Virginia danced following a championship-crowning classic Monday evening, making it the first time in Cavaliers history that the program earned a men’s basketball national title. It’s a rare dose of new in college athletics: Virginia is the first first-time champion in college basketball since Florida in 2006 and only the third of the millennium.
Football is even more exclusive.
A budget hierarchy makes the upper crust of the sport far more rigid. LSU, a long-running power in its own right, is the only first-time champion in college football since 2000. Every other winner had raised a trophy at least once in its history beforehand.
On a day Virginia broke through as a program, it’s a decent time to wonder who’ll accomplish that next in college football.
It’s a much harder thing to project than you might imagine. Given over 100 years of history, the majority of teams you’d consider a normal yearly “contender” have already won it all. These five teams, some potential powers and others schools with outsized success, are the most likely programs to hoist their first championship trophy.
One of two teams on this list with a realistic hope of winning a national championship next season, the Ducks have by far the highest likelihood of any team on this list to break the streak. Oregon’s got many things going for it that the top programs nationally have. The first is money. Phil Knight keeps the Ducks well supplied, and the program’s facilities are elite. Oregon also has the money for a large recruiting budget, coaching staff pool and all the little things the casual fans don’t think about. And while Oregon isn’t exactly a talent hot bed, the Ducks can easily dip into California’s football hotbed. We’ve seen Oregon play for two national championships this decade. Given that the Ducks will be a preseason top 10 team and they’re recruiting at an elite level, it would not be a surprise if the Ducks reached the Playoff as soon as this year. The Pac-12 also provides one of the friendlier playoff paths in the Power Five.
At this risk of tying these two teams together in a stereotypical antithesis fashion, Wisconsin is the opposite of Oregon in many ways. While Oregon screams flash and arrived nationally with a speed-focused offense, the Badgers are among college football’s steadiest, hardnosed presences. They sometimes play like the Virginia of college football. Wisconsin’s never inked a Top 25 class, yet it’s finished in the AP top 10 on four different occasions since 2010. The Badgers had an out-of-character 2018 at 8-5. But they’ll again be a Top 15 team entering 2019. They’ve got the best running back in college football and a stingy defense. If Wisconsin can find a quarterback, it’s a national championship contender. That’s how consistent the program is in terms of evaluation and development.
Still … Wisconsin would be the exception if it ever won a national championship. Every team that’s won a title in the BCS era had at least one top 10 class on its roster.
Washington State Cougars
We’ve seen Washington State come close to the CFB Playoff the last few seasons. That’s a testament to what Mike Leach can do. The Cougars’ colorful pirate leader is known as an offensive wizard for a reason, and his Air Raid system translates to wins. Leach put Texas Tech within shouting distance of a national championship once upon a time (Oklahoma ruined that Cinderella story), and it’s not too much of a stretch to see Washington State’s offense carrying the team to a playoff. Once you’re there anything can happen. Then again … Washington State needs to beat Washington before this ever becomes a remote possibility. The Cougars also have the Wisconsin problem – recruiting. Actually, it’s much worse. Washington State’s 2019 class ranked 64th nationally! Teams with lesser talent must often close the talent gap through a system. Leach has been doing that for forever. But given the way the Air Raid has widely influenced college football (almost everyone runs something Leach revolutionized) it’s worth wondering just how different the Cougars even are then everyone else. .
Oklahoma State Cowboys
It seems like a lifetime ago, but the Cowboys were an Iowa State stumble away from playing LSU for the 2011 national championship. And given the way the Tigers moved the ball that season (or didn’t), it’s not too hard to imagine an alternate reality in which the Cowboys and not the Crimson Tide won the championship that year. Oklahoma State hasn’t had a season like that since. Yet, they’re always hovering around the picture. The Cowboys ranked in the AP top 10 in four of the last six seasons, and Mike Gundy has a way of developing/evaluating that allows him to squeeze the most out of a program that doesn’t recruit like the other powers of the Big 12 (Oklahoma, Texas). Oklahoma State will have a Top 25-level team again next season, and Spencer Sanders will give that team a different, dynamic element at quarterback. Don’t be surprised if the Cowboys make another 2011-like run at some point in the next few years. Maybe this time the unfathomable (a loss in Ames) won’t happen.
Virginia Tech Hokies
Michael Vick put the Hokies on the cusp of a national title 20 years ago this season. While Virginia Tech hasn’t come that close since, the potential is there. Frank Beamer made the Hokies a perennial contender, helping turn Blacksburg into one of the best homefield advantages in football. Things have been a bit rockier under Justin Fuente. Yet the Hokies will be among the most experienced teams in college football next season in a division (the ACC Coastal) with plenty of wiggle room. Clemson is an Alabama-like roadblock in the conference. But that’s just one potential game a year. Beat the Tigers and anything can happen in the playoffs. Virginia Tech generally recruits at a Top 25 level and Fuente’s history is that of development and strong offensive football. It’s not likely that Virginia Tech wins a championship the next few years. It’s also not impossible.