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College Football's Next Superpowers?


-by Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden on twitter)

In the 1980s, it was Florida State, Miami and Colorado. In the 1990s, it was Florida, Wisconsin, Virginia Tech and Kansas State. In the 2000s, it was Oregon, TCU, Boise State and Utah.

For a variety of reasons – coaching, support, media exposure, recruiting base – each of these programs blossomed into the full-throated college football monsters that we see every Saturday.

In the 2010 Athlon Sports preseason college football preview magazine, the staff spent countless hours evaluating and ranking recruiting bases, tradition, facilities, booster support, outside pressure to win and standard of living (among other things) for all 120 FBS programs. This June, the staff reconvened and reevaluated those rankings – considering that Colorado, Utah, Nebraska and TCU had swapped conferences.

The Oregon Ducks are ranked 13th nationally. TCU moved from 60th to 32nd simply by joining the Big East. Boise State checks in at 42nd and Utah ranks as the 37th best job in college football.

The question is, however, where would those programs have ranked had Athlon conducted this very same exercise in 1998?

At Oregon, Mike Bellotti had just finished his fourth season as the head coach. Yet, the Oregon Ducks had never experienced a 10-win season in the history of the program. Then Joey Harrington billboards starting popping up in Times Square. Phil Knight, and his unique but very effective fashion sense, started shoveling NIKE money into elite level facilities and apparel. Since then, the Ducks have won 10 games six times, claimed four of their five Pac-10 championships and played in the BCS National Title game this past January.

At Boise State, Dirk Koetter had just completed his first season as the head coach. The Broncos had just finished their third season in I-A play with an overall record of 13-21. Then Koetter produced two 10-win seasons before bolting for Arizona State. There were no BCS bowl wins, no Heisman candidates, no marriage proposals and no wins over Virginia Tech, Georgia, Oregon or Oklahoma yet. They certainly weren’t the Pacific Northwest and nationally recognized powerhouse they are considered today.

The Utah Utes had one 10-win season in school history (1994), but in the ensuing eight years (1995-2002), Utah lost nearly five games per season. Urban Meyer took over and instantly elevated the Utah brand, winning 10 games in his first two seasons including a Fiesta Bowl win over Pitt. Meyer handed the baton to Kyle Whittingham, and Utah has lost a total of six games in its last three seasons – which also includes another BCS bowl win over Alabama. Now, Utah basks in glow of Pac-12 money and strength.

The TCU Horned Frogs had three 10-win seasons prior to Gary Patterson’s tenure and all three took place before World War II. Dennis Franchione took over in 1998 following a 1-10 season and went 25-11 before giving way to Patterson. Since 2000, the Horned Frogs have won at least 10 games seven times, culminating in an unbeaten Rose Bowl Championship season last fall. Now, TCU doesn’t rebuild, it reloads.

The point is, college football is a completely fluid situation, and programs rise and fall like European Empires of centuries past. It is about finding the right coach at the right time in the right situation. So as college football enters another era of conference upheaval, mega-television contracts, 7-on-7 national recruiting showcases, weekly uniform changes and a heightened countrywide awareness, the question becomes: Which programs are best situated to elevate themselves into national prominence over the next decade?

Current Athlon Sports program ranking in parentheses

Oklahoma State Cowboys (24th nationally, 4th Big 12)

Simply losing Texas A&M to the SEC moves the Pokes from the fourth-best Big 12 program to the No. 3 spot in the league. T. Boone Pickens has pockets that redefine the term deep and is a dedicated OSU diehard. The program is situated less than 300 miles from the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex, and the administration has found their Frank Beamer in alumnus Mike Gundy – who could maintain continuity for the long haul.

Yes, battling Oklahoma and Texas every season is a brutally tall order. There is a reason that the Pokes have won only one conference championship since 1953 (1976 Big Eight co-champs). The peak of Okie State’s existence might have been three 10-win seasons in a five-year span under Pat Jones in the early '80s – its only three double-digit win seasons until the Cowboys' breakthrough 11-2 campaign a year ago. But Auburn just overcame the exact same situation to win a national championship: Being No. 2 in its own state and facing an LSU/Alabama brick wall. Why couldn’t Oklahoma State do the same?

Gundy has won no fewer than nine games for three straight years, and with his win in College Station last Saturday, he has announced that his Cowboys are the biggest threat to Oklahoma’s Big 12 title hopes in 2011. With elite level support, an outstanding recruiting base and the right man leading the ship into the future, there is no reason Oklahoma State shouldn’t find itself competing for BCS bowls and AP Top 10 rankings on a yearly basis.

South Florida Bulls (36th nationally, 4th Big East)

It took about a decade and a few construction trucks, but South Florida has grinded its way into a position of potential greatness. Jim Leavitt birthed the program from thin air in 1997, and the Bulls needed only four seasons at the FCS level before joining the big boys in the (now) FBS in 2001. By 2003, USF had been welcomed into C-USA, and by 2005 the meteoric rise of football in Tampa landed the Bulls in the Big East. There are few programs that have ever experienced an ascension to relevance like USF.

With the support of AQ money and arguably the most talent-rich area of the country, South Florida has won at least eight games every year since 2006 – including a mid-season No. 2 BCS ranking in 2007 after a 6-0 start with wins over Auburn, North Carolina, UCF and West Virginia. Yet, it still feels like the Bulls are only starting to scratch the surface of their upside. Skip Holtz has stepped in with boatloads of energy and proven in short order that he could be the right man for the job long-term.

The wildcard for USF is its future conference affiliation. If they stay in the Big East, and the league maintains BCS status, the Bulls would be a perennial contender with West Virginia and TCU as league favorites. But should they land in the more lucrative and more stable SEC or ACC, the Bulls could find themselves competing for more than just BCS bowl bids.

Maryland Terrapins (52nd nationally, 9th ACC)

If you are looking for the next edition of the Oregon Ducks, look no further than College Park, Maryland. There is a lot of room for upward growth, and good coaches have proven that winning big is well within reach. The Terps have a giant booster in Kevin Plank who, like Knight at Oregon, is willing to funnel his Under Armour money – and his own intriguing sense of fashion – into the program he dearly loves.

The ACC appears to be set up for long-term stability with the additions of Pitt and Syracuse. Maryland lies in an incredibly rich area of the country for talent and is able to dip into Virginia, DC, Pennsylvania and New Jersey for players on a yearly basis. And the truth of the matter is that upward movement within the league would involve leap-frogging programs like NC State, Virginia and Georgia Tech. Very doable should things fall into place.

Despite the poor showing last weekend against Temple, Randy Edsall proved at UConn that he could work minor miracles with mediocre ingredients. Now, he has a massive athletic department budget, a great recruiting base and support from a powerful, high-profile booster who has created a connection with a certain 15-18 year-old male demographic with edgy advertising campaigns and creative uniforms.

Whether Edsall is the final answer for Maryland remains to be seen, but with the right person steering the program, the future appears to be very bright for the Terps.

UCF Knights (57th nationally, 1st C-USA)

The University of Central Florida first began playing football in 1979 as a D-III program. After elevating itself to D-II play, UCF was a preseason No. 1 team in the nation heading into the 1994 season. By 1996, UCF had completed its rise to (now) FBS status.

Enter George O’Leary. After an 0-11 season in 2004, O’Leary responded with an eight-win campaign and C-USA Eastern Division Championship in 2005. The Knights have since won the 2007 and 2010 Eastern Division titles and ultimately the 2010 C-USA championship by going 11-3 – the most single-season wins in school history. O’Leary is responsible for two of the program’s three 10-win seasons (1990, 2007, 2010). All four bowl appearances in school history have taken place since 2005, and the magical 2010 season finished with the program’s first-ever bowl win – over SEC powerhouse Georgia to boot.

With conferences like the Big East and ACC eyeing expansion, UCF has to be looked at as an attractive option for growth. It sits directly in the heart of the most talent-rich state in the nation and clearly has found a coach who is willing to do what it takes (e.g., let Playboy Playmates into the locker room?) to win big. This is a potential top-40 program nationally should it land the money, support and stability of an AQ league.

Others programs with growth potential:

Houston Cougars – 58th nationally
Have had pockets of success, but should the Cougars land in an AQ league, there is no reason to believe they could not be a top-40 program as well.

Syracuse Orange – 60th
With a rich history and long-standing tradition, and now conference stability in the ACC, the Cuse is a stadium renovation away from potential growth.

SMU Mustangs – 76th
See the Houston Cougars. In fact, the “Pony Excess” merely stunted this program’s growth. There is no reason for SMU not to be highly successful, especially if it lands in an AQ conference.

East Carolina Pirates – 77th
Much like UCF, the Pirates have a history of being competitive, have a solid recruiting base and are an attractive option for AQ conference expansion.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights – 48th
With Pitt and Cuse leaving, Rutgers now has an easier path to yearly BCS bowl bids. There is support and talent to compete consistently. And the ability to attract (potentially) the New York City market has to be appealing to all parties involved.

Baylor Bears – 66th
How much of it is Robert Griffin III and how much is finding the right coach (which they have in Art Briles)? Elite-level recruiting base and the potential for upward movement within the Big 12 as Texas A&M (and maybe others) leave give the Bears some potential. Things would have to fall right for Baylor to become a yearly contender, however.

Some others we like to grow but don't really count because of past success:

Washington Huskies
Coach Sark appears to have the ship righted and headed back to Don James-ian levels of succes.

South Carolina Gamecocks
Historically underachieving program with elite support, talent, and now, the right coach.

Michigan State Spartans
Fan support, great conference, tradition and now the right coach for the job.

UCLA Bruins
With the right man leading the program, there is no reason why the Bruins can't win big again.

Arkansas Razorbacks
What makes them any different than Texas A&M or Auburn in term of future potential?

Purdue Boilermakers
The Boilers, with the right head coach, could easily return to prominence.

View Athlon Sports' Complete College Football Program Rankings here