It’s not a minor question: Which team in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision is holding back its conference more than any other?
Naturally, the answer should belong to the Power Five conferences, but given that The American made such a splash last season — and that multiple AAC teams are under consideration for Big 12 membership — the idea of limiting the discussion to Power Five teams doesn’t seem entirely appropriate.
Is there an AAC team which is dealing a crippling blow to its league’s fortunes? Cincinnati should be doing a lot more, but is that holding back The American to a severe extent? Not with Houston maxing out; not with Memphis stepping forward last season; not with Navy winning 11 games for the first time in the school’s lengthy football history; not with Temple overachieving and South Florida making a late move.
Earlier this week, we identified two teams as the foremost restraints on Mountain West power, but no one would say that Colorado State and Fresno State carry an overwhelming degree of national impact on their conference — not more than a Power Five league.
So, in the end, this is a Power Five question with a Power Five answer.
If that’s the case, only one school emerges as a clear choice.
The UCLA Bruins do less with more than any other team in the Power Five, but that’s not the same thing as “holding back a conference more than any other FBS team.”
The Bruins do happen to deserve both labels, though. It’s really quite impressive (in the worst possible way).
Tennessee hasn’t done much in the past decade, but UCLA hasn’t done much in the past two decades. The SEC could always use a stronger Tennessee, but it could also use a stronger Georgia, Auburn and Arkansas. Tennessee is not a unique drag on the SEC — not when the SEC has consistently made BCS title games and is 2-for-2 in terms of making the College Football Playoff. Nope, the Vols don’t beat UCLA in a head-to-head comparison.
In the Big Ten, Nebraska and Penn State haven’t been nearly as great as they used to be, but with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State all rocking and rolling, the Big Ten isn’t suffering that much. Moreover, for all their struggles, Nebraska and Penn State have occasionally done things in the 21st century. The Huskers made a BCS title game (the 2002 Rose Bowl versus Miami), while Penn State won an Orange Bowl and reached the Rose Bowl.
Sorry, Huskers and Nittany Lions — you’re not harming your conferences enough.
In the ACC, Miami is the obvious and only choice as a supreme underachiever which is hurting its current conference, but the Canes haven’t been in the ACC as long as UCLA has been in the Pac-12 (formerly the Pac-10 and Pac-8). Given that Miami won the Orange Bowl in its final season as a member of the Big East (the 2003 season and the 2004 Orange Bowl game), UCLA — without a conference title of any kind since 1998 — has been the more conspicuous long-term failure.
In the Big 12, Texas is going through a short-term period of misery. Seven years ago, the Longhorns were playing for a national title. West Virginia has disappointed since being in the Big 12, but that’s a period of only four years. Texas Tech is an historically impoverished program, but the Red Raiders have done reasonably well this century. More to the point, though, the Big 12 never will depend on Texas Tech for a crucial boost. It’s always welcome if it happens, but Texas and Oklahoma are supposed to carry the freight. Baylor and TCU have become power programs, so the Red Raiders simply aren’t harming the Big 12 to a considerable degree.
This leaves the Pac-12 itself. Yes, Arizona State and Arizona have underachieved on a large scale, but Arizona State produced a 2007 season in which it should have gotten a BCS bowl invite; a three-loss Illinois team was outrageously elevated above the Sun Devils for a BCS ticket that year. Arizona made the Fiesta Bowl two seasons ago as part of the New Year’s Six.
If only by process of elimination, there can’t be any program other than UCLA in this discussion.
The Bruins reside in Los Angeles, as big a college football market as there is. (New York has no prominent college football team.) In terms of recruiting, publicity, weather, historical stature (Gary Beban, Dick Vermeil, Terry Donahue, numerous Rose Bowl wins across many decades in the latter half of the 20th century), UCLA checks so many boxes for an upper-tier program.
USC has endured its share of slumps, but for the Trojans, a true “slump” is typically half a decade. UCLA is closing in on 20 years without a conference title or a major bowl appearance.
Lots of programs are noticeably hapless (or at best, mediocre), but they’re expected to be: Vanderbilt, Iowa State, Kentucky, North Carolina State, Wake Forest, Indiana, Purdue, the list goes on.
Among programs which should be really good, UCLA falls shorter of an ideal standard than any other Power Five program. This might not be a lopsided competition, but UCLA clearly matches more characteristics of underachievement — and has done so for a longer period of time — than other Power Five programs which ought to be pulling their weight.
The Pac-12 rarely created at-large teams for BCS bowls in the BCS era. The league didn’t make the College Football Playoff last season.
Just imagine how different the league’s 21st-century history might have been if UCLA had done its fair share.
We’ll see if UCLA can finally boost the Pac-12 this year.
Don’t hold your breath in Westwood or anywhere else.