The Josh McDaniels era is over in Denver, after the Broncos fired their young coach Monday evening. McDaniels survived not even two full seasons before owner Pat Bowlen, made weary by an 11-17 record and a series of personnel miscues, dismissed him.
Running backs coach Eric Studesville will helm the team for the final four games of the season.
Thereafter, though, Denver will likely engage in a large-scale effort to find a true franchise coach. Who will that be? Guys who might otherwise have topped the list (Jason Garrett in Dallas, Leslie Frazier in Minnesota) are currently sparkling in their auditions for other full-time jobs.
There are always talented position coaches and coordinators, but the richest trove of potential replacements may be at the collegiate level. Read on for 10 current NCAA coaches who would be great fits to replace McDaniels.
It is not as though Brown's job is suddenly in jeopardy, but the frustrations of his first losing season with the Longhorns may just be enough for Brown to start picking up the phone when (and it happens almost every offseason) NFL teams come calling.
Denver would be a good landing spot for Brown in the NFL, being (not unlike Texas when Brown arrived in 1998) a once-great franchise now struggling to stay relevant.
Brown runs an offense not especially suited to the pro game, but he has always been somewhat adaptable in that regard and could assemble a fine staff to help smooth his transition into the NFL. He would certainly not come cheap for the Broncos, though.
Zook's ability to recruit top talent has pushed the Illinois football program forward, but he is nothing special as a play-caller or schemer. That has limited the progress he can make with such young and inexperienced athletes.
At the NFL level, though, and with a more highly qualified swarm of coaches to do the dirty work of game plans and skill drills, Zook's motivational skills could translate into a team with more heart than any since the Elway era in Denver. He seems to get impossibly strong effort from every player he coaches, and that would be a welcome trait at any level.
Fresno State does not exactly attract the ESPN Top 150 recruits on its own, but Hill has nonetheless kept the Bulldogs strong and taken the program to new heights in 14 years at its helm.
When the team takes on Northern Illinois (whose coach Jerry Kill would have topped this list if he had not agreed to become coach at the University of Minnesota earlier this week) in the Humanitarian Bowl, it will mark their 11th bowl appearance in the last 12 seasons.
That should be enough to pique Denver's interest, but consider also that Hill coached in the NFL before arriving in Fresno, under both Bill Belichick and Brian Billick.
Clemson has backslid under Swinney. Swinney is brilliant, a two-time All-SEC Academic Team star during his playing days at Alabama. He has a master's degree in business administration, and seemingly has all the polish a coach at the pro level needs.
Clemson probably won't fight too hard to keep him in light of the team's fade over the past two seasons, so the Broncos could get their hands on Swinney if they so choose.
Wannstedt has two previous NFL head coaching jobs from which to draw experience if he comes to Denver, and the added bonus of having spent the last half decade as an NFL outsider while coaching the Pitt Panthers.
The program has grown under his stewardship, and the Panthers are now but one more leap from the top tier in college football circles.
If Wannstedt does not believe that will happen soon, though, or if he decides he wants to return to the league, he would likely find the Broncos job the most attractive one available: Some of the other gigs likely to be open include Carolina and Jacksonville, whose cupboards are much more bare than Denver's.
Like Wannstedt, Jones has NFL coaching chops, though he went just 22-36 as the leader of the Chargers. Jones' success at Hawaii, and his second straight bowl appearance with SMU this season, pad his resume nicely.
The thing that makes Jones a perfect fit in Denver is his predilection for the pass. The Broncos have had one of the league's most prolific passing offenses all season at the expense of the run, which has long been the organization's preferred offensive philosophy.
Jones loves the run-and-shoot offense, spreading the field and slicing up defenses through the air.
Talk about a match made in football heaven: The Broncos are a family organization to their core and care deeply about their coach's off-field persona. That was part of what got McDaniels fired.
Mendenhall is clean-cut and well-educated with a master's degree. He also has a track record of great success at BYU, where he has coached since 2003.
The Cougars have gone from small-conference also-ran to being ranked in the top 25 for the last four seasons, with a chance (if they win the upcoming New Mexico Bowl) to make it five.
Oh, and that name!
Expect to see Harbaugh tied to every vacant NFL job this offseason, and to the Michigan job if that becomes available. He has brought the Stanford football program back from the dead, and this season has led them all the way to the BCS.
His total control of every facet of the Cardinal operation is utterly impressive.
He could choose to stay in California and pursue a national championship, but Harbaugh is highly competitive and could smell a chance to win a Super Bowl in the not-so-distant future with Denver, besting his brother John (head coach of the Ravens) along the way.
Sherman is the total package: He is the most successful former NFL coach currently coaching at the collegiate level, has continued to run pro-style offenses in the Big 12 and has resurrected a once-great collegiate program in just three years at the helm.
Sherman leads the Texas A&M Aggies into the Cotton Bowl this year, a gigantic step forward for any Big 12 school. He will get another shot at the pros someday even if he chooses not to accept, but Denver looks like a good place to give it a shot.
Why not? What does either side have to lose?
For Meyer, life at Florida has not been the same without his protege, Tim Tebow. For the Broncos, the investment they made by drafting Tebow in the first round will only be justified if Tebow eventually becomes a starting NFL quarterback, and who can better make that happen than the man under whom Tebow became a college legend?
This move makes too much sense (and is far too corny) to actually happen, but it would be fun to watch.