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Ranking the Power Five head coach vacancies: Nebraska, Wisconsin among most desirable

That there are five openings in the Power Five conferences just days into October has sent shockwaves across the Football Bowl Subdivision and the coaching industry.

This number will almost certainly grow — doubling or even tripling by the first Sunday in December — and potentially ensnare some of the biggest programs in the country.

For now, the five openings can be sorted into four groups.

Colorado and Georgia Tech represent the total rebuild.

Nebraska is closer to an on-the-fly rebuilding project with the determination to reverse the program's extended downturn and the money to entice a strong candidate pool.

Arizona State presents the opportunity to win right away, but includes the drawback of major uncertainty regarding the future of the Pac-12.

And lastly, Wisconsin might sit in the sweet spot. The Badgers have a built-in support system, a clear recruiting blueprint, a sustained track record of success and a roster capable of quickly rebounding toward the top of the Big Ten. 

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At some point in the next weeks and months, these positions could be joined by Auburn, West Virginia and others. Before the floodgates really open, here's how the five current openings rank along with each program's dream hire.

1. Wisconsin

The tipping point for Paul Chryst's tenure came before Saturday's 34-10 loss to Illinois and former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, though that result — and the fact that Wisconsin only ran for two yards — was enough to force athletics director Chris McIntosh's hand. The coaching change has deeper roots in an extremely disappointing 2018 season that began with Wisconsin ranked in the top five but ended with the Badgers outside the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll.

That season encapsulates the feeling around Chryst's tenure: Wisconsin peaked early in his run before sliding back into the pool of successful nine-win teams that are still well off the College Football Playoff pace. His replacement will need to increase the energy around the program, take a long look at ways to evolve the established method on offense and shepherd the Badgers' recruiting efforts into the NIL era.

Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard watches during the first half of his team's game against Penn State in Madison, Wis., Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

Dream hire: Jim Leonhard. The interim coach rarely gets a fair shot. But Leonhard landing the permanent opening would represent the dream scenario for Wisconsin given his connection to the program, interest from other Power Five programs and ability to represent a long-term solution. Leonhard landing the job would also suggest he successfully turned this season around; even though winless in the Big Ten, the Badgers could easily win the West division. If not Leonhard, Kansas coach Lance Leipold is a Wisconsin native who could take the Badgers offense in a new and exciting direction.

2. Nebraska

The Cornhuskers need a program-building savant who can manage the strange and nosy fishbowl that comes with coaching in Lincoln. In other words, first-time head coaches need not apply. And more specifically, Nebraska needs an established Power Five head coach with a track record of physical football and a clear blueprint for how to overwrite the litany of missteps committed during the Scott Frost era.

Is Nebraska a better job than Wisconsin? Not in the present, given how far the Cornhuskers have to go before catching up with the best of the Big Ten. But the school's NIL offerings, upcoming facilities upgrade and financial commitment gives Nebraska a very strong case for being the better job from a widescreen perspective.

Dream hire: Matt Rhule. He's won in very adverse circumstances at Temple and Baylor, both times taking a team from one win to some of the best years in program history. Rhule's brand of football hasn't played so well in the NFL as he comes under intense scrutiny in his third year with the Carolina Panthers. Will he be available? If so, he's an out-of-the-stadium home run for the Cornhuskers.

3. Arizona State

The Herm Edwards experiment had a number of flaws — along with a heavy dash of NCAA rule violations — but still yielded winning records in each of his three full seasons. The roster has suffered losses through transfers and attrition but should give Edwards' successor the pieces to find immediate success in the Pac-12.

That could lead Arizona State to look beyond current head coaches to evaluate Power Five assistants with a background on offense and connections in the state, such as Oregon offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham. There's the question of who will oversee the coaching search, however, as athletics director Ray Anderson may not be in place to make another hire. 

Dream hire: Tom Herman. He's yet to resurface as a legitimate Power Five candidate two years after being let go at Texas. But Herman is 54-22 as an FBS coach, including a 32-18 mark with the Longhorns, and is only a few years removed from being one of the hottest names in the sport. Rhule would be a big get here as well; Herman checks some of the same boxes and would quickly beef up the Sun Devils' offense.

4. Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech needs substance over style. Geoff Collins' efforts to rebrand the Yellow Jackets never got off the ground, doomed by smoke-and-mirrors recruiting and the inability to craft an identity around the program. Collins' replacement has to get a handle of Tech's unique academic standards in recruiting by bringing along an equally unique offensive game plan that maximizes the roster rather than requiring five-star talent.

The Yellow Jackets should sit at or near the bottom of the ACC power rankings entering the new hire's debut, but this represents an outlier compared to recent program history. Tech reached a bowl game in every season from 1997-2014 and reached two New Year's Six bowls under former coach Paul Johnson.  

Dream hire: Jamey Chadwell. His offensive system has helped Coastal Carolina go 27-3 since the start of the 2020 season and rank among the top teams in the Group of Five. Like Johnson, Chadwell has won on college football's lower levels of competition and would bring along a scheme that would immediately define the program.

5. Colorado

Tucked among the very bottom of teams in the Power Five, Colorado is multiple years away from competing for the Pac-12 crown. (If the Pac-12 even exists by the time the Buffaloes crawl out of the cellar.) The amount of dysfunction around the program and the Buffaloes' long road back to competitiveness makes it hard to predict where the program turns after axing Karl Dorrell after less than three seasons.

Will it be toward a former Power Five coach such as Dan Mullen or even Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien? Or a current Group of Five coach, including Texas-San Antonio's Jeff Traylor? Or a well-regarded Power Five assistant such as Illinois defensive coordinator and former Colorado defensive back Ryan Walters?

Dream hire: Bronco Mendenhall. The former Brigham Young and Virginia coach has gone at least .500 or reach a bowl game in all but one of his 17 seasons. He's deeply familiar with the region. He turned around two programs: BYU had three losing seasons in a row before promoting Mendenhall in 2005 and averaged nine wins a year during his tenure, while Virginia went 35-62 in the eight years prior to his arrival. Mendenhall wants back into coaching and could have a handful of solid options — would he be drawn to this sort of rebuilding project?