Earlier in the week, an NFL.com Instant Debate examined coordinators who could be next in line to become head coaches, providing alternatives to big names like Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher. But there's another pool that, given the 2011 success of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, could bear watching, and that one's in the college ranks.
So with that in mind, after conversations with some NFL folks who are around the NCAA level frequently, here are eight names that could draw interest:
Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern: Highly regarded at every level of the game, Fitzgerald already has six years as a head coach under his belt, and he's only 36. "He will never leave," said an AFC personnel chief, "but I'd hire him in a minute."
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Mike London, Virginia: An NFC exec says London "is winning without bellcows" at UVa. He's got NFL pedigree, having worked for Al Groh, and experience, having coached for the Texans in 2005.
Will Muschamp, Florida: Probably not leaving Gainesville anytime soon, but he's earned the respect of many NFL people and was coordinator for a successful Nick Saban defense with the Dolphins in 2005.
Bo Pelini, Nebraska: Spent nine years (1994-2002) as a NFL position coach, and while his hot temper could be a drawback, he's well thought of in pro circles. One scout explained, "He runs that team like an NFL team."
Dan Quinn, Florida: One scout says he has a "very good rep" in the NFL, but he's still just a defensive coordinator in college. Quinn spent six years as an NFL defensive line coach and is from the Nick Saban tree.
Steve Sarkisian, Washington: Sarkisian was Oakland's QB coach in 2004, the Raiders' first choice the year they hired Lane Kiffin, and worked with three first-round quarterbacks at USC. "He's not ready," said the AFC personnel chief. "But he's someone to watch."
David Shaw, Stanford: The Cardinal is 8-0 and Andrew Luck hasn't missed a beat. Shaw needs to prove himself post-Luck, but with Harbaugh's success, he may get a shot down the line, especially with nine years as an NFL assistant under his belt.
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma: There are murmurs that if an NFL team approaches Stoops, he'll listen. And delegate to experienced people. "He's a tremendous manager," said a scout. "And he hires great assistants."
The names of old standbys Kirk Ferentz (Iowa), Randy Edsall (Maryland), and Mike Sherman (Texas A&M) were also raised. Ferentz, in particular, could be one to watch after youngest son James is finished at Iowa, following the 2012 season. Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is another one who, down the line, could become a Mike Leach-type candidate. And NFL types also joke about Nick Saban lurking over things, but no one seems willing to rule out the possibility he could make one final run at the pros at some point.