Fans, facilities among considerations
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Here are the building blocks I'd start with in building the perfect college football program:
If you're looking for balance between academics and on-field success, the Wildcats might be the choice. FBS schools such as Duke and Vanderbilt have traditionally had the highest graduation rates, but Northwestern might have the best balance. The Wildcats had the fourth-highest graduation rate among FBS schools in the most recent report released by the NCAA (for freshmen entering school in 2002). Also, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was tied with Air Force's Troy Calhoun for having the highest Academic Progress Report average among active FBS coaches since 2003. On the field, Fitzgerald led the Wildcats to 17 victories and back-to-back bowl appearances the past two seasons.
Coach: Nick Saban, Alabama
There are certainly warmer and fuzzier coaches out there, but if the goal is a winner, I'm taking Saban. Whether you love him or flat-out despise him, it's hard to argue that Saban isn't the best coach in college football. He led LSU to a BCS title in 2003, then won another BCS title at Alabama in 2009. In nine seasons in the SEC, Saban has an 85-24 record, and his Bama teams have gone 17-0 against SEC foes in regular-season games in the past three seasons. The bottom line: Saban lost nine defensive starters from the 2009 team and still has his squad ranked No. 1 in the country the very next year.
Stadium: Ohio Stadium
Affectionately known as the Shoe because of its unique horseshoe shape, Ohio Stadium is the fourth-largest on-campus stadium in the country. Michigan's "Big House" might be bigger, but Ohio State's home stadium is louder. With more than 102,000 fans flocking to the stadium for home games, it's an intimidating home-field advantage because fans are sitting right on top of the action.
City: Austin, Texas
Although I prefer smaller college towns such as Athens, Ga., and Chapel Hill, N.C., Austin is like Athens on steroids. The seven blocks of 6th Street are the best place to spend the night before a game. Texas fans are determined to keep Austin weird, and we certainly hope it stays that way.
It doesn't hurt to have Nike founder (and OU alumnus) Phil Knight's checkbook. The Ducks' facilities are the envy of every other college football program in the country. In the past decade, Knight reportedly donated $30 million to renovate Autzen Stadium, financed a new $20 million academic center for athletes and will pay much of the cost of renovating the Casanova Center, which houses most football operations. The Jacqua Center, a 40,000-square-foot academic center, has an on-site cafe and gas fireplace. The new Athletic Medical Center has submerged treadmills, along with an on-site pharmacy and dentists. The planned renovation of Casanova Center will add a hall of fame museum and 20,000-square-foot weight room.
Fans: South Carolina
The Gamecocks have never won big in football -- they didn't win a national championship in any men's sport until their baseball team won the College World Series this year -- but fans continue to pack Williams-Brice Stadium every game. From the state fairgrounds to the farmers market to the Cockabooses, South Carolina fans love to tailgate and root loudly for the Gamecocks, even when things are going bad.
What's not to like about the USC Song Girls? White sweaters. Sun-baked tans. California girls. No wonder Will Ferrell liked hanging out on the USC sideline so much.
Game-day atmosphere: Ole Miss
You won't find a more intimate or beautiful pregame setting than The Grove, which sits on 10 acres in the middle of the Ole Miss campus. Tailgating tents and picnic blankets are shaded by oak, elm and magnolia trees, and Rebels players make the "Walk of Champions" through The Grove before every home game.
Uniforms: Penn State
The Nittany Lions' uniforms have changed as much as coach Joe Paterno in the past 50 years, which means not much at all. There's nothing flashy about Penn State's uniform, but it's a staple in college football: navy and white jerseys (with no nameplate); solid white helmets with a blue stripe; and black shoes.
The school's famous all-white English bulldogs -- who are affectionately known as "Uga" -- are among the most famous mascots in all of sports. Owner Sonny Seiler and his family have raised the dogs since 1956, and the Uga mascots have appeared in Hollywood films, made trips to the White House and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Athletic director: DeLoss Dodds, Texas
Dodds hired football coach Mack Brown from North Carolina and has been the visionary for more than $200 million in improvements to the school's athletic facilities in the past two decades. Under Dodds' watch, the Longhorns have won 13 national championships and 101 conference titles in nine sports. Texas is one of the country's richest athletic departments, generating about $125 million in 2009, including $80 million from football alone.
Recruiting base: Florida
The Sunshine State has produced enough talented high school players to help Miami, Florida State and Florida win multiple national championships. Florida high schools produced 177 players who were on NFL rosters at the start of the 2010 season, third most among all states.
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. He co-authored Bobby Bowden's memoir, "Called To Coach," which was published by Simon & Schuster. The book is available in stores and can be ordered here. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.