Ranking the Best College Football Programs Since 2010

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyFeatured Columnist IVAugust 15, 2019

Ranking the Best College Football Programs Since 2010

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    It's hard to believe the 2010s are already nearing an end, but the last decade of college football has been filled with tremendous performances and endless entertainment. Telling its story must begin with Alabama's dominance, and the Crimson Tide have another opportunity to add to their hardware mantle in 2019. 

    The real battles among the top 10 college football programs since 2010 begin after Nick Saban's army of future NFLers.

    A few programs such as Clemson and Ohio State have been right behind Alabama for the entire period. Others have dominated smaller parts of the decade but have more warts on their claims.

    We're only considering collegiate success for these rankings instead of including high school recruiting and NFL draft production. That means wins, AP polls, Heisman Trophies, conference titles and appearances in the postseason matter.

    Some battles are tougher to decide than others, but the success of each program speaks for itself. 

Honorable Mentions

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    David Kent/Associated Press

    Wisconsin Badgers

    It doesn't matter that the Wisconsin Badgers have been under three different non-interim head coaches since 2010. This program continues to win thanks to its style and formula. With a terrific 92-30 record, the Badgers could be ranked in the top 10.

    Ultimately, their lack of success in the Rose Bowl and relatively few Big Ten titles keep them out. Another top-10 finish in 2019 would catapult them upward; the margin between them and our ranked teams is that thin.


    Notre Dame Fighting Irish

    Though head coach Brian Kelly has struggled in major bowl games with the Irish, he's brought legitimacy to the program. With an 81-35 record, four seasons with at least 10 wins and only one year under .500, the Irish are in the hunt to crack the top 10 and could get there with another College Football Playoff appearance in 2019.

    Having Ian Book back as the unquestioned starting quarterback should help their quest. 


    Auburn Tigers

    Leaving off a team with a Heisman Trophy winner (Cam Newton) and a BCS National Championship (2010) is difficult, but Auburn's up-and-down nature makes it impossible to squeeze it into the top 10. Its record of 78-41 is the worst of any team mentioned, and those accolades only go so far.

    Head coach Gus Malzahn needs a strong 2019 to save his job and get the Tigers back to an elite level in the SEC.


    Oklahoma State Cowboys

    Head coach Mike Gundy's mullet and his Oklahoma State Cowboys have finished in the AP Top 25 six times since 2010 and have just three seasons with fewer than 10 wins. Though they peaked early with a 12-1 season and Fiesta Bowl victory in 2011, this is still one of the premier programs of the last decade.

    Gundy's spread offense has served as a blueprint for other Air Raids to find success across the nation, as well. Their lack of multiple Big 12 titles and postseason accolades keep them on the outside of the top 10, though.

10. Boise State Broncos

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Resume: 95-24, one-time WAC champion (2010), three-time MWC champion (2012, 2014, 2017)

    Several Group of Five teams have consistently performed well since 2010, but none truly compare to the Boise State Broncos. 

    While Chris Petersen had the program running at an impossibly high level from 2006 through 2013, head coach Bryan Harsin has continued to earn Mountain West Conference championships since 2014. Posting just two seasons with fewer than 10 wins and an impressive 6-2 bowl record this decade, the Broncos continue to be a mainstay in the college football world.

    They're also one of the few teams that have appeared in the AP Top 25 each season. They're expected to perform every year, and the program rarely has a letdown. It's unfortunate their conference status keeps them from being considered a true threat for the national championship, but they've performed well against Power Five schools, boasting an 11-8 record since 2010.

9. Georgia Bulldogs

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    Resume: 88-34, one-time national runner-up (2017), one-time SEC champion (2017)

    Here's where the difference between programs is razor-thin.

    With six more losses and one fewer major bowl game win, the Georgia Bulldogs are just slightly below their SEC counterpart in Louisiana. The Bulldogs are quickly trending in the right direction, though, and are paying for Mark Richt's 6-7 dud in 2010 with this ranking.

    With four top-nine finishes in the last seven years as they've pushed their way toward the top in recent campaigns under head coach Kirby Smart, the Bulldogs are positioned to place among the best teams of the next decade thanks to their recruiting chops and high-level player development. 

    Their resume isn't nearly as impressive as others in terms of conference titles and bowl game performances, but they barely lost to Alabama in the 2017 national title game and have two 12-plus-win seasons. They've been as close to bringing home a championship as any team in the country that hasn't won this decade.

    Georgia's overall success already keeps Auburn off the list despite the Tigers claiming a Heisman winner and national title. But the Bulldogs will make another jump if quarterback Jake Fromm and Co. can add another conference title in 2019. They'll benefit from a friendly schedule that doesn't pit them against Alabama during the regular season. 

8. LSU Tigers

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Resume: 88-28, one-time national runner-up (2011), one-time SEC champion (2011)

    LSU doesn't boast the lengthy list of accomplishments compiled by some of its peers, but the program has still been strong despite Alabama's presence in its division. Les Miles and Ed Orgeron have combined for one of the most consistent runs on this list, but the lack of high-end success kept the Tigers from finishing higher.

    Still, their 2011 national title appearance is a major boost to their resume.

    There's something to be said for averaging almost 10 wins and finishing in the AP Top 25 every season but one. LSU's bully-ball mindset and perpetually deep roster filled with athletes have made it a tough matchup even though the offense has continually lagged behind the times.

    A slight downswing from 2014-17 could end up being a positive for the program as it enters the next decade.

    Orgeron has brought in a staff that'll spread the offense out for the first time, and senior quarterback Joe Burrow should fit into the scheme well. We've seen what modernizing did for Alabama's offense, and LSU now hopes to leap up these rankings with a College Football Playoff appearance before the decade closes.

7. Oregon Ducks

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    Ross Franklin/Associated Press

    Resume: 89-30, two-time national runner-up (2010, 2014), one Heisman winner (Marcus Mariota, 2014), three-time Pac-12 champion (2010, 2011, 2014)

    Thanks to a rampant rise that began in 2009 under head coach Chip Kelly, the tale of the 2010s must include the Oregon Ducks. The program had the best record in the nation over the five-year stretch from 2010 to 2014, winning 60 of 68 games. 

    Kelly's successor, Mark Helfrich, peeled off 24 wins in his first two seasons as part of that stretch, beginning in 2013. But the kingdom fell quickly afterward, and the Ducks eventually stumbled to a measly 11 combined wins in 2016 and 2017.

    Injuries across the roster have held Oregon back under current head coach Mario Cristobal, but at least their 9-4 finish in 2018 provides some hope this program will reach 10 wins with a new offensive line and a healthy quarterback in Justin Herbert.

    Despite the recent drop, the Ducks have a Heisman Trophy winner, two national championship appearances and major wins at the Rose Bowl and Fiesta Bowl. Plus, Kelly had a hand in collegiate offenses evolving into fast-paced spread attacks.

6. Stanford Cardinal

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Resume: 94-27, three-time Pac-12 champion (2012, 2013, 2015)

    Would anyone have guessed back at the start of the 2010 season that the Stanford Cardinal would have as many wins as all but five teams in the nation by the end of 2018?

    It's unlikely, seeing as the Cardinal had just two winning seasons from 2000-09. The program is now one of the NCAA's most consistent and recognizable brands thanks to Jim Harbaugh's foundation and David Shaw's continued excellence as head coach.

    Stanford has had unique distinguishers throughout the decade.

    First, it's produced three Heisman runner-ups in Andrew Luck (2010 and 2011), Christian McCaffrey (2015) and Bryce Love (2017). All three had legitimate claims as the country's best college football player in their respective years and made their teams must-see outfits on a weekly basis. 

    Second is the Cardinal's consistent finishes in final AP polls and 3-2 record in major bowl game appearances. They've finished in the top seven of the AP poll four times and the top 20 seven times this decade. 

5. Florida State Seminoles

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    Mark Wallheiser/Associated Press

    Resume: 90-30, one-time national champion (2013), one Heisman winner (Jameis Winston, 2013), one-time College Football Playoff semifinalist (2014), three-time ACC champion (2012, 2013, 2014)

    The Jimbo Fisher-era Seminoles were one of the best programs in the country, starting in his debut 2010 campaign as head coach.

    Fisher built a star-studded roster that featured a bevy of high-end defenders to complement an offense highlighted by Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Their 2012-14 seasons resulted in an impressive 39-3 record to go with a BCS Championship in 2013. 

    Simply put: It's impossible to talk about this decade without featuring the Seminoles for their accomplishments.

    Though Fisher's exit and Willie Taggart's first year are damaging to their overall standing, their seven-season streak of appearing in the top 10 of the AP poll speaks to the expectations created for the program. A 29-game winning streak and three consecutive ACC championships from Dec. 1, 2012 through Dec. 6, 2014 will create such standards.

    Still, we can't overlook their combined 12 wins over the last two years. Each of the teams ahead of the Seminoles has won more games this decade and is coming off a pair of strong seasons. Ending the decade with a whimper has this program longing for the better days that can be found in the rearview mirror.

4. Oklahoma Sooners

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Resume: 97-23, three-time College Football Playoff semifinalist (2015, 2017, 2018), two Heisman winners (Baker Mayfield, 2017; Kyler Murray, 2018), six-time Big 12 champion (2010, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018) 

    Right as the Oregon run started to end, the Oklahoma Sooners emerged as the next game-altering offensive force. The combination of quarterback Baker Mayfield (from 2015-17), head coach Lincoln Riley (since 2017) and a deep array of playmakers has the Sooners on a streak of four straight years in the top five of the AP poll. They also finished sixth in both 2010 and 2013.

    Success was no stranger to Norman, Oklahoma, prior to Mayfield and Riley, though.

    Bob Stoops had the program humming until his retirement after the 2016 season, collecting double-digit wins during every relevant season except 2014. The fact Riley has been even more successful in the last few years is a testament to how well he's done rather than a failure by Stoops.

    With Mayfield and Kyler Murray headlining the program as Heisman Trophy winners and a whopping six Big 12 championships, the Sooners are an absolute force. Their biggest weakness is the absence of a national championship. Their 3-3 record in major bowl games has left them on the cusp of the true elites over the last decade, and pulling off a title run in 2019 could catapult them into third place.

3. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Resume: 104-17, one-time national champion (2014), one-time College Football Playoff semifinalist (2014), four-time Big Ten champion (2010, 2014, 2017, 2018)

    Focusing solely on the on-field results, the Ohio State Buckeyes were a clear top-three program of the 2010s. Their winning percentage (0.860) was boosted by 24- and 23-game win streaks under head coach Urban Meyer, and their 2014 national championship stands tall as their crowning achievement. 

    The Buckeyes were nothing short of incredible during Meyer's tenure, amassing 83 wins to only nine losses as they consistently dominated the Big Ten.

    We could recognize the NCAA's decision to vacate Ohio State's 12-1 season under Jim Tressel in 2010 due to Tattoogate, and the Buckeyes would still have a resume strong enough for this placement. They've been a staple of the championship race and Collge Football Playoff conversation each season they've been eligible, 2011 notwithstanding. 

    With seven finishes inside the top six of the AP poll, one season at No. 12 and six major bowl wins to only two losses, the Buckeyes have been a powerhouse. Had they won another title, perhaps while heavily favored in 2015, they would have jumped into second place.

    Maybe they can still accomplish that by winning one in 2019. 

2. Clemson Tigers

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    Resume: 103-22, two-time national champion (2016, 2018), one-time national runner-up (2015), one-time College Football Playoff semifinalist (2017), five-time ACC champion (2011, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018)

    Remember when Clemsoning was a thing?

    Long gone are the days of poor performances in critical showdowns, as head coach Dabo Swinney has built a true competitor for the crown of best program in the nation each year. The Tigers ripped the Seminoles' claim on the ACC away when Deshaun Watson began his reign of terror in 2015. Since then, they've gone 55-4 with two national titles and one runner-up finish.

    They've thrived by fielding deeply talented teams that break opposing offenses with suffocating pass rushes and timely play-calling from defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Plus, Swinney has accrued some of the best offensive playmakers we've seen across the country.

    The 2019 season will continue to bring success as quarterback Trevor Lawrence is back with an NFL-level supporting cast. Though another championship won't be enough to dethrone Alabama for the decade, the Tigers have proved a gold standard after functioning as a good-but-not-great program for many years under Tommy Bowden. 

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Resume: 111-13, four-time national champion (2011, 2012, 2015, 2017), two-time national runner-up (2016, 2018), one-time College Football Playoff semifinalist (2014), one Heisman Winner (Derrick Henry, 2015), five-time SEC champion (2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018)

    Here's the most obvious ranking of them all. 

    With four national championships already in tow and the opportunity to add another if they can exact revenge on Clemson, the Crimson Tide have been an unrelenting competitor under head coach Nick Saban. He's had more than two losses just once this decade and hasn't lost even twice in a single season since 2014. 

    Despite serving as an NFL pipeline each year and lacking a dynamic passing quarterback until Tua Tagovailoa arrived, the Tide have been in the title mix nearly every season. They've finished No. 1 or No. 2 in the AP poll a whopping six times and within the top 10 each year. No other team can sniff that level of dominance. 

    The lone weakness on their resume is that they've yet to go undefeated this decade. Their 2009 team was the last to avoid a loss. Though things have still worked out for them, an undefeated run in 2019 would undoubtedly cap one of the most flawless 10-year stretches in NCAA history.