Which college football teams are the best at turning money into wins? by Ross Benes and Molly Podlesny

Photo: Otto Kitsinger III/Getty Images

There may be some truth to the popular notion that college football teams can purchase success.

The most successful programs, like Alabama and Ohio State, have been rewarded with national championships after they splurged on big-name coaches. However, there are many other programs, like Texas and Miami, who continue pumping money through the system without much recent success.

Since there are anecdotes to back up both, I decided to look at each FBS program to see which schools are getting the best and worst bang for their buck.

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To see how much each school spent on football, I looked at data from the U.S. Department of Education. To measure on-field results, the Massey composite, an index that averages dozens of rankings including the AP Poll and computer ratings.

(Alabama had 13 combined losses in 2006 and 2007, so those seasons prevent them from reaching the very tip top of this chart, despite the four national titles. The difference between finishing first and fifth in the AP Poll feels like a huge distance, and the difference between finishing No. 30 and No. 35 feels minimal, but numerically, they can have the same impact. Because of that, a few forgettable seasons can really alter an average. Anyway, the point is certainly not to argue against Bama's dominance.)

Spending data was not available for the service academies, so Army, Navy, and Air Force are excluded, as are schools that have been FBS for fewer than 10 seasons.

The result spans from Auburn ($32.1 million on football-related expenses per year and one national championship) and Alabama ($31.4 million and four titles) to ULM ($3.1 million, though with at least more football success than some schools).

Boise State is by far the most efficient with its money.

The Broncos have outplayed their spending ranking by 62.7 spots, spending an average of $7.8 million. Most over-performers here are other smaller schools who've strung together a handful of successful seasons.

Mississippi State and Oregon stand out among Power 5 schools. Oregon has much more money invested in its program than these figures show, since they benefit from Phil Knight's donations. But Mississippi State has had back-to-back top-20 seasons despite spending a meager amount, relative to its competition.

Maryland and NC State had the smallest discrepancies between their spending and on-field performance, which puts them right on our chart's dotted line.

Syracuse, Colorado, and Virginia had the most distance between their spending and on-field rankings. Those teams have been so awful on the field, they don't come close to living up to their pedestrian spending. The Orange have spent an average of $18.2 million, with only three bowl trips to show for it.

Before you make too much fun of Syracuse, take these with several grains of salt.

The accounting methods many of these schools use are quite dishonest. Schools will report inflated costs in order to keep their reported profits lower, so they can cry poor when asking taxpayers and students for financial assistance. To inflate costs, schools will charge their athletic programs for things like "overhead," "university fundraising," and even "library renovations." And when athletic programs give out scholarships, programs can get charged the full price for an out-of-state student even though the marginal cost to the school for bringing on an extra student is minimal.

In the 2014 fiscal year, 26 of the 115 schools in our data set (22.6 percent), reported profits of $0, meaning their football-related expenses and revenues were exactly equal. If we are to believe the accounting, about one-fourth of college football programs at the top level neither profit nor lose a single dollar.

The most entertaining case that stuck out was TCU, which claimed that in every single year from 2005 to 2011, the school perfectly balanced its football expenses and revenues.

And while this data has its limitations, it's good for giving you a ballpark estimate. It's uncertain which schools most exaggerate their spending, but it is certain that no matter how much they exaggerate there's no way in hell a school like Iowa State can report spending levels similar to Ohio State.

For what it's worth, there was a 0.79 correlation between schools' on-field rankings and their football-related expense rankings. In other words, there's a pretty strong relationship.

Here's all the spending data, and then let's look at revenue.

This sortable table shows each team's average Massey ranking, average spending ranking, and average difference.


Conf. Success Spending Diff.
Akron MAC 103.7 100.8 -2.9
Alabama SEC 11.6 5.9 -5.7
Arizona P12 41.6 43.1 1.5
Arizona State P12 40.5 20.5 -20
Arkansas SEC 33.9 12.8 -21.1
Arkansas State SBC 79 112 33
Auburn SEC 29.4 2.5 -26.9
Ball State MAC 81 101.9 20.9
Baylor B12 44 45.8 1.8
Boise State MWC 20.6 83.3 62.7
Boston College ACC 54.5 28 -26.5
Bowling Green MAC 77.4 109.1 31.7
Buffalo MAC 96.3 101.6 5.3
BYU FBSI 29.1 63.3 34.2
Cal P12 48.5 27.9 -20.6
Central Michigan MAC 77.1 97.7 20.6
Cincinnati AAC 37.5 65.9 28.4
Clemson ACC 24.6 28 3.4
Colorado P12 85.9 44.8 -41.1
Colorado State MWC 86.9 77.6 -9.3
Connecticut AAC 69.5 51.8 -17.7
Duke ACC 76.6 42.1 -34.5
East Carolina AAC 63.2 77.6 14.4
Eastern Michigan MAC 114.2 104.9 -9.3
Florida SEC 20.1 11.3 -8.8
FAU CUSA 97 102.9 5.9
FIU CUSA 103.7 88.2 -15.5
Florida State ACC 21.4 30.4 9
Fresno State MWC 70 83.7 13.7
Georgia SEC 19.5 16.8 -2.7
Georgia Tech ACC 41.2 44.9 3.7
Hawaii MWC 79.7 76.3 -3.4
Houston AAC 51.5 80.7 29.2
Idaho SBC 108.6 110 1.4
Illinois B10 71.4 56.1 -15.3
Indiana B10 83.4 50.5 -32.9
Iowa B10 40 15.1 -24.9
Iowa State B12 78.1 56.8 -21.3
Kansas B12 78.2 47.7 -30.5
Kansas State B12 46.5 57.1 10.6
Kent State MAC 98.2 110 11.8
Kentucky SEC 65 51.5 -13.5
UL-Lafayette SBC 87.8 106.9 19.1
ULM SBC 97.7 115.7 18
Louisiana Tech CUSA 74.5 106.5 32
Louisville ACC 44.7 44 -0.7
LSU SEC 11.7 13.2 1.5
Marshall CUSA 74.5 88.2 13.7
Maryland B10 65.7 65.3 -0.4
Memphis AAC 90.9 73.4 -17.5
Miami ACC 44.9 17.2 -27.7
Miami (Ohio) MAC 105.8 93.8 -12
Michigan B10 38.8 19.9 -18.9
Michigan State B10 30.3 24.2 -6.1
MTSU CUSA 83 87.9 4.9
Minnesota B10 65.9 45.4 -20.5
Mississippi State SEC 42.1 64.1 22
Missouri SEC 28.8 49.6 20.8
NC State ACC 61.9 61.7 -0.2
Nebraska B10 30.3 26.3 -4
Nevada MWC 64.4 100.3 35.9
New Mexico MWC 96.5 87.3 -9.2
New Mexico State SBC 115.3 97.9 -17.4
North Carolina ACC 49.5 43.7 -5.8
North Texas CUSA 107.3 104.9 -2.4
NIU MAC 60.1 90.4 30.3
Northwestern B10 57.3 36.3 -21
Notre Dame FBSI 32.8 10 -22.8
Ohio MAC 79.1 92.1 13
Ohio State B10 10.4 7 -3.4
Oklahoma B12 11.2 13.2 2
Oklahoma State B12 25.1 41.6 16.5
Ole Miss SEC 45.1 55.1 10
Oregon P12 11.3 33.1 21.8
Oregon State P12 44.8 60.2 15.4
Penn State B10 33 14.9 -18.1
Pitt ACC 47.3 36.5 -10.8
Purdue B10 77.7 52.2 -25.5
Rice CUSA 83.4 67.2 -16.2
Rutgers B10 52.9 27.8 -25.1
San Diego State MWC 73.4 71 -2.4
San Jose State MWC 85 101 16
SMU AAC 88.4 59.6 -28.8
South Carolina SEC 32.8 20.7 -12.1
South Florida AAC 62.2 67.8 5.6
Southern Miss CUSA 75.8 95.5 19.7
Stanford P12 30.9 40 9.1
Syracuse ACC 77 30.9 -46.1
TCU B12 22.5 18.4 -4.1
Temple AAC 80.2 65.5 -14.7
Tennessee SEC 42 25.7 -16.3
Texas B12 26.5 8.1 -18.4
Texas A&M SEC 35.2 30.6 -4.6
Texas Tech B12 75.1 40 -35.1
Toledo MAC 73.9 94.4 20.5
Troy SBC 105.7 109.5 3.8
Tulane AAC 66.9 81.2 14.3
Tulsa AAC 101.1 74 -27.1
UCF AAC 65 69.6 4.6
UCLA P12 43.9 27.8 -16.1
UNLV MWC 102.6 87 -15.6
USC P12 17.5 13.3 -4.2
Utah P12 33.5 63.6 30.1
Utah State MWC 77.9 106.4 28.5
UTEP CUSA 98.4 82.5 -15.9
Va Tech ACC 28.5 20.9 -7.6
Vanderbilt SEC 67.1 36.7 -30.4
Virginia ACC 68.9 30.6 -38.3
Wake Forest ACC 67.5 54.5 -13
Washington P12 51.5 17.7 -33.8
Washington State P12 76.3 69.3 -7
West Virginia B12 31 44.7 13.7
Western Michigan MAC 80.8 99.1 18.3
Wisconsin B10 21.4 12.1 -9.3
Wyoming MWC 90.3 95.9 5.6

Because spending is just one part, let's also examine how revenue translates to success.

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On average, FBS programs this past decade made $23.3 million per year. And the median was $20 million.

But there was a huge range. ULM made just $3.2 million per year on football, while Texas brought in a whopping $92.2 million per year. However, Texas is a ridiculous outlier. The No. 2, Alabama, made $73.1 million per year. That’s still an insane amount of money.

Again, Boise State gets the most out of its money.

On the field, the Broncos have exceeded their revenue ranking by 47.3 spots. Despite making just $13.5 million per year on football, Boise has had various top-10 finishes, multiple Fiesta Bowl victories, and several Power 5 upsets.

Among Power 5 programs, TCU, Stanford, Utah, Missouri, and Baylor stand out. However, Utah and TCU weren’t in a Power 5 conference for a good chunk of this analysis.

Wake Forest, Pitt, Oklahoma, Troy, and Clemson had the smallest discrepancies between their revenue and on-field success, which puts them on the chart’s dotted line.

Colorado got the worst production out of its revenue. Over the past 10 seasons, the Buffaloes made $26.7 million per year, but they have been the worst Power 5 team, with a Massey ranking of 85.9, which is nearly 50 spots below their revenue ranking. (Kansas got a few good years from Mark Mangino, otherwise KU's figures would probably be even more dismal than Colorado’s.)

Texas Tech, Indiana, and Washington were also pretty bad, considering how much money came in.

It’s pretty easy to laugh at Colorado, but take these results with a grain of salt.

I examined football revenue, not athletic department revenue. Many teams have more resources than their football-related revenue indicates. For example, if a donor gifts your university a multi-sport facility, on paper the revenue gained from that donation might elevate the entire athletic department’s revenue but not the football program’s specifically. I only looked at raw numbers, and I did not attempt to control for how general athletic department revenue might bleed into football resources.

It’s also worth noting that with the huge TV deals major conferences now get, even the shittiest Power 5 teams are guaranteed to bring in a good amount of money. And because Power 5 teams make so much, their revenue rankings are tilted toward exceeding their on-field rankings. On average, Power 5 teams (including Notre Dame) made $35.8 million per year, while non-Power 5 teams made $7.5 million per year.

With that said, this data is the best of what’s publicly available, and it gives you a ballpark estimate of how well teams are performing relative to how much money they make.

For what it’s worth, there was a 0.80 correlation between schools’ on-field rankings and their football-related revenue rankings, which is a pretty strong relationship.

This sortable table shows each team's average Massey ranking, revenue ranking, and the difference between the two.

It also includes "profit" rankings, which are simply total football revenues minus total football costs. Again, remain skeptical of anything to do with "profit" in college football.

Team Massey Revenue Profit Revenue difference Profit difference
Akron 103.7 105.5 104 1.8 0.3
Alabama 11.6 4.1 6.5 -7.5 -5.1
Arizona 41.6 47.1 49.9 5.5 8.3
Arizona St 40.5 25.3 31.8 -15.2 -8.7
Arkansas 33.9 14.1 15.4 -19.8 -18.5
Arkansas St 79 110.1 102.2 31.1 23.2
Auburn 29.4 7.1 15.8 -22.3 -13.6
Ball St 81 104.7 102.2 23.7 21.2
Baylor 44 60.9 71 16.9 27
Boise St 20.6 67.9 51.5 47.3 30.9
Boston College 54.5 51.5 65.2 -3 10.7
Bowling Green 77.4 107.5 94.4 30.1 17
Buffalo 96.3 104 101.1 7.7 4.8
BYU 29.1 62.6 56.9 33.5 27.8
Cal 48.5 33.7 39.7 -14.8 -8.8
Central Michigan 77.1 99.3 96.2 22.2 19.1
Cincinnati 37.5 71 79.3 33.5 41.8
Clemson 24.6 23.7 23.7 -0.9 -0.9
Colorado 85.9 36.8 35.9 -49.1 -50
Colorado St 86.9 85.6 96.6 -1.3 9.7
Connecticut 69.5 68.3 95.2 -1.2 25.7
Duke 76.6 60.4 77.2 -16.2 0.6
East Carolina 63.2 79.1 79.5 15.9 16.3
Eastern Michigan 114.2 100.6 81.9 -13.6 -32.3
Florida 20.1 6.2 5.6 -13.9 -14.5
Florida Atlantic 97 100.3 90.2 3.3 -6.8
Florida Int 103.7 85.7 79.5 -18 -24.2
Florida St 21.4 31.9 33.3 10.5 11.9
Fresno St 70 75.7 63 5.7 -7
Georgia 19.5 4.2 2.7 -15.3 -16.8
Georgia Tech 41.2 37.4 36.5 -3.8 -4.7
Hawaii 79.7 85.3 95.4 5.6 15.7
Houston 51.5 88 99.1 36.5 47.6
Idaho 108.6 99.1 78.7 -9.5 -29.9
Illinois 71.4 37.7 31.2 -33.7 -40.2
Indiana 83.4 48.1 42.9 -35.3 -40.5
Iowa 40 16.8 20.4 -23.2 -19.6
Iowa St 78.1 47.2 42 -30.9 -36.1
Kansas 78.2 61.5 71.3 -16.7 -6.9
Kansas St 46.5 42.4 35.8 -4.1 -10.7
Kent St 98.2 108.1 91.8 9.9 -6.4
Kentucky 65 32.1 27.5 -32.9 -37.5
Louisiana Lafayette 87.8 105.1 98.3 17.3 10.5
Louisiana Monroe 97.7 112.4 99.9 14.7 2.2
Louisiana Tech 74.5 106.6 87.4 32.1 12.9
Louisville 44.7 48.2 48.5 3.5 3.8
LSU 11.7 7.6 6.2 -4.1 -5.5
Marshall 74.5 83.1 71.9 8.6 -2.6
Maryland 65.7 63.1 57.4 -2.6 -8.3
Memphis 90.9 77.2 88.2 -13.7 -2.7
Miami (FL) 44.9 37.2 53.7 -7.7 8.8
Miami (OH) 105.8 93.6 91.5 -12.2 -14.3
Michigan 38.8 6.2 4.6 -32.6 -34.2
Michigan St 30.3 16.7 16 -13.6 -14.3
Middle Tenn 83 88.3 89.1 5.3 6.1
Minnesota 65.9 33.9 31.3 -32 -34.6
Mississippi St 42.1 53 44.1 10.9 2
Missouri 28.8 45 43.4 16.2 14.6
NC St 61.9 41.5 32.5 -20.4 -29.4
Nebraska 30.3 15.9 14.7 -14.4 -15.6
Nevada 64.4 99.9 89.7 35.5 25.3
New Mexico 96.5 89.6 90.4 -6.9 -6.1
New Mexico St 115.3 100.9 102.9 -14.4 -12.4
North Carolina 49.5 38.9 38.7 -10.6 -10.8
North Texas 107.3 98.9 86.3 -8.4 -21
Northern Illinois 60.1 98.8 99.1 38.7 39
Northwestern 57.3 41 44.5 -16.3 -12.8
Notre Dame 32.8 5.8 6.2 -27 -26.6
Ohio 79.1 91.1 81.6 12 2.5
Ohio St 10.4 7.7 11.7 -2.7 1.3
Oklahoma 11.2 11.9 11.8 0.7 0.6
Oklahoma St 25.1 29.2 26.8 4.1 1.7
Ole Miss 45.1 35.5 27.9 -9.6 -17.2
Oregon 11.3 26.5 27.8 15.2 16.5
Oregon St 44.8 39.2 30.2 -5.6 -14.6
Penn St 33 8.9 9.1 -24.1 -23.9
Pitt 47.3 47.6 56.1 0.3 8.8
Purdue 77.7 51.8 49.6 -25.9 -28.1
Rice 83.4 74 87.2 -9.4 3.8
Rutgers 52.9 54.6 80 1.7 27.1
San Diego St 73.4 75.2 87.6 1.8 14.2
San Jose St 85 102 95.5 17 10.5
SMU 88.4 69.3 88.9 -19.1 0.5
South Carolina 32.8 15.2 14.5 -17.6 -18.3
South Florida 62.2 65.8 62.8 3.6 0.6
Southern Miss 75.8 94.4 88.9 18.6 13.1
Stanford 30.9 50.8 62.6 19.9 31.7
Syracuse 77 43.9 59.7 -33.1 -17.3
TCU 22.5 45.3 74.5 22.8 52
Temple 80.2 71.9 84.6 -8.3 4.4
Tennessee 42 14 12.3 -28 -29.7
Texas 26.5 1.1 1.2 -25.4 -25.3
Texas A&M 35.2 16.4 14.3 -18.8 -20.9
Texas Tech 75.1 34.8 36.6 -40.3 -38.5
Toledo 73.9 96.3 93.1 22.4 19.2
Troy 105.7 105.3 86 -0.4 -19.7
Tulane 66.9 89 100.7 22.1 33.8
Tulsa 101.1 80.5 95 -20.6 -6.1
UCF 65 73.5 78.7 8.5 13.7
UCLA 43.9 35.3 42.3 -8.6 -1.6
UNLV 102.6 94.7 96.8 -7.9 -5.8
USC 17.5 24.1 32.2 6.6 14.7
Utah 33.5 53.6 44.4 20.1 10.9
Utah St 77.9 106.6 95.5 28.7 17.6
UTEP 98.4 75.6 63.5 -22.8 -34.9
Va Tech 28.5 23.9 28.4 -4.6 -0.1
Vanderbilt 67.1 52.5 57.2 -14.6 -9.9
Virginia 68.9 51.5 66.7 -17.4 -2.2
Wake Forest 67.5 67.6 81.1 0.1 13.6
Washington 51.5 17 17.3 -34.5 -34.2
Washington St 76.3 61.1 50.1 -15.2 -26.2
West Virginia 31 42.3 41.2 11.3 10.2
Western Michigan 80.8 100.8 91.2 20 10.4
Wisconsin 21.4 19.1 22.9 -2.3 1.5
Wyoming 90.3 82.2 64.5 -8.1 -25.8