Ranking college football’s coaches, plus important Dartmouth basketball vote is coming today

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How close are college athletes to becoming employees? Senior writer Nicole Auerbach joins us today to weigh in on that question. But first, let’s debate one of our favorite things … rankings!

Ranking the Coaches

Debating Swinney, Rhule, Kiffin and more

It’s time for The Athletic’s annual college football head coach top 25 rankings. This year saw more turnover than ever before with two of the four CFP coaches leaving the college game (Nick Saban’s retirement and Jim Harbaugh’s NFL departure) and a third leaving the national runner-up for a new destination (Kalen DeBoer to Alabama). Those moves opened a lot of debate about who should follow the obvious choice for No. 1: Georgia’s Kirby Smart.

Let’s take a look at where Stewart Mandel and Bruce Feldman differed on the rankings and declare Until Saturday’s verdict on where we would rank that coach.

  • Clemson’s Dabo Swinney (No. 8 for Stewart, No. 2 for Bruce): Swinney is just a year removed from his eighth ACC championship, but his 2023 Tigers (9-4, 4-4 ACC) were his worst team in 13 years. He’s still a two-time national championship-winning coach, but the success seems to be on a downward trend. Verdict: Swinney deserves to drop.
  • Nebraska’s Matt Rhule (NR for Stewart, No. 18 for Bruce): Rhule’s first season in Lincoln was defined by late-game collapses and three-point losses. But it’s nothing he hasn’t seen before. The 49-year-old turned a 1-11 Baylor team in Year 1 into an 11-3 squad two years later. His Huskers scored big by landing QB Dylan Raiola in recruiting. Verdict: Rhule just misses the cut with a chance to prove himself in 2024.
  • Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin (No. 11 for Stewart, No. 21 for Bruce): The Rebels’ 11-2 campaign in 2023 ended on a high note, and all signs point toward the upward trajectory continuing in Oxford. But, as Bruce points out, Kiffin is 10-23 against Top 25 teams. He needs more quality wins. Verdict: Put Kiffin in the middle of the pack.
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Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss Rebels are coming off an 11-2 season in 2023. (Brett Davis / USA Today)

Key Vote Today

How close is employee status for athletes?

The Dartmouth men’s basketball team will vote on whether to unionize today, another moment that directly threatens the NCAA’s fight against treating college athletes as employees. In a story that broke down the dilemma, Nicole spoke to dozens of sports law experts for context. And I had some questions for Nicole about her reporting:

Northwestern’s football team bid to unionize in 2015, but it was rejected by the NLRB. Why could Dartmouth’s efforts end differently?

It feels like a different environment now — and I mean that in terms of how the public feels about college athlete compensation as well as the legal environment. The world changed when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the NCAA in Alston back in the summer of 2021 — because the decision showed that the judges did not buy into the NCAA’s long-standing arguments in defense of its version of amateurism and Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote a scathing concurring opinion that essentially asked for more lawsuits challenging the NCAA’s business model.

That September, NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo published a memo, taking the official position that certain college athletes are employees under the National Labor Relations Act and, therefore, are entitled to statutory protections. And here we are, with multiple lawsuits alleging antitrust violations and multiple cases (Dartmouth and an unfair labor practices charge filed on behalf of USC) that challenge the NCAA through NLRB avenues.

Plus, on a more practical level: The Northwestern football team’s 2015 bid to unionize was rejected by the NLRB because Northwestern was the only private school in the Big Ten, competing against public schools over which the NLRB does not have jurisdiction. Essentially, it didn’t make sense for only one team at one school to have a bargaining unit. The Ivy League, on the other hand, is made up entirely of private schools with similar profiles. It’s much easier to make the case that, if Dartmouth men’s basketball players are employees, so would all Ivy League men’s basketball players. Or perhaps all Ivy League athletes.

What are the repercussions on college athletics as a whole, if the Dartmouth team votes to form a union?

We already know that the university is going to challenge this. The school already tried (unsuccessfully) to reopen the record and challenge the regional director’s finding that the men’s basketball players are employees and entitled to unionize. Whatever happens on Tuesday will not be the end of the battle on this campus.

The NLRB only covers private employees, so it’s not like a Dartmouth union automatically means that the Alabama football team can form a union. But the idea, union organizers always say, is that a successful union drive inspires others to do the same — and that’s how it turns into a full-on labor movement. We’re seeing that with graduate student workers who have unionized across various campuses in recent years. They’re inspired by those in similar conditions elsewhere who use collective action to earn better salaries, more protections, pensions, etc.

What challenge for athletes becoming employees has the most unclear answer (non-revenue vs. revenue sports, the payment structure, etc.)?

This was the hardest part of my reporting. There are so many wrinkles to this conversation and any future college athlete employment model that it’s hard to know exactly how each one will come into play. And it matters which domino falls first to lay the groundwork for the business model itself. The most fascinating conversations I had with the many labor lawyers I spoke to were about the bargaining unit. It’s easy for fans or pundits to say: Unionize! But who makes up the bargaining unit? Football players only? Starters only? Do you have different unions by sport? Across a conference? There’s no parallel for anything nearly as diverse or large as an NCAA-wide bargaining unit. I could see it taking years to determine the answers to these questions.

Even if you look at a professional sports league as a comparison because those are organizations that cross states (and states have individual statutes and labor laws), it’s still ultimately not that many athletes and not that many ownership groups/joint employers. This will be so, so much more complicated.

And no one knows exactly how Title IX will come into play in the employment model. So, that’s another massive and complicated piece of the puzzle as well.

NFL Combine Takeaways

Analyzing Bruce’s thoughts from Indy

Bruce spent last week in Indianapolis at the NFL Scouting Combine. Let’s break down a few of his biggest takeaways (read the rest here).

  1. Could Michael Penix Jr. be selected in the first round? Count Bruce as a believer. Penix had a great showing in Indy, and he threw the ball much better than any other QB, according to several NFL sources who were inside watching evaluations live.
  2. This wide receiver class is loaded. While Texas’ Xavier Worthy clocked in a combine record 4.21-second 40-yard dash, others like Washington’s Rome Odunze added to their draft stock. Some NFL personnel were more intrigued by Odunze than Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. Odunze is Bruce’s new can’t-miss prospect.
  3. Western Michigan provided some hidden gems. Edge Marshawn Kneeland ran a faster three-cone and shuttle than all of this year’s defensive linemen and linebackers. Former teammate Braden Fiske was another breakout star who received good reviews after his interviews.

Speaking of the NFL, please welcome Scoop City to our newsletter family. You can subscribe to the free NFL newsletter now!

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Former Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was impressive at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. (Kevin Sabitus / Getty Images

Quick Snaps

Ari Wasserman ranks the 10 most impactful uncommitted 2025 prospects in his recruiting big board today.

Alabama held its first spring practice with DeBoer (its first spring without Saban since 2006!). Kenny Smith takes a look at the Tide’s fresh start.

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(Top photo of Dabo Swinney: James Gilbert / Getty Images)

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