Although Texas A&M posted at least 10 victories in four consecutive seasons from 1991-94, the Aggies weren't given much national respect.
The old Southwest Conference was rapidly decaying. Fair or not, the Aggies were viewed as benefiting from facing terrible competition, a perception that seemed validated in '94.
That season, the Aggies were 10-0-1 but on probation and thus not eligible for the SWC championship. Instead, the champion was Baylor. And Rice. And Texas. And TCU. And Texas Tech.
All finished 4-3 and in a five-way tie in the conference race, and each reportedly gave championship rings to its players. Texas Tech, which never had represented the SWC in the Cotton Bowl, went to Dallas and promptly was blasted 55-14 by USC.
Over the years, many other successful programs have been viewed as big fish in small ponds. That perception cost undefeated Arizona State a national championship in 1975. More recently, West Virginia and Louisville of the Big East, BYU and Utah of the Mountain West and Boise State and Hawaii of the Western Athletic Conference have had to deal with that slight.
And some even doubt one of the most dominant programs in college football history.
Who is it? The answer is in this week's mailbag.
In reference to Florida State and the yearning for its past glory days, can you draw any correlation to the landscape of the ACC changing with the additions of Miami, Virginia Tech and later Boston College with the Seminoles' landslide? Many of those top-five season-ending rankings and 10-plus-win seasons were against a mostly powerless ACC. Can you name another ACC power in the '90s? The Seminoles' '93 national championship was semi-controversial (at least not unanimous), although the '99 win was significant against Michael Vick and Virginia Tech. In '96, they got smacked by Florida when it mattered most, in '98 they got smacked by Tennessee after rolling through the ACC and in 2000 they couldn't score an offensive point against Oklahoma in the big game. Coincidentally, Miami joined the ACC as a power after winning the '01 national championship and losing to Ohio State in the '02 championship game. Clearly, the ACC expansion in '04 and again in '05 have helped to keep the 'Noles down. I would like to think that regardless of Florida State's record against Virginia Tech, Boston College and the 'Canes since those programs joined the ACC, the season-long grind of playing more quality opponents certainly can expose a team's flaws.
— Robby in Austin -----
Let me get this straight: Florida State was overrated because it lost to Florida, Tennessee and Oklahoma in three national championship games?
I'm not buying that one. I'm one of those old-fashioned guys that still gives credit for just reaching the championship game.
Second, you asked if there were any other ACC powers in the '90s. Well, Georgia Tech won a share of the national championship in '90 (albeit before Florida State joined the conference) and North Carolina finished in the top 10 in 1996 and '97. In fact, the Tar Heels went 11-1 in '97, with their only loss to Florida State, and trounced Virginia Tech 42-3 in the Gator Bowl.
Of course, the ACC wasn't the nation's strongest conference throughout the '90s, but to suggest Florida State's success was based on an anemic schedule doesn't ring true to me. During its run of 14 consecutive top-five finishes from 1987-2000, Florida State consistently played Florida, Miami and high-profile opponents from major conferences, including Michigan State, Virginia Tech, BYU, Michigan, Syracuse and Notre Dame.
No doubt, expansion has bolstered the ACC, and that makes winning more difficult. But Florida State has faltered because its recent quarterback and offensive line play hasn't been up to its standards.
Rather than dismissing Florida State's streak of success as a result of playing as an independent and then in a weak ACC, it seems to me it was more a matter of producing 18 NFL first-round picks choices and 13 second-rounders in that span.
Big East bound?
Do you see the Big East in UCF's future anytime soon?
— Matthew in Fort Myers, Fla. -----
That would depend on whether the Big East would be interested in adding a "football-only" member and if UCF would agree to that.
UCF, which opened a new stadium last year, and the Big East make sense in football. Orlando is a growing media market, so that would be an attractive addition for a TV package. Also, it would give Big East member USF a conference "playing partner" of sorts.
But there is the basketball issue here. The Big East already has 16 members in basketball, so don't expect further expansion there. Some might hope the "non-football" teams in that conference might split to form their own league, but surely the Big East would do everything it could to ensure Georgetown and St. John's always will be members.
If UCF were to join the Big East as a football-only member, that would give the conference nine teams, which at least would provide the benefit of eight league games and end the scheduling difficulty of finding five non-conference opponents.
If the Big East were to expand for football, it might want to add four more teams so it could break into two divisions and play a conference championship game.
What programs would be available, though? Would Penn State leave the Big Ten? Doubtful. Would the Big East be interested in Marshall, East Carolina and perhaps reclaiming Temple for football? I don't see the advantage there.
Now, if commissioner Mike Tranghese could convince Notre Dame to join for football, all the dynamics change dramatically.
But that's not going to happen.
Why is it you forgot to mention the Misery Tigers haven't won in Lincoln, Neb., since the '60s?
— James in Lincoln, Neb. -----
Actually, Missouri won 35-31 in Lincoln in 1978. And Missouri was 3-2 in Lincoln during the '70s.
True, Nebraska has a 14-game home-field winning streak over Missouri, but frankly that doesn't seem like that big an issue right now. Missouri, which plays at Nebraska on Oct. 4, clearly is a better program at this time, as evidenced by last season – which included a 41-6 blowout victory over the Huskers.
Nebraska was just 3-3 in Lincoln last season. Oklahoma State blasted Nebraska 45-14 for its first win in Lincoln since 1960. Texas A&M won there for the first time since 1955.
Nebraska will be improved this season, especially on defense, under new coach Bo Pelini. But Missouri figures to be in the national championship picture. As of today, I'd expect Missouri to inflict some more misery on the Huskers next season. Even in Lincoln.
Do you think teams such as Ole Miss, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Syracuse, Washington and Colorado – all of whom have good histories but have not had really good seasons in a long time – will start to put together teams that compete for their conference championships and play in BCS games in the next five years?
— Mike in Honolulu -----
Why not? After seeing Wake Forest, Kansas and Illinois emerge to contend and even win conference championships in the past two seasons, it would seem foolish to write anyone off.
In an article posted this week, it was pointed out that Pitt might be the next "struggling" program that could emerge as a championship contender. The Panthers return eight offensive starters and seven defensive starters from a team that finished 5-7, but was without its starting quarterback and best receiver. In addition, four of those losses were by a touchdown or less.
Ole Miss should be better this season with Jevan Snead at quarterback, but the Rebels aren't ready to challenge for championships in the rugged SEC. If Houston Nutt can recruit the top players in his state, he'll have a chance in future years. But annually competing in the SEC West with LSU, Auburn and Alabama is a difficult chore. Ole Miss could get significantly better this season and still finish fourth.
Washington with quarterback Jake Locker looks to be improving, and Colorado made significant improvement last season in coach Dan Hawkins' second year.
From the teams you mentioned, the guess here is that Pitt and Colorado are most likely to challenge for championships in the near future.
Also, watch out for UCLA. It would not be a surprise at all if the Bruins were immediately better under Rick Neuheisel, especially if they can keep their quarterbacks healthy. Neuheisel's first recruiting class was ranked 13th in the nation, so he could quickly begin challenging USC for recruiting supremacy on the West Coast.
Waiting for the Tide to rise
Given Nick Saban's past successes on the recruiting trail and subsequently on the gridiron, how long do you think it will take before Alabama contends for an SEC and national championship?
— Chad in Anniston, Alabama
Hey, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Ohio State's Jim Tressel and Florida's Urban Meyer won national championships in their second seasons this decade, so that should give you some hope for this season.
Let's be a little more realistic, though. LSU won the 2003 national crown in Saban's fourth year in Baton Rouge, so that might be a good gauge. Saban's first two recruiting classes in Tuscaloosa have been ranked 10th and first nationally, so obviously he's bringing in talent. Now, it's a matter of getting those players to develop and mature. Alabama may be a championship contender when those players are juniors and seniors.
Recall that before Alabama faded at the end of last season, it was tantalizingly close to defeating eventual national champion LSU, and it should be better this season. But quarterback John Parker Wilson has to develop some consistency and Alabama has to get better at linebacker – where they're looking at converted running backs Jimmy Johns and Baron Huber this spring – before they're going to be considered championship contenders.
It's possible the Tide could pull off a shocker and win the SEC West in 2008, but from here eight or nine victories would seem a more legitimate goal.
Hope for the Huskies
I've gotten into college football a lot more since I started reading your column back in 2006. But give me something good about my UConn Huskies. They had their best season ever last season, and it looks like the only place they can go is up.
— Michael in Connecticut -----
There is reason for optimism in Storrs, but it should be cautious optimism.
Still, a certain amount of apprehension surrounds UConn because it hasn't been a consistent winner, and admittedly that may be unfair.
It's not a stretch to think the Huskies could win their first six games in '08, but the second half of the season will be much more difficult with road trips to Rutgers, Syracuse and South Florida and home games with West Virginia, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
From my point of view, West Virginia, Cincinnati and Pitt will be the top teams in the Big East. But UConn could be a factor in the race and could equal last season's nine victories.