By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Ohio State is expected to be one of the top coaching jobs open at the end of the season. Interim coach Luke Fickell has guided the Buckeyes to a 4-3 record, but this program expects to be contending for Big Ten titles. Ohio State has a young roster, along with the black cloud of a NCAA investigation and potential sanctions. Fickell's chances of keeping the full-time job in 2012 likely depend on winning the final five games this season.
If the job comes open as expected, Ohio State will generate a ton of interest from candidates, even with potential sanctions from the NCAA.
Tim Beckman, head coach, Toledo – Beckman is a candidate that is probably off the national radar, but he is quietly building a solid resume at Toledo. Beckman is 18-15 and in two-plus years with the Rockets, has Toledo positioned as the likely favorite to win the MAC title. Also, the Rockets nearly upset Ohio State in Week 2, losing 27-22 after a late stop by the Buckeyes’ defense. Beckman has experience at Ohio State, coaching cornerbacks under Jim Tressel from 2005-06. If for any reason Ohio State can’t lure one of the top coaches to Columbus, Beckman is a rising name in the profession and would accept the job in a heartbeat.
Urban Meyer, ESPN analyst – Meyer stepped away from Florida for health reasons, and has been working as an analyst with Chris Spielman and Dave Pasch for ESPN’s college football coverage. He's had a year off to recharge the batteries and is an Ohio native. If Meyer is serious about getting back into coaching, Ohio State has to be near the top of his destination jobs. And the Buckeyes are likely very interested.
Dan Mullen, head coach, Mississippi State – Mullen could be a hot name on the coaching circuit, as Arizona could be interested in him as a replacement for Mike Stoops. Mullen is just 17-15 (and 0-4 in the SEC this season) in his third year at Mississippi State, but the program has been more competitive under his direction. Although Mullen seems to be happy at Mississippi State, the SEC West has been one of the most difficult divisions in college football. With Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and Auburn all likely preseason top 25 teams in 2012, it’s going to be very difficult for the Bulldogs to move up in the division pecking order.
Bo Pelini, head coach, Nebraska – Pelini has a great job at Nebraska, but would he listen to his alma mater? Pelini played at Ohio State from 1987-90 and has recorded a 36-13 record in his fourth year at Nebraska. There’s no doubt about Pelini’s ability to coach a defense (although his 2011 unit is struggling), but his offenses at Nebraska have been inconsistent. Pelini has been a solid recruiter at Nebraska, and could bring in elite classes with a better talent base in Ohio. Pelini and Urban Meyer figure to be near the top of Ohio State’s coaching board when the job officially opens.
Lovie Smith, head coach, Chicago Bears – Is Smith a legitimate candidate? How the Bears finish out 2011 will likely depend on his availability or job status for 2012. Under his direction, Chicago has made the playoffs three times, including a Super Bowl appearance. He coached at Ohio State in 1995, which was his last experience at the college level. Smith would be a good candidate for the job, but how quickly would he adjust to the college game after being in the NFL for the last 15 years?
Brent Venables, defensive coordinator, Oklahoma – Venables is one of the top assistants in college football, and it’s only a matter of time before he gets a shot at being a head coach. He has coached under Bob Stoops at Oklahoma since 1999, serving as the defensive coordinator since 2004. Pulling Stoops away from Oklahoma isn’t likely, so why not get his best assistant? Venables is a Kansas State alum – could he be more interested in waiting for that job?
Mark Dantonio, head coach, Michigan State – Dantonio worked as an assistant under Jim Tressel at Ohio State from 2001-03, and has been a solid head coach during his tenure at Michigan State (39-20). However, Dantonio recently got a raise at Michigan State, and Ohio State may wish to separate itself from the Tressel era.
Ron English, head coach, Eastern Michigan – English has resurrected Eastern Michigan into a MAC West title contender this year. Through eight games, the Eagles are a respectable 5-3. While five wins may not seem like much, the last time Eastern Michigan had more than four wins was in 1995. English may not be on Ohio State’s radar, but he’s due for a shot at a BCS school.
Luke Fickell, head coach, Ohio State – There’s still a possibility Fickell returns in 2012, but it seems the odds are stacked against him. The Buckeyes are 4-3 entering Week 9, with losses to Miami, Michigan State and Nebraska. Although Ohio State has suffered some tough defeats and has a young team, there’s a lot of doubt about Fickell’s ability to keep this program among the best in the Big Ten.
Pat Fitzgerald, head coach, Northwestern – Although Fitzgerald is a Northwestern alum and has a contract through 2020, he could get restless if facility improvements continue to drag out. Fitzgerald was targeted by Michigan in its search last season, but was not interested in the position. Fitzgerald would be a great fit at Ohio State, but it would be difficult for him to leave behind his alma mater.
Jon Gruden, ESPN analyst – Gruden has been out of coaching since 2008, but his name continues to pop up for open gigs. He recently inked an extension to stay on as an analyst with Monday Night Football, but can’t be ruled out from returning to coaching. Gruden seems more likely to return to the NFL, as he hasn’t coached in college since 1991.
Skip Holtz, head coach, South Florida – With the uncertainty of the Big East and South Florida’s future conference, would Holtz consider leaving? After a 4-0 start, the Bulls have lost their last three games, so some of the appeal of Holtz has cooled.
Gary Patterson, head coach, TCU – With the Horned Frogs moving to the Big 12, Patterson isn’t going anywhere.
Paul Petrino, offensive coordinator, Illinois – Petrino is a darkhorse candidate. In his two years at Illinois, Petrino has made a positive impact on the offense. The Fighting Illini finished fourth in the Big Ten in scoring and total offense last year. Illinois ranks 23rd nationally in rushing offense through eight games and fourth in the Big Ten in total offense.
Chris Petersen, head coach, Boise State – Petersen’s name always pops up for any BCS job that comes open, but it would be a major surprise if he left Boise State.
Gary Pinkel, head coach, Missouri – Pinkel has done a nice job of elevating Missouri football during his tenure, but how much higher can this program go, particularly if it joins the SEC? Pinkel does not have any experience in the Big Ten, but is from Ohio and has a solid 150-86-3 record as a head coach, including a solid stint at Toledo. A longshot, but would be a safe hire by Ohio State.
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma, head coach, Oklahoma – Stoops has a great job at Oklahoma and seems more likely to consider leaving for the NFL than another college. Although he was born in Youngstown, expect Stoops to have little interest in leaving Oklahoma this offseason.
Mark Stoops, Florida State – Stoops’ profile has been on the rise over the last two years, as he has helped to improve Florida State’s defense under Jimbo Fisher. Stoops played at Iowa, so he has familiarity with the Big Ten. Although Stoops has done a nice job in Tallahassee, he may need another year or two before he gets a look as a head coach.
Charlie Strong, head coach, Louisville – Barring a major change of heart, Strong can be crossed off the rumor mill for any head coaching spot that comes open. He recently received a contract extension, designed to keep him at Louisville until 2018. No one knows what conference Louisville will be in two years from now, but it would be a surprise if Strong isn’t the coach.