College football is one of the most exclusive syndicates on the planet.
It is unlike any country club, fraternity or the few, the proud, the privileged Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards members. “Elite” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
That’s why we start the season in earnest this week able to predict the future. It’s rather easy, really, to determine which teams have a legitimate chance at advancing to the College Football Playoff.
There are only 18 of them (see below) that can win it — only 14 percent of FBS this season.
These teams are part of privileged guest list has emerged over the last 80 years. Only 30 schools have won a national championship in the wire service era (since 1936). That’s 30 out of hundreds of major-college programs in the last eight decades.
In the BCS era (since 1998) only 17 schools have even played for it all. That’s 17 schools taking up 40 available slots in the BCS and CFP.
The last first-time national champion? Florida in 1996. See what I mean by exclusive? No surprise: almost half of those 30 (14) are current members of the Big Ten and SEC — aka the two richest and most-powerful leagues.
Predicting 2016 CFP participants, then, is not that hard at all. The list of contenders will be small because it always has been. In fact, the sport doesn’t abide newcomers. BYU in 1984 was the last national champion from outside a power conference.
(The WAC is defunct. Pittsburgh, Maryland, Syracuse, Penn State, Notre Dame, Army and Miami won titles as independents. The Canes also won two out of the Big East. Every other champion is from an active recognized major conference.)
Start with the premise that an undefeated season all but puts you in the playoff. That’s also a rarity. Since 1998, there has been more than two undefeated Power Five champions in the regular season just once (2004 — USC, Auburn, Oklahoma) and an average of only 1.7 annually in FBS.
Second premise: Tradition rules.
That’s why only 18 teams have a chance to win it all this season. And that’s stretching it. If Iowa, Stanford, Ole Miss or Houston triumph, they’d be the first first-timers in 20 years.
Sure, it’s an opinion, but it’s one rooted in 80 years of that tradition. And it was obviously an accurate prediction last year.
So settle back, find the remote, pop a top and keep this list handy. Somewhere in this Elite Eighteen, you’ll find this season’s Football Four and eventual national champion.
American — Houston: Did we say tradition? As mentioned, one of four outliers on this list never to have won it all. Beat Oklahoma in the opener and the Cougars have the team and schedule to go undefeated. Houston would be the second non-major conference, non-independent champion. Ever.
ACC — Florida State, Clemson: The ACC and a playoff berth likely come down to the Oct. 29 meeting in Tallahassee, Florida. These teams are so loaded, the loser could play its way back to the CFP.
Big Ten — Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa: Lots of depth here. Ohio State is favored. Michigan State is the defending champ. Michigan continues to coast under Jim Harbaugh. Iowa should coast to the West Division title.
Big 12 — Oklahoma, TCU: The Sooners have the roster for a CFP repeat. To do it, they need to win Oct. 1 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Pac-12 — Stanford, USC, UCLA, Oregon: Being charitable here. The Cardinal are the Pac-12’s only preseason team in the top 10. Oregon seems to be a distant second in the North Division. Either USC or UCLA should win the South. But the reality is everyone in the league may have at least two losses for the second straight year.
SEC — Alabama, Ole Miss, LSU, Tennessee: Nick Saban is chasing his second pair of back-to-back titles this decade. This might be Les Miles’ most talented team at LSU. Ole Miss is a dark horse. Tennessee should win the East but must break the division’s seven-game losing streak in the SEC title game.
Independent — Notre Dame: The recent legal problems don’t help the outlook. Neither does Brian Kelly’s curious decision to play two quarterbacks on the road in the Texas opener. But there’s a reason the Irish remain independent. There’s no question about their schedule strength. If they go 11-1 — even without a conference championship game – they have a heck of a shot.
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / These are the 18 college football teams that can win the national title in 2016