College football is as fair as it has ever been, and it still really isn’t that fair.
The 1996 Florida Gators accomplished a feat that has not been matched. They were consensus national champions for the first time in school history. That means since 1996, every national champion had previously won at least one title. A streak that is now 21 years in the making has really only been threatened a couple of times during that run, and should be fairly safe this year as well. So why do we feel like college football has so much parity if the only teams that win are the teams that have always won? And as much as people fall in love with the Cinderella stories and the underdogs, they really don’t exist in college football; or, if they do, they just aren’t winning national championships. In fact, I’m willing to bet the last 20 years have been far more predictable at the top than you originally imagined. Just 13 school lay legitimate claims to a national championship in the last 20 years. Only two schools have played for a shot at winning their first national championship in that time span, and that has only happened three times. Seventeen of the last 20 national championship games have been between schools that have already won national championships. Where are the little guys that are supposedly making waves in the college football world? And how did we even get here?
How National Championships Are Made
First, we have to understand that winning championships in college football has always been weird and has only recently became somewhat un-weird (much like myself).
For a long time, programs claimed national championships based on how they finished in the polls at the conclusion of the regular season. This also relied on already having a good deal of notoriety towards your program and conference for the polls to recognize your successful season as the most successful season in the country. And, this also meant that bowls didn’t really matter and there was no true national championship game. That often led to the season ending with usually more than one team with a resume strong enough to win the national title. And guess what? Sometimes those teams got to share the national championship! How fun! Then they got to go play in bowl games that didn’t matter basically so people could make money.
After many national champs went on to lose their bowl games, the polls came to their senses and waited until after bowl season to name their national champions. Notre Dame may have went undefeated but they ain’t played nobody and now the polls will wait until after Penn State beats them in a bowl game before they claim a national champ. Problem solved right? Almost! Because, like everything else in college football, the bowls were weird. Bowl games were/are owned by companies that had/have long standing relationships with conferences that could not be broken. So, this meant that we never saw a No. 1 versus No. 2 bowl game that acted as a true championship game for a long time. For instance, if the No. 1 team was Alabama and the No. 2 team was Michigan, Alabama would be heading to New Orleans to play in the Sugar Bowl against a team that might not even be ranked in the top 10 while Michigan would travel to the Rose Bowl to play a team from out West. So, if Alabama only won by a field goal and Michigan throttled Stanford then the Associated Press might name Michigan the national champs. The problem is, the coaches poll was much more generous to Alabama because they were the No. 1 team and they did win their bowl game so the coaches poll makes Alabama THEIR national champs. And guess what? They both got to be champions again! And people still wanted a better way; the nerve.
Luckily, the 90’s happened and computers came to save college football (and everything else). Coalitions and organizations were formed by the bowls to reconcile the relationships with their respective conferences while allowing a No. 1 versus No. 2 national championship games. And this worked for a while, except when it didn’t (see: 1993, 1994, 1997, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011). It turned out more than two teams often had respectable enough resumes to be considered for the national championship game. For example, the nation was mostly left wanting in the 2011-2012 season when a division rematch between Alabama and LSU took place in the national championship game.
Finally, they decided to let the teams settle it on the field with a playoff (what a crazy idea). And nothing too bad has gone wrong yet (except now it is really hard to decide the four most deserving teams). However, there have been no major disputes over who is crowned national champs at the end of the year since the beginning of the playoff era. Yay!
Well, now that we know how national championships work, everyone must have one right? Wrong again! Twelve different schools have won a national championship since the aforementioned Florida Gators took home the title for the first time in school history in 1996, and all of those schools have won national championships before. But some schools got somewhat close. Good job!
Then There Were Four
The Four Teams Most Likely to Win Their First-Ever Title
Plenty of teams are still reaching for their first national title and have come really close in recent years; however, there are only four teams who legitimately have a shot of accomplishing that feat in the foreseeable future. So, here are the four teams most likely to win their first national championship in order with No. 1 being most likely.
No. 4 — West Virginia Mountaineers
It should not surprise many people to learn West Virginia has not yet captured their first national championship. They have had some elite talent over the years and held lofty rankings, but they have yet to make a real threat to win the national championship in the last 20 years. The Mountaineers have yet to play in a national championship game but have finished the season ranked as high as fifth in 1988 and 2005. The Mountaineers’ recent success can be credited to coach Rich Rodriguez, who made easy work of the Big East to the tune of four Big East championships and 60 wins during his six-year tenure as head coach. Rodriguez made high-flying, devastating offenses a trend opposing defenses could expect every week when they faced the Mountaineers.
Conference prestige and job relevancy at the head coach position are now the Mountaineers’ biggest assets moving forward. As a new member of the Big XII with Dana Holgorsen at the helm, the Mountaineers have shown flashes of brilliance recently as a complete football team, even going 10-3 last year. Holgorsen is a great coach and West Virginia is becoming a destination school for coaches as opposed to being a “stepping stone” program that lost Rich Rodriguez and Bobby Bowden to big-name schools Michigan and Florida State. Playing in one of the Power Five conferences is the most essential tool for program and coaching relevancy—outside of the ever-so smug Fighting Irish of Notre Dame—and West Virginia has secured that as long as Texas remains in the conference. (Recent talks of Texas succeeding from the Big XII to either join a different conference or became an independent program have led many to believe the conference could not survive without them. However, there are too many possibilities from that domino effect so we will not delve into that matter any further. As long as the Big XII remains intact it will remain one of the five premier conferences in college football.)
West Virginia has made large leaps since the turn of the century to secure the number four spot on this list, and the only stumbling block that remains to plague the program is location. Outside of perhaps the best wide receiver of all time in Randy Moss (who played his college ball at Marshall), the state frankly does not produce that much elite talent. The good news for the Mountaineers is programs are not nearly as landlocked as they used to be in terms of recruiting. The top rosters across the nation are stacked with talent from everywhere and that trend will continue to grow. Morgantown, West Virginia may be a hard sell to a NFL caliber prospect, but it’s not impossible. The other three teams on the list are just more likely to land those prospects, and that is why West Virginia is No. 4. West Virginia certainly won’t win a national championship in the next couple of years, but they are slowly becoming a national powerhouse that could win one soon.
No. 3 — Oklahoma State Cowboys
Oklahoma State plays at a high level and have for the better part of the last 10 years. Many may find it surprising to learn that the Cowboys have yet to win a legitimate national championship, but the Cowboys as a program are clicking right now and could be the next team to win its school’s first natty.
Oklahoma State owes nearly all of its program’s relevancy to current head coach Mike Gundy, which is quite the statement considering Jimmy Johnson and Les Miles also coached the Cowboys. Gundy turned this program from relative mediocrity to powerhouse in his 12 years as head coach. Gundy led the Cowboys to a third-place finish during the 2011 season. He has shown the capabilities to have his team ready to play in big games. Gundy is an Oklahoma State graduate and a relatively young coach (though it’s hard to believe his “I’m a man, I’m 40” speech was a decade ago). The program will be ultra-competitive and can surge to win a national championship with Gundy coaching.
Perhaps Oklahoma State’s unsung hero worth considering is eccentric businessman T. Boone Pickens, an Oklahoma State graduate and donor to the program. The dirty secret of today’s college football game is that it takes a lot of money to compete at the highest level. Stadium renovations, new locker rooms, new practice facilities, new weight facilities, more stadium renovations, new players’ lounges, all part of the arms race to attract the nation’s top talent, and T. Boone Pickens is investing in Oklahoma State as aggressively as anyone else to ensure his favorite program does not fall behind. Interestingly enough, though, Gundy and Pickens haven’t necessarily gotten along in the past, and if Gundy ever leaves, Pickens is probably the reason why.
Mike Gundy, T. Boone Pickens, money, and just a little bit of luck is the formula needed to push the Cowboys all the way to the top, and they have it all clicking for them right now. The Cowboys will compete for the Big 12 championship and maybe more this year, and I would not be surprised to see them in the CFP picture very soon.
No. 2 Virginia Tech Hokies
Virginia Tech has been arguably the most successful program since the mid-90s thanks to legendary head coach Frank Beamer. The Hokies have amassed 14 10-win seasons since 1995, which is insane considering the program’s lack of success before Beamer. Beamer’s teams were as fun to watch in his heyday as any in college football history. He revolutionized the concept of scoring points from all three units: offense, defense and special teams. And unlike No. 3 and 4 on this list, Virginia Tech has made it to the national championship game. The Hokies, led by star QB Michael Vick, lost to Florida State in the 1999 title game. Virginia Tech did not go away after the bitter loss in the national championship game, and they continued to surge upward. They rattled off dominant year after dominant year with Vick brothers Michael and Marcus running the offense at the quarterback position.
Truthfully, nothing is holding Virginia Tech back and they could easily be No. 1 on this list. The Hokies have a better brand than reigning national champs Clemson, and new head coach Justin Fuente just won 10 games in his first season. Fuente has the program back to national prominence, and the sky is the limit for Virginia Tech. I expect them to win, or at least compete, for another national championship soon.
No. 1 Oregon Ducks
Oregon has been to as many national championship games since 2007 as Clemson, Ohio State and Auburn. They have been to more than recent champs Florida State and Florida during that time as well. The Ducks have just not been able to put it all together yet, but boy have they been fun to watch during the process. Oregon has had some of the most prolific offenses of any team since the late 2000s thanks to offensive guru Chip Kelly. The Ducks don’t care for your old theories of keeping the defense on the field and wearing them down with time of possession. They want to score quickly and then they want to score again and again. The world is anxious to see which direction new head coach Willie Taggart will take in leading the Ducks.
Oregon’s recent success and flashy offense is not the reason they find themselves as the No. 1 team most likely to win their first national championship. It’s actually Nike founder Phil Knight. As I mentioned earlier, it takes a lot of cash to compete at the top level of college football and Phil Knight’s estimated net worth is a cool $24.4 billion. I’m sure you have noticed that Oregon does not exactly have traditional jerseys. Nike gives Oregon a new jersey combination for nearly every game with the next one even flashier than the last. Phil Knight is invested in seeing his school win its first national championship, and no price is too high for him to try and achieve that goal.
Here’s what it will take for a team with seemingly no history to arise as one of college football’s powerhouses: good coaching and maybe just a little bit of money. Oklahoma State and Virginia Tech saw unparalleled passion from former graduates Mike Gundy and Frank Beamer take their programs to new heights with dedication to their alma maters. West Virginia had incredible foresight in hiring coaches like Bobby Bowden and Rich Rodriguez to bring their program up from the depths of mediocrity before they left for other schools. And Oregon had good coaching, innovative offense, and a whole lot of cash in bringing itself to the forefront of college football’s big boys.
How would you rank this list?