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'Program pecking order' returns after five-year hiatus; Mailbag

How much can the perception of a program change over a half-decade? I'm not talking about the usual on-field ebbs and flows of going 10-2 one year and 7-5 the next. I'm talking about a real change in the national prestige (or lack thereof) a team established over decades due to its level of play in the past five seasons.

Plenty of you must be wondering, since I've been getting regular requests over the past year or so to revisit my "Program Pecking Order" Mailbag from August 2007 that divvied up the nation's BCS-conference schools into a four-tiered Feudal society. This seems as good a time as any to do it. The genesis of the idea was a reader debate over whether Georgia should be considered a "national power." My answer in '07 was no (turning me into a permanent enemy of certain Bulldogs bloggers), and that hasn't changed in the last five years.

As a refresher: 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. As I wrote in '07, a national power carries "... a certain cachet or aura. It's the way a program is perceived by the public. Let me put it to you this way. Suppose we went to, say, Montana. And suppose we found 100 'average' college football fans (not necessarily message-board crazies, but not twice-a-year viewers, either) and put them in a room. If I held up a Michigan helmet, my guess is all 100 would know exactly what it was. ... But if I held up a Georgia 'G' helmet, how many of them do you think would be able to identify it off the top of their heads?"

As you're about to find out, things haven't changed dramatically in five years. In fact, I'd argue they haven't changed much at all. Most of the programs that rose or fell here had already begun to shift in the five years prior, but it took a little longer to be sure it was truly a trend. There are a couple exceptions, however, largely due to the massive conference realignment wave of the past couple years.

For the purposes of this exercise, I've included all current AQ-conference programs, major independents and a certain blue-clad team that falls somewhere in between.

Formatting note: Bolded teams moved up to that rank or are making their debut; strikethrough teams fell out of that rank.

* Alabama, Florida, Florida State, LSU, Miami, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Tennessee, Texas and USC.

Ten years ago, LSU was coming off its first outright SEC championship in 15 years, having upset Phillip Fulmer's second-ranked Tennessee squad. Four months after this column ran, the Tigers knocked off the Vols in Atlanta again en route to their second BCS championship in five years. While LSU solidified itself as a bona fide national power, Tennessee fired Fulmer a year later and sank further into a decade-long bout of mediocrity.

It will be interesting to see where Penn State lands on this list if we revisit it five years down the road. The now-scandal-ridden program's identity was so closely tied to the late Joe Paterno that it may never again carry the same clout.

* Auburn, Clemson, Colorado, Georgia, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas A&M, UCLA, Virginia Tech, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Some might wonder how Colorado and Washington were in this tier to begin with, but both programs won national titles in the '90s. I couldn't have known then just how far the once-mighty would fall. Oregon's rise was a no-brainer, with Chip Kelly building on Mike Bellotti's momentum and taking the Ducks to three consecutive BCS games. West Virginia has three BCS wins since 2005, but its move to the Big 12 helps its profile as much as those.

* Arizona State, Arkansas, Boise State, Boston College, BYU, Cal, Colorado, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas State, Maryland, Michigan State, Missouri, N.C. State, Oklahoma State, Ole Miss, Oregon State, Pittsburgh, Purdue, Stanford, Syracuse, South Carolina, TCU, Texas Tech, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Washington State.

This is the landing spot for recent BCS crashers and upwardly mobile Boise State, TCU and Utah, as well as ever-consistent, now independent BYU. While no one would argue that Boise has been far more successful lately than, say, UCLA, it will take many more years of sustained success for the Broncos to be viewed as the same type of "big boys" as the history-laden Bruins. Oklahoma State and/or Stanford could be the next to move up, while Washington State is now too far removed from its last run of respectability to avoid the bottom rung.

* Arizona, Baylor, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Duke, Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa State, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, Mississippi State, North Carolina, Northwestern, Rutgers, Temple, USF, Wake Forest, Washington State and Vanderbilt.

Five years ago I wasn't sure where to place Louisville, which was coming off a 12-1 season and Orange Bowl win. Now it's clear the Cardinals aren't too different from the rest of their Big East brethren, seven of whom sit here. None can seem to sustain success. We'll see if it's possible for any to make inroads once the Big East loses its AQ status.

All told, three of the 71 schools moved up, four moved down and six made their debuts. The conclusion: At this point it's more feasible for a young program like Boise State to make a splash and create a new identity than it is for a more established program to alter a perception built over 100-plus years.

Hi Stewart. I don't understand the criticism toward Mark Richt and Georgia for having disciplinary problems after the Isaiah Crowell dismissal last week. It is clear to me that UGA has one of the more stringent disciplinary standards in college football. Here is a young man who clearly has a five-cent head and the potential to make it on the next level, and Coach Richt gave him a couple of chances last year; he had to know the consequences of screwing up again and yet he did. Why do you think Richt is being branded as running a program for problem children?-- Wayne Mancil, St. Augustine, Fla.

It does seem like the Bulldogs get in trouble more often than players at just about any major program in the country. Among Georgia's expected returning starters this season, Crowell is now gone and cornerback Branden Smith (marijuana possession), standout safety Bacarri Rambo (second failed drug test) and linebacker Alec Ogletree (reportedly a failed drug test as well) are suspended. The drug busts are nowhere near as serious as Crowell's gun charges, but they still add to the long list of Bulldog offenders. I don't have a complete list, but eight players were arrested and six suspended in 2008, 10 were arrested in 2010 and linebacker Cornelius Washington drew a DUI arrest last season. When Steve Spurrier quips that he preferred playing Georgia early in the season because "you could always count on them having two or three key players suspended," it stings because it's true.

Maybe Richt recruits too many immature players like Crowell; maybe he gives them too much freedom; maybe it's just bad luck. College kids do drink and smoke pot, and those offenses account for the majority of these arrests. But I don't think Richt runs some kind of rogue program. In fact, he and the athletic department discipline offenders more harshly than most programs, oftentimes to the team's detriment. Case in point: LSU's new starting quarterback, Zach Mettenberger, was dismissed from Georgia in 2010 shortly before pleading guilty to sexual battery for an incident in a bar. (He spent a year in junior college.) If LSU beats Georgia in the SEC title game due to a big showing from Mettenberger, no one will take pity on Richt for taking a hard line when the quarterback was arrested, nor will Richt get a pass in Week 2 if he loses to Missouri because his suspension-depleted defense gives up 500 yards. That's the world we live in: Coaches take heat when players get in trouble, but receive no credit for disciplining them.

I love college football, but I hate smugness. As I watch the conference commissioners and especially Bill Hancock prance around with smug smiles on their faces, I can't help but return to less than a year ago when Hancock and his cronies continued to bash any ideas of a playoff in college football. Today, they act as though it was their grandiose idea, and that they are the authors of this miracle. I believe the true creators of this miracle are the folks with Playoff PAC. Their constant and meticulous attention to the corrupt BCS system has brought us to this wonderful day where the beginnings of a playoff have been developed.-- Trenton, Grantsville, Utah

First of all, Hancock is essentially a paid spokesperson/designated punching bag whom the commissioners hired to take the heat for them. (Many of his anti-playoff talking points came from highly paid consultant/shill Ari Fleischer.) As soon as the commissioners reversed course on the playoff, Hancock's message changed from "you're all wrong for thinking college football should have a playoff" to "the commissioners are listening to the fans." I'm not saying, "don't shoot the messenger," but I am reminding you that's what Hancock is.

If you believe public pressure was the driving impetus for the playoff (and several commissioners have indicated as much), then certainly the guys behind Playoff PAC deserve some of the credit for ratcheting up the heat. So, too, do Craig Harris of the Arizona Republic (who broke the initial story of illegal campaign contributions at the Fiesta Bowl), Dan Wetzel and his co-authors of Death to the BCS (who shed light on several issues, most notably the racket of bowl ticket guarantees) and all the various politicians/justice officials who threatened legal action. While people have criticized the BCS since its inception, the folks who focused on bowl corruption took on a different, less defensible angle. That said, if corruption was truly as prevalent as some believe, it stands to reason the commissioners would have cut ties with the bowl games altogether. Instead, the playoff is still bedded to the bowl system, and the ACC just announced a 12-year extension with the Orange Bowl. Ultimately, public pressure contributed to the ever-escalating noise that motivated the commissioners to work toward a change.

I know the playoff is the big news, but I have an actual football question. (Weird, right? I know.) With the news from Columbus that Jordan Hall is going to be out at least 10 weeks with a non-football related foot injury, who do the Buckeyes have to replace him? It seems like a team with too few viable skill players just lost the most Harvinish player on the roster (not that you can actually compare the two players). Will Urban Meyer find a suitable replacement?-- Brant A., Chicago

This news flew under the radar but is unquestionably significant if, like Athlon, you believe Meyer is going to magically transform Ohio State from a 6-7 team to an 11-1 team in the course of one offseason. It's pretty well understood, particularly from Meyer's own comments, that there was no "Harvinish" player on the Buckeyes' offense last season, though Meyer planned to deploy Hall in a similar hybrid fashion. "We're not exactly loaded at that position right now," said Meyer. ".... I was so excited because [Hall] had an excellent spring practice, had a lot of skills we look for in that hybrid position."

It's possible Hall will wind up missing few if any games, but if he does, it will presumably be running back by committee for Meyer's squad, with junior Carlos Hyde, sophomore Rod Smith and true freshman Bri'onte Dunn sharing carries. Sophomore slot receiver Philly Brown is seen as a guy who could take on the Hall hybrid role. Perhaps one of the younger guys steps up as a big-time playmaker. More realistically, however, this will be an improved but still somewhat limited offense in 2012, which is why I find such lofty predictions for the Buckeyes' win total to be a bit premature. Their defense will be stout, but Ohio State still needs at least one gamebreaker on offense to win 11 games. Hall is/was the best bet to be that guy, and even he's not in Harvin's stratosphere.

Do you and John from Anchorage have such a short memory that you don't remember the most wildly successful transfer quarterback in possibly the history of college football: Cameron Newton?-- Joe Ehrenreich, Raleigh, N.C.

Yowzers. But thank heavens we got Jevan Snead in there.

So you don't believe the NCAA should impose penalties against the Penn State program, but how about against Joe Paterno? Can, and should, the NCAA strike victories from Joe Paterno's total while leaving them for the school, since the student-athletes who played were not at fault? With Paterno deceased, it does him no harm, but it does acknowledge that he never legitimately reached the pinnacle he sacrificed his integrity to reach.-- Todd L, Centreville, Va.

If, as expected, the forthcoming Freeh report shows that Paterno used his influence to squash reporting Sandusky, then yes, I would absolutely favor this punishment. Mind you, I generally consider vacating wins to be an empty gesture. I still consider USC to be the 2004 BCS champion, no matter what the media guide says. I saw the game. But in this case, it would be appropriately symbolic to strip Paterno of all wins from 2001 on. He would still rank among the all-time greats, as is warranted for all the good he accomplished over his first 35 years as a head coach, but it would eliminate the blight of a coach who helped facilitate one of the most disturbing scandals in recent history forever sitting in that hallowed spot atop the all-time wins list. (Paterno's revised total would be 322, one behind current third-place Division I all-timer Bear Bryant).

Back to reality, however: The NCAA can't punish Paterno unless it found he broke NCAA rules, and unless the Freeh report uncovers some previously unreported and unrelated infraction, that seems unlikely. I suppose the NCAA could hit Paterno with a nebulous "unethical conduct" charge -- the same language used against Jim Tressel for failing to report knowledge of violations by his players -- but keep in mind, Ohio State did not vacate wins for that, but rather for using ineligible players. So while vacating wins may seem like an appropriate penalty, I would not favor the NCAA subverting its own protocol just to apply it. Any such gesture would probably have to come from Penn State itself.

As an Ohio University alum, I have fond memories of attending Bobcats football games, watching the talented Marching 110 at halftime, and leaving. OU football stunk for a long time. Now Frank Solich has made the team relevant yet remains in the MAC. History has shown us that just about anyone else who turns around a downtrodden mid-major team has greener pastures awaiting him. Not so with Solich. Don't get me wrong. I'm glad he is still in Athens. However, his job with OU coupled with his tenure at Nebraska would seem to make him a good candidate for a middling big conference school. Is this a case of simple age discrimination?-- Jason Hillyer, Bucyrus, Ohio

Without question, there's an unspoken hint of ageism when it comes to major coaching hires. I wrote about this trend two years ago, when Maryland axed 63-year-old Ralph Friedgen and West Virginia nudged out the late Bill Stewart, then 58, despite both coaches coming off nine-win seasons. The general consensus these days is that players respond to youthful high-energy coaches, so every AD with an opening is looking for the next Chip Kelly or Mike Gundy -- not vanilla, 67-year-old Frank Solich. That's no disrespect to Solich, who racked up a plenty respectable .753 winning percentage at Nebraska prior to his 2003 ouster (Bo Pelini's current mark: .709) and has since led the Bobcats to three MAC East titles. That's just reality. Case in point: Phillip Fulmer, a national championship coach with a career .745 record, has been on the market for four years and can't even get a look.

So in a way, Ohio has struck gold. It's the rare mid-major that's found consistent success and yet is in no real danger of its coach bolting. Contrast that to current or recent conference peers Miami of Ohio (Mike Haywood), Temple (Al Golden), Northern Illinois (Jerry Kill) and Toledo (Tim Beckman), all of whom lost coaches to major conferences over the past two seasons. Perhaps that's why the lower half has become something of a refuge for Solich-types. Following the lead of Ohio, UCF (George O'Leary) and UTEP (Mike Price), Akron (Terry Bowden), Texas State (Dennis Franchione) and UT-San Antonio (Larry Coker) all recently hired formerly successful power-conference coaches in their 50s and 60s. All certainly know what they're doing, and if they do succeed in building successful programs, those schools will likely be able to hold on to them for several years.

A correction is needed for your most recent Mailbag. Justin Bailey referred to Michigan State as an original member of the Big Ten. Michigan State joined the Big Ten in 1950-51 as a replacement for the University of Chicago.-- Allen, Ann Arbor, Mich.

That's got to be a Mailbag first: a reader who not only inflated his program's history, but reinvented it. Most of the aforementioned Knights and Peasants have tried and failed.

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