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An early look at 10 potential head coach candidates

MANNY DIAZ - Defensive Coordinator, Texas (6-2, 3-2 Big 12) - Diaz is a fast-rising young coach, who got his start working alongside defensive coordinators Mickey Andrews and Chuck Amato at Florida State and North Carolina State, respectively. From there he was the defensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State, Mississippi State this past season and currently at Texas. At Mississippi State, the Bulldogs had a top-20 defense. At Texas, the Longhorns rank 15th in total defense and 31st in scoring defense. More importantly, from his time in Starkville, he has recruiting connections throughout the Magnolia State. His departure for Austin played a big role in Ole Miss’ recruiting haul this past February.

HUGH FREEZE - Head Coach, Arkansas State (7-2, 5-0 Sun Belt) - Best known for his role in the “Blind Side,” Freeze coached former Ole Miss player Michael Oher at Briarcrest (Tenn.) High School. He’s one of the few head coaching candidates with direct ties to Ole Miss from his position as Assistant Athletic Director for Football External Affairs in 2005, before serving as a recruiting coordinator and position coach under then-head coach Ed Orgeron. His 2006 and 2007 classes ranked 15th and 27th, respectively, according to Rivals.com. He spent two years as head coach at Lambuth, a NAIA school, before becoming the offensive coordinator and later head coach at Arkansas State the past two seasons. In his first season as head coach, the Red Wolves have only lost at Illinois and Virginia Tech.

MARK HUDSPETH - Head Coach, Louisiana-Lafayette (8-2, 6-1 Sun Belt) - Like Freeze, Hudspeth is off to a great start in his season as a FBS head coach at Louisiana-Lafayette. As far as FBS experience, he was the offensive coordinator at Navy in 2001 and passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach Mississippi State in 2009 and 2010. At the Division II level, he was the head coach at North Alabama from 2002 to 2008, where the Lions posted a 66-21 overall record, won two conference titles and reached two semifinals. He’s a Mississippi native and from his coaching experiences, he has recruiting ties to Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. This Saturday, he faces off with Freeze and Arkansas in the de facto Sun Belt championship game.

MIKE LEACH - Former Texas Tech Head Coach - The wildcard among the head coaching candidates, not only because he did not play college football and owns a law degree. Leach coached at some low-level program, most notably as the offensive coordinator at Valdosta State from 1992 to 1996, where he developed the “Air Raid Offense.” He followed Hal Mumme to Kentucky and coached for two seasons, before moving on to Oklahoma. In his one season in Norman, he took the Sooners from one of the nation’s worst offense to one of the nation’s best offenses. From Oklahoma, he came on board as the head coach at Texas Tech, where he went 84-43, shared one Big 12 South title and reached a bowl game in all 10 seasons. He also made a recent appearance in Jackson for a touchdown club meeting and book signing.

GUS MALZAHN - Offensive Coordinator, Auburn (6-3, 4-2 SEC) - Malzahn has orchestrated record-setting offense everywhere he has been from the high school ranks through the college ranks with stops at Arkansas, Tulsa and, most recently, Auburn. Like Freeze with Oher, Malzahn got his start with the “Springdale Trio” of Mitch Mustain, Damian Williams and Ben Cleveland, all of whom later attended Arkansas with him. In his one season at Arkansas, 2006, the Razorbacks finished 10-4 and won the SEC Western Division. His Tulsa offenses in 2007 and 2008 led the nation in total offense. Last season, the Auburn offense set nine school records and led the SEC in six statistical categories, as Auburn won the BCS National Championship. Without Heisman Trophy quarterback Cam Newton, the Tigers rank in the bottom half of total offense and scoring offense.

KIRBY SMART - Defensive Coordinator, Alabama (8-1, 5-1 SEC) - The Nick Saban continues to grow with five head coaches having served under him - Mark Dantonio (Michigan State), Derek Dooley (Tennessee), Jimbo Fisher (Florida State), Mike Haywood and, most recently Will Muschamp (Florida) - and Kirby Smart looks to be the next in line. He has the SEC pedigree, having played at Georgia and coached at LSU and now Alabama, both under Saban. In 2009, Alabama not only won the BCS National Championship over Texas, but Smart also took home the Broyles Awards as the top assistant coach in the nation. That season, the Crimson Tide led the SEC and ranked second in the nation in total defense and scoring defense. This season, despite Saturday’s 9-6 loss to LSU, Alabama leads the nation in both categories. The Georgia head coaching position, however, looms for Smart.

MARK STOOPS - Defensive Coordinator, Florida State (6-3, 4-2 ACC) - The younger brother of Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops and former Arizona head coach Mike Stoops, Mark seems to be on the verge of a head coaching position with more than 20 years of coaching experience under his belt. Stoops has been an assistant at South Florida, Wyoming, Houston and Miami. From 2001 to 2003, when he coached under Larry Coker at Miami, the Hurricanes reached three straight BCS bowl games and won the BCS National Championship in 2001. He coached under his brother Mike at Arizona from 2004 to 2009, before being hired by Florida State for the 2010 season. This season, the Seminoles rank 4th in total defense and 7th in scoring defense.

CHARLIE STRONG - Head Coach, Louisville (5-4, 3-1 Big East) - A longtime defensive coordinator at Florida from 2002 to 2009, Strong finally got a head coaching position at Louisville for the 2010 season. He served under both Ron Zook and Urban Meyer, in addition to serving as interim coach for a game in 2004. In the 2009 BCS National Championship, the Gators held Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford and the highest-scoring offense in the history of college football history to just 14 points and 363 total yards in the 24-14 win. As the head coach at Louisville, he is 12-10. This season, the Cardinals have won at Kentucky and West Virginia and the defense ranks in the top 20 in both total defense and scoring defense. Strong also served as wide receivers under Billy Brewer at Ole Miss in 1990, in addition to previous experience at Notre Dame and South Carolina.

KEVIN SUMLIN - Head Coach, Houston (9-0, 5-0 C-USA) - Not only is Houston undefeated, the Cougars lead the nation in both total offense and scoring offense this season. Sumlin succeeded Art Briles as Houston head coach in 2008 and is 26-16, including a 45-35 win at No. 5 Oklahoma State in 2009. Before his most recent stop in Houston, he has been an assistant at Washington State, Wyoming, Minneosta, Purdue, Texas A&M and Oklahoma. At Texas A&M and Oklahoma, he also served as offensive coordinator. He played his college ball at Purdue and has not coached in the SEC during his career. And, despite his high-powered offenses, his defense ranks middle-of-the-pack in most statistical categories. Sumlin has also had the luxury of Heisman Trophy candidate Case Keenum at quarterback for all four seasons.

BRENT VENABLES - Defensive Coordinator, Oklahoma (8-1, 5-1 Big 12) - From 1999 to 2003, Venables served as co-defensive coordinator with Mike Stoops, who later became the head coach at Arizona. In 2004, he took over full responsibilities of the Sooners’ defense. Like the Saban coaching tree, Venables comes from the Bill Snyder coaching tree, where he was a graduate assistant and later linebackers coach and defensive run game coordinator from 1993 to 1998, when he left Manhattan for Norman. Among the coaches from the Snyder coaching tree are Stoops, Meyer and Bret Bielema (Wisconsin). Under Venables, Oklahoma has reached four national championship games, including a win over Florida State in the 2001 Orange Bowl. This season, the Sooners rank 45th in total defense and 21st in scoring defense.