Let's play a little game called "Powerhouse 10."
Grab a sheet of paper. Take yourself back to the time of Keith Jackson and Astroturf. Here's your task: Name college football's top 10 programs, according to winning percentage, from 1985 through 2009.
I'll give you a minute to think.
Got it? No? OK. I'll give you another minute.
Time's up. Here are your top 10:
Twenty-five years is not a small sample size. And most of those names shouldn't surprise you — USC and Alabama barely missed the cut. (Boise State is excluded because it didn't join Division I-A until 1996). They're all members of college football's most prestigious fraternity. They're bluebloods.
Miami and Nebraska, No. 1 and No. 3 on the list, meet this Saturday. But that's not the only reason I bring it up.
Look at those 10 programs now. Or, better yet, look at where those teams rank nationally in winning percentage the past five seasons, 2010 to '14:
Florida State 3rd
Ohio State 4th
Penn State 41st
Only FSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma were in the top 10 from 2010 to '14. Six programs (everybody else but Nebraska) were outside the top 40!
If someone had shown you this list in 2009, I'm confident that you would've fallen out of your chair seeing Florida at 44th, Texas at 54th and Tennessee at 80th. Their fraternity status means nothing on Saturday afternoons.
OK, let's flip it upside down. Who were the top 10 programs from 2010 to '14?
And where did those programs rank the previous 25 years, 1985 to 2009?.
Florida State 3rd
Ohio State 5th
Boise State N/A
Northern Illinois 75th
Michigan State 55th
If somebody had showed you this list in 2009, the top five may not have shocked you. Maybe not even Northern Illinois. But Stanford and Michigan State surely would have.
Stanford was 8-5 in '09, and before that it hadn't broken .500 since 2001. The Spartans are an even bigger surprise. They were coming off a 6-7 season in '09. From 2000 to '09, they were 60-62. They were the epitome of mediocrity. And now they're the only team in the country with back-to-back top-five finishes.
What does it all mean to Nebraska? What are the trends here?
You don't need to be in the South to win. The only Southern schools in the top 10 (2010 to '14) are Alabama, FSU and LSU. Even if we swap out Boise and Northern Illinois for the next Power Five schools on the list (South Carolina and Oklahoma State), there's plenty of cold weather here.
You don't need to dominate the recruiting rankings. Take the five recruiting classes (2008 to '12) that were the foundations for the past five teams. Look at their average national recruiting ranking, according to 247 Sports.
Five programs — Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, Oklahoma and LSU — were recruiting juggernauts, regularly placing in the top 10. But look at the other five.
Average national recruiting rank (2008 to '12):
South Carolina: 22.0
Michigan State: 31.2
Oklahoma State: 31.4
You don't need to be a fast-paced spread offense. Alabama, LSU and South Carolina don't do it. Ohio State and Oklahoma have blended power and pace. Now it's true that 'Bama and LSU, especially, could probably win with any system. But Stanford and Michigan State pride themselves on physicality. So does the 11thbest Power Five school the past five years — the team that just missed this list — Wisconsin.
If you don't need those elements, what do you need to crack this list?
An elite head coach certainly helps. Nick Saban. Urban Meyer. Bob Stoops. Chip Kelly. Stanford became a power because of Jim Harbaugh. Michigan State found Mark Dantonio. Harbaugh and Dantonio, especially, had a knack for developing underrated players.
Excellent quarterbacks are critical. Look at the QBs who played for those 10 programs in the past five years: Jameis Winston. Marcus Mariota. Andrew Luck. EJ Manuel. Braxton Miller. Kellen Moore. Jordan Lynch. AJ McCarron. Darron Thomas. Zach Mettenberger. Kirk Cousins. Connor Cook. BrandonWeeden. Connor Shaw. Landry Jones. Pretty good list.
Mastery of the little things like field position and turnover margin.
Of the 10 teams with the highest winning percentages from 2010 to '14, Oklahoma had the worst turnover margin and it was still plus-11. Oregon was an outrageously good plus-76. LSU was plus-47. Michigan State was plus-46. There's a standard of fundamental football required to win at this level.
That's a ton of information to digest, some of which is insightful, some of which is probably coincidental.
Can we take these lists and project the Powerhouse 10 for the next five years? Probably not. Too many variables in too many places. But can we carve out a path for Nebraska to be an elite program again? Absolutely.
The Huskers don't need a warm climate or a flashy recruiting ranking or a spread offense. What they need is a coaching staff that finds hidden gems and teaches fundamentals. What they need is a dynamite quarterback. What they need is an identity. Mike Riley might be able to do all that.
The Huskers haven't won a darned thing in 14 years. But in this era of college football, that doesn't mean they can't. It means they're due.