College football program pecking order: Dividing all 66 BCS teams into four-tier hierarchy

Wednesday August 8th, 2007

One of the fun things about writing the Mailbag each week is you never know which portion will touch the biggest nerve. Last week, it was a seemingly innocuous, buried-on-page-three question from a reader named Jeff in Atlanta wondering why Georgia coach Mark Richt isn't catching any heat for failing to reach the national title game.

In the course of defending Richt -- who's "only" won two SEC titles and a division crown in six years -- I noted that the Dawgs are not the sort of "national power" whose fans are entitled to expect national titles. (Their last one came 27 years ago.) My classification of the program as a "regional power" generated a whole bunch of angry e-mails from the Peach State (though there were also quite a few Georgia fans who readily agreed), as well as this interesting query from Adam in Philadelphia:

You talk about how Georgia fans hold an inflated perception of their place in the national scene. Can you give us rankings of schools and their prestige and place in the national scene? I am a huge Penn State fan (I went there) and would like to know where you place them.

Here's what makes this question so intriguing. By any quantitative standard, Georgia has been a far better program than Penn State for some time now. Heck, the Nittany Lions have had four losing seasons this decade, while the Dawgs haven't won less than eight games in a season. And yet, I would tell you without a moment's hesitation that Penn State is a national power while Georgia is not.

So I suppose this raises a question: What exactly constitutes a "national power?" To be honest, I don't have a specific answer. Obviously, a history of on-field success (national championships, major bowls) is the key component, but the program must also continue to maintain relevance -- after all, Minnesota has a bunch of national titles on its mantle, but no one views the Gophers as a national power.

No, it's something more than wins and losses. It's 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. If I held up a picture of the USC song girls, all 100 would know who they were. If I happened to bring Joe Paterno along with me, all 100 would say, "Hey, look, it's Joe Paterno!"

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 head? And with all due respect to Mark Richt, if we secretly inserted him into a police lineup, how many of them would actually say, "Hey, look, it's Mark Richt!" (I swear, Dawgs fans, I'm not trying to pile on Georgia. It's just the example I was given. Don't hate me. Here -- Larry Munson is a god.)

So with this admittedly vague yet somehow telling criteria as my guide, I will accept Adam's challenge and rank the "prestige level" of all 66 BCS schools (including Notre Dame) by dividing them into four tiers.

Kings

  • Alabama

  • Florida

  • Florida State

  • Miami

  • Michigan

  • Nebraska

  • Notre Dame

  • Ohio State

  • Oklahoma

  • Penn State

  • Tennessee*

  • Texas

  • USC

* Tennessee is the lone school in the group that caused any hesitation. The Vols would have been a no-brainer 10 years ago, but they have fallen off the map a bit lately. In the end, I figured those 100 fans in Montana still know "Rocky Top," the checkered end zones and that Peyton Manning went there.

Barons

  • Auburn

  • Clemson

  • Colorado

  • Georgia

  • LSU*

  • Texas A&M

  • UCLA

  • Virginia Tech

  • Washington

  • Wisconsin

* While LSU is clearly a premier program right now, its big-picture tradition does not match those of the 13 kings. However, if the Tigers were to add another national title here in the next couple of years, they may well graduate to that group.

Knights

  • Arizona State

  • Arkansas

  • Boston College

  • California

  • Georgia Tech

  • Illinois

  • Iowa

  • Kansas State

  • Maryland

  • Michigan State

  • Missouri

  • N.C. State

  • Oklahoma State

  • Ole Miss

  • Oregon

  • Oregon State

  • Pittsburgh

  • Purdue

  • Stanford

  • Syracuse*

  • South Carolina

  • Texas Tech

  • Virginia

  • West Virginia

  • Washington State

* In normal times, Syracuse would qualify as one of the barons, but they're just so darn bad and so irrelevant right now.

Peasants

  • Arizona

  • Baylor

  • Cincinnati

  • Connecticut

  • Duke

  • Minnesota

  • Indiana

  • Iowa State

  • Kansas

  • Kentucky

  • Mississippi State

  • North Carolina

  • Northwestern

  • Rutgers*

  • South Florida*

  • Wake Forest

  • Vanderbilt

* Rutgers is another program that could be on its way up a tier, and South Florida is here by default because it's essentially a start-up.

There is one school intentionally missing from the list, and that's because I have no idea where to put it: Louisville. History-wise, the Cardinals are peasants, but the program has completely reinvented itself over the past decade and now gets mentioned with the kings and barons. For now, we'll just say: TBD.

Already anticipating what may be my biggest barrage of hate mail yet, all I ask is that you spare me any lists of all-time winning percentages, bowl wins, conference titles and whatnot. Remember -- being called a "powerhouse" is more about public perception than it is reality. Better yet, just apply the Montana test.

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