Notre Dame Football's Brian Kelly A Consensus Top-Three Choice In The Athletic’s Top 25 Head Coaches Ranking For 2021
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Brian Kelly A Consensus Top-Three Coach In The Athletic’s Top 25 Ranking

The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel each released their annual ranking of college football’s top 25 coaches, an exercise that in recent years requires no deliberation in awarding the top two slots.

A familiar name, though, was tabbed as the best of the rest.

Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly landed at No. 3 on both lists, behind only Alabama’s Nick Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. That duo owns seven national titles since 2011. What Kelly lacks in that category, he makes up for in steadiness and the high floor Notre Dame has operated on in recent seasons.

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Notre Dame Fighting Irish football head coach Brian Kelly
The Athletic's Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel each ranked Kelly as the third-best coach in college football. (Photo by Bill Panzica)

“No, he hasn’t led the Fighting Irish to a national title, but he’s produced a bunch of really good teams and elevated the program,” Feldman wrote ($). “Since a 4-8 clunker in 2016, he’s continued to evolve and coached the Irish to a 43-8 record.”

Added Mandel ($): “In addition to making his second Playoff in three seasons last fall, Kelly won at least 10 games for the fifth time in six years. The Irish did that just twice in the 16 seasons prior to his arrival. Yes, his teams have been outclassed in the BCS/CFP by Alabama (twice) and Clemson, but no one farther down this list is beating those teams, either. In fact, the Irish in 2020 handed the Tigers their first regular-season loss in three years.”

Kelly landed above Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley on both writers’ lists. Feldman tabbed Penn State’s James Franklin at No. 5, while Mandel went with Ohio State’s Ryan Day.

In ranking coaches, the tricky task is balancing recent performance with career achievements. Whether the former or latter is emphasized more, or if it’s an even weight, Kelly’s Notre Dame tenure positions him as a strong contender for a high spot.

The Irish have six 10-wins campaigns and three BCS/College Football Playoff appearances in Kelly’s 11 seasons. Outside of Alabama and Clemson, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Ohio State are the only other teams to reach two of the last three playoffs.

Longevity, though, seems to be the factor that pushed Kelly ahead of Day and Riley. Day completed his second season as a head coach in 2020, while Riley wrapped up his fourth.

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