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An Introduction to the Juggernaut Theory



Kyle Porter here. I did not write this. I want to make that clear because I don’t want to take any credit for something that’s so well-researched and thought out. I simply have a blog that a lot folks read and this came to me from a guy named Justin Brownlee (who is a Kansas State fan) and I wanted to get it out there.

It’s absolutely tremendous and well worth your time. It explains why teams named “Oklahoma State” and many others don’t get to play for national titles. I hope you enjoy it.

What is the juggernaut theory?

Within college athletics, there exists laws that define and control reality. Some of them are widely known, whether it’s the power of TV markets and cable contracts, or the recruiting hotbeds of Texas, Florida, and California and how a program’s success can be directly tied to their success recruiting out of these states.

Other laws are not as visible, but they are just as strong, and the public greatly misunderstands them or largely misses how critical their existence is. The first law to focus on within college football is what I like to call the juggernaut theory.

At first glance, every college football fan can acknowledge the juggernaut theory to a degree. Almost no one accurately attributes how much control and influence it actually has.

Simply stated, the juggernaut theory is the idea that the dozen or so most powerful programs in college football have an extraordinary advantage in the landscape of modern college football. More specifically, these juggernauts have such an incredible advantage over non-juggernauts in getting to, and winning, national championships, that it is almost impossible to win a national championship as a non-juggernaut.

Once understood, the juggernaut theory reveals the answers to why your favorite school regularly seems to make it to a major bowl game or occasionally the national championship itself, if you’re a fan of a juggernaut. And it will most definitely provide provide an answer to why your favorite team never makes a major bowl game outside of winning their conference, and never makes it to a national championship, if your alma mater is not a juggernaut.

First, let’s make a distinction. I am labeling the following as juggernauts, USC, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma, LSU, Tennessee,[1.Nebraska and Tennessee are both interesting in the fact that both have allowed their programs to slip. In the case of Nebraska, it was inevitable at some point after the scholarship limit. Lincoln could not be further from the primary and secondary recruiting hotbeds. With Tennessee, there’s not a good excuse, they have just fallen.] Alabama, Florida, Florida State, and Miami. I think an argument can be made that Oregon has cracked into this group in a unique way, being the lone school without an extensively rich tradition of great football. They have muscled in the old-fashioned way, extraordinarily large amounts of money.

I will make a quick note about one school that many of you may be wondering about, Auburn. I don’t really know what to do with Auburn. They have the tradition, the national championship, the major bowl games…my hesitation is solely because I don’t know anyone outside of Auburn, AL that doesn’t think they cheated in an obvious, egregious way for their national championship. I’m sorry, Auburn fans, I truly have no bone to pick with you, but it’s hard to know where to accurately place you in this list, but I’m throwing you in. More on that later.

Second, I want to be very clear on this point. The entire theory is useful while examining the only period in college sports that means anything, the modern day. I will save my full defense of this point for another time and another theory, but I have to be clear. When viewing college athletics, it is paramount to largely ignore accomplishments prior to this time and focus exclusively on what has happened after.

Take for example, the accomplishments of the great John Wooden. I love Coach Wooden and he will always be a treasure, but it’s unhelpful anytime someone compares his dynasty to anything in modern day sports. First, he competed during a time when maybe 10 schools in the entire country devoted significant amounts of time and money to their athletic programs. Today, there are upwards of 70 schools across the country devoted enormous amounts of time and resources to building exceptional athletic programs.[1.When I say 70+, that’s just college football. College basketball might be well over 150.]  Second, youth sports was largely non-existent 30+ years ago compared to today.

My generation is the first that grew up with youth leagues, facilities, fitness programs, coaching, etc. all not just within five miles of wherever you lived, but also, for the first time, affordable for the majority of Americans. These first two realities created an entirely different modern day athletic environment-competition is not just greater than it used to be, it completely blows it out of the water. Competition today is the internet and competition prior to the modern era is the pony express. The final enormous difference are modern era cable contracts, forever moving college sports to the forefront of American life and culture.

What is the “modern era”, then? It’s entirely debatable, and the exact year it started is not a hill I will die on, but I land somewhere in the mid 90’s. The Southeastern Conference was created in 1992, the superior Big 12 in 19963.[1.I married an Arkansas grad, this is literally the biggest fight in my marriage.] I generally will split the difference and use the creation and debut of “the deuce”, ESPN 2, in 1993.

There’s no doubt that this time in American culture marked an enormous shift. Before this date, college sports were primarily something you read about in your local newspaper the day after. After this date, and in ever-increasing measure each year, college sports became something that you witnessed live, watched talking heads discuss all throughout the week, and could go every hour of the day watching some sort of coverage if you so desired.

A brief history of juggernauts

Back to subject at hand-as we examine the juggernauts and what they have accomplished during the modern era, it is staggering. Again, this is an idea that many people would agree on some level maybe exists, but almost no one acknowledges how much power it has over college football. Let’s look at the facts. Here are the national champions every year of the Modern Era.

1993: Florida State

1994: Nebraska

1995: Nebraska

1996: Florida

1997: Nebraska[1. Any comparison of Alabama to mid 90’s Nebraska is a joke. Nebraska won championships the old fashioned way, by winning all of their games. For some reason, Alabama loses and we all think they’re actually more impressive than before their hiccup…]

1998: Kansas State Tennessee.[1. I hate you, Bob Stoops. You too, Sirr Parker.]

1999: Florida State

2000: Oklahoma

2001: Miami

2002: Ohio State

2003: USC and LSU

2004: USC

2005: Texas

2006: Florida

2007: LSU

2008: Florida

2009: Alabama

2010: Auburn

2011: Alabama

2012: Alabama

2013: Florida State

2014: Ohio State

To recap, juggernauts don’t just win most of the time. They literally win all of the time. What gets even more interesting is who they beat in each of these national championship games. Let’s take a look.

1993: Nebraska

1994: Miami

1995: Florida

1996: Florida State

1997: Tennessee

1998: Florida State

1999: Virginia Tech[1. Here we have it-the only non-juggernaut to play for a national championship. Let that sink in. Out of FORTY EIGHT teams, only one non-juggernaut got the opportunity to line up and play for a championship.]

2000: Florida State

2001: Nebraska

2002: Miami

2003: Oklahoma

2004: Oklahoma

2005: USC

2006: Ohio State

2007: Ohio State

2008: Oklahoma

2009: Texas

2010: Oregon

2011: LSU

2012: Notre Dame

2013: Auburn

2014: Oregon

This is even more compelling, and much more significant, than the fact that juggernauts won every single national championship in the modern era (which you could argue means they won every national championship ever…). In over 20 years, not only have juggernauts dominated the national championship scene, they’ve had an iron grip on finishing 2nd. What does this mean? It’s not just extremely difficult to win a national championship, it’s extremely difficult to even get in the game for a chance to win a national championship.

How we Got Here

As we look at why juggernauts have dominated the winning and losing sides of the championship game, we have to start with the fact that juggernauts have been given an enormous benefit of the doubt when it comes to the rankings that place them in the top two to begin with.

Let’s just start with some of the more notable offenses.

Auburn (2004)

While I’ve stated that I don’t really know what to do with Auburn, and have placed them at the very back of the juggernaut list, 2004 showed the country that there is a pecking order. And when it comes to rankings, the top juggernauts will always be at the top of the pecking order.

When you think about a team going undefeated and winning the SEC! SEC! SEC! and not being ranked No. 1,[1.Only because it’s impossible to rank them higher.] it’s pretty shocking given the outlandish SEC bias we live in today. That bias didn’t necessarily exist back in 2004. But the main premise is this: Auburn was never going to get the benefit of the doubt when compared with two pure juggernauts, USC and Oklahoma. OU actually ended up getting demolished in this game, and many Auburn fans were left to wonder what if.

Oklahoma State (2011)

Oh, 2011…you terrible, terrible year. Let’s start with the RIDICULOUS notion that any wrongdoing was swept away because Alabama won the game in such a convincing manner over LSU, so clearly they deserved to be there, end of story. I am AMAZED at how often this logic enters the picture anytime a team snuck in over another team and ends up winning it all (see Ohio State 2014).

It’s like the whole country hasn’t even thought that maybe…just maybe…when you give Nick Saban or Urban Meyer six weeks to prepare for one (or two) game(s), they could beat anybody (!!!) even if it’s not their best team ever and they didn’t deserve to be there in the first place. Back to the matter at hand. In 2011 logic and sound thinking disappeared from humanity. Alabama, who did not win their conference, and who did not even win its division within its conference, was given so many brownie points for losing to LSU…at home…after a bye week…that the entire country largely ignored the rest of their resume.

In 2011, Alabama only beat three teams that even made a bowl game, compared to Oklahoma State’s 7-8 wins over bowl teams. Yes, you read that correctly. Alabama was given the world based almost entirely on a close loss at home to LSU after a bye week. Let me rephrase it another way, Alabama was ranked over Oklahoma State for SOMETHING THEY COULD NOT DO!!!!

But they couldn’t do it so impressively…their failure was so mesmerizing to the eye test, that this inability to do something placed them over a team with a far better resume. But let’s cut to the chase and be clear. Alabama got their rematch because Alabama is Alabama. Oklahoma State did not, because they are Oklahoma State.

Baylor and TCU (2014)

I will be brief on this one. One-loss Baylor and TCU were left to the dust for one loss teams Oregon, Ohio State, and Alabama. The Big 12 teams were largely downgraded for not having a championship game, this completely ignores the fact that Big 12 teams play everyone in their conference.

When you list out the 14 teams in the SEC or Big 10, you begin to see that it’s very possible to play half of your schedule or more against nothing. In 2012, Georgia fans were screaming that they should have a spot in the title game if they beat Alabama in the SEC championship game (which they almost did). A quick look back to Georgia’s 2012 season reveals that their schedule was farcical. They literally played seven teams that any top 10 team in the country would be favored by more than 20 against.

It’s so obvious it could go without saying, but if 2014 was Texas and OU instead of Baylor and TCU, and Arizona State and Minnesota instead of Oregon and Ohio State, no one would mention the lack of a title game. In fact, they would probably point out how amazing it is that the Big 12 somehow produced 2 teams that made it through such a brutal schedule with only one loss.

This is the power of the juggernaut theory.

The juggernaut theory does not stop with the national championship. It has held an enormous amount of power over who makes major bowl games (Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Rose Bowl-we’ll call them BCS games even though the BCS has not covered the entirety of the modern era). When you look at the four BCS bowl games, you have six guaranteed spots for conference winners. That leaves two at-large bids. This changed for the better in 2006 when the BCS separated its title game and created two additional at-large bids. When examining the the at large bids given out from 1993-2005, you find 25 schools that received the bids. 19 of them were juggernauts.

Being a Kansas State alum, this was not news to me. While we were awarded one of the six at-large bids (KSU demolished Donovan McNabb’s Syracuse team in the 1997 Fiesta Bowl), the next 5 years were full of questions. Such outlandish questions that the 1999 season had a newly instated “Kansas State Rule” that declared any team finishing in the top four of the final BCS Standings would be awarded an automatic at-large bid, after the Cats’ unforeseen 4th quarter meltdown in the Big 12 championship saw their greatest chance at a national championship free-fall into the Alamo Bowl.

The very next season was another at-large miss as another top five 11-1 K-State team fell to the Holiday Bowl. 2000 would yield another 11 win K-State team, this time resulting in the Cotton. After a 6-6 down year in 2001, the Cats were overlooked again in 2002, after winning 11 games playing one of the hardest schedules in the country. One of those 11 wins was a very convincing victory over Carson Palmer’s USC team, who happened to get the at-large nod over the Cats. Finally K-State returned to the Fiesta Bowl in 2003 after knocking off Oklahoma for the Big 12 championship.

This is obviously a very well known part of the juggernaut theory. It’s not rocket science or news to anyone that traditional powers are going to picked over non-juggernauts. Yet this holds the secret as to why the juggernauts have a stranglehold on the national championship game.

Why Juggernauts Always Get the Nod

The first and most obvious reason juggernauts get the nod the enormous majority of the time is that people gravitate towards them. It’s human nature. You choose the known over the unknown, the longtime proven commodity over the upstart.

The interesting part about the juggernaut theory today (College Football Playoff) compared with the BCS era is that the CFP might do the opposite of what everyone thought it would do. With the BCS, you at least had a portion of the rankings that were not subject to public opinion. With the CFP, it’s entirely based on the opinions of humans. Let’s look at the small sample size of results. 2014 yielded four juggernauts.

There were two very qualified teams that just missed out (hint-they weren’t juggernauts). The early November rankings of 2015 were probably the most laughable of any. While Clemson, a non-juggernaut (albeit a Southeastern school with some tradition)[1. We should add here that Clemson is ranked #1 because of wins over juggernauts (Notre Dame and Florida State). If they would have beat a one loss Utah and a two loss Syracuse, they probably wouldn’t be there.] held down the top spot, the rest of the top four were juggernauts. The most glaring aspect of the three juggernauts is that two of them are ranked in the top 4 with a loss, while several non-juggernauts sit outside of the top four with no losses!

Here’s why this happens every single year in college football. College football is the only major sport in America where the layout of teams is so fractured, we really cannot get a completely accurate picture of who the best teams definitely are. There are only 3-4 non-conference games, majority of which are puff opponents.

Compare this to college basketball where non-conference play and the tournament give us a fairly reasonable picture of which teams and conferences were actually the strongest. All of the professional sports play enough games that fracturing doesn’t happen, we can again see who the best teams are. With college football, it’s a total toss-up. Take last year for example, there’s still a very active disease assumption in America that the SEC is significantly better than the rest of the country.

There was also a strong belief that the Big 10 was slow and wouldn’t come within 3 touchdowns of Alabama. While both assumptions may have been perfectly accurate a few years before, the distinct separation of conferences kept that thought alive.

Here is the stark truth: it is not possible to know exactly how much value to place on each conference in any given year. This makes it extremely difficult to pick just 2-4 teams to play in the national championship.

In addition to literally having no way to discern exactly how teams and conferences stack up to each other, college football is littered every year with teams having the exact same record. Let me tell you a secret about college football. It’s ******* hard to go undefeated. It’s ridiculously hard. Did I mention that there are, at the very least, 70 programs across the country that all unleash enormous amounts of time and money to building great programs?

Or the millions of 18 year olds that, for their entire life, have taken advantage of facilities, coaches, and opportunities that did not exist to 18 year olds 30 years ago? For a coach to get 18-22 year old kids to play at such a consistently high level 14 times a year is absurd. What am I getting at? It was absolutely not a guarantee that the college football season would yield two, and only two, undefeated teams each and every year. And it’s even less of a guarantee that such a thing would happen to four teams in the CFP.

What this means is that several BCS decisions were made between teams with the exact same record. Without an accurate way to tell which team is more deserving, America resorted to picking the juggernaut, every single time.[1. …but then giving justification for it that sometimes sounded as ridiculous as Alabama looking really really good trying to do something they couldn’t do.]

The answer is making the playoff extend another week and adding four more teams. Having four teams with five major conferences is nonsensical, and assuming only conference champions deserve to go is also wrong. With eight teams, juggernauts will still get picked a lot. But with eight, the playoff is ensuring that almost without fail, the best team in the country got a chance to play for a national championship. Last year, Ohio State was a deserving champion, but a perfectly reasonable case can be made that TCU was the best team in the country. With eight, this doesn’t happen.[1. Quick disclaimer — I don’t think juggernauts getting picked is necessarily bad all of the time. I am not saying that Oklahoma State definitely deserved to play LSU over Alabama (or Auburn USC or TCU/Baylor). It’s very possible the Big 12 provided tons of bowl teams for OkState to play that were all good, not great. I’m simply pointing out that college football has, and will, produce pretty even resumes and the juggernaut will get the nod almost every time.]

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