The NCAA and the football-factory conferences endlessly say their players are not unpaid semipros; rather, they're true student-athletes.
So let's take them at their word and rank the country's top college football programs with education as important as victory.
Introducing ESPN Grade, a whole new way to think about college sports rankings. ESPN Grade combines on-field performance with commencement-day performance.
Here's how it works: ESPN Grade adds each Top 25 college program's position in the Associated Press (media) and USA Today (coaches) polls with the program's position in ranking of graduation rates. The numbers are combined to produce a blended victory-education ranking.
ESPN Grade debuts today with its preseason ranking. In both the media and coaches preseason polls, the top three are Florida State, Alabama and Oklahoma. In ESPN Grade, the top three are Alabama, UCLA and Ohio State.
Florida State drops from first to sixth based on a low football graduation rate of 58 percent; Oklahoma drops from third to 10th based on an even worse football graduation rate of 51 percent, lowest of any ranked team. Florida State and Oklahoma offer first-rate football on the field, but second-rate football academics.
Alabama rises to No. 1 in ESPN Grade based on a football graduation rate of 70 percent. UCLA vaults to No. 2 on a rate of 82 percent, while Ohio State reaches No. 3 on a football graduation rate of 75 percent. These programs achieve the student-athlete ideal -- great sports followed by diplomas on commencement day.
Elsewhere in ESPN Grade, South Carolina and USC are among programs that drop downward, owing to low football graduation rates. Clemson, Georgia and Stanford are among those whose strong commencement-day numbers cause them to rise.
The first step in compiling ESPN Grade is making a ranking of teams based solely on their most recent football graduation rates, ranking every school that makes either the coaches or AP Top 25. Only the ranked power teams are sorted by graduation rate. (Sorry, Williams.) Then the graduation standing is combined with the media and coaches' rankings to produce ESPN Grade.
Graduation numbers employed are the most recent available: Right now, from the end of the 2013 academic year. Numbers from the end of the 2014 academic year are expected in October, and then ESPN Grade will refresh -- there will also be a final ESPN Grade at season's end.
To have a uniform standard, ESPN Grade uses graduation data as released by the NCAA. Some colleges also announce additional graduation information. Because there are several ways of calculating the numbers, ESPN Grade takes all data from the central NCAA source. Employed is the Graduation Success Rate as computed by the NCAA, which gives credit for players who transfer in or out, and is generous in other statistical respects. Another metric called the Federal Graduation Rate is lower than the numbers you'll see used in ESPN Grade. More details on the methodology are on the ESPN Grade page.