Big Ten coach rankings 2021: Ryan Day ascends to No. 1 after consecutive College Football Playoff berths



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Ryan Day (4 overall): Day had been ranked lower the last couple of years because a few of our voters — including me — wanted to wait a little longer before anointing him one of the best coaches in the country. Well, after winning his second straight Big Ten title and reaching the College Football Playoff for the second-consecutive year, Day’s track record is getting a little difficult to ignore. He’s 23-2 as head coach of the Buckeyes and is yet to lose to a Big Ten opponent. Off the field, you can argue he’s taken Urban Meyer’s recruiting approach and improved upon it, as the Buckeyes are set up to be an absolute monster in the Big Ten for a long time. Last year: 2 in Big Ten2

Pat Fitzgerald (8 overall): I’ve always been higher on Pat Fitzgerald than my colleagues in these rankings, but apparently a division title and an appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game were finally enough to convince everybody else. Fitzgerald is always an interesting case study in what individual voters appreciate in a coach because it’s hard to imagine Northwestern ever being capable of routinely competing for conference titles. Still, every time Fitz has seemingly wrung every single ounce of potential out of the program, he finds a little more. Last year: 7 in Big Ten3

James Franklin (13 overall): Franklin was the highest-ranked coach in the Big Ten last season but fell a couple of spots this year after a 4-5 performance in 2020. Personally, I made a conscious effort not to let results from the 2020 season that were outside the norm affect my rankings too much, but it seems I can’t say the same for everybody else. Now, that said, Franklin is still No. 13 overall in the country, and it will be difficult for him to crack the top 10 again in the future if the Nittany Lions don’t close the gap on Ohio State. Last year: 1 in Big Ten4

Kirk Ferentz (17 overall): I wonder every year whether Ferentz’s boring consistency at Iowa will impact his rankings, but it never seems to be the case. Like Iowa’s performance on the field, Ferentz seems entrenched in the top 20 of our rankings, even if it’s hard to imagine him cracking the top 10. While it’s been 16 seasons since Iowa last won a Big Ten title under Ferentz, the team has consistently been one of the better teams in the conference on an annual basis. The Hawkeyes have been slightly better the last two years, going 16-5 overall and 12-5 in the conference since the 2019 season. Last year: 4 in Big Ten5

Paul Chryst (18 overall): Another year, another ranking, another time when I ask myself why my colleagues don’t seem to hold Chryst in the same regard. Of course, even when I say that, I look at the coaches ranked above him and there isn’t an obvious choice among them for whom Chryst should be ranked ahead. Regardless of the names around him, Chryst has won three division titles and gone 56-19 overall and 37-13 in the Big Ten across six seasons at the helm. The Badgers will head into the 2021 season likely considered the favorites in the Big Ten West again after a disappointing 2020 season disrupted by COVID. Last year: 6 in Big Ten6

Tom Allen (20 overall): I don’t want to sound disrespectful here because I think Tom Allen has been fantastic at Indiana and has this program headed in the right direction, but I think this is a little high. Earlier I said I tried not to let results from an odd Big Ten season affect my rankings too much, and I think my fellow voters failed to do the same here. Allen is terrific, but he’s only 24-22 at Indiana and 15-19 in the conference. Is one 6-2 season enough to warrant ranking him ahead of some of the other coaches on this list? I’m not convinced, but if the Hoosiers are as strong in 2021 as they were in 2020, I’ll be here next season arguing he’s too low! Last year: 11 in Big Ten7

Jim Harbaugh (23 overall): Jim Harbaugh is nothing if not polarizing. People too often focus on the things Harbaugh hasn’t done at Michigan while too quickly ignoring what he has accomplished. It’s easy to forget where the program was when he was hired, and while he’s yet to slay the Ohio State giant, nobody else in the Big Ten has been able to do it, either — yet we don’t hammer other Big Ten coaches over the head with that like we do Harbaugh. There are obvious reasons why that happens, but I try not to hold Harbaugh to different standards than I do other Big Ten coaches. In the end, he’s still 49-22 overall at Michigan. Last year: 3 in Big Ten8

P.J. Fleck (25 overall): Fleck is another coach who is being punished a bit too harshly for the 2020 season. Fleck was ranked fifth in these rankings last season as the Gophers were coming off an 11-win season in 2019 that included a win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl. Now, after a 3-4 performance in a COVID season, he drops to eighth. That said, the 3-4 record was closer to Fleck’s first two seasons at Minnesota than the 11-2 season, so there’s certainly an argument to be made that the 11-2 season was the outlier. The 2021 season will be interesting to follow in Minneapolis. Last year: 5 in Big Ten9

Greg Schiano (34 overall): It’s incredible what winning some games at Rutgers can do for you. Schiano’s Rutgers team went 3-6 in his first season back, winning as many Big Ten games in a few months as the program had won in 30 games under Chris Ash. He has rejuvenated the program on the field and the recruiting trail, and it’s starting to look like the Knights won’t be the Big Ten’s doormat much longer. Last year: 9 in Big Ten10

Bret Bielema (42 overall): This will be Bielema’s first season at Illinois, but not his first season in the Big Ten. He’s the only coach in the conference who can say he’s won three Big Ten titles. Of course, those titles all came at Wisconsin, where Bielema took over the program from Barry Alvarez and helped maintain the trajectory that has made Wisconsin one of the premier programs in the conference. Illinois is now hoping Bielema can bring that same kind of success to Champaign-Urbana. If he can, he’ll be ranked a lot higher than 10th in the conference. Last year: N/A11

Scott Frost (47 overall): There’s a gif/meme you often see on social media depicting a character named Judge Smails from the movie “Caddyshack” saying, “Well, we’re waiting.” If you replaced the Judge with Herbie Husker, I think it’d be a perfect encapsulation of how everybody feels about Scott Frost at Nebraska. He showed up on the heels of a claimed national title at UCF and was seen as a savior in Lincoln — someone who would restore the program to the glory it knew back in the days when “Caddyshack” wasn’t a 40-year old movie. It’s yet to happen. Frost is 12-20 at Nebraska and 9-17 in the Big Ten. Last year: 8 in Big Ten12

Jeff Brohm (53 overall): The Jeff Brohm Train has lost a bit of steam in recent seasons. When he first took over at Purdue, he immediately improved the program to a 7-6 record and won a bowl game. The Boilermakers returned to another bowl the following season and continued to score wins on the recruiting trail as well. For whatever reason, that hasn’t led to further success. After dipping to 4-8 in 2019, Purdue went 2-4 last season, meaning Brohm enters the 2021 season with a mark of 6-12 overall and 5-10 in the Big Ten the last two years. Last year: 10 in Big Ten13

Mel Tucker (57 overall): I can’t speak for my fellow voters, but Mel Tucker’s 2-5 record in his first season at Michigan State doesn’t mean much to me. While every coach in the country was facing some impossible situations last year, what Tucker dealt with was incredibly difficult. He was hired in February, just a short time before COVID shut the world down, so he never had much of a chance to learn his new team and prepare for his first season. So, in that respect, managing to win twice — including a win over Michigan — was remarkable. Still, as far as I’m concerned when it comes to judging Tucker’s tenure in East Lansing, the 2021 season will be his first. Last year: 13 in Big Ten14

Mike Locksley (61 overall): Locksley faces an uphill battle when it comes to perception. After going 3-9 in his first season with the Terps, Maryland finished 2-3 last year. The question, though, is what level of success does Locksley need to achieve at Maryland before his disastrous tenure at New Mexico (2-26) is forgotten? Locksley is off to an excellent start on the recruiting trail, which bodes well for Maryland’s future. Should the Terps achieve bowl eligibility in 2021, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Locksley crack the top 10 here next year. Last season: 14 in Big Ten



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