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Future Ranks: Five that just missed

6/19/2013

If you're a follower of a team that didn't quite make our College Football Future Power Rankings, don't sweat it. Things change quickly in college football. Do you think Ohio State would have been No. 2 a year ago, before Urban Meyer flipped a switch with incoming talent and an undefeated season? Where do you think Oklahoma, our No. 14, would have been a couple of years back? It was the AP preseason No. 1 in 2011.

In the cases of our first five out -- Ole Miss, Michigan State, Boise State, Washington and Tennessee -- we find programs in mostly different positions, but each with a chance to gain on those ahead of them in the coming seasons.

Ole Miss Rebels

Give Hugh Freeze and his staff credit for rapidly getting the Rebels into this spot, where they are at least being discussed. A solid first season that included a win against rival Mississippi State and a bowl victory, plus a banner recruiting class -- including the nation's top prospect, Robert Nkemdiche -- has made Ole Miss a program to watch.

But, there is a but. The reason the Rebs didn't crack the top 25 of the power rankings despite a very impressive 8.2 (out of 10) score in the recruiting category is because they still have to prove on the field that they are worthy. It's a familiar narrative, in fact.

"Ed [Orgeron] did the same thing when he got there, recruited lights out -- and he was looking for a job a couple of years later," one coach told me this week.

Recruiting, by itself, does not make you a great coach; in fact, it winds up working against you after a while. Just ask Gene Chizik.

No one is saying Freeze should start getting his résumé together -- his first full year was a big-time success -- but there is reason for caution before anointing the Rebels with Bama oil.

Michigan State Spartans

The first game I covered in this job was the 2012 season opener between Boise State and Michigan State. I left convinced that the Spartans' offense would come around enough for them to be Rose Bowl -- and possibly national title -- contenders. Oops.

The story hasn't changed. The defense, under coordinator Pat Narduzzi, continues to play at an elite level. Combining the past two seasons, the D is fourth in the country in yards per play (4.33) and eighth in points allowed (17.4).

The offense, meanwhile, continues to hold back the program. The good news as it relates to the 2013 season is that the team very well might have the most experienced O-line in the country; being a fourth-year player makes you raw on this unit. On the other side, quarterback and receiver are still giant question marks -- and now running back is, too, after the departure of Le'Veon Bell.

It's difficult to project an offensive turnaround, but that's precisely what needs to happen if MSU wants to crack the top 25, or do something even more substantial.

The doomsday scenario for the Spartans: The offense continues to sputter and Narduzzi leaves for a head-coaching job. That would make progress a challenge at this point for Mark Dantonio, but the window is not yet closed.

Boise State Broncos

Going 11-2 with a Vegas Bowl win is classified as a down year for Boise State, a testament to what Chris Petersen has accomplished there. (Only two teams received higher scores in the coaching category than Boise -- No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Ohio State.) After a school-record six Broncos went in the 2012 draft, not including 50-game-winning QB Kellen Moore, it was clear last fall that the talent level had understandably dropped. And yet it still netted an 11-win season. Let's get real: That's about as low as it's going to get as long as Petersen is there.

But that's the residual, constantly wafting question: Would Petersen ever leave? Oregon was always a potential landing spot, but it already had the next guy in place for the second straight time. That door's closed. But what about USC?

I was talking last week with someone who knows both environments, and he said that Petersen has always talked glowingly about the potential in South L.A. As much as Pat Haden and Lane Kiffin's personalities don't really mesh, it's a lot easier to see Haden and Petersen under the same roof.

That obviously would be detrimental to Boise's future, but it sure would perk up USC's lot.

Washington Huskies

As I wrote last week when identifying second-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox as a potential head-coaching candidate, this is a big season for Washington's current staff. It has recruited at a high enough level, relative to the other Pac-12 schools, that reasons the Huskies are not winning will soon be perceived as excuses. The clock is ticking.

"Everybody likes those guys. They're awesome," one assistant said about the staff. "But you have to win games to stay. That's the game these days. You get three years."

Well, this is Steve Sarkisian's fifth and he is yet to win more than seven games in a season -- and last year ended with a bad loss to Washington State and a tough loss to Boise in the bowl.

Sark and his assistants have a good vibe; they emit an energy that makes kids want to play at U-Dub and play for them. But at some point, and we're nearing that point, it becomes a production problem for Sark. It's a wins-and-losses formula, ultimately. And the Huskies need more moments like the home win against then-No. 8 and eventual league champ Stanford than 52-17 beatdowns at Arizona.

For now, Washington's potential has it just on the fringe of the rankings, checking in at No. 29. An eight-, nine- or 10-win season, and the Huskies will move up.

Tennessee Volunteers

There is talent on the 2013 Tennessee team, with three NFL-ready defenders and a veteran offensive line, but in terms of the Future Power Rankings and the bigger picture, the success of the program is all going to be on how Butch Jones recruits and develops players. Make no mistake: This is a full-blown rebuild, from the soul out.

The people I know in Knoxville keep saying the same thing: Jones has pressed every right button since taking over. Does that equal wins this fall, or any other fall? No, not necessarily. But it is providing hope and momentum for a program that was in desperate need of something good following the brief stints of Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley.

Dooley's lack of bedside manner was commonly grumbled about by staffers, and one person inside the program told me that any new coach would have provided an upgrade. There was a disconnect between the head coach's office and the rest of the football building -- and department, as a whole.

Jones has not coached a game, granted, but he already he has demonstrated earmarks of why he has been successful at each one of his previous stops. And it's reason to keep an eye on the Vols moving forward.