As the next football season nears, our in-depth season preview nears, but before we delve deeply in 2017 we take a longer look. In this article, we look beyond just 2017, and take stock the college football’s 15 strongest football programs. Before we begin, here are the criteria for these rankings:
- These rankings look forward 15 years. This time horizon makes long-term advantages critical, but also keeps the current state of the program highly relevant.
The four focuses for rankings are:
Current State: How successful are they now and how are their short-term prospects?
Tradition: How successful have they been throughout history and how big is their brand?
Resources: How plentiful are funds? How top-of-the-line are facilities?
Location: Are they in a location that makes it easy to recruit players and attract fans?
- Lastly, this is purely a qualitative ranking. While some quantitative measures like total wins and total championships go into it, it’s largely a subjective ranking so feel free to disagree and yell and shout in the comment section. There are no wrong answers (unless you disagree!).
1) Alabama Crimson Tide
Current State: A+
Alabama has the best track record of success and is set-up for the most short-term success over the next few years. Located in the southeast with a spot in the strong and financially secure SEC, no school is set-up for success quite like Alabama
2) Ohio State Buckeyes
Current State: A+
The Buckeyes have an amazing tradition, a great staff, elite players, and all the resources they need. They won the first National Championship in the current playoff format and are poised to compete again this year. While their location in cold, dreary Columbus, OH could be a negative, they’re able to rely on their other advantages to pull elite talent from across the nation.
3) Florida State Seminoles
Current State: A+
Despite a relatively late start (1947) for their football program, the Seminoles have earned three national titles since taking the ACC by storm in 1992. Bobby Bowden built their tradition and Jimbo Fisher has them in position to compete for championships now. Being in Florida, so close to elite athletes, helps with recruiting. They rank 18th according to the USA Today NCAA Finances rankings, highest for an ACC program, and that should improve if the ACC Network is successful.
4) Southern California Trojans
Current State: A-
The USC Trojans have a rich football history that boasts seven Heisman Trophy award winners and 11 national championships (including the vacated Reggie Bush Heisman and 2004 National Title as well as a handful of split titles). After fighting through NCAA violations in the wake of the Reggie Bush and Pete Carroll era and the turmoil of the Lane Kiffin era, the Trojans appear ready to once again assert themselves as one of the nation’s premier college football programs.
With great facilities and a prime location as the only major football school (sorry UCLA) in a state filled with great high school talent, the Trojans are set-up for success.
5) Clemson Tigers
Current State: A+
The greatest coach in school history is currently at the helm and the program is experiencing more success than ever before. With a 2016 National Title in the trophy case, there’s no doubt this is an elite program.
South Carolina is good recruiting grounds, but it’s not Florida and their tradition is rich, but not like Alabama or Notre Dame. With fantastic new facilities now in place, the Clemson Tigers have staying power, despite revenues outside the top 25 - third in the ACC. They have what it takes to win another National Championship under Coach Swinney and sustain success after his eventual retirement (which should be a long ways away).
6) LSU Tigers
Current State: B+
A new coaching staff takes the helm in Baton Rouge this year, making their outlook for the next 15 years a bit tricky, but they earn this high rank for a handful of reasons. They have great talent on the roster and in their recruiting territory. They rank in the top 10 in revenue and have great facilities including a football operations center which they are expanding. Winning in the SEC West is tough, but they’ve proven capable winning the National Title in both 2003 and 2007 (under different coaches). They also have a National Title from 1958, which concluded with a Sugar Bowl victory over Clemson.
7) Florida Gators
Current State: B
Despite winning the SEC East two years in a row, the Gators haven’t put together a good offense since all-time great QB Tim Tebow departed. They look to do that this year with Malik Zaire, but they’re not currently competing for National Championships. They’re in the top 10 in athletic department revenue and are building a stand-alone football operations center, which will get their facilities back up to par. Their location in Florida is a major advantage. Nobody would be surprised if they improved to the point of winning another National Title within the next 15 years.
8) Michigan Wolverines
Current State: A
Coach Harbaugh wasted no time in rebuilding the Wolverines. Following seven and five win seasons, Harbaugh took the helm at Michigan and has now won 10 games in each of his first two seasons. A fluky loss to Penn State and a overtime loss to Ohio State kept them out of the playoff last season. With many key players departed, 2017 is expected to be a bit of a rebuilding year, but they could play for a national championship as soon as 2018.
They have 11 claimed national titles, but just one (1997) since 1950. At 935, the Wolverines have the most total wins as a program in NCAA history. They placed fifth in revenue in 2017 and already have a massive home stadium and beautiful player facilities.
Their location, freezing cold and far from the best recruiting grounds, is a handicap, but the biggest concern is what happens when Jim Harbaugh eventually leaves. Do the pre-Harbaugh struggles return or is he laying a lasting foundation?
9) Oklahoma Sooners
Current State: A-
The Sooners ranked in the top 10 despite Bob Stoops’ early retirement. Oklahoma earned the 6th highest revenue in the NCAA last season and have largely dominated the Big 12 in recent years. Despite the glitz and glamour often associated with the Texas Longhorns, the Sooners have the more successful history. Since WWII, they have the most wins and best winning percentage in all of college football.
The weakness of the Big 12 could develop into a long term concern, but for now it provides a reasonable path to the postseason. If their new 33-year old coach, Lincoln Riley, is ready, they could continue winning Big 12 titles and aren’t too far from competing for National Titles.
10) Texas Longhorns
Current State: C+
Second only to their arch-rival Texas A&M Aggies in revenue, the Texas Longhorns Athletic Department reeled in $187 million in revenue last season. Although they’ve struggled over the past three seasons, you only have to go back to 2009 to find a National Championship Game appearance. They won the title in 2005 with Coach Mack Brown and QB Vince Young. After three poor seasons under Charlie Strong, they hired Tom Herman away from Houston, and there is realistic optimism for a quick turn-around.
Texas has the resources, tradition, and location to be one of the two or three best programs in the nation, but being a member of the Big 12 casts a bit of uncertainty over the program. Very few elite prospects are choosing Big 12 programs right now and the conference’s future could be in jeopardy when the Grant of Right expires in 2025. While Tom Herman appears to be a great hire - as did Charlie Strong - there is uncertainty around any new coaching hire.
11) Auburn Tigers
Current State: B+
The Tigers have been one of the more up-and-down programs over the past decade. They won just 5 and then 8 games prior to their 2010 National Title and then just 8 and 3 games before their 2013 National Title game appearance. More broadly though, they have a proud history with 15 conference titles and 7 perfect seasons (including 2003 when they finished 13-0, but did not get invited to the National Championship).
They’re top 10 in revenue, have a loud and loyal fan following, and have great facilities including beautiful Jordan-Hare Stadium. Being arch-rivals with Alabama is a tough row to hoe and makes them second-fiddle in their own state, however proximity to Atlanta and Florida helps them recruit out-of-state. They’ve proven they can compete for National Championships with Gus Malzahn.
12) Georgia Bulldogs
Current State: B
The Bulldogs are often considered under-achievers, and over the past four years that’s certainly a fair assessment. They appeared in ho-hum bowl games (Gator, Belk, TaxSlayer, Liberty Bowls), and lost most of their meaningful rivalry games. Their 1980 National Championship and the more recent high-points of the Richt-era underscore the potential of the program though.
The 2002 Bulldogs won the Sugar Bowl and finished #3 in the nation. In 2007, they won the Sugar Bowl and finished #2 in the nation. The 2012 team won the SEC East and was a play away from beating Alabama and playing for a National Championship - one they likely would have won over Notre Dame.
The Dawgs have plenty of built-in advantages. They’re in the weaker division of the most prestigious conference. They’re less than 90 minutes from Atlanta, a recruiting hotbed. They have a solid history dating all the way back to a 1942 National Championship. They’re 15th in revenue, higher than all the ACC teams.
Nevertheless, they trail the programs listed ahead of them in the facilities arms race, and their new head coach, Kirby Smart, is still unproven after a mediocre first season. They could compete with anybody in the country, but with a new coach and recent struggles, it’s hard to rank them any higher.
13) Penn State Nittany Lions
Current State: A
With a Sugar Bowl win over UGA to conclude the 1982 season, Penn State was the last program to win a National Championship the season after the Clemson Tigers. They won another in 1986 by beating Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. Since joining the Big 10 in 1993, they won 9+ games 14 times. The conclusion of the Paterno era was hideous and heinous, but with a great coach now leading the program, James Franklin, they are the reigning Big 10 Champions and look poised for success in the future.
They finished 12th in revenue in 2016 and have one of the best home field advantages in all of college football.
14) Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Current State: B-
Last season’s 4-8 season was a bit of a fluke - a compounding of many challenges - as they’ve been fairly successful over the past half decade. In the four seasons prior to 2016, they won 39 games. Not too shabby.
While it’s clear they’ve fallen out of the top 10 best programs, they still cling to our top 15. Following the #3 recruiting class in the nation in 2013 (Rivals), Notre Dame has hovered around 12th each of the past four recruiting cycles and look to finish around there again in 2018.
While Notre Dame’s brand (and on-field success) feels like it’s in a very slow decline, they have more potential than most to snap back to elite status quickly.
15) Texas A&M Aggies
Current State: C-
Texas A&M has the highest revenue in the entire NCAA and are blessed to be in one of the richest hotbeds of high school football. They have amazing facilities and one of the more impressive fan bases in the country. Based on those facts, you’d expect them to be in the top five of this list, but somehow, they’ve have very limited success in their long history as a football program.
They do not have a National Title after 1939. After joining the Big 12 in 1995, they’ve won just one conference championship (1998) before moving to the tough SEC West where they have not claimed a title. It’s unclear if they can win big with current Head Coach Kevin Sumlin, but they’re certainly college football’s biggest “sleeping giant.”
Washington Huskies: After a long slumber, the Huskies returned. With a National Championship in the 90s and a Rose Bowl in 2000, they have a rich history. Their revenue last year ranked 25th and their location isn’t ideal, but they may be the best program in the Pac-12 North.
Oklahoma State Cowboys: Thanks to T. Boone Pickens, their facilities are excellent and they can compete with Oklahoma and Texas. They may be the best team in the Big 12 this season, however they generally don’t recruit at an elite level and don’t have a long and glorious tradition. They could rise to the next tier if Oklahoma and Texas falter under their brand new coaches.
Miami Hurricanes: The best location and tradition imaginable, but facilities (namely an off-campus stadium) and fan support lag behind while current state is just okay. They’ve lost seven in a row to FSU.
Tennessee Volunteers: Great tradition, great facilities, top 10 in revenue. The case for Tennessee to be even higher is strong, but the current state of the program drags them down. It’s been a while since Peyton Manning and Tee Martin were battling Steve Spurrier’s Gators and the Vols were among the nation’s best.
Oregon Ducks: Participants in two National Championship games, new coach Willie Taggart has them on the right track to bring them back. They essentially started college football’s facilities arms race.
Wisconsin Badgers: The Badgers don’t recruit at a National Championship level, and because of their far north location in Madison Wisconsin, they may never, but they produce quality season after quality season. They’ve won 9+ games in 11 of the past 13 seasons. They’re 11th in revenue and have a wide open path to the conference championship game with Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State in the Big 10 East.
The Cards have hit the ground rolling in the ACC and are in the mix with Miami and Virginia Tech as the ACC’s third best program. Time will tell if they can get their recruiting to the next level. They’ve benefited from two amazing talents (Teddy Bridgewater and Lamar Jackson) and can’t expect such amazing talent to continue to come their way when their general recruiting level is not top tier.
Stanford was highlighted alongside Clemson as one of the most honorable football programs in the Wall Street Journal’s “Grid of Shame.” Elite academics will make winning big in Palo Alto difficult, as will a strong Oregon and Washington in the Pac-12 North. Like Wisconsin, they may not contend for a National Title - they couldn’t contend for one with transcendent talents like John Elway, Andrew Luck, or Christian McCaffrey - but they have staying power as part of the upper-middle class of college football.