For more than two decades, our team has been wholly committed to helping challenger brands fight and win in categories from restaurants and franchise marketing to healthcare and retail. There’s nothing we love more than building, following, and playing with brands and teams that exude excellence. That’s one of the reasons we’re also consumed with college football’s best teams and all they have to teach us.
Down the Rabbit Hole.
Last week, as I was gearing up for the September 4th opener for my beloved Texas A&M Aggies (Gig ‘Em!), I started thinking about the ascent of our program since joining the SEC in 2012. Last season, we finished 4th in the national poll at the end of the season and that has only heightened the expectations of the Aggie faithful for the upcoming season. When you’re paying your coach $7.5 million a year, results matter. The next step for the boys in College Station is making the playoffs and then winning a national championship. Admittedly, it’s a tall order, especially considering we have to go through Alabama to get there. But as the saying goes, if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.
As these thoughts ran through my head, it occurred to me that the landscape that frames college football’s best teams and their fight for dominance year in and year out looks a lot like the landscape challenger brands face. It also occurred to me that much like the brand fights we often find ourselves battling, in the fight for college football supremacy it seems the same teams always dominate the end of the year Top 10. Except that isn’t true. At least, not when you look at a 20-year spread.
The Big Surprise.
Since 2001, 50 college football teams have finished in the end of season Top 10 poll at least once. Which were college football’s best teams? It depends on how you define “best.” If you’re counting titles, it’s no contest. In the past 20 years, (and really since 2009), Alabama has won seven national championships. The next closest teams are Ohio State, USC, and Florida with two each. In all, 11 schools have claimed a national championship since 2001. But that’s just one metric. I was also curious to see which schools had college football’s best teams over time, in this case, two decades.
When I weighted teams based on their average finish in the Top 10 polls from the past 20 years, I was honestly shocked at what I found. Even with seven national titles, Alabama hasn’t been the most consistent team in college football. That title goes to Ohio State. Since 2001, the Buckeyes have finished in the top 10 a whopping 16 times with an average year end rank just over #4.
As surprising as it was to see Ohio State as the team with the highest average finish from 2001 to 2021, the rest of college football’s best teams over that time period shouldn’t surprise anyone.
The Best of the Best – 2001-2020
SCHOOL / AVG. POST-SEASON RANK
Ohio State / 4.4
Alabama / 5.0
Oklahoma / 5.1
USC / 6.4
LSU / 7.1
Georgia / 7.2
Clemson / 7.3
Oregon / 7.5
Texas / 7.8
Florida / 8.0
This is what sustained excellence looks like over time. It’s what fans of college teams across the country yearn for whether they’re the defending champion or starved for a championship. From our experience over the past 20 years, I can tell you it’s also what challenger brands covet more than anything else. No person, no company, no brand wants to be a flash in the pan. And while lightning does occasionally strike, becoming an overnight sensation is largely a myth. Brands are built over time.
And that made me think – what can challenger brands learn from studying college football’s best teams and their quest for sustained excellence?
Winning Comes Down to Culture, Coaching, and Talent.
Studying college football’s best teams from the past two decades, I found seven lessons that emerged with startling clarity. Even clearer – they are lessons every challenger brand can take advantage of the second they choose to.
1 — Programs that build a culture of winning win.
Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi said “winning is a habit.” For college football’s best teams that certainly seems to be the case. Look at the last five national championship teams – Alabama in 2020, 2018, and 2017, LSU in 2019 and Clemson in 2016. Those teams expected to win it all. They weren’t arrogant. They were confident, committed to something bigger than themselves and they played for each other. That starts with culture. As a leader of a company, brand, or agency, your greatest opportunity (and responsibility) is building that culture. It’s one thing to demand excellence. It’s another to set that expectation, instill confidence and purpose in your people, and build a nurturing, empowering culture where excellence can flourish.