College football has been fertile ground for future NFL head coaches. Just look at the recent NFL success of former college head coaches Pete Carroll (coming off a Super Bowl-winning season with the Seattle Seahawks), Jim Harbaugh (coming off a third consecutive appearance in the NFC Championship Game with the San Francisco 49ers) and Chip Kelly (coming off an NFC East title in his first season with the Philadelphia Eagles).
All three of them came from high-profile Pac-12 programs, but you don't necessarily have to look at the highest levels to identify the next up-and-coming coach. Keep in mind that Kelly spent time at New Hampshire before going to Oregon, and Harbaugh was head coach at the University of San Diego before going to Stanford.
With that in mind, I reached out to five NFL executives and asked them for a hot coaching candidate outside of the "Power Five" conferences. Here's what they had to say:
Executive 1: Mark Hudspeth (Louisiana-Lafayette)
"He really seems to have the pulse of his team, but he doesn't micromanage. He's a creative offensive guy and he can recruit. That's not an easy place to win and he's done just that."
Executive 2: Pete Lembo (Ball State)
"Great coach. Smart, well-respected by other coaches around the country and very organized."
Executive 3: Matt Wells (Utah State)
"I think George O'Leary is the best coach outside of the 'Power 5' conferences, but he's obviously not an up-and-comer. I'd go with Utah State head coach Matt Wells. He inherited a good program, but he's done a nice job."
Executive 4: Matt Wells (Utah State)
"He's a sharp, focused guy. I like his demeanor and presence. He'll get a big job soon."
Executive 5: Mark Hudspeth (Louisiana-Lafayette)
"The guy at Louisiana-Lafayette would be my choice. He's turned that place around. He's found a way to win nine games each of the three years he's been there. He did a nice job at North Alabama earlier in his career, too. He's a winner."
Verdict: Hudspeth and Wells each received two votes from our panel, and Lembo received one.
Conclusion: Sometimes programs end up being hotbeds for coaches on the rise. We've seen it at Arkansas State, where Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin exited the school in consecutive years for jobs with bigger programs. It sounds like Utah State might be heading in the same direction following the success of Gary Andersen (now head coach at Wisconsin) and Wells, who already has the attention of the NFL.
Hudspeth has done a very impressive job at a program that had been down, and Lembo is also at a school that has elevated coaching careers -- Brady Hoke was head coach there before he moved on to San Diego State and then Michigan. So, if things don't work out for Hoke and Michigan this season, Lembo can probably rule out being a serious contender for the Wolverines' job.