Ranking college football's top 25 programs of the past 10 years
How do you determine the best programs in college football?
There are blood tests to determine how a blue a program is. Tiers are often used, and the never-ending perception game is always at work.
We prefer the numbers.
Sporting News ranked all the FBS programs by their past 10 seasons with a statistical formula that bridges the Bowl Championship Series and College Football Playoff eras to determine the top 25 college football programs.
Here are the categories we used:
National championships: 10 points each
National title game appearances: 5 points each
College Football Playoff appearances: 5 points each
New Year's Day Six/BCS bowl appearances: 3 points each
Heisman Trophy winners: 2 points each
Overall winning percentage, All-Americans and NFL Draft first-round picks were awarded with a poll style 15-1 score. Ties were broken by the team with the best overall record since 2010.
With that in mind, here are the top 25 programs in college football. The numbers don't lie.
Lowdown: Nick Saban led Alabama to four of five national championships in the past decade, and the Crimson Tide played for a national championship six times in 10 seasons. Alabama has the best winning percentage, most NFL Draft picks and most All-Americans in that dominant stretch. The season doesn't really start until Alabama loses. It remains the standard for other programs to follow.
Lowdown: The Tigers won the national championship in 2016 and 2018 and have played in four of the past five College Football Playoff championship games. Clemson will be No. 1 in most 2020 preseason polls, and that is the power of what Dabo Swinney has built. The Tigers have dominated the ACC with a 38-2 record in conference play the past five seasons. There are no signs that this is slowing down.
3 Ohio State
Lowdown: The Buckeyes have put together an amazing eight-year stretch with Urban Meyer and Ryan Day. Ohio State has lost just one Big Ten home game in that stretch; a loss to Michigan State that prevented a Playoff run in 2015. The Buckeyes have the second-best winning percentage with the third-most draft picks in the past 10 seasons. The beat goes on in Columbus as Ohio State looks for a fourth straight Big Ten title in 2020.
Lowdown: The Sooners are at minimum a New Year's Day Six regular, and they have four Playoff appearances under Bob Stoops and Lincoln Riley. Riley has enhanced the model in Norman with Heisman-caliber quarterback play every season. Oklahoma won the Big 12 championship each of the past five seasons but is still looking for that first national championship since 2000.
Lowdown: The Tigers made a jump after winning the national championship in 2019. Ed Orgeron took the program out of Alabama's shadow last season with a once-in-a-lifetime season from Joe Burrow. LSU ranks second in All-Americans and NFL Draft picks the past two seasons. It's on Orgeron to keep that out in the limelight.
6 Florida State
Lowdown: The Seminoles are rebuilding with Mike Norvell now, but it's easy to forget the early-decade dominance under Jimbo Fisher. FSU won the last Bowl Championship Series national title under Fisher, and the Seminoles had a 29-game win streak during that stretch. Now, like the rest of the ACC, Florida State faces the challenge of catching up to Clemson.
Lowdown: There is a significant drop-off from the top six, but the Ducks have a program that is inching closer to the big table under coach Mario Cristobal. Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich took Oregon to national championship game appearances in 2010 and 2014, and despite the coaching turnover since the program has re-asserted itself as the team to beat in the Pac-12.
Lowdown: The Badgers have produced as many All-Americans as Ohio State in the past 10 seasons and have maintained their status as a steady program in the Big Ten. Wisconsin made four Rose Bowl appearances in the past decade, too. The next step — that elusive College Football Playoff bid — is the biggest obstacle.
Lowdown: The Bulldogs continue to move up this list with each season, and Kirby Smart has led the program to a 36-7 record through three straight SEC East Division title seasons. Georgia is recruiting at an elite level and producing the NFL talent to match, but that national championship drought that extends back to 1980 still stands.
Lowdown: Auburn is the last program with a national championship in the past 10 seasons on this list, and Gus Malzahn continues to manage a program whose status fluctuates on a year-to-year basis. The Tigers have managed four victories in the Iron Bowl during that stretch, and that is why they are always at least a threat to catch lightning in any given season.
Lowdown: The decade started with a 12-1 season under Jim Harbaugh, and David Shaw has for the most part maintained that consistency at Stanford. The Cardinal have won three Pac-12 championships, but the competition in the division is a little more heated now. Shaw has work to do to preserve this ranking.
12 Notre Dame
Lowdown: Brian Kelly led the Irish to a BCS championship appearance and a College Football Playoff appearance as part of undefeated regular seasons, but the reality checks Alabama and Clemson provided show what it takes to reach those national championship heights. The Irish are 33-6 the past three seasons and have produced the 11th-most NFL Draft picks.
Lowdown: Florida is in the same spot as last season, but there is room to move up under Dan Mullen. The third-year coach has led the Gators to back-to-back New Year's Day Six wins, and the recruiting has steadied after a decade of coaching turnover. The next step is closing the gap with Georgia in the SEC East.
14 Michigan State
Lowdown: The Spartans were more of a power in the front half of the 2010s under Mark Dantonio, and that peaked with a College Football Playoff appearance in 2015. Michigan State's challenge in the next decade will be dealing with Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. Dantonio had a .500 record against those schools. How will Mel Tucker fare?
15 Boise State
Lowdown: The Broncos are the highest-ranked Group of 5 program; a reputation that extends back to the Chris Petersen era has continued with Bryan Harsin. Boise State has won at least 10 games in eight of the past 10 seasons, and they have never won fewer than eight games. It is hard to argue with that track record when it comes to New Year's Day Six busters.
16 Oklahoma State
Lowdown: The Cowboys have enjoyed 14 consecutive winning seasons under Mike Gundy and have for the most part been a contender for Big 12 championships in that stretch. Gundy, however, is under fire now after a controversial offseason. Oklahoma State has a team that could contend for a conference title, but it might take breaking that five-game losing skid to Oklahoma to quiet the critics.
Lowdown: The Wolverines were 38-26 over five seasons before Jim Harbaugh arrived. He's 47-18 since, which has pushed the program on an upward trajectory back toward playoff contention. Michigan isn't overrated or underrated. It's stuck in perpetual playoff purgatory because Ohio State's shadow looms over the program. Michigan has not won the Big Ten championship since 2004, and the Buckeyes are the biggest reason why.
Lowdown: The Huskies have appeared in the College Football Playoff and two New Year’s Day Six bowls under Chris Petersen, who vaulted the up-and-down program into a Pac-12 North power. Peterson retired, however, and now that responsibility falls on first-year coach Jimmy Lake.
Lowdown: Through all the coaching turnover and administrative upheaval, the Trojans have been able to produce enough NFL talent to stay relevant in the Pac-12. Clay Helton led back-to-back New Year's day Six bowl appearances before the past two seasons — which have been rough. He has stabilized the recruiting, but it's winning time in Troy. Can Helton handle that?
20 Texas A&M
Lowdown: The Aggies produced 10 All-Americans in the past 10 seasons, including Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Now, Jimbo Fisher is trying to convert that talent into a SEC West program with more substance. The challenges are obvious in a loaded division, and Fisher's challenge is to start winning some top-10 matches.
21 Penn State
Lowdown: The Nittany Lions would be higher if this were the past four years. James Franklin has a 42-11 record in that stretch, and that's a testament to how he pointed the program back in the right direction after NCAA sanctions. Penn State is a legit Playoff contender again, but the Ohio State hurdle is theirs to clear, too.
Lowdown: The Bears made a New Year's Day Six appearance under Matt Rhule last season, which helped close the book on the controversy that surrounded Art Briles' exit earlier in the decade. Baylor faces new challenges under first-year coach Dave Aranda, but the program is at least on the map for the right reasons.
Lowdown: For all the ups and downs, the Hurricanes still sent the eighth-most players to the NFL Draft in the past 10 seasons. That is the selling point of a program that has struggled to put together consistent success since joining the ACC. Manny Diaz remains the coach tasked with the turnaround.
Lowdown: UCF played in a BCS bowl and two New Year's Day Six bowls, and their irreverence toward the power structure in college football made waves through a 25-game win streak in the College Football Playoff era. The Knights are one of the top Group of 5 programs, and they will continue to be a factor in the American Athletic Conference.
Lowdown: The Longhorns have six winning seasons in the past 10 years, and the path from the end of the Mack Brown era through Charlie Strong to the past three seasons under Tom Herman has not been easy. That said, Texas is contending for Big 12 championships again — and it is on Herman to bring the Longhorns back once and for all.
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