Which Current College Football Coach Is Most Likely to Jump to NFL Next Year?

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Brian Kelly has had an excellent run at Notre Dame, but would he consider an NFL head coaching job?

The days are getting shorter. The weeks left in the college football season are dwindling. Before long, it’ll be here.

It, of course, is the coaching carousel. Each winter, it spins, with firings, resignations and retirements creating a domino effect that leaves tongues wagging with rumors and shuffles the football landscape. A year ago, 29 FBS head coaching jobs changed hands, and while there are no guarantees that this season will be as busy, five jobs are already open, most notably LSU, which seeks a permanent replacement for the fired Les Miles.

The market will kick into gear on Dec. 4 after the regular season ends, but it’ll get a second wind on Jan. 2, the day after the NFL regular season wraps up. Each year, frustrated owners and general managers make moves to improve their teams, which includes reaching into the college ranks for head coaches.

A year ago, only one college coach (Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken) made the leap to the professional ranks, becoming the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach. Will more join him this January? It’s possible.

Which coaches are the top candidates to head to the NFL? That’s a good question. While the spread offense that has become so popular in the college ranks has yet to take hold in the NFL (Chip Kelly is 27-28 in three-plus seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers) a number of college coaches have NFL ties and systems that can succeed there.

Let’s get the obvious candidates out of the way first. Nick Saban and Jim Harbaugh have Alabama and Michigan, respectively, on course for the College Football Playoff, but it’d be a major surprise if either left this winter.

Saban has NFL roots as a Bill Belichick assistant and spent two unremarkable years as the Miami Dolphins’ head coach, where he suffered the only losing season of his career. He has everything he wants in Tuscaloosa, where he has built a dynasty on track for its fifth national title in 10 seasons. Unless Saban is bored, why would he give that up for a shot at the pros?

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The timing isn’t right for Jim Harbaugh to consider an NFL return.

Harbaugh has done a magnificent job at Michigan, taking a team that finished 5-7 in Brady Hoke’s final season and turning it into the nation’s No. 3 team in the College Football Playoff rankings with a  9-0 record that is capable of competing for a national title. The intense Harbaugh has never spent more than four seasons at any one stop as a head coach, but it would be a major stunner if he bolted Ann Arbor this quickly.

A pair of Pac-12 coaches, Stanford’s David Shaw and UCLA’s Jim Mora Jr., both have NFL ties and are slogging through down seasons. It wouldn’t be a shocker to see either leave for the pro ranks at some point, but there are more likely candidates out there.

The best candidate to leave for an NFL job this offseason? Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly. He and the Fighting Irish are suffering through an ugly season; a preseason Top 10 ranking has turned into a 3-6 record following Saturday’s 28-27 loss to Navy, and the Irish must beat Army, Virginia Tech and Southern California just to make a low-level bowl game.

He is a consistent winner who is 229-86-2 in stops at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame, and Kelly has only one losing season in his career (4-7 with Central Michigan in 2004).

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Is now the right time for Brian Kelly to consider a move to the NFL?

Notre Dame is one of the most prestigious jobs in college football, with strong national tradition, appeal and an exclusive national TV contract with NBC. But it also wears on coaches. After Lou Holtz, who led the program to its last national title in 1988, retired in 1996, the Irish have had five head coaches and only one national title appearance (by Kelly).

Those coaches have combined for 146 wins and 90 losses—a .619 winning percentage. And Kelly is the only one to last longer than five seasons; this is his sixth year in South Bend.

Notre Dame’s rigorous academic standards also make Kelly’s job difficult. In 2015, he told Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune that academics are a constant concern with him.

“I think we recognized that all of my football players are at-risk—all of them—really,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t know that any of our players would get into the school by themselves right now with the academic standards the way they are. Maybe one or two of our players that are on scholarship.”

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Few high-profile programs have to deal with similar issues, which makes Kelly’s sustained success at Notre Dame even more impressive.

He interviewed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013 before they hired Chip Kelly away from Oregon, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was interested again, although he recently said on SportsCenter (via Notre Dame play-by-play broadcaster Mike Monaco) that “college football is right for me because it’s coach-centric. I control the scholarships. I control the roster.”

This offseason would be a perfect time for Kelly to explore another jump. And it would be no surprise if he took advantage of the opportunity this time.