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What is an Elite Team?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Greetings Realists and Orange Devils!  This is a 2 part series. Defining "Elite Teams" is part 1. Part 2 will build on part 1 and define "Elite Programs." I have also examined the characteristics of elite level matchups which I may share as a tentative part 3.

Is it just me or does the term "elite" seem to be used a lot more in college football discussions than it does in regular conversation?  I mean, at any time have you ever turned to someone and said, "I just had an elite cheeseburger?"  Probably not.

Chances are, though, that if you've posted here on STS for a while, you've used the term "elite team" before.   What does that term really mean, though?   We all kind of have this pseudo-definition of eliteness but, there is no agreed upon explanation for what makes a team elite.  I know I've posted here before that "I want Clemson to be an elite team." Great, Kraken! What does that mean?

I did not know. So, I looked at 33 years of college football results and sought out a definition for an elite team. I wanted my first post on STS to be about that definition so that moving forward you will know what I mean when I use the term "elite team."  My goal here was for the definition to be accurate in the way that we've all been using it and also easily understood.

I hope this post makes you think about your own definition of an elite level team.  As well as, with the new playoff in place, the future prospects of Clemson getting in the playoff and beating two elite teams back-to-back.  Is it going to be easier or more difficult for us to win a National Championship with the playoff in place?

So, with those questions on the table, here is the one sentence definition I use:

I define an elite team as a top 5 team in the Final AP Poll and any team in the top 15 that has defeated another elite team (ie. proven their eliteness on the field).

I'll start by saying that I don't think you can determine if a team is elite until the season ends in January.  Look no further than West Virginia 2012 or Hawaii 2007 to see why (It is against my religion to bring up a certain team's 2011 campaign).

I think you have to begin with a foundation based on Consensus Opinion. I found that, on a yearly basis, it's pretty hard to argue that the top 5 teams in the Final AP Poll were not playing elite level football.  Out of 125 teams, consensus opinion thinks that these are the best 5.  The top 5 have always either defeated another top 5 team, defeated a that had beaten a top 5 team, or had defeated enough final AP poll teams that they must be ranked above those teams.

Conversely, I noticed that almost nobody would refer to a team outside of the top 15 as elite level. So, it seems the grey area for eliteness can exist between spots 6 and 15 of the Final AP Poll and varies every year.

We already know that all rankings involve some level of human error. Where teams are actually ranked becomes a lot more subjective past the top 5.  More losses = more subjectivity.  Whether it be regional bias, small school prejudice, or inaccurate conference perception, these rankings aren't an exact science. Because of that, we have to have a 2nd standard to call a team outside of the top 5 "Elite."

I call that standard, "The Circle of Proof."   The "Circle of Proof" is simple and basically asks, "Has this team shown the ability to beat an elite team?"

Auburn was ranked #2 and was clearly an elite team so, no argument there. #14 LSU defeated #2 Auburn last year and #7 Alabama then defeated LSU.  Circle of Proof...check.  #6 Oklahoma defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.  Check. #13 Baylor was the Big 12 Champion by way of defeating that same #6 Oklahoma team.  Check. #10 Central Florida then defeated Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.  Check. All of these teams dominated the weaker part of their schedule and proved on the field that they could defeat an elite level team.

Interestingly, the common sense concept of "The Circle of Proof" doesn't apply to AP voters.   Baylor is not ranked above Oklahoma even though they beat them and Central Florida is not ranked ahead of every Big 12 team even though they defeated the Big 12 Champion.

With the rest of the top 15, you have very good teams that failed in their opportunities on the highest level. Clemson lost its 2 attempts against elite teams (FSU and SC). Stanford and Ohio St. lost their attempt against Michigan St.  Louisville lost its attempt against Central Florida and Oregon didn't face an elite team all year (and before you say Stanford, did you know they had 3 losses?).

So, after the smoke cleared on the season, the "circle" looks like this.  Auburn was defeated by LSU, who was defeated by Alabama, who was defeated by Oklahoma, who was defeated by Baylor, who was defeated by Central Florida, who was defeated by South Carolina.  These are all top 15 teams that dominated the weaker part of their schedule and also proved on the field that they can defeat another Elite Team.

The Circle of Proof doesn't care if all year long some in the media tell you that the Pac 12 was "the new best conference in football" and that the Big 10 was the "worst of the AQ conferences."  The flagship muscle teams for the Pac 12 and Big 10, Stanford and Michigan St. played each other in the Rose Bowl.  Michigan St. won that game and earned a justifiable final ranking of #3.  So, while Stanford got a lot of press for stopping Oregon, they lost to Utah and USC and then solidified their non-eliteness when they lost to Michigan St.

I'm glad the voters put Missouri at #5 because they are a great example of a "national perception" type of elite team. I think some people would be a little uncomfortable calling them an Elite Team but they did defeat 3 final top 25 teams and 3 other teams that were ranked at the time.  Missouri did not have that Circle of Proof win that showed they were any better than #7 Alabama, #6 Oklahoma, #10 Central Florida, or #13 Baylor. However, those 4 teams didn't prove they were any better than Missouri either.

Whether they say it or not, results of previous seasons affect the rankings.  Missouri got the "SEC bump" and they started getting it at midseason. Voters believed that Missouri's SEC wins were more of a known commodity than Oklahoma's, Baylor's, and Central Florida's wins.  6 years of OOC results say that the voters are probably right, but we don't know for sure.  That's the human component that is relevant. I'm not saying it's fair that Missouri got the benefit of the doubt instead of Oklahoma, Baylor, or Central Florida.  I'm just saying that "SEC Superiority" is a legitimate reason to put them at #5 because the majority of the voters think it is and there is no proof to the contrary.

So, based on this definition, here are the Elite Teams in college football from 1981 to 2013. I'll do you a solid and save you the trouble to find that our Tigers were Elite Level in 1981, 1983, 1989, and 2012. (Also of note, pre 1996, there was no overtime.  In big games it was more important for teams to avoid a blemish in the loss column than it was to win.  These stalemates were treated here as proof of belonging on the same field as an elite.)  I've listed the Elite Teams for each year and the other Elite teams they defeated in parentheses.  Enjoy and I look forward to updating this list and the also the list in part 2 at the end of the season.

Elite Teams 2013

Florida State (defeated Auburn)

Auburn (defeated Missouri, Alabama)

Michigan St. (defeated None)

South Carolina (defeated Missouri, Central Florida)

Missouri (defeated None)

LSU (defeated Auburn)

Alabama (defeated LSU)

Oklahoma (defeated Alabama)

Baylor (defeated Oklahoma)

Central Florida (defeated Baylor)

Elite Teams List 2012

Alabama (defeated Georgia, Notre Dame, LSU)

Oregon (defeated None)

Ohio St. (defeated None)

Notre Dame (defeated Stanford)

Georgia (defeated Florida)

Texas A&M (defeated Alabama)

Stanford (defeated Oregon)

South Carolina (defeated Georgia, Clemson)

Florida (defeated Texas A&M, South Carolina, LSU, Florida St.)

LSU (defeated Texas A&M, South Carolina)

Louisville (defeated Florida)

Clemson (defeated LSU)

Florida St. (defeated Clemson)

Elite Teams List 2011
Alabama (defeated LSU, Arkansas)
LSU (defeated Alabama, Arkansas, Oregon)
Oklahoma St. (defeated Stanford)
Oregon (defeated Stanford)
Arkansas (defeated None)
USC (defeated Oregon)
Stanford (defeated USC)

Elite Teams List 2010 Season

Auburn (defeated Oregon, Alabama, LSU, Arkansas)

Alabama (defeated Arkansas, Michigan St.)

Ohio St. (defeated Arkansas)

Wisconsin (defeated Ohio St.)

LSU (defeated Alabama)

TCU (defeated Wisconsin)

Michigan St. (defeated Wisconsin)

Arkansas (defeated LSU)

Oregon (defeated Stanford)

Stanford (defeated None)

Elite Teams List 2009 Season

Alabama (defeated Florida, Texas)

Texas (defeated None)

Florida (defeated None)

Boise St. (defeated None)

Ohio St. (defeated None)

Elite Teams 2008 Season

Florida (defeated Oklahoma, Alabama)

Mississippi (defeated Florida, Texas Tech)

Utah (defeated Alabama)

Alabama (defeated Mississippi)

Texas (defeated Oklahoma)

Oklahoma (defeated Texas Tech)

Texas Tech (defeated Texas)

USC (defeated None)

Elite Teams 2007 Season

LSU (defeated Ohio St., Tennessee)

Oklahoma (defeated Missouri)

Tennessee (defeated Georgia)

USC (defeated None)

Georgia (defeated None)

Ohio St. (defeated None)

Missouri (defeated None)

Elite Teams 2006 Season

Florida (defeated Ohio St.)

Auburn (defeated Florida, LSU)

Ohio St. (defeated None)

LSU (defeated None)

USC (defeated None)

Boise St. (defeated None)

Elite Teams 2005 Season

Texas (defeated USC, Ohio St.)

Penn St. (defeated Ohio St.)

Virginia Tech (defeated West Virginia)

USC (defeated None)

Ohio St. (defeated None)

West Virginia (defeated None)

Elite Teams 2004 Season

USC (defeated Oklahoma)

Oklahoma (defeated Texas)

Auburn (defeated None)

Utah (defeated None)

Texas (defeated None)

Elite Teams 2003 Season

USC (defeated Michigan, Washington St.)

LSU (defeated Oklahoma)

Oklahoma (defeated Texas)

Ohio St. (defeated Kansas St., Iowa)

Texas (defeated Kansas St.)

Kansas St. (defeated Oklahoma)

Michigan (defeated Ohio St)

Iowa (defeated Michigan)

Washington St. (defeated Texas)

Miami (defeated None)

Elite Teams 2002 Season

Ohio St. (defeated Miami, Washington St.)

Miami (defeated None)

Georgia (defeated None)

USC (defeated None)

Oklahoma (defeated Washington St., Texas)

Kansas St. (defeated USC)

Washington St. (defeated USC)

Texas (defeated Kansas St.)

Elite Teams 2001 Season

Miami (defeated Nebraska)

Oregon (defeated Colorado)

Florida (defeated LSU)

Tennessee (defeated Florida, LSU)

Texas (defeated Colorado)

LSU (defeated Tennessee)

Oklahoma (defeated Texas)

Colorado (defeated Texas, Nebraska)

Nebraska (defeated Oklahoma)

Elite Teams 2000 season

Oklahoma (defeated Florida State)

Miami (defeated Florida State)

Washington (defeated Oregon St., Miami)

Oregon St. (defeated Oregon)

Florida St. (defeated None)

Oregon (defeated Washington)

Elite Teams 1999 Season

Florida St (defeated Virginia Tech)

Virginia Tech (defeated None)

Nebraska (defeated None)

Wisconsin (defeated Michigan St.)

Michigan (defeated Wisconsin)

Michigan St. (defeated Michigan)

Elite Teams 1998 Season

Tennessee (defeated Florida St., Florida)

Ohio St. (defeated None)

Florida St. (defeated Florida)

Arizona (defeated None)

Florida (defeated None)

UCLA (defeated Arizona, Michigan)

Wisconsin (defeated UCLA)

Michigan (defeated Wisconsin)

Elite Teams 1997 Season

Michigan (defeated Washington St.)

Nebraska (defeated Tennessee)

Florida (defeated Florida St., Tennessee)

Florida St. (defeated None)

UCLA (defeated None)

LSU (defeated Florida)

Georgia (defeated LSU)

Tennessee (defeated UCLA)

Washington St. (defeated UCLA)

Arizona St. (defeated Washington St.)

Elite Teams 1996 Season

Florida (defeated Florida St.)

Ohio St. (defeated Arizona St.)

Florida St. (defeated Florida)

Arizona St. (defeated None)

BYU (defeated None)

Elite Teams 1995 Season

Nebraska (defeated Florida, Colorado, Kansas)

Florida (defeated Florida St., Tennessee)

Tennessee (defeated None)

Florida St. (defeated None)

Colorado (defeated Kansas St.)

Kansas (defeated Colorado)

Kansas St. (defeated Kansas)

Elite Teams 1994 Season

Nebraska (defeated Colorado, Miami)

Penn St. (defeated None)

Colorado (defeated None)

Florida St. (defeated None)

Alabama (defeated None)

Miami (defeated Florida St.)

Florida (defeated Alabama)

Elite Teams 1993 Season

Florida St. (defeated Nebraska, Florida, Miami)

Notre Dame (defeated Florida St.)

Nebraska (defeated None)

Auburn (defeated Florida)

Florida (defeated Arizona, West Virginia)

Boston College (defeated Notre Dame)

Miami (defeated Boston College)

West Virginia (defeated Boston College, Miami)

Arizona (defeated Miami)

Elite Teams 1992 Season

Alabama (defeated Miami)

Florida St. (defeated None)

Miami (defeated Florida St.)

Notre Dame (tied Michigan)

Michigan (tied Notre Dame)

Elite Teams 1991 Season

Miami (defeated Florida St., Penn St.)

Washington (defeated Michigan)

Penn St. (defeated Notre Dame, Tennessee)

Florida St. (defeated Michigan)

Alabama (defeated Tennessee)

Florida (defeated Florida St., Alabama, Tennessee)

Syracuse (defeated Florida)

Notre Dame (defeated Florida)

East Carolina (defeated Syracuse)

Michigan (defeated Notre Dame)

Tennessee (defeated Notre Dame)

Elite Teams 1990 Season

Colorado (defeated Washington)

Georgia Tech (defeated None)

Miami (defeated Florida St.)

Florida St. (defeated None)

Washington (defeated None)

Notre Dame (defeated Miami)

Elite Teams 1989 Season

Miami (defeated Notre Dame, Alabama)

Notre Dame (defeated Colorado)

Florida St. (defeated Miami, Auburn)

Colorado (defeated None)

Tennessee (defeated Auburn)

Alabama (defeated Tennessee)

Auburn (defeated Alabama)

Clemson (defeated Florida St.)

Elite Teams 1988 Season

Notre Dame (defeated West Virginia, Miami, Michigan)

Miami (defeated Michigan, Florida St.)

Florida St. (defeated None)

Michigan (defeated None)

West Virginia (defeated None)

Elite Teams 1987 Season

Miami (defeated Florida St., Oklahoma)

Florida St. (defeated None)

Oklahoma (defeated None)

Syracuse (defeated None)

LSU (defeated None)

Elite Teams 1986 Season

Penn St. (defeated Miami)

Miami (defeated Oklahoma)

Oklahoma (defeated Nebraska)

Arizona St. (defeated None)

Nebraska (defeated None)

Arizona (defeated Arizona St)

UCLA (defeated Arizona)

Elite Teams 1985 Season

Oklahoma (defeated Penn St.)

Michigan (defeated Iowa)

Penn St. (defeated None)

Tennessee (defeated None)

Florida (defeated Tennessee)

Iowa (defeated Michigan)

UCLA (tied Tennessee, defeated Iowa)

Ohio St. (defeated Iowa)

Elite Teams 1984 Season

BYU (defeated None)

Washington (defeated Oklahoma)

Florida (Tied LSU)

Nebraska (defeated LSU, UCLA)

Boston College (defeated None)

USC (defeated Washington)

Oklahoma (defeated Nebraska)

LSU (defeated USC, Tied Florida)

UCLA (defeated USC)

Elite Teams 1983 Season

Miami (defeated Nebraska)

Nebraska (defeated None)

Auburn (defeated Georgia, Florida)

Georgia (defeated Texas)

Texas (defeated Auburn)

Florida (defeated Miami)

Clemson (tied Georgia)

Elite Teams 1982 Season

Penn St. (defeated Georgia, Nebraska)

SMU (Tied Arkansas)

Nebraska (defeated None)

Georgia (defeated None)

UCLA (defeated None)

Arkansas (Tied SMU)

Washington (defeated UCLA)

Elite Teams 1981 Season

Clemson (defeated None)

Texas (defeated SMU, Miami, Alabama)

Penn St. (defeated Pittsburgh)

Pittsburgh (defeated None)

SMU (defeated None)

Miami (defeated Penn St.)

Alabama (defeated Penn St.)

Final Notes:

There were only two National Champions from 1981 to 2013 that did not defeat an elite level team:  Clemson 1981 and BYU 1984. It's safe to say that this will never happen again.

Also, it definitely gets a little more complicated but, this definition of elite can be applied to other things.  For example, you could be considered an elite level defense if you are ranked in the top 5 (Alabama) or if you are ranked in the top 15 and have shut down an elite level offense (Stanford).  You can be considered an elite level offense if you are in the top 5 (Baylor) or in the top 15 and have dominated an elite defense (Auburn).  I can understand if you want to throw out a caveat that any non-AQ team that has been rocked by an AQ team shouldn't be included (ie. Bowling Green below).  It's simply a much different level of competition that inflates their ranking. Perhaps advance stats are the way to go there.

Elite Offenses for 2013: Baylor, Florida State, Ohio St., Oregon, Texas A&M, Auburn

Elite Defense for 2013: Florida St., Louisville, Michigan St., Alabama, (Bowling Green or Wisconsin), Stanford