College football is a duopoly, a throne with two seats. Much like how Ferdinand and Isabella once ruled Spain, or how the Scripps National Spelling Bee routinely crowns cochampions (and sometimes octochamps!), there is no lone program that sits atop the sport. Alabama and Clemson reign, and although they take turns winning the title, there is no disputing that two teams are in charge.
The two teams have met in the College Football Playoff in each of the last four years, thrice in the national championship game. Until last season, it seemed like Alabama was the king of the sport, with five championships in the last decade and two playoff wins over the Tigers. At best, Clemson was a particularly competent duke. (Not to be confused with Duke, which is perennially incompetent and has not beaten Clemson since 2004.)
And then came January’s national championship, in which Clemson demolished the Tide 44-16, Alabama’s biggest loss since 1998. In 12 years under head coach Nick Saban, the Tide hadn’t previously lost a game by 20 points; Clemson thumped them by four touchdowns in the damn title game. It’s unfair to say that Clemson is now undisputedly no. 1 while Alabama is still in the mix, but the balance of power certainly seems even.
They run the sport in every way. Alabama and Clemson account for the last four championships, evenly split between them. They are responsible for seven of the eight appearances in those four national championship games, and nine of the 20 spots in the four-team College Football Playoff field since the event’s inception in 2014. Each school had three first-round picks in this year’s NFL draft. Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is expected to be the top pick in the 2020 NFL draft; Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is expected to be the top pick in 2021.
Any honest preview of the college football season would bore you. It’d lay out how Bama and Clemson are probably going to play for the national title again. Instead of defaulting to the sport’s dual powers, however, let’s imagine some different scenarios. Which teams could possibly win this season’s championship outside of Alabama or Clemson?
AP poll rank: 3
2018 record: 11-3
Of all the teams in the sport, Georgia must feel the most pained by the premise of college football being a duopoly. Because the Bulldogs are right there. They’ve come to the brink of defeating Alabama in championship games in Atlanta—hypothetically their home turf—in each of the last two seasons. In both cases, they blew double-digit leads and then lost.
Two seasons ago, Georgia held Alabama scoreless in the first half of the national championship game. Then Tagovailoa came in, leading the Tide back and throwing a game-winning 41-yard touchdown pass in overtime. Last season, the Bulldogs had a late lead against Bama in the SEC title game when Tagovailoa went out with an injury. The Tide triumphed anyway, thanks to the two touchdown drives engineered by backup QB Jalen Hurts. Georgia is a pair of quarterback changes and improbable rallies away from having its own national title and streak of playoff appearances. Instead, college football’s hierarchy is an A-B conversation, and Georgia has had to C itself out. (Someone said this line to me in fifth grade and it really stung, so I’ve been waiting 20 years to use it. Sorry, Georgia.)
Georgia returns the bulk of the roster that nearly won the conference championship in 2018. Quarterback Jake Fromm is back; running back D’Andre Swift is back; most of a stellar offensive line is back; most of a top-tier defense is back. After two years of losing heartbreakers to Bama in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Dawgs have to be either itching for a rematch or praying to any god who will listen to break the cycle and grant them a season free of games against the Tide. The cruelest outcome for Georgia would be to go undefeated in the regular season, dodge Alabama in the SEC title game, earn the no. 1 seed in the playoff, and land in the Peach Bowl semifinal. Then, once there, they would meet 11-1 fourth-seeded Alabama; Georgia would inevitably take a two-score lead, and Tagovailoa would head to the bench in favor of his soon-to-be-heroic younger brother, Alabama freshman Taulia Tagovailoa. (Lil ’Lia is third on the Tide’s QB depth chart right now, but Saban would have to put him in for poetic purposes.)
Georgia is the third-best program in college football. That’s hardly up for debate. It must feel incredible to be widely acknowledged as better than 127 FBS teams, and yet completely maddening to be behind the same two teams year after year. It’s a reputation Georgia will have to live with until it plays one of the co-kings and wins.
AP poll rank: 4
2018 record: 12-2
There is always one major college program that tries to win games by simply outscoring everybody. These days, that program is the Sooners, whose dedication to preposterous offense has truly earned them the initials “OU.” This approach hasn’t resulted in a national title, although Oklahoma has come damn close. (It scored 48 points in a semifinal loss to Georgia and then 34 points in a semifinal loss to Alabama.) This year, the Sooners have more than just points and hope on their side: They have an Alabama defector who could use his insider knowledge to topple the Tide.
In 2019, the average offense is significantly more effective than it’s ever been, both in college and the NFL. Even so, Oklahoma flies miles above the rest. The Sooners have had college football’s best offense in each of the last three years, according to SP+; they were first in scoring offense in 2018 and finished third in that category in the two years prior. The program’s transition from longtime head coach Bob Stoops to wunderkind successor Lincoln Riley in 2016 has gone swimmingly. The Sooners have won four straight Big 12 titles and made the past two College Football Playoff fields.
None of this would have been possible without star transfer quarterbacks. In each of the past two seasons, a Sooners QB who transferred into the program has won the Heisman Trophy, led the team to the playoff, and gone no. 1 in the subsequent NFL draft. First it was Baker Mayfield, then it was Kyler Murray. (You may have heard of them.) And now Oklahoma has a passer with a higher college football pedigree than either of those guys: Jalen Hurts, who helped get Alabama to the national championship game in each of the past three years.
Hurts’s college career has been frustrating. On the one hand, he’s obviously been very successful. He was named SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a freshman, led Alabama to an 11-0 start as a sophomore, and rallied the Tide past Georgia to capture a conference championship after coming in for an injured Tagovailoa as a junior. But Hurts put up two national title game duds, going 13-of-31 passing for 131 yards in a loss to Clemson, and being benched at halftime of the aforementioned clash against Georgia. Last year he received universal praise for staying in Tuscaloosa after losing the Bama starting job to Tagovailoa. I’m sure he would prefer to be remembered for beating Tagovailoa in a playoff game than for the graciousness he showed in being passed by.
There is some question as to whether Hurts can be as effective as Mayfield and Murray. For starters, Mayfield and Murray were two of the most effective quarterbacks in college football history—their 2018 and 2017 seasons are ranked no. 1 and 2 on the all-time list for yards per attempt in a college season, respectively. And Mayfield and Murray spent multiple years in the Sooners’ quarterback metamorphosis cocoon before emerging as Heisman-winning butterflies; Hurts was on the opposite sideline from Oklahoma just eight months ago. He wasn’t exactly a dynamic passer at Alabama, either: He primarily won games with his legs and conservative throws. In his final season as Bama’s starter, he never threw for three touchdowns in a game, relying on a steady diet of safe, unexciting passes.
If Riley teaches Hurts how to bomb it, the path to a playoff should be easy. SP+ has the Sooners favored by multiple scores in every game this season. (This is yet another year in which people are excited to proclaim that Texas is Back, but advanced stats do not agree.) And even if Oklahoma loses a game, it’s not that big a deal. The Sooners have made the playoff after a loss each of the past two years. If they meet Alabama in the playoff this year, we’ll see whether Hurts remembers the playbook.
AP poll rank: 5
2018 record: 13-1
Ohio State has won the Big Ten title in each of the past two seasons, only to fall short of the playoff because of an inexplicable midseason loss. It feels like the suspects for who killed the Buckeyes’ national championship dreams should be obvious: Surely, it was Michigan, in the Big House, with the candlestick. Or Professor Penn State, or even sneaky Colonel Sparty.
But no! Michigan hasn’t been the one to keep Ohio State out of the playoff, last year or the year before or ever. (The Game is easily college football’s most intense rivalry in which one team is 14-1 over the past 15 years.) In 2017, Ohio State missed the playoff because it lost to Iowa, which finished the regular season 7-5. And it lost 55-24. 55-24! Last year, Ohio State lost by 29 points—twenty-nine points—to Purdue, allowing seven touchdowns to a team that went on to finish the season 6-7. The College Football Playoff committee has been willing to let teams make the field with a loss. It has not, however, been willing to include teams that have gotten their doors blown off by opponents who scraped their way to around .500. So Ohio State’s 2019 goal is clear: Keep doing everything exactly the same, but also don’t lose an October road game by four touchdowns to the eighth- or ninth-best team in the conference.
The Buckeyes will have to replace two key players, as defensive end Nick Bosa and quarterback Dwayne Haskins both were taken in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft. But that’s not as daunting as it may seem: Bosa didn’t play most of last season, and the Buckeyes will start Georgia transfer Justin Fields at QB—and Fields was considered just a smidge worse than Trevor Lawrence by most recruiting analysts. The biggest change for Ohio State is that it will be without former head coach Urban Meyer, whose controversial career filled with on-field success has come to an end (again). The Buckeyes will turn to former offensive coordinator Ryan Day, who managed the team competently during Meyer’s three-game suspension last year.
The hope is that Day can carry over the successes of the Meyer era, a tough ask for a man who was only hired by the Buckeyes in 2017. I suspect Day will fare well on one side of the ball. The Buckeyes ranked 32nd in offensive SP+ the year before Day was hired, and finished third and fourth in his two years on staff. He’s going to have fun with Fields. But can Day, a former quarterback whose expertise is coaching quarterbacks, make any defensive improvements to prevent Ohio State from giving up 50 points to a team destined for the Pinstripe Bowl? Time will tell!
AP poll rank: 6
2018 record: 10-3
Quarterback transfers make the world go round. Oklahoma dreams of beating Alabama in the playoff with a former Alabama quarterback. Ohio State could try to beat Georgia in the playoff with a former Georgia QB. (This season’s playoff cannot feature both scenarios. We must leave room for Clemson.) So let’s complete the ouroboros by discussing LSU, which will start former Ohio State QB Joe Burrow for the second straight year.
LSU is the only program that has been ranked in the final AP poll in each of the past four seasons without ever making the College Football Playoff. The reason is simple: The Tigers always have to play Alabama. They haven’t beaten the Tide since 2011 (in the infamous 9-6 Game of the Century that everybody hated), and haven’t come within one score since 2014. They’ve been shut out in two of the past three years.
And that’s the problem for LSU. Its defense is always elite, having finished second, eighth, and fifth in defensive SP+, respectively, in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Its offense, meanwhile, has been 41st, 23rd, and 30th in offensive SP+. LSU’s last head coach was turf taste-tester Les Miles. Its current coach is gravel-gargling Ed Orgeron. Neither is an offensive mastermind.
The defense should remain elite in 2019. Free safety Grant Delpit is a destructive force equally capable of intercepting a pass or sacking the quarterback. (That’s not a figure of speech; he had five interceptions and five sacks last season.) Cornerback Kristian Fulton earned a preseason All-American nod, too. If Burrow can pick up where he left off—he threw 10 touchdowns and one interception in his last four games, including the Fiesta Bowl—LSU could break through. At the very least, the Tigers could score a point during their November 9 visit to Alabama.
AP poll rank: 17
2018 record: 12-1
Ah, you’re groaning already. Two years ago, UCF became college football’s Cinderella story, a gleeful outsider challenging college football’s moneyed hierarchy. The Knights aren’t members of a power conference, so when they went 12-0 against the likes of East Carolina, SMU, and UConn, they didn’t get an invite to the College Football Playoff. Then they went out and beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl, completing a 13-0 campaign and claiming a national championship even though they hadn’t played in the playoff. Denied entry to the sport’s fanciest party, they crashed the gates, flipped some chairs, and climbed atop a table to give an expletive-filled speech through a megaphone. They were college football’s rebel darlings.
Now, everybody is sick of UCF. After the Knights turned in yet another undefeated regular season in 2018, perception of the program’s quest for recognition shifted from fun to militant. The team’s party-crashing strategy has gone from “chasing the tuxedos off the dance floor by breakdancing” to “standing outside with signs and yelling.” Nobody likes people with signs, unless they’re on College GameDay.
However, I stand with UCF. And I regret to inform you that the Knights are at it again, and may have a better case for playoff recognition than ever before. They play two power-conference opponents this fall, including a ranked Stanford squad. And according to SP+, UCF will be favored in all of its games. (Yes, including the Stanford game.) Star quarterback McKenzie Milton will miss the season as he recovers from an injury that nearly led to the amputation of his right leg. But the Knights have a competent replacement in former Notre Dame starter Brandon Wimbush.
UCF’s biggest test in the American Athletic Conference could come in a championship game matchup against a Memphis team that could also win all its regular-season games this year. (The Tigers are favored by five points in their season opener against Ole Miss.) So what would happen if UCF started 12-0 for the third consecutive season and beat a ranked Pac-12 team and an undefeated Memphis team that beat an SEC team? Well, the yelling would only get louder.
Do I think UCF is going to make the playoff? Absolutely not. The committee hasn’t even let Big Ten or Pac-12 teams into the playoff in recent years. If conferences that have their names on the guest list can’t get past security, UCF isn’t getting into the club. But I’m going to keep hollering until it’s possible for any undefeated team to get its fair shot at the playoff. Don’t worry: UCF fans will join me.