by David Arkow
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With the conclusion of the NCAA basketball tournament, the attention on college sports as a whole will wane until next fall, when football season begins again. After all, men’s basketball and football bring in the most viewers and revenue. Nonetheless, every Division I school has hundreds of other athletes who have devoted their lives to their sport but don’t necessarily get the spotlight that football or basketball players do.
When it comes to considering the best college sports programs, fans often think of Alabama, Clemson, Duke or North Carolina, defaulting to powerhouse football and basketball programs, but these are only two sports out of a potential 20-plus. For example, many might have been surprised to see Arkansas in the Elite 8 this year, as they don’t come to mind as a traditional powerhouse. Arkansas had only one Top 25 appearance in basketball and football over the last five seasons, while Wisconsin had seven Top 25 appearances. But across 17 major college sports, Arkansas had 36 Top 25 appearances to Wisconsin’s 30 over the last five years. And this year, the Razorbacks were ranked Top 5 in baseball, track and field, and cross country. Looking only at two sports distorts the picture of how successful these college athletic programs are as a whole. This led me to conduct a holistic analysis to answer the question: What is the best all-around college sports program?
We recently published an article on the best professional dynasties of all time, using regular season and postseason performance as the main measures. Conducting a similar analysis for NCAA sports, I created a metric called “power points,” wherein a team gets one point for a Top 25 appearance in the final poll, two points for a Top 10 finish, one point for a runner-up finish and two points for a championship. So since Baylor finished No. 2 in the final poll this year and won March Madness, they would receive four power points. NCAA sports differ in that there are hundreds of schools, whereas in professional sports leagues there are about 30 teams. Therefore, in a given NCAA season, a team only plays a small fraction of the available competition depending on the number of games. In football, for instance, Oklahoma (Big 12) rarely plays Alabama (SEC) unless they meet in a bowl game. Therefore, it is hard to measure a team’s strength purely by win-loss record because it depends a lot on the competition. For example, the Cincinnati Bearcats (AAC) went 9-0 in the 2020 regular season, while the Georgia Bulldogs (SEC) went 7-2. By traditional win percentage, the Bearcats would be ranked higher, but when these teams met in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Georgia won.
The ultimate standardized measure is the NCAA rankings, as it is decided by a committee that accounts for a number of factors, including strength of schedule, margin of victory, roster talent and more, to rank the hundreds of teams across conferences. I gathered data from the last five years of NCAA sports (excluding 2020 due to COVID-19) looking at 17 major college sports (Football, M/W Basketball, Baseball, Softball, M/W Track, M/W Cross Country, M/W Swimming, M/W Golf, M/W Soccer, M/W Tennis). Through this analysis of the last five seasons, I determined the best aggregate college sports programs.
Power Points vs. Capital One Cup
The NCAA currently has the Capital One Cup, which awards scholarship money to the best all-around athletic programs in the country. In contrast to my power points, the Capital One points system has Group B (higher tier) and Group A (lower tier) sports with weighted point values (Group B is three times as much as Group A). This boosts the overall importance of certain sports, such as football or basketball. Additionally, the Capital One Cup only awards points to the Top 10 finishers (missing out on other good teams) and greatly scales its point distribution. For example, the top finisher in a Group B sport gets a whopping 60 points, while the 10th place finisher gets a mere three points. Was the 2018-19 No. 1 Virginia men’s basketball team really 20 times better than No. 10 Tennessee (who was ranked as high as No. 3 earlier in the year)? Ultimately my power points program is different in that it: 1) weights all sports equally, 2) does not drastically scale different finishes, 3) includes the Top 25 as opposed to the Top 10.
Flaws and Caveats
This analysis looks strictly at the past five seasons, focusing on the present to give a more accurate picture of the landscape now. If the Wooden-era UCLA Bruins (1964-1975) were included, for instance, they would have boosted UCLA’s overall rating. The NCAA rankings are in themselves flawed, as committees can be subjective to a certain degree. Nevertheless, the rankings are the best gauge of where a team ranks in the country. Most NCAA sports only rank the Top 25 so if a team was #26, they would receive no power points even though there is very little separation between them and the #25 team. I analyzed 17 major college sports, but some were left out due to the very limited number of programs. For example, men’s gymnastics is limited to only 13 Division I schools. Finally, the data is only for Power 5 (SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big 12, Big 10) schools.
The Ultimate NCAA Top 25
There are some unsurprising names on this list (Stanford, Florida, Texas, USC) but also some surprises like Arkansas, Louisville and Washington. Had we only considered football and basketball, these teams likely would not have scratched the list. The two objective ways to crack this list are either having a few dominant programs or having competitive programs across all sports. For example, a quarter of Alabama’s total power points (15/60) come from football. A school like Michigan, however, didn’t win a single national championship in any of these 17 sports, but consistently appeared in the Top 25 in all sports.
Stanford is clearly the most dominant Division I program, amassing 143 total power points on 67 Top 25 appearances, 13 championships and four second-place finishes. The Cardinal dominate so many sports, particularly women’s tennis, men’s and women’s soccer and women’s swimming, while only failing to make a Top 25 appearance in two sports (men’s basketball and softball) over the last five years. The women’s basketball team just won the 2021 tournament, ending a three-decade title drought, but they have made the tournament every year since 1988. Other schools crack the list by dominating lower revenue sports, like Oregon (four championships) and Arkansas (three championships) in track and cross country. Pittsburgh was the only Power 5 school which failed to acquire a single power point (the Panthers did not make a single Top 25 appearance in any of the 17 sports).
There are two ways to rank colleges based on power points: Either the raw total power points or power points per program. Power points per program adjusts for the number of programs offered at a specific university. This would slightly shift some teams up and down in the rankings. For example, Oklahoma ranked No. 18 (54 power points) and the University of North Carolina ranked No. 12 (65 power points), yet Oklahoma only offered 14 sports to UNC’s 17. Therefore, Oklahoma (3.86) has a higher points per program than UNC (3.82). Essentially, Oklahoma offers fewer programs but performs slightly better in those programs than UNC (quality over quantity). To be thorough, I have included the power points for all 65 Power 5 schools. The median power points for a program is 41, so you can see which schools (organized by conference) have above or below average athletic programs.
Power Ranking the Power 5
Since college sports are so dependent on conference membership, it’s worth trying to determine the most competitive conference. For football, the consensus is that the SEC is the dominant conference, while many consider the ACC to be the best in men’s basketball. Through my analysis, I was able to tell which conferences are the best at which sports and the best overall—essentially, a power ranking of the Power 5. The SEC reigns supreme, compiling 772 power points, 16 championships and 22 2nd-place finishes across these 17 sports in the past five years. It is important to consider the number of schools and programs within each conference, since that can easily skew the number of power points. For example, both the Big Ten and Big 12 have 369 power points but there are 10 schools in the Big 12 with only 138 programs while the Big 10 has 14 schools with 221 programs. Therefore, the Big 12 has a much higher power points per program (2.67) compared to the Big Ten (1.67) and is therefore a better athletic conference.
Besides ranking the five conferences as whole, I also ranked them for each sport to see which conferences lead each respective sport. For example, the SEC is the strongest conference for football (8.8 power points per year) while the Pac-12 is the weakest (5.2 power points per year). But the Pac-12 has the best cross country programs (8.5 power points per year), while the SEC is weaker (3.3 power points per year). From breaking it down sport-by-sport, it is also clear that the SEC is the strongest or one of the strongest in the greatest number of sports while the Big Ten is weaker across most sports. For each of the 17 sports, I ranked the five conferences and then took the average ranking they had across all sports. Based on total power points across all programs, and individual rankings within each sport, the SEC is the most competitive conference followed by the Pac-12, ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten.
The Ultimate College Sports Team
In professional sports, fans are always obsessed with customizing a “dream team,” mixing and matching players from different teams and different eras. Well, from the gathered data, we can create the “ultimate college sports program.” For example, Alabama has been the best football program (two championships) over the past five years, while Virginia has had the best men’s tennis team (three consecutive championships). Stanford is represented in four different sports. This ultimate school would have amassed 232 total power points, 84 Top 25 appearances, 28 championships and 14 runner-up spots.
Texas men’s swimming is the most dominant of any program with 19 power points, an average final NCAA ranking of 1.8, 4 championships, and 1 runner-up in the last five years. The most competitive rivalry in college sports is also in men’s swimming between the Longhorns and The Cal Golden Bears. During the last five years, Cal garnered 16 power points, an average NCAA ranking of 2.2, 1 championship, and 4 runners-up finishes. So the next time someone asks about the biggest rivalry in college sports, think Texas and Cal men’s swimming.
While it might not be of supreme interest to casual college sports fans to keep up with more fringe sports such as outdoor track and field, it is still interesting to know which teams are the best. Analyzing all college sports provides more color to the picture of the most dominant NCAA programs. It is important to recognize the work of hundreds of other athletes who might not be the star quarterback or point guard but are nonetheless valuable contributors to the legacies of their university’s sports programs.
Editor’s Note: If you have questions about this article, please feel free to get in touch with David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for reading!