Tennessee coaching candidates: Six coaches who could replace Butch Jones

What seemed like an inevitability became a reality on Sunday when Tennessee announced head coach Butch Jones had been let go after Saturday night's 50-17 loss to Missouri.

With the loss, the Vols have lost their most recent game to every SEC team -- and Jones even lost his last matchup to Tennessee as Cincinnati's coach prior to taking the gig on Rocky Top.

But the bigger question is who will replace Jones in 2018. Let's break down the top six candidates.

Jon Gruden: No Tennessee coaching hot board would be complete without the good ole #GRUMORS on it. What's clear this time around is that new athletic director John Currie will make a serious run at the former Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach.

Gruden is 95-81 in 11 years as an NFL coach, won Super Bowl XXXVII following the 2002 season with the Bucs, has ties to the area and has been mentioned as a candidate ever since being fired by the Buccaneers following the 2008 season. He has not coached in college since he was the wide receivers coach for Pitt in 1991, and served as a graduate assistant with Tennessee in 1986-87.

CBS Sports' own Jason La Canfora reports that Gruden would only consider NFL work if he does decide to return to coaching. Tennessee would not only have to potentially contend with NFL teams for Gruden's services, but the television booth as well. Would Gruden give up his gig calling Monday Night Football for ESPN to go recruit high-schoolers and get back to the grind of 24/7/365 football? Maybe. But he said this summer that the NFL is where he wants to be, and joked that the rules in college would probably get a team on probation "within four or five weeks."

Besides, he's got a sweet television gig that, even if it involves changing networks, will still exist in one way or another.

Dan Mullen, Mississippi State: Mullen would be a home run hire for Currie if he can lure him away from Starkville.

Mullen just took Alabama to the wire in a 31-24 loss, has kept the program relevant in the rough-and-tumble SEC West through the Dak Prescott era and now into the Nick Fitzgerald era, and has raised the floor of the program to a point where bowl games are the minimum expectation of a fan base that -- prior to his arrival -- had enjoyed bowl trips just 13 times. Since his arrival in 2009, they've made seven bowl trips with an eighth coming this season.

His 68-45 record overall and 32-38 mark in conference play doesn't exactly jump off the page, but that was compiled at Mississippi State -- a traditional SEC cellar dweller prior to his arrival. He develops quarterbacks consistently and a fantastic identifier of talent. Imagine what he could do with the facilities and recruiting base that Tennessee has to offer.

He'd kill it.

Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech: Speaking of people who would kill it at Tennessee, Fuente would certainly fall into that category.

He built Memphis back into a force in the Group of Five. Memphis. The outpost of all college football outposts. 

Not only should that matter to Tennessee for obvious recruiting and ability purposes, but luring him away from Virginia Tech after just two seasons would throw a curveball to a Hokies program that, from a proximity standpoint, is pretty close. The Vols don't always battle with the Hokies for prospects, but there's enough crossover for that to be an ancillary benefit.

Fuente is 43-30 in six seasons as a head coach, including 4-8 and 3-9 records during his first two seasons at Memphis before getting that program back on track.

The question will be if Tennessee a demonstrably better job than Virginia Tech. Fuente can probably win nine games per year in Blacksburg, contend for the division title, go to the ACC Championship Game consistently and get paid a lot of money to live a stable life as a college football coach -- something that's as rare as Volunteer SEC wins these days. 

Mike Norvell, Memphis: Tennessee might balk a bit at hiring another Group of Five coach without major college experience, but Norvell should get a look.

He has made former Tennessee quarterback Riley Ferguson a star at quarterback for the Tigers and has them ranked in the College Football Playoff rankings. Norvell is not only familiar with the state from his time in Memphis, but the region throughout his career as a player and a coach.

He's 16-6 in two years at the helm after taking over for Fuente, 10-4 in the AAC and runs the kind of offense that can excite Vols fans after this year's debacle.

Chip Kelly: Kelly is hanging out doing television right now, but his high-octane, up-tempo offense would sell well on Rocky Top.

The former Oregon coach took the Ducks to the 2010 national title game against Auburn, elevated it into a consistent Pac-12 contender and has the ability to kickstart an offense that desperately needs the college football equivalent of a fuel additive. 

But is he the right "fit?"

It has been noted that he's not the most aggressive recruiter out there which, while concerning, is not necessarily a deal-breaker if he hires a staff that can sell not only the program, but Kelly as an offensive genius.

He was 46-7 in four years as Oregon's coach, 33-3 in conference play and never finished lower than in a tie for first place in his division.

Lane Kiffin, FAU: No, this is not meant to be an attempt at a troll. It's an attempt to talk some sense into the folks at Rocky Top.

Get over the burn you still feel from Kiffin's one year in 2009, and at least consider him.

Sure, the NCAA issues he left behind, the abrupt nature in which he departed and his brash -- and sometimes overwhelming -- personality was a lot to deal with then, but there's no doubt that he's matured as a head coach now.

He has FAU at 6-0 in Conference USA and 7-3 overall, and has proven not only through his time in Boca Raton this year but as Alabama's offensive coordinator from 2014-16 that he's an offensive genius.

Kiffin left Knoxville abruptly for his dream job at USC in January 2010, and tried to be honest with the fans in one of the most awkward press conferences in recent memory. Would you rather have him leave in the middle of the darkness without saying anything? USC was his dream job, they called and -- while its own NCAA issue made it a tough place to win during his time there -- he had to take the one shot he had at it.

At least hear him out. You don't have to hire him. Just hear him out.

For the latest on the Tennessee coaching search and fallout from Butch Jones' departure, visit GoVols247. They're on the ground in Knoxville covering recruit reaction, coaching prospects, and all the latest breaking news. Visit GoVols247 now!

College Football Writer

Barrett Sallee has been a member of the sports media in various aspects since 2001. He is currently a college football writer for CBS Sports, while also hosting on ESPNU on SiriusXM Radio channel 84, the... Full Bio

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