It's hard to win a national championship in college football. If it wasn't, everybody would do it. There would be so many teams winning national titles that we probably wouldn't care who won them anymore. It would be like starting a podcast because there aren't a billion of those already (subscribe to the Cover 3 College Football Podcast, by the way!).
Luckily, it's still hard to do. All you have to do is look at the relatively short list of schools to accomplish the feat in modern era to realize that a national championship is far from a birthright -- and there's a limited number of teams who even enter an individual season with a legitimate opportunity to win one. Since 1992, there have been 28 national champions. Those 28 titles are split amongst only 14 schools. Here's the entire list (in alphabetical order):
|Teams||Titles won (since '92)|
1992, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017
1996, 2006, 2008
1993, 1999, 2013
2003, 2007, 2019
1994, 1995, 1997
Now, on the surface, you may see 14 programs winning a national title in 28 seasons as not too restrictive. Particularly when you bring up that Alabama alone has won six of them. That leaves 22 titles to split between the other 13 teams. Well, it's important to remember that there are currently 130 teams at the FBS level. That means only 10.8% of FBS schools have won a national title in the last 28 years. Of course, we've seen a lot of expansion since 1992 when there were only 107 FBS schools (and 15 of them were independent). So, at least by 1992 standards, 13.1% of teams have won a national title.
How long do you think a coach would last if they won only 13.1% of their games?
Not only does an increasing number of teams make it more difficult to win a national title, but the format for deciding the champion does as well. Again, winning a national title is really freaking hard to do.
Odds are the next national title (or eight) will be won by one of the schools listed in that table above. But what if there's a newcomer? Which schools that haven't won a national title in this modern era are the most likely to break through and grab one?
For this exercise, we have defined the "modern era" of college football as beginning with the 1992 season until the present day. The 1992 season was the first following the formation of the Bowl Coalition, which was created to ensure the top two teams in the country played for the national title. That preceded the Bowl Alliance, Bowl Championship Series (BCS) and College Football Playoff. It was also the year of the inaugural conference championship game installed by the SEC and the first of a three-year slide that saw scholarships reduced across Division I-A programs from 95 to the limit of 85 we know today.
With the 2020 college football season ahead, I have been hard at work in my laboratory to figure out who else can break through. Which team without a national title in the last 28 years can reach the summit? These are the five schools (listed in alphabetical order) that are most likely to do so.
There are two key factors I evaluated when compiling this list. The first was that they had to play in a Power Five conference because, well, duh. Sorry, Group of Five, but until you get an automatic bid, I have a hard time believing you'll get one by choice of the committee. The second was that you have to have the talent. Georgia was a natural choice.
The Bulldogs have already reached the College Football Playoff in recent years and nearly won a national title. Kirby Smart has also proven to be one of the best recruiters in the nation, setting the Bulldogs up to compete in the SEC for years to come. Oh, and being in the SEC helps as well. We've already seen evidence that you don't even have to win your division, let alone the conference, to reach the CFP from the SEC. Georgia is still atop the SEC East for now, which puts them in the conference title game and one shot away from the four-team playoff field. Last national title: 1980
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Notre Dame may not be a member of a Power Five conference, but it is still a Power Five program. Plus, considering its scheduling agreement with the ACC, one could argue that the Irish are the second-best team in the league. Like Georgia, Notre Dame has already reached the College Football Playoff. Unlike Georgia, it did not reach the title game but was instead crushed by the same Clemson squad that steamrolled Alabama in the CFP National Championship that year.
As for Notre Dame's ability to get back there, its independence is a two-edged sword. Notre Dame has to go undefeated to have a realistic shot of making the playoff; however, after starting a season 12-0, it doesn't have to go 13-0 since it has no conference championship to play in. Thanks to its ACC schedule agreement and its national rivalries, it will always have a strong enough schedule to boost its resume should it go 12-0. The Irish recruit well enough -- their classes sometimes crack the top 10 and are usually within the top 15 -- to ensure that they remain a viable option. Last national title: 1988
Oregon is the only program on this list with no national title to claim during any period. It was a mostly mediocre program from 1916 to the mid-1990s before Phil Knight and Mike Bellotti showed up. Even then, things didn't pick up until Bellotti's final seasons of 2007 and 2008. Then came Chip Kelly and a BCS Championship Game appearance against Auburn in 2010. In 2014 -- the first year of the CFP -- Oregon reached the title game under Mark Helfrich and lost to Ohio State.
The Ducks haven't come very close to returning since, though they've started to turn things around under Mario Cristobal. They went 12-2 last season and won the Pac-12. They've also really stepped up their recruiting efforts under Cristobal. Oregon's classes have all finished in the top 15 since he took over with the 2019 class ending up seventh in the 247Sports Composite team rankings. As of the publication of this post, Oregon's 2021 class ranks sixth in the nation. If you want to win a national title, you have to recruit like a national champion. Oregon has begun doing that recently. Last national title: n/a
Penn State Nittany Lions
Technically, Penn State won several different national titles in 1994, but the validity of those crowns depends on how seriously you take the Sagarin Ratings, New York Times poll or the Eck Ratings System (among others). Just know that Penn State didn't take any of them seriously enough to claim the title itself.
Anyway, while Ohio State has dominated the Big Ten during the CFP era, Penn State has been the No. 2 program in the conference. The Nittany Lions have recruited well since their 2015 class joined the program. The 2016 class, which ranked 20th, was the lowest-rated in that period. All others have been in the top 15, and the 2018 class finished sixth. As my Cover 3 Podcast co-hosts Barton Simmons, Chip Patterson and I have discussed many times, Penn State is an elite quarterback away from being a real national title threat. The overall talent level is already there, and James Franklin has proven his coaching chops in Happy Valley. Last national title: 1986
Texas A&M Aggies
You can argue that of the five schools on this list, none has a more difficult path to the CFP than Texas A&M. Not only do the Aggies need to get through Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the SEC West, but they would likely face either Florida or Georgia in the SEC Championship. That's four programs that have won a national title in the last decade and another that lost a national title game in overtime just a few years ago and leads this list. Because of that, Texas A&M is further away from a title than anybody you see above.
But the potential is there. Jimbo Fisher was given all that money to win a national title in College Station, Texas, because he'd already proven he could do it at Florida State. While the results on the field haven't been there yet, off the field, the signs are there. This is a program that has put together back-to-back top 10 recruiting classes. The average rank of Fisher's first four classes at Texas A&M has been 10th overall. The talent is there. That alone won't prove to be enough to survive the crucible that is the SEC West, but it's a start. Last national title: 1939
Coincidentally, our friends at 247Sports attacked the same topic from a recruiting-only perspective and wound up with the same teams. That both perspectives on the topic reached the same conclusion suggests these teams are clearly on a "sooner than later" path to reach the Promised Land.