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Chasing blue blood status: Oregon's recruiting success reignites the debate

Andy Staples head shotby:Andy Staples07/09/24


Defining the Blue Bloods of College Football | Andy Staples Breaks Down the term "Blue Blood" | 07.08.24

A day after Oregon received a commitment from the class of 2025’s top-ranked receiver, Scoop Duck’s Justin Hopkins asked a fascinating question: Is Oregon a blue blood? As the Ducks rose to No. 3 in the On3 Industry team rankings — below Ohio State and Alabama but ahead of LSU and Georgia — Hopkins wondered if Oregon now qualifies as a college football blue blood.

With a lone exception, Ducks have won (in the regular season) like a blue blood since Chip Kelly ascended to head coach in 2009. Under current coach Dan Lanning, they have begun recruiting like blue bloods. Given who Oregon has committed and who else might wind up signing with Oregon, the class Oregon is assembling for 2025 could look like some of the ones Nick Saban signed at Alabama or Urban Meyer signed at Ohio State. (Or former Lanning employer Kirby Smart signed at Georgia.)

But does acting like a blue blood for a period of years make a program a blue blood? 

Before we answer that, we probably should agree on the definition of a blue blood. I tossed out that question while discussing this topic on Monday’s edition of Andy Staples On3, and a reader chimed in with one of the best definitions I’ve seen for a concept with a meaning that tends to vary from person to person.

I feel like most of us can agree on that one. There are some who believe that once in, a program can’t be kicked out of the club. But because college football is played by 18- to 22-year-olds who choose their schools rather than get drafted onto their teams, I do believe recent history should matter. Army, for example, was critical to the early development of college football. But the defense department understandably hasn’t tried to keep up with the current football factories for multiple generations. So Army isn’t a blue blood anymore, even though it absolutely once was.

 I also would add one criterion that Hopkins included in his original analysis of Oregon: A program has to have won a national title.

So that answers the Oregon question for now. No. The Ducks are not a blue blood program yet. They need to turn these elite recruiting classes and one of these winning seasons into a national title. Given Oregon’s recent history, it does seem the most likely to become the first first-time national title winner since the 1996 Florida team on which I proudly served as a human tackling dummy. In fact, Oregon feels like the only program without a national title in the conversation to win one within the next few years.

And if the Ducks do that, they’ll probably join the blue blood club thanks to the contributions of the Rich Brooks, Mike Bellotti and Chip Kelly eras. Those span three football generations, and the tail end of the Brooks era is when Oregon began its ascent.

But who would Oregon join? Which programs qualify for blue blood status under the definition that we established above? Let’s make the list.

Current Blue Bloods

The Crimson Tide had periods of ultimate dominance under Bear Bryant and Nick Saban, but they also won national titles under Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas and Gene Stallings. Alabama remains dominant in this generation, satisfying the recency requirement easily.

Ohio State
The Buckeyes have never had a down period in their 112-year football history. They’ve lived somewhere between above-average and elite in every era, with the needle pointing directly at elite for most eras. That includes this one. Ohio State has the best winning percentage of any power conference team in this century (251-46, .845). 

The mid-to-late 1990s are the only real down era for Oklahoma football. For the rest of the Sooners’ history, they’ve been excellent. They haven’t won a national title since the 2000 season, but they played for it after the 2003, 2004 and 2008 seasons and made the four-team College Football Playoff four times. 

We can argue that Michigan was in danger of slipping out of the past-two-generations requirement after the 2020 season, but the past three seasons have laid any debate to rest. The sport’s winningest program absolutely belongs on this list.

The Wally Butts, Vince Dooley and Mark Richt eras probably were enough to get the Bulldogs on the list, but Kirby Smart’s dominant tenure eliminates any room for debate. Georgia is the current most feared program in college football, and Smart doesn’t seem willing to relinquish that title.

Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish dominated the sport for generations, but they haven’t won a national title since 1988. So why are they still on this list? Because Brian Kelly made them nationally competitive again by taking them to a BCS national title game and two CFP appearances. In the era of the 12-team College Football Playoff, though, Notre Dame is going to have to actually win some of these high-stakes postseason games to stay on the list.

Even though they won a national title in the 2005 season, the Longhorns also felt in danger of slipping out of the recency requirement. Making the four-team CFP last season and a clear resurgence in player development have put those concerns to rest for now.

Like Texas, the Trojans have been more up-and-down than the teams at the top of this list. But between the Howard Jones, John McKay and Pete Carroll eras, they’ve got the requisite number of dominant periods. Carroll’s tenure is recent enough to keep them here, but Lincoln Riley does need to compete for national titles at some point to ensure USC stays here.

Penn State
Joe Paterno’s best years spanned multiple generations, and Penn State has been good enough in recent years to stay on this list. Like Notre Dame, the Nittany Lions need to make the expanded CFP and win some games to stay on the list.

Blue Blood Contenders

Florida State
A relatively young program that started two generations after most of the others on this list, the Seminoles didn’t break into the national title club until 1993. (Though Bobby Bowden had made them nationally elite by the early 1980s.) After a lackluster end to the Bowden era, Jimbo Fisher brought Florida State back to national title level. But the end of Fisher’s era and the Willie Taggart disaster dug a hole from which current coach Mike Norvell had to pull the Seminoles. If Norvell keeps fielding teams that can contend for national titles, Florida State should get called up.

If we’re viewing this century so far as only one generation, then LSU probably needs one more great generation. Paul Deitzel won a national title in 1958. After Deitzel, the program didn’t truly roar again until Nick Saban unlocked its potential following his arrival in 2000. But after LSU was unlocked, it was a force. Saban won a national title in 2003. Les Miles won one in 2007. Ed Orgeron won one in 2019. If Brian Kelly leads the Tigers to another one — or even comes close — move the Tigers up to the blue blood list.

The Danny Ford era provided the first national title. The Dabo Swinney era proved a program could rise back into the ranks of the elite after some middling years. Clemson just needs that third generation of dominance. That could happen after Swinney retires. Or maybe it could happen if he adjusts his roster management strategy for the transfer portal era.

The Cornhuskers were absolute blue bloods until the past decade-and-a-half of irrelevance pushed them off the list. If Matt Rhule (or anyone for that matter) could get Nebraska regularly contending for championships again, the Cornhuskers would spring back on the list.

The Hurricanes had so much success — under multiple head coaches — in such a short time that it’s hard to deny them a spot. But the reason they land in this section is because the longer they go without competing for a national title, the more it seems the 80s, 90s and first years of this century were a case of lightning in a bottle and not something repeatable.

Has Florida had two great eras or just one?  Most of the Gators’ football success is crammed between the years of 1990 and 2009. Steve Spurrier dominated. Ron Zook didn’t win enough on the field but stacked the roster in his three seasons. Then Urban Meyer dominated. We probably need to decide if the Spurrier and Meyer eras are distinct generations or if Zook’s talent acquisition provided the bridge that connects the Spurrier and Meyer eras. For most of the years since Meyer left, Florida has been a roller-coaster, alternating between good and disastrous. Florida needs another dominant era — not just the occasional great year interspersed with lackluster ones — to get in the conversation for blue blood status.

An even wilder roller-coaster than Florida, Auburn needs to sustain success for an era before it can be considered.

Robert Neyland and Phillip Fulmer each provided a generation of success. The next one adds a third and fulfills the recency requirement. No pressure, Josh Heupel.

Just win the national title, baby.