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History of Elite Programs

Elite Programs 1937-2019


I think of this one as kind of an all-time standings as far as what has happened “on the field” at the highest level (although, I must admit, I am working on a better one). Clemson is currently tied with Navy for 26th.

  • 40 programs (of 130) can lay claim to being elite at one time or another in the past 83 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 al the way back 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 7th 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 83 years is very rare.

  • Only 20 programs have been elite (roughly 1/8 of the time) in 10 of the past 83 years.
  • Only 15 programs have been elite (1/4 of the time) in 21 of the past 83 years.
  • Only 8 programs have been elite (1/2 of the time) in 41 of the past 83 years.
  • Only 4 programs have been elite (3/4 of the time) in 62 of the past 83 years.

The 5 Eras

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-American 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 to the masses 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 began to get 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. Florida became the clear hotbed of high school 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 era extends to the entire southeast.

The Southeastern Era has shown signs of slowing down since 2014. While 12 of the last 13 National Champions have come from the southeast, the number of southeastern programs having Elite Teams on a yearly basis has dropped over the past 5 years. After producing 16 Elite Teams from 2012-2013, the southeast has produced just 14 Elite Teams from 2014-2018.

As it relates to Clemson, the most important thing to take from this is that Elite Competition leads to Elite Success. Having Elite opportunities within your schedule is vital to both establishing and prolonging eliteness. It is important to Clemson’s success that we schedule great out of conference programs to avoid the perception drop in the event that our conference and South Carolina are down.

If you look at all of the different eras, the proof of this is in the collective ascension of rival teams. The very nature of eliteness is that “only elite wins change elite perception.” The people associated with a program hate to lose to their rivals on a regular basis. They don’t lay down and take their beating every year. They make changes. Throughout history, we see programs rise up along with their rivals.

  • #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 in the 80s and 90s.
  • USC’s greatest runs immediately followed UCLA greatest runs.
  • Stanford and Oregon rose at the same time in the late 00s and fielded elite teams in the same years 4 times.
  • Clemson, South Carolina, and Georgia all rose at the same time, twice, 30 years apart. 
  • Clemson’s greatest run in school history immediately followed South Carolina’s greatest run.
  • Clemson and Florida State came back at the same time in the early 2010s.

Since 1991, only 2 programs have reached Elite Program status for the first time (Virginia Tech and Oregon). Programs elevating to Eliteness for the first time has been rare, but the 4 team playoff has cracked the door open for more teams to get an opportunity at the highest level.

Here is the Elite Program History Chart that shows it by year from 1937-2019.