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Top five rising 'program builders'

During his brief Vanderbilt tenure, James Franklin has already made rival ADs take notice. Jeremy Brevard/US Presswire

When the Florida Gators take the field against the Texas A&M Aggies on Saturday in College Station, what most fans will see is a pairing of new SEC rivals and what could be a key early conference game.

But those who make a living within collegiate athletics see much more.

"Those are two coaches who a lot of people have had their eye on for a while," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said this summer. "Certain coaches garner a lot of attention during their time as assistants, and Will Muschamp and Kevin Sumlin are two of those coaches. Now they have the opportunity to lead a pair of great, historic college football programs, and it will be exciting to see them reach their full potential."

Exciting, but only if it works. If it doesn't, well, look out below.

All presidents and athletic directors stand at the same crossroads when they clean house and it comes to hiring a new head coach. Do they go with an older, established boss (see: Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez, Urban Meyer)? Or do they give one of those younger men, those earmarked early as can't-miss coaching prospects, a shot?

This week's top-5 list focuses on the latter. Who are the five coaches with five or fewer years of head coaching experience viewed as up-and-coming program builders?

I chatted with athletic administrators around the nation to get their takes.

5. Will Muschamp, Florida

Age: 41

Head coaching experience: Second year, both at Florida

No, his first year in Gainesville didn't go so well. But one 7-6 season wasn't enough to sour the majority opinion of the Nick Saban understudy and one-time Mack Brown "head coach in waiting."

Not yet anyway.

Many pointed to a chip-on-the-shoulder approach that may work on the field but can rub program supporters the wrong way. Said one athletic director: "His intensity is a huge hit with the players, but can wear thin in a hurry if the wins don't come. And not just with the players, but with his bosses and the fans, too. From the outside, it looked like he really felt the pressure and all the outside noise that comes with working in Gainesville gets to him. He's got to get over that."

4. James Franklin, Vanderbilt Commodores

Age: 40

Head coaching experience: Second year, both at Vanderbilt

Any Maryland fans here? If so, you might want to skip this part.

"I love, love this guy," says an AD from a fellow Southern school. "Everyone knew he was a good X's and O's guy. Say what you want about [former Maryland head coach Ralph] Friedgen, but he knows football, and Franklin learned it from him and [former offensive coordinator] Charlie Taaffe."

But what puts Franklin over the top is a skill that Friedgen never had. He's as good of a salesman as he is a football coach.

"This is Vanderbilt we're talking about," the AD continues. "There have been plenty of guys who have come in there and said they will refuse to take a backseat to Tennessee and everyone else in the SEC. But coach Franklin is the first guy who looks like he really believes it. So everyone else is actually buying in."

The biggest issue with Franklin, pointed to by multiple administrators, is going to be keeping him around.

3. Charlie Strong, Louisville Cardinals

Age: 52

Head coaching experience: Third year, all at Louisville

Speaking of learning from the masters, how about a guy who worked under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer? Now that Strong is in his third year, the Louisville program is truly his. The Cardinals entered the season ranked in the preseason top 25 for the first time in half a decade and are the favorites to win the Big East. Ah yes, the Big East ...

"This guy had to wait far too long to become a head coach," a Midwestern AD says. "Then he finally gets a shot, and the team's conference came completely apart at the seams? The fact that he's kept his guys focused in the middle of all that is proof that he's good at the CEO part of the job too."

Like Franklin, keeping Strong on campus could be a problem. Particularly if the Batesville, Ark., native gets a call from the Razorbacks at year's end.

2. Larry Fedora, North Carolina Tar Heels

Age: 49

Head coaching experience: Fifth year, four at Southern Miss

When I visited spring practice in Chapel Hill, I stood alongside still-new UNC AD Bubba Cunningham and members of his staff. They watched their new hire shake hands with members of the Rams Club, talk to the equipment manager about the texture of the numbers on the fall jerseys, and then coach up quarterback Bryn Renner on the finer points of the new "fast-break" offense ... all within the span of roughly five minutes.

"You like a guy that you can trust," Cunningham said. "Not in terms of honesty. I mean a coach who really runs things. I don't spend a lot of time worrying about Coach Fedora and what he's doing. They take care of it. And if he has a question or concern, he doesn't hesitate to address that with me or vice versa. That's not always the case between people in his job and people in my job."

Throughout the state, and to the chagrin of those who have made a recent living poaching talent, Fedora has seized UNC's Carolina blue roots and drummed up "flagship university" pride. That's already boosted recruiting and fundraising and helped circle the wagons in the face of recent scandals.

It also signifies something else. Explains a rival AD: "That's the sign of a man who isn't planning on going anywhere. This is the job he wants."

1. Steve Sarkisian, Washington Huskies

Age: 38

Head coaching experience: Fourth year, all at Washington

When the former BYU QB took over a team that had just gone 0-12, Sarkisian received as many calls saying, "WTH?" as he did congratulations. But he has amazingly posted an over-.500 record of 20-19 and two straight seasons of 7-6, both ending in bowl bids. More importantly, he has helmed makeovers of both facilities and attitudes.

"No one has had a bigger hole to have to dig out of than Sark did," says a West Coast AD. "You go up to Seattle now and for the first time in forever it feels like it did when Coach [Don] James was there."

The Huskies would appear to be standing over a possible threshold. The post-Jake Locker hangover is behind them. The schedule is set up for a possible role as Pac-12 and BCS spoiler (as pointed out in last week's list). Now they just need to shake free of their annual late-season struggles. More than a few observers believe that Sarkisian is the man to get them there.

"Forget about lack of experience," says the West Coast AD. "You either have the leadership DNA or you don't. Sarkisian has it."

The next five

Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss Rebels. Southeastern AD: "He's a Mississippi guy. The key to any good program builder is that he has to actually care about the program."

Dave Christensen, Wyoming Cowboys. West Coast AD: "One of the most underrated play callers in college football."

Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M. Southeastern AD: "Immensely likable. A dream when dealing with alumni. But I have no idea if he can win without Case Keenum at quarterback."

Mario Cristobal, Florida International Golden Panthers. ACC AD: "He keeps turning down calls for other jobs. On one hand, his commitment to building FIU is admirable. On the other hand, you keep saying no and after a while people stop calling."

Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. Southeastern AD: "I know he's signed for another five years. But there's no way he won't get snatched up by a bigger school before then."