College football saw its last first-time national champion
just two seasons ago with UCF in 1996 when Florida won the first of its three national titles in a 13-year stretch.
It’s been 23 years since an FBS school won a national championship for the first time. Not only have current recruits not been alive to witness a first-time national champion, but neither have most 2019 college graduates.
That got us wondering: Which school is most likely to be college football’s next first-time national champion?
Last winter, we ranked Virginia second on our list of schools that were most likely to be college basketball’s next first-time national champion. Four months later the Cavaliers cut down the nets, so this could be a good omen for the schools on this list.
In total, 54 schools have won – or we should say, claim to have won – a national championship at the highest level of college football, including UCF in 2017.
That admittedly shrinks the consideration set of schools significantly.
However, the NCAA officially recognizes 44 schools as having won a national championship since 1869.
(Sorry, Boston College, Columbia, Centre, Dartmouth, Detroit, Kentucky, Navy, Oklahoma State, SMU and UCF.)
We’ll use the latter list of 44 schools rather than the list of 54 for the purposes of this story.
That leaves the following Power Five schools, which we broke down by conference.
Schools that have won a national championship, according to the NCAA, have their names crossed out. Schools that claim at least one national championship but aren’t officially recognized as national champions on the NCAA’s website are listed in italics. Schools that have neither won an officially recognized championship nor claim any championships are listed in bold.
- Boston College (1940, 1941)
Florida State Georgia Tech
- NC State
- North Carolina
- Virginia Tech
- Wake Forest
- Iowa State
- Kansas State
- Oklahoma State (1945)
- Texas Tech
- West Virginia
Iowa Maryland Michigan Michigan State Minnesota Nebraska
Ohio State Penn State
- Arizona State
- Oregon State
Stanford UCLA USC
- Washington State
Alabama Arkansas Auburn Florida Georgia
- Kentucky (1950)
LSU Ole Miss
- Mississippi State
- South Carolina
Tennessee Texas A&M
Realistically, Notre Dame is the only non-Power Five school that is capable of winning a national championship with the current four-team College Football Playoff format.
Miami (FL) was the last national champion to come from a non-Power Five conference when the then-Big East member Hurricanes won the 2001 title. The last school to win a national championship that isn’t currently a member of a Power Five conference was Notre Dame in 1988.
The playoff selection committee has shown that an undefeated Group of Five school won’t be seriously considered for the playoff, so until the playoff expands or unless a Group of Five school is able to go undefeated while also beating multiple highly ranked Power Five schools – think 2016 Houston that had wins over No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 3 Louisville, but without the Cougars’ three regular season losses – the schools that are capable of competing for a playoff spot either play in a Power Five conference or in South Bend, Indiana.
The cupboard is pretty bare in terms of nationally- and historically-relevant football programs when you look at the schools remaining.
Many of the schools that are left are known for their academics (Duke, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Wake Forest) or basketball (Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Indiana, Arizona, Louisville).
There are schools that are geographically isolated (Texas Tech, Oregon State, Washington State, Mississippi State) from major metropolitan areas.
But several programs have provided at least a glimmer of hope that if things broke right – meaning their schedule, recruiting classes, injury luck, players potentially spurning the NFL Draft for a year to return to school a la 2018 Clemson’s defensive line, etc. – they could contend for a national championship.
Here they are and the potential national championship case for each.
The Ducks played for two national championships this decade. So of all the schools to choose from on this list, Oregon has to be No. 1. The school is synonymous with Nike so even though Chip Kelly is no longer in Eugene (and now coaching at a conference foe) and the Ducks’ flashy uniform combinations may not be quite as unique as they’ve been imitated across the country, there are inherent advantages in recruiting at Oregon.
The Ducks enrolled the No. 7 recruiting class this year – nine spots better than the next Pac-12 school, Washington – and it ranked ahead of Clemson, Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, Auburn and Penn State.
If Oregon can string together top-10 classes, it’ll theoretically have the most talented roster in the Pac-12 – assuming the Ducks’ coaching staff can develop its players at a level commensurate with their players’ recruiting rankings – and one that’s big, fast and deep enough to compete with the Alabamas, Clemsons, Georgias and Oklahomas of the world in the Playoff.
Oregon is only five years removed from being the No. 2 seed in the inaugural College Football Playoff and a national runner-up finish, and the Pac-12 is there for the taking. The conference has missed the playoff in three of the first five years, including three of the last four, so a 12-0 or 11-1 regular season in what’s perceived as the weakest Power Five conference is enough to give the Ducks a chance to earn one of the four seats at the table.
Those seats might be more attainable for an elite Pac-12 team given the current state of the conference; Stanford has dipped from its annual 11- and 12-win season tradition and USC didn’t even qualify for a bowl last season.
The Badgers had a legitimate chance of making the College Football Playoff in 2017, when they took a 12-0 record and No. 3 ranking into the Big Ten Championship, then fell to Ohio State 27-21.
Wisconsin won at least 10 games in each of the previous three seasons and six of the previous eight, so the Badgers have repeatedly shown their ability to peak inside the top 10 – if not the top five – of the rankings.
Playing in the weaker of the Big Ten’s two imbalanced divisions certainly helps, too.
If Wisconsin can draw two of its three cross-division matchups against Rutgers, Indiana and Maryland, win the Big Ten West, then play a great game against Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State or Michigan in the Big Ten Championship, that’s a realistic recipe that can send the Badgers to the College Football Playoff.
They may not have the sexiest brand; offensive line is often their best position group and their recruiting rankings typically hover somewhere in the neighborhood of No. 40 nationally. But while they build their roster with 3-star recruits, those players have led to more wins in the last four years than any school not named Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma or Georgia.
But it’s hard to argue with the results, last season notwithstanding.
It’s unfair and unrealistic to project a future playoff appearance that starts with the phrase “If Wisconsin finds the next Russell Wilson…” because Wilson is now one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but if the Badgers can combine a dynamic quarterback with their typically stout offensive line and a talented running back corps, the Badgers could be playoff-bound.
The concern, however, is how Wisconsin would fare if and when it makes the playoff in the future.
Sure, recruiting rankings aren’t everything and the Badgers are one of the biggest testaments to that. But it’s probably not realistic to win a national title in the modern era of college football with a roster that’s filled predominantly with former 3-star recruits.
3. Oklahoma State*
How many schools can say their current football coach is the best, or at least most accomplished, in program history?
Oklahoma State can.
Mike Gundy has taken the Cowboys to 13 straight bowl games and they’ve won at least 10 games in six of the last nine seasons. Their 12-1 season in 2011, when they finished No. 3 in the BCS standings and AP Top 25 poll, was the closest Oklahoma State has come to playing for and winning a national title under Gundy.
It’s not unusual for the Cowboys to peak in the top 10 of the AP poll and all it takes for Oklahoma State to become a playoff contender is for one of its 10-3 seasons to turn into an 11-1 regular season, leading to a Big 12 Championship berth with a potential playoff appearance on the line.
The three biggest challenges for Oklahoma State are the rise of in-state rival Oklahoma, which has been the best program in the Big 12 during the playoff era, the potential re-emergence of Texas as a national power, and getting its defense to perform at a top-40 level (or better) consistently.
*Oklahoma State claims the 1945 national title
4. Virginia Tech
At some point, it might be fair to wonder how synonymous Virginia Tech’s tradition of success is with former coach Frank Beamer. The Hokies have only finished a season ranked in the AP Top 25 poll four times under a coach other than Beamer.
Sure, he was in Blacksburg for nearly 30 years, but they’ve never finished in the top 15 without him on the sideline.
But among the schools that haven’t won a national championship, Virginia Tech has shown the ability to play at a conference title-contending level as consistently as almost any school, when you look at its stretch from 1995 to 2011.
The Hokies won 10 or 11 games 13 times during that span, including consecutive 11-1 seasons in 1999 and 2000.
The sneaky truth about the ACC in 2018 was that it didn’t have a lot of (or any) top-end depth after undefeated national champion Clemson. Sure, it had 11 bowl-eligible teams, but eight of them won between six and eight games.
The point is that if and when Clemson is no longer the Clemson we know today, and if Florida State and Miami (FL) haven’t re-established themselves as national title contenders by then, the ACC could be wide open for a changing of the guard.
The Hokies’ last three recruiting classes have been ranked in the mid-20s, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, which may not be good enough to win ACC Championships, let alone contend for national titles, but at least we can remember from the not-too-distant past what a top-10 Virginia Tech team looked like. How many schools available to choose from can we say that about?
Iowa State: If not for Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, the Cyclones wouldn’t even warrant a mention. This century, they’ve essentially been a bowl team every other year, on average, that maxes out at seven or eight wins. But Iowa State is 3-1 against top-10 teams in the last two seasons and it has a winning record against ranked opponents since the start of the 2017 season.
Even though Campbell agreed to an extension in December through 2024, the concern is that he’ll outperform Ames and jump to a better program in two-to-four years. Iowa State was picked to finish third in the Big 12 preseason media poll, which is where the Cyclones finished last season.
If they’re able to finish in the top two and navigate the regular season with no more than one loss, they’ll enter the playoff conversation. But that seems like a serious ask for a school that has to leapfrog Oklahoma and Texas, replace its leading rusher and wide receiver from last season, and keep its star coach, whose profile will only rise if the team keeps winning.
Baylor: Five years ago, Baylor would’ve likely featured prominently on this list, but it no longer does after the way former coach Art Briles’ tenure ended regarding the way he, the university’s athletic department and the university itself handled sexual assault allegations against former players.
Kansas State: Perhaps similarly to Virginia Tech and Frank Beamer, Bill Snyder is synonymous with Kansas State’s football success. No other coach in program history has engineered an AP Top 25 finish, while Snyder led the Wildcats to five top-10 finishes. We’ll have to wait and see if Chris Klieman or another coach can lead Kansas State to the 11-win seasons it achieved in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
West Virginia/Utah: We’re grouping these two schools together despite the significant distance between them because both have had a few really impressive seasons in the last 20 years. But in their current conferences – the Big 12 and Pac-12, respectively – both schools have peaked with one 10-3 season. Most of the time, they’ve been closer to a seven-to-nine-win team.
Washington State: Mike Leach has engineered an 11-2 season that led to a top-12 finish in the AP poll at both Texas Tech and Washington State. There’s no questioning his prowess as an offensive guru, but can he recruit – or at least develop – players at a level that leads to consistent 10-plus win seasons where the Cougars can contend for Pac-12 Championships and a potential playoff berth?
If they made the playoff, would they have the depth and the athletes to go toe-to-toe with Alabama or Clemson?
South Carolina/Missouri/Mississippi State/Kentucky*: It’s always a fun exercise to look at a middle-tier SEC school’s recruiting rankings. Take South Carolina, for example. The Gamecocks landed the No. 17 class in 2019 but it ranked eighth in the conference, so even if South Carolina is enrolling more talent than most FBS schools this summer, it’s still just mediocre in comparison to its conference peers.
That’s the issue with these SEC schools. Even if they have a solid recruiting footprint or history, or if they play in the SEC East, which is the less treacherous of the two divisions, there are other schools in the conference and region that have better recruiting footprints, more resources and more accomplished pasts.
Five SEC schools have combined to win 10 national championships since class of 2020 recruits were born and that doesn’t include Georgia or Texas A&M, which are recruiting at a nationally elite level, so there are too many great programs in the conference to see a path to a national title for South Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky, Vanderbilt or Mississippi State any time soon.
*Claims the 1950 national title