Plenty has been written about the winners. This is about the other college football teams. You know, those teams who have been right there, ranked in the top 10 in the country but never quite able to win a championship.
Most schools don’t win NCAA football championships. Most of them, like Washington State or Rice, aren’t even close. But there are a few teams who seem pretty close every year. They climb into the top 10, winning games while the competition falls apart. And then they lose to an unranked rival or drop a conference championship game to a lower-ranked team. Enough about the winners; here’s our look at the college football teams who have been close over the last 30 years but just can’t bring home the hardware.
The University of Utah football team has overachieved for almost two decades now. In 2003 and 2004, with Urban Meyer as their coach, they went 22-2. In 2004, Utah went unbeaten and knocked off Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl. The Utes played their way into the Pac-12. They routinely beat Oregon (including twice in 2021). They have been ranked every season dating back to 2014 and made it as high as the No. 3 spot in 2015.
By any definition, the Utes are successful. What they have not done is win a national championship. For two decades, college football has been dominated by Alabama, LSU and USC. Right behind them are a steady parade of also-ran teams who are consistently knocking on the door to the big party. Instead, the Utes developed a penchant for losing a couple of games a year that should be won. Last year, the Utes lost to unranked BYU and Oregon State; a pair of wins over Oregon, who were ranked in the top 10, could not redeem the season.
How they can win it all: Coach Kyle Whittingham is a proven commodity. The Utes have consistently found junior college transfers and undervalued California high school players. They need to attract big-name recruits. In order to do that, they’re going to need to switch conferences (again), as the Pac-12 appears to be waning.
If the curse ends: Utes fans will still have to argue with BYU fans, who believe their team won a national title in 1984. (They didn’t. Move on, Cougs.)
Oregon has just two losing seasons dating back to 1994. The Ducks have been ranked No. 1 in the country. They’ve been ranked in the top five during 10 seasons. Crucially, they lost to Auburn by three points in the national title game in 2010 and got smoked in the 2015 title game by Ohio State.
The Ducks had their chances. And they still have Phil Knight’s money. The founder of Nike poured money into his alma mater’s sports programs, which is why Oregon has some of the nicest facilities in all of college sports … and an empty trophy case.
How they can win it all: With athletes now able to make money off their name, image and likeness, Knight can stop throwing money at facilities and start throwing it directly at the athletes. Oregon already has a knack for getting talent to leave California; if the Ducks can expand the recruiting map nationally, they can compete with the SEC powerhouses.
If the curse ends: Once the spigot opens, it may never close. If the Ducks can win a national title, they might not stop winning them.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
For many, they are the living embodiment of college football. Notre Dame has a starring role in the movie Rudy. The school has its own TV deal with NBC; they’ve been on national TV nearly every fall Saturday for about 30 years.
The Fighting Irish also have not won a national title since 1988. They’ve been right there. The Fighting Irish have been in the top 10 of the AP poll every season dating back to 2014. But that’s at least partly a mirage. Take last season for example. Notre Dame played just two ranked teams during the regular season — and they lost 24-13 to one of them, No. 7 Cincinnati. The Fighting Irish played three ranked teams in 2020, and they lost to one of them before getting smacked out of the playoffs by Alabama.
How they can win it all: For all its notoriety, Notre Dame’s recruiting classes should rate better. The Fighting Irish didn’t crack the top 10 in 2019 or 2020. Alabama and Georgia are in the top 10 every year. That’s how you get a national title.
If the curse ends: All the fair weather Notre Dame fans will be back in abundance.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
For all the football stars to play and coach in Stillwater, the Cowboys ought to get a runner-up trophy of some kind for their brushes with greatness. They’ve been coached by guys like Jimmy Johnson and Les Miles, who both won their titles elsewhere. Current coach Mike Gundy has had the Cowboys in the AP Top 25 every year dating back to 2008, and they’ve been ranked in the top 10 in 10 different seasons.
Last season, it was a stumble against unranked Iowa State and a loss to Baylor in the Big 12 title game that cost Oklahoma State a chance at glory.
How they can win it all: A young Oklahoma-born quarterback grows up with two future NFL receivers, and they all decide to attend Oklahoma State and win a national title together. A Disney movie follows.
If the curse ends: Sooners fans will never hear the end of it, for starters. But if Oklahoma State wins it all, soon, it would turn college football on its ear. The Big 12 only won two national champions in the last 25 years. And with the conference struggling for its life, a national title would be a shot in the arm.
How many seasons in a row have the Badgers been ranked in the AP’s Top 25?
You may not have been born yet, so we’ll forgive you if you don’t know they’ve been in the poll every season since 1997. In those 26 straight seasons, Wisconsin has made it as high as third, in 2017. The Badgers stormed through the regular season undefeated and made it all the way to the Big Ten title game, where they promptly laid a goose egg in a loss to Ohio State and also lost all chances of winning a national title.
How they can win it all: The Badgers maintained a run-first attitude while college football has gravitated to tossing the ball all over the field. Their recruiting classes are rarely among the best in the country. There will always be five Wisconsin-born, beef-eating boys on the offensive line ready to plow over opposing teams. The question is whether they can attract some star power to light up the scoreboard.
If the curse ends: Madison might burn down. Wisconsin loves its football and also loves partying. The big offensive line will always keep the Badgers competitive, but they’re unlikely to develop into a regular national contender because the best football recruits are from the South and West Coast.
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