It’s the time of year where we begin building the profiles of program eliteness. If you’ve read my stuff before, you know that many years ago I set out to define words that are often used in the college football vernacular, but that have no agreed upon meaning. Over a period of years, I felt like I got to the point where the definitions were both accurate and useful.
As the posts pertaining to eliteness get sprinkled in over the next four months, each one will build on the others and you will know exactly what I’m referring to when I use the terms like “Elite Team,” “Big Boy Football,” “Elite Talent,” and “Elite Program.” This is the first post, Elite Teams, and it lays the foundation for what comes next.
Why Do This?
This section is going to be a refresher for those of you that may not have seen this before.
When I first started, the primary motivation was to quantitatively show other Clemson fans how you cannot “back your way in” to Eliteness. During the Bowden era, many Clemson fans (often repeating what was said by Clemson media members) were selling a path to greatness by hoping for our opponents to be weak so we could beat them. It seems silly now, but the logic was that when we beat all of the weak teams, the BCS system would have to put us in the Natty. The reality is that it takes winning on the elite level, often for multiple years, before a non-elite program gets that shot. That’s why UCF is reduced to complaining about a “CFP cartel” and Clemson’s road to the 2015 CFP (College Football Playoff) actually started in 2012 against LSU.
It HAS to work that way and here’s why. College Football is a perception sport. There is no 130 team round-robin tournament where everybody plays each other. There are 12 games and most FBS teams will schedule an FCS team as well, lowering that number to 11 FBS games. Each team plays just 8.5% of the available competition (it’s 37.5% in the NFL for example). Further clouding the perception is that most of those games are confined to groups of 10-16 teams that we call conferences. That means that only 2.3% of all games played can be used to determine the strength of one conference vs. another (it’s still 37.5% in the NFL). That means that when you have one of these extremely rare out-of-conference games against an Elite Team, it has an effect on program perception that can last for years. So what is an Elite Team by definition?
Elite Teams Defined
I define an Elite Team as a team that finishes in the Top 5 of the AP Poll or any team in the AP Top 15 that has defeated an Elite Team.
I use one rule and two factors as the basis for this definition.
The one rule is that “Only elite wins change elite perception.“
This is the main culprit for the ongoing disrespect of programs like UCF, TCU, Boise St., and Washington. Winning games can earn an opportunity, but what happens with that opportunity defines the program and sometimes an entire conference for years. When we get to Elite Programs, we’ll dive into this deeper. For now, we’re going to stick with just Elite Teams.
The two factors that determine an Elite Team are “Collective Opinion” and “The Circle of Proof.”
Collective Opinion is represented in the Final AP Poll. The top 5 are agreed upon elites nationally. The Circle of Proof, also known as the transitive property, questions the AP Poll and brings in checks and balances based on what happened on the field. The Circle of Proof says that any top 15 team that has proven on the field that they can beat an elite team is, therefore, also elite.
These two factors work together to quantify the accepted truth that nestles itself in the “gut” of fans, playoff committee members, AP voters, media, recruits, and athletic departments. I use the term “gut” to explain that place where we can internalize truths that our conscious minds cannot always explain or confirm to be true.
For example, we all knew the LSU win in 2012 was huge for the Clemson program, but it’s hard to explain why in words. The Elite Team and Elite Program definitions tell you why and can pinpoint the moment when a program begins to make the transition to Eliteness.
Because I was aware of those definitions, I knew how monumental that win could be as soon as the game was announced. I knew that the last Elite Team Clemson had defeated was 23 years ago (Florida State, 1989). I knew that LSU would be considered elite based on their Natty appearance the year before and their wins over both SC and Manziel’s Texas A&M team that had beaten Bama. When Chandler Catanzaro’s kick went through the uprights, 23 years of “not good enough to play with elites” turned into national credibility. This created future opportunities for both Clemson and it’s conference champion, Florida State. The ACC went from possibly losing its football powers to The Big 12 in 2012 to never missing the CFP and winning 3 National titles over the next 6 years.
Elite Teams for the 2018 Season
Here are the teams that performed on the Elite Level this past year. The teams listed below their name are their elite wins. You can find all of the Elite Teams for every year from 1981 to 2018 above under Eliteness>Elite Teams or by clicking here.
As you can see, in this day and age, you’re going to have to go through at least 2 Elite Teams to win the Natty. This is how it’s been since the CFP was instituted, and this is how it should be. The more the playoff expands, the better chance a team has at lucking their way into a national championship.
Poor Georgia. Such a shame. Regarded as one of the 3 best teams in college football all season, they get upset by Texas in their bowl game and end up with a non-elite season. Had they beaten Texas, they would’ve certainly finished in the top 5. Instead, Texas beats the CFP runner-up from last year and notches their belt with their first Elite Season since 2009. Texas finished the season ranked #9 and became elite by virtue of their win over Oklahoma earlier in the year. However, Texas was ranked #14 heading into the Georgia game and would’ve almost certainly dropped out of the top 15 with a loss. So, the difference between being elite or not elite really came down to beating Georgia.
The biggest injustice here could be Ohio State at #3. They beat Washington in the Rose Bowl and smashed a Michigan team that was embarrassed by Florida, but they had no elite win that justifies their ranking. This would be more acceptable if it hadn’t happened so much. 4 of the last 6 Elite Teams that Ohio State has fielded have not beaten an elite team. Big 10 bias is another thing that these Eliteness rankings expose. I have written about this before, so you can revisit why I think this happens by clicking here.
Clemson’s Elite Teams By the numbers:
- This is the 8th Elite Team Clemson has fielded since 1936.
- Those Elite Teams were in 1981, 1983, 1989, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.
- Only Danny Ford and Dabo Swinney have fielded Elite Teams at Clemson.
- Clemson is now 7-8 against Elite Teams under Dabo. Tommy Bowden was 0-6 during his tenure. Tommy West, 0-5. Ken Hatfield, 0-3. Danny Ford, 1-2-1.
- From 2015-2018 though, Clemson has gone 6-2 vs. Elite Teams.
- Dabo’s 7 Elite Team wins (LSU ’12, Okla ’15, Ohio St. ’16, Alabama ’16, Auburn ’17, Notre Dame ’18, Alabama ’18) are the most by any coach in school history (Ford tied Georgia in 1983 and beat FSU in 1989).
- Clemson has beaten the SEC West Champion, the toughest division in college football, 3 years in a row.
Next up: The tiers below the Elite Level and Clemson’s strength of schedule.