Defining a college football underachiever isn't easy. You can crunch numbers for days, but it still comes down to personal judgment. In fact, it's like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: We know an underachiever when we see one.
And, in fact, we see plenty. We applied our jaundiced viewpoint over the past 23 seasons -- dating to the 1984 Supreme Court ruling that curtailed the NCAA's powers to control television rights, which opened the playing field substantially. We considered wins and losses, recruiting base, fan backing, conference affiliation and other factors -- then, in the final analysis applied our own test. The result is ESPN.com's list of the most egregious underachievers at the various levels of the sport:
Schools that have had notable successes -- just not as much as they should have had. These programs have big stadiums, big budgets, big names and at least fairly big traditions, but they haven't performed up to expectations:
Arizona State -- The Sun Devils have been to two Rose Bowls since joining the Pac-10 but none since the 1996 season, when Jake Plummer was scrambling around and Pat Tillman was knocking heads. Average league finish the past 10 years: fifth. They haven't fully capitalized on recruiting California -- and it really shouldn't be hard to recruit to Tempe.
Clemson -- The Tigers haven't won an ACC title since 1991 -- not coincidentally, the year before Florida State joined the conference. But even the Seminoles' slippage in recent seasons has not resulted in a major gain by what once was the football school in a basketball league. Maryland, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest have won the league this century, not Clemson.
Michigan State -- The Spartans haven't won an outright Big Ten title in 20 years, and haven't won even a share in 17. The only teams that have gone longer without hardware are Indiana and Minnesota. That's not acceptable company for a program that wants to see itself more on par with Ohio State and Michigan.
Notre Dame -- The only school on the list to have won a national championship during the period in question. But that was 1988, and since '93 the Fighting Irish have been awfully ordinary. When it's been 14 years since your last bowl win, you're nothing special.
South Carolina -- No fans in America have invested more and gotten less ROI. The Gamecocks put 80,000 fans in Williams-Brice Stadium, yet they've never taken those fans anywhere near a top-tier bowl. Heck, prior to 1994 they'd never won a bowl game of any kind. Lou Holtz was supposed to deliver greatness, but instead went 33-37. Steve Spurrier, you are on the clock.
Texas A&M -- All that tradition, all those die-hard fans, all those players in the backyard, all those new facilities, all that money they're paying Dennis Franchione and the Aggies haven't been ranked in the final polls since 1999. Not only that, they haven't finished in the final top 10 since 1994. What they should be shouting at midnight yell practice: "We deserve better!"
UCLA -- Is there a compelling reason why the Bruins shouldn't be good for at least eight wins a year? Didn't think so. Then why have they won fewer than that 12 times in the last 18 years? They haven't been consistent national players since the 1980s.
Schools operating two cuts below the powerhouses -- and at least one cut below where they should be:
Arizona -- The only school in the Pac-10 that has never earned a Rose Bowl berth.
Illinois -- See accompanying story for gory details.
Mississippi -- The only school in the SEC West that has never played in the league championship game.
Missouri -- See accompanying story for gory details.
North Carolina -- Six very good seasons in Mack Brown's 10-year tenure from 1992 to '97 (55-18), surrounded by 17 pretty bad seasons before and after (80-85-3).
North Carolina State -- Wolfpack have lost at least three league games every year since 1994, and haven't done better than 6-2 in ACC play since the 1970s.
Oklahoma State -- It's not easy living in Oklahoma's shadow. But the Cowboys still shouldn't have 13 losing seasons in the last 18.
Pittsburgh -- The football talent in western Pennsylvania is legendary, but the Panthers are not -- at least since Tony Dorsett, Matt Cavanaugh and Hugh Green left campus. They have only nine winning seasons since 1983, and Dave Wannstedt has done nothing yet to reverse that trend.
San Diego State -- Another school that has flagrantly failed to successfully recruit its talent-rich backyard. Last bowl win: the 1969 Pasadena Bowl.
TERMINAL BCS-LEAGUE UNDERACHIEVERS
Baylor -- Eleven straight losing seasons, spanning four different coaches.
Duke -- Five double-digit-loss seasons in the past seven show that the Blue Devils have plunged from bad to worse. And done so in a league that offers some upward mobility (see: Wake Forest).
Indiana -- You don't find many BCS-level state schools more apathetic toward football than IU. Of course, the Hoosiers haven't given their few fans anything to get excited about (i.e., a bowl bid) since 1993.
Iowa State -- The league has been called the Big 6, Big 7, Big 8 and now the Big 12. By any name, the futility is the same: The Cyclones have never won it. And they've been trying since 1928.
Kansas -- Indifferent football school. Serious basketball school.
Kentucky -- South Carolina Lite. Great attendance year in and year out, despite the near-annual letdowns on the field.
Rutgers -- Very much in the process of changing its status. Finally.
Vanderbilt -- Last winning season was 1982. The Commodores don't mind their status as the SEC's shining beacon of academic excellence and NCAA compliance integrity. Nor do they mind when the annual multimillion-dollar check shows up with their cut of the league's revenue, earned largely by other schools' football prowess.
Temple -- Breathtakingly bad. Owls are working on a streak of 16 straight losing seasons. In fact, they've won back-to-back games only three times in those 16 seasons. There are banana slugs with more momentum than Temple football.
Pat Forde is a national columnist for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.