Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated recently published a column on college football’s “Program Pecking Order.” He “divvied up the nation's BCS-conference schools into a four-tiered Feudal society.”
After reading the piece, I agreed with about 70 percent of his analysis, but I thought his logic was flawed. Mandel seems to want to separate out college football’s traditional powers and label them “Kings.” He thinks too little of some major powers and rates them as “Barons” and includes some others (like West Virginia) that are laughable in the same category.
This is America. We don’t have kings. We have "blue bloods," the "nouveau riche, “ and the corporate elite. They make up our upper class. In the end, I’m not sure it matters if you’re Mark Cuban, Bill Gates or a Kennedy. For all intents and purposes, you still have a major say in how the game is played.
So, below you’ll find my “Program Pecking Order.” I used Mandel’s criteria for ranking: The goal here is not to rank programs based on winning percentage, national championships, bowl wins or any other quantitative measure, though those things undoubtedly matter… a national power carries a certain cachet or aura. It's the way a program is perceived by the public.
Like Mandel, I've included all current AQ-conference programs, major independents and Boise State (which falls somewhere in between). Keep in mind, my perspective is different than Mandel’s. I spent more than ten years working in college football. Sometimes jobs are perceived within the coaching community…
UPPER CLASS– Includes the so-called "blue bloods" (multi-generational wealth combined with leadership of high society), the "nouveau riche" (those that have suddenly risen to a higher economic status) and the corporate elite. These are “the top 1 percent.”
Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Miami, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Penn State, Tennessee, Texas and USC
The thing all of these places have in common is that you can win – and win big.
If you wanted to divide the Upper Class into subgroups, it’d look something like this:
Florida coach Will Muschamp
Blue Bloods – Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Tennessee, Texas, USC
Corporate Elite – Auburn, Florida, LSU
Nouveau Rich –Florida State, Miami, Oregon
All 17 of these programs are elite...
Georgia is an enigma. It’s not quite a blue blood, but the Bulldogs don’t really fit anywhere else either. The Dawgs have 12 SEC titles. It's an elite program, but has certainly underperformed as of late.
Some Auburn fans might argue for Tigers' inclusion in the blue bloods subcategory, but the Tigers became a truly elite program when Pat Dye was hired in 1981. There’s plenty of tradition on The Plains. In fact, it’s “where tradition began” in 1892 with the first football game in the Deep South, but it’s much like others in this class that aren't blue bloods: the majority of its national success has come over the past 30 years.
Auburn, LSU and Florida are microcosms of the SEC. As the conference has grown in power and prestige, so have these three. Leadership at all three schools had the foresight to expand stadiums, upgrade other facilities and capitalize on the opportunities at hand. Even though Tennessee is considered a blue blood, most during my unscientific survey of coaches, ranked these three jobs ahead of the one in Knoxville.
Florida State and Miami are not blue bloods, but they are in Florida, which is talent rich. They do not have the money of the other schools on this list, but they do have a winning tradition built over the past 30 years. They are brand names. They have a coolness about them that is alluring to recruits….
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney
Which brings us to Oregon. Are the Ducks a 90’s dot-com bubble waiting to burst or will they have staying power? Oregon has certainly been more relevant than Notre Dame as of late. The Ducks have won at least nine games 11 times since 1994. They’ve also had double-digit win totals seven times since 2000, including four straight seasons of at least ten wins. With Chip Kelly’s style of play and Phil Knight’s money, recruits often view Oregon America's coolest place to play. They are college football’s Mark Cuban.
UPPER MIDDLE CLASS
Arkansas, Clemson, North Carolina, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, Stanford, Texas A&M, UCLA, Virginia Tech, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin
Texas A&M has the money, facilities and tradition to be in the upper class, but it isn’t. The Aggies will sink or swim in the SEC.
Arkansas and South Carolina are better jobs than they were 20 years ago.
Virginia Tech was 2-8-1 in 1992, but was one of the nation’s more consistent programs over the following two decades. West Virginia’s move to the Big 12 and its recent BCS success has raised the Mountaineers’ profile.
T. Boone Pickens has taken Oklahoma State up a notch with hundreds of millions of dollars in gifts. If you haven’t seen the Cowboys’ facilities, they’re the Taj Mahal of college football. Still, Stillwater is not a garden spot.
North Carolina is one of the most undervalued jobs in America. In reality, it’s one of the nation’s best. It’s a place where you don’t have to win 10games a year to be viewed as successful, but you can. The Tar Heels have money, facilities and a great recruiting base. Basketball is a blessing and a curse. It keeps the pressure off the football, but sometimes garners so much attention that football seems unimportant.
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez
Arizona, Arizona State, Boise State, Boston College, BYU, Cal, Colorado, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas State, Maryland, Michigan State, Missouri, N.C. State, Ole Miss, Oregon State, Pittsburgh, Purdue, Syracuse, TCU, Texas Tech, Utah and Virginia
Arizona State and Colorado have great potential. If you’ve ever been on campus in Boulder, you know what I’m talking about.
Boise State has had great success on the national level – in a game or two a season. Place them in the SEC West and they’re likely looking at 7-5 instead of 11-1.
Michigan State is on the verge of breaking through. Maryland is on the verge of becoming totally irrelevant.
Ole Miss simply can’t keep up in the rugged SEC. The Rebels probably have as much money (and in many cases more) as most other schools in this category. Unfortunately, it’s simply not a very good job. Look who you have to play. Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M are all much better jobs – and they’re in the same division. That’s not even counting the SEC East.
Mizzou is an interesting case. With the influx of SEC money, will it rise like South Carolina or fall like Kentucky?
Baylor, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Duke, Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa State, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, Mississippi State, Northwestern, Rutgers, Temple, USF, Wake Forest, Washington State and Vanderbilt
Maybe “working poor” is a bad category name for this group. The reality is many of these schools have tons of money, but football simply hasn’t been important (see Duke and Vanderbilt). Other schools like Mississippi State and Kentucky, are simply outmatched in their own conference.
At other schools like Indiana and Kansas, football has never had any sustained success. I’m unconvinced Charlie Weis is going to change that in Lawrence. If Kevin Wilson rights the ship in Bloomington, he’ll be on the first boat out to a better job.