The underachiever tiers of college football

It’s that time of year when college football fans try to decide which teams have the best shot of winning the college football National Championship. It is a very popular topic of discussion at this time of year because, well, it’s football season. But it is also a very popular topic of discussion because folks want to know what teams are out there for one reason or another.

If you enjoy sports, then you probably enjoy football, and one of the major reasons why is because of the overall competition. There are some teams that just don’t have the skill to compete with teams from other conferences, but do they have a story the fans can get behind? And just how good can they be if they don’t? Well, that is what this blog is all about, the underachieving teams that are just hanging around the bottom of the ncaa football rankings.

In this era of the big time football programs and billion-dollar payouts, it seems that football is all about the big-name players, and the big schools. But, are there underachievers in the highest division of football, and, if so, what are they?. Read more about college football rankings and let us know what you think.

The underachiever levels are named after Georgia.

The past 40 years in college football have featured some surprising droughts, including extended lulls without conference championships for former powers Tennessee (1998), Nebraska (1999), Miami (2003) and Michigan (2004), and well-positioned programs such as Texas A&M (1998) and UCLA (1998). But I keep coming back to Georgia, a job many coaches consider the nation’s best and certainly in the top five. The program hasn’t won a national title since 1980, the year before I was born.

How can a team with Georgia’s inherent advantages spend four decades without winning the national championship?

Despite certain intrinsic characteristics (geography, history, resources) that put them up for success, some college football teams simply can’t seem to break through, at least not lately. These are the teams who leave fans wondering, “Why can’t they win their league?” or “What happened to them?”

Not every underachiever should be expected to win a national championship or even compete for conference championships or big bowl games on a regular basis. However, there are certain groups of people that should be doing more than they are.

I’ve defined six categories of underachievers, based on data from 1981 to 2020, but with a concentration on the last 15-20 years.

Teams that have qualified for the College Football Playoff do not appear, with the exception of Georgia. I’ve also left out any national champions from the previous 15 seasons.

The Dawghouse is the first tier.



Full disclosure: I’m typing this while wearing a Georgia hat. I bought it during a 2018 trip to cover a game against Tennessee, my first fall visit to Sanford Stadium. It was amazing. Everyone should see a game between the hedges. Georgia has it all — the stadium, the fan base, the finances, the town, the access to talent, the SEC. And yet a national championship continues to elude the Bulldogs.

Georgia has been unable to achieve the sport’s summit since Herschel Walker led the Vince Dooley-coached Bulldogs to a 12-0 record and a consensus national championship in 1980. The Bulldogs were so close to winning it all in 2017 until Tua Tagovailoa shattered their hearts in Atlanta, and they might have won it all in 2012 if they had beaten Alabama in the SEC championship game. Georgia, on the other hand, spent 20 years without winning an SEC championship, from 1982 to 2002, and has only won one since 2005. (the Bulldogs do have six East Division titles since then).

The Bulldogs haven’t been able to replicate the magic that Herschel Walker brought to the team in 1980. USA TODAY Sports/Malcolm Emmons

Six top-10 finishes in AP polls between 2002 and 2007, and six more since 2012, show how close they’ve been (including four consecutive top-seven finishes under coach Kirby Smart entering the 2021 season). The failure to win a single national title, on the other hand, is perplexing.

“There’s just something about that place,” said a former Georgia assistant. “It’s a difficult deal, but I believe Georgia is the greatest job in the nation, period.”

If Smart’s position were open, most coaches would queue up to grab it. Georgia is the flagship program in a strong talent-producing state, only an hour’s drive from Atlanta’s recruiting center. Aside from LSU, no SEC school is better positioned to dominate an area in terms of recruiting, since Georgia Tech hasn’t consistently been a danger despite occasional periods of success. Georgia has a long history of producing NFL players, as well as excellent academics and a pleasant college town.

Nonetheless, since 1980, virtually every major school outside of Georgia has won a national championship: Clemson, Alabama, Florida State, Florida, Miami, Tennessee, and, of course, rivals Auburn and Georgia Tech. Georgia’s inability to win a national championship elevates the program to a new level.

The I-10 layer is the second tier.

Texas A&M, UCLA, Texas


Texas A&M: Texas A&M doesn’t enjoy quite as many advantages as Georgia, but its lack of championships might be even more shocking. The Aggies have gone twice as long without winning a national title (1939) and own just one league title since the Southwest Conference fell apart. Texas A&M can throw money at everything, as evidenced by coach Jimbo Fisher’s $75 million guaranteed contract and its sparkling facilities in College Station. There’s no major program located closer to Houston, a top national recruiting area. Fisher undoubtedly has the team on a promising trajectory, as Texas A&M finished No. 4 in 2020. But it marked only the Aggies’ second top-five finish since 1939. Texas A&M had only one AP top-10 finish between 1994 and last year.


UCLA: If there was a SimCFB game, you could create UCLA, a great public institution with a long and illustrious sports history and a desirable location in Los Angeles. Anyone who has been around UCLA’s Westwood campus knows that it sells itself. Despite this, UCLA hasn’t won a conference championship in 23 years! During that time, the Bruins have only won two Pac-12 division titles, one AP top-10 finish, and zero New Year’s Six bowl berths. There was considerable sloppiness involved, since UCLA had some of the poorest facilities in the Power 5 until recently. Although the absence of an on-campus stadium is a disadvantage, UCLA’s home games are held in the Rose Bowl, not some soulless NFL facility. UCLA hasn’t been a consistently significant program since a brief period under coach Terry Donahue in the 1980s.


Texas: I initially had Texas in the “lost-glory” tier of underachievers, but the Longhorns honestly belong here, alongside their old friends the Aggies. Texas owns a national title in somewhat recent memory (2005) and actually won league titles during this millennium (2005, 2009). But the extended runs of mediocrity both before and after coach Mack Brown’s tenure enhance Texas’ status as an underachiever. The team has just one 10-win season since 2009, and has yet to make the CFP. Like UCLA, Texas is an elite public institution in a great location. Unlike UCLA, Texas isn’t lacking for resources and carries one of the most powerful brands in college sports. Texas is undeniably a top-five job. While also a complex job, Texas has no excuse not to win at a much higher level than it has been.

TIER III: It’s all about the place, location, location.

Schools at strategic locations that are unable to break through.

North Carolina, Arizona State, and Maryland are three of the best teams in the country.


Mack Brown’s return to Chapel Hill has helped UNC rediscover its potential — curiously, Brown is the only coach on our list who has gotten two schools (North Carolina and Texas) out of underachiever status, but he can’t change the previous 20 years. UNC is and always will be a basketball school, but given the local recruiting region, the university’s attractiveness, and even some of its hoops ties, such as the Jordan brand, football should be much stronger there. It’s unacceptable to have won no conference championships since 1980 and just one ACC Coastal Division title. Since 1997, when North Carolina’s last top-10 result came in Brown’s first year as coach, the Tar Heels have only had two AP Top 25 finishes.

2 Related


Arizona State: Under coach Frank Kush, Arizona State emerged as college football’s newest Western power in the 1970s, with five AP top-13 finishes, five Fiesta Bowl victories, and a No. 2 final ranking in 1975. ASU finished fourth in the polls in 1986 and 1996, but hasn’t in the top ten since, with just four finishes since 1997. (none in the past six years). Despite its desirable location in a developing metropolis, increasing finances, and a large student body/alumni network, ASU is still a sleeping giant. The Sun Devils haven’t won a league championship since 2007, and they’ve only won one South Division championship (2013). They haven’t won more than eight games since 2007, with the exception of two 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014.


Maryland: Anyone who follows recruiting knows about the DMV — D.C., Maryland, Virginia — and the talent it produces annually. Maryland is the closest major program to the DMV region, located right outside the Washington city limits, and has had little trouble recruiting over the years. But the Terrapins have just one conference title since 1985, only one AP Top 25 finish since 2003 and no top-10 finishes since 1976. Other than a 31-8 stretch under coach Ralph Friedgen from 2001 to 2003, Maryland has eclipsed seven wins just three times since 1985. Maryland is a basketball-first school and has not invested enough in football until recently. But a school located so close to a major talent hub should deliver more success.

TIER IV: Schools with a History of Glory

Former national powerhouses have regressed.

Miami, Michigan, USC, Nebraska, and Tennessee are among the top universities in the country.


Miami: For more than two decades, Miami was one of college football’s most dominating teams, capturing five national championships. Between 1981 and 2003, the Hurricanes had 15 AP top-10 finishes (12 top-five finishes). Despite being in the same division as longstanding rival Florida State and rising power Clemson, the team has suffered a significant downturn since joining the ACC in 2004. Miami has just one Coastal Division title and has yet to win an ACC championship (2017). In the ACC, the Hurricanes had just six AP Top 25 finishes and zero top-10 finishes. Miami is in one of the best recruiting regions in the country, and the program has flourished there at times. Although there are certain constraints in terms of facilities and other factors, Miami should be contending for ACC championships on a more frequent basis.


Michigan: The Wolverines had eight AP top-eight finishes between 1983 and 1992, and they won or shared seven Big Ten championships between 1982 and 1992, while not competing nationally as often as Miami did in the 1980s and early 1990s. Between 1997 and 2006, Michigan won a national championship and finished in the top ten five times. However, the program has been losing ground nationwide, including in the Big Ten, where it hasn’t won a title since 2004. The Wolverines have lost eight consecutive games against Ohio State and have only beaten them once since 2003. Michigan still prints money, has a national brand, and plays in the biggest stadium in the country. Despite the fact that the distance between Michigan and national leaders like Ohio State has grown over the last two decades, the Wolverines should be playing at a better level.


USC: Unlike the other teams in this category, USC has won a national championship and a conference championship in the last decade. During a truncated 2020 season, the Trojans won the Pac-12 South Division and ended third with a Rose Bowl victory in 2016. However, USC is one of the country’s most illustrious programs, with a central location in one of the finest recruiting markets. The Trojans have failed to qualify for the College Football Playoff and have lately fallen behind Oregon in the Pac-12 standings. USC, like Texas, has just one really successful coaching hire (Pete Carroll) and a slew of administrative blunders. But, with multiple SEC heavyweights, USC has more natural advantages than virtually any other school. The Trojans should be able to compete on a national level on a regular basis.


Nebraska: Despite playing in a thinly populated Midwestern state, Nebraska was college football’s ultimate overachiever for decades, capturing five national championships and 16 conference titles between 1970 and 1997. From 1969 through 2001, the Huskers completed every season rated, with just two seasons falling below the top-15. Despite the fact that such success was unlikely to be sustained due to changes in the sport, Nebraska possessed all of the elements (money, facilities, a winning history, and devoted supporters) to remain a nationally prominent program and a perennial conference championship challenger. However, after reaching three league championship games in two conferences between 2009 and 2012, Nebraska has sunk to 49-47 in the last eight seasons, including four consecutive losing seasons heading into the autumn. Many of Nebraska’s recent problems are addressed here, but Huskers supporters are entitled to more.


Tennessee: From 1995 through 1999, the Vols finished in the AP top 10 every season, including a national title in 1998. They never missed the AP top 15 once from 1989 and 1999, and their best performance was No. 4 in 2001. Although Tennessee lacked some of its SEC competitors’ direct recruiting advantages, the school possessed history, a large stadium, and other factors that drew prospects to Knoxville. Top-10 finishes looked improbable, but Tennessee was expected to be a Top 25 program. Instead, the Vols have only been rated twice since 2007, when they had their last 10-win season. The fact that Tennessee’s biggest opponents, Florida and Alabama, have combined for eight national championships since 2006 makes things much more difficult.

Tier V: The Five-Tier System

East Carolina, Houston, and Miami (Ohio)


Miami (Ohio): The Mid-American Conference is a joy to watch because it is so unpredictable. In the last six years, six different teams have won titles, including Miami (Ohio) in 2019. Northern Illinois, Toledo, Central Michigan, and Ohio have all enjoyed long streaks of success. When coaches are asked to name the finest job in the MAC, the response is almost invariably Miami, a school with a long history (“Cradle of Coaches”), ample resources, and a genuine college atmosphere. Miami has had its high points — league championships in 2019 and 2010, a No. 10 AP ranking in 2003 behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a 10-win season in 1998 — but it has also had its low points. Miami has only had six winning seasons since 2004, and has had five seasons with two or less victories (not counting 2020). The MAC team that should be generating the most regional and national excitement is Miami, yet the program is often ignored.


Houston: There’s a reason Houston keeps popping up as a possible Big 12 expansion city (most recently at a Texas state senate hearing). It’s a big university in a big city with a lot of job opportunities. Houston has made significant investments in sports, particularly football. How many Group of 5 schools could get a Power 5 coach who wasn’t on the hot seat (Dana Holgorsen) to leave? Houston has a number of advantages that should propel them to the top of the Group of 5. Houston has been mediocre at best, with the exception of short but successful streaks under Kevin Sumlin and Tom Herman, and three consecutive top-20 teams from 1988 to 1990. Between 1991 and 2005, Houston has just three winning seasons. Houston is 31-27 since 2016, and 7-13 under Holgorsen, despite the fact that the program has been reasonably stable since 2006. The returns aren’t commensurate with the investment.


East Carolina: Those who have seen ECU football at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium know it’s one of the finest college football venues on the East Coast. ECU has a sizable and devoted fan following, although one that is dissatisfied with recent performances. Despite this, the program is in a good recruiting region and has developed its own distinct character from the other ACC institutions in the state. However, the program has failed to break through after a strong stretch from 2006 through 2014, when ECU averaged 7.8 wins per season with one 10-win season in 2013. The Pirates have lost six straight seasons heading into 2021, their worst losing streak since the mid-1980s. Since the 1970s, ECU hasn’t had more than four consecutive winning seasons. The AAC transition has been difficult, but ECU should do better.

Bowled over in Tier VI

Making bowl games is difficult enough.

Illinois, Syracuse, and California


Illinois has won a Sugar Bowl (2001 season) and a Rose Bowl (2007 season) in the past 20 years… and I haven’t done much else. Red Grange, Dick Butkus, Jim Grabowski, Dana Howard, and others are among the program’s many legends, and still has underappreciated support at a basketball-heavy institution. With proximity to Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Louisville, Illinois is a fantastic school. Nobody expects Illinois to become Ohio State, and Wisconsin and Iowa aren’t good examples either. Illinois, on the other hand, should have made the playoffs more than five times in the last 19 seasons.


Syracuse: Syracuse has a strong football history, having won a national championship in 1959 and three straight Big East championships from 1996 to 1998 following a long period of independence. Between 1987 and 2001, Syracuse had nine AP Top 25 finishes, did not have a losing season, and appeared in two Fiesta Bowls, an Orange Bowl, a Sugar Bowl, and a Peach Bowl. The Orange have only played in five bowl games since 2001, and have had postseason droughts of five and four years, respectively. During that time, they had just one AP Top 25 finish in their lone season with more than eight victories (10-3 in 2018). Syracuse is a basketball school that isn’t close to many major recruiting markets, but the program has the potential to be better than it has been in recent years.


Cal: This one hits close to home for me, since I fell in love with college football in the 1990s while attending Cal games and even being a season-ticket holder for a few years. Cal, like UCLA, is a prestigious public university in a state brimming with football talent and situated in a big market. Cal, like UCLA, has historically underfunded its department and continues to struggle with finances and investment. Cal has a long history of success, including three Rose Bowl appearances in a row and three AP top-five rankings from 1948 to 1950. However, the school would only appear in two more bowl games over the following four decades until experiencing a resurgence in the early 1990s. From 2003 through 2009, Cal enjoyed a strong run under Jeff Tedford, making seven straight bowl games and posting two 10-win seasons. Since then, it has only made four bowl appearances and has had seven losing seasons.

At the end of every football season, it’s tradition for the coaches and media to rank the teams based on their performance. It’s true, these rankings do offer a good way to gauge team strength, but it’s also a popularity contest. The NCAA tournament’s selection committee might not really use the rankings, and the public rarely takes them seriously, but they do provide a useful way to gauge the strength of a team from year to year.. Read more about college 2021 football rankings and let us know what you think.

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