What comes to mind when you think of Oregon football? The flashy Nike uniforms? The speedy players and even faster pace of play? The Ducks have one of the most readily identifiable brands in college football, a product of successful marketing but, more importantly, dominant and consistent play on the field.
Every program has its own brand for better or worse. For some, those brands are clearly defined and integral to their success. For others, they're more muddled and perhaps explain why the team has failed to break through. Here's a look at each program's current brand—and what it should be.
The brand: A team from an academically rigorous Jesuit university that frequently punches above its weight through careful recruiting and tough play on both lines of scrimmage.
What it should be: This works for the Eagles. There’s nothing wrong with knowing what you are and embracing it.
The brand: The SEC program in the ACC, right down to the iconic, easily recognizable logo and outrageous expectations the team can rarely live up to. The Tigers invented Clemsoning, but they haven’t done it in a while. Clemson hasn’t lost to an unranked opponent since 2011.
What it should be: Dabo Swinney’s administration has branded the Tigers perfectly.
The brand: The baddest team in the universe. Bobby Bowden’s squads had to fight Miami for this title on an annual basis, but both the Seminoles and Hurricanes bowed out of that competition in the mid-aughts. Florida State reclaimed it thanks to Jimbo Fisher’s recruiting. The Seminoles have won the past three ACC titles, won the 2013 national title and have had 29 players drafted in the past three years.
What it should be: This identity works for Florida State, but it’s tough to maintain because it requires an obscene amount of wins by vastly superior athletes. All that talent lost to the NFL might take a toll this season, and it will be up to Florida State’s young players to keep the Seminoles on brand.
The brand: Probably because of an odyssey that has taken them from independence to Conference USA to the Big East to the ACC, the Cardinals have always felt like the hot start-up. The Steve Kragthorpe era aside, athletic director Tom Jurich has kept Louisville on the cutting edge with good coaching hires. Say what you will about Bobby Petrino, but his ability to produce a winning college football team isn’t in doubt. It won’t be possible to be the aspirational outsider anymore if the Cardinals evolve into regular contenders for the ACC title, but the program would do well if the people in charge always remember the attitude that helped Louisville climb the conference ladder.
What it should be: If you can see past the hideous background, these new Adidas uniforms fit that establishment-shaking aesthetic quite well. That cardinal is peering straight into our souls.
The brand: Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren described the identity he wants his team to have last November after a 35-7 win at North Carolina. “This is a blue-collar school. This is a work-ethic, hands-in-the-dirt school,” Doeren said. “It’s an agricultural school, it’s a textile school, it’s an engineering school. It’s founded by tough people, and that’s what this football team will be, and that’s what we were today.” The state ag/tech school vs. state liberal arts school rivalry carries deep meaning in North Carolina, just as it does in Alabama (Auburn vs. Alabama), Texas (Texas A&M vs. Texas) and Mississippi (Mississippi State vs. Ole Miss). This quote probably summed up how a lot of NC State alums feel, especially relative to the Tar Heels. If Doeren turns the Wolfpack into a consistent winner, this quote should be the cornerstone of his program.
What it should be: Doeren described it quite well. Now he needs to keep pushing his team to embody that. One of the key traits attributed to blue-collar, hands-in-the-dirt people is consistency. Day-in and day-out, they get the job done. Losing five consecutive games in the middle of the season—as NC State did last year—doesn’t mesh with that identity. The schedule is set up much better for the Wolfpack this season, so that shouldn’t be an issue.
The brand: Coach Scott Shafer laid out an exciting vision during his introductory press conference in January 2013. The main theme was his use of the phrase “hard-nosed,” but he also said this of the offense: “I want this team to be an offensive unit that when you come and watch them play you better not take a bathroom break. ’Cause there’s gonna be a lot of juice on the field.” Shafer was having some fun there—he hadn’t even hired an offensive coordinator at the time—but his team hasn’t been particularly hard-nosed in its first two years in the ACC. And instead of leaving juice on the field, the offense has mostly left behind points. The Orange went 4-4 in league play in ’13 and 1-7 in ’14. Last year, Syracuse finished 13th in the ACC and 118th in the nation in scoring at 17.1 points a game. Meanwhile, a defense that kept things from getting a lot worse must replace its top five tacklers.
What it should be: The administration’s decision to restore No. 44—the number of Ernie Davis, Jim Brown and Floyd Little—would have offered an excellent reminder that Syracuse is a program of trailblazers and all-time greats. But after complaints, the administration declared No. 44 would only be awarded to a current player in a “special circumstance.” It may seem like a little thing, but a lot of football players would grind hard for the opportunity to wear the number Ernie Davis wore at the school. Giving that number each year to the player who best embodies what the program is about would be more special than simply hanging the number in the Carrier Dome. Though college football recruiting is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, Syracuse needs to offer some reminders that it was once one of the sport’s great programs. With most of the best recruits in warm-weather states and few nearby, Syracuse has to overcome its location. But that is possible. Stanford has proven that a great academic reputation makes a better recruiting tool than it does an excuse, and Syracuse’s history and passionate fan base make a renaissance possible.
The brand: Demon Deacons coach Dave Clawson got mad when commencement speaker Stephen Colbert said this: “This is a school that respects tradition, like rolling the quad with toilet paper after big wins. And this is actually an eco-friendly tradition because, looking at this season’s win-loss record, you guys saved a lot of paper.” Later, on David Glenn’s radio show Clawson said this: “He got some laughs out of it, which was his goal, but—it is what it is. He spoke the truth. We did not have a good record last year.” Clawson is a smart guy. He knows the only way to change the perceived brand is to upgrade the product. That’s his challenge now.
What it should be: Clawson specializes in rebuilding jobs. He engineered turnarounds at Fordham, Richmond and Bowling Green. Jim Grobe proved that it’s possible to win at Wake Forest, but expecting the Demon Deacons to dominate is unrealistic. Clawson can, however, build a smart, disciplined team that has winning seasons when the class balance tilts toward veterans.
The brand: Smart football led by the guy who coached the Manning brothers. Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe has found his bliss in Durham, where he isn’t going to be expected to deliver double-digit wins every season. Because not everyone can handle the academic rigor at Duke—and because those who can’t are more likely to cause issues—Cutcliffe and his staff have a very specific profile of the type of player who can thrive at the school. In recent years, they’ve done an excellent job identifying those players and convincing them to come to Duke. To understand what they’re looking for, check out the Twitter feed of secondary coach D.J. Jones. It’s basically a list of the traits the Blue Devils coaches seek.
What it should be: Duke is one of the toughest jobs in the country. Not many could brand the Blue Devils as well as Cutcliffe has.
The brand: The only pure triple-option team in the Power Five. Pair an increasingly rare offense with a good defense—as the Yellow Jackets did last year—and the result is a change-up for which few opponents have an answer.
What it should be: Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson knows being different can help a program stand out from the crowd.
The brand: The logo on the helmet hasn’t changed, but this is not The U that was one of college football’s most powerful brands for two decades. Part of the reason is the school has actively tried to distance itself from the bad boys of college football reputation that went hand-in-hand with that brand since Miami received NCAA sanctions in the late ’90s. Another part of the reason is the Hurricanes simply haven’t been able to win the way they used to. The program that invented swag doesn’t have much at the moment.
What it should be: It should still be possible to create a program at Miami that stockpiles elite athletes and then allows them to enjoy beating the stuffing out of less talented teams—even if it doesn’t allow some of the off-field stuff that caused issues in the glory days. Collecting that talent won’t be as easy as it was in the 1980s, when coaches from across the country didn’t quite understand the kind of athletes Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties produce, but it’s still doable. The blah gameday atmosphere at Whatever-They’re-Calling-It-This-Week Stadium is a drawback, but Miami has upgraded its on-campus facilities. That’s where the players spend most of their time. Plus, more winning would help put some butts in the seats on Saturdays.
The brand: North Carolina has been called a “sleeping giant” for so long that this basically has become the brand. The Tar Heels seemingly have everything they need (location, conference, recruiting territory, coaching) yet never put it all together.
What it should be: Larry Fedora, who must be graded on a curve because he’s spent his entire time in Chapel Hill recruiting through a sham classes scandal that is based on a practice that ended before he arrived, might have the Tar Heels set up to break through in 2015. The offense was good last season and the defense—now led by coordinator Gene Chizik—can only get better. So what is the brand if the sleeping giant finally wakes up? That’s tough to say, but the Tar Heels would love to find out.
The brand: The Panthers haven’t had much of an identity for a while, which is odd considering this is the program that produced Tony Dorsett, Hugh Green, Dan Marino and Larry Fitzgerald.
What it should be: New coach Pat Narduzzi should swipe a page from his last job and use the same model Michigan State has used in the Big Ten: Out-evaluate rivals on the recruiting trail and play ridiculously stingy defense. Narduzzi has a great eye for talent, and living in the middle of a football-crazy region should give him plenty of options. The Panthers are in the perpetually wide-open ACC Coastal, so they can win quickly if Narduzzi can transplant the brand from East Lansing.
The brand: The Cavaliers always seem to have a few great players but rarely a great team. That continued during last year’s 5-7 campaign, in which Virginia wasn’t quite as bad as its record.
What it should be: Coach Mike London got another year, but he’ll have a hard time making it through this season’s brutal schedule (at UCLA, at Notre Dame, home against Boise State in the nonconference) with his best unit (Jon Tenuta’s defense) replacing significant parts of the front seven. If someone new takes over during the winter, it will be a chance to remake the brand. A unique offense is a must at a school that has to deal with an occasional talent deficit against conference rivals. To most people, that means hire an up-tempo guy and run the same kind of up-tempo scheme everyone else runs these days. That’s not exactly a change-up anymore. At Virginia, why not use that academic prestige to lure as many cerebral offensive linemen as possible and play them six or seven at a time the way Stanford does?
The brand: It doesn’t get much better than Beamer Ball as a descriptor of a program and a style of play (tough defense, blocked kicks, big returns). Unfortunately for the Hokies, they haven’t been playing Beamer Ball in recent years.
What it should be: Get back to real Beamer Ball. From 2000-05, the Hokies blocked 33 kicks or punts. Since then, they’ve blocked 25. Only interceptions and fumbles alter momentum as quickly as blocked kicks. Bud Foster’s defense has remained remarkably consistent, and his use of a Bear front to stymie Ohio State in Columbus last season looks even more incredible now that we know what the Buckeyes turned into. The outlook for ’15 seems much rosier when the Hokies’ poor injury luck in ’14 is taken into account. They lost key contributors all over the field, and such misfortune is unlikely two years in a row. A (mostly) healthy return to real Beamer Ball could also mean a return to playing for championships.
The brand: The most Texas of all the teams in the Lone Star State, right down to the coach who is the living embodiment of what would have happened had coach Eric Taylor stayed at TMU instead of returning to Dillon in the TV version of Friday Night Lights. The Bears run the wildest and weirdest of all the up-tempo offenses. The fact that Art Briles has created this identity for Baylor after the program spent decades as a doormat is nothing short of amazing.
What it should be: Even though he has built what seems to be the perfect identity for his program, Briles hasn't stopped innovating. His next experiment? A 400-pound tight end.
The brand: If they can stay healthy, somebody might get upset.
What it should be: Decent football with the occasional monster upset followed by a stirring Paul Rhoads speech. Cyclones offensive coordinator Mark Mangino once went 12-1 and won an Orange Bowl as a head coach at Kansas. Kansas. The Cyclones won’t compete for the Big 12 title, but if they’re on brand, they should make life miserable for someone who is.
The brand: Phog Allen Fieldhouse is right over there.
What it should be: Winning at Kansas is not impossible, but it’s close. Mark Mangino had the Jayhawks in the Orange Bowl after the 2007 season, but that feels much farther away. Charlie Weis hoped graduate transfers would be able to help Kansas immediately, and that plan flopped. New coach David Beaty will need to use his Texas recruiting ties to build the Jayhawks from the ground up. Beaty, who was Texas A&M’s receivers coach, will bring an up-tempo offense and hopes to field a defense that creates turnovers. That blueprint worked for Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State, but Beaty will have to get the players to make it work in Lawrence.
The brand: Bill Snyder leads a disciplined bunch of under-recruited players and juco transfers to far more wins than they should be able to compile.
What it should be: Snyder probably doesn’t care at all about brands, but he cares deeply about putting a quality product on the field. This, by the way, is how the most enduring brands are created. The question is whether anyone besides Snyder can do this. Ron Prince certainly couldn't.
The brand: That this is tough to define right now is exactly the reason Bob Stoops has overhauled his coaching staff after the past two seasons.
What it should be: The class of the Big 12. The Sooners positively dominated the league for the first two-thirds of Stoops’s tenure, but the inability in recent years to create an identity—especially on offense—has caused Oklahoma to slip behind Baylor and TCU. The hiring of offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley from East Carolina this offseason is the boldest attempt to fix that issue. Though the offenses shifted year-by-year based on the talents of the players, the Sooners seemed to know who they were on that side of the ball when Mike Leach, Kevin Wilson or Kevin Sumlin ran the offense. Since Wilson left to become Indiana’s head coach, that hasn’t been the case. If Riley can establish an identity, the Sooners should be back in the Big 12 and national title hunt.
The brand: An up-tempo team that values the run as much as the pass with a defense that lives to create turnovers.
What it should be: This has worked very well for the Cowboys, who also were among the first to install super-premium facilities (thanks, T. Boone Pickens) and weren’t far behind Oregon in taking Nike up on its offer of endless uniform combinations. Oklahoma State’s rise has been very similar to Oregon’s, but the Ducks have been more consistent. Last year could have ended very differently for the Cowboys if not for an unbelievable fourth quarter against Oklahoma, but now coach Mike Gundy has a chance to continue a system that has worked well in most years.
The brand: A Big 12 program that loves to play defense—but now also plays an exciting offense. The result? Wow.
What it should be: Before the 2014 season, Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson finally went all-in on his stated philosophy that the perfect scheme allows his team to score one more point than the opponent. TCU installed an up-tempo offense to go with its characteristically salty defense, and the result in most cases was the Horned Frogs scoring a lot more points than their opponents. It isn’t easy for a defensive-minded head coach to switch to an offense that he knows will cause his defense to give up more yards and points, but Patterson’s choice resulted in a huge net gain for TCU.
The brand: It’s in transition. While Teddy Bridgewater got most of the headlines, Charlie Strong's Louisville teams were built around a suffocating defense. Strong likely will try to do the same at Texas, though any Big 12 defense is going to give up its share of points. Strong and co-offensive coordinators Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline are switching to an up-tempo offense that better matches what most Texas high schools run, so it will be interesting to see how the Longhorns' on-field identity develops.
What it should be: The Joneses. Everyone else should be struggling to keep up because Texas has more built-in advantages than any other program.
The brand: The team with the GQ coach.
What it should be: This is not what coach Kliff Kingsbury wants for his team. The “Our coach is hotter than your coach” shirts make him squirm. Kingsbury understands positive publicity is good for recruiting, but at heart he’s an Xs and Os nerd who knows the best recruiting tool is winning. Kingsbury is an Air Raid guy, and he’ll succeed or fail with that offense. What he wants most is to recreate the kind of Texas Tech teams he played for. They threw a ton, but they were also tough. Teams that came to Lubbock expecting a less physical game against a pass-happy team got shocked. Kingsbury has yet to replicate that, but it remains the goal.
The brand: Wild football on the Big 12’s eastern frontier.
What it should be: Recent first-round receiver Kevin White was an ideal West Virginia player. Virtually ignored coming out of junior college, he blossomed into a star in Morgantown. Rich Rodriguez used to find players like that all of the time, and one of Dana Holgorsen’s goals is to out-evaluate his blueblood conference rivals. If he can do that, the Mountaineers can compete in the Big 12.
The brand: Just wait until basketball season.
What it should be: Kevin Wilson brought an up-tempo offense that set records at Oklahoma, but even though he has had a few good players—tailback Tevin Coleman, for example—he has been unable to get the Hoosiers to bowl eligibility. Wilson has an excellent quarterback in Nate Sudfeld, but if Indiana can’t break through this season, it might just start over with another coach. It’s tough to peg a brand for the Hoosiers because they haven’t sustained success of any kind since back-to-back eight-win seasons in 1987 and ’88, and Pete Stoyanovich isn’t walking through that door. The Hoosiers have cracked six wins only once since ’95, and now they’re stuck in a division that could be brutal for the foreseeable future.
The brand: The Terrapins wear funky uniforms but otherwise don't have a recognizable identity.
What it should be: Maryland should be Under Armour's Oregon. Under Armour founder Kevin Plank played for the Terrapins, and he seems willing to pour a lot of resources into helping his alma mater. There is no reason the Terps can't be the coolest team on the eastern seaboard. In fact the biggest difference between Maryland and Oregon is Maryland's much easier access to good players. A program that dominates recruiting in the DMV (District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia) should be capable of competing regularly for national titles.
The brand: To be determined, but judging by his Twitter feed, Jim Harbaugh is actively molding it.
What it should be: Winning with character and cruelty worked for Harbaugh at Stanford, and there is no reason he can’t do the same thing at Michigan. Harbaugh is keenly aware of the importance of creating an identity, and he works very hard at staying on message. He didn’t tweet at all as the 49ers coach, but he was active on social media as the Cardinal coach and came roaring back when he took the Michigan job. Why? He didn't have to recruit to the 49ers. He does have to recruit in college. In interviews, Harbaugh gives expansive answers to questions about topics that advance the brand and terse responses to questions about topics that have no brand-building value. The most important part of a team’s identity is the on-field product, though. Harbaugh’s Stanford teams had clear offensive and defensive identities, and he'll have all the tools to create similar schemes at Michigan. It may take some recruiting, but the Wolverines could develop dominant run blockers and versatile tight ends to build a devastating run and play-action passing game, just as Harbaugh’s Stanford teams did. It could all come together faster if Harbaugh can find his next Andrew Luck, though.
The brand: The Spartans are happy to let everyone else grab the headlines. They’ll just continue out-evaluating their rivals on the recruiting trail and playing superior defense. Who else offered quarterback Connor Cook? Akron and Miami (Ohio). Who wants Cook now? About 25 NFL teams.
What it should be: Mark Dantonio has it figured out. And while Urban Meyer at Ohio State, James Franklin at Penn State and Jim Harbaugh at Michigan will make Dantonio’s job much tougher, the system is in place at Michigan State to keep the Spartans competitive no matter how good their rivals get. The biggest unknown is whether new co-defensive coordinators Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett can keep the defense playing at the level Pat Narduzzi reached before he left to take over Pittsburgh. The continuity in East Lansing suggests the Spartans can keep things rolling.
The brand: The best program in college football at the moment.
What it should be: It doesn’t get any better than what the Buckeyes have now. They have a storied history, a fun offense, an opportunistic defense and an endlessly interesting group of excellent players. Coach Urban Meyer’s off-the-charts start and hard crash at Florida will produce questions about how long the Buckeyes can maintain this level. But if Meyer has mellowed a bit, Ohio State—which is 38-3 since Meyer arrived—could sit atop the sport for a while.
The brand: This one is awfully complicated. The Nittany Lions were inextricably linked for so long with Joe Paterno, and because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, that association will forever mean different things to different people. But what is indisputable is the dedication of the Penn State fan base, which never wavered even after the NCAA levied crushing sanctions in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. Those sanctions have been repealed, and coach James Franklin and his staff should make the Nittany Lions compete for titles in the next few years. There is a reason Franklin routinely makes references to “#107kStrong” on social media. The packing of Beaver Stadium no matter the circumstances has played and will play a huge role in Penn State’s return to football relevance.
What it should be: Franklin and predecessor Bill O’Brien had to walk a tightrope honoring the past while also trying to bring the program into the modern era. But both have pushed the Nittany Lions forward after a period that could have completely decimated the program. Franklin especially has done an excellent job promoting what makes Penn State special while also keeping an eye on the future. In college, my friend Spencer Fordin offered what I still believe is the perfect description of Penn State’s brand when he discussed the 1983 Sugar Bowl. “Georgia had big, bad Herschel Walker,” he said. “Penn State just had a stripe down its helmet. Guess who won?” If the Nittany Lions have those 107,000 roaring and those stripes down their helmets, they can be great again.
The brand: While the Scarlet Knights still seem married to the Greg Schiano-era idea of chopping wood, they have the opportunity to forge a new identity in the Big Ten.
What it should be: New Jersey’s team. There is so much good high school football in the state that if the Scarlet Knights can secure their borders and supplement with players from Florida and other hotbed states, they can be competitive even in a division that includes Ohio State and Michigan State. As a Big East member, locking down the state would have been too much to ask. As a Big Ten member, it’s possible.
The brand: It’s impossible to tell.
What it should be: With the most populated area of the state home to another Big Ten school (Northwestern) and within three hours’ drive of Wisconsin and Notre Dame, Illinois is one of the tougher recruiting jobs in the country. It is an excellent school, but top recruits who are also top students will also be recruited by Northwestern, Notre Dame and Michigan. What the Fighting Illini need is a way to differentiate themselves. Sometimes a scheme can be so unique and unusual that it becomes the differentiator. When Art Briles arrived at Baylor, the Bears were perpetual doormats surrounded by more attractive options. Briles installed an offense that other coaches thought was flat-out insane. Receivers line up outside the numbers? How do you run an out route? Briles’s answer: You don’t. But just try to get a safety out there to help your corner, and we’ll outnumber you in the run game. Illinois needs that kind of crazy to stand out from the crowd.
The brand: Three yards and a cloud of punt.
What it should be: That's not necessarily an insult. Playing tough defense and winning the field-position battle are prudent moves. In fact, against a relatively weak schedule like Iowa's, that philosophy usually works seven to eight times a season. But if the recent slide in Kinnick Stadium ticket sales is an indication, the faithful would like something more. They’d prefer an 11-win campaign like the one coach Kirk Ferentz delivered in 2009. That glorious season helped Ferentz secure the contract that currently chains him to the program for better or worse. Stingy defense and a dominant run game is not a bad brand for Iowa, but unfortunately the Hawkeyes ranked No. 81 in the nation in yards per carry (4.12) last year and No. 71 (4.21) in ’13. The offense must improve, or the ticket sales will keep falling. If that unit gets better, Iowa can absolutely compete for a Big Ten West title. If it doesn't, Iowa officials will begin doing the math to figure out which will cost more: paying Ferentz's buyout or keeping him.
The brand: A tough team led by a coaching staff that specializes in turning rebuilding projects into tough teams.
What it should be: What Jerry Kill has done in Minneapolis is perfect. The area isn’t teeming with prospects, and the Golden Gophers will always face an uphill climb. But the attitude Kill instills in his team means Minnesota will always have a chance.
The brand: It’s probably going to change under Mike Riley, but under Bo Pelini it was nine or 10 wins and four losses a year and few surprises—pleasant or otherwise.
What it should be: I’ve written this before and I stand by it. Nebraska needs to go back to a pure option offense. A school in such an isolated location will have the toughest time recruiting elite quarterbacks and NFL-prototype linemen, so why not run an offense that eliminates the need for such players? There are plenty of great athletes at those positions who don’t quite fit the profile of the better Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC teams in their home states. They’d love to play before sellout crowds in Lincoln. Florida and Florida State wanted Tommie Frazier to play defense, so he went to Nebraska to play quarterback. In the current environment, the next Tommie Frazier will play for Georgia Tech. Nebraska could become a brutally tough out by embracing its roots, but the administration doesn’t seem interested in that. It will be interesting to see how Riley handles his stewardship of the brand. His decision to not play mind games with the Blackshirts seems like a good start.
The brand: The smartest guys in the league, who will be competitive every time they're veteran-heavy.
What it should be: Pat Fitzgerald has built a brand that works for his alma mater. The Wildcats have done an excellent job of late selling their location in one of America’s great metro areas, and Fitzgerald—like the late Randy Walker before him—never has considered Northwestern's lofty academics to be an excuse.
The brand: Since Joe Tiller retired, it’s unclear.
What it should be: The school that has produced 23 astronauts has to stay on the cutting edge to be competitive. Joe Tiller's spread offense was ahead of its time. It also didn’t hurt that he found a diminutive quarterback from Austin that Texas didn’t want to pilot said offense. It wasn’t just Drew Brees, though. Tiller’s teams won at least eight games three times after Brees left. But now that nearly everyone runs an offense that looks an awful lot like Tiller’s, the other Big Ten teams’ superior players tend to beat Purdue’s players. Danny Hope couldn’t keep the Boilermakers innovating. Darrell Hazel isn't doing so well, either. The coach at Purdue needs the same attitude as the scientists in the 1960s who said, “Sure, we can put a guy on the moon” and then found a way to put Purdue grad Neil Armstrong on the moon.
The brand: Giant, (mostly) homegrown linemen opening holes for some of the nation’s best backs. Let’s call it Barry Ball.
What it should be: Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez gets dinged for being too bossy about the schemes used by his former team, but what Wisconsin has done with a limited recruiting base is nothing short of remarkable. Alvarez handed the keys to Bret Bielema, who won three Big Ten titles using a style that becomes more of a change-up as the years go by. Gary Andersen used the same style for two seasons before heading back west, and Paul Chryst will happily crank up the Steamroller Ballet in his first season. Alvarez hit upon something that works for his school’s circumstances, and he’s been smart enough to make sure his coaches keep doing it.
The brand: AIR RAID! (Berkeley edition)
What it should be: The Air Raid coaches know how to stay on brand, and Sonny Dykes has rained passes on opponents since taking over at Cal. The Bears have attempted 1,158 passes in those two seasons. The only Pac-12 school that has thrown more during that period is Washington State, which is led by Mike Leach—who teamed with Hal Mumme to invent the Air Raid. But while Leach’s Cougars took a step back in 2014, Dykes and the Bears surged forward. After going 1-11 in his debut season, Dykes went 5-7 last fall. The Bears have one of the Pac-12’s best quarterbacks in Jared Goff, so this could be the year they return to bowl eligibility for the first time since ’11.
The brand: The team that dresses fresh, plays fast and doesn't talk about injuries.
What it should be: No program in college football has built such a complete brand. When you see that stylized O, you know how the Ducks look, how they play and how much they win.
The brand: Far more like Gary Andersen at Utah State than Gary Andersen at Wisconsin.
What it should be: New coach Andersen ran athletic director Barry Alvarez’s preferred offense in Madison, and Melvin Gordon’s rushing numbers and the Badgers’ Big Ten West title suggest that was the correct move. But with Andersen back west of the Rockies, he’ll revert to the up-tempo spread style he preferred at Utah State. Andersen’s Aggies were an anywhere, anytime, put-up-a-fight-against-all-odds outfit, and that’s also a great identity for the Beavers. It’s easy to get overshadowed less than an hour from Oregon’s Death Star, but with the right mix of talent and grit, Oregon State can be competitive in the Pac-12. Mike Riley’s teams were at their best as giant killers. That seems to suit Andersen’s personality.
The brand: The smartest good team in America.
What it should be: Jim Harbaugh molded this brand beautifully, and David Shaw built on it. The Cardinal get their pick of the nation’s academically superior recruits, and Palo Alto has become one of the most desirable destinations for offensive linemen and linebacker/defensive end hybrids who excel in a 3-4 scheme.
The brand: Boise State with Power Five-caliber players?
What it should be: It should be Boise State with Power Five-caliber players, but the Huskies didn’t look like that going 8-6 in Chris Petersen’s first season in Seattle. Steve Sarkisian left Petersen some great players. Defensive tackle Danny Shelton, linebacker Shaq Thompson and cornerback Marcus Peters were first-round NFL draft picks. (Of course, Petersen had to throw Peters off the team in the middle of the 2014 season.) But maybe Petersen just needs time to create something similar to what he had in Boise. There, Petersen took over a program he’d already worked inside for five seasons. The culture was established. At Washington, he’ll have to establish that culture over several years.
The brand: AIR RAID! (Pullman edition)
What it should be: Mike Leach’s Cougars chuck the ball even more than his Texas Tech teams did. In Leach’s three seasons in Pullman, the Cougars have averaged 58 passing attempts a game. This is exactly what Washington State signed up for, but Leach just hasn’t been as successful in Pullman as he was in Lubbock. Washington State has gone to only one bowl game during his tenure, and 6-7 is his best record to date. He and Hal Mumme have so many branches of their coaching tree working throughout college football—including Sonny Dykes at Cal—that the Air Raid isn’t the change-up offense it used to be.
The brand: Rich Rodriguez looks for OKGs (Our Kind of Guys) who will Bear Down when things get tough.
What it should be: The Wildcats have a good mix of their current coach's identity and well-established tradition. That's kind of like Rodriguez's offense, which mixes principles from the 1950s with modern-day tempo.
The brand: Hot, fast football in the desert. How fast? Coach Todd Graham needs to wear Britney Spears's concert mic to properly coordinate the whole thing.
What it should be: Graham and his staff have done an excellent job creating an identity for the program. Old mascot Sparky probably deserved better, but the new look works for the aesthetic the Sun Devils are trying to create.
The brand: Under construction. The Buffaloes have upgraded what were some of the worst facilities in the Power Five and have fancy new digs. Meanwhile, coach Mike MacIntyre is trying to upgrade a roster left in flux by the administration’s decision in 2012 to fire Jon Embree after only two seasons—even though Embree was told when hired that he would be given time to clean up the mess he inherited. MacIntyre’s team has improved. Double-overtime games against Cal and UCLA last year are evidence. But there is still much work to be done.
What it should be: MacIntyre is going to need time to build a brand in Boulder, so hopefully the administration won’t have an itchy trigger finger. Remember, Bill McCartney went 1-10 in his third season. He went 7-5 in his fourth. Sometimes, these things take time.
The brand: The resurrection of a classic luxury brand as an NFL-prep school.
What it should be: What Jim Mora has created since taking over in 2012 works for UCLA. As a great academic school in one of the best neighborhoods in one of the top recruiting hotbeds in the country, there is no excuse for UCLA to be mediocre. Mora has stocked the roster with talent and developed the talent he inherited. The Bruins have produced more NFL draft picks in the past three seasons (12) than they had in the previous six (10). Mora is 3-0 against USC, and he won the Pac-12 South title in ’12. The next step is to win UCLA’s first conference title since 1998.
The brand: Pete Carroll Lite. Carroll crafted the absolute perfect brand for the Trojans, and both hires since he left for the NFL have been attempts at recapturing that magic. What's interesting is the period that felt most like the Carroll era came when Ed Orgeron served as the interim coach after Lane Kiffin was fired. Maybe Steve Sarkisian can bring back the fun and cutthroat practice competition that allowed Carroll to thrive, or maybe he’ll forge a different identity for the program.
What it should be: This is the hard part. What Carroll created worked so well, so it is tough to blame athletic director Pat Haden and company for trying to recreate it. The Trojans were the hottest team in L.A., and they were the coolest team in college football. The problem is that the hottest thing in L.A. never stays hot. In that town, reinvention is necessary to stay relevant.
The brand: No matter who wins the game, you’re going to be sore for a while after playing the Utes.
What it should be: Coach Kyle Whittingham has created a great defensive identity for his program going into year five in the Pac-12. Utah usually has a great defensive line that severely limits opponents. The offensive identity is a different story. Since Andy Ludwig left after the 2008 season, seven different people have held either the title of offensive coordinator or co-coordinator for the Utes. The current task falls to quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick—who has been with Whittingham since ’05 and is in his second stint as a co-coordinator—and offensive line coach Jim Harding.
The brand: With his Fun ’n’ Gun offense, Steve Spurrier created the ultimate brand for a program that had very little football success prior to his arrival as coach in 1990. But Spurrier left after the 2001 season. Urban Meyer proved a spread offense and a stingy defense could coexist and brought Florida two national titles, but unfortunately for the Gators, the brand Will Muschamp established in Gainesville was bruising defense combined with a complete lack of offense. Jim McElwain now has the chance to create a new identity for Florida.
What it should be: Because athletes are plentiful in the Sunshine State—and because Muschamp gave McElwain’s staff a head start on that side of the ball—the Gators should start with a punishing defense. At this point, an offense that scores occasionally would thrill the faithful, which is now long past its desire for Florida teams to win exactly the same way that Spurrier’s Florida teams won. McElwain’s offenses at Alabama and Colorado State featured vertical passing games set up by a dynamic run game. That’s what the Head Ball Coach used to do. McElwain would be beloved if he could do that in Gainesville.
The brand: The Bulldogs wear red and black with silver britches. They run a pro-style offense, usually led by a deep stable of backs. They have used a 3-4 defense since 2010. They have better players than almost every other program. Despite this, they routinely underachieve.
What it should be: Some of the nation’s best players wear silver britches and compete for a playoff berth at least every other year.
The brand: Mark Stoops has worked hard since being hired to remind some of the excellent recruits in Ohio that Kentucky is the closest SEC program to them. While this won’t keep anyone from signing with Ohio State, it could allow Kentucky to bolster its talent with players who would’ve signed with other Big Ten schools.
What it should be: Stoops is doing the best he can at a program that will always finish second to the basketball team on its campus.
The brand: The Tigers are also frequent travelers on the uniform merry-go-round, but they built their current brand with a wide-open, up-tempo offense and what seems like an assembly line that produces NFL defensive linemen.
What it should be: With two SEC East titles in three years in the league, the Tigers shouldn’t change a thing.
The brand: With Steve Spurrier as a forward-facing CEO, the Gamecocks will always be interesting. But Spurrier turned South Carolina into a winner by scrapping his beloved Fun ’n’ Gun offense and embracing a ball-control, read-option-heavy approach that bled the clock and let the defense do the heavy lifting. When that defense faltered last year, so did the Gamecocks.
What it should be: Spurrier found a formula that produced the golden age of South Carolina football. He hopes hiring Jon Hoke to run the defense alongside Lorenzo Ward will allow South Carolina to play that style again. Also—and this is purely a personal preference—it’s time to bring back the Todd Ellis-era garnet helmets.
The brand: Who knows? That’s the challenge Butch Jones faces. After Lane Kiffin’s one-year stint and the three-year Derek Dooley era, all Tennessee had in the way of a brand when Jones arrived was unique orange, checkerboard end zones and the iconic Power T logo.
What it should be: If Jones’s vision and the improvement during year two are any indication, Tennessee wants a high-tempo, high-energy group that wears opponents out. With young stars such as defensive end Derek Barnett and tailback Jalen Hurd, Jones is recruiting the kind of players who can create the on-field brand he seeks.
The brand: That’s a mystery after a baffling debut season from first-time head coach Derek Mason. After going 3-9 overall and winless in the SEC, it’s possible Vandy has regressed to its traditional brand: The SEC’s best academic school and its worst football school.
What it should be: Mason fired both of his 2014 coordinators, and if he learned from the mistakes of his first season, he might be able to get the Commodores winning again. Predecessor James Franklin nailed the ideal brand by using the coolness of Nashville and the power of a Vandy degree to attract recruits. Franklin also coached the players he inherited to wins, which helped.
The brand: The Crimson Tide under Nick Saban overwhelm with superior forces. They use relatively simple offensive and defensive schemes that often appear unstoppable because of the talent gap between Alabama and most of its opponents. To reach recruits, Alabama advertises its success at putting players in the NFL. There is perhaps no better recruiting visual aid than the screen shot Alabama produced from the 2012 season illustrating that all 11 offensive starters were on NFL rosters as of this month. No other college team could produce such an ad, and the Crimson Tide know it. Alabama has a fiercely loyal fan base that wants two things: Wins and numbers on the helmet. While other programs must fiddle with uniforms and logos to juice merchandise sales, Bama officials know their best move is to keep the team looking the way it did when Bear Bryant strolled the sidelines.
What it should be: Alabama has perfectly identified its brand. It shouldn’t change a thing.
The brand: Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema has imported the same jumbo, physical style of offense he favored at Wisconsin, and this has quickly become the program’s calling card. Arkansas has huge offensive linemen and uses the run game to set up the play-action pass. In an era when more teams are spreading the field, Arkansas is distinguishing itself by being contrarian. Off the field, the Hogs have experimented with what seems like a million different catchphrases on social media. This is unnecessary. “Never yield” has a history—it’s the best line of the fight song—but everyone knows Woo Pig Sooie. It’s unique, and who doesn’t love calling the hogs?
What it should be: Arkansas has found a way to be different and easily identifiable. That’s critical for an SEC team that isn’t located in a recruiting hotbed.
The brand: The Tigers’ marketing department has distilled Gus Malzahn’s team into a three-word motto that gets repeated frequently on social media. Fast. Physical. Football. This is an excellent appraisal of Malzahn’s offense, which spreads the field with skill position players and plays at a high tempo but also mashes defenses up front and loves running between the tackles. Meanwhile, one of Under Armour’s most visible partners refuses to allow many tweaks to the team’s look because Auburn officials understand their fans’ desires.
What it should be: The Tigers could benefit from a distinctive defensive identity, and maybe new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp will help them create one. Other than that, they’re in great shape.
The brand: Stretching through the Les Miles era and back into the Nick Saban era, LSU’s signature has been a fast, bruising defense that can adjust to any offensive scheme. Miles has added a component of whimsy and magic that few other coaches could pull off. He eats grass! He runs trick plays! He bends space and time! He has turned LSU’s football team into the ideal representative of a state that has always flown its freak flag.
What it should be: The only thing missing, as frustrated LSU fans will angrily attest, is an offensive identity.
The brand: Dan Mullen has tried to brand Mississippi State as a program that will make the most of its homegrown talent, and this is the right move at a school where the people view themselves as the real Mississippians when compared to the wannabe elites in Oxford. And while mentor Urban Meyer has made wholesale changes to the offense he and Mullen developed at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida, Mullen still runs something similar to what he called for Tim Tebow at Florida—right down to the big guy wearing No. 15 at quarterback. The athletic department coined the “Our State” motto, which was subsequently borrowed by NC State. The motto taps into the populist ethos that permeates the student body and alumni base.
What it should be: This strategy seems to be working well for the Bulldogs.
The brand: This one is complicated. The argument over the imagery at Ole Miss goes deep and remains raw. Then-chancellor Robert Khayat began working in the late 1990s to keep Confederate flags off campus, and Colonel Reb was removed as the mascot in 2003 and replaced with a bear that no one seems to like. The fight continues, because what one side considers to be a disposal of racially charged images is considered by the other side to be a trashing of the school’s history. Fortunately for Ole Miss, coach Hugh Freeze has managed to establish an on-field identity that has nothing to do with the symbolism debate. Freeze determined when he arrived at Ole Miss that he’d shoot for the moon in recruiting, and he landed an incredible class in ’13. The core of that class has made the Rebels competitive, and Freeze’s up-tempo offense has given him something to sell in a division that remains sharply divided over whether that style is better than a more methodical style.
What it should be: It’s fine now, but what about when receiver Laquon Treadwell, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and defensive end Robert Nkemdiche leave? Ole Miss has highly coveted quarterback Shea Patterson committed for 2016, but it has yet to put together another class like the one in ’13.
The brand: Coach Kevin Sumlin was hired just before the Aggies’ move to the SEC, and he has taken the concept of The SEC Team in Texas and run with it. Adidas occasionally goes a little crazy with the uniforms, but sometimes crazy can work. Johnny Manziel made Texas A&M’s high-tempo offense one of the nation’s coolest, and that sentiment has remained even after Manziel’s departure. Unfortunately for the Aggies, their brand in the Sumlin era also includes some of the nation’s most porous defense.
What it should be: A&M is doing everything right except playing decent defense. That’s why Sumlin hired coordinator John Chavis from LSU this off-season.
The brand: Gold helmets, high expectations and—fair or not—outsized coverage.
What it should be: Thank Fielding Yost for Notre Dame’s football brand. Had Michigan’s Yost not started the blackballing of the Fighting Irish in the Midwest in the early 1900s, Notre Dame might have remained rooted to the region instead of travelling for games against Army, Penn State, Texas and St. Louis. As college football’s popularity grew, so did the prestige of the program from the Catholic school in northern Indiana that would seemingly play anyone, anywhere. Boosted by New York sportswriters, Notre Dame became one of the most popular programs in the sport and never gave up that popularity. The current Irish team is cheered across the country by alums and otherwise unaffiliated fans who grew up watching Notre Dame games on NBC. Coach Brian Kelly’s team doesn’t dominate the way Knute Rockne’s teams did, but the Irish remain competitive and should field their best team this season since the 2012 squad that went 12-0 before getting blasted by Alabama in the BCS title game.
The brand: The Mormon Church’s team is always up for a game against anyone, and it will always leave opponents bruised.
What it should be: A team coached by a guy named Bronco (Mendenhall) should beat up opponents, and that’s what the Cougars do. They usually have an excellent defensive line and a veteran offensive line that opens holes for a quarterback who excels at the read-option. The physical maturity along the line often owes to the Mormon custom of serving a two-year mission in one’s late teen years. Typically, a player will spend his freshman year at BYU and then the next two years serving a church mission. When he returns, he has four years to play three. That results in quite a few married 23- and 24-year-olds who are more mature and have a little different perspective than the players they face. The Cougars never shy away from an opponent. Their decision to go independent beginning with the 2011 season has forced BYU to adopt that philosophy, and it has created a diverse schedule that includes future games against Arizona, UCLA, LSU, Mississippi State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Stanford.