College football is built on tradition.
It’s a sport that, due to its timeless fan bases and traditional rivalries, can compete with any major sport in the media or in popularity. And despite it being an amateur competition, its fans pack stadiums with crowds bigger than even the NFL could ever dream.
From Ann Arbor to South Bend, and Tuscaloosa to Lincoln, tradition runs deep. It’s that tradition that makes college football so unique and so popular.
However, great tradition also gives some teams a free pass, and fair or not, it gives some teams an edge in the polls and gives fan bases a twisted view of reality.
College football is hypocritical in that respect. Ironically, in a sport that ranks teams largely on a “what have you done for me lately” system, a string of national championships in the ‘80s can gain teams more respect than a team that returns more talent and experience.
And surprisingly, fan bases all across the country—not just the ones gaining a fair advantage—tend to support the traditional powers.
College football is the only American sport where this happens; where results from the past affect teams’ rankings and perceptions in the present day.
It’s not easy to explain why it happens, but for a portrait of the phenomenon, look no further than South Bend.
The Anomaly that is Notre Dame
Notre Dame defies all logic of sports fandom or athletic success.
It’s a smallish, private school with high-quality academics that is placed in a small market—no, South Bend is not a suburb of Chicago. Typically, small-market teams struggle in college football, and the ones that don’t—Alabama, Oregon, Iowa, Nebraska, etc.—are public schools that represent the only big-time teams in their states.
Notre Dame, however, is a private school with a fan base bigger than either Indiana or Purdue, the two major public schools in its state, and it must compete with the Colts for fans.
But despite their humble beginnings, the Irish have become a traditional big-name program. They are tied for first place among FBS schools with 11 national championships and have accumulated a massive, nationwide fan base that has become famous for traveling to bowl games.
Now, Notre Dame is no underdog. It has become a national brand and brings in millions of dollars in revenue and TV money each year. And, thanks to its status as an independent, it reaps the benefits of the bowl system.
In addition to the commissioners of the six BCS conferences, Notre Dame’s athletic director helps run the BCS, making it the most powerful school in college football.
The Irish must finish in the top 14 in the BCS rankings to be eligible for a BCS bowl game—if eligible, their fan base ensures they will be chosen—which is not difficult to achieve considering that the school’s historic significance causes voters to inflate its rankings.
However, while fan support and revenue have continued to increase, the Irish have come back to earth in terms of athletic success. They haven’t won a National Championship since 1988 and their last BCS-caliber bowl win was a 1992 Sugar Bowl victory over Florida.
But despite the on-field failures, Notre Dame continues to get respect from the national media and from its own fans. It’s respect that still resonates from 1988.
Entitled Fan Bases
I’ve always said that Notre Dame is the worst coaching job in sports. Its fan base expects the impossible—a National Championship every season—and it expects its coach to be able to reload every season.
That’s not possible for the top programs in the country, and it’s certainly not possible for Notre Dame.
The last Irish coach, Charlie Weis, played in two BCS bowls, but that wasn’t enough for a fan base that demanded he be fired.
Notre Dame fans are among the most unrealistic in college football. They assume that because of their history, they can beat anyone in the country and they overlook the fact that some years, their team simply doesn’t have the talent to be great.
And despite their average results, the Irish still plead their case for a spot in the preseason rankings, all because they used to be a powerhouse.
Notre Dame is not the only culprit; Nebraska shares a similar feeling of entitlement. In fact, the Cornhuskers have been worse than the Irish this decade.
The Huskers have been to—and lost—only one BCS bowl game since the new millennium, losing the 2001 BCS Championship to Miami. They never won a Big 12 title, either.
However, Nebraska fans still claim their dominance over the rest of college football. And now, with the move to the Big Ten, they are even more confident that they will dominate the sport once again.
Even the media has bought in, picking the Huskers to win the Big Ten in their first year, despite the fact that they have to learn a new league, have an inconsistent offense, and must play the most grueling schedule in the conference.
For Huskers fans to think that they have an easy path to the title is completely irrational, yet they fully believe it.
Nebraska and Notre Dame are masters at finding excuses, and excuses make it easier to believe your team is good and to dismiss failures as bad luck.
Of course nobody is going to believe that Nebraska’s decade-long struggle and Notre Dame’s two-decade slide are all due to bad luck, but those fan bases continue to believe it.
For Notre Dame, it’s all the fault of Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis. For Nebraska, it’s because the officials hate them and Texas treated them poorly.
Most programs accept that rebuilding is part of the college game, but if you refuse to admit you need to rebuild and refuse to admit your team is mediocre, it’s impossible to improve.
The reality is that Notre Dame and Nebraska are not the powers that they used to be. But no matter how much the numbers point to that conclusion, both fan bases will continue to anoint themselves the kings of college football.
Underachieving or an unrealistic desire for success?
On the surface, Notre Dame and Nebraska seem to be massive overachievers. They come from small markets and have a small regional player pool to choose from. However, recruiting changes the picture completely.
For all the things tradition can’t predict, it can draw recruits. Back in the 1980s, both programs were able to draw in recruits because of their winning traditions. This translated to an incredible amount of success on the field.
Back then, there were very few consistent, winning programs, and that allowed Notre Dame and Nebraska to bring in the best recruits from around the country.
However, with so many other programs coming into the mix, a number of the recruits who would have chosen Notre Dame or Nebraska two decades ago are opting for other programs.
Some recruits still value tradition, and both the Irish and the Huskers pull in top talent, but that talent has begun to spread out to other programs across the country, particularly to SEC teams and Nebraska’s arch-nemesis, Texas.
Neither Nebraska nor Notre Dame has underachieved significantly over the last decade. They’ve finished with respectable records, records representative of their talent level.
It’s irrational to expect either team to win at the pace they showed two decades ago, as their talent levels have decreased greatly in proportion to their opponents.
Yet, fans of Notre Dame and Nebraska still expect National Championships year in and year out, and they refuse to acknowledge the facts.
Nebraska and Notre Dame don’t underachieve; they just have an irrational expectation of success.
Pollsters respect tradition
Like the fans of both schools, the pollsters have bought into the tradition argument, and it was especially obvious in the 2011 USA Today/ESPN preseason coaches poll.
As mentioned earlier, Nebraska was chosen to win the Big Ten by the media despite all the obstacles it must face in its first year in the conference. The Huskers look to be overrated in the coaches poll as well, checking in at No. 11.
Notre Dame is ranked No. 18, and while it certainly could succeed this year with so many returning starters, this is a team that went 8-5 on a fairly easy schedule last season and lost to Tulsa.
The bottom of the poll shows the tradition privilege even more clearly. The final three teams—Florida, Texas and Penn State, respectively—show little promise that they’ll remain in the polls. However, they all snuck in due to their past success.
Florida’s offense was brutal last season and it still hasn’t found a way to pass the ball. The Gators are also breaking in a new system and a new coach.
Texas was ranked in the top five to start last season, but had an abysmal offense and finished 5-7, failing to qualify for a bowl game.
Penn State still has no answer at quarterback, after trying out Robert Bolden and Matt McGloin last season. The Nittany Lions lose all-time leading rusher Evan Royster and must replace star offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski.
They must navigate a brutal schedule and figure to drop out of the rankings early, as they play Alabama in the second week of the season.
None of these teams deserves to be ranked. There are a number of solid teams behind them, teams that have more talent and more experience, but they lack the big-name appeal of Florida, Texas or Penn State.
It’s an unfair system that gives undeserving teams a leg up just because they had success in the past.
The pollsters add legitimacy to the arguments of Nebraska and Notre Dame, however many holes those teams may have. They believe in the hype that these fan bases have created, even though the talent level of these teams isn’t close to what it used to be.
There’s a saying that history is the best teacher. But while history may provide learning experiences for the future, it can’t predict success in anything, especially not in the changing world of college football.
The college football landscape is nothing like what it was even a decade ago. More recruits are moving far way to play football and the most talented players around the country are choosing a wide variety of schools.
The days of Lou Holtz, Tom Osborne and the glory days of the Irish and Huskers are over. There will be no more dynasties in college football, and if the numbers don’t lie, fans in South Bend and Lincoln will likely never experience a high level of success again.
However, against all logic, fans of Notre Dame and Nebraska will continue to make excuses and live in the past.
And until those programs can accept that they are no longer the kings of college football, and until they accept that the sport has reached a new, nationwide era, they will continue to suffer from mediocrity and wonder how they fell so far.