Ranking the Best College Football Programs Since 2015

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistAugust 12, 2020

Ranking the Best College Football Programs Since 2015

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    Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney are leading the two best FBS programs in the country.
    Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney are leading the two best FBS programs in the country.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Late in the 2000s and into the 2010s, Alabama established itself as the standard in college football. The last half-decade, though, didn't entirely belong to the Crimson Tide.

    Clemson moved from a respected team to a national powerhouse, and both programs have won a pair of championships in that time. As a result, determining the most successful team in the Football Bowl Subdivision since 2015 wasn't such an easy task.

    The next tier includes Georgia, LSU, Oklahoma and Ohio State. While certain factorsnational titles, College Football Playoff berths, conference championship wins and appearances (with an emphasis on Power Five leagues) and overall record—shaped the list, they were especially influential in this range and beyond.

T-10. Appalachian State Mountaineers

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    Appalachian State isn't a glamorous choice, but the Sun Belt program is one of the most consistent teams in the country.

    Over the last five seasons, the Mountaineers have finished no worse than 9-4 and peaked at 13-1 in 2019. They've won or shared four straight Sun Belt titlesincluding both wins in the conference championship gameand posted a 54-12 overall record.

    For good measure, App State is 5-0 in bowls and has watched two coaches leave for power-conference jobs. Scott Satterfield went to Louisville, and Eli Drinkwitz headed to Missouri.

T-10. Boise State Broncos

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    Steve Conner/Associated Press

    Totally cheating to have a tie at 10th, but it felt wrong to leave off Appalachian State or Boise State.

    Highlighted by Mountain West titles in 2017 and 2019, the Broncos have enjoyed a 52-15 run since 2015. During this stretch, they've earned a 6-5 mark against power-conference teams. Boise State also appeared in the 2018 MWC Championship Game.

    Impressively, the last half-decade helped the program extend its streak to 21 consecutive seasons of eight-plus wins. Bryan Harsin has done a remarkable job keeping the powerhouse alive.

9. Wisconsin Badgers

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    Mark Lomoglio/Associated Press

    Will the Badgers ever break through to reach the College Football Playoff? It's a reasonable question for a school that has never claimed a national championship.

    That, however, doesn't mean Wisconsin is lacking success.

    Paul Chryst took over in 2015 and has guided his alma mater to a 52-16 record. Along the way, the Badgers have secured two Big Ten West Division titles and three trips to New Year's Six bowls.

    During this span, Wisconsin has a trio of Top 11 final AP rankings. The most notable player is Jonathan Taylor, who thundered to 6,174 rushing yards from 2017 to 2019. He's one of four consensus All-Americans for the Badgers in this period.

8. Penn State Nittany Lions

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    Barry Reeger/Associated Press

    Since heading to Penn State in 2014, James Franklin has lifted the program out of an appalling time and returned the team to Big Ten and national contention.

    The Nittany Lions finished 7-6 in each of his first two years, the latter of which is included for the sake of this conversation. During the last four seasons, they have three 11-win records and a 9-4 campaign for a 49-17 overall mark since 2015.

    Led by star running back Saquon Barkley in 2016, Penn State celebrated a Big Ten title. Plus, the Nittany Lions won the Fiesta Bowl and Cotton Bowl in 2017 and 2019, respectively.

7. Washington Huskies

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Holding a 47-20 record in the last half-decade, Washington managed two fewer victories than Penn State. However, the Huskies have one more conference title and a trip to the College Football Playoff.

    Washington enjoyed a superb run from 2016 to 2018, appearing in three straight New Year's Six bowls with double-digit wins each season. In 2016, the Dawgs snapped a 16-year Pac-12 championship drought before falling to national runner-up Alabama in the CFP.

    Along with a Pac-12 title in 2018, Washington boasted a top-30 defense (yards allowed per play)twice in the top fivefor all five years.

6. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Brett Duke/Associated Press

    Georgia went 10-3 in 2015the final year of Mark Richt's tenureand the school hired Kirby Smart to replace the longtime coach.

    It's worked out quite nicely.

    The Bulldogs finished 8-5 in his debut season before surging to an SEC title and national championship appearance in 2017. They've followed that 13-2 campaign with 11-3 and 12-2 records, winning the SEC East both years and heading to the Sugar Bowl.

    Overall, UGA is 44-12 under Smart and 54-15 in this five-year stretch. And four straight top-three recruiting classes suggest the Dawgs aren't dropping off anytime soon.

5. LSU Tigers

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    From 2015 to 2018, LSU finished between 8-4 and 10-3. Good enough to have a chance in the SEC, never strong enough to compete nationallywhich led to Les Miles' dismissal in 2016. In short, the Tigers needed to score more points against top competition.

    That changed in a massive way last season.

    LSU's new-look offense set an FBS record with 726 points, and quarterback Joe Burrow won the Heisman Trophy. The national champions steamrolled nearly the entire schedule and ended up 15-0.

    Ultimately, the SEC power wrapped up this five-year stretch with a 51-14 record and the 2019 national title.

4. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Since celebrating a national title in 2014, Ohio State has stayed in the College Football Playoff conversation every year. Consistently hitting 11-plus wins in a power conference is immensely difficult, and the Buckeyes deserve praise for a 61-7 record.

    At the same time, they're still looking for a second championship appearance. Two seasons ended in the CFP semifinals, and three others resulted in near-misses and New Year's Six bowl wins.

    Between the overall record, two CFP trips and three Big Ten titles, OSU's achievements outweigh the disappointing results.

3. Oklahoma Sooners

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Similar to Ohio State, Oklahoma lacks a national championship yet has accomplished many great things since 2015.

    In 2015 and 2016, the Sooners finished 11-2 as Big 12 champs. The conference brought back a championship game in 2017, and OU transitioned from Bob Stoops to Lincoln Riley. His three teams have all earned 12-2 records and won the Big 12, boosting the program to a 58-10 record over the last five seasons.

    The 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019 squads all headed to the College Football Playoff. Even with a loss in the semifinals each time, four CFP trips and five Big 12 crowns are incredible.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

    Two conference titles and one CFP trip separate Alabama and Clemson at the top of the rankings.

    Don't allow that to minimize what Alabama has accomplished in this particular window of time. Under head coach Nick Saban, the Tide have collected three SEC championships, four CFP berths, two national titles, two more trips to the championship game and a 66-6 record.

    That is nothing short of extraordinary.

    Unlike years past, though, college football has another team contending at the same level every season.

1. Clemson Tigers

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    Sean Rayford/Associated Press

    Other than a 6-7 record to begin the decade, Clemson reached the 10-win mark throughout the entire 2010s. And from 2015 on, the Tigers recorded no fewer than 12 in a year.

    That's when a new dynasty emerged.

    Dabo Swinney's program has soared to a 69-5 record since 2015, winning five consecutive ACC titles and heading to the College Football Playoff every year. The Tigers also lost twice in the national championship, only missing the game in 2017.

    Swinney still uses the trope, but "little ol' Clemson" has become a big ol' juggernaut in college football.