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Is Clemson An Elite Program?

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

This is the 2nd part on defining "eliteness." In part 1, which you can find here and should read first, we had a solid discussion on what it means to be an elite team for single season.  Now, we're going to talk about being perceived as an "Elite Program."  As in the first post, this is supposed to make you think about your own definition of an Elite Program, whether or not Clemson has an Elite Program, and then if not, what Clemson needs to do to get there in your mind?  Ideally, I would like this to be an agreed upon definition by most of the STS community and a work in progress that we can refer back to in the future.  For example, after an exchange with Razzmctazz, I realized that my use of the term "Consensus Opinion" wasn't as representative of a description here as the terms "Collective Opinion" or "Majority Opinion." This is long so feel free to read it in installments.

College football at the highest level is a perception sport. There is no 125 team round-robin tournament.  There is no mandatory scheduling that makes all the conferences play against each other.  There is no computer program that we fully trust to objectively list the best teams in order (yet).  There is only the perception of team strength by fans, writers, coaches, and now in 2014, a playoff selection committee.

As the perception gets better, so does recruiting, ticket sales, TV contracts, alumni support, and (wait for it) "Collective Opinion."  Therefore, Non-Elite programs are running uphill to field an Elite Team and Elite Programs are running downhill to field one.  Statistically that truth pans out.  Since 1994, the average FBS team has an Elite Season 5.7% of the time.  Elite Programs have an Elite Season 44.4% of the time.

To quote my favorite Scottish philosopher: "it's a long way to the top if you want to rock n' roll."

I expect that we could all list the Elite Programs that will fit my definition below.  Where I let the definition of an "Elite Team" find me in post 1, I generally knew who the "Elite Programs" were in this post.  I also knew that while the perception of a team can change from week to week, the perception of a program is less volatile.

You've probably heard before that college football is cyclical and it certainly is that.  Princeton, Army, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Miami were all once "Elite Programs" in college football.  In 2014, they are not.

Researching these ups and downs, I learned some possibly surprising things that do NOT affect our perception of "Eliteness."  Despite what Alabama Fan says, it's not about number of National Championships in the past.  How many people know that Princeton can lay claim to 23 National Championships?  Eliteness is more about what have you done for me lately.  Anything that happened more than 20 years ago is vaguely relevant on a national scale.

I also learned that Conference Championships do not mean as much as Conference Perception.  In 2011, the ACC Champion was perceived to be beneath all the AQ conference's Champions and ranked 17 spots below the SEC West Division 3rd Place team.  Enter ACC wins over LSU, Ohio State, and Auburn and by 2013, the ACC Atlantic Runner-Up is perceived to be above the Big 12, Pac 12, and AAC (old Big East) Champions.

Another thing I learned about Eliteness is that while money, facilities, autonomy, or your own TV network helps your program be more successful, we still only respond  to what we see on the field with our own eyes.  Most feel comfortable touting a team with a high level of sustained on-the-field domination over a period of years.

Don't believe that? Well, you haven't seen one snap of Alabama 2014, but you already know they're one of the best teams in college football. Notice I didn't say "think."  I said "know."  Think about that.

Lastly, I learned that it is harder to get into the club than it is to get kicked out but, isn't that just how we are in real life?  It's funny how we hold our sports teams to the same standard.

So, here is the definition for an Elite Program:

I define an Elite Program as a program that has been elite once in past 7 years


has either played in the National Championship game within the past two years,  been in the NC game and had another elite season in the past three years, has been Elite three times in the past five years, four times in the past ten years, six times in the past 20 years, or 10 times in the past 30 years.

With that, here is the "Elite Programs" chart by year from 1994 to 2013.  The "E" designates Elite Seasons for that team. "NC" means that they played for the National championship in the past three years.  A bolded team name means that they are currently an Elite Program.

TEAM 94 95 96 97 98 99 00 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13
Alabama E E E E E/NC E/NC E
Arizona E
Arizona St. E E
Arkansas E E
Auburn E E E E/NC
Baylor E
Boise St. E
Central Florida E
Clemson E
Colorado E E E
Florida E E E E E E E E E E
Florida St. E E E E E E E E E/NC
Georgia E E E E
Iowa E
Kansas E
Kansas St. E E E
Louisville E
Miami E E E E E
Michigan E E E
Michigan St. E E E
Missouri E E
Nebraska E E E E E
Notre Dame E/NC
Ohio St. E E E E E E E E E E
Oklahoma E E E E E E E E
Oklahoma St. E
Oregon E E E E E
Oregon St. E
Penn St. E E
South Carolina E E
Stanford E E E
Tennessee E E E E E
Texas E E E E E E E
Texas A&M E
Utah E
Virginia Tech E E
Washington E
Wash. St. E E E
West Virginia E
Wisconsin E E E

The Elite Programs of College Football heading into 2014 are: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, LSU, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Stanford, Texas, and USC.

Two teams knocking on the door of Elite Program status right now are Michigan State and South Carolina. If either of these teams turn in an elite season in the next two years, the definition here says that the perception will shift and these programs will have elite status. As a Clemson fan since 1977, I never thought this would happen, but since I’ve been following Elite perception for several years now, I feel confident in the definition’s accuracy. The silver lining is that, if they become an Elite Program, we’ll get a shot to elevate ourselves every year at their expense.

If this does happen for Gas Pumper Nation before it happens for us, we have seen the luxuries afforded to Elite Programs. In 1998, Elite Programs #4 Ohio St. and #8 Florida made BCS bowls while #3 Kansas State did not. In 1999 we saw #6 Kansas St. passed over for a 2nd time to the benefit of Elite Program #8 Michigan. In 2000, we saw Washington defeat Miami and then Miami beat FSU during the season and all three teams end up with one loss. The obvious choice, Washington, was passed over for Elite Program FSU to go the NC game.

Oklahoma and USC were Elite Programs in 2004 and undefeated Auburn was not. They’re still talking about how Auburn got screwed. When Ohio St. and Michigan reemerged as Elite Programs in the mid-2000s, they were afforded the polite perception that they were the two best teams all season until they both got humiliated by Florida and USC in their bowl games. We almost had a total debacle in a Michigan/Ohio St. rematch for the National Title.

In 2009, Elite Program and undefeated Texas played for the NC over other undefeated teams Cincinnati, Boise St., and TCU. If there was a playoff in 2009, which team gets left out? Or, should I ask, how many of those teams get left out? In 2011, LSU and Alabama were Elite Programs and Oklahoma State was not. Let’s have us that rematch instead of giving Oklahoma State their shot.

That’s why it is so important that Clemson makes the most of a potential elite matchup when we get it and that we’re able to sustain competitiveness on the elite level.

On the flipside, there are also some teams in danger of losing their Elite Program status in the near future. Those teams are Texas, Notre Dame, and Auburn. Texas hasn’t been elite since Colt McCoy got injured in the National Championship game in 2009. Since then, the program has had a losing season (2010) and only finished in the top 25 once (#19, 2012). Mack Brown has been fired and the Charlie Strong era begins this year. In the midst of all the hype about their superior bankroll and championship expectations, Charlie Strong is the man to take over after the man. Will he be the next Jimbo Fisher or the next Bob Davie? Personally, I’m hoping he’s the next Bob Davie just so that he can be fired and take Ed Cunningham’s commentator job.

Speaking of Notre Dame, the last time we saw them they were acting out a scene from "Deliverance" against Alabama in the NC game. The Elite Program definition says that we want Eliteness proven to be sustainable. So, since they did not follow up their elite year with another, we’re almost ready to consider that NC game appearance an aberration. They’ll have to have an elite season this year to maintain Elite Program status.

Funny enough, I think half the people reading this are asking, "Since when is Notre Dame an elite program anyway?" and the other half are saying, "Notre Dame is ALWAYS an elite program." I can listen to arguments on both sides, however, deep down inside, you know that Notre Dame is the least scary Elite Program to have to play. They are Ted Williams in the golf cart riding around Fenway while everybody claps for what he accomplished before they were born.

Auburn is a program that has been up and down recently. We’re ready to call them an elite program but, we want to see them get back to the elite level in the next two years.

Moving on, I realized that in my "Elite Teams" post that I may not have focused on Clemson enough for some of you, so indulge me while I remedy that in this post and take a trip back to the 80s. First, here are the "Elite Programs" from 1981 to 1993 for you. Elite Programs as of 1994 are bolded. Relevant NC's to the below comments are listed as well.

TEAM 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993
Alabama E E E E/NC
Arizona E
Arizona St. E
Arkansas E
Auburn E E E
Boston College E E
Clemson E/NC E E
Colorado E E
East Carolina E
Florida E E E E E
Florida St. E E E E E E E/NC
Georgia E E
Georgia Tech E
Iowa E
Miami E E E E E E E E E/NC E
Michigan E E E E
Nebraska E E E E E/NC
Notre Dame E E E E E E
Ohio St. E
Oklahoma E E E E
Penn St. E E E E E
Pittsburgh E
Syracuse E E
Tennessee E E E
Texas E E
Washington E E E E
West Virginia E/NC E

Having won the National Championship in 1981, Clemson, like Florida State, Notre Dame, and Auburn today, was an Elite Program heading into the 1982, 1983, and 1984 seasons. Clemson was a near-elite program for the rest of the 80s, but never quite got back to elite status. This was because of three main reasons.

The first is the three years of probation in the early 80s. As we were in the middle of our undefeated season, two guys who never played for us came forward and said that a Clemson booster paid them. We were labeled cheaters in the media before we got a chance to defend ourselves to the NCAA and we were having our NC spat upon before we had even won it.  Then we were hurt by probation. We lost three years of televised games, an ACC title in 1983, and a major bowl game appearance in both 1982 and 1983. All of this punishment was for basically what Auburn would call "just another Tuesday in January."

Our recruiting suffered and we bottomed out in ‘85 and ‘86. It took a couple years, but by 1987, we were back to near-elite again. By 1989, we could play with anybody in the country, and in one case, embarrass a top 5 team in the final AP poll on their home field. It was during this stretch where we took down Elite Programs at the time in Oklahoma, Penn St., and West Virginia. We had passed Georgia and were getting a lot of the best players in their state again.

The 1990 team was as talented of a team as I’ve ever seen at Clemson and hands down the best defense I’ve ever seen at Clemson (#1 Total Defense, #2 vs. the Run). Chuck O’Brien, Kenzil Jackson, and Wayne Simmons would’ve been the best LB corps in the ACC if they weren't backups for us. 11 defensive players in the 2 deep were drafted by the NFL and 5 in the first two rounds. One player that didn’t get drafted by the NFL was 1st Team All American NG, Rob Bodine. He was only 235 pounds and led the nation in tackles for loss. Did I mention we were talented?

The future was bright, we were loaded with talent, and we were the early preseason #1 for 1990 according to CBS. Shortly after the Gator Bowl demolition of West Virginia, though, the administration decided that football had become "too important" at Clemson and they decided to fix that by firing Danny Ford and, even worse, cutting the purse strings to the program. They used a minor recruiting violation as the public excuse. The "football-isn't -that-important" mindset continued all the way into President Barker’s tenure and, in my mind, finally ended with the failed attempt to fire TDP as the scapegoat. That is Reason #2 we weren’t an Elite Program. We willfully decided to not be one.

Reason #3 that kept us from elevating the program to elite status was, well, what they call "Clemsoning" today. In 1987, we had an inexplicable loss to a 4-7 NC St. team at home where they led 30-0 at halftime. In 1988, we lost to NC St. again because we were outcoached by Dick Sheridan. In 1989, we lost to Duke (an unfortunate fluke) and Georgia Tech which diminished our wins against FSU and our running roughshod over the rest of our schedule. Those losses to inferior teams prevented us from playing in a major bowl game and therefore, prevented us from playing more games against elite level competition.

In the Hatfield and West eras when the purse strings were cut, we failed to defeat an Elite Team or an Elite Program. We bottomed out with a 3-8 record in 1998.

During the Tommy Bowden era we beat Florida State when they were an Elite Program in 2003, 2005, and 2006 and also Miami when they were still an Elite Program in 2004. Unfortunately, FSU and Miami were crumbling more so than Clemson elevating to the elite level. It was then when ACC Conference perception started lowering faster than Weslye Saunders’ hotel bill.

Coach Swinney has defeated an Elite Team and Program in LSU 2012 and an Elite Program in Ohio St 2013. There is no doubt that the program has been elevated from the Bowden era.

Florida State is the only definitively Elite Program we will face in the upcoming season. Of course, if we go undefeated except for one loss to either UGA, FSU, or SC, we’ll certainly face another one (or two). That’s what we all want and that's what gets me excited for football season. Are things in place to ascend to greater heights?

So, I’ll end with this appropriate homage to Figure Four: "Big man, I don’t know if I can beat you! But don’t you know, by God, I want to find out! Whooo!" -Ric Flair

Final Notes:

The most obvious change that will certainly affect perception is the advent of the four team playoff. I think it’s possible that it affects "Collective Opinion" in some way depending on the selection process. The biggest questions for me are: Will we have a small conference undefeated get in? Or, will small conference teams be shut out altogether in favor of AQ one loss teams (ie. "Elite Programs")? I think the answer is, "Whatever makes more money?" But, will that be "David vs. Goliath" or "Goliath 1 vs. Goliath 2."