Posted: Wednesday July 11, 2012 12:38PM ; Updated: Wednesday July 11, 2012 4:43PM
Stewart Mandel
Stewart Mandel>COLLEGE FOOTBALL MAILBAG

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

Story Highlights

Due to popular demand, four-tier hierarchy of college football programs is back

Mark Richt gets flak for player arrests, not credit for strict disciplinary measures

The Buckeyes lost a valuable offensive weapon when Jordan Hall injured his foot

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Perennial contender LSU has emerged as a King, while fellow SEC team Tennessee has fallen to the Baron ranks.
Perennial contender LSU has emerged as a King, while fellow SEC team Tennessee has fallen to the Baron ranks.
Randy Sartin/Cal Sport Media
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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.

Kings

* 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.

Barons

* 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.

Knights

* 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.

Peasants

* 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.

 
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