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Ranking Clemson Among the Elite College Football Blue-Blood Programs

Clemson captured its second consensus National Championship in 35 years by beating #3 Ohio State, the 2014 National Champion, 31-0 and undefeated #1 Alabama, the Defending National Champion, 35-31.

With Clemson’s (some would say stunning) win over undefeated #1 Alabama for its second National Championship, it has now reached a new rarefied tier among college football’s elite programs, and I was curious where Clemson now sits in the pantheon of the game’s blue-bloods. Many pundits pontificated all season long whether Alabama was the greatest team of all time, but it was not even the best team in 2016. Having finally captured that second national championship that had eluded the Tigers for 34 years, Clemson is now one of just 18 schools (not counting Army) to have won multiple AP National Championships. Some notable schools that have not accomplished the feat are Georgia, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Michigan State, BYU, Virginia Tech (zero), Georgia Tech (zero), West Virginia (zero), Oregon (zero), Washington (zero) and UCLA (zero). The list of AP National Champions is below.

AP National Champions:

Alabama 10 1961, 1964, 1965, 1978, 1979, 1992, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015
Notre Dame 8 1943, 1946, 1947, 1949, 1966, 1973, 1977, 1988
Oklahoma 7 1950, 1955, 1956, 1974, 1975, 1985, 2000
Miami (FL) 5 1983, 1987, 1989, 1991, 2001
Ohio State 5 1942, 1954, 1968, 2002, 2014
USC 5 1962, 1967, 1972, 2003, 2004
Nebraska 4 1970, 1971, 1994, 1995
Minnesota 4 1936, 1940, 1941, 1960
Florida 3 1996, 2006, 2008
Florida State 3 1993, 1999, 2013
Texas 3 1963, 1969, 2005
Clemson 2 1981, 2016
Army 2 1944, 1945
LSU 2 1958, 2007
Michigan 2 1948, 1997
Penn State 2 1982, 1986
Pittsburgh 2 1937, 1976
Tennessee 2 1951, 1998
Auburn 2 1957, 2010
BYU 1 1984
Colorado 1 1990
Georgia 1 1980
Maryland 1 1953
Michigan State 1 1952
Syracuse 1 1959
TCU 1 1938
Texas A&M 1 1939

Of the schools that have won more than one AP National Championship, Minnesota is an anomaly. It has won 4 AP National Championships, but 3 of them occurred between 1936 (the first year of the AP National Champion) and 1941. Its last title was in 1960, and it has been a dreadful program for the better part of the last 30 years. In fact, Minnesota’s all-time win percentage is .570, well below Clemson’s .605. Clemson ranks 17th in all-time win percentage, just below Virginia Tech (.607). The Tigers are 19th in wins (709). Interestingly, the win over Alabama broke the tie with Washington at 708 wins. Washington had one more win than Clemson entering the College Football Playoff, but the Tigers have now passed the Huskies by. Both Washington and Florida have less total wins than Clemson but have higher win percentages. Clemson has exactly 100 more wins than Miami (609), which did not become a juggernaut until a string of championships in the 1980’s.

ESPN published an all-time ranking for college football programs last summer (LINK), and Clemson was ranked #17, just behind the likes of Auburn, Tennessee, Miami and Florida State. The placement of Clemson seems pretty reasonable, especially given that the Tigers only had one national championship at the time. However, I would take issue with Georgia being tied with Florida in the #11 spot. While the Bulldogs do rank 11th in both wins and win percentage, they claim only one AP National Championship in 1980 (they claim a share of the title in 1942). In my opinion, this has to drop UGA below the likes of Miami (5 AP Titles), FSU (3) and Florida (3). You could also make the case that Clemson is now pushing Georgia in terms of all-time stature. Given that UGA has a significantly better win percentage (.649) and does lay claim to another national title, albeit only one from the AP, I would rank Clemson slightly below Georgia for the time being. Georgia also has a pair of Heisman winners, whereas Clemson has none. I will go to my grave arguing that Clemson was thrice robbed of the Heisman Trophy—Spiller should have won in 2009 and Watson in 2015 and 2016—but that is another debate. Georgia is also ahead of Clemson in total NFL draft picks and has 4 more first round draft picks.

In summary, I would currently rank Clemson #17 on the all-time list of college football programs, but the real question is how high can the Tigers climb in the next 5 or 10 years under Dabo Swinney? Clemson has the second-best win percentage since 2011, behind only Alabama, and it is also the only school other than Bama to post double-digit wins in each of the last six years. Clemson is one of just 11 Power Five programs in history to have done that. Clemson has the longest active streak in the AP top-5, and Dabo is confident that the Tigers will win another national championship in the near future. A third AP National Championship would place Clemson in truly elite company, surpassing the likes of Tennessee, Auburn, LSU, Georgia and Penn State. As Dabo says, “The best is yet to come….”

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