The national championship game isn't an event that can be predicted with absolute certainty. But as we've demonstrated with Insider's "20* teams that can win it all" series, a certain degree of sustained success is a critical factor.
The Program FEI ratings evaluate drive efficiency over five seasons, weighted for more recent data, and have a strong correlation with next-year results. If you want to sift through the list of legitimate contenders, Program FEI is a solid data point of emphasis. And in addition to allowing us to identify the pool from which this season's legitimate national title contenders will be drawn, it helps us expose some highly ranked teams who don't yet have the profile of a championship program.
But Program FEI is only one part of the equation in our annual Football Outsiders projections, and there are a handful of teams ranked outside the PFEI top 20 that could still go on to have successful campaigns in 2012. The ceiling might be lower this fall for teams such as Michigan and Michigan State and others, but if they can continue to perform with consistent success on the field, they'll work their way up the PFEI rankings for next year.
Here is a look at five programs that might find themselves in the national polls with the opportunity to build more sustained success over time. Each has issues that our projections say will ultimately keep them out of BCS bowl and national title contention this season, but each might also be on its way to the PFEI top 20 -- and within striking distance of a national championship -- down the road.
PFEI: No. 33
Most likely record: 8-4 (31 percent likelihood)
Projection window: 7-5 to 10-2 (90 percent likelihood)
Quarterback Denard Robinson will be one of the most dynamic athletes in the country once again, and he's the main reason Michigan will be a contender for the Legends division crown. But as prolific as he can be (totaling more than 350 yards of offense in a game eight times), his inaccuracy as a passer can be a liability.
Robinson threw 15 interceptions last season, and it could have been more if not for several fortunate bounces. Michigan was the biggest beneficiary of turnover luck last season, according to Bill Connelly's Adjusted Turnover Margin data, earning an additional 3.97 points per game. The pendulum won't necessarily swing back the other way on the Wolverines this fall, but they'll be hard pressed to take advantage of as much good fortune two years in a row.