- Associated Press - Thursday, September 8, 2011

The winningest coach in the history of college football will be on one sideline this Saturday. That would be Penn State’s Joe Paterno. On the other side will be Alabama’s Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide’s $4 million man and the best coach in college football today.

We’ll see whether he’s still on top Sunday morning.

Judging coaches is difficult because wins and losses aren’t always equal. An eight-win season makes Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald look like a genius. An eight-win season for Les Miles at LSU has Tigers fans pining for change.

But with some helpful suggestions from the AP Top 25 voters, we rank the 12 best coaches in college football right now (career records in parentheses).

1. Nick Saban (44-11 at Alabama, 135-53-1 overall). He’s a tireless recruiter. He’s put together talented and innovative staffs, despite being as demanding as any boss in the business. He’s won two national championships (one with LSU and another with Alabama) and now that he’s gotten that NFL itch out of his system, there’s no reason why the 59-year-old can’t rack up at least a couple more before he calls it quits.

From the panel: “Is there any other coach that strikes fear in opposing coaches’ hearts?” _ Kirk Bohls, Austin American-Statesmen.

2. Chris Petersen (62-5 at Boise State). Without five-star recruits, Petersen has established the Broncos as an elite program that usually performs at its best in its biggest games. Petersen’s winning percentage undoubtedly has gotten a boost from playing in the WAC, but do not for a second mistake him for his predecessor, Dan Hawkins.

From the panel: “You give him longer than a week to prepare for anyone and he beats them.” _ Erik Gee, KNML-AM, Albuquerque, N.M.

3. Bob Stoops (130-31 at Oklahoma). The days of being known as Big Game Bob have waned with three BCS title-game losses since winning Oklahoma’s last championship in 2000, his second season in Norman. If anything Stoops has become one of the most under-appreciated coaches in the country.

From the panel: “With a peerless eye for coaching talent, Stoops survives staff turnover better than anybody.” _ Dave Matter, Columbia Daily Tribune.

4. Pat Fitzgerald (35-29 at Northwestern). The former Northwestern star took over under the most trying circumstances, being promoted after the death of Randy Walker in 2006. The Wildcats went 4-8 that season, but haven’t had a losing record since. No coach, not even Petersen at Boise State, maximizes his resources better than Fitzgerald.

5. Gary Patterson (98-29 at TCU). There’s a lot of talent in Texas and Patterson has made a killing grabbing the hidden gems the Big 12 schools miss. His teams are tenacious and tend to adjust well during games, especially defensively.

From the panel: “He has done a marvelous job building and sustaining his program recruiting against Texas and Texas A&M.” _ Bill Cole, Winston-Salem Journal.

6. Steve Spurrier (45-33 at South Carolina, 187-73-2 overall). The Ball Coach put together one of the greatest runs in SEC history during the 1990s with Florida, a string of dominance only surpassed by Alabama great Bear Bryant. Since returning from the NFL and taking over at South Carolina, it might be tempting to deem his second act as mediocre, but this is a program that has never won the SEC. Now the Gamecocks are favored to get to the SEC championship for a second straight season.

7. Brian Kelly (8-6 with Notre Dame, 179-63-2 overall). As recently as last week, this wouldn’t have seemed like an odd choice. But in college football, especially at Notre Dame, every game becomes a referendum. From Grand Valley State to Central Michigan to Cincinnati, Kelly has been a master program builder. He’ll have the Fighting Irish consistently contending for BCS bowls.

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