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History of Elite Programs

Elite Programs 1936-2018

  • 40 programs (of 130) can lay claim to being elite at one time or another in the past 82 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 6th season since 1936. Prior to the 1981 National Championship, Clemson had never been regarded as an Elite Program.

College football is cyclical

Every team goes through ups and downs. Consistent eliteness over the past 82 years is very rare.

  • 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 4 programs have been elite (3/4 of the time) in 62 of the past 82 years.

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 lasts 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 it the “SEC Era,” but I was up 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.

As it relates to Clemson, the most important thing to take from all of this information is that Elite Competition leads to Elite Success. Having Elite opportunities within your schedule and not just at the end of the year is vital to prolonged eliteness. 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.

If you look at all of the different eras, the proof of this is in 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 came back at the same time.

Poll Era vs. BCS Era vs. College Football Playoff Era

New Programs Elevating to Eliteness is increasingly rare compared to the Poll Era.

  • 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 Tiger fans, Clemson is in the club.

  • From the 1960s through the 1980s, there were a lot of co-national champions, and therefore, a higher number of Elite Programs at any given time; usually 10-14 programs.
  • During the BCS Era (1998-2013), with the onset of a National championship Game, that number dropped down to around 9 programs and remained steady.
  • During the Playoff Era 2014-2018, that number has risen and is back up to 13 programs as of 2018.


History of Elite Programs Chart