Ranking the Top 25 OCs in college football in 2023
Editor’s note: Saturday Tradition continues its annual Top 25 preview week with a ranking and analysis of the best play-callers in 2023.
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First, let’s lay down ground rules to ranking the top 25 offensive coordinators in college football.
There’s only 1: No head coaches allowed.
That eliminates Lincoln Riley and Josh Heupel and Ryan Day and Dana Holgerson and every other head coach who runs the offense and calls the plays — but gives a title to an assistant coach.
Those guys get too much credit and criticism for everything else, anyway.
Here, then, are the 25 best play-callers in college football entering the 2023 season.
25. Collin Klein, Kansas State
A former All-American QB for K-State, Klein moved into the coordinator role in 2022 and immediately made an impact. He kept Will Howard engaged after Nebraska transfer Adrian Martinez won the job. But in late October, Martinez sustained a lower leg injury, and Howard became the primary QB. The offense took off, scoring 48, 31, 48, 47 and 31 points in 5 straight Big 12 wins — including a 31-28 win in the conference championship game against TCU.
24. Jake Spavital, Cal
Spatival was fired as Texas State coach at the end of last season, but he has been among the game’s best coordinators for the past decade. A Mike Leach disciple, Spav has a difficult job ahead at Cal: Develop a quarterback (Sam Jackson or Ben Finley) and help save coach Justin Wilcox’s job.
23. Tim Cramsey, Memphis
Cramsey produced elite offenses at blue-blood FCS schools (Montana State, Sam Houston State) before taking the same job at Marshall 2018-21. Memphis was 22nd in the nation in scoring offense in his 1st season, an increase of 30 spots from 2021 (52nd in the nation). Tigers will be more dangerous this year in QB Seth Henigan’s 3rd season as a starter.
22. Graham Harrell, Purdue
This is Harrell’s 3rd OC job in 3 seasons, after time with USC (2019-21) and West Virginia (2022). It will also be his 3rd season with a former blue-chip recruit. He spent 2019 with JT Daniels and Kedon Slovis at USC, 2020 with Slovis, and 2021 with Slovis and Jaxson Dart. He reunited with Daniels at WVU in 2022, and now he’ll have QB Hudson Card, who lost out on the Texas job and transferred to Purdue.
21. Robert Anae, NC State
Anae is a longtime coordinator who worked 9 seasons at BYU (2 different staffs) before moving on to Virginia and Syracuse. He followed former UVa coach Bronco Mendenhall to Virginia and developed Brennan Armstrong into an elite thrower in 2021. He spent 2022 at Syracuse, and returned to NC State this season to work again with Armstrong — who transferred from Virginia.
20. Beau Baldwin, Arizona State
Baldwin was the head coach at Central and Eastern Washington for more than a decade, where he developed elite quarterbacks in the NCAA lower divisions. His time as a Power 5 OC (at Cal) was uneven with a defense-oriented team. He’ll be a better fit at Arizona State, where new coach Kenny Dillingham wants an offense that presses defenses.
19. Alex Atkins, Florida State
FSU coach Mike Norvell has given Atkins more control of the offense over the past 2 seasons, and 2023 will be an Atkins show. QB Jordan Travis is playing better than ever, and the Noles are loaded with weapons on the outside. A big season could lead to a head coaching job.
18. Will Stein, Oregon
Go watch UTSA’s 2022 game tape. Look at the offense, and how Stein puts the defense in constant conflict. Stein is 33, and he’s already on the fast track to a head coaching job. He was in high demand this offseason, despite only having 1 FBS season as an OC.
17. Ben Arbuckle, Washington State
Only 3 years ago, Arbuckle was the OC at Seminole High School in Seminole, Texas. He spent 2021 as a offensive quality control coach at Western Kentucky before being promoted to OC in 2022. The Hilltoppers then finished 15th in the nation in scoring offense, and QB Austin Reed led the nation in pass yards (4,744) and was 3rd in TDs (40). You’re welcome, Cameron Ward.
16. Jeff Grimes, Baylor
One of the most respected offensive line coaches in the country, Grimes got his shot as OC in 2018 at BYU under coach Kalani Sitake. Zach Wilson developed into a top 5 NFL Draft pick in Grimes’ offense. In 2021, Baylor won the Big 12 despite the loss of starting QB Gerry Bohanon for the last 3 games of the season.
15. Charlie Weis Jr., Ole Miss
A high value assistant in college football and the NFL, Weis has followed Lane Kiffin to FAU and Ole Miss, with a break at USF in between. His meticulous game-planning is legendary in both the NFL and college football, and Kiffin continues to give him a majority of the play-calling. The Rebels have had a top 30 scoring offense the past 2 seasons with Weis as OC.
14. Liam Coen, Kentucky
In 1 season as UK’s OC, Coen developed Will Levis from project Penn State transfer into a top 3 SEC quarterback, who a year later was a Day 2 NFL pick. Coen left for the NFL in 2022 and is back at UK to develop another transfer quarterback (Devin Leary) and rebuild the offense he left in good shape after the 2021 season.
13. Tommy Rees, Alabama
Alabama coach Nick Saban says Rees is “1 of the brightest guys I’ve come in contact with in a long, long time.” LSU coach Brian Kelly wanted Rees to leave Notre Dame last year, but Rees stayed with the Irish. That’s 2 of the game’s best coaches trying to hire a 31-year-old assistant, who suddenly has the biggest assistant coach job of any in college football.
12. Mike Bobo, Georgia
So he wasn’t much of a head coach. Big deal. He has proven chops as an OC and QB coach, and has developed 3 of the greatest quarterbacks in Georgia history: David Greene, Matt Stafford, Aaron Murray. Don’t be shocked when he does the same thing with current Georgia QB Carson Beck.
11. Chip Lindsey, North Carolina
His offenses have averaged at least 30 points a game in 8 of his 11 seasons. UCF was 26th in scoring offense last season and 11th in total offense in Lindsey’s 2nd job with coach Gus Malzahn (Auburn, 2017-18). The former Troy head coach (15-19 record from 2019-21) now gets a potential No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick QB Drake Maye to further develop.
10. Sean Lewis, Colorado
Lewis left the Kent State head coaching job to be Deion Sanders’ offensive coordinator. His KSU offense led the nation in scoring in 2020 and was on the verge of developing the first NFL Draft picks at Kent State since 2014 before the group left for the portal. WRs Dante Cephas (Penn State) and Devontez Walker (North Carolina) and offensive linemen Marcellus Marshall (UCF) and Savion Washington (Colorado) are all projected draft picks.
9. Jeff Lebby, Oklahoma
Lebby got his start under former Baylor coach Art Briles and eventually reunited with Josh Heupel, with whom he worked at Oklahoma as a student assistant. Heupel was critical in Lebby’s development as a play-caller, as was Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin (2020-21). Lebby moved to Oklahoma last season, and the Sooners’ offense was successful despite replacing Caleb Williams and limited help from a horrific defense.
8. Kendal Briles, TCU
Briles is a nomad of sorts in the industry, but he’s an elite coordinator and play-caller. TCU will be his 6th OC job since 2016, including stints with Baylor, FAU, Houston, FSU and Arkansas. Everywhere he has coached, the offense (and QB play) has gotten significantly better. He has left for better jobs, or more money — or both.
7. Mike Denbrock, LSU
Has spent a majority of his 3-plus decades in coaching with Brian Kelly at Grand Valley State, Notre Dame and last season at LSU. In the 5 years prior to last year, Denbrock’s offense (36.9 ppg.) was the reason Cincinnati finally broke though and made the Playoff. Last season at LSU, the Tigers got better — got dangerous — when the offense (34.5 ppg.) played with more consistency in the 2nd half of the season under new QB Jayden Daniels. Another big jump could translate to a special season.
6. Andy Ludwig, Utah
Ludwig, 59, has been coordinating offenses since the 1990s, including developing some of college football’s best quarterbacks in David Carr (Fresno State), Kellen Clemens (Oregon), Brian Johnson (Utah), Jim Sorgi (Wisconsin) and now Cam Rising with the Utes. Utah’s tight end-based passing game has become 1 of the most successful — and difficult to defend — in college football.
5. Bobby Petrino, Texas A&M
The longtime head coach has seen it all. But nothing will match the dynamics that could play out this season with the Aggies — good or bad. Petrino is an elite quarterbacks developer, and maybe the best play-caller of the past 2 decades. He understands offenses and how to attack defenses like few others. But his personality eventually rubs everyone the wrong way.
4. Ryan Grubb, Washington
His career has been tied to Kalen DeBoer, and he has been a fast riser over the past 3 seasons at Fresno State and Washington. His work with Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. last season changed everything. Penix went from a talented but inconsistent thrower to a projected 1st-round NFL Draft pick. Penix’s completion percentage increased 12 points, his yards per attempt by nearly 3 yards, and he went from 4 TD passes at Indiana in 2021 to 31 at Washington.
3. Garrett Riley, Clemson
If you can’t get the best in the business, why not get his brother? Clemson coach Dabo Swinney made the hire of the offseason when poaching Riley from TCU. He’s a carbon copy of his brother in the way he coordinates an offense and calls plays. And most important: How he develops quarterbacks. In his first season at the Power 5 level, TCU QB Max Duggan went from overachiever to Heisman Trophy finalist.
2. Phil Longo, Wisconsin
An OC legend in the NCAA lower divisions, Longo got his first break at Ole Miss in a difficult situation after the Hugh Freeze firing and Matt Luke hiring. Had top-35 offenses in 2 seasons, then took the North Carolina job with Mack Brown and developed 2 of the most prolific quarterbacks of the past 4 seasons (Sam Howell, Drake Maye). Longo is a Mike Leach Air Raid disciple who has added a downhill power run game to the system. Wisconsin football won’t look the same in 2023.
1. Warren Ruggiero, Wake Forest
No one is running the RPO game quite like Wake Forest, and Deacs coach David Clawson says it’s all because of Ruggiero. His past 3 quarterbacks have been the best in the ACC, or at the top: John Wolford, Jamie Newman, Sam Hartman. Ruggiero and Clawson have been together as an HC/OC combination since 2009 (Bowling Green and Wake Forest), and their offense is as prolific as any in the game. Wake Forest has had a top-25 scoring offense in 4 of the past 6 seasons.