not saying Elliott is an intern or anything, but successful P5 coaches often have a few more years in prominent positions. They spend years honing their craft as a coordinator, or they take head coaching jobs at D2, FCS, or G5 schools.
Elliott jumped from a co-offensive coordinator to a P5 head coach in three seasons. I do wonder if he will succeed at UVA, which is already a job that comes with institutional challenges to begin with.
14. Jeff Hafley, Boston College
15-20 Overall; 3-9 in 2022
Speaking of weak resumes, I still don’t know what Boston College was thinking with Jeff Hafley, who was a career defensive backs coach before working for one season as defensive coordinator at Ohio State in 2019.
Boston College has been forgettable, and it’s not trending in the right direction. Hafley clearly has the warmest seat in the ACC in 2023.
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