The thing to keep in mind about Texas' search for Mack Brown's replacement is that every name is a name to know. The Texas job commands such national respect and wields such resources that every coach in the country will be inclined to listen if the Longhorns come calling. So to narrow it down to three or four names at this point in the process would be just about impossible. But we'll do our best to whittle it to 11.
Things we do know: Texas will want a coach with success as a big-time head coach, media savvy, a relatively clean record, and the ability to light an immediate fire. With that in mind, here are the names to be the most familiar with at this point. These aren't necessarily predictions, but rather names you'll be hearing over the next few weeks.
Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Malzahn was born in Texas. He spent much of his early career in nearby Arkansas. He's winning national coach of the year awards. In an era of offense-first football, Malzahn is perhaps the best offensive mind around.
During its year between his stints at Auburn, the Tigers averaged 18.7 points and 305.0 yards per game on its way to a 3-9 record. This season, the Tigers are 12-1, SEC champions and set to play Florida State in the BCS Championship Game. The offense has exploded for 40.2 points and 505.3 yards per contest, and Auburn's 335.7 rushing yards per game leads the nation.
Malzahn might be the hottest head coach in America right now, and Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel recently reported that Texas is his "dream job." However, Malzahn and Auburn agreed to terms on a six-year contract extension this month, a deal that has built in raises and will pay $5.1 million in base salary during its final year. Even notorious nomads Bobby Petrino and Todd Graham would raise their eyebrows if he decided to leave right after signing a new deal.
Don McPeak, USA Today
James Franklin, Vanderbilt
If Malzahn isn't the hottest coach in the country, then it would be Franklin. Franklin took over at Vanderbilt in 2011 and has led the Commodores to three consecutive bowl appearances and has a chance at back-to-back nine-win campaigns. Yes, Franklin has done that at Vanderbilt, a school that had been to one bowl game in the previous 36 seasons. From 1975 through 2010 the 'Dores had a winning percentage of .290. Under Franklin, that number is .605.
Franklin recruits well, has the on-field credentials, and is a high-energy guy. His seemingly tireless promotion of the program at Vanderbilt shows a personal quality that would be valuable at Texas. He's a coach who'd look forward to selling his team on the Longhorn Network. Whoever gets the Longhorns gig will be in the spotlight and likely needs an outgoing attitude to thrive.
Charlie Strong, Louisville
For years, Strong toiled as a SEC defensive coordinator longing to take over a program. Louisville finally gave him the opportunity prior to the 2010 season. After 7-6 seasons in 2010 and '11, Strong has led his team to a 22-3 record over the last two years, including a Sugar Bowl win over Florida. He has a great background as a defensive coach, and Louisville has been among the top 25 nationally in scoring defense in three of his four years, including a No. 3 ranking this season.
Perhaps the biggest question mark for Strong is whether he would actually leave Louisville. The coach has been mentioned as a possible candidate for previous openings, but he's indicated a strong sense of loyalty toward his school, once spurning Tennessee to stick with the Cards. Would the allure of Texas trump that loyalty?
David Shaw, Stanford
Shaw hasn't been a head coach long, but he's already had significant success. Taking over for Jim Harbaugh in 2011, he's taken Stanford to three consecutive 11-win seasons and BCS bowl berths. Most thought the Cardinal would take a step down when Harbaugh left for the NFL, but Shaw has proven that he too can run an elite program. USC reportedly had some interest in Shaw before hiring Steve Sarkisian, but he said the feeling wasn't mutual.
As with Strong, the biggest question regarding Shaw's possible candidacy at Texas is loyalty, and it's an even bigger question here. He's a Stanford alum and the son of a Stanford coach, and even if the Longhorns offer a big pay day, it likely will not be enough to pluck him from Palo Alto.
He has eight years of experience as an NFL assistant, and some think if he ever leaves Stanford, it would be for the professional ranks like his predecessor. The Houston Texans are already rumored to be suitors.
Jimbo Fisher, Florida State
If Texas can't get Nick Saban, why not a Saban disciple? After Florida State struggled in the twilight of Bobby Bowden's career, Fisher has returned the Seminoles to prominence. Could he replace another fading legend?
After 10-4 and 9-4 seasons in in 2010 and '11, the Seminoles won the ACC title and defeated Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl last year. Now, FSU is 13-0 and playing Auburn for its first national championship since 1999. Fisher has been an outstanding recruiter for the 'Noles, hauling in four straight top-10 classes, according to 247 Sports.
But Fisher might not be the guy, for the same reasons Malzahn is unlikely to be the guy. He's tied up for a month to prepare for the title game, and he just agreed to a contract extension, coming to terms for $4.1 million for at least the next five years. It's hard to see him leaving a brand-new deal and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
Art Briles, Baylor
Briles, who also has a new deal, could be the front-runner. He's from Texas and was a championship high school coach in the state. He knows local recruiting. He's turned Baylor from a doormat into a contender. He coached Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III in 2011.
This year, employing his explosive offensive attack, the Bears have had the best offense in America, averaging 53.3 points and 623.8 yards per game. Baylor defeated Texas, 30-10, in the regular-season finale to clinch its first conference title since 1994 and will play in its first BCS game in January.
Briles appears to be the perfect fit, and Texas could likely out-bid Baylor, but would he leave Waco for Austin? If he continues his current level of success with the Bears, he'll be the most-beloved coach in school history. Baylor will open a new stadium next fall, he just signed an extension, and at 58 years old, he might not want to start over at a new destination, especially one that would be so firmly in the limelight.
But if the question is about which coach would be most likely to find immediate success at Texas, the answer is likely Briles.
Big 12 coaches I have spoken w fear that Art Briles will get the job, "He'd crush everyone if he gets the job" "Might never lose".
— FootballScoop Staff (@footballscoop) December 15, 2013
Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers
He hasn't been a college coach in 15 years, and he was only a position coach at small schools even then. And when he was connected to USC rumors, he shot those down.
@SportsTripper He has no interest in being a college coach. He has said that to me, directly.
— Bob Labriola (@BobLabriola) December 11, 2013
But if CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman says Tomlin is a name to keep in mind, then Tomlin's a name to keep in mind.
Jim Mora, UCLA
Mora has done a fine job at UCLA, turning the Bruins into the best program in Los Angeles. Yes, some of that is because of Lane Kiffin's downfall at USC, but Mora deserves plenty of credit. The Bruins have nine wins this year for the second season in a row, and they can reach 10 with a victory over Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl. His recruiting has been among the best in the Pac-12, and since he's already in L.A., he knows how to deal with the kind of media scrutiny that would come with the Texas job.
Mora is a Washington alum and once spent a year as an assistant on the Huskies staff, but when that head coaching job opened up a few weeks ago, he didn't have any interest in returning to his alma mater. Texas is a much bigger job than Washington -- and it's bigger than UCLA, too -- but Mora recently signed a six-year extension with the Bruins and seems to be happy in Southern California.
Ed Szczepanski, USA Today
Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers
This might be the best name on the list, even better than Saban. He's also likely not leaving the NFL.
Harbaugh is the one who turned Stanford into a Pac-12 power, and since taking over the 49ers, he's returned San Francisco to the NFL's top tier. The Niners were 6-10 in 2010, but Harbaugh immediately turned them around to 13-3, reaching the second round of the playoffs and winning Coach of the Year honors in the process. It was San Fran's first postseason appearance since 2002. Last year, Harbaugh's team advanced to the Super Bowl, and it's primed for another playoff run this season.
And this was all after taking Stanford from a seven-year bowl drought to a BCS bowl win.
ESPN's Colin Cowherd said Harbaugh would have taken the USC job if offered (and while Cowherd isn't known for breaking news, he's very connected to USC), and if that's really the case, it's not a stretch to think the head coach would consider moving to Austin. But with success building Stanford and in the NFL, would taking over at Texas be a step down? Harbaugh would likely have to have a significant preference for the college game in order to leave the 49ers for the Longhorns.
Given the more or less common knowledge of the tension between Harbaugh and young 49ers team president Jed York and GM Trent Baalke -- including Harbaugh puzzlingly turning down a two-year extension to his contract -- it's pretty plain that Harbaugh is currently receptive to different employment options.
If it sounds insane for a highly respected NFL coach with an elite young team to even consider moving because he's unhappy with his surroundings, then you don't know Jim Harbaugh very well. There's walking to the beat of your own drummer and then there's pushing the drummer down, smashing his drums, and walking off of the road.
Jim Harbaugh is my dream candidate for head coach at Texas.
Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State
Forget optics. Forget perception. Let's just look at the record and attributes.
Gundy's overall record at Oklahoma State is outstanding. 77-36 over nine years (OSU started 12-15 under Gundy), but 41-9 over his last four years. Though Oklahoma State has some financial and facility resources courtesy of T. Boone Pickens, they're still the No. 2 school in a state with a paucity of FBS recruits and a clear step below neighboring OU, Texas, A&M, and LSU in the program potential power rankings. And the recruiting rankings bear that out. This is a program clearly overachieving.
Gundy nearly left Oklahoma State for Tennessee last year, so pulling him away from his alma mater isn't out of the question, especially since his staff sees Texas' advantages up close on the recruiting trail every day. Whether he'd choose to leave at this point is another question.
Nick Saban, Alabama
Yep, the guy who signed a new deal just two days ago will remain part of the conversation until Texas' next coach is giving his introductory presser. When you're the athletic director at Texas and you demand excellence every year, you start at the top. Saban is most definitely the top when it comes to current college football coaches.
There have been several reports and rumors linking Saban to Texas, but the Crimson Tide head coach has consistently shot them down, both before and after signing his new deal. And there's good reason to be skeptical of any Saban-to-Texas story. Alabama is also one of the best jobs in the sport, and he has the program in Tuscaloosa running at peak performance. The Tide have been so good under Saban that an 11-1 2013 season seems like a disappointment.
Saban is almost certainly not leaving Alabama, not for Texas or anywhere else. But these are names to know, not names that are leaving. Certain Texas fans won't give up on the Saban dream until the very end.
Who'd we miss?
This doesn't even include coaches like Michigan State's Mark Dantonio (a Texas native) or Arizona State's Todd Graham (also a Texas native). It's safe to say at his point, just about every name is one to consider.