Kevin Sumlin: He's the hot name out there. His University of Houston Cougars are in prime position to get to a BCS Bowl. They go into their conference title game with a 12-0 record. In 2009, Cincinnati went after Sumlin for its head coaching job. The athletic director at the time? Mike Thomas. It's hard to imagine Thomas would not try to get Sumlin again. But he won't be the only one going after Sumlin, with a number of programs (such as UCLA) in search of a new head coach.
Butch Jones: Jones is the current head coach at Cincinnati. Cincy is going through some changes, as they have a new athletic director (former Missouri associate athletic director Whit Babcock). But the Bearcats are 8-3 this year. Jones also coached at Central Michigan, who earned a 11-2 record in his final year with the Chippewas. Again, with the Cincinnati connection, it's expected Thomas would inquire about Jones' availability and interest.
Kirby Wilson: He is a former Illini football player and current Steelers running back coach. He also obtained his bachelors degree from Eastern Illinois, so the regional connection is most certainly there. Wilson has served under Mike Tomlin since 2007 and also served under Dennis Green when Green was coach of the Arizona Cardinals. With plenty of experience working with running backs (including former Illini back Rashard Mendenhall), the tradition of a quality ground game would continue at Illinois if Wilson is coach.
Mike Leach: The polarizing figure is still without a job after Texas Tech fired him in 2009 amid allegations he mistreated players. There is no doubt, however, Leach is talented. He turned around the Texas Tech program and is a master of the spread offense (turning players like Michael Crabtree and Graham Harrell into stars). He comes with a lot of off-field baggage, so Mike Thomas may be gun shy about hiring Leach.
Frank Solich: The Ohio Bobcats coach's name should be thrown around because of his success at Nebraska and Ohio. He has more than 100 wins while coaching in Athens, OH. He can find the Illini job appealing because he can face his former football team in the Big Ten. Solich has proven he can win and has coached at the highest level (when Nebraska faced Miami in the 2001 national championship game). His offensive scheme requires a good running back and a mobile quarterback, which Illinois already has in place. Solich has two years remaining on his contract with Ohio.
Tim Beckman: He is the current head coach at Toledo. In the last two years, the Rockets have a winning record.
Larry Fedora: Current Southern Miss football coach, who has had a winning season in each of his years at Hattiesburg. He's coached quality quarterbacks while an assistant at Oklahoma State (Zac Robinson) and Florida (Chris Leak).
Brent Venables: Oklahoma's defensive coordinator is known for frustrating offenses (and there are plenty of good ones in the Big 12). Every off season, he's mentioned with a head coaching vacancy, and he'll be associated with all sorts of vacancies opening up early this year.
Dave Christensen: Another small program coach making a name for himself at Wyoming. He would bring the spread offense to Illinois, a scheme he mastered during his Missouri days when Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin were around.