Sparty ready to take next step

Mark Dantonio's Michigan State program is primed to make a breakthrough in 2012. Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

About a year ago, Insider ran a piece talking about the teams best positioned to take the next step in college football. Based on recent success on the field and the recruiting trail, the Clemson Tigers and South Carolina Gamecocks figured to be top candidates to join the exclusive club of elite programs.

Neither team has accomplished that mission just yet, but 2012 was certainly a step in the right direction for both the Tigers and Gamecocks. Both teams hung around the top 15 national rankings all year long, and Clemson punched its first BCS bowl ticket with a dominant ACC championship game victory over the Virginia Tech Hokies.

Meanwhile, South Carolina finished the season ranked No. 9 in the BCS standings, going undefeated in the SEC East and winning 10 total games despite losing its best player -- running back Marcus Lattimore -- to a midseason knee injury.

Clemson and South Carolina are both still loaded with young talent and should be able to keep the momentum going in 2012. One metric that backs that up is the program FEI ratings, a five-year weighted metric that correlates well with next-year success. The top programs heading into this season that hadn't yet played in a BCS bowl game were Clemson, South Carolina and Oklahoma State. After the Tigers and Cowboys punched their first BCS tickets, which teams are in the best position to break through in 2012? If not for a BCS bid, are there teams ready to take a big step of their own?

The official 2011 program FEI won't be calculated until after the bowl season, but we ran the preliminary numbers and found the following candidates ready to take their own next step:

Michigan State Spartans

2011 FEI: 10
Program FEI: 26
Five-year FBS record: 40-22
Next step: Big Ten championship, first BCS bowl