Two independent yet equally accurate athletic axioms: Sports fans love ranking things, and sports fans are territorial. Those go double for college football fans, who live and die by team rankings and make territorial team affiliation a matter of life and death.
Problem is, rankings don’t mean much at this point in the preseason — the AP Top 25 isn’t a bellwether of success in August — so we need to get more creative. That’s where the second truth comes in: To determine who’s atop the college football world, we’re ranked all 50 states by their college football situation on the eve of the 2016 season.
Here at The Ringer, we enjoy making arbitrary rankings, and this list will be no different, save for the following loose guidelines: Expectations matter. These rankings are based on the mood of a state’s fan base, and fans in Texas demand far more from their teams than fans in Idaho. Expectations matter on a team level, too, because Texas going 5–7 is more damaging to morale than UTEP doing the same.
This isn’t the BCS; there are no calculations to be made or points to be awarded, but rather the following list was composed entirely using the Les Miles methodology: gut feel and a dose of madness. So read along, decry your state’s ranking, and prepare for a surprise or two along the way.
43–50 (tie): Alaska, Delaware, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont
Nine states don’t have an FBS team to call their own, and eight of them flounder together in this bottom tier.
Wyoming (2–10 record last year)
For the most part, the teams at the bottom make their fan bases miserable regardless of expectations, so Wyoming is a good place to start. Even by the Cowboys’ low standards, last season was particularly brutal: They opened with six straight losses, including a home tilt to an FCS school, en route to the team’s worst season since 2002.
Since joining the Mountain West in 2012, Hawaii is 4–28 against conference opponents. Long gone are the halcyon days of Colt Brennan and Co., when the Rainbow Warriors were qualifying for BCS bowls. Against the three most prestigious teams on their schedule last season, the Warriors were outscored 121–0.
Missouri reached the SEC championship game in both 2013 and 2014. Since then, the Tigers have experienced the following: They lost their athletic director to Baylor; they lost their longtime head coach, who retired after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma; and they lost their starting quarterback to three separate suspensions, before he was eventually dismissed after a video of a man (believed to be Maty Mauk) snorting a white powder was posted on the internet. I don’t mean to make light of Mizzou’s situation — unlike some of the state’s lawmakers, Gary Pinkel backed his players’ boycott last season, for one — but no other program has fallen as far in the past 12 months.
Boston College (3–9), Massachusetts (3–9)
UMass has an 8–40 record since jumping to the FBS four years ago and can’t find a conference that wants its team. Meanwhile, the only part of Boston College — proud winner of just one game against FBS competition last year — anyone wants is the architect of its defense.
38. New Jersey
In the Wikipedia page summarizing Rutgers’ 2015 season, about a third of the text is contained in the “Controversies and player arrests” section. Since-fired coach Kyle Flood’s name appears 15 times in that section alone.
37. New Mexico
New Mexico (7–6), New Mexico State (3–9)
One of the state’s two teams is being kicked out of its conference after the 2017 season. Bet you can’t guess which one.
36. New York
Buffalo (5–7), Syracuse (4–8), Army (2–10)
New York is not a college football state, and Buffalo, Syracuse, and Army are unlikely to change that anytime soon.
Kansas State (6–7), Kansas (0–12)
Teams have been playing Big 12 football for 20 years. In 2015, Kansas became the first to go winless for an entire season. Kansas State isn’t as bad and still has legendary coach Bill Snyder prowling the sidelines, but hey, look: there are only three months until basketball season tips off.
Virginia Tech (7–6), Old Dominion (5–7), Virginia (4–8)
The past few years of college football in Virginia, summed up in one image:
Between 1969 and 2001, Nebraska had four losses in a season just once. Since 2004, the Huskers have collected at least four losses every single year. Nebraska fans like to think of their team as a member of college football’s elite, but their expectations consistently outpace performance. By the advanced metric S&P+, which measures a team’s efficiency by looking at individual drive data, Nebraska had a worse team than Georgia Southern (!) and Appalachian State (!!) last season. Maybe things improve in Mike Riley’s second year, but fans hoping for a return to the days of the Blackshirts probably will be left wanting.
UConn football is so boring that its coach tried to create a rivalry game — that’s not how that works! — and he even had his own trophy commissioned. I’ll say it again: only three months until (women’s) basketball season.
Nevada (7–6), UNLV (3–9)
Nevada emerged onto the national scene in 2010, going 13–1 thanks to Colin Kaepernick’s Pistol-based excellence. But the Wolf Pack faded back into mediocrity almost as soon as their star quarterback departed, going 7–6 in four of the five seasons since that breakthrough campaign. The middle of the pack seems right for the Rams of the college game.
Temple (10–4), Pittsburgh (8–5), Penn State (7–6)
Or maybe the college Rams reside in Pennsylvania instead. Penn State has exactly seven wins three seasons in a row, and Pitt has won between six and eight games every year since 2010. Last season, Temple reached the AP Top 25 for the first time in decades, but an overachieving mid-major doesn’t make up for how much state’s biggest program resembles now-departed quarterback Christian Hackenberg: It looks like it should produce, yet it can’t help but fail and blame others for its problems.
Navy (11–2), Maryland (3–9)
The helmets look cool, but Maryland’s “Oregon East” aspirations still haven’t translated to actual results on the field. Under Armour should shift its resources to Navy instead, after the Midshipmen reached 16th in the AP poll last year, their highest ranking since the 1970s.
28. North Dakota
In the words of their patron saint, the Fighting Wentzes are “a certain kind of tough” and “a perfect representation of … grit and work ethic.” They play “a special brand of football” and “love to bring the boom.” They compete “the right way” and approach practice with “that distinct North Dakotan mentality.” Forget the five straight FCS championships for North Dakota State — any fan base that can watch a combination of Alabama’s power, Baylor’s spread, and Brett Favre’s gunslinging when its team has the ball is certain to be in a happy mood. (Yet even if “football is football,” the FCS is not the FBS, so North Dakota can only jump so high on this list.)
Houston (13–1), TCU (11–2), Baylor (10–3), Texas A&M (8–5), Texas Tech (7–6), Texas (5–7), Rice (5–7), UTEP (5–7), Texas State (3–9), UTSA (3–9), SMU (2–10), North Texas (1–11)
Texas might have been the hardest state to rank on this entire list. On the macro level, the state still attracts a pipeline of top recruits, is home to a host of destination coaching jobs, and draws networks for plenty of prime-time games. But if you go school by school, well, you end up with Houston and a bunch of programs that land Texas next to North Dakota in a college football list. A&M has taken a step back and can’t keep a quarterback, Kliff Kingsbury’s piercing eyes aren’t enough to turn Tech into a power, and Texas proper is still on a quixotic search for a decent signal-caller. The Longhorns have 14 losses in Charlie Strong’s two seasons after losing just 16 games total between 2001 and 2009. And those are just on-field issues: The levels of gross malfeasance persisting at Baylor could go far beyond the football program, and they make not being able to find a quarterback seem like a petty complaint by comparison.
Air Force (8–6), Colorado State (7–6), Colorado (4–9)
Some realigning teams make an impact in their new conferences. Then there’s Colorado, which has five Pac-12 wins, total, in its five years out west. Between Navy and Air Force, we’re now at two service academies that are their state’s best team, and Army isn’t that far off from making it three for three.
Here’s another state with just one team, and this one’s just sort of there, absent the expectations of a Nebraska but also the results of a Wisconsin. If they’re fortunate, the Golden Gophers will win nine games; if they’re unlucky, they won’t make a bowl game. Twenty-fifth feels about right for that kind of mediocrity.
Western Kentucky (12–2), Louisville (8–5), Kentucky (5–7)
Western Kentucky was impressive last season. I don’t know if fans in the state care about the exploits of a team in realignment-stricken Conference USA, but given the continued irrelevance of Kentucky and the continued presence of Bobby Petrino at Louisville, they might want to start.
23. West Virginia
Marshall (10–3), West Virginia (8–5)
Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen is on the hot seat, so the mood can’t be too comfortable in the state. But West Virginia losing all four games to ranked teams last year was probably a good thing for the folks in Morgantown, who avoided literal hot seats of their own when fans had no reason to burn couches.
Tennessee (9–4), Memphis (9–4), Middle Tennessee (7–6), Vanderbilt (4–8)
No, this is finally Tennessee’s year. College football prognosticators might have thought they meant last year, and the year before that, and the year before that … but no. This is the season it all comes together for the Volunteers.
Northwestern (10–3), Northern Illinois (8–6), Illinois (5–7)
I, too, am excited for another season of Northwestern reaching October undefeated and inspiring a flurry of “finally, a major bowl!” stories from J-school graduates. And sure, Northwestern was OK last year, but we’re still only two years removed from Northern Illinois alumni (correctly!) claiming that their team was the best in the state.
Arizona (7–6), Arizona State (6–7)
The two Arizona programs appear to be on broadly upward trajectories, so they break into the top 20. But after they won 10 games apiece in 2014, last season proved things weren’t quite that easy. It’s unclear when the two schools might return to Pac-12 contention; this is Year 20 since one of them won the conference outright.
Oregon (9–4), Oregon State (2–10)
Oregon’s struggles were a bit overstated last year — the Ducks still beat Stanford, and their offense was its typical neon blur when Vernon Adams wasn’t hurt — but nine wins was the program’s worst output in nearly a decade. Quarterback questions remain this fall, and there’s a niggling sense that Oregon’s title hopes may have passed. Oregon State, meanwhile, bottomed out in the first post–Mike Riley year, and the record wasn’t a fluke: By S&P+ ratings, the only Power Five teams worse than the Beavers last year were Rutgers and Kansas.
Boise State (9–4), Idaho (4–8)
An analogy: Oregon is to Boise State as Oregon State is to Idaho. The lower expectations in Idaho, where neither team is in a Power Five conference, nudge that state just one spot higher in the rankings.
Georgia (10–3), Georgia Southern (9–4), Georgia State (6–7), Georgia Tech (3–9)
Make no mistake, Mark Richt did a commendable job coaching Georgia for the past 15 years. But the Bulldogs’ past two seasons ended with appearances at the Belk and TaxSlayer Bowls, and that more than anything was reason for Richt’s firing. Georgia is essentially a rich man’s Nebraska, and the sudden collapse of Georgia Tech last year doesn’t do the state’s placement any favors.
LSU (9–3), Louisiana Tech (9–4), Louisiana Lafayette (4–8), Tulane (3–9), Louisiana Monroe (2–11)
Is LSU ever out of contention for a title? No. Is Les Miles’s confused-magician act wearing out its welcome? Maybe. Is LSU now four seasons removed from making a top-tier bowl game and finishing the year in the AP top 10? Yes.
15. North Carolina
Appalachian State (11–2), North Carolina (11–3), Duke (8–5), NC State (7–6), East Carolina (5–7), Wake Forest (3–9), Charlotte (2–10)
Bet you thought I’d be saving the “start of college basketball season” jokes until this section. But Appalachian State is a solid team with plenty of goodwill left over from 2007, and North Carolina — much like its eligibility-impaired athletes — is in a class of its own.
Florida State (10–3), Florida (10–4), Miami (8–5), South Florida (8–5), Florida International (5–7), Florida Atlantic (3–9), UCF (0–12)
The big three were good last year, not great, so the state gets a ranking that’s good, not great. The longer-term angst in non-Seminole parts of Florida is sharper than those records might indicate, too: The Gators haven’t won the SEC since Tim Tebow graduated, and Miami is somehow still waiting for its first ACC title.
Stanford (12–2), San Diego State (11–3), UCLA (8–5), California (8–5), USC (8–6), San Jose State (6–7), Fresno State (3–9)
Last year, California had Christian McCaffrey, a wildly talented USC team, a quarterback nicknamed “Chosen,” and the no. 1 pick in this spring’s NFL draft. But Stanford is the only one of those programs that actually reached expectations last year, so placing California next to Florida seems right by this metric.
Washington State (9–4), Washington (7–6)
Might Washington take over for Arizona as the Pac-12 state with two teams on the upswing? By S&P+, Washington was the 12th-best team in the country last year, despite its middling record, and regardless of these teams’ finishes this season, the Chris Petersen– and Mike Leach–led offenses will be a blast to watch.
Arkansas State (9–4), Arkansas (8–5)
Arkansas finished last season on a tear, going 6–1 after a mid-October rest week, and this season is set up for Bret Bielema to make his first real splash in the SEC. He’s already there with the mic, so the on-field headset can’t be far behind.
Utah (10–3), BYU (9–4), Utah State (6–7)
Good year on the gridiron for Utah! BYU remained a frisky independent, downing Boise State and losing to UCLA by only one point, and while the Utes faded down the stretch, their offense was an exciting new addition to the Pac-12’s after-dark fireworks. After losing basically that entire offense, Utah might regress this year, but fans in the Beehive State certainly had fun while it lasted.
The home of the Badgers is by far the top-ranking state with only one FBS team. Even though Wisconsin has fallen in recent years, the Badgers are still a solid team, which is more than conference opponents like Rutgers and Minnesota can say. Plus, there’s another Watt brother in the starting lineup now, which is reason enough to bump the state up a few spots.
Notre Dame (10–3), Indiana (6–7), Ball State (3–9), Purdue (2–10)
The other schools are disasters on the field, but Notre Dame’s outsized importance coupled with the school’s continued competitiveness boosts Indiana up these rankings. The only fear is that both of the team’s regular-season losses in 2015 came by two points, so its … luck in close games might have disappeared.
7. South Carolina
Clemson (14–1), South Carolina (3–9), Coastal Carolina (9–3 in FCS)
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Dickens on 18th-century Europe or me on the Clemson/South Carolina dichotomy last season?
Iowa (12–2), Iowa State (3–9)
Or me on the Iowa/Iowa State dichotomy?
Alabama (14–1), Auburn (7–6), South Alabama (5–7), Troy (4–8)
I know, I know. Alabama just won the championship, Nick Saban’s still there, the tide is still rolling, the whole thing. But Bama’s success means half the state is in a good mood; the other half is the country’s most unhappy fan base outside Clemson. Beyond seeing its rival win the title, Auburn struggled a bunch in 2015 and faces a number of questions heading into the season. Questions like, who is going to play quarterback? And, who is going to be the running back? And, who will contribute as wide receivers? Again, Bama’s unimpeachable. But this is a state of two emotional states.
Ole Miss (10–3), Mississippi State (9–4), Southern Miss (9–5)
As recently as 2011, Ole Miss and Mississippi State were bottom-rung SEC punching bags, and Southern Miss won a single game, total, in 2012 and 2013. What a turnaround for those three teams — and with Chad Kelly leading Ole Miss, the state still has a dual-threat Heisman dark horse even after the Dak Attack graduated to the NFL.
Oklahoma (11–2), Oklahoma State (10–3), Tulsa (6–7)
Oklahoma was back on top of the Big 12 last year, and all was right with the world in the Sooner State. Plus, with the conference’s Texas teams primed to take a step back this season — which in and of itself gives a boost to Oklahoma in these rankings, per the two states’ fierce rivalry — Oklahoma State could be the biggest competition for Bob Stoops’s team.
Ohio State (12–1), Toledo (10–2), Bowling Green (10–4), Ohio (8–5), Akron (8–5), Cincinnati (7–6), Miami (OH) (3–9), Kent State (3–9)
To start, here’s the rare case of a football-rich state’s smaller schools helping its ranking; Toledo and Bowling Green might have wildly outperformed their abilities last year, but they provided some entertaining MACtion along the way. The main reason Ohio ranks this highly is because of how Ohio State has played in the Urban Meyer era — in the Buckeyes’ past 26 games, they have just one loss on a last-second field goal, and they’ve outscored opponents by an average score of 42–18 over that span. Ohio State is the rare elite program that lives up to expectations year after year, and the Buckeyes make the Ohio state, lowercase, the second best in the country.
Michigan State (12–2), Michigan (10–3), Western Michigan (8–5), Central Michigan (7–6), Eastern Michigan (1–11)
Except just as Ohio State’s one loss over that period came to Michigan State, here, too, does Ohio state lose to Michigan state in nail-biting fashion. Unlike other states with two premier programs, both of Michigan’s top schools exceeded expectations last year and are ready for more playoff consideration in 2016. Mark Dantonio has made 11 wins the Spartans’ new baseline, and Jim Harbaugh has transformed a sub-.500 program into national betting favorites in just a year. The last time these two teams met, the greatest moment of the 2015 season resulted. They play again on October 29 in East Lansing, this time with the title of Best Team in the Best College Football State on the line.