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Program pecking order

Dividing BCS teams into four-tier hierarchy and more

Posted: Wednesday August 8, 2007 1:02PM; Updated: Wednesday August 8, 2007 2:21PM
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Brian Brohm
Players like QB Brian Brohm have exponentially increased Louisville's standing over the last few years.
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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 and 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 and 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, Cal, 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 and 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 and 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.

With all the emphasis on Florida State's new assistant coaches, I am wondering what the effect will be on the schools these coaches left. Not as much LSU, because they got a solid offensive coordinator (Gary Crowton) to replace Jimbo Fisher, but what is the effect of Rick Trickett leaving West Virginia in a year where the Mountaineers are considered national title contenders? He was obviously a very effective offensive line coach.
--John, New York

What an excellent, excellent question. For all the time we pundits spend lauding a team's returning personnel or the track record of its head coach, you never hear someone say, "You know, my main concern about Team X is that it lost one of its best assistants." With a coordinator, maybe, but never someone like the offensive line coach. And yet there's no question this can have an effect. Case in point: USC's defensive line hasn't been nearly as dominant since renowned D-line tutor Ed Orgeron left. Virginia Tech QB Sean Glennon really struggled last year; might he have fared better had position coach Kevin Rogers (Donovan McNabb's one-time mentor) not bolted for the NFL?

As fabulous as Pat White and Steve Slaton have been the past two years, their offensive line had just as much to do with it -- not just from a physical standpoint but in mastering the blocking schemes required in the spread-option. So it's certainly worth noting in your preseason analysis that the Mountaineers not only lost their acclaimed O-line coach but an All-America center, Dan Mozes, and two other O-line starters. The reality, however, is there's no way to measure the impact of Trickett's loss until the Mountaineers step back on the field.

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