Six. Think about that number just a minute. Six national championship winning teams in a row. How did the Southeastern Conference get to the absolute top of the college football world?
The answer is pretty simple.
Thank the BCS and the SEC Championship Game.
The SEC Championship Game assures the best team in the SEC at the end of the season is who will represent the conference for possible selection to play in the title game...which meant no more teams who won earlier in the season but got too banged up to win late had a chance, once that started.
When the BCS system came into being, much of the subjective nature used in choosing the college football national champion was removed. Though far from a perfect format, it greatly improved the accuracy of choices to play for the title.
Simply by increasing the science in the choice—while minimizing the human element—the most worthy teams are regularly chosen to play in the Championship game. That wasn't always the case in the years past.
The new four team format will be even better. It will remove any doubt that the BCS has the correct teams in by allowing four, instead of two, to compete for the title. Even with the BCS, there was always the question of whether the correct undefeated or one loss team got in. This should end that question.
College football doesn't need a 32-team playoff. It likely doesn't need even eight. It did desperately need to get away from a group of sports writers or coaches—some with agendas—deciding who deserved to play.
No problem with having the human element be a part of the process, just not the whole process.
All that said, the following are the 12 teams who have the best chance of upsetting the SEC in its run for seven titles in a row.
Notre Dame is back. Brian Kelly—Irish name and all—is a great fit for this program.
Kelly is the Lou Holtz of this era for the Fighting Irish. Like Holtz, his first two years have been a rebuilding process. Unlike Holtz, it appears it will take a little longer than year three for the Irish to go undefeated and win a national title.
The main issue in the way this year is what many people call the most difficult schedule in the nation. Before someone says "to be the best you gotta beat the best" let me say this—I agree with that statement. You should have to beat whatever team is ranked just above or just below you to win a title.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, they must play a schedule that is chock full of top 25 teams. There are few opportunities to take a breath and no chance to play a bad game and get away with it.
The predictions for this team are between only six and up to 10 wins. Smart money says they will win 10 rather than six. But, with little room for error, it looks like this will not be the year Notre Dame makes the national title game.
Nine out of the last 10 years, Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech teams have finished with double-digit wins. Coach Beamer has it rolling in Blacksburg. He is one of the very best coaches in all of college football.
He is a coach who it is easy to pull for to win a national title someday.
The four team playoff system may be the Hokies opportunity in the next few seasons. Coach Beamer is the type of coach who will be very dangerous when his team gets into that mix.
Every year there are a couple of games that derail the Hokies' chance to go undefeated.
That will likely happen this year, too.
Texas will be back in the mix this year. They return 15 starters from last year's team, and Mack Brown has one of the top defensive units in the Big 12—as well as the rest of college football—this year.
Every time they played a top-20 ranked team in 2011, Texas got beat. They gave up three turnover touchdowns to Oklahoma and got drilled 17-55, they lost by 12 to Oklahoma State and by four to Kansas State. They finished their losses to top-20 teams at Baylor 24-48.
Texas had a young, inexperienced defense last year. As the year progressed, they did improve overall. This year, they have one of the best defensive lines in football. Their linebackers are young but are very talented. The defensive backfield returns three starters and is stocked with highly touted recruits. This unit will likely be one of the best in the nation as well.
After 8-5 last year, it is a long shot Texas will make the championship game, let alone win it.
Long shot yes. Impossible, no.
That is why they rank number 10.
The one thing everyone remembers about Clemson last season was the 70-33 thrashing they received from West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. Head coach Dabo Swinney has made sure the players remember it as well.
Shortly after the embarrassing loss to West Virginia, Clemson's defensive coordinator Kevin Steele announced he was leaving. It's a matter of speculation whether Steele was fired or left of his own accord (fired) but he announced he was leaving on January 11.
Clemson's defense ranked No. 81 in scoring in 2011. In fairness to Steele, he also coached the 2010 defense that ranked No. 13 in the nation in scoring.
Clemson dug deep into the coffers and hired a big-name defensive coordinator to take over this season. Brent Venables was the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma since 1999. His defenses have always ranked high, so expect immediate improvement for Clemson on defense.
Clemson also returns star junior quarterback, Tajh Boyd, along with 13 others who started last year. The offense will be explosive again, and the defense will be much improved. Clemson could win the ACC championship but must win at Florida State to get to the game.
The Tigers beat FSU last year—a feat much more difficult to do in Tallahassee. The winner of that contest will likely play in the ACC title game.
An ACC team would need an undefeated record to have a shot at playing in the national title game. Clemson is capable of winning them all to that point.
Therefore, they are capable of making this list, at No. 9.
Oklahoma State had an incredible 12-1 season in 2011. They missed 13-0 and a likely spot in the national championship game by their 37-31 double overtime loss at Iowa State. At the time, the Cowboys were 10-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation in the BCS Poll.
While the Cyclones of Iowa State celebrated the biggest win in their school's history, Oklahoma State was getting ready for the Big 12 championship game. The Cowboys drilled Oklahoma in that game, 44-10.
With the Big 12 title in hand, they ranked No. 3 nationally, thus had to settle for less than a chance to be national champion. But, a BCS win in the Fiesta Bowl over 11-1 and No. 4 ranked Stanford (41-38, in OT) was a nice consolation prize.
This season, Oklahoma State must play without their starting quarterback from 2011, Brandon Weeden. Weeden had a super season last year, and he will be missed. Also gone is world-class receiver Justin Blackmon. Both of these players will be in the NFL in 2012.
Still, Oklahoma State is an elite team in terms of talent. Their running back unit returns intact from 2011 and will rank among the nation's best. Though the offensive line loses two starters, they have extremely talented young players coming up. So, it's a safe bet the line will be good.
The defensive line is stronger and better overall this year. Coach Mike Gundy says he has his best ever linebacker group at OSU. Also, the Cowboys return seven of the top eight from the defensive backfield.
Defense was the Cowboys' Achilles heel last season. Based on the number of returning players and highly touted young players moving up, defense should be a team strength in 2012.
This team is capable of double-digit wins and winning the Big 12 again. If that is possible, then a No. 8 ranking on this list is sensible for 2012.
Michigan State finished 11-3 last year. The Spartans lost the Big Ten championship game to Wisconsin 39-42 last season. After that, they overcame a two touchdown deficit to beat Georgia 33-30 in three overtimes in the Outback Bowl.
Michigan State returns a lot of their playmakers. In addition, this coaching staff is getting everything out of the Spartans. They have had double-digit winning seasons the past two years.
The Spartans have a pretty tough schedule to overcome to get into their conference championship game again. They have to travel to Michigan and to Wisconsin. They beat both of these teams in East Lansing last year. But, again, winning the big games on the road is hard.
If the Spartans can win the Big Ten, they have a shot at the title game. To play in it, they will likely need to be undefeated. Doing that also means wins over Nebraska, Notre Dame, Iowa and Boise State at home. This team is capable, but the road is long and hard.
Therefore, they rank No. 7 on the list of possibilities.
Two-time Big 10 champion Wisconsin was within 10 total points of finishing their 2011 Big Ten season at 13-0. Instead, they headed to the Rose Bowl at 11-2.
Let's not forget, though, that the Badgers finished 22-3 in the Big 10 the previous two seasons before the bowls—not bad for a team who hasn't had a recruiting class rank better than No. 35 with any of the major recruiting services in the past four years.
If you live or die based on how your favorite team ranks in recruiting, give that some thought for a minute.
Wisconsin first team All-American and Big Ten MVP Montee Ball turned down the NFL to play his senior season for the Badgers. Maryland transfer and freshman player of the year at quarterback, Danny O'Brien, will take over this duty from NFL-bound Russell Wilson. O'Brien is going to be a quality player for Wisconsin. Not Russell Wilson, but few could be.
They make their own linemen at Wisconsin, so expect that position to be fine. Overall, the defense is expected to improve, though the 19 points per game allowed last year was pretty good.
Wisconsin should make it to the Big Ten title game again in 2012. If they win it, this could be a team that makes the BCS championship game.
That earns them a very respectful No. 6 on our list.
The Michigan faithful were rewarded with an 11-2 season last year after choosing Brady Hoke to get the program back on track. Hoke, not a "Michigan Man" by definition (not an alum), is as close as you can get. He coached at Michigan for eight years before moving on to head coaching jobs at Ball State and San Diego State.
He has a great record for success at both of his previous stops. Coach Hoke believes in a stout defense and a great run game—and he had both his first year at Michigan.
Hoke's team returns 13 starters, including senior quarterback Denard Robinson. He was a first-team All-American in 2010, and second-team all-Big 10 last year. He is an especially dangerous runner when he is called upon or when forced out of the pocket. He ran for 1,702 yards in 2010 and 1,176 last season. He also passed for 2,173 yards (20 TD and 15 INT.) in 2011.
Expectations are that Michigan will be even better in 2012. However, a difficult schedule may make the road to the BCS game too difficult for this team. They have last year's champions Alabama in game one, and they must visit Notre Dame in addition to their Big 10 schedule.
Hard to do, you bet! Impossible, no!
That is why Michigan ranks No. 5 on this list.
Chip Kelly's Oregon Ducks finished the season 12-2 last year. They lost the first game of the year to LSU, 27-40. They then ran off nine straight wins, including a 53-30 drubbing of No. 3-ranked Stanford on the road. Southern Cal visited Autzen the next week and held on to win 38-35 as No. 4 Oregon missed a 37-yard field goal to tie as time expired.
Oregon then beat UCLA to claim the Pac 12 title. Had they not lost to USC, many agree they would have beaten out Alabama for the right to play LSU again in the title game. But it wasn't to be.
The Ducks lose their starting quarterback and top runner from the 2011 team. But, their defense is supposed to be the best they have fielded in years. The young guns they have coming up on offense will likely fit just right into the Kelly system, and this will be another legitimate national title contender.
Before Oregon can think BCS, they must first beat Southern Cal. This is a job that has been very doable in seven of the past 12 games. But, SC is going to be at home and is also a contender.
Whichever team wins the game in LA on November 3, needs to remember how they did it. Because the likelihood of these two meeting in the Pac 12 title game is high. One win each may cancel both teams out of the national title hunt.
Some think Oregon has the better chance of going undefeated and making it to the BCS title game.
The fact that Oregon is capable of doing that, makes them No. 4 on our list.
Southern Cal finished the year 10-2 in 2011. Their losses came at Arizona State and Stanford. They were ineligible for the Pac 12 championship or a bowl game due to probation.
This season, the bowl ban is over. Their star senior quarterback, Matt Barkley, decided to forgo the NFL draft and come back to USC for "unfinished business". This move makes Barkley the front runner for the Heisman Trophy going into the season, as well as the likely No. 1 overall choice in next year's draft.
Barkley will be throwing to what many think is the best group of receivers in the country. In addition, senior running back Curtis McNeil—who ran for over 1,000 yards last season—will be joined by junior Silas Redd, a transfer from Penn State. Redd ran for 1241 yards in 2011 and was named second-team All-Big 10.
Southern Cal is returning 16 players from last year's team. The only weakness this team may have is in depth. USC was fortunate to have few serious injury issues last year. Once you get past the starters, though, they are not as deep as a normal team due to a cut from 85 to 75 scholarship players imposed by the NCAA as part of the probation punishment.
That said, this is a very good team. Due to the schedule they play, it may have to be undefeated to qualify to play in the BCS championship game. If not for those two things, this would be the No. 1 contender for a berth in the BCS title game.
As it is, they still rank high, at No. 3.
The Seminoles return 17 starters from their 9-4 team of 2011. That isn't an impressive number for a team to be considered a threat for this year—until you consider the following:
Their average loss last season was by five points. Their returning quarterback is a senior (current streak of 121 consecutive passes, no INTs). Their running back group is deeper and improved. Same for the offensive line and the same thing applies to the receivers.
They have one of the best defensive lines in the country. They have their deepest, most experienced linebackers in years. Their defensive backs are more experienced and deeper.
They have one of the top special team units in college football.
Their toughness of schedule for 2012, according to Phil Steele's ranking (page 328), is No. 70.
Outside of the SEC, this is one of the two teams most likely to finish the season undefeated.
As a result, they get our No. 2 ranking on this list.
Oklahoma returns 15 starters from their 10-3 team of 2011. This team will likely be coach Bob Stoops' best group since at least his 2008 team that played for the national title. Like Southern Cal, their quarterback turned down a shot at the NFL to play college football his senior season.
The Sooners' run game was back up to an average of 168 yards per game in 2011. That is an improvement from the 138 average they slipped to in 2010. This season, expectations are that the offensive line will be the best since the 2008 group. This should allow for further improvement in the run game. The receiving group is deep and talented as well.
Last season, the offense averaged just short of 40 points per game. Anything close to that number is great offensive production.
Oklahoma's defense is always good. Last season, they averaged giving up 22 points per game. With the returning players they have, along with young talent pushing to be on the field, expect Oklahoma to have an average more like that of 2009 (14.5 per game).
This Oklahoma team is one of the two teams outside of the SEC that are most likely to finish the year undefeated. However, their schedule is more challenging than Florida State overall. This somewhat stronger schedule indicates the Sooners will likely have to work a bit harder to make it through without a loss. Having a bit tougher schedule should keep this team sharp but not beat them down.
These are the reasons the Oklahoma Sooners rank as the No. 1 most likely team to play for the national title outside of the SEC.