Less With More: Top 15 Biggest Underachievers in College Football

We rank the fifteen most underachieving programs in College Football. Some are storied; others have been in rebuilding mode...for more than a century. Success, for each program, is relative. Do I expect Kansas to party crash the college football playoff? Of course not. Four wins and a scare into, let’s say, powerhouse Texas constitutes a successful season in Lawrence. But what about those ‘Horns? UT is college football royalty—and the expectations, rightfully so, are different. Ask Mack Brown, actually maybe you shouldn’t, about the expectations game.

The rankings cocktail: recruiting resources, historical success, and national name brand with a shot of common sense. If your favorite team has its own television network, expectations rise. If the Toilet Bowl has been your postseason destination, we take that into consideration as well. So, yes, KU you have been spared…I mean CTCing for Charlie Weis is painful enough. As for UT, well, you can always replay Vince Young highlights on the Longhorn Network.

For our #1 underachiever, here is the prize: A Saturday night at South Beach’s hottest club…rubbing elbows with over 10,000 adoring fans…of those detestable ‘Noles…following another disheartening loss to FSU. Whipping the crowd into a fervor, emcee Jameis Winston speaks about mental toughness before dedicating the victory “to all the Miami greats—Ray Lewis, Michael Irvin, Jerome Brown, and Nevin Shapiro.” Soaking up the roaring applause, Toastmaster Jameis cackles before shrieking, “Forget Wide Left and Wide Right. We have been kicking Miami’s butt for the past six years. That’s the kick that matters.” Jameis—we agree. Over the past decade, the premier South Florida program might be, umm, South Florida. Joining the U, here are fourteen other underachieving programs starring in the football version of Lost.

Without further ado…

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15 Maryland 

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D.C. stands for Don’t Care—however garish the Terps’ uniforms may be. UMD is at more of an impasse than the ongoing budget skirmish. Chasing dollars, not titles, the Terps moved into the Big Ten’s heavyweight division. Not surprisingly, OSU and MSU have named the score against the overmatched Terps. With traditional powers UM and PSU showing signs of life, a traveling trophy among the Terps, IU, and Rutgers may be the closest UMD gets to Big Ten hardware.

The Terps have two advantages: UnderArmour serving as Disney Dad and the Beltway producing top-shelf talent. With the Terps pink slipping the standoffish Randy Edsall earlier this month, the pressure is on UMD administrators to make a splashy coaching hire. If the Terps bungle the latest coaching search, the next stop on the Red Line will be oblivion.

14 Arizona  

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A poor man’s North Carolina. The ‘Cats should be more competitive in football but Rich Rodriguez is converting skeptics—including this one. From Lute Olsen to Sean Miller, ‘Zona has been a Pac-12 hoops powerbroker. As for football, UofA has typically been more broke than power. Arizona’s next Rose Bowl appearance will be its first.

The ultimate arranged marriage: After crash and burning in Ann Arbor, RichRod took his high-powered offense, and two-handed touch D, to the desert. After the desultory Mike Stoops era, the ‘Cats needed a program re-start. The results are trickling in; UofA represented the Pac-12 South in last year’s championship non-contest versus the Ducks. ‘Zona clashing against the Wolverines in the Granddaddy of ‘Em All? If the ‘Cats can #BearDown on defense, the self-described hillbilly may have one final chuckle at the blue-blooded Wolverines’ expense.

13 Michigan 

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Michigan is college football’s all-time winningest program but the days of the Big Two, Little Eight are like camcorders, dial-up Wi-Fi, and VCRs. Since Bo—yes, only requires one name--passed the coaching torch, UM has struggled to keep up with the Joneses and Brutuses. Lloyd Carr was the Big Ten’s Mark Richt—a consistent winner that underachieved in Ann Arbor. Since Carr’s, ahem, retirement, the program has been more direction-less than your late-night Uber driver.

The early returns on Jim Harbaugh are promising but if Dockers can’t turn around Big Blue, where do the Wolverines turn? Rent in the Big Ten East has increased. OSU is a national power under Meyer, Sparty has regained its footing (and the Paul Buynan trophy) after the disastrous John L. Smith tenure, and PSU is a recruiting, if not football, power under Franklin. The little apartment, not the “Big House,” might be a more fitting nickname if Harbaugh cannot propel the Maize and Blue to its perch atop the Big Ten.

12 Rutgers 

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Forget the flood of negative publicity this year, Rutgers football has been a running joke since 1869. If you are Monsieur Jim Delaney, it must be tempting to drop the State University of New Jersey and ask the University of Chicago to resurrect its dormant football team. While professional teams dominate Jersey (talk radio is still skewering Andy Reid), Delaney thought that Rutgers’ football would at least crack the back page of the sports section. Not quite—still in the Classifieds: Help Wanted section.

There is a good football in New Jersey…at the high school level. The state, according to a composite chart compiled by SB Nation, paces the country with over 44 FBS-level recruits per year. The issue: Top recruits flee the state faster than you can say Scarlet Knig. …Some lowlights: Heisman-winning RB Ron Dayne, NFL All-Pro D’Brickashaw Ferguson, and Super Bowl champion Joe Flacco. Priority 1, 1A, and 1B: Rutgers needs a head coach that can repair fractured relationships among the state’s high school coaches. The school’s other option: combine programs with Maryland.

11 Illinois 

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Illinois is a hoops school (maybe out of necessity?), the Fighting Irish are Chicago's home team, and Chambana might as well be East Lafayette. Illinois football faces challenges but, before you search for an orange kleenex, the program has decided advantages over successful Big Ten peers like Wisconsin and Iowa. The campus is two hours away from St. Louis, Chicago, and Indy, Memorial Stadium received a recent touch-up and the Illini have “won Chicago” during the program's bursts of sporadic success.

Academic standards are a handful. But look at Northwestern and ask yourself why the Scufflin' Illini can't be as successful as their smaller, private school rival. Since 2000, the 'Cats have been thoroughly mediocre, compiling a 94-91 record but compare that to the bitter Champaign taste. Illinois is 71-110 over the same stretch, bottoming out in a player mutiny this year. The fan mutiny, well, that has lasted the past decade.

10 Tennessee 

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Referencing the famous checkerboard end zones, the SEC East has been playing chess while UT has been playing checkers. Since Phil Fulmer’s unceremonious ouster, the ‘Vols have been a model of instability. UT has Rocky Flopped against the hated Gators, dropping 11 in a row to UF. As for ‘Bama, well, the Third Saturday in October might be the newest state holiday in the Heart of Dixie.

Right now, the Knoxville jury is hung on Butch Jones. Recruiting has surged under the ex-Cincinnati coach but the program-stamping victory has eluded the ‘Vols. This year’s sucker-punches: meltdowns against OU and the ‘Gators. Maybe Tee Martin and Peyton Manning Drive should discuss the ‘Vols’ bumbling and stumbling at Phil Fulmer intersection? Checkmate, Fulmer.

9 Colorado 

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The People's Republic of Boulder is still celebrating 4/20. Bad jokes aside, Boulder is an idyllic college town, Folsom Field is nestled in the Rocky Mountains and there is a direct pipeline into southern California.

I get it; the prototypical CU student would rather hike, ski, and/or plan his own personal X games extravaganza than watch the Buffs sputter. But during its Big Eight heyday, CU was a powerhouse program. The Black Friday to-do list: watch Nebraska-CU vie for an Orange Bowl berth, munch on Thanksgiving leftovers, and question the sanity of those shivering souls waiting hours outside a big box retailer. I digress.

The Y2K virus must have knocked CU off the football grid. Since the turn of the century, CU has been a national afterthought. Over the past decade, Colorado has reached the 7-win plateau…once. Since 2008, the Buffs have gone bowling during the holidays. And by bowling, I mean recreating Kingpin at Boulder Bowl. Maybe it is time to name Kordell Stewart, starring actor in the Michigan Miracle, as Head Ball Coach. Either Kordell or Roy Munson.

8 Arizona State 

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With more valleys than peaks, it is fitting that ASU is located in the Valley of the Sun. Other than Jake the Snake’s scrambling heroics in the late 1990s, the Devils have been forgettable.

The ASU job does hold legitimate appeal. There are well-established pipelines to southern California, the Grand Canyon State churns out top-15 high school talent (according to Rivals), and the school’s nightlife deserves its own chapter in the Princeton Review. Sparky and Co. have had their moments on the football field too, upending #1 Nebraska in 1997.

The drawbacks: apparently roses don’t bloom in the desert. ASU has been to Pasadena twice—and lost both times to Big Ten powers. Plus, Phoenix fans are notoriously fickle. ASU administrators downsized Sun Devil Stadium to 57,000 because of attendance concerns. Spotty attendance and ASU students…who would have guessed?

After Dennis Erickson's dreary tenure, the Devils hit the reset button and hired Todd Graham. Shedding its undisciplined reputation, the blustery Graham has the Devils poised to compete in the ever-competitive Pac-12. The devilish question: Can ASU sustain Graham’s brief run of success? With this year’s inconsistent play, the resulting answer: expect more valleys.

7 UNC 

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With one of the nation's most well-known brands, a refurbished Kenan Stadium, and a sun-splashed campus, UNC should be a perennial ACC contender. Don't agree with me--coaching legend Bobby Bowden described Carolina football as a sleeping giant. Since Mack Brown high-tailed it to Austin, the sleeping giant has been curled up in the fetal position.

UNC offers the total package. The state averages 60 Division 1 recruits per year. From Des Moines, WA to Des Moines, IA, the interlocking NC is ubiquitous. And when the Heels are ACC contenders, the state swells with baby blue pride. So…what explains UNC’s mediocre results?

Money talks. And among Carolina’s movers and shakers, UNC hoops, not football, drives the baby blue bus. Carolina flirted with Frank Beamer and Steve Spurrier to fill the head coaching vacancy. Either would have provided a Red Bull jolt of credibility for an uneven program. The Heels, instead, opted for Carl Torbush, John Bunting, and Butch Davis. More troubling: you can’t spell NCAA without NC. Investigators have been sniffing around Chapel Hill following academic fraud allegations. But, at least, the Heels are playing defense.

6 Texas A&M 

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Location, location, location. College Station will never be a featured Travel and Leisure destination. But A&M is located a tank of gas away from both Houston and Dallas. And in football-crazed Texas, there are more stars on the high school football field than the night sky. You don’t need to be Bear Bryant persuasive to recruit the next Johnny Manziel.

Johnny Football is the perfect microcosm for A&M football. Teeming with unfulfilled potential, A&M’s last national championship was in 1939. Its last conference championship was in 1998. The SEC isn’t going to offer its newest member a freshly brewed pot of coffee and homemade rolls. But even in a conference that cannibalizes its own, A&M should be jostling with ‘Bama and LSU for SEC West supremacy. With a Taj Mahal stadium, the 12th Man, and 30+ players in the League, A&M should stand for more than average & middling. One sliver of consolation for A&M backers: There is still one more Texas school on the list. For once, it is advantageous to play second fiddle in the Lone Star State.


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John Wooden’s Pyramid of Excellence will always be required reading in Westwood. But with L.A. at your doorstep, the football program should be a top-20 fixture—and not just after non-conference play. The Bruins have teased more than Joe Biden’s presidential candidacy. A couple examples: besting Ohio State and Michigan in consecutive years, tattooing Texas in the Route 66 game, and manhandling Bob Stoops’ OU squad. Following these non-conference victories, UCLA would faceplant within conference play.

Since hiring Jim Mora in 2012, however, the perennially underachieving program has cobbled together two consecutive 10-win campaigns. The most encouraging signs: After pummeling NU and outStronging UT in consecutive years, the Bruins handled tricky conference road tests. Now crosstown rival, SC, is staggering after AD Haden’s self-inflicted wounds. Could something be Bruin’ in Westwood?

4 Washington 

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U-Stub, I mean U-Dub, has lost its bite since head Dawgfather, Don James, retired. This isn't a college football start-up; the Huskies' 14 Rose Bowl appearances are second behind USC in the Pac-12. And for those growing up during the Dan Patrick era of Sportscenter, the "Whammy in Miami" is more than just a catchphrase.

In the underwhelming Pac-12 North, UW should be the divison’s top 'Dawgs. The duck in the room: Oregon and its 12-game series winning streak. For UW to return to its '90 glory days, the Dawgs must catch the Pacific Northwest's Duck Dynasty. With a rocking Husky Stadium starved for a program-defining victory, last Saturday night provided a (purple) and golden opportunity to restore luster to a proud program. Same ducking result as the Ducks prevailed. Again.

3 Texas 

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The best job in college football--but only one national title since 1970. With sparkling facilities, more money than small countries, and high school recruits fantasizing about the 40 Acres, UT should be dominating college football. Or at least, the Big 12 right? Or, at the bare minimum, the state of Texas? Well, as a Lee Corso would mumble, not so fast. Since 2009, the 'Horns have appeared in just one final preseason poll. TCU, Baylor, and A&M have all burnt the orange. And, not surprisingly, UT's impatient fan base is seeing red. The Eyes of Texas are upon you, Charlie Strong.

2 Georgia 

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Mark Richt, college football’s Mr. Congeniality, has steered the Dawgs to six SEC East championships. In 2012, the ‘Dawgs were eight yards away from playing an overrated Notre Dame team for the crystal ball. UGa has been more stable than your grandparents’ 60-year marriage, bankable for nine wins and a New Year’s Day bowl under Richt.

But there is a difference between excellence and elite. UGa, one of the prettiest belles at the college football dance, should be elite. The state is a recruiting hotbed, Athens in on the shortlist of best college towns and NFL rosters are dotted with former Dawgs. Add in venerable Sanford Stadium, a legendary coaching tree, and Fort Knox money pouring into the program. “How ‘bout them Dawgs?” suddenly becomes more of a question more than a rallying cry.

Out of the SEC Power Six (‘Bama, UF, UT, LSU, Auburn, UGa), the ‘Dawgs have the longest national title drought. It has been 35 years since Herschel high-stepped his way into college football lore. With traditional powers UF and UT in rebuilding mode, UGa should be polishing SEC East hardware. Instead, the Head Ball Coach has tormented the ‘Dawgs on the field and then jabbed them off of it. Until UGA substitutes the Bloomin’ Onion trophy for the crystal goblet, “Bulldawging” might replace “Clemsoned” in the college football lexicon.

1 Miami FL 

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When a small-time Ponzi scheme investor has been the defining event over the past decade, the "U" has bigger problems than Hail Flutie or Ohio State’s gift-wrapped national title in 2003.

While the "U" has its challenges--an indifferent fan base, facilities that are the equivalent of a 1987 Buick, and a home-field disadvantage, Miami will always be an iconic program. Ibis mugging for the cameras, the five national championships, proud NFLers announcing that the “U is back, baby.” "30 on 30" isn't running a documentary on Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech—two programs that have lapped the “U.”

The great equalizer: South Florida is college football’s Boardwalk and Park Place. With Liberty City kids flashing the ubiquitous "U" and dreaming of strutting through the smoke (maybe, in reality, it is smoke and mirrors), Miami should be markedly better than its results over the past decade. The Lamar Thomas School of Self-Promotion doesn’t match the 7-6 records--or five consecutive bowl losses. Time for a screeching “U”-turn—before the Wide Right, Jimmy Johnson, and Orange Bowl memories fade to black.

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