We tend to think of the way things were when we were kids as "normal". I can't imagine a time before color TV, but the internet is still "new" to me, even if I was throwing away AOL CD's back in the ‘90s. There's only three TV networks, Oreos only have two flavors (regular and Double Stuff), and the morning newspaper really matters. Things change, but that's the way things are supposed to be.*
Ed Note: This whole column is a bit of a digression, but that's what summer is for. If you can't go down research rabbit holes in the offseason, really, when can you? So if this is only interest to me, I apologize in advance. An article based on actual research is coming. This is just one of the leftovers.
Excited yet? Yeah, let's listen to the B-side of this record!
The one thing from my childhood that most definitely was not the standard for what is normal was the state of college football. There's been a lot of change during the Realignment Era of college football, roughly 1992 to 2014, from the SEC's first expansion to the Big Ten's most recent.
However, the actual results have fallen well within expected historical norms. Alabama, USC, and Oklahoma are three of the four most successful programs in history according to CFB Data Warehouse's program rankings, and they've been three of the most successful programs in the Expansion Era.
Sure, Notre Dame, the other traditional top four school, is enjoying a bit of a down era by their standards, but they still contend for January 1st bowls and even played in a national title game two years ago. Change is in the air, but the power structure remains largely intact.
However, football in the 1980s was insane. It's like the Blue Bloods forgot to lock the doors one day, and just anyone could come barging through. From 1981-1991, five different programs won their first national title in school history. Georgia Tech won their first national title since 1952 and Penn St., a team we think of as a blue blood, won their first title since 1912.
Miami went 6-5 in 1978, their first winning season in four years, and their second in twelve seasons. In 1983, they would win the national title. The Hurricanes would win three more titles in five seasons, cementing themselves as one of the great football dynasties of all time. A small, private, liberal arts college went from essentially irrelevant to the national power in less than a decade. We still instinctively expect them to get back to those days, even if it was completely outside the historic norm for the program.
It was just that sort of decade. Florida State didn't win a national title, but they did quickly transform their program. FSU won one game from 1973-1974. They won 10 in 1977, beginning a run of 29 consecutive winning seasons. The Seminoles went 11-1 in 1987, and would not lose more than two games in a season again until 2001 (they went 8-4).
BYU won a national title in 1983. It remains the only title won by a school outside the traditional power conferences. It was just that sort of decade. Washington was one of the best teams in the Pac-10. Colorado won a national title from the Big 8. SMU was briefly awesome in the SWC. Sure, they were cheating like mad, but it was also the times. Anything seemed possible in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Texas fell off the national radar. Oklahoma won a national title in 1985 and then fell into total disarray once Barry Switzer left the program. By the time the Big 12 formed, OU was embarking on a tailspin from which they wouldn't recover until 2000.
While the decline of Alabama in the 1980s is a bit overstated, they clearly weren't the same program post-Bear. Their reputation suffered to such a degree that it was a national news story that someone would vote an undefeated Alabama team #1 in the AP poll.
What I'm saying is that while the conference alignment may have been far more stable in the 1980s, there was a seismic shift in competitiveness in that era. One that, sadly, came to an end. Most of those programs having their best decade ever turned back into a pumpkin. Texas, Oklahoma, and Bama went back to their historically dominant selves. USC hadn't fallen that much, but they also went back to playing for national titles.
The Realignment Era was one of tremendous turmoil, I still can't reflexively call it the Pac-12 for example, but it was also an era in which the blue bloods went back to dominating. The teams winning the bulk of the titles were the same teams winning the bulk of the titles back in the 1950s and 60s. The 1980s may have been a less turbulent decade for conference membership, but it stands as one of the craziest with regards to on-field results.
Now we stand at the brink of a new era: the Playoff Era. The seismic shifts of realignment seem to be exhausted, and we're preparing for some years without all of that change. Maybe, if we're lucky, we'll see a new era full of change on the field.
Or maybe I'm just conditioned to always be on the lookout for the "New Miami".