The Next Level
by Jim Alderson
TSL Extra, Issue #19
A favorite phrase of football coaches, especially newly hired ones, is the ‘next level.’ A school’s Athletic Director barely has time to introduce the new guy and explain that things are going to be a lot different than they were under that dud of a predecessor before the coach bounds to the podium and declares that he is just the guy to take Hometown U. to the football nirvana of the ‘next level.’ I occasionally wonder just exactly what comprises the ‘next level.’
The ‘next level’ can mean different things to different programs. At perpetual conference doormats such as Rutgers, Baylor and Duke, it could be construed to mean actually winning a conference game, or, in Duke’s case, winning a game, period. But, since Greg Schiano did not proclaim his goal at Rutgers to "win a Big East game," I assume he had another ‘next level’ in mind. Probably closer to the real ‘next level’ were the comments of some area schools that have recently changed coaches, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and NC State, where John Bunting, Chuck Amato, Ralph Friedgen and algroh were quick to define their concepts of the ‘next level’ as winning championships, both conference and national. Now we’re getting somewhere.
I’m not sure winning a conference championship or MNC should be the sole criteria for ‘next level’ status, however, especially the MNC, won by only seven teams in the last decade: Alabama, Florida State , Nebraska , Florida, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Miami. That makes for a pretty narrow definition of ‘next level’-ness, and includes one team, Alabama, where the ‘next level’ currently means one that does not include the Death Penalty.
Possessing a conference championship trophy certainly expands the field, as 28 schools have won them, but that is not a true measure, either, as that list includes Northwestern, which astounded the college football universe by winning the Big Ten in 1995 but has usually struggled to post a winning record since, and can hardly be considered to be occupy the highest of the ‘next level’ levels, and does not include Kansas State, which generally fields pretty good teams, but hasn’t managed to yet win the Big XII.
One Measure of Next-Levelness
A ‘next level’ gauge exists, a rather simple one that can be identified through the BCS and its recent predecessors. Starting in 1993, an arbitrary year, to be sure, but one chosen because that was the year the current configuration began to take shape with the beginning of round-robin play in the Big East and Penn State’s entry into the Big Ten, and it’s my article.
1993 is also the same year there were four major bowls established, the Sugar, Orange, Fiesta and Rose. I will include the Cotton for the first two years, since the SWC still existed and had not yet had its cream [along with Baylor for political reasons] siphoned off by the Big 8 to form the Big XII. To even be considered for the top ‘next level,’ it seems reasonable to require that all ‘next level’ aspirants to have played in one of these games. The participants in those bowls since 1993 are as follows:
That is 38 games over nine years involving 34 different teams. Distributed by number of appearances, they are:
These 34 teams can be quickly whittled down. First off the list is Texas Tech, which gained a Cotton Bowl invitation in 1994 by virtue of meeting the two SWC requisites that season, having a winning record and not being on NCAA probation and bowl ineligible.
Other one-hit wonders that can be crossed off on the first cut are teams that got to a major bowl early on and never got close again, a group that includes West Virginia, Arizona, Arizona State, Washington State and the afore-mentioned Northwestern.
On the flip side are teams that have recently been to the BCS but have yet to demonstrate they have staying power, a group that includes Maryland, LSU, Purdue, Illinois, Stanford, Washington and Oregon State. Alabama has made one BCS bowl between probations, but the NCAA seems determined that it will be quite a while before they are good enough to make another. That leaves Oklahoma and Kansas State among the one-and-done teams, so I will award them ‘next level’ status.
Looking at the teams that have twice graced the BCS, Southern Cal and Penn State fall under the ‘What have you done for me lately?’ category, making a top-shelf bowl years ago and finding the going tough since, UCLA yo-yos up and down the PAC 10 standings, Syracuse has yet to prove it can sustain excellence past one quarterback, and Colorado and Oregon fall under the necessity of proving staying power, as their second appearance was a not-so-recent 1994. The remaining group of double majors are Michigan, Texas and Texas A&M, all teams that are usually pretty good.
Four teams have made three trips to the BCS promised land. Ohio State, once a stalwart, has slipped a bit recently, and while new coach Jim Tressel looks promising, he hasn’t gotten them there yet, so they are off the list. Wisconsin slipped last year, but Barry Alvarez has spread his three BCS bowls out over seven years and is usually pretty good, so I will anoint the Badgers ‘next level’ status, at least for another year. Tennessee’s three BCS bowls all came in a row from 1997-99, but the Vols are always very good and Phil Fulmer seems to finally have his Visor problem licked. Virginia Tech slipped slightly last year, but Frank Beamer has taken two separate groups of players to the BCS and the Hokies have become regular fixtures in the national rankings, and, as I mentioned earlier, it’s my article, so the Hokies are in.
Two teams have made four BCS trips, good friends Miami and Notre Dame. The Canes have been there, gotten smacked down by the NCAA and come back, have made their four trips under three different coaches and are currently at the top of any ‘next level,' close to forming their own ‘next level’ of one. The Irish are a different story. They played in the Cotton, Fiesta and Sugar from 1993-95, but their only appearance since was the 2000 Fiesta, a bowl in which they did not belong. Teams that have posted losing records two of the last three seasons and fire their coach a year after making a BCS bowl can hardly be considered to occupy a spot on the ‘next level.’
There are three teams remaining, Florida State with eight BCS appearances and Florida and Nebraska, each with seven. While new Gators coach Ron Zook has the unenviable task of keeping Florida at the top, all three of these programs have track records of sustained excellence that classifies them as the cream of the ‘next level’ crop. They win, and win a lot. The Noles slipped last year, but a safe bet is that they will be back at the throat of the ACC and everybody else with a vengeance. Nebraska is Nebraska, always very good.
The Next Level
The original 34 teams have been pared down to eleven: Florida State, Florida, Nebraska, Miami, Virginia Tech, Tennessee, Michigan, Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Kansas State.
One notices that there are five teams included from the Big XII, but a case can be made for all. Texas A&M has gone 78-31-1 over the past nine years, won the Big XII in 98, the old SWC in 93 and were undefeated in 94 but bowl-ineligible due to the standard SWC probation. They seem to be enduring a Mack-induced decline of late, going 8-4, 7-5 and 8-4 over the last three years, but they are usually ranked, for the most part lose to other Big XII teams and, as Tech is going to discover, very tough to deal with.
Kansas State has yet to win a conference championship and slipped to 6-6 in 2001, but the Wildcats are 87-23-1 since 93, won eleven games an astounding four times in a row from 97-00 and have long been fixtures of the Top Ten. One .500 season does not yet merit their slippage to also-ran status.
Oklahoma spent much of the Nineties recovering from Barry Switzer’s probation, but exploded back onto the national scene by winning the MNC in 2000 and staying in the hunt in '01.
Texas has yet to win anything big under Mack Brown, but did capture the last SWC title in 95 and the first Big XII one in 96 under John Mackovic. While Brown continues to demonstrate that recruiting top talent isn’t everything, the Longhorns are very good and a threat to finally win something under Mack.
This list is highly subjective and subject to change, especially if 2001 upstarts Maryland, Illinois and LSU keep winning big and Texas A&M and Kansas State do not. But, for now, when a coach claims that he is going to take his program to the ‘next level,’ it seems to me that these are the guys at which he is shooting.