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Take a look at the top four programs in the 2021 AP Preseason Top 25 and you'll notice one of them is not like the others. It’s not that Ohio State is in the Midwest, while the rest are (arguably) located in the South. It’s not that Oklahoma has gone the longest among the quartet without winning a national championship.
It’s that Clemson has only recently become a “blue blood” — a powerhouse in the sport — depending on who you talk to. Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney might disagree with that assessment. “Lil ol’ Clemson” has become his catchphrase, the coinage he uses to keep the program motivated. Still, Clemson is making its way into that exclusive group, though what membership into it entails isn’t clear.
College football already has enough questions for people to consider, so why not stew over a few more: What is a blue blood? What criteria must a program meet to be considered one? What does it all mean for the sport?
Old money vs. new money
To be a blue blood is to have a track record of winning. That’s something most college football fans and experts can probably agree on. Spencer Hall, a contributor to “Thinking Out Loud” on the SEC Network, evaluates the present, so he puts only the preseason top four — Clemson, Oklahoma, Alabama and Ohio State — in that group because of their recent achievements.
“Everyone else is just loitering,” Hall told Yahoo Sports in an email.
But that’s just Hall’s definition. Others expand theirs by also putting schools into the blue blood category on a historical basis. That’s where programs like Texas, Michigan and Nebraska come in. All have underperformed for over a decade, but remain in the club because of what they once were.
For comparison’s sake, Clemson boasts 768 all-time wins, while Texas, Michigan and Nebraska have 923, 964 and 905 respectively.
It’s sort of an old money versus new money type deal among the elite class of college football.
It seems a winning culture for a substantive period of time isn’t everything regarding blue blood status. Or at least, one that holds. Miami, for example, has won five national championships over the past 40 years. The most recent one came in the 2001 season.
But the Hurricanes have been booted from the club, if they were ever officially in to begin with.
Clemson could suffer a similar fate if Swinney ever exits.
“It kind of seems like the blue blood title is like this exclusive title,” said Chris Fallica, a "College GameDay" analyst at ESPN. “I don’t think the club is going to be joined … I almost think that it’s going to be defined and separated by like, ‘OK, you’re [not] a blue blood but you’re one of the top programs in college football.’”
Other programs seem untouchable. The expectation to win protects their blue blood status more than a winning record does. For those programs, it’s about ego and prestige. Notre Dame should win because it’s Notre Dame. Texas and football are synonymous. Michigan is the quintessential traditional power.
Clemson doesn’t fit this prestigious mold that a USC would have. Especially not with Swinney selling the underdog narrative, despite his team’s College Football Playoff success. Some must win to even attempt to get into the blue blood club. Others are immune to the impact of losing records. Texas, for example, handily snagged a spot in the SEC despite years of mediocrity. It’s a case of famous for being famous. Talk about a lack of upward mobility.
“Blue blood is associated with expectation, and the more you believe that you’re an aristocrat, a member of the bourgeois, if you will, in college football, then the higher your expectations … whether they’re deserving of it or not,” Rick Neuheisel, former Colorado, Washington and UCLA head coach, told Yahoo Sports.
Some schools simply "look the part" of a blue blood, Fallica said. They’ve got the tradition. They’ve got the branding, the iconic mascots and catchphrases. They, unlike Miami, fit the traditional college football establishment and inspire a sense of nostalgia.
Newcomers can’t quite catch up to that or cultivate a similar spot in collective memory.
“It’s an emotion, it’s a feeling,” Fallica said. “It’s kind of like this lure harping back to memorable wins.”
That might be why Notre Dame got into last year’s College Football Playoff over Texas A&M. One has the allure Fallica describes. The other school does not have as much, so less people would be interested.
“Everybody is aware of who wants to watch whom and tries to create the best matchups for television,” Neuheisel told Yahoo Sports.
Money and fan support
Blue blood programs are typically not lacking in resources, and their fans really love football. They pack stadiums and generate revenue. People buy in to them, especially boosters. That’s a major factor in a school becoming a blue blood and keeping that status, according to Hall.
Money is why the hierarchy exists, and why some schools latch onto their own notions of prestige.
“People at these schools write bigger checks and expect results to go along with them,” Hall said in an email. “That’s what keeps the system pumping: Money and the desire to spend it on football.”
Implications of the blue blood system
Fallica said the blue blood title is more of a status symbol than anything, but the label, as arbitrary as it seems to be, still holds power.
Blue bloods get the TV contracts. Blue bloods get into the CFP. Blue bloods win recruiting battles.
“Everything in college football is for recruiting,” Neuheisel said. “The only reason a blue blood status means anything is so the alum can pat [themselves] on the back or be boastful … but more importantly, so you can get the Jimmys and the Joes. Most of the great players want to go to a great place.”
And so the system persists even on ill-defined terms.