Thursday, December 20, 2007

Empires Fall – Part II

Vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his works, which brings empires and cities in a common grave.

- Edward Gibbon, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”

In our first edition of this series, we noted how football “dynasties” can indeed end, and in the case of some schools, perhaps forever. We looked at the case of Mississippi, for a time the most winning program in college football, now barely a challenge to anyone. In the example of Ole Miss, we see more than merely the “cycles” of college football – we see a program virtually devoid of prospect.

In order to identify programs in danger of going the way of the Rebels, we need to define what success – what a “dynasty” – is. The definition I use will be admittedly my own, but is a reasonably, non-biased guideline to a college football dynasty.

The Definition

Football “dynasties” for our purposes are programs in the top 10 in winning percentage over a certain 10 year period. By using this definition I avoid inserting my own “bias”, but do miss out on explicitly recognizing achievements like conference championships. The top 10 “dynasties” for the period from 1997-2006 are –

1 Texas
2 Boise State
3 Ohio State
4 Michigan
5 Miami-Florida
6 Georgia
7 Florida State
8 Virginia Tech
9 Florida
10 Tennessee

Certainly this list represents the lion’s share of conference championships and “national” titles for the period in question. Perhaps a valid quibble with the inclusion of Boise State is merited, but the stats are what they are.

Where is USC? Well, over the past 10 years the Trojans are 13th in winning percentage. If we were using the past 5 years, you would see them 3rd on the list, but to my way of thinking “dynasties” are programs with more than 5 years of success, and USC was pretty pathetic at the beginning of the past 10 year period.

If you think a “dynasty” can be 5 years, good for you. To my thinking, if anything, my 10 year definition is a little too short.

Having established a definition, we look to the case of Alabama.

The Alabama Case

Alabama football died in 1988.

Sure they won a “national” championship in 1992, and several SEC’s since 1988. Much the same did the Roman Empire exist in a series of scattered yet powerful offshoots for centuries after the fall of Rome itself, but it was never the same. And neither has been Alabama, at least not to the standard at which Alabama fans consider themselves.

Consider - in the period ending 1980, Alabama was the most winning program in the country for the ten years preceding. They held this distinction for 4 years more, falling to 4th overall by 1985. By 1989 they were 10th, and by 1990, not in the top 10.

Since 1988 Alabama has not cracked the top 10 in any trailing 10 year period, and has in fact declined steadily. In the most recent 10 year win rankings Alabama comes in 48th overall with a 55% winning percentage, placing them a single slot and two wins better than, ironically, Mississippi. Arch-rival Auburn has placed in the top 10 in 10 year trailing win ranking several times since 1988, and is currently 19th.

So the question arises – is Alabama football dead for good, or is a resurrection possible?

There has certainly been a well documented history of coaching mistakes at Alabama over the past decade or so. Whether the Tide are dead for good or not depends on the critical element of success – recruiting. Nick Saban, known as a strong recruiter, may be able to have some success in this attracting top talent, which in turn would lead to on-the-field success, and perhaps Alabama resurgence.

The Dead and the Dying

In making these post and pre-mortems we will again start looking at the 10 year trailing win rankings starting with the 1971-1980 period when Alabama reigned supreme. While ‘Bama is the most obvious case of “the dead"- going from the most winning program to 48th currently, there are others showing signs of serious illness.

The Dead

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave;
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave;
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave;
His soul’s marching on!

-John Brown’s Body

Penn State

Few other teams have had such a successful run in the trailing top 10 years win rankings for the period studied (1971-2006) than Penn State.

While the Nittany Lions were 1st in trailing 10 year win rank only once (1986), they were consistently in the top 10 for twenty years. Until 2001, that is.

The drop off since 2001 has been dramatic, with Penn State currently tied for 32nd (with UCLA) in the trailing 10 years ending 2006.

Texas A&M

Yeah, you might not have noticed it, but the Aggies had a nice ten year run.

Presently they find themselves 37th in 10 year trailing win ranking, about the same as Air Force.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame had one of their now infamous “Returns to Glory” in the mid to late 90’s.

Since then they have dropped off the map, with their 10 year trailing win ranking coming in at 31st, 1 behind Colorado State.

The Dying (?)

Correctly predicting those on their way to the long dirt nap is tricky, but we will at least point out those showing the signs.


Consistency, thy name was Nebraska.

For the entire period observed (rolling 10 year periods ending in 1980 to 2006), no other team had more a presence in the top ten than the Corn Huskers.

2006 found the first year in 26 that Nebraska was not in the top 10 in 10 year trailing winning rank. 2007’s results won’t help them get back there. We may be witnessing the fall of one of the epic programs of all time.


No other school has come more out of “no where” to dominance than the Hurricanes. While I am not prepared to write them off quite yet (note the similar sag in rankings in the mid – late 90’s), they are ailing presently, with their first non-bowl appearance in years.


Although the Seminoles rose more slowly than Miami, they were every bit as dominant during the height of their reign.

More recent trends are troubling.


The Vols rose to prominence in the 90’s, but are sagging more recently.

They are clinging to the 10th spot in the latest 10 year trailing top 10.


Yes, Florida. It was unfair for me to point out our rivals without mentioning the similar decline in our 10 year trailing win ranking.

However as the Zook years pass, this should rise, and will in fact improve after this year’s wins are added (9-3), while FSU’s (6-6) and Miami’s (5-7) will decline further. There is hope at Florida. At FSU and Miami? Perhaps not so much.

Which in turn leads us to the topic of our next piece in this series.
Next: Part III - Who Ain't Dead Yet
UPDATE: An interesting point by “robes” in the commentary notes that Florida will face headwinds in improving their 10 year trailing win percentage as long as the Zook years stay in the picture. He is exactly right as, unfortunately, those years are part of Florida’s overall resume.

Which led me to thinking – what does it take win-wise to either “improve” to enter the top 10 or stay there. Well, the current top 10 played an average of 12.5 games per year (which reflects both bowl games and the more recent 12 game schedules). The average record during the past 10 years for top 10 teams was 9.5 wins – 3.0 losses. The top team, Texas, averaged 9.8 wins – 2.8 losses, while the 10th team, Tennessee, averaged 9.4 wins to 3.2 losses. Obviously the difference at this level is slight.

Of course equally important to the 10 year trailing win percentage to what you do in 2007 is what you lose in 1997. Florida went 10-2 in 1997, so even if Florida can notch 10 wins this year we stand to regress very modestly (10-3 replacing 10-2).

Based on current records, and dropping off 1997, it is my estimate that the top 10 programs for the trailing 10 years at this year’s end will be –

1. Boise State (up 1)
2. Texas (down 1)
3. Ohio State (same)
4. Virginia Tech (up 4)
5. Oklahoma (up 7)
6. Georgia (same)
7. Michigan (down 3)
8. Miami (down 3)
9. Southern Cal (up 4)
10. Florida (down 1)

Tennessee will fall to 11th and Florida State – for the first time since 1987 – won’t be in the trailing ten years top 10, probably placing about 13th, and the fall of the Garnet and Gold from the nation's top programs will be complete.


jimcaserta said...

Wouldn't OU be a good example of resurgence? It'll take till after the 09 season to really show - by this metric. But from 2000 on, they average 2 losses/yr. USC will eventually get to the top of the 10 year cumulative rank also, probably one year after OU. Common denominator - phenomenal defensive minded head coaches and recruiting. The other near common-denominator of the declining programs is coaching change (or aging coaches). Even Texas, looking at the past 10 years coincides with Mack Brown's arrival.

Mergz said...

Nice foreshadow Jim.

Resurgence - or newly ascendent - is going to be the topic of my 4th piece in this series.

Anonymous said...

Love your stuff. Keep up the good work.

Robes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robes said...

For Florida to improve or remain the same in the trailing 10 year rankings we need to maintain the same level that Spurrier did from 97-01. The Zook years are going to be on the trailing 10 year graph until 2014, so unless we can improve upon Spurrier's final years, we will remain in the lower half of the top 10.

Anonymous said...

Look, one of the most important factors in this silly analysis of this frivolous creation of a conundrum of pseudo computations...referred to hereinafter as a Mergaturd is that A) there is such a thing as an Empire.

As we all know, football follows cycles that are regular as those of your wives and girlfriends.

This game is measured in championships, not trailing twelve months. Why? b/c there is no reason, Universities do not file 10Q's or k' law.

So stop kvetching andd check the quality of the teams that the rules allos us.

JM said...

If football follows a cycle, what is it? You could make a lot of money betting sports books if you could come up with even a qualitative cycle for football. You can't though, because there is no regular cycle. There are some programs that have built in advantages, like passionate, large fan bases; talented local high school recruits; and lots of cash. These make up the elite and pretty much stay there. What looks like cycles are nothing more than random permutations of strengthening and weakening against their peers. Fluctuations are not cycles though, and past success is not a good indicator of future returns. Instead, the factors that make up a successful program (money, fans, local talent) are much more useful indicators because the programs that have all these are more likely to enjoy future success.
Those factors don't shift very quickly, because of sheer momentum. That does not mean that they don't shift. Demographics change and a slow decline is not one that can be easily halted (neither is a slow rise). Mergz did a good job of identifying Mississippi as a program whose decline was not reversible. The 3 Florida programs that rose up to prominence in the sport in the 80s and 90s are another example of a demographic shift lifting programs without historical success to the greatest heights. These days, the factors that control long term program health are, for the most part, outside a school's control.
While the boast of it being not biased is not true (there is always bias involved, such as the number of years trailing), this analysis is still a useful tool to look at some of the overall trends of program health, and who is may be waxing or waning.

Andrew said...

Could Miami's and FSU's declines be at all correlated to the recruiting successes in their own backyards of other programs? Florida has recruited strongly and several new programs are on the rise in state. There may be something to be said about the nationalizing of recruiting, especially noting USC's success in taking prospects from all 50 states.

Henry Gomez said...

I think those are fair arguments. I'd also add that academic standards are increasing and scrutiny and policing of academic qualifications is much more stringent. In Miami's case I think ACC conference play has also hurt them.

Vidor said...

"is Alabama football dead for good, or is a resurrection possible?"

Guess it is!