Every major sport has a different definition of “relevance” when it comes to its teams. In the NFL, franchises can turn things around in as quickly as one season, especially if they pick up a transcendent player in the draft or free agency. Baseball often sees surprise teams sneak into the playoffs, especially now that there are two Wild Card spots in each league, and any squad in the post-season can win the World Series. Meanwhile, in the NBA, it is often said that for the long run, it is better to be an awful team, than a middling, low-seeded playoff team.
College football, on the other hand, has pretty well-defined “haves” and “have nots.” There is a limited number of teams every year that move between those two camps, and occasionally a program comes from out of nowhere to make noise, but for the most part, championship contenders come from a small group of the usual suspects.
In the BCS era, which began in 1998-99, 15 schools played for a championship: Tennessee, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Miami, Nebraska, Ohio State, LSU, USC, Texas, Florida, Alabama, Auburn, Oregon, and Notre Dame. When counting the nation’s “relevant” programs, we’ll expand a bit farther than 15, but in the end, it is still a small percentage of the 128 total teams that comprise FBS football.
When we finally learn the four teams that will compete in this year’s inaugural College Football Playoff, odds are that at least three, if not all four, have come from this group of 25 programs.