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Selecting the most effective university football group in each state going into the 2020 period

There is absolutely nothing about 2020 that’s normal. That’s what living amid the COVID-19 pandemic gets you. Our health and safety is paramount and everything else, frankly, takes a back seat. But maybe, with a little bit of luck, we’ll get a full football season spanning the fall and spring. Maybe.

The ACC, Big 12, SEC, AAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt will try to play football this fall with the Big Ten, Pac-12, MAC and Mountain West giving it a go in the spring. For the time being, however, we are the mercy of this thing, and that is a hard concept to wrap our heads around. Times like these evoke yearnings for simpler days. It’d be nice to simply argue about top 25 rankings or, as we do annually here, the best team in each state. 

Good news, friends. Once again, Barrett Sallee and I have put our collective (thick) skulls together to come up just suck a list. 

We evaluated Division I programs from the FBS and FCS that cover 48 of 50 states. Alaska and Vermont were the only two states without a college football program at either of those levels — Alaska doesn’t have one at any level — so they are being withheld. All others have at least one FBS or FCS football program. By and large, we found many states to be simple. But of course, there are always a handful each year that prove to be more difficult to decide. 

Before we dive into our choices, a few guidelines:

  • This is not a list of the programs that have had the most all-time success in each state.
  • Instead, we take a look at last year’s (2019) results along with a deeper dive over the last two or three years in some cases. Other considerations like head-to-head matchups, championships won and the like were taken into account as necessary.  
  • This is not a projection of the upcoming season. It never has been, but it definitely can’t be/shouldn’t be now given all of the mayhem of 2020. In fact, I’d venture 2020-21 has a more marginalized impact on next year’s picks. 

With that in mind, here are our choices for the top football program in each state. Did we get it right? Wrong? Check them out below.

Alabama — Alabama: Even though the Tigers have won two of the last three over the Crimson Tide,Alabama has won eight of the last 12 Iron Bowls over Auburn and doesn’t suffer the consistency issues that plague the Tigers. That’s enough to get Nick Saban’s crew the nod.  — Barrett Sallee

Alaska: No Division I college football team.

Arizona — Arizona State: The Sun Devils have been perfectly fine under coach Herm Edwards. In two years with him as its CEO, Arizona State has beaten Arizona twice — a critical point — and pulled off some unexpected wins, like it did against Oregon last year.Arizona has … not been as perfectly fine under Kevin Sumlin, who needs a turnaround effort in 2021 to get off the hot seat. — Ben Kercheval

Arkansas — Arkansas State: Arkansas has eight wins over the last three seasons, including back-to-back two-win seasons under the recently-departed Chad Morris. That isn’t just bad … it’s terrible. Are the Red Wolves a Sun Belt juggernaut? Not really. They haven’t won 10 games since 2012 and are coming off of a 7-5 season. That’s enough to take home the honors though. Maybe the two teams should play each other heads up and settle this thing once and for all. — Barrett Sallee

California — USC: San Diego State had a legitimate case here. The Aztecs won at least 10 games in four of the last five years while going 5-2 against Pac-12 opponents (and 14-4 against teams out of California) in that span. USC hasn’t been its traditional powerhouse self lately, but it did bounce back from its 5-7 season in 2018 to win eight games a year ago, including three against the Pac-12’s three other California-based schools. And those back-to-back New Year’s Day bowl appearances in 2016 and 2017 weren’t that long ago. The Trojans get the title by the skin of their teeth.— Ben Kercheval 

Colorado — Air Force: Colorado took this crown last season, but it’s impossible to ignore Troy Calhoun and the Falcons. Fresh off of an 11-win season and bowl game win over Washington State, they were one of the top picks to take home the Mountain West crown prior to the shutdown. — Barrett Sallee

Illinois — Northwestern: If Illinois had actually defeated Northwestern as part of its surprising six-win season in 2019, the Illini would have had a case. As it is, though, one down (3-9) year isn’t going to undo what coach Pat Fitzgerald has done in Evanston in recent years. The Wildcats enjoyed four straight winning seasons, including two 10-win seasons, from 2015-18. — Ben Kercheval 

Indiana — Notre Dame: Notre Dame has double-digit wins in four of its last five seasons, made an appearance in the College Football Playoff in 2018 and should be one of the favorites to unseat Clemson now that it’s a quasi-member of the ACC for 2020. Indiana, Purdue and Ball State can’t hang with the Fighting Irish. — Barrett Sallee

Iowa — Iowa: Iowa has taken home the Cy-Hawk Trophy over Iowa State in five straight seasons, including a wild 18-17 thriller in Ames last season. The Hawkeyes are coming off a 10-3 season which included a win over USC in the Holiday Bowl. Sure, the Cyclones have star quarterback Brock Purdy. But he’s going to have to top his intrastate rival before his team can even have a case here. — Barrett Sallee

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