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THE BEST OF THE BEST: AMERICA'S TOP TEN PROGRAMS
August 21, 2006

SCS.comSome schools just have it all.

When you think about the list of schools that excel in all three of the majors sports (baseball, basketball, and football), only a little more than a handful of universities can claim that elite status. With that thought in mind, I decided to do a little digging and find out who really is worthy of being named among the best programs in America. That research done, I've ranked best of the best according to their results since the year 2000. For basketball, I started with the 1999-'00 season.

1. Texas

Austin is the place to be if you want to be part of a winner. Even before the last two years when Vince Young led the ‘Horns to consecutive Rose Bowl wins, the second giving UT its first national title since the Nixon era, the burnt orange was one of the best of the best on the gridiron.

While the football team gets most of the headlines, the baseball team is the biggest winner. Four consecutive CWS appearances from 2002-05 and bookend national titles in that run, along with a runner-up finish in ’04, are reasons why Texas is known as the team you never want to have to go up against in the postseason, because more often than not, they will come out on top.

The ‘Horns hoopsters certainly aren’t too shabby either. They’ve made every Big Dance in this decade, advancing to the Sweet 16 twice and to the Final Four in ’03. Considering the talent they’ve boasted, from T.J. Ford to LaMarcus Aldridge and P.J. Tucker, that might be underachievement, but it’s underachievement at least 200+ D-I schools would love to have.

After the clear-cut number one, it gets a little tougher to rank, but numbers two through five have as much separation on the field as number one has on them.

2. Florida

Depending on your standards for UF sports, you may believe that the Gators don’t warrant this high of a place, but they’ve earned it.

There is, after all, that honor of being the current hoops champion that they can boast. But hey, that's nothing, right? I mean, all they've done is win 179 games (77-35 in the SEC) and make seven straight NCAA appearances, including a runner-up finish to the unstoppable Michigan State team in 2000. True enough, in between that runner-up finish and the national title, the Gators failed to get past the second round, losing in the opening round three times. But throw in two SEC regular season titles, three SEC Eastern Division titles, and two SEC Tourney titles, and the man with the slickest hair outside of Steve Lavin has made himself statue-worthy, especially considering the history of the program before he took it over (which was almost nothing, in case you're wondering).

The Ol’ Ball Coach made consecutive BCS appearances in the first two years of the 2000s before heading off to his ill-fated NFL stint. Success hasn’t been as plentiful since, but they’ve continued a run of New Year’s Day bowl games, and with Ron Zook and now Urban Meyer running the ship in Gainesville, it’s still one of the top five best places to be for top high school recruits.

Gator baseball had its finest year in 2005, making a run to the CWS title series, where they fell to our #1 team. 2006 wasn't quite the follow-up that Pat McMahon would've expected out of his team, but it's the only real blemish on the Gators' ledger, following six consecutive regional appearances under McMahon and former coach Andy Lopez.

3. LSU

For ten years from ’91 to 2000, the Bayou Bengals were a diamond dynasty, winning five national championships (’91, ’93, ’96, ’97, ’00). While they’ve dropped off in this decade, they’re still one of the top programs in the country, without a doubt. As far as missing regionals is concerned, don’t get used to seeing it. Failure is not something taken lightly in Tigerland.

But the other big two have been too busy winning for LSU fans to have too much to be upset about. There's of course the 2003 national championship that fans in LA and La. have differing opinions on. What the BCS says goes, right? Regardless of your opinion on the merits of their title, it's theirs, albeit shared, but there won't be any asterisks in history books for it. Along with that Sugar Bowl win over Oklahoma that gave them the national title in '03, the gridiron Tigers won the Sugar Bowl in the 2001 season after they upset Tennessee in the SEC championship game. No one can forget the Tiger legend that is Matt Mauck.

LSU basketball had a stellar season this past year, claiming the SEC regular season title, winning 27 games, and reaching their first Final Four in two decades. The SEC championship was LSU's second, following the one in '99-00 when SEC Player of the Year Stromile Swift led the Tigers to 28 wins and the Sweet 16. Speaking of SEC Players of the Year, LSU has had three in this decade (Swift, Brandon Bass, and Glen Davis). John Brady has also led the Tigers to two other NCAA berths and a co-SEC West title two seasons ago, along with two NIT appearances in in '02 and '04. The one blemish on their sheet is a terrible '00-01 campaign, where they followed up that 28-win season by winning only 13 games and notching a 2-14 conference mark.

4. Ohio State

Surprising pick? Well, they could merit a place just based on three Fiesta Bowl wins in four years (’02/03, ‘03/04, and last season), and the national championship in 2002 when they defeated Miami in the epic (and controversial) double-overtime thriller.

Their basketball program has had a successful decade, first under Jim O’Brien (there’s two of them, you know) and now under Thad Matta. The basketball Buckeyes have made four NCAA appearances (’99-00 to ’01-02, ’05-06), one NIT appearance (’02-03), and won 20+ games five times, including the ’04-05 season, when they were ineligible for the postseason based on violations incurred during the O’Brien era.

The Big Ten is more like the Little Ten in baseball, but OSU rules the roost. Three conference tournament titles (’02, ’03, ’05), a regular season title (’01), and four regional appearances (’01-03, ’05), with a Super appearance in ’03 have furthered the run of success that Bob Todd has had starting with five consecutive regional appearances and seven overall in the '90s. If they had that kind of success in another baseball conference, they’d be #2 on this list.

5. Oklahoma

Texas’ advantage on the rest of the field would be a lot bigger if it wasn’t for Oklahoma getting in their way over, and over, and over, and over again.

The Sooners have been near the top since Bob Stoops took over, and this decade has been good to he and his squads, to say the least. They kicked the decade off in style with a national title in 2000, and they were two late upset losses away from having a chance at a repeat in ’01. They came close again in ’02, missing out but still claiming a Rose Bowl win over Washington State as consolation, before appearing in two more BCS title games in ’03 (that lucky Big XII - thanks BCS!) and ’04. Last year was a down year for the Sooners, but it still produced eight wins and a Holiday Bowl victory. Throw in a Hesiman Trophy winner (Jason White in ’03), and three more visits to New York (Josh Heupel in ’00, White and Adrian Peterson in ’04), with award winners and first round draft picks galore, and you come out with a plate full of success. Tasty, isn’t it?

Basketball has been no slouch, either. The Sooners have won 20+ games in every year this decade, and made NCAA appearances six of seven years, with a Final Four run in ’01-02. It’s up to the youthful Jeff Capel to keep the run going, and considering his background, he should fare well, even under the cloud left by Kelvin Sampson, who is now Indiana’s head man (or problem, if you choose to consider his indiscretions).

6. Notre Dame

The Irish have had three football coaches in this decade, but they’re still Notre Dame and that equals success, a little bit at least. Two Fiesta Bowl appearances, both taken on the chin from OSU's (Oregon State in '01, Ohio State this past season), and a 10-win season in 2002 only slightly cover up the three non-winning seasons, however. There's a good reason why they've had three coaches.

Irish basketball has made seven consecutive postseason appearances (three NCAA, four NIT), reaching the 2000 NIT finals and the 2003 NCAA Sweet 16.

Notre Dame baseball took over the crown from Ohio State as the beast of the East, and they've become one of the premier programs in the country on the diamond (and got Paul Mainieri a nice new job at LSU, too). Here’s the ledger that got Mr. Mainieri a purple and gold jersey (since 2000): 324 wins, two 50-win seasons (six with 45+), five straight Big East tourney titles, seven straight NCAA appearances, and a CWS appearance in ’02.

A lot of casual fans may not have noticed the Irish’s success up until this year, when two-way star Jeff Samardzija burst onto the national scene and then with Mainieri getting the LSU job, but I’ve had my eye on them since they took Mississippi State to the last at-bat in the 2000 Starkville Regional.

But still, regardless of any success the other two sports might have, football remains the flagship sport of the school, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

7. Miami

They’ve won a couple of national championships in a couple of sports, and they’re also finishing ahead of their archrival.

Miami football has had a ‘decline’ of sorts in the past couple of seasons, but from 2000-03, the ‘Canes were the best of the best, with four consecutive Big East titles and BCS bowl appearances, winning three (’01 Orange, ’02 Rose, ’04 Orange) and claiming a national championship in 2001. And there was that 34-game winning streak that ran from 2000 to that Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State, led by Ken Dorsey and an almost impenetrable defense. Things haven’t been as rosy in their first two years in the ACC, as Atlanta has been their postseason destination for the last two seasons. Minus the Peach Bowl beatdown they took at the hands of LSU last year, everything’s been good in Coral Gables.

2001 was a pretty good year for Hurricane sports, as the baseball team claimed its second national title in three years. Even in down years, Jim Morris knows how to rally his troops to wins when the heat is on. Along with the 2001 title, Miami has been to the CWS three more times in the decade, and they've reached the Supers every year they didn’t make it to Omaha.

Why aren’t they higher? Two losing years in basketball, and three other years barely above .500 that resulted in NIT appearances.

But hey, they’re still ahead of FSU, which should give Miami fans a little consolation because anytime Miami finishes ahead of the 'Noles, even if it’s watermelon seed-spitting, it’s a reason to celebrate.

8. Florida State

The Seminoles are in this spot based almost solely on their achievements on the gridiron and on the diamond.

While the football program is not quite the giant it was in the 90s, it’s quietly still been winning. Bobby Bowden has added four more ACC championships to his collection in this decade (’00, ’02, ’03, ’05), and he's one of the favorites to bring home another one this year.

FSU baseball has yet to fully rediscover the success that led them to Omaha seven times in the 90s, and twelve times in eighteen years. It’s been six years now without an Omaha trip for Mike Martin and the ‘Noles, but it’s not due to a lack of chances. Since the new postseason format began in ’99, FSU advanced to the Super Regionals in every season up until this year, when they fell one game short. In both ’02 and ’03, the Seminoles were the #1 overall seed but couldn’t come through at home. But this decade has been at least a little kind to FSU baseball: four ACC regular season titles (’00-03), two ACC tourney titles (’01, ’04), and more wins than all but a handful of programs in the country.

Why aren’t they higher? Two second-round NIT showings in the last three years is a sign that Leonard Hamilton has FSU basketball on the right track, but before he arrived, Seminole hoops was right at home in the ACC cellar. But they’ve picked up a number of upsets of highly-ranked teams during the decade, with wins over Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Maryland, and Georgia Tech to lay claim to.

9. Georgia Tech

Tech hasn’t had many so-called ‘spectacular’ seasons in the big three in this decade, but they have been consistent winners. The Jackets have been, for the most part, a middle-of-the-pack team in the ACC on the gridiron, not quite being able to win those couple of extra games that would put them in the upper echelon. They’ve definitely had the talent on the field to be able to contend, especially at wide receiver with Dez White, Kelly Campbell, and Calvin Johnson. But GT hasn’t done too bad, going to bowls in every year of the decade, and winning three (’01, ’03, ’04).

The biggest achievement for Tech sports in the 2000s was making it all the way to the championship game in the 2003 Big Dance. Aside from that year, Tech has made two other appearances in March Madness, and one in the NIT.

The baseball program is a regular top 5-10 program, but frankly, you could very well refer to GT as ‘Almost U.’ They’ve been to Omaha twice (’02, ’06), but they’ve come up short in other years when they were clearly one of the best in the country.

Underachievement nonwithstanding, what they’ve done on a regular (enough) basis is better than what most can boast, so they merit their standing here. But there’s no denying that it’d be a higher place if they won, say, a handful or two more games scattered across the Big Three throughout this decade.

10. South Carolina

Expected to see a USC somewhere in here, didn't you? Not this one, more than likely. While they certainly don’t rank among the nation’s elite in hoops, back to back NIT titles are nothing to snub your nose at.

The baseball program has been one of the best in the country this decade under Ray Tanner. They were the runner-up to Texas in ’02, and they went to Omaha in ’03 and ’04. Their best team of the decade actually didn’t make it to Omaha. The 2000 team won the SEC regular season title in a runaway and compiled 56 victories, but finished one win shy of Omaha (never underestimate Ooh-La-La, them Cajuns’ll burn ya). They followed that up with another Super showing before getting over the hump and starting that CWS run. The last two years have been ‘down’ years, but 41 wins in both seasons, two more regionals, and a Super this year has kept them among the nation’s elite. They are by far one of the winningest programs in this decade.

South Carolina football has never quite seen the bright lights of big-time success, but under Lou Holtz, the ‘Cocks went from laughingstock to competitive in short order.

Others

There are a few names missing from this list that you might be shocked about, but this is a top ten, after all.

How about USC? Their two national championships, three BCS bowl wins, and four total BCS bowl appearances need a little love, don’t they? Sure, but on another list. USC basketball had a couple of good years at the beginning of the decade (one Elite Eight and another NCAA berth the next year) and they may be ready to start winning again, but this list isn’t based on the future. The argument could be made that if FSU made the list with their mediocre basketball program and lesser (but only by two national titles) football achievements, or if Georgia Tech or USC-East are on the list, then USC should definitely make the list. The edge goes to FSU, based on baseball (USC has missed the regionals three of the last four years), and GT and USC-East get in because their overall body of work rates more impressive.

How about Nebraska? Basketball is, at best, middle-of-the-pack in the Big XII, and football is still in the middle of rediscovering its identity, which was lost somewhere on Folsom Field in 2001 (62-36, anyone?).

Clemson? Their baseball program is one of the best in the country. But their football program is in the same class as Georgia Tech, and while the basketball program has been to the NIT the last two years, they were terrible before Oliver Purnell arrived to turn things around. Blame Rick Barnes, if you’d like. If he hadn’t left for Texas, maybe the Tigers would be up there in the top four or five in the ACC.

How about Stanford? Everyone knows how good their basketball and baseball programs are, but at the same time, we all know how bad their football program has been too (minus a Seattle Bowl showing in 2001).

Or Georgia? Two SEC championships and four 10-win seasons in football, three College World Series appearances, and one below-average basketball program.

Alabama? They’ve had some (read: some) good years all across the board, but the sprinkling of bad, bad years in football ruins their shot at a coveted place in my top ten.

Tennessee? It all comes down to comparisons and bad years for the Vols. Baseball has been to the CWS twice (’01, ’05) but has missed the postseason more times than they’ve made it (four to three). Basketball has made a smooth transition from one BP to another, but once again, it’s the bad years that hurt them. And speaking of another BP, well, I’ll just say he better hope ’05 was an aberration.

Texas Tech? Their closest comparison is Georgia Tech.

If you were to extend this list to all-time achievements, it’d look slightly different. Alabama and USC would crack the list, very likely, and UCLA would be nearer to the top five than being out of the list as they are right now.

Based on the last couple of years instead of the last six, the only change would be a small one in the order of some of the teams.

But one thing would remain the same, as it would in all of the lists: If you want to win, you better go to Austin.

U.S.A.
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