Why is it that some programs rise from obscurity to become top-ranked contenders while others continue to flounder?
While it’s easy to name the teams which have managed a run—and those who can’t seem to find their way—what’s more difficult is pinpointing how it happens.
How did Boise State—a program that didn’t join the FBS until 1996—transform from a little-known, six-win team from a state with no national media presence into an AP Top 5 contender?
And how did Texas A&M, a team which hadn’t made a serious national title run since the early 1990s, manage to morph from a struggling team in the dwindling Big 12 to a challenger in the daunting SEC?
Well, as different as the Aggies and Broncos are, the factors that drove their unexpected appearances on the national radar are strikingly similar.
Hire the Right Head Coach
The importance of having the right guy at the helm of your college football program can’t be overstated.
For Boise State, the first of a string of key hires came in 1998—only two seasons into its move to the FBS—when it hired Dirk Koetter to replace Houston Nutt.
Koetter went 6-5 in his first season and never looked back, posting a 20-5 run and two Big West titles from 1999 to 2000. He went on to take the head job at Arizona State in 2001 and was replaced by his assistant Dan Hawkins.
Hawkins took the team to even greater heights, posting a 53-11 record in five seasons, including four consecutive WAC titles and the program's first-ever Top 25 finishes (2002-04).
Hawkins moved on to Colorado in 2006 and was replaced by his offensive coordinator, Chris Petersen, who managed to take the program to its status as a BCS buster.
Boise State went 92-12 in Petersen’s eight seasons, a run that included five conference titles, four Top 10 finishes and two BCS bowl victories.
In each case, the Broncos hired from within and managed to build on the success of the previous coach.
For Texas A&M, on the other hand, the story is more about finally getting it right than celebrating a string of great decisions.
The Aggies went 123-47-2 under R.C. Slocum from 1989 to 2002, including four conference titles, six Top 15 finishes and a berth in the 1998 BCS Sugar Bowl.
After parting ways with Slocum, A&M struggled to find its footing with Dennis Franchione (32-28 from 2003-07) and Mike Sherman (25-25 from 2008-11).
Texas A&M hired Kevin Sumlin away from Houston in 2012 and since has posted a 19-6 record (in the SEC West) and its first Top 5 finish since 1956.
How did Sumlin do what most experts claimed couldn’t be done? Check out his words of wisdom, according to Jason Belzer of Forbes:
[At Texas A&M] we know that it’s as much about a player’s intangibles as it is what you can see from direct observation. We look for guys that are always at the ball, even when it’s not expected of them. When it comes to evaluating others, most leaders fail to realize that it takes absolutely no talent to give effort; effort is the great equalizer.
Create a Signature Win Opportunity
In the same way that Boise State manufactured signature wins by scheduling blockbuster games against BCS teams early each season, Texas A&M put itself in the limelight by joining the SEC.
Think about it: The Broncos managed to pad their soft conference schedule (in the WAC and Mountain West) simply by adding a capstone game with a BCS opponent. If they won the game (like when they beat unranked Oregon State in 2006) and went undefeated, they could ascend to a BCS bowl game (they made it to the Fiesta Bowl in 2006).
It was genius.
For Texas A&M in the Big 12, playing a ranked Oklahoma or Texas was nothing to snort at, but it didn’t draw near the media attention, respect or voter love that playing LSU or Alabama recently could bring.
To illustrate, take a look at how the 2010 Aggies stack up with last season’s A&M team.
|Losses to Ranked Teams||No. 11 Arkansas, No. 21 Mizzou, No. 11 LSU||No. 24 Florida, No. 6 LSU|
|Wins Over Ranked Teams||No. 11 Oklahoma, No. 9 Nebraska||No. 23 Louisiana Tech, No. 17 Miss St, No. 1 Alabama, No. 12 Oklahoma|
|Final AP Ranking||19||5|
Sports Reference/College Football
In 2010, the Big 12 Aggies lost to two Top 12 teams and beat two. In 2012, the SEC Aggies lost to one Top 12 team and beat two. So, how is it that the two teams finished 14 spots apart in the polls?
Sure, 11-2 and 9-4 are miles apart, and the ’10 Texas A&M team was drilled by LSU in the Cotton Bowl while the ’12 team destroyed Oklahoma in Dallas. Despite all this, it’s clear that winning big games in the SEC offers a bigger payout than a similar scenario in the Big 12.
Though you aren’t going to hit 10 wins consistently without a decent defense, to get momentum and on the national radar it’s necessary to create buzz.
In other words, the media doesn’t show up to do a feature on your team when you hold opponents to under 10 points per game. No, you’re more likely to stir the pot when you rack up yards and score points.
Think about it: Before it played Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship this season, how much media attention was focused on Michigan State and its nation’s top-ranked defense?
Sure, the Spartans were a 12-1 team, but how exciting was it to watch them score two touchdowns and hold an opponent to 72 yards of offense?
Check out what Bob Wojnowski of The Detroit News had to say in his glowing review of Michigan State’s style of play:
The primary offensive weapon for the Spartans remains the fumble, followed closely by the interception. No offense, but Michigan State’s top 10 individual performers come from these units, in no particular order: Defense, defense, defense, defense, defense, defense, punter, defense, defense, tuba section…Michigan State is the least dynamic 6-1 team in the Big Ten’s modern era, which doesn’t hamper its title contention one bit.
Texas A&M and Boise State, on the other hand, both built momentum with a high-flying attack that was impossible to ignore.
Take a look at the numbers:
|Boise State||FBS Rank||Record||Texas A&M||FBS Rank||Record|
Sports Reference/College Football
Give the Ball to the Right Guy
Did Johnny Manziel make Sumlin, or instead, was Sumlin the kingmaker in the tale of Johnny Football?
Though there is no definitive answer to this question, one thing is clear: If the head coach doesn’t put the ball in the right guy’s hands, he’ll never be a star and the program will remain stagnant.
In the case of Boise State’s string of successful coaches and Texas A&M’s Sumlin, the coaches managed to give the right player the ball at the right time.
In other words, they played their cards in such a way that they got the most out of the hands they were dealt.
At Boise State, Petersen gave Ian Johnson the ball in 2006 and was rewarded with 1,713 yards rushing in the Broncos’ first undefeated BCS season. And though Kellen Moore is better known as the underdog’s frontman, Johnson was the first Boise State player to receive any Heisman Trophy love, finishing No. 8 in the voting in 2006.
At Texas A&M, it was Sumlin who opted to play Manziel just before the start of the magical 2012 season. It wasn’t Manziel who hired Sumlin—it was the coach who gave the player the nod.
Sumlin’s choice ended a run of underperforming Aggie quarterbacks that included Reggie McNeal, Stephen McGee and Jerrod Johnson.
So, while it looks like a Heisman-worthy player is key to building a contender, you’ve got to first have a coach who can find the Heisman player on the roster.