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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
8 Arizona State
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?
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?
6 Texas A&M
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.
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.
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.
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.
1 Miami FL
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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