College football has its fair share of upsets and surprises every season, but there are a number of powerhouse programs almost guaranteed to be in the playoff mix at the end of each year.
It’s worth taking a look at — and appreciating — those power conference stalwarts who routinely bring in excellent recruiting hauls, develop a plethora of NFL-caliber players and win with exemplary consistency.
For this list of the 10 most well-oiled machines in college football, we’ll enact some recency bias to make this hierarchy more contemporary. This takes into account success over the past several years, program stability and some projection as to how each team will fare in 2018.
10. Stanford Cardinal
Jim Harbaugh will get a lot of love in the Wolverines section, but it’s worth noting he also started a recent tradition of excellence at Stanford. Thanks to the deployment of pro-style schemes and an old-school physicality that holds up even against spread-heavy opponents, the Cardinal are one of the most fundamentally-sound, toughest teams in football. Harbaugh’s development of star quarterback Andrew Luck, the eventual successor to Peyton Manning for the Indianapolis Colts, helped put Stanford on the map.
The Cardinal have a collective resilience and attention to detail seldom seen, thanks to a disciplined approach led by coach David Shaw. The academic juggernaut of a school usually lacks in top-tier athleticism, yet its current running back, Bryce Love, is among the best playmakers in the sport. He returns for his senior year to start again in the Stanford backfield, coming off a Heisman runner-up campaign in which he ran for over 2,000 yards and 19 scores, helping the team win nine games. Love has proven a great fill-in for Christian McCaffrey, one of two top-10 picks the Cardinal lost to the 2017 NFL draft.
As long as Shaw is entrenched as coach, expect Stanford to continue being in Pac-12 contention every year and eventually be in the national title conversation.
9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Academic misconduct scarred this proud program and forced the Irish to vacate wins in 2012, when the Irish were national runners-up, and the following year as well. From a pure on-field results standpoint, Brian Kelly has had a rather strong tenure in South Bend as coach, save for the 2016 campaign that ended in a 4-8 record.
Kelly rallied his players to a 10-3 resurgence last season. Offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey went in the top 10 of this year’s NFL draft, but Notre Dame’s spread-oriented attack should still be firing on all cylinders next season.
Despite some turbulence due to the NCAA controversy, talent is always attracted to the Irish, as they’re bringing in a top-10 recruiting class this year. Success this coming season will depend on the quarterback battle between Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book. The former ran for over 800 yards and 14 scores last year, but completed less than 50 percent of his passes. Book has a smaller sample size but threw four picks on only 75 pass attempts.
Even marginal play at that most vital position could have Kelly and Co. positioned for a College Football Playoff berth.
8. Michigan Wolverines
One of the most storied, tradition-rich programs is bolstered in that regard by a former Wolverines quarterback, Jim Harbaugh, who is now in charge of the team. Harbaugh has established himself as one of the best pure football coaches on the planet, with enthusiasm to burn and schematic wizardry that’s translated to the college game and the NFL. That’s probably part of the reason Shea Patterson transferred from NCAA sanction-ridden Ole Miss to play for Harbaugh — not only to win right away and have a chance at the postseason, but also to boost his NFL draft stock. Patterson’s presence will help Michigan a lot after an 8-5 season.
Harbaugh won 10 games in each of his first two years and proved he doesn’t even need elite talent to compete at the highest level. Don’t be surprised if the Wolverines sneak their way into the College Football Playoff. It’s only a matter of time before more top-tier prospects come to Ann Arbor, and Harbaugh has proven capable of landing them before, highlighted by 2016 No. 1 overall recruit, defensive tackle Rashan Gary, a likely top-10 pick in next year’s draft.
7. LSU Tigers
Even in the transition from the highly successful Les Miles era which sputtered toward the end, LSU has remained competitive in the SEC. The Tigers ranked No. 18 in 2017 and produced four draft picks in the second and third rounds.
Under prior defensive coordinator John Chavis, LSU attracted all kinds of talent to that side of the ball. Eight Tigers defenders were chosen in the 2013 NFL draft, and the next year produced several pro playmakers, namely Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Jeremy Hill. The 2017 draft had the likes of Leonard Fournette, Jamal Adams and Tre’Davious White from LSU come off the board in the first round.
It’s tough to be in the same conference division as Alabama and Auburn — the latter of whom has been too up and down in recent years to include on this list — but LSU is due to ascend if it can just get over the hump versus the Crimson Tide, who bested the Tigers in their matchups by two possessions or fewer in each of the past four years. Alabama travels to Baton Rouge this season, as does Georgia.
6. Florida State Seminoles
A perennial powerhouse under legendary coach Bobby Bowden, Florida State was ranked every full year in his successor Jimbo Fisher’s tenure from 2010 through two seasons ago. The Seminoles are coming off a down 2017 campaign with a 7-6 record, but after only one year at Oregon, Willie Taggart takes over the reins in Tallahassee.
The 2013 season saw the Seminoles go 14-0 and win a championship with Jameis Winston at quarterback. Winston and Co. were undefeated the next year until a Rose Bowl loss to Oregon, but the signal-caller went first overall in the subsequent NFL draft. Jalen Ramsey has emerged as one of the NFL’s premier cornerbacks in just three years as a pro after playing all over the field for the Seminoles.
It’s only a matter of time before FSU returns to prominence due to its name recognition and a dearth of consistent competition in the ACC outside of Clemson, though N.C. State has proven a tough foe of late.
5. Oklahoma Sooners
Here’s an idea of how quickly the Sooners can reload: They lost Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield to the NFL. He was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft to the Cleveland Browns. However, Mayfield came out and said his successor, Kyler Murray, will break all his Oklahoma records. Wow, right?
Last year’s leading two rushers, Rodney Anderson and Trey Sermon, are returning, as is electrifying, speedy lead receiver Marquise Brown. The Big 12 isn’t really known for its defense, so as long as the Sooners keep hanging points on the scoreboard, they’re going to be in the conference championship hunt. They’ve won the Big 12 for three years running, and have finished in the top 10 at season’s end seven times since the start of 2007.
Talk about a well-oiled machine: Mayfield was the program’s first player taken in the opening round of the draft since Lance Johnson in 2013. The system in Norman is strong indeed, as there are plenty of pro-caliber players who create depth and the luxury to contend among college football’s elite year in and year out.
4. Georgia Bulldogs
The reason for slotting the Bulldogs this high is because they experienced tremendous stability — if not greatness — under former coach Mark Richt, and are already in the process of taking it to the next level under his successor, Kirby Smart. The former Alabama defensive coordinator worked in lockstep with the legendary Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa, taking that recruiting charm and tactical prowess to Athens. He guided Georgia to the grand finale of the College Football Playoff in only his second season at the helm.
Five players from last year’s team went in the first three rounds of the 2018 NFL draft, including three in the first round: linebacker Roquan Smith, offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn and running back Sony Michel, with the latter two going to the New England Patriots. Despite those losses, true sophomore Jake Fromm returns at quarterback, while D’Andre Swift will take over in the backfield for Michel and Cleveland Browns second-round pick Nick Chubb to keep the Bulldogs among the SEC’s elite. Oh, and they have 247Sports’ No. 1 incoming recruiting class to boot.
3. Clemson Tigers
It’s hard not to think of Clemson without Dabo Swinney coming to mind. The Tigers have churned out NFL prospects by the truckload in recent years, most recently and prominent being quarterback Deshaun Watson, who led the team to a national title against Alabama one year after losing to the Crimson Tide in the championship game.
Watson exploded onto the NFL scene with the Houston Texans last season before a knee injury cut his season short. His top receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, is a Clemson product, as is Texans defensive tackle D.J. Reader, who’s overachieved as a former sixth-round pick. Hopkins and Reader comprise the position area the Tigers specialize in when it comes to churning out future NFL studs. Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams were also first-round picks who went higher than Hopkins, and Vic Beasley, Shaq Lawson and Stephone Anthony are among first-round players on the front seven.
Per ESPN.com, there are 42 former Tigers on NFL rosters. It’s no wonder Clemson is attempting to be in the College Football Playoff for the fourth straight year this coming season with that caliber of talent coming in each recruiting class — and many returnees in 2018.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
Urban Meyer was terrific at Florida and has been even better in some ways since his arrival in Columbus. In three of the past four years, Ohio State has produced multiple first-round NFL draft picks, including a ridiculous five in the top 20 in 2016. Meyer hasn’t even needed a clear starter at quarterback in order for his teams to thrive. Yes, J.T. Barrett was among the most decorated players in college football in recent years, but he was always being pushed by competition and questioned as to whether he was the best player to lead the Buckeyes offense.
Ohio State hasn’t finished outside the top six in the past four seasons, the first of which was a national title. Meyer has led OSU to a 47-3 Big Ten record, so chances are the Bucks’ dominance will continue, especially with two prior 1,000-yard rushers in the backfield in J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber in the backfield. New starting quarterback Dwayne Haskins flashed a cannon arm and a calm demeanor when he relieved Barrett against Michigan last season and led the Buckeyes to victory with seeming ease. That bodes well for his first full year as starter — and could well mean a playoff berth.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Like the Buckeyes, Alabama has gotten by with game-managing quarterbacks. That is, until the most recent national championship contest, when Tua Tagovailoa rallied the Crimson Tide in place of Jalen Hurts under center to win in overtime against Georgia. With Tagovailoa seemingly entrenched as the starter at the most important position, Alabama is all the more dangerous.
The Tide punish opponents with physical, downhill running and tough-as-nails defenses, catalyzed by a devastating combination of size and athleticism. A whopping 61 alums are in the NFL, including 12 from the 2018 draft class. That’s bonkers, for lack of a better term. Even though Tagovailoa will be without first-round pick Calvin Ridley at receiver, he’s the type of dynamic, dual-threat playmaker who elevates those around him. That should keep Alabama on course in pursuit of a sixth national championship under Nick Saban.