The Top 16 Coaching Candidates in College Football

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Yesterday the state of Mississippi put on an early Halloween costume — the coaching grim reaper.

Gene Chizik’s Auburn team rolled into Oxford and lost by 21, then later that same evening Derek Dooley’s Vols hit Starkville and lost by ten. Both losses solidified the fates of Gene Chizik and Derek Dooley, barring an unexpected and massive upset by either coach’s team — which is about as likely as an asteroid striking the earth — each man will be unemployed by December.

Potentially sooner.

Yep, it’s time to hang up the orange pants and the leather jacket for good.

Auburn and Tennessee are two of the top jobs in the country. Both schools have massive athletic departments, fan bases, and stadiums. In each school the football team is the engine of commerce that fuels all additional team sports.  

Arkansas will also be hiring a new coach and so will Kentucky.

That means there will be four head coaching jobs open in the SEC. Given that Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long has proven he will spend big money to hire the right guy, this means three schools with massive resources will be competing for the top coaching talent in America. Kentucky isn’t a really desirable job, but the Wildcats are payiing Joker Phillips nearly $2 million a year. So they’ll make someone rich as well.

You thought past years were crazy?

Wait until four SEC jobs open up in the same season.  

Toss in the Texas Longhorns, fresh off an astounding 63-21 beat down from Oklahoma, and it’s possible that Texas, the best overall job in the nation according to my ranking of the top 25 college football jobs in America, really upsets the coaching carousel. 

It’s a good time to be a successful head coach.

But it’s a better time to be an agent.

In fact, it’s always a good time to be an agent since college coaches are the only highly skilled professionals on earth who are able to maintain permanent free agent status. The CEO of Coke can’t jump to Pepsi in one day. But the coach of Alabama could theoretically take over at Auburn without any hindrance.

Perpetual college coaching free agency is an amazing situation, the purest unvarnished marketplace in America today. Contracts mean nothing, every year is a whole new ball game.

If you’re firing a former head coach who didn’t pan out, you better not hire another coach who hasn’t even organized a spring camp. Successful head coaches are much less risky propositions. So save your Kirby Smart talk for someone else.

With that in mind, here are the top 16 head coaching candidates in the country. (FYI, I’m only including coaches that I think would change jobs. Although I’m rooting for Texas to offer Nick Saban $10 million a year just to see how much Alabama would end up paying him to stay).

Here’s the Outkick the Coverage coaching sweet 16:

1. Chris Petersen

Maybe he never leaves Boise State.

But every time a big job comes open he has to at the top of any list until he says no.

See, I espouse the dump truck theory. That is, you make it known who your top target is, fill up a dump truck with cash, and hold a press conference in the coach’s front yard after dumping out the cash. You offer as much money as you can afford and make that offer public. If a top coach says no, so what? I don’t think this humiliates the program, I think it does the opposite — demonstrates that you want the best and are willing to pay for it.

Put it this way, do you blame the guy who gets shot down by the hottest girl at the bar? Or do you admire the confidence in going after the best?

I want to go after the best.

And Petersen is the best.

2. Jon Gruden

Trust me, he’s going to be interested in Tennessee.

He’s not going to pull a John Madden and become a television commentator for the rest of his professional career. I’ve been told that the grind of being a coach in the NFL isn’t as appealing to him as being able to go out and recruit the top players in the country and develop them. 

The Vols would have to pull out the checkbook and pay him $5 million a year. 

But if they’re willing to do this, Gruden, a former Vol graduate assistant who married a Tennessee cheerleader, is going to listen. 

In fact, I think there’s a good chance that if Tennessee will show him the money that Jon Gruden is your next Volunteer coach.  

3. Bobby Petrino

A guaranteed winner no matter where he goes.

He’s already taken Louisville and Arkansas to the BCS, can you imagine what he’d do with an Auburn, a Tennessee, or a, gulp, Texas?

Yes, Petrino is a jerk with off-field issues. 

But so what?

He wins.

If every coach who had an affair was ineligible to continue coaching, there would be a lot of empty sidelines come kickoff.  

While Petrino has off-field flaws, do you know what he’s never had? NCAA issues.

Or trouble selling out stadiums.

If I was Kentucky, I’d fire Joker Phillips today and hire Petrino tomorrow. You’ve already gone rogue with a guy with NCAA issues in John Calipari, Petrino’s actually less of a risk than Cal. Why not actually win a few football games for a change? The longer you wait, the more likely it is that Auburn swoops in and grabs Petrino.

4. Gary Patterson

He’s been at TCU a long time, but would he be interested in finally making the move to a bigger program?

Or does he feel like TCU, now in the Big 12, is a big enough program already?

TCU’s a private school so we don’t know exactly what he earns, but all of these schools could make him an offer that TCU couldn’t match.

The guy is 114-31 in 11 full seasons at TCU.

Plus, he plays the hard-nosed style of defensive ball that many feel you have to embrace to win in the SEC.

Isn’t it time for someone to make Patterson an offer he can’t refuse?

5. Charlie Strong

A proven coordinator in the SEC, Strong has now built Louisville into a juggernaut. 

Louisville is likely to go 11-1 or 12-0 this year and could be even better next year. The only real question about Strong is whether he’d like to stay one more season with the Cardinals to make his stock even higher. 

But with three big-time SEC jobs coming open in the same season, how much hotter could his stock get? Remember, it’s not just how you’re doing as a coach, it’s how you’re doing as a coach when the right jobs come open. 

Timing is everyhing. 

And right now Strong is peaking at exactly the right moment. 

6. Dana Holgorsen

Yes, he’s coming off a thumping at Texas Tech, but Holgorsen is so hot right now that West Virginia gave him an extension before the season even began.

Holgorsen scores points and plays an exciting brand of ball. In this day and age, you’ve got to have some sizzle with your steak. Otherwise, why not just stay home and watch all the games on your mammoth television screens?

Put simply, Holgo puts butts in seats.

Just make sure there aren’t any casinos near campus.

7. Dan Mullen

It’s important to consider a program’s past history when you analyze how well someone has done at their job.

Using that standard, Mullen has succeeded well beyond anyone in Starkville’s wildest hopes.

Mullen won nine games in his second season and could win ten in his fourth. Mississippi State has never won more than nine games in the regular season in the history of the program. So if he wins ten games in the regular season this year, Mullen will have done something that no one has ever done before in the history of the Bulldog program.

I think Mullen would win even bigger at any big time SEC or national job.

8. James Franklin

Yes, Vandy is just 2-4 this season, but the second half of the season’s schedule gets much easier.

Last year Franklin took Vandy to a bowl game. Starting with Auburn this weekend — Tiger fans might even consider this game to be a coaching audition — Vandy has a pretty fair shot of winning each of their final six games. If Franklin can go 4-2 or better he will have done something no coach at Vandy has ever done before, go to back-to-back bowl games. 

Given how well he’s recruited, what a consummate salesman he is, and how much he’s energized a moribund program, Franklin would cure what ails many programs — lack of enthusiasm and lagging ticket sales. 

The only catch here is that Vandy is paying Franklin a ton of money and he truly loves Nashville. 

Would he leave after just two seasons?

It would have to be a hell of an offer.  

9. Pete Carroll

Okay, maybe too much of a reach, but don’t you have to make the phone call?

The Seahawks are 3-2 this year, presently in fourth place in the suddenly competitive NFC West.

Does Carroll miss college? And did he leap to the NFL to avoid the USC sanctions?

You have to at least call him, right?

10. David Cutcliffe

If Cutcliffe had an exciting personality, he’d probably be near the top of this list.

An unquestioned student of the game, he’s molded Peyton and Eli Manning and will have Duke in a bowl game this fall. How impressive is that? Duke hasn’t been to a bowl game since 1995, and has been to just two bowl games since 1961.  

Cutcliffe’s biggest problem is that he’s just boring.

But the guy knows football.

And his offenses are anything but boring.

Now in his fifth season at Duke he’s got the Blue Devils 5-2.

Duke is probably the worst job in the big five conferences and Cutcliffe has won there. Plus, his 44-29 record at Ole Miss looks pretty good in comparison to the two guys who replaced him. He’s not a sexy hire, but he would win.  

11. Butch Jones

Cincinnati is undefeated this year and Jones has them on a roll.

In two weeks the Bearcats play undefeated Louisville in a game that will feature two of our top coaching candidates.

Is Jones ready to take the next step at a big-time program?

We’ll see.

But he’s got the Bearcats rolling.

12. Butch Davis

Did you see the talent that Butch Davis put together at North Carolina?


But did you also see the steaming pile of mess that Davis left behind?


Will that keep Arkansas from hiring him?

We’ll see. 

What we know is this, Davis will win. 

What we don’t know is this, will the wins still exist after he leaves? 

13. Art Briles

Another guy who took over an awful job and achieved unparalleled program success, the knock on Briles may well be that he just had a single amazing year with a single amazing talent.

Basically, the Cam Newton effect.

But if you look at Briles’s career record, that’s not really fair. He’s been pretty successful at both Houston and Baylor.

If he has a good 2012 season without Robert Griffin III then his turnaround of Baylor will be further legitimized.

So will his coaching bona fides.

14. Al Golden

After taking Temple to consecutive winning seasons, Golden walked into a complete mess at Miami.

He’s managed to get the Hurricances to 4-2 this season, but with his athletic director bailing, negligible fan support, and the continuing fallout from the booster crisis, might Golden be willing to bolt?

He just might.

15. Willie Taggart

Taggart has worked wonders at Western Kentucky.

His team is 12-2 in its last 14 games with the only losses coming on the road at LSU last year and on the road at Alabama this season.

Taggart is just 35 years old, the youngest FBS coach in the nation, and he’s also got the Jim Harbaugh stamp of approval having served as Stanford’s running backs coach during the Cardinal rise to national prominence.

In Taggart’s first season the Hilltoppers were 2-10.

After a winning season last year, WKU is 5-1 this season with a road win at Kentucky.

His work in three years time is simply astounding.

What could he do at a bigger program?

I think we find out soon.

16. Sonny Dykes

Last night Dykes’s Louisiana Tech team played a wild 59-57 game against Texas A&M. Dykes lost, but his team is 5-1 and had crept into the top 25.

Dykes plays an exciting brand of football, and his players seem to genuinely like him.

He’s Derek Dooley’s replacement at Tech, and he’s been much more successful than Dooley ever was.

This is the guy that I think ends up at Kentucky. 

And I think it’s a good hire.    

Written by Clay Travis

Clay Travis is the founder of the fastest growing national multimedia platform, OutKick, that produces and distributes engaging content across sports and pop culture to millions of fans across the country. OutKick was created by Travis in 2011 and sold to the Fox Corporation in 2021.

One of the most electrifying and outspoken personalities in the industry, Travis hosts OutKick The Show where he provides his unfiltered opinion on the most compelling headlines throughout sports, culture, and politics. He also makes regular appearances on FOX News Media as a contributor providing analysis on a variety of subjects ranging from sports news to the cultural landscape. Throughout the college football season, Travis is on Big Noon Kickoff for Fox Sports breaking down the game and the latest storylines.

Additionally, Travis serves as a co-host of The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show, a three-hour conservative radio talk program syndicated across Premiere Networks radio stations nationwide.

Previously, he launched OutKick The Coverage on Fox Sports Radio that included interviews and listener interactions and was on Fox Sports Bet for four years. Additionally, Travis started an iHeartRadio Original Podcast called Wins & Losses that featured in-depth conversations with the biggest names in sports.

Travis is a graduate of George Washington University as well as Vanderbilt Law School. Based in Nashville, he is the author of Dixieland Delight, On Rocky Top, and Republicans Buy Sneakers Too.