College Football’s Best Teams Can Teach Challenger Brands How To Win

September 21, 2021 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

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

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.

For challenger brands and the people who build them, the first step toward winning is genuinely believing you can.

2 — Recruiting never stops.

When you analyze the success of teams like Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Georgia over the past decade, you have to start with the exemplary recruiting classes they land year after year after year. You build great teams with great talent. Note, I didn’t say superstars. I said great talent who know how to play together in pursuit of a common goal. The same is true for anyone trying to build a challenger brand, a company, or an agency. Always be on the lookout for great talent and don’t settle for anything less. The challenge is building the kind of brand great talent wants to be a part of. There’s no such thing as adding too many A players, too many big thinkers, too many strong leaders. Add every great talent committed to your vision, values, and purpose you can and then give them the leadership they deserve.

3 — Strong head coaches win.

There’s a reason Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, Jimbo Fisher, Lincoln Riley, Ryan Day, and Kirby Smart make the money they make. In the case of the first two, their salaries are in part reward for the titles they’ve delivered (seven of the last 10) and part for the job they’ll continue to do. For Fisher, Riley, Day, and Smart, it’s all about the championships they are expected to deliver. Every one of these coaches is a strong drink of water. Not surprisingly, their cumulative record last season was 56-8. Strong coaches with a clear vision win. So do presidents and CEOs and CMOs and brand leaders. No great culture, company, or brand has ever been built without North Star Leadership. Teach. Communicate. Motivate. Give your team something bigger than themselves to go after and they will follow.

4 — Momentum is real.

In its physical form, you can’t see, hear, taste, or touch momentum. But you can feel it. I remember a stunning Fall afternoon in College Station when my Aggies were up three touchdowns on a highly ranked Oklahoma team only to have Mo show up and ruin the party in less than a half. Momentum is real and once it gets rolling, it’s really hard to stop. The same is true for building a great culture. You can’t see, hear, taste, or touch your culture, but it’s all around you and your team. And not just in your office building. COVID taught us that. Good or bad, for 40 to 60 hours every week, your people sit and steep in your company culture like the finest tea bags.

If you want to build momentum with your brand, your company, or your agency, you cannot do it with a toxic culture.

Momentum takes trust. It takes confidence, everyone in your organization pulling in the same direction and truly believing that together, anything is possible. It only takes a spark to get the fire started. But if you want to maintain that spark and build it into a bonfire, culture is your accelerant.

5 — You win games in practice.

Contrary to what some may think, college football’s best teams do not just show up and win. Ask the 2007 Michigan team about Appalachian State, or the 2007 USC team about Stanford. Do a Google search for “games are won in practice” and you’ll get 385 million results. There are no instant winners in college football just like there are no overnight successes in business. It’s what you do and the culture you build daily that wins. That may sound simplistic and obvious. But if it was, everyone would be winning.

Legendary Texas A&M (okay, and Alabama) coach Bear Bryant once said, “It’s not the will to win that matters – everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.” Every day is an opportunity to build your culture. To connect with the talented people working on your behalf. Lean in and make the most of what’s in front of you.

6 — Some days will be flat.

When teams like the heavily favored 2007 Michigan and USC teams lose, it’s easy to insinuate they weren’t prepared, or hadn’t practiced hard enough like we just did above. That’s certainly possible. What’s more likely is they just came out flat. It happens. Over 25 years, one of the things I’m most proud of is how our team shows up when we’re invited to participate in a new business review. We prepare, overprepare, do more than is asked and we practice, practice, practice. Still, there are occasions when we just show up flat. It’s not often, thankfully. But it happens. Not every day is going to be productive. Not every day is going to propel your brand forward.

We just finished a podcast with Sarah Zubiate of Zubi Farms who makes organic salsa, queso, and crema de jalapeno that’s lights out. We asked her what lesson she would give to challenger brands who want to grow. Her advice: “get used to failing often and getting back up.” Some days will be flat. Take them for what they are and lean into the next day. Blips are normal. Unless it’s a trend, let it go.

7 — Play until the final whistle.

In pro sports, when things aren’t going well and the team just seems to be going through the motions, you often hear “the coach has lost the team.” When you look at college football’s best teams that doesn’t happen. Not because the coach won’t allow it. It’s because the team has been conditioned to play hard until every whistle. To fight, not for themselves, but for the person next to them. Great teams believe as long as there is time left on the clock, there’s a chance to win. Is that the kind of culture you’re building with your company, brand, or agency? Are you instilling that kind of mindset in your team?

When I was younger, I was a competitive motocross racer and won my share of races. Some of them, really big. And I can say with all sincerity, those wins pale in comparison to the ones I’ve shared with the teams I’ve built. Inspire your people to be better than even they know they can be. Build a culture that supports and nurtures that ideal. And never, ever quit. That’s how championship teams are built. That’s how challenger brands beat the big dogs.

MIKE SULLIVAN is president and CEO at  LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a top Dallas advertising agency for digital, social, mobile and user experience. For more about challenger branding, advertising and marketing, leadership, culture and other inspirations that will drive your success, visit our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog and catch up on all of our posts.

For more about LOOMIS, or to discuss how we can help your company succeed, CLICK HERE

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


We challenge underdog brands to think differently. We help them find their voice, and urge them to blaze new trails to make sure they stand out from the pack. Whether you need an agency of record or support on a project, we are here to help you win.