The premise is simple.
Throw open all 128 FBS jobs. Fire every coach. Forget your regionalism. Where would the smartest, most ambitious coaches want to coach, recruit, win big and contend for championships?
Where would I want to go based on cold-blooded calculation, irrespective of prejudice or lazy assumptions? Knowing what I know about available physical, financial and human capital, recruiting, demography, money, television, program standing and administrative commitment?
I’m not that interested in debating whether USC is the 3rd best job or the 9th. Once a program has a qualifying level of winning infrastructure, I think it’s largely immaterial. For that reason, I’m not force ranking, but establishing tranches. But have at it if you like.
The relevant question for me is: Can I win titles there? Can I field really good teams over a sustained period of time? Once you can answer that question affirmatively, the rest is up to coaching, the ability to win in living rooms, coalition building and a little luck.
The Top 20 jobs are surprisingly easy to identify, even if some teams are currently wandering the wilderness.
The Top 20 isn’t written in stone. It’s dynamic and subject to change. Largely because of demographics and a great coach that either masked fundamental weakness or a good coach who lit a spark in a place with natural advantages to show what could be. Making this list in 1970, 1980 or 1990 looks different.
This isn’t about whether Mississippi State, Kansas State or Utah can field a good team in any given year. It’s as much about ceiling as it is about floor. It also doesn’t mean any coach off of the street can coach Texas or Georgia to 12-1. It’s about upside, sustainability and the relative barriers to fielding a juggernaut.
It’s also a compelling reaffirmation for me that the only interesting football future for Texas means affiliating with the Pac 12, Big 10 or SEC.
The Elite 11
All of the Elite 11 are hard to beat with respect to resources, facilities, location and demography. They’re distinguished from the rest of the Top 20 by no poor grades in any area and a hell of a lot of A’s.
Alabama and Florida require no explanation.
Oklahoma has the weakest natural recruiting base and that’s cause for worry, but their ability to brand nationally and dip into DFW has always served them well. Their fear of talent depletion also explains their historical willingness to bend rules, defend bad behavior and live on the ethical margins to shore up a lack of in-state resources.
Penn State is underestimated for their total hold on Northeastern football recruiting and their ability to shake off the worst scandal in college football history speaks to their winning infrastructure. PA and NJ aren’t GA and LA, but those states have players and Penn State takes the ones they want.
Only USC rivals Texas as the program with better commanding heights in recruiting. Everything you need is within a 200 mile drive and resident competition within that sphere is modest. Both teams also retain the ability to go national.
Georgia and LSU have the best football talent per capita in the country, great demography and strong commitments to football. LSU is a historical Johnny-Come-Lately, but they experienced their own Florida effect. The Georgia job seems to be unduly minimized by college football fans – it’s a terrific gig.
Michigan and Ohio St are the bullies of their region with national prominence and excellent support structures. Michigan’s academics have also made peace with what’s necessary to be competitive in football.
Ohio State is a de facto SEC school and it’s hard to find any fundamental aspect of the program that isn’t at least an A-.
The Rest Of The Top 20
Every school here has a fatal flaw. They can rise into the Elite 11 – and a few were once prime components – but they also have the ability to fall into irrelevance by compounding a natural disadvantage.
I can make good arguments for Clemson expanding the elite group to 12 and I have no problem with doing so, but I’d like to see staying power.
Miami is the only program in my Top 20 that can weather C or D grades in some key areas, but A grades for demography and location mean the material is always there.
Both Notre Dame and Stanford profit from the ability to recruit nationally with unique pitches, but they’re narrowcasters. Stanford has to dismiss 85% of the prospective athlete pool before their process even starts. The idea of listing Notre Dame outside of the Elite 11 would have been laughable twenty years ago, but the last two decades signal fundamental change that a TV contract and tradition can’t obscure.
Auburn and Tennessee have maniacal support, but they lack a natural talent base. Same programs, except Knoxville is a lot nicer place to live. When it comes to recruiting, both are always playing a road game. You can win big here, but it sure helps when regional rivals falter taking care of business.
Texas A&M has the natural recruiting base and checks every box, but their ahem, unique culture and their ability to shoot themselves in the foot seems to thwart their inevitable, obvious rise. The default Longhorn fan assumption that this is a permanent state of affairs is a bad one.
Oregon is proof that you can buy yourself into college football relevance and grow a real football culture from nothing. The Pacific NW is a recruiting problem and they have to raid backyards. The highest beta of the Top 20.
UCLA lacks commitment. That’s a problem. They’re also the only other major football program besides USC sitting in a 250 mile radius of great athletes. They can also sell nationally. The path forward for building a monster here doesn’t require that much imagination – just harnessing some Cali front-running – but it will take a better coach than Jim Mora Jr.
Steep drop off here.
Washington is Oregon with less money, but plenty of passion to win and some intangibles.
Wisconsin is good because they’ve decided football is very important to them. See Virginia Tech.
The best thing that could ever happen to Arizona State is Texas in the Pac 12. North Carolina and S. Carolina have underrated demography, but Tarheel basketball and Gamecock lower tier SEC status are their millstones.
Oklahoma State has one billionaire’s financial commitment to football, but not much else. Nebraska has the commitment of an entire state, but awful demography.
Michigan State can only eat when Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State are full and then they have to fight with a half dozen regional peers for those scraps.
Louisville’s greatest advantage is ruthlessness. They have few advantages outside of a single-minded focus on athletic success as a driver for school pride and student attraction. All told, pretty effective for a commuter school in the shadows of the Big 10 and SEC.
Where am I wrong? Who are the most likely to rise into the Elite? Fall out? Are their deep dark horses to take heed of (South Florida, UCF, San Diego State) who can ride the same demographic rise from modest beginnings of schools like Florida, Florida St, Miami, LSU?
Where would you want to build your program?