Ranking college sports programs by prestige is never an exact science: everyone has their own parameters to define the difference between a “blue blood” and a “cellar dweller,” and people react to single-season performances — whether it be a surprisingly successful campaign or an uncharacteristic down year — in different ways.
Aside from declaring the BCS the best system for determining a national champion, publishing a 1-66 ranking of the top Power Five programs is probably the easiest way to invite nasty comments from college football fans. No one is brash (or dumb) enough to do that, but Sports Illustrated writer Stewart Mandel comes the closest.
On Thursday, Mandel posted the third edition of his “Program Pecking Order,” which, once every five years, groups college football teams into four classes inspired by the Middle Ages: Kings, Barons, Knights, and Peasants. It’s a fun and noble (pun intended) concept that welcomes the tall talks of nailing down the nebulous and fickle feelings of the American public.
Before unveiling the list, Mandel lays out a necessary caveat: prestige comes down to “something more than wins and losses. It’s a certain cachet or aura. It’s the way a program is perceived by the public.” In other words, what do those who follow college football think of a given school? Where does each program fall in the average fan’s personal pecking order?
The most heated debate naturally occurs at the top, when discussing the highest-profile programs that dominate recruiting and — in theory, at least — perennially compete for national titles, but even the most irrationally optimistic Syracuse fan would never expect to see the Orange mingling with the “Kings.”
Instead, SU falls into Tier 3, or the “Knights” category, which, thanks to recency bias, may seem a bit generous for a team with a combined record of 11-25 over the last three years. But when you consider that Syracuse posted consecutive winning seasons in the two campaigns prior to the ugly stretch, this placement feels right: a below-average Power Five program stuck on the stronger side of a deep, loaded conference.
Speaking of that ACC, it raises an existential question for SU football: will the Orange ever climb out of the cellar — in terms of national prestige and league standings — when its schedule annually presents a gauntlet of powerhouses? It’s fair to argue that Syracuse took a significant step forward in Dino Babers’ first season at the helm — but the Orange only added one victory to its tally from the previous year, due in large part to a treacherous slate of opponents. The same thing could happen in 2017: even if SU improves immensely, an extremely difficult schedule may mask any upward movement.
Combine that with the school’s cold-weather location and recent struggles, and Babers has his work cut out for him if he wants his program to ascend past college football’s third tier.
Where do you think Syracuse sits in the college football hierarchy? Let us know in the comments and by tweeting @OrangeFizz.