Matt Rhule is leaving his post as coach at Baylor to take over the NFL's Carolina Panthers, according to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora and multiple media reports. In three seasons at the helm of the Bears, Rhule dug Baylor out of the ashes left from the sexual assault scandal that took place under Art Briles and built a program that played on conference championship weekend this season with a potential College Football Playoff berth staring it in the face.
In three seasons, Rhule took Baylor from one win to seven wins to 11 wins, finishing his three-year stint in Waco, Texas, with the best 19-20 record you'll ever see. Amid an ongoing NCAA investigation, the Bears now have to find a second coach with a high ceiling willing to come in and steer the program through a difficult period in its history.
The private university has shown a willingness to pay -- Rhule's salary is believed to be among the 10 highest in the nation, according to CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd -- but with Rhule leaving after the early signing period and with just a few weeks until National Signing Day, Baylor is going to have to move fast to retain its recruiting class and close strong ahead of 2020.
Who is in line to take the keys and kick the program into overdrive? Let's break down some of the top candidates.
Blake Anderson, Arkansas State coach: Anderson has led the Red Wolves to a bowl game in each of his six seasons at the helm and won Sun Belt titles in 2015 and 2016. He also holds a 36-12 record in conference play since 2014. Not only does Anderson have a track record of sustained success, he has ties to the state of Texas from his days as a quarterback and wide receiver at Sam Houston State, and he's established relationships within the state due to the emphasis he has put on it for recruiting during his time at Arkansas State. Anderson also played two years at Baylor under Grant Teaff before transferring to Sam Houston. He may be a native of Arkansas, but a Power Five job like Baylor would be alluring, and Anderson has the character that the Bears should be seeking out in this search.
Sonny Dykes, SMU coach: Dykes has Power Five experience from his time at California from 2013-16, but the most important bullet point on his resume is his 15-11 record -- including a 10-3 mark in 2019 -- in two-plus seasons at SMU. It was the first double-digit win season for the Mustangs since 1984 -- two seasons before the NCAA brought down the hammer with the "death penalty." The Texas-native would check every box that Baylor should have on its list. He also interviewed for the Missouri job when current Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades was with the Tigers, so there is familiarity here.
Josh Heupel, UCF coach: Heupel, a former Oklahoma quarterback, is 22-4 in two seasons with the Knights and led the program to a 12-0 regular season in his first season in 2018 before losing to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl. He runs a wide open offense that will play well at Baylor and has an aggressive defense similar to the one that helped Baylor earn a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game in 2019. The former OU assistant (2006-14) has experience recruiting Texas and the bona fides to be a success in the job.
Joey McGuire and Jeff Nixon, Baylor assistant coaches: McGuire fits the Briles mold of joining Baylor after being a successful head coach at the high school level. He won three Texas state titles in 14 seasons at Cedar Hill and joined Rhule's staff in Year 1, getting promoted to associate head coach this season. Is an ascension to head coach next? Nixon is the Bears' co-offensive coordinator and a long-term Rhule assistant with NFL experience. Both men are in-house candidates to take over for Rhule and would provide continuity for recruiting while also attempting to keep the team headed in the right direction.
Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech coach: Yes, it might seem like a lateral move for Fuente to make this jump, but it's probably more accurate to call it a "soft landing spot." He won the ACC Coastal in 2016, but VT hasn't returned to the ACC Championship Game since despite playing in the downtrodden division. Despite that, he's still 33-20 in four seasons and could be looking for greener pastures since the pressure at Virginia Tech might be building in the near future. Fuente spent five years coaching at TCU (2007-11) and is from Oklahoma, so he's familiar with the recruiting area.
Luke Fickell, Cincinnati coach: Fickell has been wildly successful at Cincinnati, posting a 26-13 record in three seasons in charge. Not only does he have back-to-back 11-win seasons on his resume, but he has Power Five experience as the bridge between Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer at Ohio State in 2011. He doesn't have ties to the region, but Baylor didn't seem to care when it hired Rhule, who himself came in as an "outsider."
Bryan Harsin, Boise State coach: It would take the right Power Five job to get Harsin away from his alma mater -- especially since he's 64-17 in six seasons and shows no signs of slowing down. But he was the offensive coordinator at Texas from 2011-12 and dipped into the state to recruit when he was the coach at Arkansas State in 2013.
Tom Allen, Indiana coach: Allen just led the Hoosiers to their first eight-win season since 1993, and he was rewarded with a contract extension. But getting out of the Big Ten East in favor of the Big 12 -- where it's easier to win a conference title -- might be attractive to a coach who has a track record of getting the most out of his players.
Billy Napier, Louisiana coach: 247Sports reports that Napier, who is in his second season with the Ragin' Cajuns, is a "serious candidate" for the Baylor job. Napier is considered a coach on the rise with connections to staffs under Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney. Louisiana is coming off a over Miami (Ohio) for its first 11-win season in program history. Napier, who recently received a contract extension through 2025, was also heavily connected to the Mississippi State job before he shut down those rumors.