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Insider

Programs with most potential to rise

9/7/2012

ESPN The Magazine asked a bunch of smaht guys from MIT to rank college football programs using a handful of variables such as recruiting, revenue and the prowess of the coach in charge.

While the top 10 shapes up about how you would expect, with the likes of Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma, a number of schools outside the top 25 have the earmarks of programs on the rise, teams that could become elite in the next few years.

Here is the likeliest to leap in each of the six BCS conferences, as well as an honorable mention.

ACC

North Carolina Tar Heels (No. 46 in Mag rankings)

The NCAA's recent ruling, surprising as it was to some, removed the black cloud that had been hanging over campus -- and namely new coach Larry Fedora and new AD Bubba Cunningham. Besides the punishments already handed down, the team can proceed.

That news is not to be understated, because recruits and high school coaches had been keeping an eye on the NCAA. The same is happening at Miami, and it happened at USC and Ohio State too. It's the nature of these investigations.

The last time the Heels had it going, under Mack Brown, Florida State was so dominant that it didn't matter. After a decade of FSU's middling, there's plenty of room for other schools in the ACC mix. Even Virginia Tech, for as many things as Frank Beamer's teams have done well, has refused to get a real stranglehold.

With Fedora in place, infusing the program with a new, exciting brand of ball, UNC could soon make a jump. Improving facilities, including a new football building, will be a boost.

It also helps that the Tar Heel State has long been a quietly potent place for high school talent. South Carolina and Tennessee are among the programs that have been working the state for years. Five prospects are on the 2013 ESPN 150 list.

Honorable mention: Like UNC, Virginia (49) sports a wealthy donor base and a beautiful campus. Mike London is widely respected in the coaching industry, and he had the Hoos in a quality bowl (Chick-fil-A) in Year 2. If he can start reeling in highly considered talent from the Tidewater area, Virginia could soon become a more legitimate rival to Virginia Tech and threaten in the ACC. After all, the Cavs did defeat the Seminoles in Tallahassee last season, so they're not that far off.


Big East

Louisville Cardinals (55)

Remember that Louisville is just a few years removed from a 41-9 stretch under Bobby Petrino, who had the Cardinals in the fast lane until he left for the NFL. After a few setbacks, Charlie Strong seemingly has the Ville on the cusp of breaking out.

This might be the Cardinals' year to surge in the Big East, with the West Virginia-less league ripe for the taking. The team started strong, pummeling rival Kentucky with a nearly flawless effort from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (19-for-21, 232 yards).

Bridgewater is one of 30 Floridians on the roster and one of 21 from the Miami area. To compare, there were four from the state in 2008, five in 2009 and six in 2010. Strong, a former Florida Gators defensive coordinator, is making his recruiting philosophy no secret. It's smart; kids from the Sunshine State know how to play.

Honorable mention: In a similar vein, South Florida (61) has leaned on in-state recruiting to become an upstart program that has claimed big wins against Florida State and West Virginia, to name a couple. It's difficult to believe that the football facilities were in trailers, literally, a decade ago when the program was established. Now it's churning out NFL-quality players such as Jason Pierre-Paul.


Big Ten

Illinois Fighting Illini (43)

Ron Zook never can seem to get his program where he wants it, but he leaves it stocked for the next guy, doesn't he? Enter Tim Beckman, who can coach a lot better than he can sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at Wrigley. (YouTube it.)

After going 5-7 in his debut campaign at Toledo, Beckman led the Rockets to a 16-9 record and back-to-back bowl games thereafter. With Penn State and Ohio State dealing with sanctions (although the Buckeyes seem to be doing just fine), Illinois has a shot to climb in the Leaders Division.

Wisconsin included, Beckman will have plenty of company in recruiting talent-laden Chicago. But he's the only one who can claim to be the state's flagship university, which sometimes counts for something with recruits.

Honorable mention: Michigan State (27) has been gaining on a Rose Bowl berth the past couple of years. You can sense that Mark Dantonio and his underrated staff are close. Even if this isn't the year, the Spartans have done an excellent job of creating a great game-day environment and staggering the roster so the program stays at a high level for a number of years. They're not going anywhere, except maybe up on the Mag's list.


Big 12

TCU Horned Frogs (25)

Technically the Frogs don't belong on this list because they did crack the Mag's top 25, but they have the chance to rise way up these rankings over the next few seasons. As I wrote in June, there's a lot of untapped potential in Fort Worth. TCU was already headed in the right direction before its move to a big-boy league, something that should send the program's trajectory even higher.

Remodeled Amon G. Carter Stadium, a $164 million, start-from-scratch project, will open its doors Saturday when the Frogs host Grambling. That's an enormous boon for the program, which already cut the ribbon on a new locker room this summer.

With the sparkling environs and a long-awaited spot in a top-tier conference, coach Gary Patterson should be able to take advantage of fertile recruiting turf in Dallas -- and Texas in general. Twenty-two players on the 2013 ESPN 150 are from the state, half from the Metroplex. Watch for more and more to choose Fort Worth over, say, Austin or College Station. Patterson is a big reason why. He has been courted for other gigs, but he seems to like his spot at a blossoming school.

The high-water mark in the recent run of success was a Rose Bowl win against Wisconsin. Now a new target has been established.

"Going to the Rose Bowl is not the pinnacle," AD Chris Del Conte said. "When we hit that, we said, 'OK, what's next?'"

Honorable mention: The recent run of success for Oklahoma State (30), along with the overhaul of the football stadium -- thanks to OSU's functioning CEO T. Boone Pickens -- have the Cowboys on the way up.


Pac-12

Arizona Wildcats (48)
There's a surging commitment to football from up-and-coming AD Greg Byrne and the school's administration. That was something lagging in Mike Stoops' time, at least according to the outspoken former coach. The covert hiring of Rich Rodriguez demonstrated where the drive meter is in Tucson. In addition, a $72 million football facility is set for completion in 2013.

"That sends a message right there," Rodriguez said earlier this summer.

There are already a few quality players on Rich Rod's roster, with sophomore running back Ka'Deem Carey (147 yards in Week 1) serving as an example. Rodriguez can go to work in talent-rich recruiting territories such as Phoenix and Southern California.

The Wildcats' game this weekend against Oklahoma State could be an early litmus test, considering the Cowboys blasted Zona the past two seasons under Stoops. Granted, those OSU teams had Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon.

Honorable mention: Colleague Rod Gilmore did a good job of explaining the growth of Washington (32) under Steve Sarkisian on Wednesday. If the recruiting continues at a high level -- top-25 classes in each of the past three years and a 2013 class ranked 20th by ESPN -- it's easy to see the Huskies climbing the list.


SEC

South Carolina Gamecocks (26)

Oddly enough, the Gamecocks' football program is thanking the school's baseball team for making success possible at Williams-Brice. A team had to break through, coach Steve Spurrier reasons, to prove it was feasible at a place that has historically been mediocre at best and awful at worst.

Ray Tanner's baseball team was that team, claiming the school's first two men's national championships (2010, 2011). Now Tanner is the AD. Eric Hyman did a great job raising money and buildings considering he inherited a financial mess. He left this summer for Texas A&M.

It's Tanner's job to take the baton and run with it, and he'll have the assistance of Hyman's top two right-hand men, who remained.

The key to whether the Gamecocks' football team sustains the success of the past two seasons, appearing in the SEC title game in 2010 and winning a program-high 11 games in 2011, is whom they find to replace Spurrier in a couple of years. That's a make-or-break hire for Tanner. He better start looking now.

Honorable mention: Byrne got the ball rolling at Mississippi State (57) and another young AD, Scott Stricklin (a former SID at Kentucky), has kept it going. A few problems: Starkville, Miss., is a tough place to win, and the SEC West is the best division in the country. The Bulldogs are competitive pretty much every week, at least, which had not happened for a while prior to Dan Mullen's arrival. Now, if only Alabama and LSU would slow down for a second to allow the rest of the league, including State, to catch up.