What makes a college football team relevant? Is it wins? That would be unfairly biased towards Group of 5 programs with the ability to rack up wins against horrific teams while unfairly punishing teams out of the SEC, Big 10, and other Power-5 conferences that load their schedules with premier competition each year. No offense to Boise State (or maybe a little bit), but the Broncos are not the best team in the country by really any other measure. And beating up on San Jose State, New Mexico, and UNLV does not qualify one for college football supremacy. However, to strictly take playoff berths and national championships seems flawed as well, as that essentially completely discounts UCF, Boise State, and other great but smaller-name programs. What about elite recruiting? Or draft picks and successful NFL careers?
We did our best to combine the variety of factors, weighing the success of college alums in the NFL, draft position, bowl appearances – with an emphasis on New Year’s 6 bowls – and CFP appearances. Of course, extra points were awarded for national championships – Group of 5 teams can cry all they want about how biased the CFP committee is, but the reality is they don’t have the ability to consistently defeat high-level programs. In a recent simulation we ran, we expanded the CFP to include the top Group of 5 team from each season, the non Power-5 squads went 1-6 with only 2017 UCF picking up a win. Relevancy or dominance can also not be claimed from one amazing season (LSU fans would have you believe they’re the greatest program in history because Joe Burrow dropped about a million points on everyone), nor can it be claimed by a 1988 national championship (looking at myself and fellow Irish fans on that one).
So, taking all these factors into consideration, here are the rankings of the top 15 most relevant football programs heading into the 2020 season. For the keyboard warriors, rage type all your angry thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org, where you can contact any of our writers.
Wisconsin just exudes hard and tough vibes, and that’s exactly the type of product the Badgers put out on the gridiron year in and year out. Their biggest strengths lie in their backfield and in the trenches. Recent alum of the program and 2017 first-round pick Ryan Ramczyk has already posted 47 starts and garnered All-Pro honors, while 2019 picks Michael Deiter and David Edwards have already combined for 25 starts. Behind their grind-it-out, ground-and-pound style, Wisconsin has won four of six West Division titles since the Big 10 split into East/West divisions. They’ve posted three top-15 finishes in that time period, rising into the top-6 at various points in each of the past four years, along with a 5-1 record in Bowl Games, including an Orange Bowl victory in 2017. However, an 0-4 record in Big 10 championships and struggles on the recruiting class (not in the Top 25 over the past five seasons), keep the Badgers from rising too far up this list.
The Huskies edged out Wisconsin on the strength of three NY6 bowl appearances, and a spectacular stretch from 2016-2018 that was highlighted by a College Football Playoff berth in 2017. Playoff berths were certainly valued highly in the compilation of these rankings, as were conference championships, both areas where Washington beat out the Badgers, as the Huskies have won a pair of Pac-12 titles. They’ve had success in developing professional prospects in the secondary and at tight end, and they had no losing records in the past decade. However, they were really only elite for a 3-year stretch and went 2-3 in their last five bowl appearances, so Washington stays at #14 here.
13. Boise State
As much as I like to give grief to the Broncos, they do at least belong on this list. Spoiler Alert: They’re the only Group-of-5 team that cracked the top 15. Boise State has not been the best Group-of-5 squad in recent years, having not been to a New Year’s 6 bowl since 2014, but their remarkable consistency earns them a place here – the Broncos have won at least 8 games in every season since 1998, posting 17 ten-win campaigns in that 21-year stretch. Their easy strength of schedule (not a single above-average SOS in program history) will always present an asterisk to their name that anyone will throw in their face, but Boise State gets Ws, and they have for 25 years, and they’ve been superb since joining the FBS in 2011, cracking the top 25 in every season. Their winning percentage over the last decade ranks fifth in the country at .805, and the Broncos sit fourth with 107 wins during that time. Now, I will throw in this statistic, so whether you’re a Boise State fan ready to brag about breaking the top 15 or insulted that you are put that low ( I truly don’t know what to expect out of that rabid and slightly delusional fanbase) – Since 2012, Boise State is just 1-4 against ranked Power-5 teams, and they don’t have a top-10 win since 2010. So they’re not a top-10 program, but they do deserve recognition for their consistency and sheer quantity of wins.
Florida would be a lot higher on this list if we were putting greater emphasis on history. Long gone are the days of Urban Meyer, Tim Tebow, and the 2008 national championship, and even further gone is the era of Steve Spurrier, accompanied by four consecutive SEC championships and a couple more national titles. However, the Gators haven’t won the SEC title since that ‘08 run, and they haven’t appeared in the championship game since 2016. They’ve continued to recruit well, with their recruiting classes ranked #14 over the past five seasons, and they still pump out solid NFL talent, particularly on the offensive line and at defensive back – the boys in Gainesville are one of many teams to claim DBU. Florida has a pair of losing seasons in the past decades, but they’ve rebounded nicely in the past couple seasons, ending their previous two campaigns with major bowl victories (Peach and Orange Bowls), keeping them in the top 15.
11. Notre Dame
Yes they’ve struggled in big games recently, and the Irish are still sitting on zero championships in the BCS/CFP era, but Notre Dame’s ability to bring in top level talent and turn that talent into NFL prospects keeps the Irish highly relevant, but I couldn’t justify bringing them into the top 10 without major recent accomplishments. However, the Irish produce some elite professional players, particularly on their offensive line in recent years (Quentin Nelson, Mike McGlinchey, Zack Martin). They have a .713 winning percentage in the past decade, and they’re 4-2 in their past six bowl game appearances, highlighted by a pair of thrilling victories over LSU. They’ve been ranked in the top 12 in four of the past five seasons, and combined with a Playoff appearance, it was enough to put Notre Dame at #11 on the list.
10. Florida State
One of the most dominant teams in college football in the first half of the decade, Florida State has faded from relevancy, posting just an 18-20 record in their prior three seasons. However, the Seminoles’ 59-9 record in the five years prior was more than enough to earn FSU some consideration for making this list. Ultimately, their BCS national championship and CFP appearance was enough to just barely crack the top 10. The Seminoles have continued to recruit at a high level, despite their recent struggles, as they’ve boasted the 6th-best recruiting classes over the past five years. They’ve had a pair of quarterbacks drafted in the first round, and clearly on-field talent isn’t the issue – if Florida State can sort out some off-field issues, the Seminoles should return to their elite ways. If not? They’ll slip very quickly off this list.
Recent first-round pick Justin Herbert has completed the Ducks’ turnaround, after Oregon spent nearly a decade as one of the best teams in the country. From 2008-2014, the Ducks went 80-15, with that stretch of dominance sandwiched by a pair of 9-4 seasons. They also were a consistent presence in major bowl games, winning the Rose Bowl twice, the Fiesta Bowl once, and appearing in two national championship games and the Playoff. Oregon bottomed out in 2016 with a 4-8 record, but they’ve surged once more, with a 21-6 record over the past two years, punctuated by another thrilling Rose Bowl victory in 2020. The Ducks continue one of the premier teams on the West Coast, but they need to break through to get a national title to stay in the top 10.
The Tigers started the decade off with the brilliance of Cam Newton and a national championship, so it was certainly tough to match that, but Auburn certainly continues to a premier team in college football. Playing in the SEC, the Tigers constantly face one of the most brutal schedules in the country, and I think they could be trending upwards, with another two seasons of Bo Nix coming and some victories on the recruiting trail. Their record (62-31) over the past seven seasons may not be as flashy as others on this list, but don’t forget that winning two of three in the SEC is far more impressive than winning three of four in most other conferences, and seven straight winning seasons while playing in the toughest division in the toughest conference in college football is worthy of a top-10 appearance. A CFP appearance is needed soon, but that BCS national championship and consistent SEC relevancy slots Auburn at #8.
Look, I get it. This seems way to high for a team that hasn’t won a championship since 2003-2004, and I’m not particularly happy about slotting the Trojans here – I’m a diehard Irish fan and Notre Dame student, and one of my favorite memories of my freshman year was watching the boys in blue and gold dust USC at Notre Dame Stadium. But before a recent slump, USC had posted winning records in every season from 2002 to 2017, including seven straight years of at least 11 wins. Despise some recent struggles, the Trojans have been ranked in the AP Poll at some point for each of the past 19 seasons, including a #3 finish in 2016. In recruiting talent and NFL talent they bring in and pump out, USC deserves to be in the top 10. Notre Dame may lead the series in this rivalry, but USC has been better in big games. This will likely be the most controversial ranking on the list, but I’ll stick with it. USC is such a national brand that with the premier talent they bring in year in and year out, they will always be a story, and if they can get a relatively hapless Clay Helton off the sideline, the Trojans can return to national glory.
Another great team that has just been completely unable to break through on the national level, as Georgia has returned to national relevance, but they can’t quite get that big win. After finishing every season from 1997-2008 ranked inside the Top 25, the Bulldogs faded slightly, but they stayed near the top of the rankings, appearing in the top 10 in every season since 2012. Under Kirby Smart, Georgia has surged once more, finishing no lower than seventh in the past three seasons, with an SEC Championship, three SEC title game appearances, a CFP and national championship appearance, as well as wins in the Rose and Sugar Bowls. Talent wise, Georgia has absolutely dominated their in-state rivalry, allowing them to dominate the in-state recruiting battles. As such, Georgia has dominated on the recruiting front, and they produce some elite NFL prospects, particularly in the backfield, pushing the Bulldogs to 6th in our 2020 relevancy rankings.
Since 2000, Oklahoma has consistently been one of the top teams in college football – cracking the top ten in every season in that stretch with appearances in the top 5 in 17 of those 20 seasons. They’ve qualified for four consecutive Playoffs, and while they’ve struggled on that stage, Oklahoma has dominated their conference, been a mainstay in the rankings, featured top-10 talent, had two Heisman winners, and produced highly sought after draft prospects for the NFL. By every standard except Playoff success, Oklahoma is one of the best programs in the country, so don’t let their struggles in the spotlight cloud your judgement of the Sooners.
Yes LSU is great. No they are not the best team in the nation. The Tigers returned to true national relevance in Joe Burrow’s first season, finishing sixth in the AP Poll – their first top ten finish since 2011. Then, of course, there was last year: one of the greatest seasons and quarterbacking efforts of all-time en route to a 15-0 season. That CFP appearance and national championship bumps the Tigers into the top 5. LSU recruits at a top-five level in most seasons, and they probably have the most legitimate claim to DBU with four All-Pro alums and 2017 first-round pick Jamal Adams on his way to becoming the best safety in the NFL. LSU is always relevant, and they’ve turned the corner after spending much of the decade as an afterthought in the national championship race – now they need to succeed in the post-Burrow era to validate this ranking.
3. Ohio State
Seemingly always a powerhouse, but rarely on top. The Alabama-Clemson dual-dynasties may have dominated the second half of the decade, but Ohio State was always right in the mix, but, sans the first ever College Football Playoff, the Buckeyes have not been able to break through. Ohio State has been ranked second in the AP Poll in each of the past four years, but they haven’t sat atop the rankings since 2015. However, outside a blip in 2011 when the Buckeyes went 6-7, Ohio State has been one of the most consistent teams in the country, with extended stretches of dominance – you have to go back to 1967 to find the last season that OSU didn’t make an appearance in the AP Poll. However, Ohio State has not been able to punctuate their dynasty with more than the occasional title, meaning their spot at #3 is anything but secure, with LSU’s recent surge and Oklahoma a CFP win or two from being considered a premier program.
These rankings were always going to come down to Bama-Clemson at 1 and 2, it was just a matter of who ranked where. Ultimately, while it’s brutally difficult to decide in just the last few years, Alabama’s dynasty has simply been longer (more on that later), so Clemson ranks second. They’ve been incredibly dominant for five seasons now, and their dynasty doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. I believe the Tigers have the biggest claim to WRU, where they’ve produced DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, and Mike Williams, and their 6-3 record in the CFP and two national titles are wildly impressive. Had I wrote this article in 2015, I’m not sure Clemson would even be on this list, so it’s safe to say it’s a truly special period of dominance that saw the Tigers skyrocket to the top so fast.
2007. That was the last time that a season went by and Alabama wasn’t ranked #1 at some point during the season. Toss in five national championships in that era, and the top ranking on this list simply couldn’t go to anyone but the Tide. Last year, they finished eighth in the AP Poll, their first time outside the top 5 since 2013 and their lowest ranking since 2010. As for the other qualifications for this list? Alabama dominates the recruiting landscape virtually every season, and they pump out NFL talent at almost every position. Although I stick with my pick of Clemson, Alabama stake a claim for WRU, and defensively, nobody can top the Tide who boast defensive line and linebacker talent like no other program. Their running backs tear up the NFL (see Derrick Henry and Mark Ingram), and the Tide have been the standard in the best conference in America for over a decade. It’s really not a question who is #1 here.