Blueblood: “An aristocrat, noble, or member of a socially prominent family.” One of the persistent themes of college football is the dominance of the “bluebloods.”
What is a blueblood from a college football standpoint? These are the programs that, true to the dictionary definition, compose college football’s nobility. The problem is there is considerable dispute over what programs constitute that nobility. Everyone thinks their own program is a blueblood or at least on the cusp. Some have a good claim, most don’t. That’s the issue with being in the nobility, it’s a powerful and exclusive minority and most aren’t in it. When a program joins this nobility, it should be a rare and big deal; no different from when someone joins the real world ranks of the aristocracy. Some college football bluebloods are no brainers. No one can truly dispute that Notre Dame, Alabama, USC, and Ohio State are bluebloods. Some, however, are head scratchers. What do we do with the three Florida powers? All have been dominant, all have won multiple conference and national titles under different coaches, but all are relatively new powers with little to no historic prominence before the 1980’s. What about schools with storied traditions and who usually win but they haven’t been consistently elite in some time? These would be your Georgia Techs and Texas A&Ms of the world. What about historic power houses whose success is part of the foundation of the sport but they simply cannot compete since the sport’s surge towards commercialization and semi-professionalism? Army, Navy, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale combine to claim dozens of national championships, countless famous players and coaches, and several Heisman trophy winners. But most of these awards and accolades are ancient and have little to no application to the modern game beyond historical trivia and school pride. So what programs are bluebloods?
The point of this ongoing series is to take a look at the various programs of the college football world and determine who is a blueblood. This isn’t a ranking series. There will be no need to get bent out of shape if I ranked Michigan ahead of Alabama despite the fact that 10 of the Wolverine’s 11 claimed titles predate the Korean War while ten of the Tide’s 15 titles come after the Axis surrender. The point of this series is to see who is a blueblood, who isn’t, and who is on the cusp with some work.
The best way to start this series off is by establishing college football’s surefire bluebloods. These are the programs define the history and fabric of college football. They win, decade-in and decade-out. Their importance to the sport was great in 1910 and 2010. These are the names that even the most sports clueless people know. By the narrowest definition of blueblood these are the programs that HAVE to be listed.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
National Titles: 11 (22 including unclaimed)
Conference Titles: 0 (never played in a conference)
Win-Loss Record: 882-310-42
Heisman Winners: 7
The king of college football. They are the only team that has successfully maintained independence in an age of conference expansion. They have their own major TV deal with NBC and they are a household name. The Fighting Irish have sold out crowds from Indiana to Ireland. Notre Dame claims championships ranging from the Roosevelt administration to the Reagan administration. But the king is getting old. Irish dominance is slipping and it’s been twenty years since the last Notre Dame national championship. Until further notice though, the Irish remain King and certainly amongst the sure-fire bluebloods.
National Titles: 11 (16 including unclaimed)
Conference Titles: 42
Win-Loss Record: 915-328-36
Heisman Winners: 3
Their success spans decades from the McKinley administration to Bush administration. The Wolverines have been so successful that if they fail to win a Big Ten title in the next five years it will be the first decade they have not won a conference title since they began playing in an actual conference. The 1894 Michigan team became the first “western” team to defeat an established power ivy when they downed Cornell in Detroit. Since then they have been part of, if not THE, establishment of college football. Their 915 wins ranks as the most in college football and their .729 winning percentage ranks second only to Notre Dame. Even when they are down Michigan is one of the few programs that can convince a successful NFL coach to come to the college game. You can argue all day about whether Ohio State has lapped Michigan or whether new coach Jim Harbaugh will restore them to glory but no one can make a good argument that the Wolverines aren’t one of, if not THE, college football blueblood.
Alabama Crimson Tide
National Titles: 15 (19 including unclaimed)
Conference Titles: 28
Win-Loss Record: 850-325-43
Heisman Winners: 1
The undisputed power program of southern football, the Crimson Tide’s recent run of success has chipped away significantly at the idea that the kings of college football sit in South Bend and Ann Arbor. The Tide claim 15 national titles under five different coaches, ten of which have come in the hyper-competitive post-war era. They own the most SEC titles and Tuscaloosa is the center of arguably the most rabid and passionate fanbase in college football. Paul “Bear” Bryant might be the most well known character in college football history and he achieved the vast majority of his legacy in the stadium that now carries his name. Nick Saban’s Tide have been the benchmark for 21st century consistency and success in the game and even he feels the pressure and will never lap Bryant’s legend and success. That sheer level of expectation and the ability to meet those expectations is what makes Alabama special and ensures their status.
Ohio State Buckeyes
National Titles: 8
Conference Titles: 37
Win-Loss Record: 863-319-53
Heisman Winners: 7
The current national champions are unique amongst the elite in that the bulk of their body of work has occurred since World War II. All eight of their national championships come from 1942 on and they will forever be the team to win the first ever college football playoff. They are tied with Notre Dame for the most Heisman trophy winners (USC was also tied by Reggie Bush vacated the 2005 Heisman leaving the Trojans with six) and they claim the only two-time winner of the award in running back Archie Griffin who won in 1974 and 1975. Their impressive history begins much earlier but their dominance after the war, highlighted by the success of Woody Hayes, and the recent exclamation point established by Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer only strengthen their claim to be a consensus college football blueblood.
National Titles: 11
Conference Titles: 38
Win-Loss Record: 805-327-54
Heisman Winners: 6 (7 including Reggie Bush’s vacated 2005 trophy)
The Trojans are THE west coast program in the country. They claim national titles from the roaring twenties to the 21st century. They have been to 49 bowl games in their history and have the highest winning percentage in bowl games (.653) among teams with at least 15 bowl appearances. They have three losing seasons total since 1961 and sport the 4th most conference championships of any NCAA school, and twice as many as any other Pac-12 member team. As seen during the Pete Carroll era, it isn’t that USC is consistently dominant, it’s the totality of their dominance when they are doing well. For example, USC is the signature program associated with the Rose Bowl. They’ve made 33 appearances and taken home 24 wins. More impressively is the sheer dominance of the Rose Bowl. Their 24-9 record is heads and tails above all others and they are one of four programs total to make multiple Rose Bowl appearances and have a winning record. When they do lost in the spotlight its stunning as the next team on our list showed in 2005. For those reasons, the Trojans have to be considered a blueblood.
National Titles: 4 (15 including unclaimed titles)
Conference Titles: 32
Win-Loss Record: 881-346-33
Heisman Winners: 2
Football is king in Texas and historically Texas is the king of college football in its own state. The Longhorns thrived in the Southwest Conference and found similar success in the Big 12. Many believe their down stretch is merely temporary and the Longhorns will be back on top of the revamped Big 12 sooner rather than later. Whether the Horns are down for a season or a decade their blueblood status is cemented. While they only claim titles from the middle of the century and the 2005 upset of USC, they don’t claim tons of titles stretching from the early 20th century all the way to the 2005 title. With the exception of occasional up periods for Arkansas, TCU, and Texas A&M the Horns utterly dominated the old SWC and together with rival Oklahoma utterly dominated the 2000’s of the Big 12. Their combination of recruiting dominance, influence, and remarkable history lands them in the upper echelon of the college football elite.
National Titles: 7 (17 including unclaimed titles)
Conference Titles: 44
Win-Loss Record: 850-317-53
Heisman Winners: 5
The ying to Texas’ and Nebraska’s yang, Oklahoma has quietly dominated the game for decades. Together with Nebraska the two programs dominated the Big 8 and upon the creation of the Big 12 the Sooners combined with the Longhorns to dominate that conference. Along the way they have collected arguably the most impressive list of coaches in the game. Out of 21 OU coaches, Bennie Owen, Lawrence Jones, Jim Tatum, Bud Wilkinson, and Barry Switzer have been inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame. Wilkinson, Switzer, and current head coach Bob Stoops have each received National Coach of the Year honors and won national championships. Wilkinson’s Sooners ran off a 47-game win streak from 1953 to 1957 that remains an NCAA record. The consistency, the dominance, and the legends to play and coach in Norman all make OU a surefire blueblood.
National Titles: 5 (14 including unclaimed titles)
Conference Titles: 46
Win-Loss Record: 874-361-40
Heisman Winners: 3
The Huskers have struggled in recent years to make the leap to elite status but even while down they have been solid and made conference championship games in both the Big 12 and Big Ten. And no one can question their history. Together with Oklahoma they dominated the Big 8 and they were the dominant program of the early years of the Big 12 (sparring with Texas, Kansas State, and Texas A&M until Texas and Oklahoma lapped the conference starting in the early 2000’s). From the 1970’s through the turn of the century the Huskers were a perennial title contender. Even after the controversial firing of Frank Solich in 2003 they continued to win the Big 12 North and they compete for the Big Ten West to this day while they seek to return to prominence. Even before legendary coach Tom Osborne took the program’s reigns, the Huskers were a dominant program in the pre-war wars. Despite an isolated position and lack of a natural recruiting base the Huskers have built a historically dominant program and one through which national and conference championships passed through year in and year out.
In my opinion, this is the cut off-line between the surefire bluebloods and those bluebloods that people can make arguments for. Using the strictest standard, these programs HAVE to be the bluebloods and anyone who argues otherwise is drinking their school’s koolaid a little too much. This is where Tennessee, Penn State, Georgia, Auburn, and the Florida schools cry fowl. Most fans would label these programs as bluebloods, but why aren’t they surefire?
In my opinion it’s the disparity between these elite eight programs and those a slight step below. The eight programs above dominate from decade to decade and their down stretches historically do not last long. They are the dominant programs in their respective conferences or at least the top 1A and 1B teams of their respective conferences. USC and Alabama have dominated the Pac-12 and the SEC since their inception, Michigan and Ohio State have dominated the Big Ten (with UM holding the advantage in the first half of the 20th century and OSU holding the advantage in the second half), Oklahoma and Nebraska dominated the Big 8 with the slight edge going to NU in the Big 8 while OU has taken the lead in their rivalry with Nebraska thanks to its subsequent conference and rivalry game dominance over Nebraska in the Big 12. Texas dominated the SWC and then combined with Oklahoma to dominate the Big 12 once the Big 8 and SWC merged with the Sooners holding a slight edge in rivalry matchups and conference titles. Of course Notre Dame remains an entity to its own but its history and success speaks for itself.
This is what separates the elite eight from the next step and separates a surefire blueblood from one where people can make an argument. For example Tennessee is a historically dominant program and holds the second most SEC championships with 13 but Alabama holds a decisive edge in conference championships, national championships, and leads the rivalry 51-38-7 with a current eight game win streak. Of course when we look past a strict scrutiny standard, good common sense tells us there are more than just eight bluebloods in the game.
National Titles: 6
Conference Titles: 16
Win-Loss Record: 811-367-54
Heisman Winners: 0
The Vols are an interesting case. They lack the sheer conference dominance the other schools have (sans Notre Dame for obvious reasons). This is mostly due to the fact that the SEC has so many hyper-competitive programs in its ranks. If the SEC were like the Big 8 or Big Ten then Alabama and Tennessee would combine to lord over the conference. Instead LSU and Georgia own double-digit conference titles with programs like Auburn and Florida nipping at their heels. They also show a noticeable drop in All-Americans from the top eight bluebloods. Those programs all claim 50+ All-Americans while Tennessee claims 38. Interestingly the only program that claims that many All-Americans in that range is Auburn (68), there being a noticeable drop from the 50+ All-Americans of the eight top programs to 20-40 All-Americans for the next tier of schools. That being said, they claim six national championships which is more than Nebraska and Texas claim and they have more wins than USC. The Vols, along with Penn State and the top eight programs, are the only teams with over 800 wins.
The Verdict: This discrepancy means the Vols aren’t in that consensus elite tier but it’s just barely. They are, however, most certainly a blueblood program. Rocky Top and Neyland Stadium are among the great traditions of college football and you cannot tell the story of the SEC or the story of college football without them. Are they utterly dominant across their history? No. Alabama holds decisive edge on them in the conference and they only have just barely separated themselves from Georgia and LSU as the SEC’s second elite program. Their success in a historically deep conference however does add to their legacy and history, further cementing their blueblood status. Legendary names like General Neyland, Phil Fulmer, Peyton Manning, and Reggie White only add to the luster. The fact that the Vols are on the cusp does mean they can turn the elite eight into an elite nine. If Butch Jones reverses Tennessee’s fortunes or a great hire is made down the road and things break their way, the Vols can easily compete and win SEC championships and national titles. The expanded SEC and the college football playoff make this difficult but it is doable. A winning streak against the Tide could also go a long way towards closing the gap Nick Saban’s Alabama teams have created in the Bama-Tennessee rivalry. A seventh national title, a few more conference titles and All-Americans and suddenly it would be difficult to tell one UT from the other simply looking at the accolades.
The Bluebloods: Alabama, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, USC
Next Up: Penn State