A Conference in Flux: Ranking ACC Coaches

A new era has dawned on college football. As the calendar turned to July, we bid a fond farewell to the Pac-12 and saw 13 teams change conferences in the new Power Four. The ACC finds itself (for the time) amongst the power players of college football. But the dust is far from settled, and uncertainty still grips the conference. Clemson and Florida State are at odds with the conference and seem poised to kick realignment and college football spinning again if they can break the conference’s grant of rights and become free agents. We provide this context to discuss the challenge of ranking the ACC coaches this year. Rather than a traditional list, let’s look at how all the changes that have taken place will shape the rankings heading into the 2024 season.

Ranking ACC Coaches

The Conference Realignment New Guys

The ACC welcomed California, Stanford, and SMU as new members in 2023. Those moves are nice—not thrilling like Texas and Oklahoma’s to the SEC—but nice. The academics of the two California schools are nice, but their play on the field has left much to be desired. SMU gives the ACC a foothold in Texas without paying for it. A week after announcing their move to the ACC, SMU raised $100 million for the transition. Over the past year, athletics raised a total of $159 million. They’ll need it, as SMU forfeited over $200 million in ACC TV revenue for the invite.

#3 Troy Taylor, Stanford 

Standford has a proud tradition of competing on “The Farm” in Palo Alto, but it is still trying to find footing under second-year coach Troy Taylor. Taylor was 23-1 at FCS Sacramento State before leaving to lead the Cardinal last year.

#2 Justin Wilcox, California  

Wilcox was a “hot name” for a few years when he was a defensive coordinator at Oregon and early in his tenure at California. He enters his 8th year as head of the Golden Bears despite a 36-43 overall record. He has faced a tough road with an administration with tight finances and one where questions have been raised about their commitment to athletics.

#1 Rhett Lashlee, SMU  

Lashlee enters his third year there for “Dallas’ Team.” Lashlee has continued to follow the mold set by Sonny Dykes of pitching SMU as the metroplex’s team. The Ponies have deep pockets and are well-suited to take advantage of high school recruiting and the Transfer Portal. Lashlee is coming off a successful 11-3 season in 2023; time will tell if his roster is ready to compete in the ACC.

The Newly Hired Guys

Three new ACC coaches will roam the sidelines in 2024. Boston College and Duke hired established and seasoned coaches, while Syracuse hired a first-timer.

#3 Fran Brown, Syracuse

Brown was not a household name when he was hired by Syracuse in December. He comes to New York’s college team through Georgia, where he showed himself as a dynamic recruiter. Brown made early noise picking up former Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord. The jury is still out on what he can do as a head coach on the field.

#2 Manny Diaz, Duke

Diaz comes to Durham after two years as the defensive coordinator at Penn State. This is Diaz’s second (well, third, sorry, Temple) head coaching gig. Diaz was 21-15 in three seasons at Miami but could not deliver on the expectations placed on the Hurricanes’ head coach. While the pressure may not be the same, Mike Elko and David Cutcliffe have shown that success is possible and sustainable for the Blue Devils.

#1 Bill O’Brien, Boston College 

O’Brien will never be confused as a “players coach” or seen as a media darling like Lane Kiffin. Instead, they hired O’Brien because he has a track record of success as a football coach. He took over a toxic situation at Penn State and stabilized the program before leaving for the NFL, where the success continued. Despite not winning a championship, his offenses at Alabama knew how to score points. Alabama averaged 39.6 and 41.1 points per game in his two seasons with the school. The move to hire O’Brien shows that the Eagles may be ready to take the next step and return to the upper tier of the ACC.

The Big Two

The ACC’s collective future rests in the hands of Florida State and Clemson. If either of the two schools can break the grant of rights and bolt to the SEC or Big Ten, the conference could likely face a similar fate to what we saw with the Pac-12. (Farewell, sweet prince). The two schools are the biggest brands but have the top two ACC coaches.

#2 Mike Norvell, Florida State 

Norvell enters year five as the head coach in Tallahassee. After losing seasons in his first two years, he has led the Seminoles to a 23-4 record over the last two years, including an ACC and “State Championship” in 2023. Many may argue that Norvell has passed Swinney and that the Seminoles are again the conference’s flag-bearers, but let’s wait until they do something in the playoffs or even bowl season

#1 William Christopher “Dabo” Swinney, Clemson 

Swinney is a lightning rod for college football. When he speaks, the media can’t help but listen. Swinney has a point of view regarding building a program and roster management. While it may not be for everyone, it’s hard to argue with his results. In the coming years, it will be interesting to see if Florida State has truly passed Clemson or if the Tigers still have some fight left in them.

Everyone Else

We’ve ranked eight ACC coaches so far, and eight remain. There has been plenty of sizzle but very little steak on South Beah. If Mario Cristobal struggles again in 2024, he may be seeking new work in 2024. North Carolina, Pitt, Virginia, and Virginia Tech all seem stuck somewhere in the middle and will likely be open in the next year or two. Leaving us with our final three.

#3 Dave Doren, NC State

Good is the enemy of great unless you’re the Wolfpack. Doren has an impressive 81-58 record in 11 seasons at NC State. He has had only one losing season but has never won more than nine games.

#2 Jeff Brohm,  Lousiville

The Prodigal Son returned to Louisville last year and led the Cardinals to a 10-3 record in his first season. Brohm has shown his ability to win at Western Kentucky and even in a difficult spot like Purdue. Since coming to the conference, the Cardinals have been seemingly on the cusp of joining the ACC elite; Brohm may be the one who helps lead them there.

#1 Dave Clawson, Wake Forest

Clawson is not flashy but comfortable with who he is. He has a method and a process, and the folks in Ann Arbor and Evanston at least inquired if Clawson was interested in something bigger than what he has in Winston-Salem. Clawson has many challenges. Wake is a smaller private school and is not as adept at NIL and the Transfer Portal as some of its counterparts. He has shown a steady hand, something the conference and many of its coaches may need with the road ahead.

Photo Credit: David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports


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