Nation's top 'sleeping giant' programs

Jim Mora and the Bruins may not have to wait long to reach the ranks of college football's elite. Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Three weekends ago, I was sitting in the sparkling new press box of Apogee Stadium, home of the North Texas Mean Green, with my mouth agape. Why? Because I hadn't been on the Denton, Texas, campus in more than a decade, and I couldn't believe where I was sitting and what I was seeing. It was as nice a press box as I've seen in college football, the product of a nearly $80 million stadium construction project and a larger Mean Green athletic village that will soon be home to 13 of the school's 16 sports teams.

Looking out the south end of the press box tower, over the three giant turbine fans that sent power through the village, I saw cars rumbling by on I-35, the main corridor between Oklahoma City, Okla., and the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. One thought kept rumbling through my mind, the same thought repeated after the game by Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn.

"Located where it is and with the commitment they're making to facilities," the former Auburn offensive coordinator said, "this place is a sleeping giant."

Yes, it is. But while UNT is still in the midst of a pace-yourself construction project, what are the other sleeping giants of college football -- the programs quietly on the cusp of something big, or at the very least on the verge of a long-sought breakthrough?

In the fall of 2010, I listed the five programs that I believed should be a college football superpower but weren't. At the top of that list was Texas A&M. Two years later, the Aggies are the buzziest team in the land after their shocking upset of Alabama last weekend.

To find out which programs are one push away from greatness, I enlisted the help of the people who know the business best, college coaches and athletic administrators from around the nation.

Here is our list of the top sleeping giants in college football:

5. North Carolina Tar Heels

This spot was a virtual tie between two ACC schools, UNC and Miami. But in the eyes of those polled, the Heels got the nod over the Canes for two reasons.

Reason No. 1: "Yes, Chapel Hill will always be a basketball town," said a fellow ACC coach, "but Carolina has sunk a lot of money into football facilities over the last decade, way more than Miami. And Kenan Stadium is one of the prettiest on-campus stadiums in the country. The Miami stadium situation [Sun Life Stadium, 20 miles from campus] is a total disaster."

Reason No. 2: "Both schools are in NCAA trouble," said an SEC administrator, "but the hole at UNC isn't going to get any deeper. Not saying it shouldn't. I'm saying it won't."

Last week, our top five poll participants pointed to NC State as a program that could be turned around quickly should Tom O'Brien be sent packing. The reasons given as to why UNC is a sleeping giant were nearly identical to those given for State being in better shape than one might think.

"The ACC has a seat at the BCS head table, and it's the weakest of the conferences that do," said the SEC administrator. "Carolina is surrounded by talent and is the flagship school of the state. It has plenty of money, and if it could ever get its act together, it would have the smoothest road to the next level and could stay there."

4. Syracuse Orange

The Orange have a proud football history. They have a coach, Doug Marrone, who was a part of that history. They have a massive alumni base starving to once again support a winner. Now, at least in the eyes of those I talked to, they need to display just a touch of patience.

"They are almost there," said a fellow Big East coordinator. "The number might not look a lot different to a fan, but if you coached against Syracuse three years ago and then coached against them now, you know that it is night and day up there."

Those polled believe a big factor working in Cuse's favor is its upcoming move to the ACC.

"They used to have their pick of the litter when it came to Northeastern recruiting, but that tailed off as they started losing," said the coordinator. "They started playing a brand of football that just isn't played in this part of the country. And also, quite frankly, Big Ten and ACC schools could come in here and promise more attractive schedules."

That will change. Syracuse can now offer the chance to play against Florida State, Virginia Tech, Clemson and Miami. It isn't exactly the SEC West, but it's a far cry from Temple, Cincinnati and South Florida. For a school that has never been afraid to take on tough nonconference opponents, it feels like a big-boy schedule that can attract big-boy recruits.

"They have issues," said an ACC administrator. "Namely, the stadium and some odd decision-making, like agreeing to that supposed home game versus USC at the Meadowlands. But Marrone is the guy. If they stick with him, the potential to get back to where they once were is huge."

3. Arizona Wildcats / Arizona State Sun Devils

I didn't lump these two rivals together. The experts whom I talked to did, routinely referring to the Wildcats and Sun Devils as "the Arizona schools."

"Their situations are very similar," said a West Coast administrator. "They are big state schools with some history in the game. They are very desirable places to go to school, especially if you're trying to convince a kid not to go north or east where it's cold. And they are both surrounded with great high-school talent. They just can't keep them in the state."

This year, there are plenty of examples of that problem. Two of the top 10 prep players in the 2012 ESPN 150 hailed from Arizona. But Davonte' Neal and Andrus Peat, both of whom lived in the shadow of ASU, committed to Notre Dame and Stanford, respectively.

However, signs point to movement in the right direction in Tempe and Tucson. New coaches Rich Rodriguez (Arizona) and Todd Graham (ASU) -- hires that came with criticism -- have infused new aggression into their programs.

"There is room to move in that Pac-12 South," said a Western Athletic Conference coach. "Someone just needs to get over the top. That division is full of programs that should be better than they are." (Including one coming up later in this countdown.)

2. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

The majority of comments made about the Scarlet Knights can be summed up by one quote from a rival Big East coordinator.

"Does anyone realize how damn big that place is?" he asked, referring to the school's enrollment of almost 60,000 students. "It has this private-school name, but it's the university of New Jersey. And they know how to play football in New Jersey."

Yes, they do. Just ask all the Big Ten and other Big East schools that have long made a living off Garden State talent. But some of those programs, particularly Penn State, are bogged down, and the in-state pride rekindled by Greg Schiano hasn't slowed down under Kyle Flood.

"With the new postseason playoff format that's taking shape, being in the Big East won't be the detriment that it is now," the coordinator said. "The best of the other conferences will have a real shot. If they have truly turned the corner, then the team that should be among the best of those other conferences every single year should be Rutgers."

1. UCLA Bruins

In the two years since I wrote the "Schools That Should Be Superpowers" article referenced above, I have had four follow-up conversations with people I'd talked to for that story and dozens of emails from fans concerning one team: the Bruins.

"The day that story went up, I knew I had forgotten the most obvious answer," a Pac-12 coach said. "UCLA should be contending for national titles every year. There's no excuse for them not to be there annually."

UCLA has all of the same resources and advantages that USC does. And whatever the Arizona schools have, UCLA should always have more of it because it's, well, UCLA. After years of hibernation, the Blue and Gold is showing signs of waking up. There will be no bigger indication of where the program is than this weekend's showdown with the Trojans, the first time UCLA has been the higher-ranked team in this game since 2001.

"Jim [Mora] inherited a situation similar to what we talked about last week, a potentially quick turnaround," said a West Coast coordinator. "The table he sat down at was pretty well-stocked. They just needed some real leadership."

Many of those polled pointed to the ongoing renovations of the Rose Bowl, including this weekend's dedication of a courtyard honoring Terry Donahue, the last UCLA coach who had the program playing consistently good football.

"What they could be has always scared everyone else in the conference," the Pac-12 coach said. "Now they are knocking on the door. Soon they could kick it in."

Added another Pac-12 coach: "If Oregon and Oregon State can be winners, then a place like UCLA should never have an excuse. Never."