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A look at potential candidates at Florida - 1 of college football's top jobs is open

Proven head coaches from all over the country are known or expected to have interest in the Gators' high-profile top job.
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A day after losing in overtime at Missouri and getting mercilessly trolled in the postgame press conference from Tigers coach Eli Drinkwitz, Dan Mullen is out as Florida's coach.

A source on Sunday afternoon told FootballScoop of Mullen's future, “Out. Just happened.”

So where do the Gators, who won two national titles in a three-year span 15 years ago under Urban Meyer but have not threatened since that time, turn?

It's a premiere position in both the Southeastern Conference and the national college football landscape, rich with homegrown-talent and improving facilities with a new, $80-plus million complex nearing completion.

This is the move that will chart and define the course of Gators athletics director Scott Stricklin's tenure in Gainesville, Florida.

Who's up?

LUKE FICKELL, CINCINNATI HC: After an interim year at his alma mater, Ohio State, nearly a decade ago in the Buckeyes' transition from Jim Tressel to Urban Meyer, Fickell since has turned Group of 5 program Cincinnati into a national factor.


The Bearcats are undefeated this year, perching on the edge of top-four inclusion for the College Football Playoff, with only games left against East Carolina and versus Houston for the American Athletic Conference crown.

More than just winning, Fickell also is known for his great organizational skill and eye for talent – on the field and on his coaching staff.

His veteran offensive coordinator, Mike Denbrock, is potentially in the mix for some FBS head jobs this cycle.

Fickell's hand-picked defensive discipline, Marcus Freeman, has Notre Dame's defense in the midst of a three-game streak without allowing a touchdown, and Freeman is similarly viewed as a future head coach. In fact, Freeman may get traction in the Atlantic Coast Conference in this cycle.

University of Southern California parties involved with their search have had Fickell prominently featured, per sources, but Fickell has not worked out West and, per sources, has not had strong interest in the Trojans' vacancy.

However, expect Fickell to give this position a long look.

LINCOLN RILEY, OKLAHOMA HC: Riley took over at Oklahoma when Bob Stoops retired, and in his first-ever head coaching post has simply won 55 of his first 64 career games with three College Football Playoff appearances.

Riley's teams also deploy an entertaining, fast-paced offense, and he's been heralded for his work in developing quarterbacks – with a trio of former Sooners play-callers, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts, now starting in the NFL.

Though Riley's name has been linked to the opening at LSU, which earlier this fall fired Ed Orgeron, it wasn't clear this past week just how much mutual interest existed between Riley and the Tigers.

In Florida, with the Sunshine State's ample supply of skilled athletes, Riley's system could terrorize the SEC East – which is seeing Georgia in an unprecedented run of dominance on that side of the division.

JAMES FRANKLIN, PENN STATE HC: Though Franklin indicated to reporters on Saturday that he's working with Penn State officials on something that will make clear his future in Happy Valley, as in what sources tell FootballScoop is a long-term extension with a raise, Franklin is a viable candidate for the Gators until any new pact is signed.

In fact, Franklin can exit from Penn State right now for just $4 million – a minor buyout in today's college football climate.

With his work previously in the SEC at Vanderbilt, which has not remotely enjoyed a similar profile of success since Franklin departed after the 2013 season and had not enjoyed much success prior to Franklin's arrival, he remains linked to the LSU job much the same as Riley.

Franklin also is a gifted recruiter and markets his programs extremely well – two factors undeniably in the demise of Mullen.

LANE KIFFIN, OLE MISS HC: Kiffin already won big as a head coach in Florida – when he led Florida Atlantic just a few years ago to that program's greatest stretch of success.

Too, Kiffin has shown an ability to turn his Twitter account into a legitimate recruiting vehicle for his programs – whether it was his #ComeToTheFAU mantra at FAU or his #ComeToTheSip work more recently with Ole Miss.

Kiffin's Rebels are a top-10 team in just his second year and own head-turning wins this season against Arkansas, LSU and Texas A&M. Kiffin also has turned Matt Corral into a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate and expected 2022 NFL Draft first-round pick.

BILLY NAPIER, LOUISIANA HC: A prime candidate for Virginia Tech's current vacancy, Napier just went on the road and smashed Hugh Freeze's Liberty Flames squad this weekend and already had clinched a spot in the SunBelt Conference title game against Appalachian State.

Napier has been pursued previously for SEC openings at South Carolina, Auburn, Mississippi State and Tennessee, among others. He's valued his program at Louisiana and been selective in the process.

This cycle feels like Napier's chance to leap into a Power 5 post, be that in the ACC or SEC.

MATT CAMPBELL, IOWA STATE HC: Sure, this 2021 season has been a disappointment for Matt Campbell and Iowa State. But who would have thought the Cyclones could be a preseason top-10, top-15 type of program and in a position to disappoint? That's testament to what Campbell has built atop the Iowa State program, and it's also testament to Campbell having been previously pursued for both college and pro jobs but staying put.

Like Napier, Campbell could decide this is the cycle to go from a very good and stable job to a leap into the upper levels of the Power 5 fray, especially as college football already looks dramatically different now than this time a year ago with Name, Image and Likeness legislation passed and realignment unfolding.

MARK STOOPS, KENTUCKY HC: He was part of strong success at Florida State when he served as the Seminoles' defensive coordinator under Jimbo Fisher, and Stoops has made Kentucky perhaps the No. 2 program in the SEC's East Division.

He already this fall has secured the program's fifth winning season in six years, its best run since the Wildcats' Bear Bryant days of long ago.

Stoops also has shown an ability to develop talent, an element alleged to be lacking at Florida in recent years.

BILL O'BRIEN, ALABAMA OC: The former Houston Texans head coach first served notice of his head coaching abilities when he took over scandal-ridden Penn State as the successor to Joe Paterno in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky debacle.

O'Brien so overcame adverse elements in that job atop the Nittany Lions that he was hired into the NFL post, and he had good success in Houston – before he cratered his work by adding general manager duties.

O'Brien has worked a retooled Alabama offense with first-year starting quarterback Bryce Young into a No. 2 national ranking. Young also is a Heisman candidate and just set an Alabama single-game passing record Saturday in the Tide's win against Arkansas.

HUGH FREEZE, LIBERTY HC: Freeze turned the SEC on its head during a powerful run at Ole Miss before he was forced out. So now Freeze again has turned a different program into being relevant at Liberty.

Yes, the Flames were badly beaten at home Saturday night by Napier's Cajuns, but Freeze nearly navigated an undefeated season last year at Liberty and positioned the Flames again for postseason.

Freeze deploys an incredibly entertaining style of offense, has evolved on defense and remains the only coach with consecutive regular-season wins against Saban at Alabama.

BOB STOOPS, FORMER OKLAHOMA HC: Stoops served as Steve Spurrier's defensive coordinator on Florida's first national title team in 1996. He then revived Oklahoma, where he won his own national title as head coach and made the Sooners a lasting, annual player at the top levels.

Stoops has remained out of the fray but he's a young 61 and a ferocious competitor. Plus, he's remained close through the years with Spurrier – who still has an office at Florida.

SEEMS UNLIKELY, BUT …: If this Florida search winds well down its list, a pair of top-flight defensive coordinators could merit consideration in Texas A&M's Mike Elko and Georgia's Dan Lanning.

Architect of arguably college football's best defense of the past decade, Lanning has been surging as a head coaching candidate and this season has only burnished that mindset.

Lanning worked at Arizona State before he logged a year on Nick Saban's Alabama staff and then spent the past four years with Kirby Smart at Georgia after a two-year stop at Memphis.

Lanning is young and energetic. He's likely not at the top of the Gators' list because the Florida job is viewed as such a prime opportunity, but Lanning is trending upward.

Elko is expected to get a head-coaching crack in this cycle, and his Aggies' defense has carried Texas A&M this season through its offensive injuries and struggles this season. Elko has been defensive coordinator for Dave Clawson at Wake Forest, Brian Kelly at Notre Dame and now Jimbo Fisher at A&M. He's learned from three of the sport's absolute best program-building coaches. He will soon be a head coach.