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The History of Elite Programs

This post is going to look at the history of eliteness in college football and what is the most important thing that Clemson fans can learn from knowing that history.  I hope this post provides an interesting take on the last 81 years of college football for you and I hope you find something that helps you draw your own conclusions.

In the last post, we looked at Elite Programs for 2017, why being perceived as an Elite Program is important, and the definition of an Elite Program. This article is also going to assume that you understand my definition of an Elite Team.

I will quickly explain the methodology here. I have researched the history of college football (1905-2015) to identify the programs that were considered elite in each given year. Then, I simply allowed the definition of an Elite Program to find me in order to show what needs to be done for programs moving forward. Here is that definition, and while always fluid, I think I have it dialed in as far as identifying how the majority of the college football world views programs.

I define an Elite Program as a program that has been elite once in past 7 years AND has done one of the following as well:

  • played in the National Championship game within the past two years
  • been in the NC game and had another elite season in the past three years
  • won the National Championship twice in the past 5 years
  • has had an Elite Season 3 times in the past 5 years
  • has had an Elite Season 4 times in the past 10 years
  • has had an Elite Season 6 times in the past 20 years
  • has had an Elite Season 10 times in the past 30 years

The first table includes every program that can be considered elite at one time from 1936-2016. Why 1936? 1936 was the first year of the AP poll and represents the first year where national perception took over from the numerous mathematical systems that were used to crown a national champion. Before the mathematical systems, a few individual publications in the northeast picked a national champion. At the time, the rules of the game were not set in stone and the north-eastern publications typically recognized nearby teams from the Ivy League as the champion. It was around 1930 when football’s rules stabilized, conferences formed, and the sport grew beyond just regional affiliations.

Here are the teams that can claim Elite Program status since 1936.

  • 40 programs can lay claim to being elite at one time or another in the past 81 seasons.
  • Michigan is the winningest program in college football history so, it is no surprise that they have also been an Elite Program more often than any other program. Interestingly though, their 67 year run as an Elite Program came to an end in 2010 and their last elite season was under Lloyd Carr in 2003.
  • 8 current ACC teams make the list (9 with Notre Dame) as well as 8 current SEC teams, 9 Big Ten Teams, 6 Pac 12 Teams, and 4 Big 12 Teams.

Next year, Clemson will be recognized as an Elite Program for the 5th season since 1936.  Prior to the 1981 National Championship, Clemson had never been regarded as an Elite Program.  I think that was represented in the feelings of Tiger fans and the culture surrounding the program in the late 70s-early 80s. Clemson had something to prove, and by God, they were going to prove it.

College football is cyclical.

Every team goes through ups and downs. Consistent eliteness is almost impossible.

  • Only 20 programs have been elite (1/8 of the time) in 10 of the past 82 years.
  • Only 15 programs have been elite (1/4 of the time) in 21 of the past 82 years.
  • Only 7 programs have been elite (1/2 of the time) in 41 of the past 82 years.
  • Only 3 programs have been elite (3/4 of the time) in 61 of the past 82 years.

Alabama, Michigan, and Notre Dame have been elite programs for 75% of the time college football has existed. This means that eliteness is very difficult to sustain and that while a program may appear to be permanently elite,  that is just a perception.  Elite Programs usually have an “up-period” in the cycle and then they drop back down below the elite level. An Elite Program fields an elite team 44% of the time, so usually the clock is ticking on their “up-period.”

As it relates to Clemson, the most important thing to take from all of this information is that Elite Competition leads to Elite Success. If you look at all of the different eras, the one thing you’ll see is the collective ascension of rival teams. The people associated with a program don’t like to lose to their rivals on a regular basis. You see rivals rise to the challenge.

  • #1 Michigan has rivals in #5 Ohio State and #11 Michigan State.
  • #2 Notre Dame has rivals in #8 USC, #22 Navy, and #23 Stanford
  • #3 Alabama has rivals in #7 Tennessee, #9 LSU, #19 Auburn, and #21 Ole Miss
  • #4 Oklahoma has rivals in #6 Texas, #10 Nebraska
  • Miami, Florida, and Florida State all rose up at the same time.
  • Clemson and South Carolina rose at the same time twice, 30 years apart.
  • Clemson and Florida State come back at the same time.

It is important to Clemson’s success that we schedule great out of conference programs and that our conference opponents and South Carolina play on a very high level. Your opponents are your yearly measuring stick after all. When we beat them, we want it to provide credibility.

In the last post, I talked about how Clemson 1981 and BYU 1984 were the only National Champions since 1980 to not defeat another Elite Team.  The way we won the NC was a blessing and a curse.  It created a false blueprint of how to become an Elite Program. Even the media and the NCAA disrespected our title by over-penalizing a minor recruiting transgression in a way that assured the program would be dropped from the elite level. In later years, the BCS system was developed to systematically exclude a team from doing what Clemson and BYU did, while maintaining conference inclusion, and increase revenue at the same time.

For many years post BCS, I would listen to a lot of Clemson fans come up with scenarios where we could avoid playing great teams on our way to the National Championship game.  Most of the Clemson media also took that stance. Obviously, we know now that these people were fooling themselves. They were making excuses for the program and avoiding the elephant in the room.  That’s what happens when the people responsible for providing you with access to the program are the same people you are supposed to be covering.

The truth is that when your yearly opponents are “up” it not only creates more opportunities for your program, it provides motivation for you to rise to the occasion. We have seen that with our Natty in 1981 and South Carolina’s “Black Magic” season in 1984 and then again recently with SC fielding elite teams in the SEC and Clemson having to rise up to their level.

If we don’t have great opponents on our schedule, we should schedule great opponents out of conference.  Sometimes, getting embarrassed by a team like Alabama 2008 is what it takes to trigger an entire program overhaul.

New Programs Elevating to Eliteness is increasingly rare.

  • Since 1990, only 3 programs have reached Elite Program status for the first time (Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Oregon).

This means that is more likely that a program that has already been elite is going to return to eliteness than a new program rising up and becoming elite. Congrats, we are in the club.

In my estimation, there have been 5 different eras since 1936 and here they are.

I call the 1936-1949 period the “National Proliferation Era.” This is post-Ivy League dominance of the sport. We now have a recognized National Champion, an accepted set of rules, conferences, bowl games, and the game of football growing in popularity nationally.


The next era last for 22 years and I call it the “Mid-American Era.” This is where the strength of the football world was concentrated in the middle states and away from the coasts.


This next era lasted for 17 years and I call it “The Powerhouse Era.” This is the period of time where football on television exploded and the legend of the great football programs of the past 40 years was solidified visually. During this period, only one or two games per week were on TV (ABC with Keith Jackson on play-by-play). The powerhouse schools that reached a national audience benefited greatly and thus, the rich got richer.


The next era also lasted for 17 years and I call this one, “The Florida Era.” This is the period of time where the road to eliteness went through the state of Florida. The demographics of the country changed and Florida became the clear hotbed of football talent. One of the three Florida teams played for the National Championship in 13 of the 16 years during this period and all three were elite all 17 years.


I have the current era beginning in 2007 and I’m calling it “The Southeastern Era” because I think that’s how it’s going to be remembered by the time it ends. I’m not calling the SEC Era, but I was until the past few years.  The dominance in this cycle was once confined to the SEC, but with FSU and Clemson winning NCs in the past few years, the ACC teams are making a battle out of it on the elite level.



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