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Coach’s Corner: The CFB Hierarchy

Where Do We Rank in the CFB World?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Oregon at Washington Photo by Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Well, we’re back into the CFB off-season, and I don’t have quite as much real football to talk about, so I think its time to take stock of the CFB landscape, assess where we are, and think about where we want to go. This’ll be a bit more macro than usual, but I’m interested to hear what you folks think about where our Huskies are in the CFB world.

The Hierarchy of College Football

When I think of college football, I think in terms of tiers or groups. I also think in terms of goals and expectations. I get that every team’s fan base would say that they want to win a national championship, but most fans at a school like UTEP wouldn’t expect to win a CFP title next year. That’s why I broke down the tiers/groupings of teams based on their similar short term expectations. That could include legitimate expectations of winning a CFP title, making the playoffs, winning their conference, or simply beating rivals. I also took trends and program momentum into consideration. Expectations of a program can change wildly over the years, so I assessed these teams on what a realistic expectation would be for the next couple of years. This isn’t just a fun debate to have with fellow CFB fans, but it’s also a good opportunity to step back and think about how our team can get better at the macro-level.

The Building Blocks

There are a number of parts that factor into a successful college football program. There are the players that actually play the sport, the coaches that assemble the team and prepare them to play, and administrative infrastructure that assembles the coaching staff and provides them with the resources to field a competitive team. Building an elite program requires all three of those building blocks to perform at an elite level.

  • Elite players win games. That’s the long and the short of it, and it’s why we should care about recruiting. That being said, bad coaching can waste an elite roster, and excellent coaching can elevate an average roster.
  • Elite coaches recruit and coach at an elite level. Elite HCs also have to build and develop their coaching staff to recruit and coach at an elite level. There are several ways of doing this. Nick Saban, Mack Brown, and Dabo Sweeney perfected the CEO-model HC where their value was in recruiting and building excellent staffs, but sustained success means retaining key assistants or finding innovators to fill out the staff. On the flip side, innovative coordinators-turned-HCs like Chip Kelly, Lincoln Riley, and Mike Leach bring their schemes to their teams, but it can be difficult managing their staff and roster while also stepping back from their roots on one side of the ball. Both styles work, but at the end of the day, a talented roster and a capable staff are necessary for sustained success.
  • Finally, an elite AD can fundamentally change a program’s footing, overcoming any geographic, demographic, or financial limitations that a program might’ve face. While a HC is responsible for restocking the roster and coaching staff with talent to sustain success during his tenure, an AD is responsible for providing the resources for the program, as well as managing transitions between HCs. Success under a single HC, even if it’s over decades, can be a blip on the radar if the AD fumbles the transition to the next era (ex. post-Osbourne Nebraska & post-Edwards BYU), but successful transitions can permanently elevate a program (ex. Boise State w/ Koetter, Hawkins & Petersen, & Utah w/ Meyer & Whittingham).

The Breakdown

The Title Contenders

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 08 CFP National Championship Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There are really only 3 programs in the country that have all three program building blocks at an elite level: Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson. These three are at a different tier than every other program in the country, and they’ve represented 16 of the 28 playoff appearances and 5 of the 6 championships (unless ND wins this year) to date in the CFP’s 7 years. These teams are the title contenders, and they have built administrative and coaching infrastructure to maximize their regional recruiting advantages, expand/capitalize on their national recruiting brand, developed their players, and put their players in a position to win on a national level.

The NY6 Contenders

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 13 Notre Dame Spring Game Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Right behind the title contenders are the NY6 contenders. These are teams like Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Georgia, LSU, Florida, and possibly a rising or dormant team like Texas A&M, and Texas. In every case, these programs have solid coaching and administrative infrastructure, and they either have a regional recruiting advantage or deeply-entrenched national recruiting brands. These are the teams that could very well be title contenders, and an annual playoff berth is a realistic expectation, but they are not at an elite level with one of their building blocks. There can be a significant gap between these teams and the title contenders, but a confluence of factors could push these teams into consistent playoff berths or even a title.

A team like LSU has the local and regional talent pool to consistently “athlete” their way into the CFP with merely competent coaching and sound administrative support. That’s essentially what Georgia did in 2017, and it’s what Texas A&M did this year. The Florida schools, Texas, and USC are located in regions where they are positioned to do this as well. However, this year’s collapse from LSU’s 2019 heights, when they had elite talent and an elite staff, shows that it isn’t easy for ADs and HCs to work together to build consistently competent coaching staffs.

On the flip side, at a school like Oklahoma, you have consistent success (borderline title contender levels of success) that are entirely built on strong admin support and coaching hires. If it weren’t for the seamless transition from the Bob Stoops Era to the Lincoln Riley Era, it’s likely that Oklahoma would’ve regressed like Nebraska in the post-Osbourne Era. Neither Oklahoma, nor Nebraska, are near major metropolitan hotbeds of talent, and if it weren’t for consistently innovative schemes and a long (and continuous) track record of success, there isn’t much reason for recruits to go to Norman, OK. It wasn’t just Stoops-Riley transition either. Stoops also at one time or another employed Mike Leach, Brent Venables, and Riley as his coordinators. That eye for coaching talent and a willingness to innovate are what have sustained their success.

The Conference Contenders

NCAA FOOTBALL: JAN 02 Rose Bowl - USC v Penn State Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The last significant tier group is comprised of the conference contenders. These are the schools that are regional powers in P5 conferences, are regulars in the Top-25, and are programs that are in the mix to win their conference championship on an annual basis. However, it would take the stars aligning for these teams to make it into the CFP (i.e. an undefeated season and/or chaos in the polls). For the foreseeable future, this is the glass ceiling for the Pac-12 and most Big 12 teams because the reputation of these conferences make the margin for error just too slim to realistically expect a CFP appearance every year. There are teams from those conferences that are talented enough to move up a tier, but for the time being this tier would include teams like Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State, USC, Miami, Texas, and Oregon.

Now the list that I just named includes both blue bloods and untraditional power programs, but I believe that this is an accurate reflection of where they are today, and where they should be for the foreseeable future.

Michigan is a “traditional power”, but without 30+ years of hall of fame caliber coaching under Schembechler & Carr, Michigan doesn’t have the regional talent base to compete at the national level. Wisconsin and Penn State are in a similar boat to Michigan. If it weren’t for Barry Alvarez and Joe Paterno, history would view these programs differently. However, the decades of success under these coaches have raised the profile of these schools. The problem is that it can be difficult to separate the legacy of these coaches from the balance of their program’s history. There have been flashes of success under Brett Bielema, Paul Chryst, and James Franklin, but none quite reached the same heights for sustained durations like the original program builders. Bielema and Chryst have been consistently competitive due to their strong lines and talented backs, but they have seemingly hit the glass ceiling. Franklin on the other hand caught lightning in a bottle with a couple of talented classes yielding Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorely, Mike Gesicki, and Chris Godwin, as well as hitting a home run hire with Joe Moorhead, but the precipitous decline since their departure is somewhat concerning.

USC, Miami, and Texas on the other hand are “traditional powers” with multiple championships and/or appearances in the Modern Era (I’m arbitrarily delineating that as the last 40 years), but these teams differ from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Penn State in that they are located in prime recruiting territory and have won championships under multiple HCs. These programs could be considered the “Sleeping Giants” of the CFB world, but years of mediocre or underwhelming on-field success have tarnished their brands and tamped down expectations. The further removed these programs get from their last period of national success, the less influential that history will be, but the fact that they have access to talent means that they have a much easier path back to relevancy. They are also the most likely to jump into the next tier up.

Oregon is in a unique position in this tier as they have been the most upwardly mobile team in the Power 5 conferences, and they are the relative newcomer with the most staying power. Before the Mike Bellotti Era (1995-2008), the Ducks had exactly 3 bowl wins, no 10-win seasons, and a middling reputation as a P5 team. However the combination of sustained success between Bellotti and Kelly, the support of Phil Knight, and a resurgence under Mario Cristobal have propelled Oregon onto the national stage. Recent relevancy and a tremendous recruiting staff will certainly help them maintain their success, but it is to be determined if Cristobal isn’t just a flash in the pan. The early returns on the Cristobal hire have been excellent thus far, but last year’s Rose Bowl team was a confluence of a 4th-year starting QB, an experienced OL, and a strong defense. That shouldn’t diminish the fact that Cristobal made solid hires with Andy Avalos and later Joe Moorhead, but this year’s Oregon team was less dominant than some would like to think. I’ll continue to take this year with a grain of salt, but there are still questions out there for this staff.

Where Does That Leave UW?

Utah v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Obviously my breakdown of the CFB into tiers isn’t a complete list, and there are any number of teams that I’ve missed or misplaced, but this is the lens through which I’m looking at programs. Next week, I’ll breakdown where I think UW ranks in all of this, how we got to where we are, and where we can go from there. I’m bullish on our future, and we are certainly in a good spot, but there are some key decisions on the horizon for us to navigate.

Let me know how you guys would break it down and where you think we land in the comments below.

As always,

Go Dawgs