Who’s in The Club?

In my last article, I introduced the idea of The Club: the 21 (or maybe 19)teams who hold power in College Football. They are defined, primarily, by a previous championship in living memory. Now there are two important caveats:

  1. Not all members of The Club are equals
    There is something like a meritocracy within the ranks. Some members carry more clout than others today, but may not tomorrow. This is particularly true the more space is put between the last championship and the current day.
  2. Living memory is a debatable concept.
    For some of the members of The Club, their glory occurred decades ago. For example, Tennessee won it all in 1950 and 1998. If Tennessee hadn’t won the first BCS championship, I would probably exclude them from this list, as there are virtually no working coaches or sportswriters who remember the year 1950 (save perhaps Lou Holtz, who is an immortal being sent to punish eardrums with his hissing).
    In 1998, that wasn’t the case. So I keep Tennessee in.

Without further ado, allow me to introduce the club.

  • The Current Top Tier
    Alabama (most recent championship: 2017), Oklahoma (2000), Clemson (2016), Ohio State (2014)

Virtually any sports fan in America would identify these four schools as the top programs in America. Clemson is the freshest member, earning an entry in 1981, and re-upping in 2017. These are teams that can have almost any sin forgiven to get a spot in the playoff. Ohio State only missed out this year because of an unusually lousy pr season, and an undefeated Notre Dame team. The system is reluctant to pass over an undefeated Club member.

It should be noted that Oklahoma hasn’t won it all in 18 years. They have, however, played in five title or playoff games during that period.

  • The Legacy Kids
    Michigan (1997), Florida (2008), Florida State (2013), Texas (2005), Notre Dame (1988)

This group can be split into two subgroups: the Florida schools and the old-money schools.
The Florida schools have relatively recent histories, climbing into the club during the expansion years between 1980 and 1997. With six titles between them, all in the last 40 years, their legacies carry a lot of currency. Both programs are in relative down cycles, but if Dan Mullen and Willie Taggart can turn things around, they will enjoy all the benefits of membership.
The three old-money schools have been skating by on the deeds of the postwar era and excellent marketing. Texas is the only one that has won a championship in the BCS/Playoff era. Notre Dame appeared in one BCS Championship and one playoff and got smoked both times. Michigan, for all its pomp and circumstance, hasn’t risen to the occasion since its 1997 split championship provoked the BCS system.
When any of these five teams are good, the media gets really excited.

  • The Inner Circle
    LSU (2007), Auburn (2010), Georgia (1980), Penn State (1986), USC (2004), Miami (2001)

Any of these schools could jump a level with the right coach. Generally, they’re the beneficiary of proximity. First, they’re all close to fertile recruiting grounds. Second, they’re all close enough to urban centers that allow them to fill massive stadiums.
But most important, all of these schools benefit from a close association to schools in the higher tiers. LSU, Auburn, and Georgia have to go through Alabama and Florida, not to mention each other. Any victories will be seen as justification for placement in the playoffs. Penn State has Ohio State and Michigan. Miami has Clemson and Florida. USC can struggle being the top prestige team in their conference, but a yearly battle with Notre Dame has made them surrogate conference rivals.

  • The Outer Circle
    Nebraska (1997), Michigan State (1965), Washington (1991), Colorado (1990), Georgia Tech (1990), Tennessee (1998)

These teams tend to raise eyebrows. None of them will get the benefit of the doubt when put against any of the 16 teams ahead of them. But they do carry some weight, and a good team from any of them will get put in the running for a playoff spot.
Michigan State and Washington have proved this in recent years, with their recent coaches awakening sleeping past champions. Tennessee and Nebraska have taken a dive since the early years of the BCS, but they are always one season away from returning. Next year, a 12-1 team from either would carry more credibility with pollsters than a 12-1 team from, for example, TCU or North Carolina State.
Georgia Tech and Colorado are debatable entries. Neither has done much in the past two decades. One could argue that their pedigrees are too weak—each holds only the 1990 Championship that they shared. If they’re left off the list, it doesn’t change my argument. Neither has played for a National Championship since the start of the BCS.

  • Lapsed Membership
    BYU (1984), UCLA (1954), Syracuse (1959), Minnesota (1960), Maryland (1953), Pittsburgh (1976)

Some of these would seem to be football schools, but they’ve all fallen off from the years in which they won their last national championship.
BYU never gained admittance to an elite conference and under current rules, would have never been considered for the 1984 Championship. Pittsburgh and Minnesota disappeared after special players left and their metro areas stopped growing. Maryland, Syracuse, and UCLA became more committed to basketball.

Will we ever see The Club admit new members? Stayed tuned.

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