2024 Big Ten football head coach rankings from 1 to 18: With no Jim Harbaugh, Ryan Day claims top spot

On3 imageby:Jesse Simonton03/25/24


It’s the spring, which means pollen-covered cars, March Madness and head coach rankings!

That’s right, it’s time for the 2024 series ranking the head coaches from each Power Conference, the Top 10 in the Group of 5 and an updated Top 25 for all of college football. 

We started the series last week looking at the 16 head coaches in the SEC. Today, it’s the Big Ten’s time in the spotlight.

While the sport continues to adapt to a new landscape, coupled with losing venerable coaches like Nick Saban, Jim Harbaugh and Chip Kelly, these head coach rankings will look much differently than they did a year ago

For the uninitiated, these lists are totally subjective. This is meant to be a fun exercise, but it’s my rankings.

While career achievements are taken into account, college football has become a sport that’s constantly changing, so recent performance (wins, recruiting, working the transfer portal, hiring assistants, producing NFL Draft picks, etc) is weighed much more heavily than what you’ve done in the past. 

Entering the 224 season, the Big Ten head coach rankings look considerably different than they did just one year ago. There’s no Jim Harbaugh or Pat Fitzgerald. Hello, Pac-12 compadres Lincoln Riley, Dan Lanning, Jedd Fisch and DeShaun Foster. And where do you rank Sherrone Moore or Jonathan Smith?

There’s plenty to debate. Let’s dive in.

Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

No. 1 Ryan Day, Ohio State

Day hasn’t beaten Michigan in three years, but he continues to win most all his other games (56-8 as a head coach) and sign Top 3 recruiting classes. He was a missed field goal away from likely winning a national championship in 2022, and the Buckeyes, who return the bulk of their Top 10 defense and have one of the best 2024 transfer portal hauls, will be top title contenders next season. 

Because of the Wolverines’ recent run, Day faces more pressure than any head coach on this list, but he could erase a lot of doubt if he wins big next fall. He’s an excellent recruiter and a savvy offensive mind. Ceding play-calling duties and hiring Chip Kelly as Ohio State’s new OC was a bold decision that could be for the betterment of the program, too. 

No. 2 Lincoln Riley, USC

Last season was a disaster for Riley and the Trojans, as USC stumbled to 8-5 despite bringing back Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams. USC’s continued defensive failings finally forced Riley to make some major staff changes this offseason

Still, 2023 was an overall outlier year in Riley’s head coaching career. He remains an offensive savant and QB whisperer. He’s recorded double-digit win seasons in four of six years as a head coach, and he’s on a recruiting heater here in 2024 — suggesting USC is serious about its move into the Power Two.

No. 3 Dan Lanning, Oregon

It’s funny — you could make the case this ranking is too high for Dan Lanning or too low.

He’s only been a head coach for two seasons, but in that time he’s won 22 games, flirted with a pair of Pac-12 Championships and recruited at the best rate in school history. Lanning has also assembled one of the top staffs in the country, and he seamlessly replaced offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham with Will Stein last offseason — a noted strong quality for a first-time head coach. 

Lanning is at the forefront of using NIL to his program’s advantage, and is building a monster in Eugene. Despite his youth and inexperience, Lanning was a hot commodity on the coaching market this year, as the former Georgia DC was a rumored top target for Texas A&M and Alabama. His next challenge is solving Oregon’s Washington problem (0-3 last two seasons) and winning more close games. 

No. 4 James Franklin, Penn State

Franklin is 21-5 the last two seasons, yet Penn State is viewed as an underachieving program because it cannot beat Ohio State (seven losses in a row) or Michigan (last win in 2020). Franklin has also burned through offensive coordinators with the Nittany Lions, but he looks to have finally landed on the perfect fit in Kansas’ Andy Kotelnicki

Still, that’s a projection. But the opportunity is there for the program to take the next step under its veteran head coach. Franklin has recruited at a Top 15 clip and returns a stacked roster in 2024 — just in time for the expanded playoff. If he can start winning some games against Top 25 teams (5-10 the last three seasons), then Penn State might actually contend for a conference title again. 

No. 5 Kirk Ferentz, Iowa

Ferentz has feasted on beating up bad teams in the Big Ten West for the last 25 years, managing to win two division titles since 2021 despite fielding historically terrible offenses. He was finally forced to move on from his son Brian Ferentz as Iowa’sm much-maligned offensive coordinator, but a long and drawn-out search ended up with a rather uninspiring hire in Tim Lester

But while it’s easy to criticize Ferentz for his stubbornness or his program’s problems with nepotism, his track record of success — from winning games (10-win seasons in three of the last four years) to developing no-name recruits into NFL prospects — speaks for itself. With Iowa churning out Top 10 defenses (hat-tip to longtime Ferentz lieutenant Phil Parker) on an annual basis, if the Hawkeyes can even field a semi-serviceable offense they could contend for a CFP spot in the newly-expanded field.

No. 6 Luke Fickell, Wisconsin

Year 1 was a letdown for Fickell, as the Badgers went from preseason Big Ten West favorites to struggling for bowl eligibility. The transition away from the program’s traditional smash-mouth football to Phil Longo’s ‘Dairy Raid’ proved clunky, and Wisconsin’s special teams were an abject disaster. 

Still, Fickell is a shrew program builder who won big at Cincinnati (57-18, lone Group of 5 coach to crack the CFP). He’s developed some 20 NFL Draft picks the last few seasons, and has already utilized better resources to ink a Top 25 recruiting class and bring in a host of impact transfers at Wisconsin. 

No. 7 Matt Rhule, Nebraska

The Cornhuskers went 5-7 in Rhule’s first season in Lincoln, losing four consecutive one-score games to end the year. Nebraska was plagued by many of the same pitfalls that have beset the program in recent years (a zillion turnovers, poor quarterback play), but Rhule has the team primed for a major Year 2 leap in 2024

Flipping 5-star quarterback Dylan Raiola from Georgia could be the key to unlocking a new future for the Cornhuskers. Rhule has been a turnaround wizard at every collegiate stop (a total of three double-digit win seasons at Temple and Baylor), and with the resources he has in Lincoln, there’s no reason he can’t resurrect the once proud, tradition-rich program. 

No. 8 Jonathan Smith, Michigan State

Smith rebuilt his alma mater into a competent, competitive program the last five years, finishing in the Top 25 in his final two seasons at Oregon State. He’s a strong offensive coach, with plenty of upside now he’s at a school with a better recruiting footprint and overall financial backing. 

The former Beavers quarterback brought budding sophomore star Aidan Chiles with him to East Lancing, and while turning around the Spartans’ program is going to take some time, Smith has the right personality, makeup and staff to get the job done. 

No. 9 Sherrone Moore, Michigan

How do you rank Sherrone Moore? It’s a tricky question, as he hit a home run in his on-the-job interview as Michigan’s interim head coach (3-0 with Top 10 wins over Ohio State and Penn State), yet now he’s dealing with the challenges of following a legend and assembling a staff and roster capable of keeping Michigan on the throne of the Big Ten. 

Moore is tasked with taking a title team that lost the majority of its notable contributors (especially on offense) and steering the program into the future. He had some initial difficulties assembling his Year 1 staff, but landed on a good group — notably poaching Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford.

No. 10 Jedd Fisch, Washington

Fisch parlayed his first 10-win season into a much better job with the Huskies, but it’s hardly been a smooth transition with Washington seeing mass deflections to the portal and AD who hired him bolting for the same job at Nebraska. 

The former longtime NFL assistant proved doubters wrong at Arizona, so if he can keep Washington competitive in its most to the Big Ten, he could use the Huskies as a stepping-stone for an even bigger gig — something that shouldn’t be a surprise considering how much he’s moved around in his career. The challenge is he’ll be compared to Kalen DeBoer from the jump, and Fisch simply doesn’t have the roster (must replace 20 of 22 starters) to win double-digit games in 2024. 

No. 11 Bret Bielema, Illinois

Bielema is super difficult to handicap in these rankings because he has three Big Ten Championships to his name, but he’s also been a sub-.500 head coach since leaving Wisconsin. 

And yet, ‘Bert’ has done a decent job at Illinois — all things considered. Last season was disappointing (5-7 after competing for a division title in 2022), but Bielema has turned multiple developmental recruits into top NFL Draft picks, made quality staff hires and raised the excitement around the program. 

The one pressing issue? He still struggles as an in-game head coach, with far too many frustrating one-score losses (seven in the last two years alone). 

No. 12 Curt Cignetti, Indiana

The former James Madison head coach was one of the best hires in the 2023-24 cycle, as Indiana landed a capital ‘F’ Football coach with zero losing seasons in 13 years as a head coach. Cignetti has a holds-no-barge attitude that should play well with a woebegone program in need of some juice. He had the Dukes in the Top 25 in their first season transitioning from the FCS to the FBS, and keeping the Hoosiers out of the Big Ten basement in Year 1 would be a similar success. 

Cignetti coaches an exciting brand of offense, which should boost an Indiana attack that returns some fun pieces like quarterback Brendan Sorsby to wideouts Donaven McCulley and Omar Cooper. He also brought in 22 transfers during the initial window — including 10 former JMU players.

No. 13 P.J. Fleck, Minnesota

Fleck was a candidate for the UCLA opening, but he remained the Gophers’ head coach, and will enter his eighth season with the program this fall. After consecutive 9-4 campaigns, Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten West in in 2023 (6-7) — with the Gophers’ offense and defense totally falling apart. 

Still, Fleck, who has a very polarizing personality, is 50-34 as a head coach with a pair of double-digit win seasons on his resume. He’s 4-0 in bowl games with Minnesota. A Big Ten Championship appearance (something that has never happened in school history) is unlikely to be in the cards with no more divisions, but taking the Gophers bowling annually should be considered a success.

No. 14 Mike Locksley, Maryland

For the first time in 20 years, the Terps are coming off back-to-back 8-5 seasons. Locksley had his struggles as a head coach (five losing seasons to start his career including a terrible tenure at New Mexico, 2-26), but he seems to have found his footing and has raised the program’s floor competency. The next challenge? Winning more conference games in a division-less Big Ten.

Recruiting remains far too stagnant (another Top-45 class) for a program that sits in a nice footprint of talent, but Locksley has been good at addressing roster holes via the portal (this year it was QB and OL).   

No. 15 Greg Schiano, Rutgers

Schiano took the Scarlett Knights bowling for the first time since returning to New Jersey, finishing 7-6 with an upset over Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl. With the program trending in a better direction, Schiano signed an extension this offseason, too. 

Rutgers remains one of the hardest jobs among all Power Conference teams, but no longer facing the annual gauntlet of the Big Ten East, the Knights’ schedule lightens up considerably in 2024 (no Ohio Tate, Michigan, Penn State or Oregon). Schiano averaged eight wins per year during the last six seasons of his first tour in Piscataway. Can he lead the program back to its first eight-win season in a decade this fall?

No. 16 David Braun, Northwestern

Braun was in the mix for National Coach of the Year honors after navigating Northwestern out of the messy Pat Fitzgerald exit. The former North Dakota State defensive coordinator won eight games in inaugural season as the interim head coach, earning the promotion to lead the program full-time. 

Now that he’s exceeded expectations in Year 1, can he keep the Wildcats as a bowl team on an annual basis? That’s going to be a challenge, especially with total unknowns about his ability to recruit and develop a roster. He did a marvelous job with Fitzgerald’s players, and he still has a veteran team (No. 6 nationally in returning production) entering 2024, so he needs to take advantage now.

No. 17 Ryan Walters, Purdue

The Boilermakers ended Walters’ first season as a head coach winning two of their last three games (Minnesota, Indiana), but otherwise, it was a forgetful debut season in West Lafayette for the former Illinois defensive coordinator. Purdue has been hammered by the transfer portal this offseason (top players like Nic Scourton, Deion Burks and Garrett Miller are gone), but Walters has brought in some intriguing pieces from Georgia, Indiana and Notre Dame to at least plug some roster holes.

In a division-less league, Walters’ toughest task is keeping Purdue out of the bottom of the Big Ten in Year 2. That means fixing a defense — with less talent — that ranked last in the league in scoring (30.4 points per game) and 11th in yards per play (5.7) in 2023. 

No. 18 DeShaun Foster, UCLA

The former Bruins tailback takes over his alma mater during trying times, as former UCLA coach Chip Kelly fled Westwood for Ohio State in early February. As the Bruins make the transition to the Big Ten, their commitment to football has come into question — particularly when it comes to NIL fundraising and investment. 

Still, the team seemed to rally around Foster’s return to the program, and the first-time head coach has assembled an offensive staff heavy on NFL experience with the likes of offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, offensive line coach Juan Castillo and receivers coach Erik Frazier. Can Foster elevate UCLA’s recruiting? Is he able to mesh better with the Bruins’ boosters?