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Andy Wittry | | August 24, 2021

7 schools that could be college football's next first-time national champion

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College football hasn't seen a first-time national champion at the FBS level since Florida won its first title in the 1996 season, which means the sport is going on almost a decade of its active players not being alive to witness a new champion be crowned for the first time.

This is in large part due to the nature of the sport's history and the different voting bodies and organizations that used to award a national championship. Just look at the national championship history page and you'll find seasons in which as many as four programs have a claim to a national championship, such as the 1919 season, when Harvard, Illinois, Notre Dame and Texas A&M each claimed a title. (By the way, that list of national champions is the one we're using for the purposes of this analysis.)

Just because it's been more than a quarter of a century since there was a first-time national champion in college football doesn't mean that there can't be another one in the future. Here are seven FBS programs that arguably have the strongest cases to be the sport's next, first-time champion.

These opinions are mine and mine alone.

Kirby Lee | USA TODAY Sports Images Oregon has finished at No. 2 in the AP poll three times in the last 20 seasons.


Best-ever finish in the AP poll (season): No. 2 (2001, 2012, 2014)
Number of top-10 finishes in the AP poll: 10

Oregon played for two national championships in the last decade — it lost in the 2011 BCS Championship to Auburn 22-19 and to Ohio State 42-20 in the 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship — and it also finished the 2001 and 2012 seasons ranked No. 2 in the final AP poll, so the Ducks have been on the cusp of a national championship at various times over the last 20 years.

The Ducks are one of two Pac-12 programs to make the College Football Playoff in the first seven years of the playoff era (Washington was the other) and they've won the last two Pac-12 championships and four of the last 10 — the most in the conference during that span.

Oregon has finished at No. 2 in the final AP poll three times in the last 20 seasons and each time, the Ducks had a different head coach, so the program has maintained a high-end potential that's bigger than any one head coach, coordinator or quarterback. Current head coach Mario Cristobal is entering his fourth season in charge and Oregon finished at No. 5 in the AP poll in the 2019 season after the Ducks went 12-2.

The Ducks might have the best player in the sport this season in defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux and they debuted at No. 11 in the preseason AP poll. As long as Oregon can continue to put elite talent on the field, such as Thibodeaux, 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, running back Kenjon Barner (No. 9 in Heisman voting in 2012), running back LaMichael James (No. 3 in Heisman voting in 2010, No. 10 in Heisman voting in 2011), the Ducks will arguably be the program that's in the best position to become college football's next first-time national champion at the FBS level.

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Mary Langenfeld | USA TODAY Sports Images Wisconsin had 10 10-win seasons in a 15-year span.


Best-ever finish in the AP poll (season): No. 2 (1962)
Number of top-10 finishes in the AP poll: 14

Entering the 2021 season, Wisconsin is tied for third in terms of most weeks ranked in the College Football Playoff rankings among programs that haven't made the playoff. The Badgers have been ranked in 28 out of a possible 42 weeks, reaching as high as No. 4 and finishing as high as No. 6, so they've been in the playoff conversation before.

For a program that didn't win more than eight games in season from 1902 to 1992 — a stretch that included nine seasons with zero or one win — the Badgers have turned into a paragon of high-level consistency. From the 2005 season through 2019, Wisconsin won at least 10 games 10 times in 15 seasons, including a 13-1 season in 2017. That's when the Badgers took an undefeated record and No. 4 CFP ranking into the Big Ten championship, where they fell to Ohio State by six points, 27-21.

Unfortunately for Wisconsin, Ohio State has proven to be a significant hurdle (the rest of the Big Ten says, "Ditto!"). Ohio State holds an all-time series advantage of 61-18-5 and the Buckeyes are currently riding an eight-game winning streak over the Badgers. Ohio State has won as many as 21 games in a row against Wisconsin.

With an offensive line that annually ranks among the nation's best and a running back room that has featured multiple future NFL players at the same time, Wisconsin has shown it can be the class of the Big Ten West, but an appearance in the four-team College Football Playoff likely requires the Badgers to beat the Buckeyes.

And that's why Wisconsin is one of the best college football programs that hasn't won a national championship.

Mark J. Rebilas | USA TODAY Sports Images Iowa State debuted at No. 7 in the preseason AP poll.

Iowa State

Best-ever finish in the AP poll (season): No. 9 (2020)
Number of top-10 finishes in the AP poll: 1

Iowa State is very much a newcomer to this conversation, thanks to the Cyclones' success under coach Matt Campbell. Their all-time winning percentage is .449, they've appeared in only 16 bowl games in 123 seasons and their winning percentage in bowl games is .313.

But Iowa State recently achieved its highest-ever AP poll ranking after appearing at No. 7 in the preseason AP Top 25 for the 2021 college football season, after finishing at No. 9 in the 2020 campaign, which was the program's best ranking at the end of a season. Campbell has led the Cyclones to four consecutive bowl games — something the program hadn't accomplished before. He's the winningest coach in program history by winning percentage (.556), he's fourth in total wins (35) despite having coached just five seasons at the school and he's second in bowl appearances.

Given the Cyclones' preseason ranking, their preseason All-Americans (namely, running back Breece Hall) and their recent success against Big 12 powerhouse Oklahoma (Iowa State is 2-3 over the last five meetings with two losses by six points or fewer), Iowa State is a legitimate threat to contend for the Big 12 championship this season, which is an honor that could lead to a College Football Playoff berth.

Iowa State is arguably in its golden age as a program, so as long as Matt Campbell is on the sidelines and the Cyclones can continue to develop all-conference and All-American-caliber talent, they could be on the short list of the strongest teams on a year-to-year basis at a school that has never won a national championship.

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Katie Stratman | USA TODAY Sports Images Cincinnati finished 9-1 last season.


Best-ever finish in the AP poll (season): No. 8 (2009, 2020)
Number of top-10 finishes in the AP poll: 2

Save for a handful of transition seasons in which Cincinnati went 4-8, the Bearcats have won at least nine games in 10 of the last 14 seasons, including seven 10-win seasons. They peaked at No. 4 in the AP poll in 2009, when they went 12-1 under now-Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, and Cincinnati reached No. 6 last season in Luke Fickell's fourth season. The Bearcats went 9-1 last season, with their only loss coming to Georgia by three points in the Peach Bowl.

As Cincinnati has transitioned from an independent program (as recently as the mid-90s) to Conference USA to the Big East to the American Athletic Conference, the Bearcats have proven that their ceiling is an undefeated regular season, a conference championship and an appearance in a high-quality bowl game, such as the Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl or Peach Bowl.

With a 2021 schedule that features road games against preseason No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 17 Indiana, another undefeated regular season would put Cincinnati squarely in the College Football Playoff conversation, which would hypothetically give the Bearcats their first chance at playing for the national championship.

Bob Donnan | USA Today Sports Images North Carolina peaked at No. 5 in the AP poll last season.

North Carolina

Best-ever finish in the AP poll (season): No. 3 (1948)
Number of top-10 finishes in the AP poll: 7

When North Carolina finished with its highest AP poll ranking ever, in 1948, the No. 3 Tar Heels went 9-1-1 and made the Sugar Bowl. But then, similar to now, had to deal with an undefeated Clemson team in its conference. North Carolina finished second in the 16-team Southern Conference in '48, behind only Clemson, which went 5-0 in conference play and 11-0 overall. That was when North Carolina was guided by coach Carl Snavely, who led the Tar Heels to four consecutive finishes in the AP poll, including three straight in the top 10, plus two Sugar Bowl appearances and a Cotton Bowl berth in a four-year span.

It was probably the high-water mark in program history.

After 1949, North Carolina didn't return to a bowl game until 1963, it didn't finish a season ranked until 1972 and it didn't finish in the top 10 until 1980.

Now, during Mack Brown's second stint as the head coach in Chapel Hill, things are looking up. The Tar Heels went 11-1 in Brown's last season in Chapel Hill in 1997 the first time around and they debuted at No. 10 in the preseason AP poll for 2021. With quarterback Sam Howell, who could be among the best in the country, North Carolina is the second-highest ranked ACC team in the preseason poll behind ...  you guessed it, Clemson.

Clemson, which has made the College Football Playoff in each of the last six seasons and which has won two national championships in the playoff era, has won four in a row against North Carolina, including a 45-37 win in the 2015 ACC Championship Game, and eight of the 10 meetings this century.

Brown has engineered five of the 17 seasons in which North Carolina has finished a season ranked in the AP poll and the Tar Heels peaked at No. 5 last season, but they'll almost certainly have to beat Clemson (at least once) in order to contend for a national championship, which is a tall task these days.

Joe Nicholson | USA TODAY Sports Images Utah went undefeated in 2004 and 2008.


Best-ever finish in the AP poll (season): No. 2 (2008)
Number of top-10 finishes in the AP poll: 3

The Utes lead the list of FBS programs that have been ranked the most in the CFP era without making the playoff — they've been ranked in the CFP rankings 30 out of a possible 42 weeks — so they certainly deserve to be on this list. Urban Meyer elevated the program when he took over prior to the 2003 season, as the Utes went 10-2 in his first season and finished the season ranked No. 21 in the AP poll after finishing in the AP poll only one time before that.

Utah then went 12-0, capped off with a dominant Fiesta Bowl win over Pitt, in 2004, finishing at No. 4 in the AP poll. Kyle Whittingham, who replaced Meyer, has overseen five 10-win seasons, including a 13-0 campaign in 2008, when the Utes finished at No. 2 in the AP poll. Their best finish in the CFP rankings was No. 11 in 2019 and they peaked at No. 5.

If Utah can pull off another undefeated regular season, like it did in 2004 and 2008, then it could make its first College Football Playoff appearance, which would come with a chance to compete for its first national championship.

Tim Heitman | USA TODAY Sports Images Oklahoma State went 12-1 in the 2011 season.

Oklahoma State

Best-ever finish in the AP poll (season): No. 3 (2011)
Number of top-10 finishes in the AP poll: 3

Oklahoma State was firmly in the mix for the national championship a decade ago, when the Cowboys went 12-1, peaking at No. 2 in the AP poll and finishing at No. 3 after a Fiesta Bowl win over Stanford. That's the closest they've come to a title in the modern era of college football (they went 9-0 in 1945 with a win in the Sugar Bowl and 8-1 in 1944 with a win in the Cotton Bowl).

Their only loss that season was a 37-31 defeat on the road to Iowa State, which went 6-6 in the regular season. Since then, Oklahoma State's best record in a season is 10-3, which the Cowboys achieved in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

One of the biggest impediments for Oklahoma State contending for a conference championship and the postseason opportunities that would come with one, is rival Oklahoma, which has won the last six Big 12 titles. Oklahoma also has a six-game winning streak over Oklahoma State in the Bedlam game, and the Sooners have won 16 of the last 18 meetings.

In this year's preseason AP poll, Oklahoma State was the first team in the "others receiving votes" section, while Oklahoma was ranked No. 2, with yet another quarterback who could be a Heisman Trophy finalist, so the Bedlam rivalry looms large once again. If Oklahoma State can defeat Oklahoma — and take care of business for the rest of its schedule — only then can it set its sights on a potential national championship run.

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