Rankings: The Top 10 College Football Programs of the Decade (2001-2010)
This is the second annual installment of my "Program of the Decade" rankings and covers the 2001-2010 seasons. This is an attempt to quantify the success of the decade's top programs and compare apples to apples to find the best over the last 10 years.
Finding the best, especially during a decade with considerable parity, is a difficult and naturally subjective task. Basically, you need determine what measurements you want to use and how you want to use them, and that is exactly what I did.
Keep in mind we’re comparing the accomplishments of players currently retiring from the NFL along with bright-eyed 18-year-old freshmen. A decade spans players, coaches, athletic directors and even conferences as a whole.
In a way, it should be simple to pick a Program of the Decade in the 2000s with the advent of the BCS, a system designed specifically to pick the two “best” teams and have those teams settle it on field.
Although in the end, the BCS may have caused more confusion than ever before because the old system (or lack of) was knowingly and inherently flawed. With the promises of getting it right, the BCS seemed to just infuriate almost everyone and demonstrated the caste system that is college football.
Ten years ago, we were about to see the wrath of the mighty Miami Hurricanes, and arguably the best team of all time in 2001. Their eventual demise has lead way to a resurgence from old powers like Ohio State, USC, Oklahoma, Texas and Alabama. LSU, Florida and Auburn have also established themselves as the new class. As a whole, the last 10 have have been dominated by the SEC with select teams from the Big 12, USC and Ohio State, standing alone in their conferences.
Geographically, the decade took a strong turn to the Sun Belt states, albeit with a few exceptions. Eight teams from five conferences won BCS championships demonstrating parity, at least among the elite.
This decade has not been without controversy, and unfortunately, a few clouds currently linger over several programs. For the sake of this poll, sanctions taken against USC most notably, as well as Alabama, have not been been factored into these polls—specifically, their vacated wins still count. It's just more interesting to compare what was done on the field.
To determine the Top 10 Programs of the Decade, I developed a six-part formula measuring the following criteria: rankings, winning percentage, BCS success, quality of losses, quality of wins and BCS National Championships. I scored all the programs within the countdown, in addition to Georgia, Oregon, Virginia Tech and Boise State. I also ran some preliminary numbers on West Virginia, Utah and TCU; none of would crack the top 10.
All categories have two common and simple themes: Winning is rewarded and losing is punished (at least implicitly).
To measure, the top team in each category received 100 points and subsequent teams received the number of points equal to the percentage earned of the winner. For example, if Team A was the best in a given category with a score of 20, and Team B was second with 19, Team A would receive 100 points and Team B would receive 95 points.
Teams also received 100 points per BCS National Championship. As stated above, this is an inherently subjective exercise. For example, I found ways to justify four different champions with the same data sets and categories just by changing a few things, but eventually, I settled on a formula I could live with. A more detailed description can be found at the end.
On to the countdown...
10. Georgia Bulldogs (291 Points)
2000-2009 Ranking: 8
Georgia quietly amassed a very impressive and mostly consistent decade, and although the last two seasons have been forgettable, one can't diminish the Dawgs' achievements over the last 10 years in the nation's toughest conference.
The Bulldogs played some excellent football and produced some exceptional players throughout the decade, winning the SEC twice, but their accomplishments were overshadowed by the success of their rivals in blue to the south. In all measured categories (except Championships), Georgia placed between eighth and ninth. It did finish sixth in Unranked Losses, meaning it did not lose games against inferior competition.
The Dawgs finally grabbed the spotlight and were dubbed by many as the nation's "hottest team" going into the 2007 bowl season and followed through by throttling Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. When their president stole some of league rival LSU's thunder by speaking against the ills of the BCS, he proposed a playoff system the day after the Tiger's championship win, and the Dawgs started 2008 ranked No. 1.
Again, they failed to live up to the hype and saw the Gator's hoist another crystal ball in 2008. Like many teams, Georgia was a few big wins away from greatness—wins that would have boosted its scores in all categories.
Still, the Dawgs certainly had an excellent decade of continued success. 2010 marked the only time in the last 10 that Georgia failed to beat a ranked team. Fans in Athens are cautiously optimistic for 2010 with many returning starters, and most importantly, a rebuilding Florida. Most preseason polls have Georgia in the the top 15. It will tested early in Week 1 when Boise State, the team that finished 11th in this poll, visits the Georgia Dome anxious to prove it's grown up since its last visit to the Peach State in 2005.
9. Alabama Crimson Tide (329 Points)
2000-2009 Ranking: 9
If you paid any attention to the SEC in the last three years, you saw all you needed to see with Alabama over the last 10 years. Outside of these years, 'Bama has no business on this countdown, and the 2000s were a decade to forget. In every measurable category except National Championships, the Tide placed no higher than 11th amongst the 13 teams scored. Just like real life, a championship sure changes things.
The pre-Saban years were uncharacteristically underwhelming considering the Tide's proud history. They boasted only two moderately successful campaigns in 2002 (under postseason probation) and 2005 (wins later vacated).
The Tide have only three wins (both of which were vacated) between 2001 and 2007 over a top 25 team. Nonetheless, for all that went wrong the first seven years, winning has healed all wounds, and the future undoubtedly looks bright in Tuscaloosa. Alabama is primed for another title run in 2011 and will certainly only climb in this poll as it replaces poor seasons with strong seasons.
8. Miami Hurricanes (371 Points)
2000-2009 Ranking: 7
Don't forget about the the U just yet. The 2000s saw the best and worst of the the 'Canes. They started off the decade with a 34-game winning streak and had a legitimate shot to begin with three national titles (finished close third in the BCS behind FSU in 2000, won a national championship in 2001, lost in overtime of the championship game in 2002) and were loaded with NFL talent. Even with the emergence of USC, Miami was the clear statistical leader the first half of the decade.
The second half, especially 2006-2008, was a different story completely. In the end, Miami's best category was BCS Success (seventh place) and worst was 13th in overall Loss Quality—losses to unranked teams destroyed Miami. As the years went on, the losses mounted and its rankings in all categories plummeted.
The Hurricanes regained respectability in 2009 and failed to deliver in 2010, costing Randy Shannon his job. A new era of Hurricane football begins this year; unfortunately, pending a miracle season, Miami's run on this countdown is over after this year when it drops the 2001 season's credentials.
7. Oklahoma Sooners (415 Points)
2000-2009 Ranking: 3
Despite being one of the decade's most consistent programs, Oklahoma fell hard from No. 3 by losing its 2000 championship season. It almost seems unfair, but without any hardware in the last decade, the Sooners are where they belong.
Oklahoma finally broke its five-game losing streak in BCS games, albeit to UConn, but the victory may be a sign of things to come. The Sooners were ridiculed for these losses, and unfortunately, in each of the three years OU lost in the title games, worthy teams (USC 2003, Auburn 2004, Texas 2008) were denied their chance, leading to even greater criticism.
In the measurable categories (and remarkably similar to their decade), Oklahoma never placed first, but never finished less than fifth. Despite playing in the same division, the Sooners faced stiffer in-conference competition than Texas and added a few strong non-conference opponents like Oregon, Cincinnati, TCU, Miami and Florida State. To put the Sooners in perspective, they beat out both Alabama and Miami without the assistance of the 100-point BCS championship points.
Like most years, there are high expectations again in Norman. With only 10 teams in the Big 12, no conference championship game and a questionable Texas team, there are definitely reasons for optimism heading into 2011.
6. Auburn Tigers (430 Points)
2000-2009 Ranking: UR
War Eagle arrived in a big way onto the countdown with the Tigers' long-awaited championship season after two previously fruitless undefeated campaigns in 2004 and 1993. Auburn has consistently been a "tough out" for top teams throughout the last 10 years but also had a tendency to drop games against mid-tier competition. The Tigers finished ranked in six of the 10 years.
Auburn did, however, accomplish what no other team could: successfully navigate two undefeated seasons. Of course, its 2004 season left it out of of the now infamous 2005 Orange Bowl, and thus, the Tigers could not reap the benefits of a national championship that year.
This ability to win big games propelled Auburn to the top of the Quality Wins category, barely beating out Florida. Big wins included No. 3 Florida in 2001, No. 6.5 Georgia and No. 10 in Virginia Tech in 2004, No. 8 Alabama and No. 10 Georgia in 2005, No. 1 Florida and No. 3 LSU in 2006 and No. 3 Oregon, No. 8 LSU and No. 10.5 Alabama in 2010. However, Auburn struggled with its consistency and scored between ninth and 11th in winning percentage, rankings and BCS success.
Much has changed since 2010, as stars Cam Newton and Nick Fairly are gone from The Plains, but a young corps of players remains and should put the Tigers in the middle of a brutal SEC West in 2011.
5. Texas Longhorns (495 Points)
Ranking from 2000-2009: 4
2010 easily saw Texas' worst season of the last 10 years and resulted in a drop from fourth place, despite jumping rival Oklahoma. Excluding 2010, Texas was easily the most consistent team over the last decade, but replacing a strong 2000 campaign with the 2010 debacle damaged the Horn—from 2000-2009, Texas never ranked below 13th in any year.
In the current decade, the Longhorns lost their grasp on first place for rankings and Loss Quality Total. Texas still claimed the top spot for Winning Percentage (shared with Boise State) and Quality Losses, but its huge lead was significantly reduced, and losses to four unranked teams plummeted its totals for that category. In total, Texas finished between second and seventh place.
The inability to consistently get past rival Oklahoma through the decade prevented Texas from capitalizing on its success through most of the decade. This inability led to fewer opportunities to advance to BCS and play top-tier competition. Compared to their arch rival, the Longhorn's image seems to be more positive because of success in out-of-conference games, and even in defeat (2010 BCS Championship), put up a valiant effort after Colt McCoy was knocked out early.
Looking forward, Texas has seemingly hand-picked its new league and is sure to receive plenty of money and continued success.
4. USC Trojans (538 Points)
2000-2009 Ranking: 5
OK. Where to begin with the Trojans? First of all, this ranking excluded the recent vacated victories and was based purely on on-field performance.
After being dubbed the Team of the Decade by many media sources (ESPN.com, NBC Sports, etc.) both before and after the 2009 season, it is undeniable the Trojans were a phenomenal program throughout the decade with their 34-game winning streak, three Heisman Trophies and Hollywood personalities. USC effectively filled the void of the Raiders and Rams, becoming THE football team for the nation's second largest market.
Despite gaining ground from last year’s ranking, USC’s decade features seven great seasons and three mediocre ones. A closer look at the numbers demonstrates poor seasons in 2001 and 2010 and a disappointing 2009 run. The Achilles' heel that snipped the Trojans so many times through their run doomed them again here—losing to relatively bad teams.
USC finished between third and fourth in most categories, but sixth in Loss Quality Total. In particular, it finished ninth in the losses to unranked teams portion of the category—very unbecoming for a Team of the Decade. Despite perceptions of unbridled greatness, USC only finished first in one category—a tie in BCS Success.
Also, there is the issue of 2003. I chose not to credit USC with a national championship with its AP title because the Trojans lived in BCS world. USC failed to qualify for the game under the system everyone agreed to by playing the weakest schedule of the three one-loss teams.
The line has to be drawn as 2003 was not 1997, a year that contractually prevented Michigan and Nebraska from playing.
USC has so many disclaimers that it feels like a Viagra commercial. Also, it becomes so subjective it almost makes moot any attempt at quantitative analysis. For what it's worth, under my calculations, USC would finish in seventh place between Oklahoma and Miami if its 2004 wins over UCLA and Oklahoma were vacated along with the entire 2005 season, and it received zero points for the 2004 BCS Championship. In fact, they are very close to Oklahoma depending on how BCS success would be handled, but clearly, excluding two BCS games hurts.
If all things remain the same and USC is awarded 100 points along with LSU for the 2003 season, USC takes the title as top program of the decade.
Despite another year of postseason bowl ban, the Trojans seem to have retained top talent and should continue to fight on in the new Pac-12 in 2011. Even if USC picks off one or two ranked teams this year, it will improve its ranking as it loses a lackluster 2001 season.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes (559 Points)
2000-2009 Ranking: 6
Ohio State had a huge jump from sixth place to third, but unfortunately for the Buckeyes their best days may be behind them. In the same vein as USC, storm clouds have hung over Columbus this offseason and more details have emerged over the potential improprieties throughout the Jim Tressel era.
Regardless of how the future will interpret the past, the Buckeyes made major strides in 2010 by replacing a mediocre 2000 season. Ohio State is another historically successful program that witnessed a revival or sorts in the 2000s by winning the 2002 national championship over what many considered to be a vastly superior Miami team. It played for two more championships as well, losing both times to SEC schools.
The Buckeyes dominated the Big Ten (in particular rival Michigan) over the course of the decade. Ohio State has the most BCS bowl appearances in the decade and proved that its massive alumni base and fan support will travel well.
Through the measured categories, Ohio State jumped to the front of three: Ranking Total, BCS Success (tie with USC) and jumped Texas for Loss Quality Total. However, Ohio State finished sixth in Loss Quality Total and behind LSU and Florida in number of BCS National Championships. This was in part to what many amounted to a "weaker" Big Ten and an inability to defeat elite teams from 2006-2008.
To their credit, the Buckeyes scheduled tough home-and-home series with USC and Texas, but in those four games, only nipped Texas during its worst year of the decade. Over the last few years, it has become trendy to dog the Big Ten and Buckeyes for losing those championship games, but they overwhelmingly won the games they should have won, and their continued and consistent success is undeniable. Winning consecutive BCS Bowl games has certainly shaken that image.
For the first time in many years, Ohio State may not be a “shoe”–in for the Big Ten Championship this year as a result of recent scandals. However, one would be unwise to sleep on a team with so much success and talent.
2. Florida Gators (598 Points)
2000-2009 Ranking: 1
Like Texas, the Gators suffered an uncharacteristically poor 2010 and lost their title as the decade's best program—barely. By replacing an SEC Championship season in 2000 with the 2010 campaign, the Gators took a step backwards.
The Gators' roller coaster decade featured three coaches, two national championships and one Heisman. 2010 was the worst year of the previous 10. Nonetheless, previous accomplishments go very far in covering for Florida. The Gators finished seventh in both winning percentage and rankings. It tied LSU and Oklahoma for third in BCS Success and also placed third in Quality Loss. Florida’s best category was Quality Wins, finishing in second place, although it gave up that spot to newcomer Auburn after picking up no quality wins in 2010 and losing several from 2000. The Gators entered the decade as a premier program playing in the nation's toughest conference and are geared for a comeback under Will Muschamp.
Top to bottom, Florida’s decade was relatively inconsistent compared to others like USC, Ohio State and Oklahoma, as their peaks were higher and valleys deeper. The Zook years from 2002-2004 were very unremarkable but Urban Meyer’s championships in 2006 and 2008, as well as an excellent 2009 campaign 2009, carried Florida’s success.
Looking forward, Florida is rebuilding with a new coach and new personnel. Expectations do not seem to be as high as the past few seasons, but the Gators are again loaded with talent and seeking to contend in a weaker and unknown SEC East.
1. LSU Tigers (607 Points)
2000-2009 Ranking: 2
Here we are…a new champion is crowned. The Bayou Bengals roared back to relevance with Nick Saban's arrival in Baton Rouge and became the first team to win two BCS Championships and also captured three SEC titles. The Tigers had six seasons with three or fewer losses (2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2010), and the rest of the decade was solid by most standards, but mediocre when compared to the elites.
In the five measured categories, LSU came in between second and sixth—sixth in Winning Percentage, the closest of all categories. LSU finished fifth in ranking total, fourth in Quality Win Total and second in Loss Quality Total. At the end of the day, it's the hardware that counts, not statistics. LSU hung close in all the categories and were unquestionably propelled to the top by its two BCS championships (2003 and 2007).
Essentially, LSU and Florida went in opposite directions in 2010; LSU replaced a poor season with a strong campaign, while Florida replaced a strong season with a poor outing. LSU and Florida tied in BCS Success and National Championships. Florida was 11.5 points better than LSU in Quality Wins, but LSU had 14.5 points on the Gators in Rankings. Add on roughly three points advantages in Winning Percentage and Loss Quality, and you find the difference. Basically, LSU won by a razor-thin margin, and one game along the way for either team could have changed the results.
Clearly, LSU benefited from playing in the SEC and the constant exposure to top programs. It also managed to avoid meltdowns in even its worst years. Its 8-5 2008 must be considered the low point. While never spectacular, even in its greatest years (three losses in two championship seasons, only one of three teams on list without a Heisman Trophy), LSU has generally had the last laugh.
The last 10 years must be considered the Golden Age of Tiger football, and it has been filled with close calls and controversy. Last year many considered Les Miles to be a man on the hot seat despite his success; this year, his Tigers are primed for another national championship run. LSU comes into 2011 with arguable the nation’s toughest schedule, beginning with Oregon and including the typical SEC gauntlet as well as a road trip to Morgantown. Should the Tigers survive, a 60-minute drive to New Orleans may await.
It has been said that statistics can be used to support or undercut almost any argument. This poll was no different. My goal was to create a sustainable scoring system that quantified important criteria to appropriately measure a program's success over a long period of time.
The following slides provide greater detail in the scoring system used to determine the order.
This is simply the overall winning percentage over the last ten years.
While this is not perfect measurement, college football's bottom line is winning. The more you win, the better off you are — simple as that.
Changes from last year:
The only methodological change from last year is that I used a straight percentage. Previously I based the percentages off the highest ranking BCS team (Texas) and not the No. 1 team, Boise State due to the difference in scheduling. I revised as I felt it took away from the project by weighting the data. It would not have changed the outcome of last year regardless.
Boise held on tot he top spot with Texas in second.
Vacated wins for both Alabama and USC were not deducted from this total.
This was determined by averaging a program's rank in both the Coaches' and AP Polls for a given year and assigning the inverse number relative to the ranking. These numbers were then totaled for each program for all ten years.
If a team ended the season unranked, no points were earned. For example, in 2010 Auburn finished No. 1 and thus received 25 points, TCU at No. 2 with 24 points, ect.
Rankings are integral in college football and have historically quantified success. A team's continued success is important to measure when determining the best over a ten year period.
Changes from Last Year:
Like the Winning Percentage, Ohio State leaped powers Texas, Oklahoma, and USC to claim the top spot. The Buckeye's erased a mediocre 2000 campaign with a No. 5 finish in 2010 while the Sooners lost their championship season and Texas' worst year since the Clinton Administration replaced a No. 12 finish
USC and Alabama received credit for their AP rankings in years where vacated wins took place.
Teams are rated by the following point system: one point = BCS game loss; two points = BCS Championship game loss; three points = BCS game win; four points = BCS Championship Game win.
BCS Success attempts to quantify success in the BCS bowl games — the time when all eyes are upon you. Success and failure in BCS games has jump started and hampered teams going into the next season.
While the BCS is not perfect, getting to a BCS bowl is what every team strives to achieve. Getting to the BCS means one or all things — you won your conference, you are very good, or you have a lot of money and fans. Fair or not, these issues factor into college football success.
Changes From Last Year:
Again, Ohio State jumped to the top in another category. Their controversial Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas not only got the SEC bowl monkey of their back, but brought them even with USC at 21 BCS points.
Like the other categories, USC's vacated wins are counted toward their BCS points; this omission is most pronounced in this category and addressing simply leads to greater subjectivity. If USC's vacated 2005 Orange Bowl and 2006 Rose Bowl games received zero points, they would score 15; still second place but it would have cost them almost 30 points.
Quality Win Total
Quality Win Total is the net total of inverse "Ranking Points" of a team’s defeated opponents. Every victory over a ranked team (at the end of the season) is measured and totaled.
For example, Ole Miss would have earned 25 points for beating No. 1 Florida in 2008. Alabama earned 24 points for beating No. 2 Texas in 2009, etc.
Quality of victory and quality of competition are important factors and get beyond simple win/loss figures. This indirectly considers a team's strength of schedule by providing opportunities to beat quality teams and rewards significant accomplishments. For example, Alabama earned 36 points in 2010 for beating No. 12, 14, and 16, despite three losses, while Oregon only earned 22 for just beating only No. 4 Stanford. Basically, the assumption is that the program of the decade should beat unranked teams. Whether it’s unranked Florida State or unranked Florida International, wins over unranked teams are not scored.
Changes From Last Year:
Auburn stormed to the top of this category after SEC brother Florida replaced a strong 2000 with a lackluster 2010. Auburn has been a strange bird (Eagle?) as they have consistently won some huge games but also lost a lot to unranked teams (relatively anyway).
Quality Loss Total
This measurement is the combination of two scores — "quality" losses (ranked teams) and "non-quality" losses. Quality Losses are 40 percent of the score and based on the same scoring system for Quality Wins — a given program’s ranked opponents are measured by their inverse ranking (25-1).
However, losses to ranked teams are also measured in addition to wins over ranked teams. As such, 25 points would be earned for beating the No. 1 team, and 25 points would be earned in the loss category for losing to the No. 25 team. From there, the win/loss ratio of each program is measured to produce a final score.
The remaining 60 percent is the total score (based on Congrove computer rankings) of the rank of each program’s losses to unranked teams at the end of the year. If a team lost to the No. 100 ranked team, then 100 points are assigned to that team. The program with the lowest number wins. The Quality Loss and Quality Win score are then added together.
This is the most subjective and complicated formula. Given college football is often a game judged on who beats you, rather than who you beat, this is an important issue. By dividing this in two, it also brings in strength of schedule component by being more forgiving for losses to ranked teams.
A ratio (quality losses) was used instead a straight numbers to account for the quality of opponents. For example, Boise State lost fewer games than Florida, but it would be disingenuous to base Boise's loss record as the baseline considering the quality of competition.
Changes from Last Year:
Texas took a major hit and Ohio State improved to first overall. Texas has a stranglehold on this criteria before their disastrous season saw losses to four unranked teams. Texas held on to the Top 25 W/L Ratio but most everyone else gained serious ground on the Horns. Florida, despite its struggles in 2010, did not lose to an unranked team and maintained the top spot in that category.. LSU also gained ground here.
BCS National Championships
100 points are awarded for every BCS Championship won.
Even though the system is not perfect, it's the ultimate goal — earning the hardware is what it's all about. Winning one championship is therefore equal to being the best over a decade in whatever arbitrary statistic.
Changes From Last Year:
Not much happened other than Okahoma losing it's 100 point bonus and Auburn gaining theirs. LSU and Florida still sit atop with two championships a piece.
*USC Disclaimer 1. USC was awarded their 100 points for the 2004 championship, despite the game being vacated.
**USC Disclaimer 2. USC did not receive 100 points for its 2003 AP Championship.