There’s a big-boy table in college football reserved for the historical elites in the game.
It’s hard to join the group. If you’re not in the group, you’re not invited. There is no membership drive. New applicants need not apply.
There’s Oklahoma, Ohio State, Alabama. There’s USC and Michigan and a few others, too. You know the group. It doesn’t include Kansas State, or Oklahoma State, even Oregon and certainly not Mississippi. Rare is the case a team outside elite status wins a national title, and even more rare does that new party crasher stay.
And while this is an Old Boys club that’s not interested in adding members, it doesn’t mean new members aren’t trying to get in. They do it all the time. But here’s the thing: If a program wants in, they’ll do anything possible to get there, despite the fact there’s no chance.
You don’t have to be elite to win national titles. It can happen at Georgia Tech (1990) or at LSU (2007), but staying on top of the mountain is near impossible, as is the case with Nebraska, Florida and Tennessee. All have won. None are elite. Sure, they have history and periods of success, but not sustained dominance like the others in the club.
So, what’s it take to get to the top if you’re not one of the lucky few to be born into royalty? Cheating.
If you want to be elite, you’ve got to cheat.
Oh, sure, Oklahoma and Texas, Bama and others in the top tier of college football do their share of cheating. No doubt. There’s plenty of examples. But the difference is, those schools, don’t have to cheat to win at an elite level. A coaching change (in the case of Oklahoma in 1999, Ohio State, Texas, Florida and even Michigan recently) can restore elite status in a hurry. A great recruiting class can do the same. A historically elite program can always return to the top. At Ole Miss or Baylor or Oklahoma State or even Oregon that ability doesn’t exist. In other words, the right coaching change can make Notre Dame a national power again. The right coach at Colorado doesn’t mean instant success.
You can’t do it at Ole Miss where one coach can make all the difference. You can get good in a hurry, though. Ole Miss got real good. They were ranked No. 1 in the country a few years ago. Couldn’t stay there. Oh, Baylor was good, too. The newest of new money, the Bears rose quickly and then fell quicker. And sure, Hugh Freeze dialing an escort service doesn’t mean you win games, but it certainly makes you think more might be going on in Oxford, Miss. After all, the Rebels, an average team for the better part of 50 years suddenly started getting the best recruits in the country. Same thing at Baylor. The Bears have had few, very bright moments in their history, then they got extremely good. Now it has come undone.
How? Hmm. Well, at Ole Miss we’ve seen the beginnings of some bad behavior. Best guess is more bad news comes out about Baylor and then some from Oregon, a place that was average for a bunch of years, got loads of money from Nike and then started drawing in the best recruits from California, a place where they never got the best recruits.
Now, there’s no shame in being Kansas State or Oklahoma State. Places where the right coach came into a culture of losing and turned it around. Great programs, both of them. Same with Wisconsin – good every season, but never elite. There’s dozens of others. You can get good in college football and stay good, kind of like Oklahoma State has done over the past 10 or so years, or at Kansas State and other places, but you can’t get elite.
There are “haves” in college football. They belong to the schools in Power 5 conferences. There are “have-nots” as well. Places like Boise State or Colorado State or dozens of others. It’s not a fair system. But even within the group of schools that have a chance to win a national title ever season, there’s another group of elite schools that have the ability to get good in a hurry and get it back when things go badly.
Any school who isn’t in that group has to do something drastic to get there. It’s an enviable place. Lots of have tried. It doesn’t end well.