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Have We Seen the Last of First Time National Champions?

The rate of first time college football champions has fallen dramatically.

I took a look at first time champions the the AP and UPI/Coaches Polls since 1936 (no retroactive championships here). Here are the first-time champions broken down by decade, with the percentage of named champions (split titles can make for more than 10 a decade) that were first timers:

  • 1930s: Minnesota, Pittsburgh, TCU, Texas A&M (100%)
  • 1940s: Ohio State, Notre Dame, Army, Michigan (40%)
  • 1950s: Oklahoma, Tennessee, Michigan State, Maryland, UCLA, Auburn, LSU, Syracuse (66.7%)
  • 1960s: Alabama, USC, Texas (27.2%)
  • 1970s: Nebraska (7.1%)
  • 1980s: Georgia, Clemson, Penn State, Miami, BYU (50%)
  • 1990s: Colorado, Georgia Tech, Washington, Florida State, Florida (38.5%)
  • 2000s: (0%)

The first three decades were fairly rich with first time champions because teams were beginning to populate the list. There was a 20-year dip after that as few teams (one of which had been a power in the '20s already) asserted themselves. The 1980s and '90s brought a burst of new champs as the nation's Sun Belt and West (plus Penn State) produced more good teams. It's worth noting that only some were really that new as three of them (Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Washington) claim national titles from this era from sources other than the AP or UPI/Coaches Poll.

Florida in 1996 was the last team to win its first national championship. The decade that just passed was the first not to produce a first-time champion. What gives?

For one thing, the nation only has a certain number of top teams. Since 1936, 31 schools have been named national champion by one of the two major polls. Most of those wins were not flukes, as some schools have advantages in the realm of alumni base, finances, and access to recruits. They tend to find their way to the top even when they fall down far.

Some of it is the BCS's fault. In the BCS era, we've only had one split national title. Of the 31 champions listed above, seven of them won their one and only national title thanks to a split vote (though in the case of 1990, either Colorado or Georgia Tech would have picked up its one and only that year). Far fewer split championships means fewer opportunities for new champions.

It also has something to do with the ages of today's voters. Polls are a popularity contest, after all, and people tend to consider teams' reputations consciously or unconsciously when filling out their ballots. Of the 11 first time champions since Texas broke through in 1963, Clemson, BYU, Colorado, Georgia Tech, and Washington were roughly one-year-wonders, with only the Huskies seriously contending for a title again (in 2000). Georgia came close a few times after and the rest won at least one more national title.

In other words, the elite set of college football has been roughly set for the last 45 years, with few new additions. Because few people other than Beano Cook and Joe Paterno can remember a time before that group was set, we have a situation where the majority of voters can only imagine a certain number of teams winning a championship. That makes things tougher on new teams.

Ironically, the BCS can help teams without titles even as it hurts their chances.

Getting in the top two of the final poll is no small task, but doing so guarantees you a title if you can win one more game after that. Oregon had a great shot in 2007 before Dennis Dixon went down, and we were a week away from West Virginia and MIssouri going at it that same year. Voters also seem more willing than ever to give non-AQ conference teams a shot thanks to the heroics for Boise State and Utah in recent years. Boise State being preseason top-five in the stodgy old Coaches' Poll is a sign of that willingness, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the Broncos a spot or two higher in the AP. That is also to say nothing about the growing respect for the MWC, which is seen as an equal or better of the Big East in some corners.

We came close to having no new champions in the 1970s, and the following two decades saw a flurry of new ones. I'm hesitant to call for that to happen again after the goose egg of the 2000s, simply because the escalating money involved in the sport is stratifying the haves and have nots. It's tougher than ever to grow into "have" status like Florida State, Miami, and Florida did in the '80s and '90s. It's also possible that Larry Scott's drive to superconferences may be successful in the future, perhaps locking out a good chunk of teams. There's too much uncertainty in the future of the game.

I think Pac 12-bound Utah has a decent shot once it gets in that AQ conference, and the championship-less Big 12 teams have a chance if they can catch Oklahoma and Texas in down years now that Nebraska is gone. If we are to see some new first time champions, who do you think it might be?