The 2012 college football season was one for the brainiacs.
Stanford won its first Rose Bowl since the 1971 season. Northwestern won its first bowl of any kind since 1948. Vanderbilt racked up nine victories for the first time since 1915, and Duke earned its first bowl invitation in 18 years.
"Whether you call us the private elites or the academic elites, I think it's pretty cool, myself," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "The Southeastern Conference, which I spent 30-plus years in, has dominated the national championships, but you can look across the board and see a lot of good football teams in a lot of good leagues. We're closing the gap yearly and will put another good team on the field this year.
"On any given day or night, if we play as well as we can play, we're in any game and have a chance to win. I can honestly say that."
Notre Dame, Southern Cal and Miami are college football's most recognized private universities, with each having won at least five national championships, but private school programs with lesser traditions are excelling en masse. Baylor has been to three straight bowl games after having no winning seasons from 1996 to 2009, while Wake Forest, the smallest Bowl Subdivision school east of the Mississippi River, is 47-42 the last seven seasons with four bowl appearances and one Atlantic Coast Conference title.
Oddly enough, Southern Cal and Miami excluded themselves from last season's private university surge due to run-ins with the NCAA.
"I think more than anything that it's an investment," Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. "People don't realize that it's not just recruiting the athletes, but it's also recruiting the boosters and the alumni and the administration. Look at the amount of money they've been putting into Duke in terms of facilities and things like that, and there has been a shift there. They just built a brand-new indoor practice facility.
"You look at the things going on at Vanderbilt, and it's the same thing. Northwestern is about to break ground on a brand-new football complex. There is an investment that is going on."
SPENDING THE CASH
Northwestern suffered through the worst stretch in the sport's modern era.
The Wildcats went 3-62-1 from 1976 to '81 and ended a record 34-game losing streak early in the '82 season. They became more competitive under Dennis Green before breaking through with Gary Barnett in 1995 with a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl trip.
The Wildcats also shared Big Ten titles in 1996 and 2000, and they have been to bowl games each of the past five seasons under Pat Fitzgerald. Northwestern announced plans last September for a $220 million athletic complex and then produced a 10-win season capped by a Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State.
"The sky is the limit for where our program can go," Fitzgerald said. "We've gotten off to an unbelievable start with our fundraising campaign, and we'll be way ahead of schedule in improving our facilities to where they are currently to the best in the country. It's in a setting that is unmatched and unparalleled in college football."
Last October, a "Duke Forward" campaign was launched with the objective of raising $250 million over five years for Blue Devils athletics. Among the many projects will be adding more than 10,000 seats to Wallace Wade Stadium.
Vanderbilt is building a $31 million indoor practice field and multipurpose facility that the Commodores could move into by October. There are continuing renovations to McGugin Center, and there is talk of expanding Vanderbilt Stadium from 40,550 to roughly 45,000.
The enhanced financial dedication is evident, but Cutcliffe also believes football programs at private universities have benefited since the country's recession in 2008.
"When we see the economy as it is and we see the education levels that it takes to succeed, we're a lot easier sell than we were," Cutcliffe said. "Obviously everybody's hunting a degree, and I think an education is more important than a degree. Duke, Northwestern, Stanford and Vanderbilt can get you interviews.
"They can't get you the jobs, but they can get you the interviews because you come out educated."
THE TOUGHEST TWO
Stanford had seven straight losing seasons until coach Jim Harbaugh turned the Cardinal around in 2009, and their recent Rose Bowl win followed trips to the Orange and Fiesta bowls. The Cardinal have experienced more success through the years than Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Duke, and Northwestern's Wildcats have been mostly competitive for the past two decades.
The Commodores never have won the SEC and finished second once back in 1935, while Duke's Blue Devils have won one ACC title in the last 50 years. Steve Spurrier accomplished that in 1989.
"The teams that are the most similar in terms of history are probably us and Duke," Franklin said. "The difference is that we're playing in the SEC. I've coached in the Pac-12, the ACC, the Big 12 and the NFL, and there is nothing like this on the college level. The last seven national championships -- I don't have to explain this to you or your readers.
"Doing this in the SEC is completely different."
Vanderbilt's five wins in SEC play this past season were the most since '35, but six teams finished with better league records.
Cutcliffe did not dispute Franklin's assessment about having a more difficult task. Before his arrival in Durham, the Blue Devils had three winless seasons from 2000 to '06.
"It's just not even close," Cutcliffe said. "We are buried in a huge era of time, and both of us oddly enough at one time were football powers. It's interesting in that regard, and it's exciting for me to see what Coach Franklin and Vanderbilt are doing. It's been really exciting for us here, too."
Duke, Northwestern, Stanford and Vanderbilt swept their chief rivals last fall, marking the first time that has happened in 77 years. Northwestern and Vanderbilt were especially dominant, with the Wildcats hammering Illinois 50-14 and the Commodores throttling Tennessee 41-18.
It wasn't long ago when these schools were routinely on the losing end of such blowouts.
"I certainly hope it's a trend," Cutcliffe said. "At Duke, we truly have an administration that has made a commitment to football, and I think that would be easy to say about Stanford, Northwestern and Vanderbilt. I'm sure [Stanford coach] David Shaw, Pat Fitzgerald and James Franklin are like me in that going to work every day with our kids is really special."