The Toronto Raptors ended the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty on Thursday night in Oakland, California, when they won Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals 114-110 to claim the franchise’s first championship. So that got us thinking, who’s could be the next first-time national champion in college football?
Florida was the last first-time national champion when the Gators claimed the 1996 crown under former coach and College Football Hall of Famer Steve Spurrier. Since then, it has been 23 years of blue bloods — including two more titles for the Gators under Urban Meyer (2006, 2008) after Spurrier helped his alma mater hit its stride back in ’96.
Unlike the NBA, determining college football national champions throughout the course of history is quite messy due to so many outlets awarding their titles in different ways back in the day. So for the sake of this story, we’re counting “major” national championships (College Football Playoff, BCS, AP, UPI, Coaches, etc.).
The list of options is quite short. There’s a Pac-12 power that has been on the cusp in Oregon, a Big Ten West force in Wisconsin, an upstart in UCF and several other dark horses on the periphery of this year’s top 25 that have an outside shot of become a juggernaut within the next five or 10 years.
There’s no question in my mind that, if we had to pick the one that has the best chance, it’s Mario Cristobal’s Ducks.
Look, they’ve been on the cusp. One could argue that quarterback Dennis Dixon’s knee injury vs. Arizona State in November 2007 cost former coach Mike Bellotti’s crew a title. The Ducks won that game but lost their next three against unranked teams. Had Dixon not gone down, they would have likely been in position to make the BCS Championship Game considering that was the season that two-loss LSU won it all.
Since then, Oregon lost the BCS Championship Game to Auburn after the 2010 season on a field goal at the gun, and it fell to Ohio State in the first ever College Football Playoff National Championship following the 2014 season.
If Cristobal and Co. could figure out the recipe, that title could — could — happen as early as this year. Even if it doesn’t, his philosophy fits perfectly in a conference that’s more winnable than any in the country. Why? He has paired a dynamic offense with a strong, deep and physical offensive and defensive lines.
The Ducks return senior quarterback Justin Herbert this year and have redshirt freshman Tyler Shough — a former four-star prospect — waiting in the wings (pun very much intended). They return all five starters on the offensive line with as many skill players on offense as anybody in the conference. They have also made considerable strides defensively — particularly in size in speed. Potential All-American linebacker Troy Dye is back for his senior season this year, 321-pound junior Jordon Scott sits in the middle of the defensive line, and Oregon just signed defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux — the No. 2 overall player in the Class of 2019.
It’s the offensive lineman in Cristobal that’s driving this bus. He knows that games are won and lost in the trenches, and even more so in the Pac-12 where teams don’t have the size, speed and depth as teams in other Power Five conferences.
When searching for the college football version of the Raptors, it comes down to two simple things: (1) Who has the best path to get into the College Football Playoff? (2) Who has the type of team that can actually upend the likes of Alabama and Clemson?
Oregon’s path is relatively clear — at least compared to most of the other options. Getting past the big boys is certainly more of a challenge, but the Ducks have proven that they can at least pose a big-time threat in the past and are building a program that can continue to do that in the future.