Ranking Big Ten football coaches: Where do Jim Harbaugh, Mel Tucker land?

Rainer Sabin
Detroit Free Press

In less than two weeks, the Big Ten will kick of its 2020 season.

It has been a bizarre experience until this point, as teams have been forced to endure unprecedented chaos that mushroomed for months.

Distractions were aplenty. Practice time was limited.

[ For Subscribers: Predicting a Big Ten football season a month before Michigan and MSU kick off ]

In so many ways, coaching will be the difference when the games begin. The Free Press takes a look at the men who do it best, ranking the 14 coaches leading Big Ten programs from bottom to top:

14. Mike Locksley, Maryland

Record: 4-14 at Maryland,(6-40 overall)

Buzz: Locksley resides at the bottom because of his unsightly record. But after returning to College Park in 2019, he has made some strides in recruiting that could eventually make Maryland competitive in the conference. Season Two for Locksley will be a continuation of a rebuild, but the Terps have some pieces in place that could put them in position to win in 2021.

13. Lovie Smith, Illinois

Record: 15-34

Buzz: Following a few miraculous events, including a stunning upset of Wisconsin and a shocking comeback against Michigan State, the Illini earned their first bowl berth in Smith’s tenure last season. But Smith has yet to post a winning record since arriving in Champaign in 2016 and it’s conceivable the Illini could take a step backward as they tackle a truncated conference-only schedule.

[ How Michigan's national championship dreams eroded with 2017 recruiting class ]

Sept. 26: Michigan at Rutgers. Quick fact: Greg Schiano returns to coach the Scarlet Knights, where he went 68-67 with 5 bowl wins in 2001-11.

12. Greg Schiano, Rutgers

Record: 68-67

Buzz: Following the disastrous Chris Ash era, Rutgers turned to the one man who made the Scarlet Knights relevant in the past 30 years. Schiano once carried Rutgers into the top 10 and posted six winning records in a span of seven seasons. But that was before the Scarlet Knights landed in the Big Ten, where they have now lost 21 straight games. Back home in Jersey, Schiano will have to work his magic one more time.

11. Mel Tucker, Michigan State

Record: 0-0 (5-7)

Buzz: Mark Dantonio’s sudden retirement in February left Michigan State scrambling. After a whirlwind coaching search, the Spartans snagged Tucker, a Nick Saban disciple who has earned high praise from those in the coaching fraternity. But he’s still unproven and it’s uncertain how much he’ll be able to accomplish with a roster that has holes in key areas. One thing is for sure: there has been no honeymoon for Tucker in 2020.

Michigan State coach Mel Tucker (middle) watches offensive lineman Spencer Brown (left) and defensive tackle Maverick Hansen battle during a drill Oct. 3, 2020 at Spartan Stadium.

Michigan State football and Mel Tucker can treat this season like a free play ]

10. Scott Frost, Nebraska

Record: 9-15 (28-22)

Buzz: The expectations were enormous when Frost returned to the Great Plains to rescue his alma mater. But the Cornhuskers remain in a rut and far removed from the national conversation. The program has not been to a bowl game since 2016 and it hasn’t made much headway on the recruiting trail. Now, Nebraska is saddled with an unforgiving schedule, which makes Frost’s job more challenging than it already was.

9. Jeff Brohm, Purdue

Record: 17-21 (47-31)

Buzz: Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Brohm is the second-highest paid coach in the Big Ten. For Brohm’s annual salary of $6.6 million, the Boilermakers have received two appearances in mid-tier bowl games and a losing record. Brohm’s upset of Ohio State in his second season in West Lafayette remains the peak moment of his tenure, and Purdue would like a greater return on its investment after progress was halted following an injury-riddled 2019 season.

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8. Tom Allen, Indiana

Record: 18-20

Buzz: Allen has managed to make football matter in the hoops hotbed of Bloomington. Last season, the Hoosiers won eight games and cracked the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1994. Indiana was so impressive that Alabama poached its strength and conditioning coaches and Fresno State tabbed IU’s offensive coordinator to lead its program. Under Allen, the Hoosiers can now hang with most Big Ten teams.

In offseason full of hyperbole, one Michigan star isn't falling prey to the hype ]

7. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern

Record: 99-79

Buzz: Last season, Fitzgerald experienced his worst season in his 15-year tenure at his alma mater. The Wildcats fell to 3-9 and looked like the doormat they had been prior to their mid-'90s resurrection. But 2019 would appear to be an aberration. Fitzgerald has proven he can consistently win in Evanston and the Wildcats are primed for a rebound year in 2020 with a new quarterback and offensive coordinator.

Sept. 12: Michigan at Minnesota. Quick fact: Golden Gophers are coming off an 11-2 season in Year 3 under P.J. Fleck, their most wins since 1904.

6. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota

Record: 23-15 (53-37)

Buzz: Sure, Fleck is a bit of a salesman, but the guy wins. He took Western Michigan to a New Year’s Six bowl and just helped Minnesota win 11 games for the first time in the modern era. Fleck, with his infectious personality, has brought attention to a program that has long been an afterthought in the Big Ten. If he can repeat the success of last season this fall, the Gophers may be here to stay.

Michigan State running back's return 'a lesson for somebody to don't give up' ]

5. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa

Record: 162-104

Buzz: The Hawkeyes may not be a great program. But they’ve been consistently good under Ferentz. Iowa has won at least eight games in 12 of the 21 seasons Ferentz has been in charge. While the Hawkeyes endured their share of turmoil this offseason as racial issues were brought to the fore, they’re expected to continue right along in 2020 and win more games than they lose.

4. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

Record: 47-18 (76-39)

Buzz: To some Michigan fans, Harbaugh is seen as a great coach. He has a .723 winning percentage since returning to Ann Arbor and has restored the Wolverines as a nationally competitive program. To others, he has been a failure. His teams have posted a 2-12 record against AP top-10 teams, have never beaten Ohio State, have lost four of their five bowl games and have yet to win their division. Harbaugh is the third-highest paid coach in the country. But Michigan has never finished the season ranked higher than 10 in his tenure.

Jim Harbaugh is the third-highest paid coach in the nation. But he is 0-5 against Ohio State.

Why Michigan's Jim Harbaugh needs Joe Milton to be something special ]

3. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin

Record: 52-16 (71-35)

Buzz: Since coming to Madison in 2015, Chryst has become Mark Dantonio 2.0. Over the years, he has done more with less — transforming rosters stocked with lower-rated recruits into winning outfits capable of hanging with the big boys on the national stage. Chryst has taken Wisconsin to three New Year’s Six bowls and has won 10 or more games four times. The consistent success has earned Chryst recognition as one of the better coaches in the country.

2. James Franklin, Penn State

Record: 56-23 (80-38)

Buzz: When James Franklin arrived in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions were still rebounding from scandal and the disastrous ending to Joe Paterno’s tenure as coach. Flash forward to the present and Penn State is knocking on the door of the College Football Playoff. In three of the past four seasons, Franklin has led his team to 11 wins. What he has done has been remarkable. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The guy once made Vanderbilt — Vanderbilt! — into a winner.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day and the Buckeyes will face Michigan State on Saturday.

1. Ryan Day, Ohio State

Record: 16-1.

Buzz: Day was gifted a Lamborghini when he replaced Urban Meyer on a full-time basis last season. But he didn’t crash it. In fact, he may have tricked it out even more. The Buckeyes raced to the College Football Playoff last season and are primed to do it again. On the recruiting trail, Day and Ohio State are lapping the Big Ten with four five-star prospects ready to join the team in 2021. And Day, with his relentless approach, shows no signs of letting off the gas pedal — much to the dismay of the rest of the league.

Contact Rainer Sabin at Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter