CBSSports.com published its list of the top 25 Power 5 football coaches on Wednesday. It has the top four it seems like most everyone can agree upon: Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher. Beyond that, however, things get messy (and very much open to interpretation) quickly.
Jim Harbaugh checks in at No. 5, despite not having won a conference title in his six combined years at Stanford and Michigan. (He did win two at San Diego.) It’s an argument you can make, however, based on everything else (i.e. non-stop news making, recruiting, national rankings, 20 wins in two years at Ann Arbor). I’m not saying all of those things are always worthy of inclusion, but Harbaugh sort of forces you to consider him and he certainly seems to be trending up. Does that make him “better” than Bob Stoops right now? For me, it’s tough to surpass Stoops’ longevity, but that’s my criteria. And it’s entirely possible to be a very good coach with a small sample size. Just depends upon what you value and how you value it.
It did make me think, however, what if we could just focus a list like this on actual coaching ability, which I define as maximizing potential. It’s tough to tease out because guys like Saban and Meyer start with a higher ceiling than most programs, but they’re responsible, in part, for creating that ceiling through top-notch recruiting. (Being at a top-10 all-time program helps, too.) If national titles are a requirement for topping the list — and the top four guys all have one — you almost inevitably move away from that working definition to a degree because some schools’ maximum potential simply isn’t a national title.
Anyway, I’ve been playing around with Brian Billick’s toxic differential stat for a story that will be in the 2017 Hail Varsity Yearbook. (Subscribe now!) Toxic differential is pretty simple, it’s just turnover differential plus explosive-play differential (I used any play of 20-plus yards). I looked at the last seven college football seasons and the correlation to winning percentage is pretty strong over that span. It’s not quite one-to-one — i.e. if a team is first (and so on) in toxic differential, it is first (and so on) in winning percentage — but it’s close (.913).
So let’s run these coach rankings through that filter. Teams that have a significantly higher winning percentage than toxic differential might be getting some pretty good coaching and vice versa. Using that method, guys like Saban, Meyer, Fisher and Chris Petersen (No. 7 on the CBS list) all check out pretty well. Their toxic differentials are high and their winning percentages are high.
These guys in the top 25, however, are getting it done to a greater degree than their toxic differentials would suggest:
David Shaw (8th on CBSSports list): My coaching man crush. Stanford ranks fourth in winning percentage (2010-16) but just 24th in toxic differential. That’s the largest positive gap in the top 25 and, while the toxic differential is still quite good, it probably means the Cardinal are playing even better football in every other facet.
Bob Stoops (6th): Sixth in winning percentage, 23rd in toxic differential. Move Stoops ahead of Harbaugh now, please.
Kyle Whittingham (14th): The Utes are 32 spots better over the past seven seasons, one of the best totals in the country.
David Cutcliffe (17th): Duke is 33 spots better than its toxic differential, making the Cutcliffe the perfect example of a coach who is probably getting it done to the greatest degree possible at his particular program.
Pat Fitzgerald (16th): Saw some teeth-gnashing over Fitzgerald’s rank, but the Wildcats are 21 spots better than toxic differential would indicate.
As for top-25 coaches on the wrong end of this list? There aren’t many who are at least one standard deviation away from the norm because, well, it’s hard to win enough to land in the top 25 with a toxic differential that pedestrian, but one coach makes it and a couple others are close.
Paul Johnson (24th): The Yellow Jackets are 34th in toxic differential but 57th in winning percentage. Georgia Tech probably should have won more games over that stretch.
Kirk Ferentz (20th): A minus-12 differential isn’t horrible, but it is probably worth moving him down a couple of spots.
Brian Kelly (22nd): Notre Dame is 10 spots in the red. The Irish have had a top-10 toxic differential but the winning percentage ranks just 25th.
Of course, this is just one interpretation of toxic differential. You could also start thinking about luck and randomness (particularly with turnovers, talent, conference strength and what teams have to do to win with a relatively even differential. All worthy topics, but as a quick check on a random ranking, I found this one interesting.
Nebraska isn’t included here for two reasons: 1. It had a coaching change during that 2010-16 span, and 2. Mike Riley isn’t in the top 25. But if you’re curious, the Huskers’ toxic differential-to-winning-percentage number is 38. Nebraska ranked 60th in toxic differential but 22nd in winning percentage. If you want to see what that looks like, the quick graph at right shows the Huskers in red.
More on that in the Yearbook.
Smart move, this.
The Grab Bag
- Nebraska shut out Creighton last night in Omaha to take the season series from the Bluejays.
- Kevin Sjuts of KOLN/KGIN 10/11 conducts a one-on-one interview with Tanner Lee, including trick throws.
- Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated looks at the future of college football telecasts and whether streaming services will be a player for rights in the future.
- Michigan State has released a video addressing its sexual assault investigation involving the athletic department.
Today’s Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.