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Which Teams Possess the Ingredients for a National Championship Run?

Our SportsBlogs Nation colleagues over at the wonderfully named The Band Is Out On The Field recently offered a defense of the California Golden Bears, to whom Stewart Mandel showed little respect when the Sports Illustrated writer observed:

Remember last week when we discussed the carryover effect of Oklahoma's 55-19 game a few years ago and how it affected the perception of that program? Well, I can't speak for other voters, but Cal's humiliating defeat at Tennessee last year had much the same effect for me. This is a program that, for several years, I think many of us slightly overrated in anticipation of a breakthrough that seemed to be coming following Jeff Tedford's impressive turnaround job. Much of this was based on two games -- the upset win over USC in 2003 and the near-upset of the Trojans in '04. But the fact is, in nearly every big showcase game since then, the Bears have fallen flat, from the Holiday Bowl loss to Texas Tech to the past two USC games to that Tennessee debacle.

Before proceeding further, I should make a few disclosures and offer a few disclaimers. For all his successes, I believe Jeff Tedford shares Ray Goff's penchant for losing high-scoring games and, in my preseason BlogPoll ballot last August, I described Cal as "nothing more than Texas Tech with a better tan and more anti-war protesting."

In retrospect, that may have been a little harsh.

Nevertheless, I picked the Bears to beat the Vols last fall and I respect both the Pac-10 generally and Cal particularly. Beyond that, I have little patience for Stewart Mandel, who writes silly things solely for their shock value, and, as an advocate of resume ranking, I agree with Sunday Morning Quarterback that poll rankings should be based on present achievement rather than on past performance.

Here is what TBIOOTF's Kevin had to say (accompanied by a mild adult language advisory) about the Cal program under Coach Tedford:

[O]ver the last 20 years that I have been watching college football, no program has been as organically created as Cal. I am defining organic as being natural. Here are my criteria for organic success.
  1. Good coach willing to stay at the program (you are out Louisville, NorthWestern, Utah, and 1991 Cal.
  2. Good recruiting (helps if you can bring something other schools can['t] - like say the Bay Area.)
  3. Easily tappable talent pool (nec[]essary to break through the upper ceiling.)
  4. Money helps (And contrary to common belief, we have absolute shitloads of it.)
  5. It just makes sense that a major power is located there (So long Rutgers, which wouldn't make the list regardless.)
Is there a comparable case of a fringe program from a major conference going from obscurity to entering unquestionably the Top 15 programs in the nation? Maybe the closest approximation is Oklahoma, but at least they had tradition. Virginia Tech I guess is on this list. K-State had a marginally successful run that has proved unsustainable (an argument that no one could possibly make about Cal, see points 3 and 5). Louisville very recently certainly was helped by the weakness of their conference. Florida State was in the same boat in the late 80s and early 90s, though in many ways their rise in the shadow of a greater power (Miami) was similar (I guess the same argument could be made of Florida.) I guess Oregon is the only similar Pac-10 team, but they have proved to be a bit behind the Bears (and I don't know if being handed gobs of cash is organic.) LSU seems to be somewhat like this i[n] the SEC, having risen from the second tier into the first, but their transformation was more gradual first starting (then stopping) under Gerry Di[N]ardo, before finishing with Nick Saban.

Ironically, I think the closest analog for this organic rise is probably Texas, who under Mack Brown, took eight seasons to have [a] breakthrough win and they had to wait for the national title game for that to happen. (By Mandel's logic, I believe they could have lost the NCG to USC and technically not been in the running for a national title.)

Texas is similar to Cal in that their program appears to generally be built on a good coach and recruiter (Lord, don't strike me down!) building a complete program in a location where a program naturally should thrive. In addition, both coaches took over for undeniable morons (John Ma[c]kovic and Tom Holmoe). Both programs['] rises coincided with the slightly faster rise of a rival program (Oklahoma and USC). (And both of those rival rises were arguably helped by those programs cheating.)

Under Mack Brown, Texas posted these records... 9-3, 9-5, 9-3, 11-2, 11-2, 10-3, 11-1. Then in 2005 they won the National Title.

Kevin's reference to the Scarlet Knights obligated me to include a picture of Rutgers alumna Kristin Davis.

I will confess to finding parts of Kevin's rationale somewhat confusing and perhaps contradictory. He characterizes Oklahoma as California's "closest approximation" while noting that "at least they had tradition." Kevin goes on, however, to characterize Louisiana State as a program that had "risen from the second tier into the first."

Although the Bayou Bengals certainly had an extended downcycle during the Curley Hallman era and in parts of the tenures of Mike Archer and Gerry DiNardo, L.S.U. had won seven Southeastern Conference championships, captured the 1958 national championship, and produced a Heisman Trophy winner in Billy Cannon prior to Nick Saban's arrival in Baton Rouge. The Fighting Tigers finished first in the S.E.C. twice in the 1980s, not counting the 1984 season in which Louisiana State finished second in an autumn in which first-place finisher Florida had its championship vacated. In short, I believe L.S.U. might be credited with "ha[ving] tradition," as well.

The same, obviously, could be said for the Longhorns, who won national championships in 1963, 1969, and 1970 and captured conference crowns three times between 1990 and 1996, with the last league title coming two years before Mack Brown's arrival in Austin. The rise of Texas in 2005 represented a restoration, as well. At a minimum, Louisiana State and Texas could not fairly be characterized as "fringe program[s]" toiling in "obscurity" even when they were losing more games than the norm.

Going 11-1 and almost beating Georgia in the Cotton Bowl does not constitute "obscurity."

Those, though, are ancillary concerns. While some of his examples may be a bit incongruous, Kevin's overall argument is sound and the central thrust of his position has been demonstrated repeatedly in the recent history of college football. His fundamental thesis, for which evidence abounds, is this:

If a major conference program consistently fields teams that win 10 or more games on an annual basis, that program has put itself into a good position to have a special season in which it catches the few crucial breaks necessary to produce a national championship.

Kevin cites Mack Brown, whose Texas teams went 11-2, 11-2, 10-3, and 11-1 before going 13-0 and winning the national title. Other examples include Florida State's Bobby Bowden (11-1, 11-1, 10-2, 10-2, 11-2, and 11-1, then 12-1 and a national title), Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer (11-1, 10-2, and 11-2, then 13-0 and a national title), and Florida's Steve Spurrier (11-2, 10-2-1, and 12-1, then 12-1 and a national title).

Naturally, even great coaches stumble slightly sometimes, as evidenced by Coach Spurrier's 9-4 marks in 1992 and in 1999 or by Coach Brown's nine-win seasons in 1998, 1999, and 2000. All indications are that Kevin is right, though . . . consistent winners put themselves in position to make a run at No. 1.

Although it pains me to think about the 1983 Sugar Bowl, I probably should mention that Joe Paterno guided Penn State to undefeated seasons and Orange Bowl victories three times between 1968 and 1973, led the Nittany Lions to ledgers of 11-1 or 10-2 in four of the five years from 1977 to 1981, and finally captured the first of his two national championships in 1982 as penance for my posting the foregoing picture from the 1984 Cotton Bowl.

Consider those contentions in the context of Kevin's five factors for long-term success and national championship contention: a quality coach who is committed to staying put; quality recruiting; a readily available pool of player talent; a readily available pool of financial contributions; and a location conducive to long-term success.

While bearing in mind Kevin's sensible contentions, ask yourself about the national championship prospects for a program possessing the following characteristics:

Do those attributes of a championship program sound familiar? They should.

Go 'Dawgs!