ESPN.com has learned that Mississippi has identified three top candidates for its coaching vacancy, with Louisville's Bobby Petrino believed to be leading the list.
The other two candidates are former Washington and Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel and outgoing Florida coach Ron Zook. Other candidates, such as Memphis' Tommy West, could emerge.
Ole Miss is believed to have initiated contact with all three, perhaps through intermediaries. Petrino's 9-1 Cardinals have another regular-season game to play, Saturday at Tulane, and he was on Florida's radar until Urban Meyer agreed to become the new coach of the Gators. Petrino and Louisville were traveling to New Orleans Friday afternoon and could not be reached for comment.
Zook, who was fired in late October by Florida, has interviewed for the vacant Illinois job. Neuheisel had successful but controversial tenures in Boulder and Seattle and was fired by Washington before the 2003 season.
Ole Miss was 4-7 this season and fired coach David Cutcliffe, reportedly after he refused to make staff changes. Cutcliffe was making a reported $1.2 million per year, and it's believed that the school is willing to pay its new coach significantly more than that.
It might take that kind of money to interest Petrino, who currently makes $550,000 annually but has several incentives in his contract, plus a million-dollar loyalty bonus if he stays three more years for a total of five at the school. Sources said Petrino was contacted by an Ole Miss representative this week, but Petrino told the representative he wouldn't consider it until after Saturday's game at Tulane.
Louisville is headed to the Big East next year and would appear to have a good chance to win the league and earn a BCS bid. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich has said he plans to enhance Petrino's current contract after this season.
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.