When I was growing up in the 1990s, it was hard to imagine the football programs at Florida State and Nebraska ever losing steam. The Huskers won national championships in 1994, 1995 and 1997;1 FSU took its own titles in 1993 and 1999 (plus went to two more BCS Championship Games, in 1998 and 2000). The two dynasties edged out Florida and Tennessee for the most victories in Division I-A in the ’90s, winning 218 games combined2 during the decade.
Those halcyon days are a distant memory now, after a weekend that saw Florida State lose to Syracuse for the first time since 1966 — and saw Nebraska do the Seminoles one better, starting a season 0-2 for the first time since 1957. Now they’re part of a group of formerly great teams that have started the 2018 season as badly as any version of their programs have in the past several decades.
It isn’t as if the Seminoles and Huskers have been in the dumps for this whole century, mind you: FSU won the 2013 national championship and made the College Football Playoff the following year. (It wasn’t long ago that the Seminoles were so unfazed by Syracuse that they were literally playing Hangman on the sidelines.) Nebraska won at least nine games in seven straight seasons (from 2008 to 2014). Neither stretch was as dominant as their respective heydays, though, and those runs in the 1990s had long since warped expectations for subsequent generations at each school. Although former FSU coach Jimbo Fisher spurned the Seminoles as much as they moved on from him, the Huskers fired ex-coach Bo Pelini because merely being a Top-25 fixture wasn’t enough in Lincoln.3 Florida State hired Willie Taggart last offseason, while Nebraska brought aboard former Husker QB Scott Frost to great fanfare after Mike Riley’s brief, mostly disastrous time at the team’s helm.
The early returns have been discouraging, to say the least. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings, which measure the strength of each program over time, Saturday’s losses dropped Florida State to 55th in the country, while Nebraska fell to an astonishing 79th. In terms of Elo through the current stage of the season,4 the Seminoles haven’t rated this low (a 1547 rating) after three games in a campaign since 1976, which was legendary coach Bobby Bowden’s first season at FSU. The last time the Huskers started a season rated this poorly (1423 Elo) was an astonishing 61 years ago.
They’re not alone among all-time great programs struggling this year, either. UCLA, with almost 600 wins to its name, is 0-3 under new coach Chip Kelly and has seen its Elo dip to a 74-year low. Tennessee, which also dominated the college football landscape of my youth with great QBs like Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning and Tee Martin, is as bad as it’s been in 63 years. And Florida — which won Saturday against Colorado State but infamously snapped its 31-year winning streak against Kentucky the week before — is sitting at a 39-year low point. Among programs with at least 300 all-time wins and a 60 percent winning percentage, those are the five teams that are currently playing as badly as they have in at least 35 years.
|Program||Wins*||Win Pct.||Current Elo||Worst Since||Years|
Some of these teams will get a chance to start turning things around soon … against one another. Florida and Tennessee play on Saturday, while Nebraska will play Michigan — a fellow titan of college football history that, while not quite on the same historically bad trajectory as the teams above, also finds itself out of sorts over Jim Harbaugh’s record against top opponents. For all of these programs, a rich history can also be a burden that weighs down future teams, forcing them into the constant pursuit of their own past.
They can look to Alabama for inspiration, though. While few teams have won more all-time games than the Crimson Tide, it wasn’t long ago that Bama was also floundering, struggling to live up to the legacy of Gene Stallings, much less Bear Bryant. Now Nick Saban takes his program to new heights with each successive season. The turnaround in Tuscaloosa was dramatic, but some version of it can also happen in Lincoln, Gainesville, Tallahassee or Knoxville. Each team remains a perennial fixture near the top of the recruiting rankings, so the talent is in place for a renaissance — and luckily for today’s brand-name programs, they find it easier than ever to maintain their power base once they build it.
Before that can happen, though, these once-great teams need to end their current slides. At their ’90s peaks, the Seminoles and Huskers made winning look so effortless that a collapse seemed impossible. Now that they’ve proven even the most storied programs aren’t invincible, perhaps the rebuilding process for the next great dynasties can finally begin in earnest.