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How To Break the Alabama/OSU/Clemson/Oklahoma Hold--Examples From History

Two weeks ago we discussed how four teams in four of the power conferences have become so dominant. We explained some of the dynamics that have allowed Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Clemson to rule the roost in their respective Power-5 conferences.

So how does that change? Well there are some historical examples of power shifts within a conference or within a region (in the days when there were far more independent teams).

1. So how do you break the hold? Prioritizing local recruiting is a great first step. In the late 1970s and 1980s Miami Coach Howard Schnellenberger made that the building block to a great run of teams that carried on long after he left. After years of watching the incredible local high school football talent head to Florida, Florida State and to schools all over the country he decided that enough was enough. He drew a line across South Florida and declared that it was the “State of Miami.” That set the tone for two decades. This century Miami has fallen off that dominance in part because the “State of Miami” has not been the stronghold for them that it once was.

2. Other Examples: Penn State offers two history lessons in this regard. In the 1960s Penn State under Rip Engle and then Joe Paterno they took dead aim at Syracuse in the decade after the Orange’s 1959 National Championship. From 1961 through 1992 Penn State won 20 of 32 Lambert Trophies, symbolic of the Eastern Championship (PSU joined the Big Ten in 1993). They found players that other people weren’t chasing like an undersized linebacker named Jack Ham. They also created some innovative defensive schemes to change the game in their favor and get big wins like a 1967 win over #3 NC State and a 1968 win at UCLA. Once established, Penn State became the major player in eastern recruiting dominating in the states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, New York and grabbing players from Eastern Ohio. From 1966 through 1993 when Penn State joined the Big Ten, Penn State ran up a 137-15-2 record against the major college programs in the east—a winning percentage of 89.6%.

3. Breaking the hold part two: In the early 2000s Penn State and Ohio State were both undergoing change. Jim Tressel was hired to get Ohio State over the top against Michigan. His focus and attention to detail got them going quickly. Where Michigan had regularly raided Ohio for players, Tressel’s success and commitment to dominating in Ohio yielded results rapidly. Meanwhile in 2004, Penn State found a renewed focus. They found players like lightly-recruited Jordan Norword, and walk-on Deon Butler who became NFL receivers. They also targeted the best players in the east as they had in the past. That focus yielded a string of linebackers (Posluszny, Connor, Lee, Bowman) that was as good as any era in the history of Linebacker U. All-American pass rushers came from Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania. Big Ten MVP QBs came from Virginia and Eastern Ohio. From 2005 through 2011 Penn State and Ohio State slugged it out with the Buckeyes winning the automatic Big Ten BCS Bowl berth in 2006, 2007 and 2009 and Penn State winning it in 2005 and 2008. In that 2005-10 six-year span Ohio State won the BCS bid as conference champion three times, Penn State two times and Wisconsin one time. In the previous six years 5 different teams won that honor with only Michigan winning more than once. More recently Penn State’s 2016 Big Ten Title run was led by high-profile guys from the same close-in recruiting areas that fueled PSU’s past strength.

4. So What’s Next? In the ACC North Carolina seems closest to closing on Clemson as they’ve aggressively attacked recruiting in the ACC footprint. In Mack Brown’s three recruiting classes since coming back to Chapel Hill 89.8% of his signees have come from ACC States. In the Big 12 Texas has a new coach who has shown innovative schemes and arrived with a great deal of fanfare. Iowa State has a loyal coach who is staying put. But Texas remains the team in the center of that conference’s best talent. In the Big Ten Ohio State seems to keep widening the talent gap, stealing top players from other states in their conference and continuing to dominate on the field. But with everyone targeting the Buckeyes can they stay ahead?

Of the Power-5 conferences, the SEC is the most intriguing with Georgia and Florida controlling the SEC East. But Alabama still rules the roost. LSU won the league and National Title in 2019 but fell off that pace in 2020. Auburn has a new coach. Texas A&M and Ole Miss are also looming. Of those teams Texas A&M has made a slow and steady march under Jimbo Fisher. And Texas A&M sits in the fertile Texas recruiting grounds. If they can hold those players they have a chance to close on the Tide in terms of talent.

5. Wildcard: The future will look different because of transfers. The schools who dominate their conference footprint will still look outside that footprint for talent, but now they will also look to add one-time transfers. Those players can and will come from anywhere and everywhere. The transfer game is a delicate balancing act because you run the risk of bringing in large numbers of players who spent time elsewhere. They may arrive with their own ideas on how things should be done. Coaches have to be certain transfers will fully buy in to their program.

6. Another Wildcard: The changes in Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) will be another wildcard. A player's ability to capitalize and monetize on their NIL more at one school over another will be a big recruiting factor. Money that they may be earning also allows them to go to the highest bidder and to do so legally. The programs that are most organized to anticipate the changes and react to them will reap the early benefits.

And So.......The one constant in college football is change. The hold on a conference exhibited by a few teams today is not guaranteed to anyone. But closing on and catching those teams takes a sustained effort and vision as an era of dramatic change comes to big-time college football. And often history offers great lessons for the future.


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