With no draft and the closest thing to a salary cap an 85-scholarship limit, there can only be so much parity in college football. Hence the class system that has ruled the sport for much of its history.

For decades, nobody gave Oregon football much thought. The Ducks coasted along, in and out of obscurity, often bad, sometimes decent. From 1964 through 1988, they failed to reach the postseason once. Then, Rich Brooks finally took them to three bowl games before making the jump in 1994, with a Pac-10 title and a Rose Bowl appearance.

When Brooks left for the NFL, the program continued its ascent under Mike Bellotti, and it finally reached a crescendo under the innovative Chip Kelly, who led the Ducks to three top-four finishes in a row and four BCS bowl appearances in four seasons as head coach before bolting for the NFL in January. Now, it's up to his former lieutenant, Mark Helfrich, to keep Oregon in the upper echelon of college football.

This type of ascendance isn't common, of course, and in addition to finding the right coaches, Oregon benefited from the presence of "owner" Phil Knight, who has done everything possible to make Eugene, Ore., a destination for football talent, despite its lack of history and natural recruiting base in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon became an "it" program, the Nike school that never slows down. But it doesn't necessarily take a billionaire. In the late 1980s, Frank Beamer and Bill Snyder took over two totally irrelevant football programs with little history in small towns. Today, Virginia Tech and Kansas State are two of the most consistently competitive programs in the nation; K-State even had to lure Snyder out of retirement to right the ship after the Ron Prince debacle.

There is undeniably a class system at work in FBS college football, one in which the top level of schools appear to be moving toward a breaking point in which five major conferences take their crystal football and go to a new home. In the midst of the indirect bickering about the strength of the SEC between Bob Stoops and Nick Saban last week, Saban also spoke of how a breakaway would be a natural progression, how power conference teams should exclusively play power conference opponents. A break with the NCAA has been predicted for a while now, and it gets closer every year.

With all the talk of the haves and have-nots in college football, though, there are more layers inside that TV-moneyed group of powers that will control the College Football Playoff. For all the historic powers -- Alabama, Michigan, USC, Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio State, Georgia, Penn State -- with enormous stadiums, piles of money and expansive and devoted fan bases, there's a larger middle class (one that also features multiple tiers within it) of schools that at times appear on the verge of breaking through as consistent contenders but never quite do it.

Upward mobility is possible in college football, as Oregon has proved, but it requires the perfect combination of coaching talent, resources and timing. There's no draft to stumble into a franchise quarterback twice. Some schools never seem to get it right. Others, like Oklahoma State under coach Mike Gundy and its own version of Phil Knight, T. Boone Pickens, are on the cusp of becoming regular contenders.

Every coaching carousel season brings "Why can't they be better?" reactions, only for a coaching search to result in another coaching search four years later. They're the schools stuck in the middle, the Music City and Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl regulars who want to follow in the footsteps of Oregon, or Virginia Tech and Kansas State, which is much easier said than done. So let's break down some of the most prominent members of college football's middle class and their prospects for becoming more regular players on the national stage. Attaining Oregon-level top-five success is a lot to ask, but Kansas State-level competitiveness isn't out of reach for many.

(We could break down EVERY school in America here, but for the sake of, um, relative brevity, the following programs have been selected because they stick out as "why can't they be better?" middle-class programs or intriguing programs already on the rise. Also, "major bowl" is defined as the five BCS games this season, or the six when the College Football Playoff starts next season -- Rose, Sugar, Fiesta, Orange, Chick-fil-A, Cotton.)

Oklahoma State

Meet Oregon, Part II. Here's one way to define sustained success for a college football team: Become the kind of program that coaches won't leave for another college job. There are exceptions, of course, and context matters, like if a coach played at that school. But, generally, if coaches won't leave a school, it's become a sort of destination job. Mike Gundy is an Oklahoma State grad, and he has spent all but five years of his 23-year coaching career in Stillwater. He's attached to the university. Still, the presence of Pickens, despite all the positive influence he has on the football team, creates a power conflict. Gundy wasn't afraid to talk to Tennessee and Arkansas about their openings in December. Fortunately, he stayed.

Oklahoma State needs to keep him. It already lost Les Miles to LSU, and it's a revolving door of offensive coordinator talent from North Carolina coach Larry Fedora to West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen to new Southern Miss coach Todd Monken. With Gundy, there is coaching talent stability, which has allowed it to emerge from Bedlam punching bag (although they've still lost nine of their last 10 to Oklahoma) to legitimate conference contender, one that was a bad Friday loss at Iowa State away from playing for the national title two seasons ago. After heavy losses, the Cowboys fell back to 8-5 last season, but the talent is in place with a wealth of talent at QB (even with the transfer of Wes Lunt, who rotated with Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh for an offense that still ranked fourth nationally in total yards), and they're good enough to win a wide-open Big 12. They won the Fiesta Bowl in the 2011 season, and they'll be back in the top-10 mix again soon, possibly right now.

Major bowl in the next five seasons? Yes.

Ole Miss

The Rebels have played in three Cotton Bowls in the last 10 seasons, but mostly they've been irrelevant, aside from the Eli Manning era and a preseason No. 8 ranking in 2009 after they finished 14th in Houston Nutt's first season in 2008. They've won 10 games only once since 1971, the year after John Vaught finished leading the most successful era in program history in the 1950s and 1960s. Once Vaught left, Bear Bryant claimed full ownership of the SEC, and Ole Miss has never been the same since.

For how rich in talent the South is, from Florida to Texas, and close to the Ole Miss campus around Memphis, the competition is so steep that not everyone is going to wind up with superior athletes. Yet in his first full year, Hugh Freeze went out and owned the recruiting trail anyway, hauling in the No. 7 recruiting class in America (fourth in the SEC), according to Rivals.com. For good measure, the Rebels are off to a solid start for next year, currently ranked12th.

All that recruiting talent still means little if players aren't developed into a cohesive, competitive unit. Just ask Charlie Weis and Ron Zook. We know Freeze can recruit, but on the field we don't know much more about him than "he coached Michael Oher in high school." He parlayed that high school success to the college level, from Ole Miss assistant to Lambuth head coach to Arkansas State offensive coordinator to Arkansas State head coach for one year to Ole Miss coach. Less than a decade from high school to the SEC West isn't easy, but both Freeze and Gus Malzahn have now done it, each using Arkansas State as a one-year springboard.

Malzahn, to his credit, coached up Cam Newton and helped lead Auburn to the 2010 national title. We've yet to actually see what Freeze can do on the field, aside from a 7-6 BBVA Compass Bowl season at Ole Miss and a 10-3 GoDaddy.Com Bowl season at Arkansas State. So the Rebels' future is a mystery, and the task of becoming a conference contender is made all the more difficult by the brutal in-division competition, headlined by Alabama and LSU, as well as Auburn, which is only a few seasons removed from a national championship, and the addition/emergence of Texas A&M and

Really, Ole Miss' best hope is for Nick Saban to get bored and try the NFL again. Either way, Freeze is going to have to string together multiple highly regarded recruiting classes to move Ole Miss out of seven-win purgatory and into 10- or 11-win major-bowl contention.

Major bowl in the next five seasons? No. But be ready for Disney World.

North Carolina

So, yeah, the whole NCAA academics scandal didn't help things. The Tar Heels did win the ACC Coastal last year -- they made rings to prove it! -- but punishment kept them out of the postseason, taking away their shot at their first BCS bowl. To be fair, they still went only 8-4 and won a bad division, meaning they've won eight games in four of their last five years.

But they made the right hire to take advantage of the talent Butch Davis brought to Chapel Hill, even if he burnt it all down in the process. Larry Fedora went 12-2 at Southern Miss in 2011; after he left, the Eagles went 0-12. Not all of that is due to Fedora, of course, but he shined at Southern Miss after stints as offensive coordinator at Florida and Oklahoma State, and the cupboard is far from bare. In fact, the Tar Heels might be the favorites in the weaker Coastal Division, which puts them in position to finally get over the hump.

Major bowl in the next five seasons? Yes, possibly this year.

N.C. State

A nearly complete history of relevant North Carolina State football: Philip Rivers played quarterback in the early 2000s, and Lou Holtz and Monte Kiffin had short stints as head coach in the 1970s and '80s. That's it, basically. The Wolfpack have never been to an Orange Bowl or any other BCS game. They won double-digit games once, an 11-3 season in 2002 with Rivers at quarterback. They haven't won the ACC since 1979, and mostly they just win five to eight games every year and occasionally serve as a nuisance to Florida State.

It's the kind of program that, theoretically, could elevate itself to another level: It's a big school in a state with some football talent in a winnable conference. But instead of taking a risk or trying to make an innovative hire, the school does something like replacing Chuck Amato with Tom O'Brien, who knows how to blandly lose four or five games as well as anyone. Now, after predictably getting bored with O'Brien, the Wolfpack turn to Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren, who isn't a big splash or anything but at least holds the honor of getting Northern Illinois to a BCS game before N.C. State. Doeren has only two seasons of MAC football under his belt as a head coach, but he won 23 games, and coordinator Matt Canada is a promising offensive mind to tag along with him.

Let's remember that Wake Forest went to the 2007 Orange Bowl, so anything can happen, but the addition of Louisville to Florida State and Clemson creates a tough wall at the top of the Atlantic Division. It doesn't help that Doeren is faced with a rather significant rebuilding project.

Major bowl in the next five seasons? No.


Sometimes, it's one player who puts your team on the map. Robert Griffin III unquestionably did that. But this is also a bit of a Stanford situation, where it's a combination of the coach and a centerpiece player. David Shaw has built on the success of Andrew Luck and Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. At Baylor, coach Art Briles is proving to be an offensive genius after Nick Florence, in his only season as starter, threw for nearly as many yards as RGIII did the year before.

Now, everyone expects Bryce Petty to step in and do the same, with the help of Tevin Reese -- the next in line of ultra-productive Baylor receivers in this offense, following Kendall Wright and Terrance Williams -- and potential All-American running back Lache Seastrunk, who broke out in the second half of last season. Baylor's recruiting still lags significantly behind Big 12 heavyweights Oklahoma and Texas, but identifying the right players for Briles' system is what matters most. The Big 12 is a highly competitive league as TCU and Oklahoma State continue to emerge (and who knows where Texas Tech will go under Kliff Kingsbury); still, Briles is one of the best offensive minds in the country. The Bears can sneak into a Cotton Bowl or Fiesta Bowl in the near future.

Major bowl in the next five seasons? Yes.


Ten years ago, Cal appeared on the verge of a breakthrough. Offensive whiz Jeff Tedford had helped spur Oregon's Joey Harrington-quarterbacked success, and upon becoming head coach in Berkeley he took the Golden Bears from 1-10 the year before he arrived to 7-5 to 8-6 to two 10-win seasons in three years. But by the time Aaron Rodgers left and Marshawn Lynch stopped doing donuts in golf carts, all apparent momentum fizzled. Cal became stale, never getting over the hump, then languishing at the bottom of the Pac-12 with a 3-9 record before Tedford was canned last fall.

From 1948 to 1950, Cal finished in the top five every year and went to three straight Rose Bowls under Pappy Waldorf. Since then, the Golden Bears have gone to Pasadena only once … and that was in 1958. In stepped two offensive whizzes. There's head coach Sonny Dykes, a Mike Leach disciple and a Texan relocated to the Bay Area after a 9-3 season with the nation's No. 1 offense at Louisiana Tech; and he brings offensive guru Tony Franklin with him as offensive coordinator. Cal needs a few years, and it's unclear if Dykes will be a great fit in an unfamiliar region, but it's a prestigious school that showed signs of getting over the football hump last decade. If nothing else, once they find a quarterback, the offense will be fun to watch. For now, hopefully they just give the ball to underutilized tailback Brendan Bigelow as much as possible.

Major bowl in the next five seasons? No.


Rich Rodriguez at Michigan was an unmitigated disaster, a culture clash that was doomed from the start. But Michigan is not a useful comparison to Arizona. West Virginia is, however, and Rodriguez achieved unprecedented success with the Mountaineers, leading them to three straight top-10 finishes and 11-win seasons, with two BCS bowl wins. Arizona, meanwhile, was the only Pac-10 team to never get to the Rose Bowl (until Utah and Colorado arrived to make it the Pac-12). The only real season of success occurred in 1998, when the Trung Candidate/Dennis Northcutt/Ortege Jenkins-era Wildcats went 12-1, only to open the 1999 No. 4, lose 41-7 to Penn State in the opener and finish 6-6, failing to win more than eight games in any season since.

Rodriguez is the type of hire Arizona needed to make, an innovative coach who can mix things up, and now is the perfect time given how wide open the Pac-12 South is with USC so vulnerable. Rodriguez instantly turned things around, converting a 4-8 season in which Mike Stoops was fired in October into 8-5. Rodriguez's spread option system should only get better with time, and unlike in Ann Arbor, there won't be thousands of boosters and alumni complaining that he's not an ARIZONA MAN. He's free to be himself as a coach -- hopefully with less Josh Groban -- and it wouldn't be shocking to see him win 10 games and get Arizona to its first Rose Bowl some time in the next four years, if not at least a Fiesta Bowl or something. For now, sit back and enjoy watching Ka'Deem Carey run and wait to see if freshman Anu Solomon ultimately develops into the archetypical Rodriguez quarterback over the next few years.

Major bowl in the next five seasons? Yes.

Michigan State

Here we find perhaps the poster child for perpetual mediocrity: a big Midwestern state school seen by most as the kid brother in its state, as both a football program and a university. Mark Dantonio changed that in 2010 and 2011, winning 11 games both seasons, but the Spartans feel right back to their typical 7-6 in 2012.

Duffy Daugherty's Spartans finished second in the polls in back-to-back seasons in 1965 and 1966. They've been to the Rose Bowl once since then (the 1987 season). Even Nick Saban went 25-22-1 in four seasons before using a 9-2 record in 1999 as a springboard to the LSU job. It's all enough to make fans quite, um, anxious for something more. Or, for players to decide to become rappers instead.

Michigan State will continue to play great defense under Dantonio, and the offense will continue to kick field goals and punt. Like Ole Miss, the Spartans are stuck in a tough situation, soon to be in the same division as Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State when the Big Ten realigns by geography. They'll compete, but mostly for Outback Bowls.

Major bowl in the next five seasons? No.


OK, Washington isn't a typical middle-class school. The Huskies have a couple national titles to their name, including a split in 1991. Unlike the others on the list, they've been to a BCS bowl, finishing No. 3 in the AP poll with a Rose Bowl win under Rick Neuheisel in 2000, and they have plenty of Rose Bowl appearances to their name. Things have been much worse since then, rock bottom coming in 2008 when Ty Willingham went 0-12, which is unacceptable anywhere but utterly inexplicable for a school with solid tradition and a 72,000-seat stadium.

After the Willingham debacle, former USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has guided Washington through mediocrity, with the illustrious accomplishment of three straight 7-6 finishes. Promising quarterback Keith Price appeared to regress last year, and the Huskies weren't particularly great at anything. Sarkisian's coaching acumen is anyone's guess at this point, but he faces a pivotal season. Price is a third-year starter, and basically the entire starting lineup returns as a renovated Husky Stadium opens. Aside from Oregon and Stanford, nobody in the Pac-12 is particularly great, but unfortunately both the Ducks and Cardinal are in Washington's division, at the height of their power. Now's not the best time to emerge.

Major bowl in the next five seasons? No.


Northwestern is the team nobody really wants to play. They perpetually have a pesky mobile QB who spends at least one quarter per game picking up 12 yards per read option run. (In my mind, Brett Basanez is Northwestern's quarterback for life.) Just think if the Wildcats could actually close out a game. Over the last few seasons, they've made a habit of blowing leads late, yet they still went 10-3 with a Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State last year. They've been to five straight bowls, which is an accomplishment at a place like Northwestern, and it will continue to be interesting to see how tempted 38-year-old Pat Fitzgerald is to move on from his alma mater.

Northwestern is in a different category than most of these other bigger state schools; really, it's like Baylor, only without the religious ties, without the Texas recruiting base and with a much, much worse stadium once the House that RGIII built is functional. Academically, the more adept comparisons are Stanford, Vanderbilt and Duke, one of which has morphed into a power. Can the Wildcats follow in the footsteps of the Cardinal? Not quite. But Fitzgerald is recruiting well, and, starting next year, their path to the Big Ten title game should be easier in the West Division -- plus, winning the Legends this year isn't out of reach, either.

Major bowl in the next five seasons? Yes.

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Contact me at matt.brown@sportsonearth.com and follow me on Twitter @MattBrownSoE.