There is a nether region of programs in college football that tend to be just decent enough that their coaches retain their jobs. Yet these teams never get over the proverbial hump and make it to a bowl game you'd watch for more than 10 minutes. That's the profile of many of these programs ranked from 51 to 75.
They usually teeter from "pretty good" to "mediocre," depending on the season, and are rarely much better or worse than that. It's a strange lot in life. The big question is: Can any of them ever jump the tracks and move up to legitimate heavyweight status where they are the perennial top-20 fixtures that blue-chippers grow up rooting for?
That kind of leap is very rare. The past 20 years, probably a half-dozen afterthought programs rose up -- and stayed with the big boys.
Virginia Tech did it, although it took an enormous amount of faith from the Hokies' brass not to pull the plug on Frank Beamer. K-State did it too. So did Wisconsin and Louisville. Boise State and TCU may well be doing it, but it might be a bit premature to say for certain.
The tricky part is that sometimes a program makes waves but really it is only a steppingstone for the coach to land a job with a higher-profile school, and ultimately, that program starts to slide again. (You'll see a few flashes in the pan on this list.)
The key to establishing your worth comes on the recruiting trail, where an upstart program must not only scout unheralded gems to build the team but also fend off traditional powerhouses when a blue-chipper comes from its backyard. Take Minnesota for instance: Glen Mason got the Gophers to respectability, built mostly on quality Ohio kids Ohio State had passed over and a handful of talented Florida guys who weren't recruited by that state's big three.
Trouble is, many of the best homegrown players have left Minnesota. James Laurinaitis, arguably the country's top linebacker, ended up at Ohio State, and Notre Dame has plucked a bunch of other top players from the area. New Gophers head man Tim Brewster is making some noise as a recruiter thus far, but his first major test will be keeping touted in-state wide receiver Michael Floyd at home.
According to a story in this weekend's Star-Tribune, Floyd sounded as though he was favoring Notre Dame and Ohio State over Michigan, Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin and the Gophers. Keeping Floyd would be a huge coup.
Of the group of teams in this part of the list, I think there are seven programs with a shot at really moving up: Minnesota (T-52), Pitt (T-52), Washington (T-52), Michigan State (55), North Carolina (67), South Florida (58) and Rutgers (70). If I had to pick three with the best shot of sticking, I'd go with Pitt, UNC and Rutgers.
Rutgers is obviously the farthest along. The Scarlet Knights have a growing fan base. They have strong connections in both the Northeast and Florida. They have a hot coach who sounds as if he is going to be around for a long time. And they are beginning to reap the benefits of their success because they are getting better-caliber prospects out of south Florida and they have begun to fend off the big boys for the best in-state players (namely, prized OT Anthony Davis and OLB Manny Abreu).
The Panthers also have been impressive, beating elite programs for top local players (QB Pat Bostick, RB LeSean McCoy), but Dave Wannstedt's team still has yet to have a signature win. Fortunately for Rutgers and Pitt, they both play in the Big East, which appears to be fertile ground for another top team to emerge or even to overtake upstart Louisville and West Virginia.
Perhaps South Florida could be that program instead, but I still doubt the Bulls are going to be able to get in the mix for the top in-state players on an annual basis. Then again, maybe they will. The program has made some amazing strides thus far.
Perhaps the team with the most promising situation is North Carolina. The Tar Heels just hired an established winner in Butch Davis. They already have great facilities and a history of turning out some marquee talent (Lawrence Taylor, Julius Peppers), and last winter they beat everyone for a few big-name recruits, most notably DT Marvin Austin. Better still, Davis hits the ACC when the conference is reeling.
Miami and Florida State are still trying to re-establish themselves. Clemson, under Tommy Bowden, keeps tripping on itself, and in-state rival NC State is also in rebuilding mode. The one downside is that North Carolina is always going to be a basketball school. Then again, Florida and Ohio State proved you can be great in both sports.
As for the others, I could see Minnesota and Michigan State improving a lot over the next few years, but it's hard to imagine either overtaking Ohio State and Michigan or even merely joining them. So those teams are left to battle with Iowa, Wisconsin and Penn State, and there doesn't appear to be much wiggle room there.
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. His new book, "Meat Market: A Season Inside College Football's No. 1 Recruiting Machine," is on sale now.