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The 25 Most Relevant Programs In College Football

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.

Get Started: No. 25 - Missouri >>>

25. Missouri:

A year ago, even with the move to the SEC, Mizzou probably wouldn’t even be in consideration for this list. Of course, then the Tigers went and won the SEC East, so they deserve credit. While Missouri loses a ton from last year’s team, including two top defensive ends in Koly Ealy and Michael Sam and elite wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, promising young quarterback Maty Mauk takes the reins of the offense for a full season, and Gary Pinkel is still at the helm; he’s been remarkably consistent since taking over the program in 2001.

The Tigers may see a bit of regression this season, but they proved that they belong in the conversation in 2013, much like Texas A&M did in 2012. Any team that goes to an SEC Championship Game is relevant, in my book.

Next: No. 24 - Miami (FL) >>>

24. Miami:

“Is ‘The U’ Back?” We seem to ask this question every off-season, but Al Golden does look to have the ‘Canes inching closer and closer to the national stage every year. Unfortunately, conference and state rival Florida State came roaring back with a vengeance last season, leaving Miami in the dust a bit, but the Hurricanes are still an interesting group. Running back Duke Johnson is one of the best rushers in football, and was well on his way to an incredible 2013 before going out with broken ankle against the Seminoles. Johnson rushed for 920 yards on 6.3 yards per carry in eight games, including the incomplete Florida State contest and wins over Savannah State and UNC in which he only recorded eight carries apiece.

Miami will be hard to bump from this list for one other important reason as well: they’re still Miami. The Hurricanes were the dominant program when many of today’s recruits were growing up, and they have one of the country’s most fertile recruiting grounds in their backyard. Golden took the Miami job on December 12, 2010. His first recruiting class two months later ranked 36th according to Rivals. His classes in the three years since have ranked 9th, 20th, and 12th. Even as the championships get more and more distant, Miami is still a brand, and can still bring in top talent without leaving South Beach.

Next: No. 23 - UCLA >>>

23. UCLA:

The Bruins have a storied program, but they had gone years without the consistent success that they seem to be finding under Jim Mora. The former Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks head coach turned a 6-8 team into a 9-5 team in his first year, and upped the win total to ten last season.

Entering 2014-15, Mora brings back a Heisman hopeful in quarterback Brett Hundley, a stingy defense, and a fun system that should help bring a lot of skilled talent to the Rose Bowl. Under Rick Neuheisel, UCLA had classes ranked 13th, 14th, 8th, and then fell back to 45th with his final class. Mora has returned the Bruins to the top of those rankings right away, with his classes coming in at 13th, 8th, and 18th. Combine that talent with strong coaching, and UCLA isn’t going away anytime soon.

Next: No. 22 - Oklahoma State >>

22. Oklahoma State:

Is there a more underappreciated program in the country than Oklahoma State? Mike Gundy has had one losing season as head coach of the Cowboys, his first, and is averaging 9.8 wins per year since 2008. Okie State went 12-1 in 2011, including a Fiesta Bowl win over No. 4 Stanford, and missed a chance at a title game berth because of a double-overtime loss to Iowa State. Gundy’s team is as consistently good as any in the country, they play an incredibly fun, high-octane brand of football, and aren’t afraid to play big games. The Cowboys open with defending national champion Florida State in Arlington this season.

Oklahoma State doesn’t have the same brand recognition as Oklahoma or Texas, and probably doesn’t even get as much credit as Baylor right now, but they’ve been just as strong as any of those programs recently.

Next: No. 21 - Baylor >>

21. Baylor:

We were just promoting Oklahoma State one section ago, so why does Baylor rank higher? The Bears ascendance into the top tier of college football is just a bigger story. Baylor is a program without a ton of history, but Art Briles, who is considered one of the premiere offensive minds in the sport, has them in serious contention for the College Football Playoff. Baylor’s ranked finish in 2011 was the program’s first since 1986.

The Bears have a recent Heisman winner and superstar in Robert Griffin III, and could add another one if Bryce Petty takes home the hardware this winter. Recruiting is on an upturn, with Briles competing for top 30 instead of top 50 classes. While they don’t always beat out the other Texas schools for blue-chip players, the Bears' athletes can run with anyone. They’ll also be doing so in a beautiful new stadium, which will likely beget more fans in the seats and recruiting success.

As long as Briles stays in Waco, and Baylor can compete for Texas talent, the Bears will continue to rise on this list.

Next: No. 20 - Michigan >>>

20. Michigan:

...on the other hand, we have a program that gets by primarily on brand recognition: Michigan. The Wolverines are right at the top of the list in terms of historical programs, but they’ve been incredibly inconsistent for years now. Brady Hoke’s tenure opened strong, with the 11-2 2011 season, but his program has regressed ever since, and his seat could heat up in 2014. Hoke has utilized the Michigan name fairly well though. His first full recruiting cycle in Ann Arbor brought in the 7th ranked class, according to Rivals, and bumped up to 5th in 2013 before falling back to 31st this year.

Hoke has brought in plenty of talent to Michigan, but at some point he needs to find a way to beat arch-rival Ohio State, and gain back control of the state, as Michigan State has completely overtaken his team as the best program in Michigan. However, recruiting success shows that “Michigan” still means something, and that will automatically bump the program ahead of most others. Whenever Michigan competes for the Big Ten, it will get plenty of national hype.

Next: No. 19 - Penn State >>>

19. Penn State:

After the Sandusky scandal, Penn State ran the risk of falling off of the national stage during the school’s post-season ban. Luckily, Bill O’Brien was able to keep the program afloat in 2012 and 2013, and now under James Franklin, the Nittany Lions are gaining solid momentum, especially in recruiting. Franklin signed a top 25 class this February, and currently has a top 5 class for 2015. While the Nittany Lions still have depth concerns going forward, those should be nearly alleviated once the program is allowed to compete in the post-season.

Penn State is looking to lock up the talent in the northeast, which, while not as deep as places like Florida or Texas, still has a good amount of quality between New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. If they can effectively shut out other schools like Rutgers, Maryland, and Pitt from those areas, they will be able compete nationally. Franklin is also a proven coach. Anyone who can win nine games at Vanderbilt in the SEC shouldn’t have too much trouble at Penn State in the Big Ten.

Next: No. 18 - Stanford >>>

18. Stanford:

A few years ago, it seemed unlikely that Stanford would continue to perform at an elite level after the departures of players like Toby Gerhart and Andrew Luck, and a coach like Jim Harbaugh, but here we are. David Shaw has won 34 games in his first three years as head coach and has three BCS bowl berths to his name. They’ve also proven to be the kryptonite to the otherwise stellar Oregon program in recent years.

While many expect the Cardinal to fall back to the pack a bit this year, Stanford’s old-school system of power football and capturing the nation’s top high-academic recruits appears to be sustainable. Few other FBS programs can also offer an education like Stanford, so while getting many students into the program is difficult, Shaw has a totally unique recruiting chip to play with.

Next: No. 17 - Wisconsin >>>

17. Wisconsin:

The Badgers haven’t always been an elite team, but they’re almost always in contention for the Big Ten and a great bowl bid. Through the Barry Alvarez, Bret Bielema, and now Gary Andersen regimes, Wisconsin has rarely missed a beat. Wisconsin has had two losing seasons since 1993, Alvarez’s third year as head coach. In that same time frame, the program has eight 10+ win seasons, six conference championships, and three Rose Bowl victories.

Now, the Badgers have the benefit of being in the Big Ten West division, which, on paper, is a much easier road to the conference championship than the East, which includes Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State. There are no signs of Wisconsin slipping up any time soon.

Next: No. 16 - Clemson >>>

16. Clemson:

Clemson fans may still be reeling a bit from that game against Florida State last season. In a year that seemed to be the culmination of the program that Dabo Swinney has been building, with veteran stars in Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, and Martavis Bryant, the Tigers were shellacked at home 51-14.

Luckily, the sun rose the next morning in South Carolina, Clemson still has a ton of talent on campus, and Jameis Winston can only play quarterback for the Seminoles for so long. The team will ride a star-studded defense this year, and likely hand off the reins of the offense to top recruit Deshaun Watson, who they hope will have a Winston-like impact as a second year player. The annual division rivalry against Florida State and state rivalry against South Carolina are two serious hurdles that Swinney and his program need to clear before they take the next step to becoming playoff contenders, but recent bowl wins over Ohio State and LSU prove that the Tigers should be able to compete with anyone.

Next: No. 15 - Michigan State >>>

15. Michigan State:

Last year’s Spartan season, which included a Big Ten title game win over Ohio State, a Rose Bowl victory, and many Rich Homie Quan cameos, was a total boon for the program. MSU has emerged as a legitimate Big Ten power, and as I wrote earlier, the preeminent program in the state of Michigan. Mark Dantonio is one of the better coaches in football, and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi may be the most coveted assistant in the country at this point.

If not for an early loss to Notre Dame, Michigan State may have been playing against Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game. While the FSU-Auburn game was excellent, watching Jimbo Fisher’s offensive juggernaut against Dantonio and Narduzzi’s top defense would have also been a treat. While Ohio State is the early favorite to win the Big Ten this year, if Michigan State can come out on top again, they will supplant the Buckeyes as the conference’s top overall program.

Next: No. 14 - USC >>>

14. USC:

During the Lane Kiffin years, USC was passed by Oregon, Stanford, cross-town rival UCLA, and maybe even Arizona State in-conference. Even Washington fans probably would accept a trade back for Huskies-turned-Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian; they seem thrilled with former Boise State head man Chris Petersen. However, USC is still a huge factor nationally, and will be as long as Sarkisian doesn’t lose the team like Kiffin did.

They are still one of the best name-brands out west, with only Oregon as a possible rival in that regard. USC is not that far removed from the halcyon years of Pete Carroll, Matt Leinart, and Reggie Bush, and it shows in some of the huge recruiting wins that Sarkisian, a former Carroll assistant, landed late in the 2014 recruiting cycle.

Next: No. 13 - South Carolina >>>

13. South Carolina:

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If someone told you a decade ago that by 2014, the more nationally relevant USC football program would be the Gamecocks, you probably would have laughed them out of the room. It is impossible to argue against the job that Steve Spurrier has done in Columbia. The Gamecocks have reeled in some of the nation’s best recruits, highlighted by the NFL’s most recent first overall pick, Jadeveon Clowney. Despite losing a talent like Clowney, and Connor Shaw, who is probably the best quarterback in program history, the Gamecocks have enough depth to be considered the favorite in the SEC East this year.

If Dylan Thompson pans out as a full-time starter under center, and Mike Davis continues to be one of the nation’s top rushers, South Carolina could take home its first SEC Championship. Even just five years ago, when the Gamecocks were losing bowl games by multiple touchdowns to Iowa and UConn, that seemed preposterous. Even if they fail to make it to Atlanta and beyond, a sixth straight win against Clemson would likely be an acceptable consolation prize for the Gamecock faithful.

Next: No. 12 - Georgia >>>

12. Georgia:

A few years ago, when Georgia went 6-7 and lost an ugly Liberty Bowl to UCF, there was some real heat under Mark Richt’s seat. In retrospect, calls for his job were pretty unfair, considering the full breadth of what he’s accomplished in Athens. The Bulldogs have averaged 9.7 wins a year during Richt’s 13-year tenure, and have put together double-digit win seasons in eight of those years.

Georgia has won the SEC East six times and the SEC outright twice under Richt. Based on Rivals’ team recruiting rankings, going back to 2002 when the site started putting those rankings out, Georgia has never finished lower than 15th in the country. Virtually every other program imaginable has slipped on the recruiting trail at some point, but Richt pulls in elite classes every year. Being the flagship school in one of the five best football states in the country doesn’t hurt.

Georgia hasn’t quite made it to the promised land, and hasn’t had an undefeated season under Richt, but it has accomplished everything else possible. At some point, Georgia is bound to break through, and if Todd Gurley stays healthy, it could happen in 2014.

Next: No. 11 - Notre Dame >>>

11. Notre Dame:

To the chagrin of every non-Irish fan out there, we could not leave Notre Dame off this list. While Notre Dame hasn’t had the consistent success of many of these other programs, Brian Kelly does have them heading in the right direction, and a National Championship berth, even when it ends in embarrassment, isn’t anything to scoff at. With their many rivalries and series on both coasts, Notre Dame can factor in any recruiting race, even more so now that Kelly has them competing with top programs once again.

Outside of South Bend, Notre Dame will play in Indianapolis, the Meadowlands, Florida, Maryland, Arizona, and Los Angeles. Even after disappointing Charlie Weis, Ty Willingham, and Bob Davie tenures, Notre Dame fans are still everywhere, and shouldn’t have an issue filling any of those stadiums. That’s an attractive thing for top football player - whether they’re from California or New York City - their families can see them play, but they can get away from home. Having every game on national television doesn’t hurt, either.

Next: No. 10 - Oklahoma >>>

10. Oklahoma:

Is “Big Game Bob” back? Oklahoma hasn’t made it to a title game since 2008, but they’ve been the Big 12’s most consistent program during his tenure, and made serious waves by beating Alabama in last season’s Sugar Bowl. Now, Oklahoma is being touted as a playoff contender and Big 12 favorite, Trevor Knight is the next big thing at quarterback, and Bob Stoops’ program has a ton of hype once again.

OU has done a good job of dipping into Texas for talent. The Sooners most recent class, which ranked in the Top 15 by Scout, Rivals, and 247Sports, includes eight players from their arch-rival’s home state.

Stoops has eight conference titles and a national championship to his name. Even with Oklahoma State’s recent emergence, Texas’ new direction under Charlie Strong, and Baylor’s state of the art offense, the Sooners are still the team to beat in the Big 12.

Next: No. 9 - Texas A&M >>>

9. Texas A&M:

The last two years have been massive for the direction of Texas A&M’s program. The Aggies joined the SEC, brought in an exciting new coach in Kevin Sumlin, and perhaps most importantly, plugged in a quarterback named Johnny Manziel, who captured numerous wins, millions of dollars in donations, a Heisman trophy, and the hearts and minds of a massive fan base.

With Manziel, Texas A&M immediately proved that it could contend in the toughest conference in college football. Now, the challenge will be maintaining that momentum. It may seem difficult without a transcendent talent like Johnny Football, but have you seen those new facilities? Texas A&M may in fact be the “coolest” program in the country now. Recruiting certainly backs that up. The last two Aggies classes have ranked 11th and 6th, and this year’s could break the top five.

There is a ton of pressure to win without Manziel, but his two years increased the program’s resources significantly. It will be difficult to measure his lasting impact on the program, but if Texas A&M lifts a College Football Playoff trophy at any point in the near future, you will probably be able to trace it back to that huge 2012 upset of Alabama in some meaningful way.

Next: No. 8 - Florida >>>

8. Florida:

Few programs would be able to shake off a 4-8 season, but we're talking about the flagship school in the talent-rich state of Florida. The Gators were destroyed by injuries last season, and they were a laughingstock following their loss to Georgia Southern, but many still believe the team can bounce back and make noise in the SEC East this year.

Florida’s national titles under Urban Meyer brought on the era of unprecedented domination by the SEC, and the Gators have never really left the national conversation. They have access to the best recruiting grounds, they send tons of talent to the NFL, and many of the top high school players in the country grow up dreaming of putting on a Gator uniform and becoming the next Tim Tebow or Percy Harvin. Will Muschamp may not survive another poor, or even mediocre season, but it will take a long time for Florida to become irrelevant. It may not even be possible.

Next: No. 7 - Texas >>>

7. Texas:

The Longhorns haven’t won double-digit games since 2009, and have fallen behind multiple other Big 12 programs, but when fans and websites do their “build your own conference” drafts and other similar exercises, Texas is always one of the first schools off the board. With new coach Charlie Strong in Austin, Texas seems to be getting revitalized. Strong built a national program at Louisville, which was in a smaller conference, and didn’t have nearly the same resources as UT. Texas also has its own television network, which, successful or not, has to count for something.

If we learned anything from the coaching hire process at Texas, it is that Longhorn fans will not stand for being mediocre. If Strong can’t cut it, they will find someone who can, and that person may or may not be able to land $100 million for his services. Winning is the easiest path to being one of the most nationally relevant programs, but it isn’t the only way to get there.

Next: No. 6 - Auburn >>>

6. Auburn:

Is any program more unpredictable on a year-to-year basis than Auburn? The Gene Chizik hire seemed very strange when it happened, mostly due to his 5-19 record at Iowa State. Two years into his tenure, he catches lightning in a bottle with Cam Newton and wins a BCS National Championship. Two seasons later, he's fired after a 3-9 campaign. In comes his former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn as head coach, who installs a new offense, sticks a former Georgia cornerback at quarterback, wins the Iron Bowl, wins the SEC, and comes within a minute of winning a national title in his first year.

Basically, if anything else, Auburn is always interesting. It would be difficult to script the highs and lows that the program has gone through on and off the field in a five season span, but that is what makes them such an incredible school to follow.

The scary thing for the other schools in the SEC is that Malzahn seems to have what it takes to be successful long term, and his team last year that won the conference is not nearly a finished product. If anything, Auburn may not have the crazy luck that it did in 2013, but it could very well be a better team across the board.

Next: No. 5 - LSU >>>

5. LSU:

Recent national championships? Check. Massive, intimidating stadium? Check. Iconic uniforms? Check. A live tiger as a mascot? Check. A revered, successful, and lovably insane head coach? Double check. There really isn’t much more to say about LSU - the program has been chugging along since the turn of the century. Its last two coaches, Nick Saban and Les Miles, are two of the best in the entire sport.

Miles has averaged over 10.5 wins per season in Baton Rouge. In his worst season, he went 8-5 despite playing in the SEC West. Most coaches would take that more years than not. LSU can sell both history and recent dominance, it has an iconic brand, and it claims some of the most rabid fans in the country. This year, the Tigers recruiting class ranked second by all four major recruiting services, and running back Leonard Fournette is receiving Heisman buzz before his first game in college. It is a good time to be a Tiger fan, but isn’t it always?

Next: No. 4 - Oregon >>>

4. Oregon:

In terms of pure football success, Oregon would trade places with LSU, Auburn, Texas, and some of the other programs farther down this list. However, the Ducks’ impact on college football goes far beyond wins and losses. Sure, they have been a dominant team in the Pac-12, and they seem to be a contender on a national scale every year, but Oregon is also probably the most mimicked team in the sport.

Many programs have tried to capture some of the success that Oregon has had with its revolutionary high-speed offense. Based on his first year in the NFL, former Ducks coach Chip Kelly seems to be making it work at the next level as well, so expect even more coaches to try to incorporate many of his strategies. But even more programs have been modeling themselves after Oregon’s iconic fashion sense. If a program doesn’t have a legendary uniform like Alabama or Penn State, odds are they’ve experimented with something that is reminiscent of one of Oregon’s many ridiculous combinations.

Even programs like Ohio State and Michigan have broken out looks that have clearly been impacted by how popular Oregon’s eclectic jerseys are. The Ducks also have the full power of Nike behind them, which never hurts when it comes to athletics. Oregon marches to its own drum, wears ridiculous clothes, and plays a style of football that no other program has quite been able to nail down, and because of it, the Ducks are now one of the most powerful programs in the entire country, despite not having half of the history or pedigree of many of these other schools.

Next: No. 3 - Ohio State >>>

3. Ohio State:

With back-to-back undefeated regular seasons, a massively successful head coach, and a state-wide fanbase of football diehards with only one major conference team to support (sorry Cincinnati), it is no wonder why Ohio State is ranked third here. While the end of last season had to be tough for Buckeyes fans, the team brings back an elite college quarterback in Braxton Miller, and top talent all over the field. Being in the Big Ten East is a bit of a blessing and a curse. While it is definitely the tougher of the two Big Ten divisions, it is still manageable enough to run the table with, yet still likely has enough punch to land an undefeated Buckeye team in the College Football Playoff.

It doesn’t hurt that OSU is a historic program, and Urban Meyer has a history of taking teams to incredible heights. With four spots available in the playoff right now, odds are Meyer will win his share of Big Ten titles and get his teams into National Championship contention.

Next: No. 2 - Florida State >>>

2. Florida State:

Before last season, it would be hard to put this team in the top tier here, but the Seminoles were so dominant last year that they could seriously push for the top spot on the list. Jimbo Fisher has the program totally rolling, despite a ton of coaching turnover and the fairly frequent distractions surrounding Heisman winner Jameis Winston. Luckily, none of that has impacted his team’s play, and he has another year with Winston under center, and an almost-entirely intact offensive line returning. Combine those factors with strong skill position play, and a very stingy defense, another breeze through the ACC and berth in this year’s playoff seems inevitable.

Many believe that Florida State can go for back-to-back titles this season, and if that is the case, it is hard to argue against their place in college football’s hierarchy. Fisher and his staff have done incredibly well on the recruiting trail, so even after Winston leaves in a year or two, there shouldn’t be too much of a fall back to earth. With Florida players available, and recent titles to promote, the Seminoles should be great for the foreseeable future.

Next: No. 1 - ??? >>>

1. Alabama:

Florida State is coming for the Tide’s number one spot, but for now, we can’t bump Alabama off the throne. Nick Saban has built the most consistently formidable powerhouse in the country, and even in a year where they lose their longtime quarterback, Alabama pundits and fans still believe that the team has the goods to win the toughest conference in the country.

Nick Saban is as good as advertised, the Tide have three running backs who would start for 90% of schools, and the defense is still ridiculously talented. Alabama fans are among the most loyal in the country and provide an incredible atmosphere, and the program has had unprecedented success over the past decade. Basically, if there is a category that a football program can be graded on, Alabama grades out incredibly high.

As long as Saban is in Tuscaloosa, they should be a major factor in the college football landscape, and there is little reason to think that they shouldn’t at least compete for the SEC and the playoff in 2014 and beyond.

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