Illinois college football coaching opening: Who could replace Lovie Smith?

In the winter of 2016, new Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman made a bold play, hiring longtime NFL coach Lovie Smith to lead the Illini.

Smith hadn't worked in college ball since 1995, but the former Chicago Bears coach brought instant attention to an often-overlooked program at Illinois. Five seasons later, Illinois pulled the plug on the Smith experiment, firing the coach Sunday. Smith went 2-5 this season and 17-39 overall with the Illini.

Illinois is in the coaching market for the first time since 2011, its last winning season. Consistency remains the biggest hurdle for a program with a Sugar Bowl appearance in 2001, a Rose Bowl appearance in 2007 and a bunch of nothing in between. Illinois' last stretch of true consistency came under John Mackovic and Lou Tepper from 1988 to 1994, when the team averaged 6.9 wins per season.

The recent football history in Champaign isn't good, but Illinois has some things working in its favor. The fan base, while rabid about basketball, remains quite invested in football. Facilities are improving, and Whitman played football at the school. Plus, the Big Ten West Division provides a path to upward mobility.

Illinois also has a good candidate pool in a year when most Power 5 schools aren't making changes. Here's a look at whom Whitman could consider to replace Smith.