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The Usual Suspects: It’s Not Hard to Narrow Down the List of College Football Contenders

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By Chris Preston

College football returns this week, and I can already tell you who’s going to win this year’s BCS National Championship. 

No, I’m no prognosticator. No, I’m not a Mayan descendant who thinks he’s inherited his ancestors’ gift for knowing all things 2012. No, I don’t have access to Biff Tannen’s sports betting book from Back to the Future 2.

 I know who’s going to win because college football is not a complicated sport. The game has been ruled by the same handful of teams for more than half a century.

Every sport has its elite.

The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers lord over the NBA, winning a combined 33 championships. No other franchise has more than six.

Major League Baseball has the New York Yankees, whose 27 world championships are the most in the history of North American sports. The Montreal Canadiens are the Yankees of hockey, with 23 Stanley Cups.

Hell, even college basketball – land of March Madness, George Mason, Butler and countless other Cinderellas who have had their One Shining Moment – is essentially dominated by Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas and Connecticut.

But college football takes exclusivity to another level. It’s like the Chateau Marmont of sports – only if you replace Lindsay Lohan stumbling out the front door drunk with a few thousand beer-bellied frat dudes.

The super elite in college football is comprised of about a dozen teams. And those teams don’t just win most of the national championships. They’ve won almost every national championship since 1960.

Only five teams outside of college football’s upper crust have won an outright national title in the past 51 years. Five.

Only 19 different teams have claimed outright national championships during those five-plus decades. College basketball has had 19 different champions in just 30 years. So has Major League Baseball – a sport with only 30 teams, not 120 like college football. The NHL has had nine different Stanley Cup winners in the last nine years.

You get the point.

Taking it a step further, of the 60 champions crowned since 1951 – including the nine years the title was split – 48 of them have been the same 12 teams. Call them the Greedy Dozen.

So chances are, this year’s title winner will be one of those teams. But the list of prospective 2012-13 champions is much narrower than that.

First, here’s who won’t be winning the BCS championship this year:

The Pretenders

Clemson, Kansas State, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, West Virginia

These schools may look, smell and drink like super-elite college football programs. But they’re not.

Don’t get me wrong – these are all perennial top-20, top-25 programs that are regularly in the mix for a BCS bowl game. But the number of national championships these teams have combined to win in the last 30 years equals the number of vegetables served at an Arkansas tailgate party. That’s right – zero.

Clemson and Virginia Tech dominate a mediocre conference but get crushed by any worthy foe from a formidable league. Kansas State is an overachieving program with a brilliant head coach but not enough talent to consistently compete on a national level. West Virginia has never so much as appeared in a national title game. Texas A&M won a championship in the 1930s and was once coached by Bear Bryant.

South Carolina is a solid program that has steadily improved every year with the Ol’ Ball Coach roaming the sidelines. But it’s no match for the Alabamas, Floridas and LSUs of the world. And yes, I’m aware that the editor of this site picked the Gamecocks to win it all this year.

The Has-Beens

Miami, Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State, Tennessee

Twenty-five years ago, this was basically a who’s who of college football. Today, these programs are dinosaurs. Notre Dame still has its own network-television contract. But the Irish haven’t been must-see TV for decades. They haven’t won a national title since Lou Holtz was in his third year in South Bend. And frankly, I’m not sure they’ll ever win another.

Michigan won a split national championship in the late ‘90s – and that was the Wolverines’ only title in the last 62 years. 

Miami has been so riddled with scandal in the decades since the Hurricanes took the sport by storm with their brash attitudes and overwhelming talent that “The U” seems no longer capable of fully regaining its swagger.

Unless you’ve been in a coma the last nine months, I don’t need to explain why Penn State football as we knew it is gone.

As for Tennessee, the rest of the SEC has passed it by. The Volunteers are 24-27 the last four years and haven’t played in a BCS game this century. And yes, I know Clay is a die-hard UT fan. This article will probably never see the light of day beyond my laptop and Clay’s “Deleted Items” folder.

The Enigmas

Auburn, Georgia

Two schools certainly capable of winning national titles. The Tigers are 20 months removed from pulling it off. But it takes having a once-in-a-generation talent to get them there.

Cam Newton was a one-man wrecking crew, leaving Nick Saban’s mighty Crimson Tide and NCAA investigators in his wake of destruction during his lone season on The Plains.

Herschel Walker was Georgia’s Cam Newton. The Heisman winner used his breathtaking combination of speed and power to carry the Dawgs to the 1980 national championship – the school’s only outright title.

These two SEC powers probably should have a few more than a combined three national championships (Auburn shared the 1957 title with Ohio State) in their collective trophy cases. But more often than not, they either can’t seem to get out of their own way or find themselves on the wrong side of history.

Auburn went 11-0 in 1993 but, due to NCAA sanctions, was barred from playing in a bowl or even competing in the SEC title game. In 2004, the Tigers ran the table again – only to be the odd team out of a national title game played between fellow unbeatens USC and Oklahoma. They remain the only unbeaten SEC team to ever be left out of a national title game in the BCS era.

Georgia, meanwhile, is capable of brilliant stretches – but often derails a promising season with silly early losses. 

In 2007, for example – a year that was ripe for a non-super elite team to claim the title if there ever was one – many thought Georgia, not LSU, deserved to be the two-loss SEC team standing opposite one-loss Ohio State in the national championship game in New Orleans. But an early loss against a sub-.500 South Carolina team left a permanent black mark on their resume, and the Dawgs were bypassed for the eventual-champion Bayou Bengals.

Such is the enigmatic nature of both these teams. The Dawgs and Tigers are often on the cusp of history but can’t quite break through. Sure, they’re capable of winning a national title or two once every half-century or so. But like Uga’s failed attempt to once bite an opposing player in the end zone, their rabid efforts usually come up a bit short.

The Bowl-Banned

Ohio State

Thanks to the exploits of a few tattoo happy players under former coach Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes are bowl ineligible this season. With new head coach Urban Meyer on board, though, OSU should be back to the business of getting pounded by an SEC team in the BCS title game before you know it.   

The Up-and-Comers

Boise State, Oklahoma State, Oregon, TCU, Wisconsin

You remember how that couple crashed the White House party a few years back? The Salahis, I believe were there names? Well, these teams are the Salahis of college football. Any one of them is liable to come waltzing in through the front door, defying Secret Service members and college football pundits alike.

None of the Salahis have won a title…yet. But they sure are knocking on the door.

Oregon was a mere three points from a national championship two seasons ago. The Ducks are 45-9 the last four years, are regularly hauling in some of the top recruits in the nation, and boast perhaps the top football facilities in the nation thanks to alumnus and NIKE CEO Phil Knight.

Oklahoma State is also backed by an uber-booster – oil magnate T. Boone Pickens, in their case. Pickens’ oil riches have financed a stadium expansion in his name and made the Cowboys a serious contender. OSU was a double-overtime loss to Iowa State away from playing in the national championship game last year. They crushed Big 12 superpowers Oklahoma and Texas by a combined 46 points. They are now 41-11 over the last four seasons.

Put simply, Oklahoma State is the Oregon of the Midwest.

Wisconsin is another Midwestern power, but one that has been steadily gaining steam for the better part of two decades now. The Badgers have been Rose Bowl regulars since Barry Alvarez jumpstarted the former laughingstock of a program in the mid-‘90s. In the black-and-blue, pound-it-down-your-throat (yes, some may say boring) Big Ten, the Badgers have become the baddest, toughest dudes on the block. With Ohio State on probation, Wisconsin has – for the time being – established itself as the preeminent power in one of college football’s most storied leagues.

Two programs that aren’t particularly storied are Boise State and TCU. At least not until recently. Blue turf and Horned Frogs don’t exactly conjure up images of Touchdown Jesus or Bear Bryant’s houndstooth fedora.

But here’s the only number you need to know about these two regular BCS crashers: eight. That’s the combined number of games Boise State and TCU have lost the last four years – and two of those losses were to each other.

With the Horned Frogs leaping to the Big 12 this year and the Broncos making the awkward football-only transition to the Big East starting next year, suddenly these two programs will no longer have to crash the BCS party Salahi style.

The Contenders

Alabama, Florida, Florida State, LSU, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, USC

I’ve given you the once-in-a-blue-moon, past-their-prime and never-will-be national championship candidates. But here are this year’s true contenders.

Really, the list is even narrower than this.  

FSU and Nebraska dominated the ‘90s, winning half the national championships that decade. They struggled shortly after the turn of the century, however – falling dangerously close to “has-been” status – but are now rejuvenated under ambitious new coaches. Still – they’re not all the way back. It’s doubtful either of these teams is ready to reclaim national-championship glory this season.

Texas, meanwhile, still has the same old George Bush lookalike of a coach that led them to a national championship in 2005. Mack Brown’s squad is coming off a rough couple seasons, however. The Longhorns finished below .500 in Big 12 play each of the last two years. It’ll be hard to go from that to a national championship this year.

Ditto the Florida Gators. Coached by the Longhorns’ energetic former defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, the Gators are still recovering from Urban Meyer’s resignation due to health reasons. They’re a very modest 15-11 the last two years. In an SEC that’s as loaded as it’s ever been, it will be near impossible for the Gators to suddenly run the table. Cross them off the list as well.

So that leaves just four teams: the two SEC West foes that battled in last year’s BCS championship, plus the Sooners and Trojans.

Who will win of those four? The simple answer is to take one of the two SEC teams since – hello – an SEC team has won the damn thing six years running. But I like the Trojans.

The combination of quarterback Matt Barkley and the most explosive wide-receiving tandem in the game returns some of the Leinart-Bush era glitz to L.A.’s true hometown football team. They have most of their guys back from a team that went 10-2 last year despite having nothing to play for due to a bowl and Pac-12 championship ban. And they get Oregon – by far the biggest threat in their conference – at home in the Coliseum.

My bet is that the West Coast version of USC runs the table in the regular season then takes down LSU in the BCS title game to halt the SEC’s run at five years. The win will mark Southern Cal’s eighth national championship since 1961, pulling them back even with Alabama for the most in that time span.

Yes, one of college football’s elite will win again in 2012. And the sport’s exclusive club will thus close its ranks even further.

And if I’m totally wrong and one of my so-called “pretenders” wins the title? Then the Mayans may not have been far off…

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.