Hottest head-coaching candidates

Going somewhere? Kirby Smart heads a list of hot head coaching candidates. Marvin Gentry/US Presswire

What would it take for Kirby Smart to leave Alabama?

Not that long ago, the answer would have been simple: Georgia. But with Mark Richt again on firmer footing, that isn't necessarily the case for the former Bulldogs safety and current Bama defensive coordinator.

After a flirtation with Auburn in the past month or so, something that induced heartburn for some Crimson Tide fans, Smart seems to be more and more open to possibilities other than his alma mater.

For that reason and others, Smart heads a group of coaches to watch in 2013 -- a list potential employers might want to bookmark or print. You're going to hear these names again, and again.

In the meantime, Smart can continue making seven figures and winning a whole bunch of games on Nick Saban's staff. There are worse things, even if friends in the business tell me that some of the unpleasant stories about working with Saban aren't that far off.

As I've written before, Smart and Florida coach Will Muschamp have had extremely similar career tracks, so Muschamp's success with the Gators is something of an endorsement for Smart. Then again, their sideline decorum is a bit disparate -- maybe another point for Smart, the more reserved of the two. Smart is landing somewhere. This could be the year.

Here are nine other coaches who could be high on wish lists, if not on the move, around this time next year.

Neal Brown, Kentucky offensive coordinator

It's just a matter of how long new Wildcats coach Mark Stoops can hold on to Brown, an inspired offensive hire for Stoops in his first head-coaching job.

Lexington will provide more media opportunities for Brown than Lubbock did, and I noticed UK reporters were impressed by his presence when he was introduced last week. At 32, he's a head coach in the making. All about the timing and specific jobs available. If Brown proves himself in the SEC, he could become a candidate when programs inevitably have vacancies in the league.

Brown will be another coach who jars the SEC with a wide-open approach, the same way Kevin Sumlin and Hugh Freeze did last year in their first seasons in the league. Under Brown's guidance as the offensive coordinator, Texas Tech was one of 12 schools in 2012 to average more than 500 yards a game.

Matt Campbell, Toledo head coach

Campbell was the youngest head coach in the FBS in 2012 -- and then Texas Tech and Western Michigan went out and hired marginally younger guys.

A 9-4 season at Toledo was a strong first step in taking over from his old boss, Tim Beckman. Beckman never won more than eight games (in three seasons with the Rockets) before getting the call from Illinois. The Rockets actually started 8-1 before two seven-point league losses and then got clobbered by an underrated Utah State team in the bowl.

Campbell, previously the school's offensive coordinator, led a team that was in the top third in the MAC in scoring (31.5) and yards (445.2) per game and yards per play (6.02).

There are plenty of recent options -- Beckman, Dave Doeren, Darrell Hazell among them -- to demonstrate the fact that the MAC is a feeder conference for bigger jobs. And that's not necessarily a bad thing for the league, which continues to pick up prominence.

Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State head coach

I've mentioned this before, but guys in the profession I really respect admire DeRuyter's creativity from a defensive perspective, and he showed this season he could assemble an offensive staff and manage a program.

DeRuyter plucked Utah assistant Dave Schramm to run his offense, and the Bulldogs were first in the Mountain West in yards per play (6.31) and points per game (40.3). Coaches have told me this fall that a subtle, essential art of the business is learning how to hire assistants on the opposite side of the ball from the one to which you're accustomed. How many times have you seen a coach's career injured or ended by a poor coordinator hire? (Former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley comes to mind.) DeRuyter evidently has a good eye.

The former Texas A&M DC's experience in the Lone Star State would also have to be considered bold print on his resume.

James Franklin, Vanderbilt head coach

When I did Birmingham radio last week with my buddies on the JOX Roundtable, one of the hosts gave me an over/under on Franklin: Would he still be coaching at Vanderbilt in two years? Vegas couldn't set the number any better.

Franklin is bound to eventually hit a limit with what can be done at Vanderbilt. Going to consecutive bowl games is already the modern-day high-water mark at the school better known for academics.

Franklin's charisma and doggedness in building a program would undoubtedly be attractive at a lot of places. When Franklin leaves, he could be ready for a high-end move. It seems as if he's content to wait until that happens.

Another SEC coach who I expect to hit a ceiling at some point is Mississippi State's Dan Mullen. It isn't necessarily a grass-is-greener thing to believe winning somewhere other than Starkville is more reasonable.

Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State head coach

Gundy entertained interest from multiple schools, including a reported offer from Tennessee. He might have genuinely considered it, although those close to the program have repeatedly told me it was more of a message to the school's administration. He wants you to want him, T. Boone. Was it heeded? Or did it create more friction?

In the end, it became clear that Gundy -- via superagent Jimmy Sexton, or whomever or however -- will listen to job offers. But what would it actually take for Gundy to leave his alma mater and the comforts of Stillwater?

What about Texas? If Mack Brown retires after the 2013 season, which feels like a distinct possibility to me, who would go to Austin? TCU's Gary Patterson immediately comes to mind, but it's hard to imagine him dealing with all the requirements that go with the job. Picturing Gundy in that position, though, doesn't seem far-fetched.

Chad Morris, Clemson offensive coordinator

One of these days, one of these jobs, Morris is actually going to go. North Carolina State, South Florida and Texas Tech seemed the likeliest of options for Morris in this wave of movement, but each passed with Morris still on the clock at Clemson.

Morris has had an extremely similar career track to Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. So that might mean Morris will have to prove, even if it's for a year, that he can run a mid-major program before a call up to the big leagues. That's what Malzahn's friends told him whenever he was at Auburn. After one season at Arkansas State, seems as if they were right.

Judging by some recent hires -- Malzahn being one of them -- a high-scoring offense sells with ADs, presidents and boards. The Tigers were eighth in the FBS in scoring, averaging 42.3 points a game in 2012.

Brent Pease, Florida offensive coordinator

If the Gators have the breakout year in 2013 that they were on the verge of in 2012, Pease's first year there, he could become a hot name in coaching circles. The only job I heard him linked to this month was Kentucky, but that could change in a year's time.

His name will gain steam. Why? More than anything else, his teams win. Since 2006, his teams have a crazy 84-7 record. Only one of those teams lost more than one game.

While Pease's Florida offense might not be able to boast big numbers, like Morris' unit, it was a clear reclamation effort for Pease. The rushing offense, which controlled tempo late in the Gators' big wins, went from 143 yards per game before Pease to 194.5 per game with him. Running back Mike Gillislee was third in the SEC in rushing.

Pease is from Idaho, played in Montana and built his resume at Boise State, so keep an eye on West Coast jobs for a possible move.

Bobby Petrino, Western Kentucky head coach

No one in Bowling Green is going to outwardly admit this, but the school is well-aware Petrino is a rental. But it's hopeful he can help while he's there, and chances are he will further elevate the Sun Belt program.

Will it be one year, two years or three before Petrino takes off? That likely depends on the jobs that open and whether those making the hire see enough personality rehabilitation in Petrino. But count on it happening somewhere in the not-too-distant future -- because winning cures a lot of ills. Petrino has won 75 games as a head coach, including 21 in his last two seasons at Arkansas before his untimely demise at the school.

Charlie Strong, Louisville head coach

Based on those I've spoken to, I suspect Strong wanted at least one more season because prized QB Teddy Bridgewater will be a junior in 2013. He wanted to see Bridgewater through what should be his best season -- and potentially the best season for the Cardinals, who managed to back into a BCS berth despite sliding down the stretch.

That said, there might not be much higher for Louisville to go than a Sugar Bowl appearance -- even once it gets into the ACC. (Though I suppose we'll have to see in reality how or if the new BCS playoff format tilts toward certain teams and leagues.) If that sets in, or sets in again, he might be more apt to listen to offers -- especially ones as lucrative as the one Tennessee extended.

Extra point

While it's rare that a coach would leave after the first year, if Arkansas State's Bryan Harsin or Southern Miss' Todd Monken do well in their first seasons, they could be in the mix for higher-profile gigs. On the rise as they might be, moves after two or three seasons would still be more likely.