It's hard to imagine a more impactful regular-season debut for an NFL head coach than former Oregon coach Chip Kelly in Philadelphia's win Monday night over division rival Washington. Sure, the score was 33-27, but the game was largely dominated by Kelly's fast-paced offense, and at one point, the Eagles had 21 first downs to Washington's two.
The jury's still out on whether Kelly and the Eagles will be successful, of course; it's just one game. Plenty of weird things happen in the NFL in just one game. Just the same, when Philly was clicking, it looked an awful lot like the Oregon blowouts of old — one team thoroughly outrunning and outpacing the other and making it look easy.
So if the Chip Kelly Experiment proves to be a success over the course of the entire season — especially if it's the result of the Eagles straight running other teams off the field — don't be surprised if the NFL starts plumbing the college ranks for more fast-paced systems.
And boy howdy, is college ever full of coaches whose teams run. Football Study Hall quantified pace in FBS last year and found two dozen teams that averaged five more plays per game than expected last season.
With that in mind, if the NFL comes to embrace fast-paced offenses like Kelly's, here are some college coaches who could have their number called. This isn't a prediction for any of them, of course. There are enough guys here to populate most of the NFL, and there are multiple arguments to be made against each. And on the other side of the equation, we're probably a long way off from a large-scale NFL embrace of the hurry-up spread offense.
So rest assured, your favorite coach's inclusion on this list doesn't mean we think he's gone. He just might be getting a call soon.
Tier 1: The calls you make this year
Art Briles, Baylor: Briles has retired the notion that his successes were a function of having Robert Griffin III as his quarterback, as Baylor put up 44 points a game last year with Nick frickin' Florence at the helm and looks as explosive as ever this year. NFL GMs may be leery of his pass-wacky system — and the gap in secondary quality between the Big XII and NFL is chasmic — but Briles is right up there with Kelly in how much stress he can put on individual defenders on any given play.
Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State: Say what you will about the Sports Illustrated investigation, but nobody in the NFL would care (or understand, really) even if Gundy himself was handing out $100 bills to his players in the pros. Moreover, he's been extremely successful in turning the long-dormant Oklahoma State program around and keeping it competitive in the Big XII, lighting up the scoreboard in the process. Wouldn't you be curious to see what he'd do with an NFL roster?
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M: Sumlin has been extremely successful in his short tenure as a head coach, and while you can chalk that up to having Case Keenum and Johnny Manziel as quarterbacks, um, Keenum wasn't exactly a first-round NFL Draft pick. There's something to be said for running elite offenses with two quarterbacks who have considerably different skill sets, and that Sumlin has gotten there so quickly is testament to his coaching ability.
Urban Meyer, Ohio State: Hey, he's young, competitive, wildly successful and as offensively adventurous as just about anybody on the list. It's fair to point out that he doesn't seem like the NFL type at all, but we could have said all the same things about Chip Kelly nine months ago. If you're an NFL general manager in need of revitalizing the offense, don't you owe it to yourself to at least hear the "no" from Meyer's agent?
Tier 2: A couple good years away from consideration
Gus Malzahn, Auburn: If there's anyone who fits the Chip Kelly profile, it's Malzahn. He instituted an offense at Auburn that, combined with Cam Newton, propelled the Tigers to one of the most improbable national titles in the last couple decades. When he left Auburn, the program sunk until school officials brought Malzahn back to campus, this time to replace Gene Chizik, his old boss. Malzahn needs to demonstrate success in implementing his offense as a head coach before the NFL takes a look, but his inventiveness and ability to open up wide-open rushing lanes through misdirection and play packaging make him one of the most promising coaches in America.
Larry Fedora, North Carolina: The Heels went up-up-up-tempo under first-year man Fedora last year, and it's no surprise. The former Southern Miss coach was a spread monster with the Golden Eagles and was an assistant for Gundy before heading off to USM. Before that it was three years with Ron Zook at Florida, but we won't hold that against Fedora, who already has a 12-2 season to his credit.
Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia: An understudy of both Mike Leach and Kevin Sumlin, Holgorsen has bona fides in the spread to rival just about anybody. What "Holgo" still lacks is sustained success at the collegiate level, though, and the Mountaineers' struggles this year won't impress many in the NFL. When Holgorsen gets his next great quarterback, WVU should take off — and the NFL should take notes. And my goodness, did he ever put a hurt on Clemson in 2011.
Rich Rodriguez, Arizona: Hey, remember this guy? Rodriguez has been successful implementing different variations of the spread in numerous locations through his career, and while the win-loss record hasn't always been in his favor (funny what having Greg Robinson as your defensive coordinator running an unfamiliar formation will do), his offensive chops are basically unimpeachable.
Todd Graham, Arizona State: Once the "dream job" jokes are stripped away, what's left is the conclusion that Todd Graham knows how to run a fast-paced offense (14th in the FBS in pace last year, according to Football Study Hall, and 25th in total offense). ASU runs a run-friendly spread that's not altogether unlike Oregon's, and that run aspect may be more appealing to the NFL, where potentially productive running backs are in much higher supply than dependable quarterbacks.
Kevin Wilson, Indiana: Wilson's a little old — he's in his early 50s — and this is only his first gig (and third season) as a head coach. But for Indiana's struggles as a program, it's undeniable that Wilson has that team on a much more solid foundation than before. The Hoosiers have the Big Ten's best and most prolific passing offense by a landslide these days, and while Wilson's failings on defense can't be ignored, it would be interesting to see what he does in a league where the talent level is parity-driven rather than at a school that's constantly behind the eight-ball in recruiting.
Sonny Dykes, Cal: Louisiana Tech was one of the fastest-paced teams in the nation last year, trailing only Marshall, and one of the most exciting too. That's thanks to Dykes (another former Mike Leach assistant), who parlayed his Bulldogs' dominance to a gig at Cal running what's already being called the "Bear Raid" offense. He's a fine replacement for once-esteemed QB specialist Jeff Tedford in Berkeley, and Cal looked exciting in giving nationally-ranked Northwestern all it could handle in Week 1 — just like LA Tech did with Kevin Sumlin and Texas A&M last year.
Tier 3: The next wave
Brian Polian, Nevada: Polian's a first-year head coach at Nevada, where offensive ingenuity has long thrived. His list of employers as a college assistant is impressive to say the least: Nick Saban at Michigan State, Charlie Weis (don't laugh; Weis knows his stuff) at Notre Dame, Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw at Stanford and Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M. Oh, and his dad is longtime Colts GM Bill Polian. Brian's got to make his own name as an offensive coach still — he was primarily a special teams coach as an assistant — but if Nevada thrives and he lands a bigger college job, expect several calls from the NFL after that.
Chad Morris, Clemson: Morris was Todd Graham's offensive coordinator at Tulsa in 2010 when the Golden Hurricane scored over 41 points a game and Graham parlayed it into a job at Pitt; Morris, meanwhile, went to Clemson to be Dabo Swinney's OC, and we last heard from him chastising Tajh Boyd for getting plays in too slowly during Clemson's monstrous win over Georgia in Week 1. Morris wants to run, and if an NFL team wants to run too he's worth a look down the road, after he gets some head-coach seasoning.
Dave Doeren, NC State: One of the fastest-rising stars in college football is Doeren, who has gone from defensive coordinator at bulldozer factory Wisconsin in 2010 to head coach at spread-happy Northern Illinois in 2011 (with a 23-4 record in two seasons) to North Carolina State's leading man this year. Doeren's even got former offensive coordinator Matt Canada with him, and those two combined to do great things with Chandler Harnish at QB at NIU.
Noel Mazzone, UCLA: UCLA's current offensive coordinator under Jim Mora has long been hailed as a "QB guru" — think Marc Trestman without the Canadian credentials — and the Bruin offense has flourished even with the still-raw Brett Hundley at QB running the show.
Bob Stitt, Colorado School of Mines: Stitt's only at the DII level (and that's seriously a real school with a real college football program), but he's the father of the devastating fly sweep play and as offensively inventive as just about anybody on the list. He may not be the ascendant type to lead an NFL program in the near future, but if the NFL embraces up-tempo offenses, someone'll find a way for him to help out in some way if Stitt wants to.
Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech: To say the jury's still out on Kingsbury is an understatement: he's the youngest coach in a BCS conference and only in his first season. But the former Patriots quarterback was masterful in charge of Mike Leach's offense as a quarterback, he was a solid quarterbacks coach for Kevin Sumlin at Houston and Texas A&M and he immediately turned true freshman walk-on Baker Mayfield into a star at QB at Texas Tech this year. The potential to be a passing guru for the next 20-plus years is most certainly there for Kingsbury.
Matt Wells, Utah State: Wells cut his teeth learning the passing game first as a quarterback for Utah State, then coaching for several years under Steve Kragthorpe before returning to coach at USU under Gary Andersen, who's now at Wisconsin. Andersen turned the USU program over to Wells this year. The Aggies nearly upset Utah, then demolished Air Force with a scintillating passing performance by Chuckie Keeton. Wells is years away from any NFL attention, but the Aggies are looking really good — at least offensively — under Wells.