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Three-Point Stance: Five-year plans, disappointments, undersized defenders

Rivals National Columnist Mike Farrell is here with five-year projections for certain SEC programs, a look at teams that have taken an unexpected step backward and a list of undersized defenders making huge plays.

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1. INTERESTING FUTURE SEC MATCH-UPS

Kirby Smart
Kirby Smart (USA Today Sports Images)

No one knows what things are going to look like in five years, but it’s still fun to project and compare key programs and where I think they’ll stand in 2026. Here’s the SEC…

Alabama vs. Georgia — The cream of the crop in the SEC this season and in recruiting nationally. Which team is in better shape moving forward? Until I see Nick Saban retire I’m always picking Alabama. I think he’s still there in five years while I think the Bulldogs are still looking for that first national title since 1980.

Ole Miss vs. Auburn — Auburn is much better than expected under Bryan Harsin while Ole Miss will be dangerous under Lane Kiffin if it finds a defense. Right now give me Auburn in a close battle as the better team in five years. Why? I don’t think Ole Miss improves the defense enough under Kiffin.

Texas A&M vs. LSU — A tough call right? LSU is coming off a national title in 2019 but are also in the midst of a coaching change and Jimbo Fisher has the best job security in football among coaches who haven’t won it all. My gut tells me A&M here despite the amazing in-state recruiting advantage that LSU has.

South Carolina vs. Kentucky — Why did I choose these teams? Because they are usually middling teams in the SEC East and that’s what we’ll see in five years. Mark Stoops will be long gone and both teams will be second tier in their conference.

Florida vs. Tennessee — Right now Florida is the better program but what about in five years? Dan Mullen will be long gone but Florida will still be the better program and the Vols will likely be in the midst of a coaching search as usual.

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2. TEAMS THAT HAVE TAKEN AN UNEXPETED STEP BACK

Justin Wilcox
Justin Wilcox (USA Today Sports Images)

No college football program wants to take a step backward right? And especially not in a season where they were expected to make a huge leap forward. Well that’s what has happened to these five teams and here’s why.

Cal - Arguably the team that has underperformed the most this season, the Golden Bears find themselves at the bottom of the Pac-12 North alongside fellow underachiever Stanford. But at least the Cardinal have a marquee win on their resume, while Cal has lost to both teams from the state of Washington, as well as a TCU team that we now know is nothing special and Nevada opening weekend. The Bears' defense, which has been their calling card under Justin Wilcox, has struggled, ranking 89th in passing yards allowed. Even worse, they can't get off the field when it matters most, ranking 111th in third-down conversion defense with teams converting 45 percent of the time. I don't think that Wilcox is on the hot seat yet, but unless they turn it around in their last four games, he's going to go into next season with a lot of question marks.

North Carolina - The near-consensus pick to take home the Coastal this season, the Tar Heels have underperformed since the get-go, losing to Virginia Tech in Week 1 and having confounding losses to Georgia Tech and Florida State since. Currently sitting at 4-4, they're in real danger of not even making a bowl game - their remaining schedule includes undefeated and top-10 ranked Wake Forest, a Pittsburgh squad that can score points in bunches, and NC State, which, despite being a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde act, can absolutely beat them especially in Raleigh. Sam Howell is getting zero help from the running game this season and the Tar Heels are among the most undisciplined teams in the nation, ranking in the bottom 25 of both penalties and penalty yards per game.

Iowa State - This was supposed to be the year that Iowa State really broke through. With multiple Heisman contenders in Brock Purdy and Breece Hall. a highly coveted coach, and lots of talent returning on the defense, the Cyclones had the chance to break the 10-win threshold for the first time in program history. But things have not gone according to plan, as their offense has only worked in fits and spurts. They beat a previously undefeated Oklahoma State team last week at home, but have struggled with road losses to both West Virginia and Kansas State, teams they should beat on paper, as well as the early season loss to Iowa. With Oklahoma and Texas both still on the schedule, they'll have to wait another year to break into double-digit wins.

Indiana - Few teams have been hit as hard by the injury bug as the Hoosiers have, with a large portion of their opening day depth chart having missed significant time. So while there's some explanation to their struggles, that doesn't excuse it. Now two-thirds of the way through the season, they have the 116th-ranked offense with few bright spots. They're 0-5 in Big Ten play, and will more than likely be 0-6 after this weekend's contest at Michigan. Another team that was hoping for their first 10-win season in program history, the Hoosiers are more not likely to go bowling this season, and Tom Allen will have to regroup after this season.

Florida - The Gators have now lost three of their last four, and four of their last six games, with wins against only lowly Vanderbilt and a Tennessee team that was still figuring out who they are. The biggest issues remain turnovers and defense - they've thrown more picks than any other team in the country, and are minus-7 in turnover margin for the season. And we've discussed Todd Grantham's shortcomings plenty here, so we don't need to go in to much more detail there. Suffice to say that the heat is turning up on Dan Mullen, and if we don't see significant changes next season, don't be surprised if he's looking for a new gig.

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3. STANDOUT DEFENDERS WHO LACK NFL SIZE

Nakobe Dean
Nakobe Dean (USA Today Sports Images)

Finally, the huge Nakobe Dean pick-six against Florida where some people tweeted he was too small to be a five-star got me thinking. Who are the best five defenders in college football without the size coveted by the NFL? Dean leads the list.

LB Nakobe Dean, Georgia - The original genesis for this list, Dean has been arguably the best linebacker in the country for the Dawgs. While there are plenty of standouts on this defense, which is not just the best in the nation this season but one of the best we've ever seen at the college level, the former Rivals100 member can make a pretty strong case as its MVP. While no one on this defense is going to wow you with stats, that's a function of the fact that they get so many three-and-outs. But anyone who watches the 6-foot, 220-pound (listed, he’s probably 5-foot-11) linebacker knows that he has unbelievable range, the ability to diagnose plays quickly and can play in space with the best of them.

DT Calijah Kancey, Pitt - Kancey is certainly not the first undersized defensive tackle to excel for the Panthers (paging Aaron Donald), but he's the latest in line of elite disruptors. At 6-foot, 270 pounds, Kancey is very small by today's standards, but hasn't made him any less dominant. He ranks second in all of Power Five in PFF grade for interior defenders, only behind Georgia's Jalen Carter who has three inches and 40 pounds on him, and is sixth in sacks from the interior. Only a redshirt sophomore, if he comes back next season he'll be an All-American candidate without a doubt.

S Russ Yeast, Kansas State - The Louisville transfer has come over to Manhattan and made an immediate impact on K-State's secondary as the leader of that unit. He leads the team in interceptions and passes defended, while being fourth in tackles, and is PFF's top 15 grade for both overall safety play and in coverage despite being only 5-foot-10.

CB Ja'Quan McMilian, East Carolina - PFF's second-ranked cornerback in all of college football, McMillian does more with his 5-foot-9 frame than pretty much anyone else. His 91.0 coverage grade is tops in the country and he's allowing less than 50 percent of passes thrown at him to be completed. McMillian is tied for the most interceptions among cornerbacks in the country with four (one of which was a pick-six), and is the nation's leader in passes defended with 14. He's on the shortlist for best DB in the country at this point.

LB Maclolm Rodriguez, Oklahoma State - When you watch Malcolm Rodriguez fly around, the comparison that immediately comes to mind is Zach Thomas. Despite clocking in at under 6-foot he makes everything happen from the middle linebacker position, diagnosing plays and filling holes even before they are there. The Big 12's leading tackler, Rodriguez ranks fifth in PFF's linebacker grading system. The fifth-year senior has blossomed and has played his way into being a mid-round draft pick with his ability to do nearly everything.