For years, NFL coaches stood on their ivory towers proclaiming that the college game would never work in the NFL. But now it does—and it works pretty well at that.
The read-option. The two-man defensive line in a nickel or dime defense. Even the short success of the Wildcat. They all came from the college game. NFL owners and coaches are wising up to the fact that smart football is smart football, regardless of the level on which it's played.
College coaches are dipping into the high school ranks for innovation, and NFL coaches are dipping into colleges looking for a similar spark.
The transition to the NFL for Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh, plus the recent hires of Doug Marrone, Chip Kelly and Greg Schiano, point to a National Football League that's more open to accepting the college game.
So who is next?
1. David Shaw, Head Coach, Stanford
Fans are wowed by Chip Kelly's spread-out, up-tempo offense in Philadelphia, but NFL coaches want to know how to stop it. Enter David Shaw. His Stanford defense held Oregon to just 14 points during the 2012 season by playing smart, disciplined, gap-controlled defense.
Shaw may follow Jim Harbaugh into the NFL, but he's not a Jim Jr. in any way. Shaw is more Tom Coughlin than Harbaugh with his quiet, sturdy leadership and structure.
College coaches who don't win big in college can struggle to win over an NFL locker room, but Shaw's reputation precedes him. The Stanford program is the real deal, and Shaw's work as offensive coordinator for Andrew Luck is well known. It also helps that he was in the NFL as a wide receivers coach from 1997 until 2005, when he followed Harbaugh to the University of San Diego.
Shaw is ready for the NFL and should start hearing his phone ring as soon as an NFL team is ready to move on from their head coach. He could have a new head coaching job after this season...if he wants one.
2. Kevin Sumlin, Head Coach, Texas A&M
If you're looking for the next offensive innovation to hit the NFL, look to Texas A&M. Yes, Johnny Manziel is magical at times, but it's the system head coach Kevin Sumlin has installed that allows this team to win. One year after Mike Sherman led the Aggies to a 7-6 record, Sumlin came in with a first-year quarterback and took the team to 11 wins and a victory over Alabama.
Sumlin's Air Raid system will work in the NFL, too. In fact, teams like the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots already use many of the passing principles in their playbooks. The route on which Wes Welker has excelled for so long? Just a simple "Y-Stick" route you'll see in every Air Raid offense and the same play Ryan Swope ran with so much success last year at A&M.
Sumlin has only been a head coach since 2008 (at Houston), but he'll likely have his pick of college and NFL openings this year.
3. Brian Kelly, Head Coach, Notre Dame
To be a head coach in the NFL, you need to be a CEO as well as a tactician. Brian Kelly gets that.
The CEO of the Notre Dame football program, Kelly can relate to the pressures of an NFL head coaching job better than any college football coach.
From dealing with alums and boosters to a TV network and the reality of academic restraints that keep him from recruiting the same players as his competitors—all prepared Kelly for life as a head man in the NFL on non-game days.
On game days, Kelly is ready. His pro-style system and 3-4 defense have turned Notre Dame into a contender in a hurry. His experience as a head coach, dating back to the 1991 season at Grand Valley State, is invaluable—as is his track record of winning at every stop.
Kelly's not breaking new ground on offense or defense, but his leadership and approach to the job could make him a top-tier candidate for NFL jobs this offseason.
4. Chris Petersen, Head Coach, Boise State
The passing game is king in the NFL right now, and no college coach has a more developed passing scheme than Chris Petersen at Boise State.
You might argue that his system hasn't turned out top-tier pro players, especially on offense, but that's more a result of the recruits to whom he has access at Boise State. Petersen has proven that he can win without a roster full of 5-star recruits—a trait that, in the NFL, will be much more useful than an ability to woo a kid to your school.
Petersen's spread-out style of play has started to find its way to the NFL, and the way he uses well-timed "trick plays" and bravado would be a welcomed addition to the sometimes stale pro game. The offense at Boise has been nearly unstoppable since Petersen took over as head coach in 2006. His space and leverage principles wouldn't be completely new to the NFL, but combined with pro-level athletes, it would be a welcomed innovation.
5. Art Briles, Head Coach, Baylor
The running quarterback is becoming more accepted by the day in the NFL. So why not go after a head coach who knows how to identify quarterback talent, develop them and then unleash them on the defense?
Briles' development of Robert Griffin III put him on the map with most casual observers, but the talent he's continued to uncover at Baylor is worth noticing, too. Kendall Wright, Phil Taylor, Josh Gordon, Terrance Williams and others represent the Baylor Bears in the NFL and are a testament to Briles' skills. Not to mention future first-round prospect Cyril Richardson in the 2014 draft class.
Briles' team plays fast, and he utilizes the entire field to beat you. It's worth remembering that Briles comes from the Houston Cougars offense, where they love to spread the field and throw the ball around. To that he's added a running quarterback element that is a perfect fit in today's NFL.
Other up-and-comers: James Franklin (Vanderbilt), Bill O'Brien (Penn State), Dabo Swinney (Clemson)