Most Clutch College Football Head Coaches

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistMay 25, 2014

Most Clutch College Football Head Coaches

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    What makes a football coach clutch?

    That's a good question.

    For players, it is obvious. We get to see them perform, tangibly, on the biggest stages, with the most on the line, and witness how fazed they are. Some players step up when the game is the closest, and others shrink from the spotlight.

    For coaches, the terms are not as obvious. For the purposes of this list, then, two things were taken into primary account: record in one-score games (how each team performs in crunch time) and record in the biggest games (how each team performs on grand stages).

    Having said that, though, the records in those scenarios weren't the only aspect considered. Context was considered as well. Auburn's Gus Malzahn, for example, won two huge games in crunch time last season against Georgia and Alabama. But the plays that won him those games—one a Hail Mary, one a field-goal return—were not necessarily examples of expert coaching. They just sort of…happened.

    That's not to say Malzahn is poor in the clutch. He is one of the best overall coaches in the country, and he might well prove himself its best clutch coach in time. Two years into his head-coaching career, however, he does not have the track record of some of his peers in the profession.

    That is what this list sought to find.

Jimbo Fisher, Florida State

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    Fisher didn't have to be clutch, per se, for most of 2013. Just dominant in every facet of the game.

    But in the BCS National Championship Game against Auburn, the Seminoles were tested in earnest for the first time all season. They endured a couple of early haymakers and didn't look like themselves for most of the first halfand much of the second half, too.

    But Fisher got the boys ready when he most needed to, and Florida State drove down the field to win the game with a touchdown with less than 15 seconds on the clock.

    The postseason prior, Fisher also got the Seminoles up for a BCS bowl game against scrappy Northern Illinois. That's something multiple other great coaches (two of whom are on this list) have failed to do against non-power-conference teams in the past.

Brian Kelly, Notre Dame

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    Notre Dame has thrived in the clutch since Brian Kelly's arrival, and Kelly has thrived in the clutch his whole career.

    According to Athlon Sports, Kelly went 19-5 in one-score games between 2008 and 2012. The Irish went 5-2 in such contests last season, upping those numbers to 24-7.

    He wins close games all day, every day.

    Some would deride Kelly for the spanking he took against Alabama in the 2013 BCS National Championship. That is understandable but misguided. He was up against a machine that would not be beaten.

    You still want him on the sideline when the game is on the line.

Urban Meyer, Ohio State

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    The end of last season was ugly, but a two-game sample is not enough to undo all the good Urban Meyer has done.

    The Buckeyes were ineligible for the postseason when Meyer took over in 2012, but he made the games matter to his players and finished the year undefeated. That is a clutch bit of coaching for a program that needed a lift, and the season included a number of close finishes to boot.

    What's more, Meyer is 2-0 in national titles games and 4-1 in BCS bowl games, winning his first in 2004 with Utah. Yes, the Utes played "only" Pittsburgh in that affair, but it felt important nonetheless.

    Focus on the large breadth of Meyer's career, not the losses to Michigan State and Clemson at the end of 2013. Doing so makes him an obvious inclusion on this list.

Chris Petersen, Washington

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    This comes off like hyperbole, and there are strong contrarian arguments that can be made, but Chris Petersen's first year at Boise State was the best head-coaching debut in college football history.

    The Broncos went 13-0 that season, capping things off with an upset over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. That game, which lives on in college football lore, featured a remarkable, last-second touchdown on a hook-and-ladder play and a wild finish in overtime.

    Petersen continued his success for seven more seasons at Boise State, racking up conference titles and bowl victories by the truckload.

    He is the consummate clutch college coach.

Nick Saban, Alabama

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    Like Urban Meyer, Nick Saban had a few uncharacteristic failings at the end of 2013.

    He and Alabama blew the Iron Bowl against Auburn with some decidedly stupid strategies, and they compounded that loss with a defensive no-show against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

    But let's not kid ourselves. Saban is still the best coach in college football, something to which his three national titles in five years will attest. He has his team ready to play when it most needs to, having won all four of his national title game appearances by an average of 18 points.

    Timing is everything. 

David Shaw, Stanford

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    Even though it lost to Michigan State in the 2014 Rose Bowl, Stanford has always been ready to play big games since David Shaw took over for Jim Harbaugh in 2011.

    Yes, the Cardinal are just 1-2 in BCS bowl games during that span, but all three affairs were close. His team never no-showed, playing well on each occasion.

    And Shaw still got them to three BCS games, didn't he? Doing so has required back-to-back wins in the Pac-12 Championship Game, which Stanford has dominated in each of the past two seasons.

    And if you think the loss to Sparty will be the start of a negative trend, think again.

    "The successes and failures help you," Shaw told Bruce Feldman of FoxSports.com. "And sometimes you really learn from the losses the things we could've done better, but you also learn in victory."

    Shaw has done the right amount of both.

Bill Snyder, Kansas State

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    According to Athlon Sports, Bill Snyder had the best record of active head coaches in games decided by one score or less between 2008 and 2012 (min. 10 games).

    He was 17-4 entering the 2013 season, and even though those numbers regressed toward the mean with a 1-2 performance (making him 19-6 overall), it is impossible to ignore how good he has been.

    Kansas State is not a recruiting powerhouse. Snyder has taken a cast of largely JUCO recruits—ostensibly "troubled" players, players who are missing a piece—and plied them into a team that is hard to beat when the game is on the line.

    There's a reason they call him "The Wizard."

Bob Stoops, Oklahoma

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    I suppose this will be controversial.

    A decade ago, Bob Stoops would have been a shoo-in for this list. Ten years later, now that his "Big Game Bob" moniker is a facetious joke instead of an earnest compliment, he is a more contentious inclusion.

    Still, though, in beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl this past season, Stoops proved he could still do his best coaching in the clutch. He proved it against Oklahoma State in Bedlam, too—and that was the game that got Oklahoma to the Sugar Bowl in the first place.

    Here's what Bleacher Report's Ben Kercheval had to say when the Sugar Bowl upset was over:

    So much is made of Saban having a month to prepare for an opponent and the success he has as a result. Well, how about Stoops?

    In that vein, this should go down as one of Stoops' best coaching jobs at Oklahoma. Between inconsistent, revolving quarterback play and injuries to key defensive players like linebacker Corey Nelson, getting 11 wins for the ninth time is impressive. 

    Exactly.