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Three years ago I ranked the top 25 jobs in college football. The goal with the ranking was to eliminate current team and coach status from the equation — after all, good players and good coaches are somewhat cyclical — and answer the question that college football fans debate all the time: What’s the best job in college football?
An easy way of thinking about this is by asking yourself this question: At which school could Nick Saban, the best coach in college football today, most easily win a national championship? Essentially you’re analyzing a variety of factors — fan support, facilities, history, recruiting footprints and conference strength — all rolled into one equation. That sounds difficult in theory because it’s so subjective, but when you really break it down athletic department revenues are a pretty good reflection of fan support, facilities, and history. After all, the more money an athletic department produces the more fan support, facilities and history are likely to be stellar. Recruiting strength isn’t that hard to determine either since you can easily determine where the top players come from by looking at available data. (Nearly 40 percent of all FBS football recruits come from Texas, Florida and California. Toss in Georgia and Ohio, and 52.4 percent of all FBS recruits come from just five states.)
Of course, every single coach has his own idea of what the best job in the country is — every coach will also tell you he has the best job in the country the day before he leaps to a new job — so this list isn’t subjective based on the coach. That is, a coach may well favor his own geographic region or his alma mater or the school he grew up rooting for over another job that’s objectively better. At any given time the right coach can make any job much better than the program would otherwise reflect. But we’re in search of something more interesting. Presume that coaches were conducting a fantasy draft of the best jobs in the country. Which would they draft first? That’s our quest here with this list.
So what does Outkick’s 2014 top 25 programs look like? Here we go:
The Florida Gators are the best job in the best conference in America. Long a sleeping giant of college football, Steve Spurrier awakened the mighty Gators and they’ve been on a tear ever since. Sure, Will Muschamp is presently on the hot seat, but look at the talent surrounding the Gators. Just about every top player in Florida wants to play in the SEC. The Gators are the only SEC program in the nation’s top state. Nothing else compares with their recruiting advantages. As if that wasn’t enough, Florida can also poach top players from South Georgia, one of the most fertile recruiting regions in the country.
With the SEC Network money about to come roaring in, the Gators, already the supremely dominant program in the state based on revenue and fan support, are poised to create even greater distance between themselves, Florida State and Miami. Within the next five years Florida’s athletic department will be 60 or 70 million dollars a year bigger than FSU’s.
It’s just not fair.
Since our last ranking the Big 12 has nearly died, the Longhorn Network has been a bust and Texas has fired the only coach to win a national championship at the school in over 40 years. What’s more, the Longhorns are under siege from the rise of Texas A&M, the only SEC brand in one of the nation’s top football regions.
You think it’s a coincidence that recruits are suddenly picking A&M and the SEC over the Longhorns? No way. Get used to it. Stuck in the Big 12, the Longhorn brand is sinking as other football brands rise around it. Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech are all cutting into the Longhorn lead. A&M may well surpass the Longhorns over the next generation. Think of it this way: What does Texas really have to distinguish itself from Oklahoma, TCU, Baylor and Texas Tech? They all play in the same conference now.
Go look at the rosters of SEC schools. Just about every single one features top players from the state of Georgia. Pretty much all of these kids want to play at Georgia and the Bulldogs have turned them away. Given the exploding population of the state, all the Bulldogs have to do is recruit the right players and they’re set to dominate not just in the South, but in the nation.
Which makes the Bulldog failures all the more entertaining. Georgia is the South’s own Charlie Brown, perpetually attempting to kick a football through the uprights just as Lucy pulls the ball away. With the growth of Atlanta and the state, there’s no reason why the next 20 years shouldn’t be crowned with growing Bulldog success. Except, you know, it’s Georgia football.
Where does just about every top player from Southern California want to play football? Southern Cal. The program is loaded with money, support and plays in a city without an NFL franchise. Ask USC players whether it’s more fun to play football for the Trojans or in half the NFL cities. The answer is SC.
Combine the Southern California locale with the increasing willingness of kids today to explore national schools and USC is the best job on the west coast by a substantial margin. That doesn’t mean that the school is destined to win, just that it takes a Lane Kiffin-level failure not to win.
The Tide are on a roll with Nick Saban, so much so that it’s easy to forget the 13 years from 1993 to 2006 when the Crimson Tide was a bumbling wreck of a team, staggering from a coach fired for a strip club trip to one who left and addressed his team via video.
But there’s a reason that Alabama is the winningest all-time program in SEC history. It’s because college football dominates the state of Alabama unlike any sport dominates any other state in the country. Put simply, Alabamians care more about college football than any other state cares about any other sport.
If the rest of the SEC wanted to knock the Tide and the Auburn Tigers down a peg, you know what would be smart? Buying an NFL franchise and placing it in Birmingham.
6. Ohio State
There are five states — Texas, Florida, California, Georgia and Ohio — where you can win a national championship without recruiting players from outside the state’s borders. Ohio is the only state above the Mason-Dixon line. Ohio State isn’t higher on this list because of the Big Ten, which has become a drag on the Buckeye brand. You want to know why the Big Ten has such difficulty competing with the SEC? There just aren’t enough players in the states. The SEC states produce over half of all FBS recruits. The Big Ten states produce just 18 percent of the FBS recruits. Over a third of these players come from Ohio.
Even with that advantage Ohio State has to poach players from the South in order to remain competitive on a national stage. Here’s a stat that will blow your mind: In the BCS era Ohio State was the school that was the farthest north to win a title. The school that was the second farthest north? Tennessee.
While many have yet to notice it, increasingly, college football is a game played in the sunshine.
Per capita, the state of Louisiana produces more college football players than any other state in the country. Many of those players are incredibly talented. Given that LSU is the only major school in the entire state, all those top players want to go to LSU. Toss in the fact that the SEC recently expanded to Texas, giving LSU a direct entree into the fertile East Texas recruiting market and we’re talking about a job so good even the grass tastes good.
It’s a testament to Nick Saban that he did such a good job raising LSU from the dead that even a decade after his departure from the school, LSU has been good for so long that most people don’t even remember the disastrous 1980s and 1990s. In college football, all triumph is cyclical.
8. Texas A&M
The Aggies are the biggest beneficiary of conference realignment on this list. Just as Florida now has the exclusive right to sell the SEC brand in the state of Florida, the Aggies have the exclusive right to sell the SEC brand in the state of Texas. That’s an invaluable asset. Since recruiting is ultimately about salesmanship, being able to offer something that your competitors can’t is often the distinguishing factor that leads a recruit to pick one school over another.
While many have focused on Johnny Manziel and Kevin Sumlin to argue that the Aggie rise isn’t sustainable that misses the larger direction of the program — the SEC was eventually going to awaken the Aggie sleeping giant — it was a question of when that would happen, not if.
Combine the exclusive SEC recruiting pitch with a remade stadium, absurd new facilities and the growing wealth that will be rolling in from the SEC Network and the Aggies are poised to crack the top five jobs in the country over the next 10 years.
Money matters, baby. So does the right corporate support — thank you, Nike. More so than any school on this list Oregon has branded itself and reaped the national rewards. Ask kids from all over the country who their favorite team to watch play football is? The number who answer Oregon will stun you. That’s because things change fast in college athletics.
While you may remember the 2000 season really well, your average recruit today has no recognition of those long gone days. Oregon understands that better than most. That’s why the program has been creating fans across the nation at a frantic pace. All those absurd uniform combinations that nearly blind you? Kids love them.
With one of the top 10 largest athletic department in the country, spectacular facilities and a special quantity of coolness that’s unmatched anywhere else in the country, the Ducks are now a top 10 job in the country.
Oklahoma’s hanging on to our top 10, but it’s a legacy program that is taking body blows right now. While Texas has taken hits from A&M’s departure to the SEC, Oklahoma may take those hits harder than any school. The state of Oklahoma doesn’t produce that many top football players so the Sooners are reliant on bringing up players from Texas. In the past, that was easier. The competition was just the Texas schools, programs that also played in the Big 12. Back in the day, the Sooners could beat Texas for some players and scoop up the rest.
Want to know why Bob Stoops is so obsessed with the SEC? It’s because his recruits are. Couple this with the rise of Oklahoma State athletics and the Sooners are fighting to remain in the top 10. For those who ask why OSU matters, point me to another state outside of Florida, California,Texas or Alabama, all of which produce abundant players, that has managed to support two stellar programs at the same time. You can’t.
Here’s a wild stat for you: In 1980 Michigan had 9.3 million people and Florida had 9.7 million people. Last year Florida had 19.6 million people and Michigan had 9.9 million people. So over the last 35 years the state of Florida’s recruiting base has increased by more people than lived in the entire state of Michigan in 1980. Meanwhile Michigan’s population has only increased by 600,000. Ultimately recruiting is about numbers. The more football players you have, in general, the better the recruits you’ll produce.
The fewer football players, the more difficult obtaining top players is. In every Big Ten state but Ohio, there aren’t enough players to win championships. So all of those schools have to persuade kids from other geographic regions to attend their schools.
If you want to know why the SEC has crushed the Big Ten over the past 10 years, just look at two of the premier states in each conference. It’s the demographics, stupid.
12. Florida State
I know, I know, they just won a national title, are rolling with Jimbo Fisher and are located in the state of Florida, but we’re specifically excluding present circumstances from our analysis. The reason Florida State is ranked so highly is because of its recruiting base; the Seminoles are, in essence, a shadow SEC program, fitting the culture of the SEC better than they do the culture of the ACC. Indeed, if you remade the SEC entirely based on cultural fits, both Clemson and FSU would be members.
Except when it comes to revenues, FSU fits the SEC. Because even with their recent title FSU struggles to compete with other schools when it comes to revenue and fan support. Did you know that Florida State is just the 24th largest athletic department in the country, smaller than schools like Kansas, Minnesota, Louisville and Iowa?
With the rise of the SEC Network, the Big Ten Network’s continued growth and the Pac 12’s geographic landscape, that money gap is only going to increase for the Seminoles. Couple that with FSU having to sell an inferior conference to recruits and the long-term trend lines of FSU simply aren’t as robust as other schools in the region. This is a good job, not a great job.
A top-10 revenue-producing program in the country, only Alabama has won more SEC football games than Tennessee in the history of the conference. If you only paid attention to the past five years of Volunteer football, these facts probably stun you. But, historically, Tennessee has dominated Southern football in a way that only Alabama can surpass.
So what of the future? Well, after the worst five years in the history of the program, things are actually looking up in a demographic sense. The state of Tennessee, particularly the rapidly growing city of Nashville, is becoming a major recruiting hotbed for the Volunteers. Last season Tennessee signed seven four- or five-star players from the Nashville area. Given that the city, just 190 miles west of Knoxville, is projected to add one million people in the next 10-15 years, that bodes well for the Volunteer program. In years past, the best players in the state have been in Memphis, which is closer to Alabama, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Auburn and Arkansas than it is to Knoxville. So recruiting has been the biggest challenge to the Vols.
But don’t let the state border trip you up too much here; UT is a huge beneficiary of the burgeoning new South. Draw a 230 mile border around UT — roughly a 3.5 hour drive from campus — and look what’s inside that ring — Atlanta, Charlotte and Nashville. If the state of Tennessee was shaped like West Virginia people would be saying that Tennessee is smack dab in one of the most fertile recruiting regions in the country. Instead, the analysis lags behind the reality that what used to be major hindrance for the Vol program — forcing it to recruit nationally when everyone else was still recruiting regionally — is now poised to become a geographic strength.
14. Penn State
If you aren’t a Notre Dame fan on the east coast, you’re probably a Penn State or Syracuse fan. No Big Ten school benefits more from the additions of Rutgers and Maryland to the conference more than Penn State. If you want to play at a big-time football school and live on the east coast, Penn State is going to be your closest option. Indeed, to a large degree, it’s your only option.
For purposes of this analysis we’re specifically excluding any lingering impact of the Paterno scandal as that, like all scandals, will fade with time. Given the strong history of Pennsylvania high school football, there’s no doubt that the Nittany Lions are the third best job in the Big Ten.
The second school from the state of Alabama in the top 15, Auburn actually has one advantage that Alabama doesn’t: Namely, it’s a bit closer to the gulf coast, per capita the most fertile football recruiting region in the country. Auburn’s biggest issue is that it’s the perpetual minority program in its own state, constantly at war for survival amid the Gump-gazing Alabama fan base.
As a result of the competitive balance, Auburn’s got a hair trigger response mechanism when any slippage occurs. Think about this: In the last decade the Tigers have fired two different coaches who went undefeated at the school. That’s unheard of, even in the SEC.
Auburn has 726 career football wins. That’s good enough for 13th in the country. But Alabama has 838 wins. The state of Alabama is the only state with two programs in the top 13 for all-time wins.
The Bruins are finally roaring on the field, but what has taken so long? Partly it’s USC’s dominance in Los Angeles and partly it’s the comparatively weak support — did you know that UCLA is only the 29th largest athletic department in the country? How is that possible with UCLA’s massive alumni base and its location in one of the richest cities in the country? Put simply, this is shocking.
That weak financial support helps to explain why UCLA, nestled amidst one of the best recruiting areas in the country, is not ranked higher on this list. UCLA has top 10 recruiting advantages and not even top 30 athletic support. That makes 16th on the list just about perfect.
Ah, The U, a storied program of excess both on and off the field. Except when it comes to financial resources and fan support. There the Hurricanes are severely lacking, which is why they ranked here. If you could only recruit players within an hour of your campus, Miami would be the nation’s best job. That’s because south Florida is full of talent. Many of these players grow up dreaming of becoming Hurricane players.
But then programs with greater resources come calling, forcing Miami to rely upon its network of players and support in the city to combat schools with much greater resources. Many don’t realize that Miami, a small private school, isn’t very much like most other schools on this list. (USC is also a private school, but it’s massive.) Miami has more in common with Duke or Vanderbilt when you analyze the student bodies than it does Florida State or Florida.
One of the best details from the Nevin Shapiro scandal is Shapiro’s assertion that the reason Miami took recruits to strip clubs and on yacht trips was because they couldn’t compete with the money that the big SEC schools were paying for recruits.
It’s been a long time since the Huskies were really good, which is surprising if you ask Pac-12 fans. Prior to the rise of Oregon, the Huskies were the best program in the Pac-12 outside of Los Angeles. Historically the only program in the Pac-12 with more wins than Washington is USC.
As the Pac-12 Network begins to throw off substantial revenue streams, can the Huskies capitalize on that increase in money and pull players into the school from a variety of states outside of Washington? Right now the Pac-12 North belongs to Oregon and Stanford. The Pac-12 North should be be a battle between Oregon and Washington every year. But will it?
If I told you that Texas was the largest athletic department in the country, most of you would nod your heads and say you knew that. But what if I told you that Wisconsin was the second largest athletic department in the country? Your jaw’s hanging open, right now, isn’t it? Last year Wisconsin’s athletic department produced nearly $150 million in revenue, second only to Texas in the country.
If Wisconsin didn’t have to grab athletes from the rest of the country and convince them to come up to the frigid north they’d be much higher on this list.
20. South Carolina
Want a stat that’s guaranteed to win you a bar bet? The Gamecocks did not win their first bowl game until 1995. 1995! That’s one reason I always found it funny that prognosticators said Texas A&M and Missouri would struggle in the SEC. Both of those schools have infinitely better historical performances in football than South Carolina did when it joined the conference in 1992. What South Carolina’s rise proves is two-fold: 1) your coach matters 2) the SEC’s rising tide has lifted all boats. Particularly if your school is in a state that has consistently produced great talent.
South Carolina and Clemson are both top 25 programs in small states, but they benefit from the state of North Carolina’s failure to produce a football powerhouse. The Gamecocks are very close to Atlanta and not far from top players in Georgia. Plus, they have a long-suffering fan base that supported the teams even when they were awful. Which was most of the time. Now that they’re finally good, the Gamecocks are ready to ascend further on this list. The only question that remains — and it has to torment big Gamecock fans — is will the program return to mediocrity once Spurrier retires?
21. Notre Dame
The Golden Domes are tarnished. While there have been blips on the radar over the past 25 years, those rises have typically been paired with more problematic collapses. Recently Notre Dame fought its way to the BCS title game, only to prove how far the gap between Notre Dame and a top team like Alabama really was.
Just like the Big Ten schools, demographics have hurt Notre Dame. There are fewer kids playing at Catholic high schools combined with the fact that there are fewer kids in the Big Ten states.
Now the Fighting Irish have to go South and convince kids from warm climates to come North to play football. Most don’t want to do that. Throw in the age-old academics argument and the structural obstacles to Notre Dame becoming a top 10 job again seem downright insurmountable. That’s not to say that the right coach can’t win at the school — as noted earlier, the coach can change everything at schools without great advantages, just look at Stanford — but it’s a difficult proposition.
How dominant is the SEC when it comes to football? Arkansas is the nation’s 14th largest athletic department and they are Outkick’s ninth best job in the SEC. Hell, how strong is the SEC West? I’ve got the Razorbacks as the fifth best job in their own division. Sure, Razorback fans will scream to the high heavens that they should be ranked higher, but when you look at the recruiting base, that isn’t true.
Arkansas’ recruiting base just isn’t very substantial. There just aren’t that many players within an easy drive from Arkansas’ campus. That doesn’t mean the school can’t win games, just that it has to persuade a lot of kids to come play a long way from home. And while Arkansas is the only school in its state, it doesn’t have the benefit that other schools do.
Having said all of this, I believe that Arkansas can open up a pipeline into Texas and start snagging players that are being exposed to the SEC brand but don’t want to stay in the Big 12. After all, Texas A&M and LSU can’t take them all.
They have the fan support and they have the interest, but here’s the deal — where are the players going to come from? While it made financial sense for Cornhuskers to join the Big Ten, I’m still not sure how it made strategic sense to the long-range future of the program.
Ultimately recruiting is the lifeblood of any program and there aren’t enough players in Nebraska to be dominant. I counted 23 different states represented on this year’s Nebraska roster. That has to be a record for any team on this list. You can win a national championship at Miami or USC without having to get on an airplane.
You have to live on an airplane to win nine games at Nebraska.
Another shadow SEC program in the ACC, Clemson is a cultural fit for the SEC that happens to be playing in the ACC. What’s the difference between Clemson and South Carolina, you might be asking? Try about $40 million a year, that’s how much bigger South Carolina’s athletic department is going to be once the SEC Network money starts rolling in.
Already there’s a substantial gap; Clemson is the 41st largest athletic department in the country, the lowest-revenue producing team on our list. So why are the Tigers here? Because of the recruiting base and because of the passion of the fan base. Clemson fans love football like few fan bases love football in the country.
25. North Carolina
I know, I know, the Tar Heels are consistently disappointing on the football field, but the state of North Carolina’s population continues to surge and at some point someone is going to get this right. Maybe it will be North Carolina State, maybe Duke will turn into a dynasty, but in the meantime, I’m ranking UNC as the top of the North Carolina football schools.
There are other schools I considered here — Iowa, Virginia Tech, Louisville among them — but ultimately I just came back to recruiting. North Carolina is a fertile recruiting field, much more so than the three schools I rejected and I ultimately think someone will win big there.
It may well be the last of the truly sleeping giants.