3 CFB coaches that can make the jump to NFL in the near future

Will Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley head to the NFL?

By: Cody Molla (@Cmolla1)

Football is back! NFL preseason is wrapping up, NCAA Football is kicking off and soon the real NFL season starts. This 2021 NFL season will feature seven coaches making their head coaching debut in the NFL. Nearly a quarter of the league will be under the new direction on the field. Many of these new guys have previous NFL coordinator experience and coaching experience in the NFL. One in particular however has none. Urban Meyer, new Head Coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Meyer has a historic collegiate coaching career. One of the most prolific coaches in recent history and ever in college football. In 17 seasons Meyer has a record of 187-32. A winning percentage of .853 across a few years at Bowling Green University, University of Utah, University of Florida, and Ohio State University. We all know his success from the last two stops. To summarize his career, he won two BCS titles at Florida, won the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship with Ohio State, became the first coach to lead a BCS non-AQ conference team to a BCS bowl at Utah, coached a Heisman Trophy winner at Florida with Tim Tebow, and coached a number one overall pick in the NFL draft with Alex Smith.

The biggest question is how will his previous college success translate to the NFL and what does it mean for future NFL coaching candidates? Meyer’s success or failure will have an impact on future coaching candidates across the NFL. Meyer is notorious for the spread offense. It’s what he ran at all of his college stops. We know the NFL game is not like the college game. Does Meyer try and force the spread offense as Chip Kelly did in his NFL tenure? Does he adapt to the NFL game? Either way, the Urban Meyer coaching experience will impact how the NFL views coaches purely from the college ranks. We will dive into three coaching candidates from the college ranks that could make the jump to the NFL in a near NFL coaching carousel.

Lincoln Riley – Oklahoma

Riley has been a head coach for four years in his young career. He took over as head coach at OU in 2017. He has compiled a record of 45-8 good for a .849 winning percentage. In his first three seasons, Riley and the Sooners lost in the semifinal of the college football playoff. Last year was his first bowl win in the Cotton Bowl, it was not part of the college football playoff.

Despite his limited experience as a head coach, his hat was in the ring for becoming the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys prior to the 2020 season. Riley is currently 37 years old. The NFL has not shied away from young coaches and Riley is one of the candidates for a future NFL job. Sean McVay took the Rams to the super bowl at age 33, the youngest age ever for an NFL coach. The Browns recently hired Kevin Stefanski who is 37 as well and went to the playoffs in his first season. The Arizona Cardinals also hired Kingsbury before turning 40 and after having a losing record as a college head coach!

The reason Lincoln has been linked to the Cowboys job was because of his close ties with Jerry Jones. The two got close after Riley had done some recruiting of Jerry’s grandson John Stephen Jones. Besides his connections, Riley has groomed some successful college players who have become bright stars in the NFL. Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray played under Riley at OU. Both of them won the Heisman trophy then became number one overall picks in the NFL draft the next year. Continuing the success at quarterback is Jalen Hurts. Not as much buzz in his NFL game as the other two but he is likely to start for the Eagles in his second year as an NFL player after playing for Riley at Oklahoma to close his college career. The Eagles were also rumored to be interested in Riley going into the coaching search knowing Hurts success with Riley in the past.

For the immediate future, Riley has the Heisman favorite as his quarterback in Spencer Rattler. Another successful college year is ahead for the Sooners and Riley which will likely leave him a top candidate for the NFL in 2022. I doubt he leaves for the NFL in 2022. However, come 2023 and the years after I can see him making the jump to the NFL. He will always be a candidate for the Dallas Cowboys.

Based on what I’ve seen in hard knocks Mike McCarthy is not going to be the head coach much longer. Even with a winning season, it’s Super Bowl or bust for Jerry Jones. If Jerry sees a way to improve the team he will do it, replacing the head coach is very easy for him.

Riley seems to be enjoying his time at OU and will likely want to win a championship before making the jump. Riley is one of the best quarterback coaches in the nation right now and seems to have a knack for coaching players to be successful at that position in the NFL.

Matt Campbell – Iowa State

Campbell was a candidate that intrigued a few NFL franchises in the last hiring season. He reportedly turned down a large offer from the Lions. He was also rumored to be of interest from the New York Jets.

Campbell has never had NFL coaching experience but has been a college head coach since 2011. He was given his first head coach job at the University of Toledo in 2011. He coached there till 2015 and went 35-15. He was the head coach for two bowl game wins, one his first game as the interim head coach in 2011 and one as the official head coach in 2014. In his last two years with the Rockets he was tied for first place in the MAC.

Campbell was named head coach at Iowa State in 2015 and has been there ever since. An impressive season last year included winning the Big 12 conference, a win in the Fiesta Bowl, for a 9-3 season, and a nine by their name to finish the year. Campbell is 35-28 at Iowa State. After struggling his first year the Cyclones have had a winning season every year since.

Campbell is a three-time Big 12 Coach of the Year Winner. He likely plans on being at Iowa St. for some time after turning down the contract from the Lions he signed an extension through 2028 with the Cyclones. I think he will be at Iowa St. until they are the team to beat in the Big 12.

Last year was their breakout season. The roster has lots of young talent that Campbell has recruited to his program and will likely want to see that building of a program pay off. The Cyclones are a strong team and for the next few years Campbell will continue to build his resume at Iowa St. He will also continue to be a candidate in the back of NFL minds. He is likely not willing to make the NFL jump for another year or two but may soon after that.

Jim Harbaugh- Michigan

Harbaugh has had success in the NFL and college ranks as a head coach. His only tenure as an NFL head coach was in 2011-2014 with the 49ers. Harbaughs NFL experience with the 49ers may have ended sour but it was sweet the first three seasons.

The 49ers would make three straight NFC Championships, winning one in 2012 where the lost in the Super Bowl to the Baltimore Ravens. It is impressive that their season ended three straight years to the Super Bowl champs. He compiled a record of 44-19-1 in the regular season and a playoff record of 5-3.

His college head coaching career started back in 2004 at the University of San Diego. At the time a Division One FCS school where he went 29-6 in three seasons.  Following the success at San Diego, he was hired by Stanford.

At Stanford, Harbaugh struggled to win games in 2007 and 2008. The Cardinal finished in 7th and 6th in the conference. However, with the emergence of Andrew Luck, Stanford became a conference title contender and finished second in 2009 with an 8-5 overall record then second again in 2010 with a 12-1 record and Orange Bowl win.

From Stanford, he made the jump to the NFL. After the NFL he returned to coach at his alma mater The University of Michigan. Hired in 2015, Big Blue was expected to compete for national championships. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been that way for Harbaugh. Harbaugh has only won one of five bowl games. The lone win was a Citrus Bowl victory in 2015.

Harbaugh has been average at Michigan. Never making a conference title game appearance and an 0-5 record vs rival Ohio State. We all thought the program at Michigan would explode onto the scene yet it has yet to detonate and even flare. Three ten win seasons and four times finishing in the top 20 rankings isn’t good enough in these circumstances. A rather disappointing 2020 season left Harbaughs status in the air.

With many NFL jobs opened up the return was widely thought to happen. Jim comes with a fiery, combative, and demanding personality. Because of this, he rubs people the wrong way and his stays at his previous stops have been cut short. Is this something NFL executives are holding against him?

His football knowledge and experience certainly qualify him as a head coach candidate for NFL teams. I think a bounce back year at Michigan would be satisfying enough for Jim. He certainly would love to do it to make Paul Finebaum eat his words and keep quiet.

Harbaugh is a name we hear every coach search season I think he finally returns back to the NFL after this year. He has a wide range of connections from his own NFL playing days, his coaching days, and his brother. It would be cool to see the brothers square off in another Super Bowl down the line!

Honorable Mention  

PJ Fleck- Minnesota

Luke Fickell- Cincinnati

Pat Fitzgerald- Northwestern

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