It’s impossibly hard to win a national championship. But it’s especially harder now because the same two guys keep hogging all of them.
Since Florida claimed its second national championship in a three-year span in 2008, six of the eight national championship crowns have been placed on heads that wore them before. Of the previous 25 national championships awarded, only four of them went to repeat winners.
Nick Saban and Urban Meyer are just that greedy.
If given the choice between those two — plus former champions Jimbo Fisher, Les Miles and Bob Stoops — or the field to hold the CFP trophy in Tampa this January, who are you taking? If you are inclined to take the field, here are the best bets to break through and win their first national championship, broken into tiers.
DID HE MISS HIS BEST CHANCE?
10. Hugh Freeze: Someone’s going to make the Playoff out of the SEC, and Freeze appears like the most likely of the gaggle of coaches threatening to break the Alabama-LSU knot atop the SEC West. There is the chance, however, Freeze and Ole Miss look back at last season, when they became the first team since 1998 to beat Alabama, LSU and Auburn in the same autumn, they remember that damn Hunter Henry lateral and ask themselves what might have been.
POSSIBLE, BUT EVEN MORE POSSIBLE NEXT YEAR
9. Jim McElwain: We’ve established by now that the SEC champion is getting a seat at the table, whether undefeated, 1-loss, 2-loss or 6-loss. With that in mind, all it takes is winning the East to be one game away. And it’s also possible, especially considering the manner in which Florida pulled out wins each of the past two seasons, Steve Spurrier put some sort of late-acting hex over Tennessee and we’re just now realizing it. Look, no one ranked 15th or below in the preseason poll has necessarily good odds at winning the national championship, but if you’re looking for the best among that group, McElwain and company are that.
8. Chris Petersen: Petersen has the best defense in the Pac-12 and the best quarterback in the Pac-12 North. And he gets Stanford at home and Oregon early enough where a loss could be forgiven. But the last time a team jumped from 7-6 to national champs was…?
7. Butch Jones: Remembering back to the last time Tennessee was a serious player on the national scene, how strange is it now that we consider playing in the SEC East to be one of Big Orange’s biggest assets for their title hopes? The Vols are in an “if not now, when?” season in the SEC East, they get Florida and Alabama at home, they probably won’t play a ranked team after mid-October. Meaning they have no excuses not to return to Atlanta for the first time since 2007. And getting to Atlanta means you’re just an anything-can-happen 60 minutes away from securing the SEC’s reserved seat at the table.
THE TALENT IS THERE, BUT EVERYTHING HAS TO BREAK JUST RIGHT
6. Brian Kelly: Like Shaw, Kelly has had enough talent to win a national championship for a while, the chips just haven’t fallen in their proper place yet. And it doesn’t seem like this year is off to a great start, with a half-dozen players arrested over the weekend. And, like Shaw, Kelly’s schedule doesn’t do him any favors.
5. Tom Herman: Oddly, Herman has the most and least control over his season as anyone on this list. Beat Oklahoma in Houston to open the season and it will take a major upset to keep the Cougars from going undefeated. Alas, there are scores of mid-majors that have gone unbeaten in recent years, and none has seriously threatened to bust through the glass ceiling. But, with how Houston finished last season, a schedule that includes Louisville and an on-the-rise AAC in addition to the Oklahoma game and expected chaos in two of the Power 5 conferences… if ever there was a year for a Group of 5 team to crash the CFP’s Party of 5, this is it.
4. David Shaw: The question is the same as it was in 2011, ’12, ’13 and ’15 — all years he won 11 or 12 games and reached either the Fiesta or Rose bowls — Shaw has the team to win a national championship, but does he have the schedule? The Cardinal visits UCLA, Washington, Notre Dame, Arizona, Oregon and Cal — not a gimme in the bunch.
3. Gary Patterson: Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson are gone, but Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie are not. Oklahoma is the preseason favorite in the Big 12, but an argument can be made that’s TCU wants the Sooners to be — after all, OU’s last four preseason top-5 rankings have resulted in two unranked finishes and only one inside the top 15. Plus, TCU gets Oklahoma at home. An underestimated Gary Patterson is the best Gary Patterson. Like, say, 2014, when TCU finished No. 3 in the country after starting No. 7… in the Big 12.
MOST, MOST LIKELY
2. Dabo Swinney: Clemson opens the season ranked No. 2 in both polls, so why is Dabo behind Coach Khakis here? Wasn’t Clemson just an onside kick recovery away from winning it all last season? Yes, and that’s kind of the point. Recent history works against Clemson here. No team has turned a runner-up finish into a national championship since Florida State in 1998-99.
1. Jim Harbaugh: Year three is typically pointed to as the breakthrough season — it’s when Saban won his first at Alabama and Meyer won his at Ohio State — but everything about Harbaugh works on an accelerated schedule. Michigan wasn’t supposed to go 10-3 last season, but they did. Opening with six straight and seven of their first eight inside the Big House should give any new parts plenty of time to gel, leading to their revenge trip to East Lansing. Win that, and again two weeks later at Iowa, and Michigan won’t even have to beat Ohio State in the Horseshoe to reach the Playoff provided the Pac-12 and Big 12 cannibalize each other as expected.