Which College Football Program Will Dominate the Next Decade?
To help determine which 10 college football programs will dominate the next decade, we should start by asking: Which 10 programs have dominated this decade?
USC, obviously, has been the most dominant. They have won or shared seven-straight Pac-10 titles and have had a 5-1 record in BCS bowls—including a national championship in 2004 and a contested shot in 2003.
Ohio State is another easy selection. They've won six-straight Big Ten titles and appear in position to win a seventh. Their recruiting has been phenomenal, and they've owned the rivalry with Michigan. Their struggles in BCS bowls aside, they are the flagship program of the Big Ten conference.
Oklahoma and Texas have dominated the Big 12 and beyond.
Oklahoma won the 2000 BCS championship and has been to two national championship games, along with two other BCS bowls since.
Texas, aside from winning the 2005 BCS Championship, went to the Rose Bowl in consecutive years. They captivated an entire nation courtesy of the greatest player in the past 50 years, and did it again just four years later.
Frank Solich's firing and Bill Callahan's doomed tenure at Nebraska stunted the growth of a Huskers team coming off of an outstanding 10-year period, though Bo Pelini looks to have them back in the mix again. Had they won the Big 12 championship after McCoy's gaffe, they'd be one of my selections. As it is, they're an honorable mention.
In the SEC, it's a little more difficult to name a consistent dominator.
Florida is an obvious choice, but the Gators had their struggles prior to Urban Meyer. They limped through the Ron Zook administration, while deploying maximum levels of patience and rationalization.
Alabama's status as a dominant force is relatively new—just ask any Tide fan.
Georgia flirted with power mid-decade, but never won a national championship and find themselves now limping to the finish line.
LSU had an outstanding four-year stretch bookended by two championships, but hasn't been able to reach the same heights in the last two years. Some combination of LSU, Alabama, and Florida are your representatives from the SEC.
I'm hard-pressed to name a flagship program for the ACC. Not only have the teams changed names, but the fortunes of its programs have waxed and waned.
Miami looked to be unbreakable through the beginning of this decade—while still with the Big East—but violations and the decline of the Larry Coker era led to a period of irrelevance from which the Hurricanes are only recently emerging.
Florida State has been tough throughout the years, but the recent decline of the Bobby Bowden reign sums up the Seminoles' success.
I would make the argument for Virginia Tech, but this decade missed out on Michael Vick, and surviving by picking at ACC carcasses does not equal dominance. Still, for the sake of argument, I'll say the Hokies have been the best of these three.
The West Virginia Mountaineers were dominant while still under the aegis of Rich Rodriguez, fielding top-level rush offenses and contending for consecutive Big East titles. They have pulled off outstanding upsets in bowl games, but since, the Mountaineers haven't looked serious.
Brian Kelly's departure to Notre Dame will likely slip Cincinnati back into the tepid waters of nine-win mediocrity; at least for the time being. Their back-to-back titles, however, look to have put them in serious contention.
And of course, there's Dave Wannstedt's Pittsburgh program, which has toyed with national aspirations since the "Wannstache" took over in 2004.
Between the departures of Virginia Tech, Miami, and Florida State, there haven't been any dominant Big East programs in this decade.
Fortunes change over a 10-year period. Even the best example here, USC, began the decade with a firing and ended it by losing their grip on the Pac-10. Ohio State experienced a similar situation, firing John Cooper and having to deal with an upstart Penn State team interrupting their dominance with some great seasons in Happy Valley.
With that all said, here are 10 teams that I foresee dominating the next decade.
They have the money, the All-star coach, the unbeatable offensive system, and the well-entrenched defensive coordinator to promise consistency down the road. The defense can use some shoring up, but the real question will be, can they keep Chip Kelly in Eugene?
I don't get a strong departure vibe from Kelly, but it's also not as though the Oregon job was his lifelong dream. The spectre of Mike Bellotti loomed over his early days as coach, and the Ducks athletic department needs to make sure Kelly gets freedom commensurate with his results.
But Oregon is now high-profile. There won't be any caveats about ranking them in the preseason, meaning the runs at national championship seasons won't be a difficult a road to hoe.
As long as Phil Knight keeps the Oregon treasury well-stocked, and Kelly's job a terminal one, the Ducks enter the next decade looking like the inheritors of the Pac-10. Keeping USC at bay will decide whether it's a Big 12, tit-for-tat style of dominance, with the two teams trading off conference supremacy. Here's hoping the Ducks can keep it one-sided.
USC doesn't rebuild, it reloads—or so we've been hearing after each successive Pac-10 championship. The Trojans have been able to replace even their early departures with equally hyped and soundly coached players since the sophomore year of the Pete Carroll administration.
So, what happened this year?
Time will tell, but it looks like this year's defense suffered one too many bouts of attrition with early entrance into the draft. The linebackers, the shutdown corners, the stellar defensive linemen weren't enough in number.
Freshman Matt Barkley struggled after getting off to a hot start, limiting the offense.
The Trojans have hit the recruiting trail hard and they're a no-brainer to continue competing well into the next decade. They combine the country's most outstanding players with a decided schematic advantage.
The question of domination rests more with the energy and ability of the other Pac-10 contenders—Oregon, Washington (under Sarkisian), Arizona, Oregon State, and Stanford.
Schlubs, like myself, will kick USC when it's down, but this is not a team that will be down for long. Unless the USC athletic director does something stupid about Pete Carroll, the Trojans will be back in the 2010s—for good or ill.
This one's also a no-brainer: like it or not, Miami is back.
Consecutive top-five recruiting classes were only the beginning.
The Hurricanes have the history, the recruiting hotbed, the swagger, the chic quarterback, and the former NFL assistant at offensive coordinator—who is putting the polish on next year's Heisman hopeful.
Randy Shannon delivers on what he promises. The 'Canes can lure the best assistants from anywhere. And in a conference begging for a forerunner, Miami is a year away from taking it all by storm.
Barring a (very foreseeable) conference realignment—or, at the very least, one or both of the coaches headed elsewhere—you're looking at the two programs that will consistently gate-crash the BCS for the next decade.
TCU's Gary Patterson has found a winning system in picking the players left behind by the major Texas programs. In turn, he kindles their drive for revenge and puts them on defense, where they can picture Mack Brown and Bob Stoops underneath the quarterback's helmet.
Boise State's Chris Peterson does it a similar way, coaching up the two and three-star leftovers from California, Washington, Colorado, and the rest of the west—introducing them to Boise's passionate following.
It's a winning formula for any outsider team. And while the level of the competition in the WAC and the MWC remains iffy, they'll continue to dominate their respective conferences through innovative coaching along with risky, but rewarding, recruiting.
Alabama Crimson Tide
An easy selection. The Crimson Tide own the recruiting hotbed of deep south Alabama, call one of the most fearsome men in the game "Coach," and can enter 2010 with unstoppable momentum.
The feeling I get is that Alabama has been a slumbering giant.
Distracted by violations, annoyed with a string of mediocre coaches, and passed over in favor of the newer, sexier teams, Alabama will finally return to their place at the forefront of college football in the next decade—building on a history that stretches as far back as football in the South goes.
Like Kelly at Oregon, Alabama will have to make sure Saban doesn't get happy feet, but the money is in Tuscaloosa to keep him occupied. Even if he did depart for a different clime, he's already left an indelible mark on the Tide, awakening the giant, and resurrecting their true grit.
If he wins a few more football games, he just might have something here.
Urban Meyer's Florida team is the antithesis of Alabama in almost every way.
They run a scheme vulnerable to the criticism of not preparing players for the pros.
They recruit nationally as much, if not, more than they do locally.
They have little to no historical bent.
Between themselves, and the other Florida powerhouses, the Gators are the most recently successful, but certainly have the least longevity as a national power.
But with Meyer not departing for the Notre Dame job—presumably the only position for which he would leave his riches in Gainesville—this program is almost certainly poised to succeed in the next decade.
Meyer is the crucial element.
He has been the one to persuade recruits on that "questionable system," while the lack of history apparently hasn't mattered to the most talented players in the nation. History is now; Meyer lets those two rings on his fingers do the talking.
With Miami and other spread-run programs making inroads on the Florida talent, Meyer has responded by shifting the focus to other states—his invasion of Georgia is well documented.
The more germane shift will be in scheme once the "Chosen One" departs. How Florida succeeds with the pro-style trained John Brantley at the helm will decide whether Florida can adapt.
Penn State Nittany Lions
What? Not Ohio State? Hear me out.
The Buckeyes have reaped the rewards of Big Ten dominance with outstanding recruiting classes rich with local and out-of-state talent. They have also shown that they can weather explicable and inexplicable losses with aplomb.
Far worse than that has been the misuse of OSU's high-caliber athletes. Most notably, Terrelle Pryor. Pryor came to Columbus with the intention of learning a pro-style system, but the Buckeye offense hasn't so-much-as thrown a bone in the direction of his outstanding athletic abilities and talents. Instead, fitting him to a scheme about as well as square pegs fit round holes.
Four years ago, I would have told you that Jim Tressel was a mastermind of adaptation, utilizing the escapability of Troy Smith and the speed of Ted Ginn Jr. to masterful effect—particularly in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl.
But as a conservative, clock-managing, predictable coach, Tressel has been found out. And though he will have an outstanding defense and the comforts of a power-running game stocked to the brim with talented tailbacks to lean on, the game of Tressel-ball—which is really Woody Hayes/Bo Schembechler "bust 'em til they die" ball—is extinct.
The adaptability necessary to evolve was demonstrated not by Tressel's Buckeyes, but by the Nittany Lions.
Paterno's staff suffered the slings and arrows of the Anthony Morelli era, but bookended those years with outstanding performances by option quarterbacks. While lethal on the draw play and competent, they were also occasionally outstanding through the air.
Notably, the decision to play Morelli, instead of Darryl Clark, one or two years earlier was actually Paterno's. A mistake Cool Papa Joe dismissed with a wave of his hand, as only someone who has coached in over 500 college football games can do.
But at the very least, his staff upped their scheme to match Clark's talents, instead of putting him in a play-action-heavy box labeled; "Minimum Athleticism Required."
This is out on a limb, I know, so here's a caveat: if the Buckeyes beat Oregon in the Rose Bowl, and if Penn State gets smacked around by LSU, I will reconsider the momentum of the Nittany Lions as well as the feasibility of Tressel-ball on a large stage.
But in my mind, this year exposed cracks in the veneer that can't get glued back together without a fundamental rehaul of Tressel's system. And considering the obstinacy of the man in question, that's not bloody likely.
Bo Pelini has the Huskers in position to retake the Big 12 North. In fact, Big Red won nine games and nearly won the Big 12 championship mostly on defense, special teams, and suicidal runs through a subpar offensive line.
Like Alabama, Nebraska's been a sleeping giant. Similar histories and local diehard loyalties have bolstered the programs through a difficult decade.
The Huskers have been able to recruit nationally, too. In fact, as one commenter pointed out, only five of the 22 Nebraska starters this year were actually from the state of Nebraska, which is encouraging when you consider the relative lack of prominence of the program in recent years. The Husker name still sells itself. Now, the coaching is catching up, too.
Next year, Big Red is poised to take over a North division that hasn't fielded a representative in the Big 12's BCS autobid since Kansas State's upset of Oklahoma in 2003.
In retrospect, the Cornhuskers have always been the marquee program—the question just was, when would they return?
Of course, they're short an offensive coordinator, and might take a small step back as they restock the defensive line, waiting for the next big gamechanger on defense. But I expect them to be back in a big way by the time 2015, and maybe 2020, rolls around.
Hand-in-hand with the Huskers are the Texas Longhorns. They get the nod over the Sooners in the South.
Texas, because of its recruiting talent, can circle the wagons far more effectively than Oklahoma, which continually has to raid the Lone Star State instead of counting on its native sons.
And though both programs are separated by only a year, in terms of trips to the national championship, the Texas team is more settled in for the long haul. The brief Stoops-to-Notre Dame debacle raised questions about the succession program at OU.
Meanwhile, Mack Brown, though evidently nowhere near retirement, has named his successor: defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. This ends up guaranteeing an uninterrupted change of power that will surprise exactly zero recruits and boosters should it ever need to take emergency effect.
How successful that plan is will depend both on Brown's stamina and the interest Will Muschamp has in being a head coach sooner rather than later. Muschamp's name will surely come up for just about every SEC and Big 12 program with a vacancy.
Cross-apply all previous arguments about adaptability and evolution—for which I feel Mack Brown ought to be the poster child—and throw in a little something about how messing with Texas is a bad idea.
The Horns will be hooking 'em for the better part of the next decade. The sooner we get used to it, the better.
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