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College coaches with the biggest NFL potential

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Six years ago, Chip Kelly was the object of NFL intrigue -- a career college coach with a dynamic offense and an air of mystery about him.

Two NFL coaching stints later, Kelly is back in the college game, trying to spark UCLA and his own career. This week, he leads the Bruins to face Oklahoma and Lincoln Riley, the Sooners' 35-year-old coaching savant.

Although Riley isn't nearly as accomplished as Kelly was while he was coaching Oregon back in 2012, his offense is very much on the NFL's radar, as ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported this spring.

Riley has spent his entire career at three college programs: Texas Tech, East Carolina and now Oklahoma, one of the nation's best head-coaching jobs. But the NFL should keep monitoring him, especially given the success of younger offensive coaches such as the Los Angeles Rams' Sean McVay (age 32).

What other college coaches could make the jump to the pro ranks? I spoke to industry insiders to compile a list of candidates, from likely risers to those who would need their arms twisted to leave the college ranks.

The familiar names

Jim Harbaugh, Michigan: Harbaugh will be an annual candidate to leave for the NFL, despite a huge contract at his alma mater and his ongoing chase for a #GoBlue breakthrough. If Michigan falls short again this fall, would Harbaugh, 54, be likelier or less likely to leave? It's tough to say. Vacancies in spots like Cleveland or Miami -- Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has pursued Harbaugh before -- could be tough to turn down.

From a legacy standpoint, Harbaugh needs to truly upgrade Michigan before he moves on to the next challenge. But his NFL profile remains extremely attractive.

David Shaw, Stanford: I asked around to see if the NFL is growing tired of waiting for Shaw to leave his alma mater. I'm told the answer is no, although the chances of him departing The Farm seem rather slim. Shaw, 46, runs NFL-style schemes and injects other pro elements into Stanford's program. He spent nine seasons with three NFL teams -- Philadelphia, Baltimore and Oakland -- before joining Harbaugh at the University of San Diego and then Stanford.

It would take a unique opportunity, likely a few years down the road, for him to leave. But the league remains interested.