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10 non-blueblood college football teams that could win a title by 2020

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The College Football Playoff means more chances for championship gate-crashers. Among teams that haven't won a title in the modern era (or ever), who's likeliest to make a run?

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The last 15 AP national championships were won by a group of 10 schools. Going back another 15 years only adds seven more schools. Another 15 adds three. The last 60 AP titles have been won by 22 schools. Of FBS' 128 current programs, 101 have never finished No. 1 in the poll, which began in 1936.

The point being: it's very hard to win a national title if you haven't done so before or recently.

Now the College Football Playoff is upon us. One can only hope that this means unexpected teams have a chance to shake up the elites.

So which teams might find favor in the eyes of the committee and then shock the world with a national championship? For our list below, we're not counting teams that have won a widely acknowledged national title since 1960 (which rules out most of the biggest names, plus teams like Clemson, Ole Miss, and Washington*), that played in BCS Championship games (so no Oregon), or that appear on this list of teams already recruiting at a championship level (meaning no Texas A&M, either, since the Aggies will be there soon). And we're not including South Carolina or Stanford, who've been winning too many games for too many years in a row for a championship to shock much of anybody.

* Edit: And Michigan State did win the Coaches Poll in 1965, as we overlooked. So, um, perhaps 1966 should've been our totally arbitrary cutoff date, instead of 1960.

Counting down to most likely:

10. UCF Knights

Last claimed national championship

None. UCF started playing Division III ball the year Alabama claimed its 11th title: 1979.

How do they get the players?

The Knights are at the overall level of 2011 Baylor (despite just beating 2013 Baylor). They've enjoyed national success and put some players on the map by taking less-heralded players from a talent-rich region.

The existing formula seems to involve targeting intelligent players that can handle up-tempo tactics without constant guidance from the sidelines. With players like quarterback Blake Bortles and transfer running back Storm Johnson, the Knights struck paydirt.

How do they even the playing field?

UCF employs many of today's most successful spread-option tactics. It also makes use of flex tight ends, H-backs, and unbalanced formations that force defenses to declare their strengths. The Knights recruit their linemen for power, then use inside zone with all manner of reads attached to it. Their dedication to it allows their linemen and backs to run the play against any opponent or defense.

O'Leary's specialty is coaching defenses, and his approach is similar to that of other mid-majors: relying on fundamentals and classic schemes. The Knights favor small, quick linebackers to handle the needs of an anti-spread defense. They also rely on excellent safety play, which can be a constant for a Florida team with good coaching (especially if they keep recruiting defensive backs like this).

How do they get their chance?

The Knights' use of simple base defenses and ability to get so much mileage out of spread-option football keeps them competitive with bigger programs. Their proximity to upper-tier talent beyond what most big programs have indicates a high ceiling.

9. Boise State Broncos

Last claimed national championship

None. Part of the reason many wanted the Playoff was to give teams like Boise State a shot. But the Broncos might not have made a four-team field at any point yet. Do they have one more run in them? And are they still the best mid-major program?

How do they get the players?

As of late, Boise State has landed about 20 two- or three-stars for every four-star it signs, which is actually an excellent ratio for a school outside the power leagues and so far from a hotbed. Its ability to field talent is entirely dependent on evaluating leftover Californians and unnoticed players from elsewhere.

Then, they have to maximize the potential of those players. Some of their tricks include taking offensive linemen of all shapes and sizes so long as they can move in space and taking limited skill players whose talents are featured in designed packages.

How do they even the playing field?

The Boise offense is a relentless cacophony of motion, play fakes, and personnel packages, all serving to milk the value out of every player on the roster and create leverage to outflank defenses. Underneath it all is a consistent reliance on an angle-heavy run game. From there, the Broncos add play-action and carefully planned trick plays to exploit the defense's responses.

Presumably, new defensive coordinator Marcel Yates will maintain the same strategies employed by Boise over the last several years, including 2010, when he was the defensive backs coach for the nation's No. 1 defense in S&P.

Like with the offense, the Boise defense features some interesting personnel packages and blitzes based in classic tactics. Namely, the 4-3 under defense. The Boise culture of hard work lends itself to creating top-shelf defenses.

How do they get their chance?

Boise State has consistently shown the ability to win big games, and new head coach Bryan Harsin is one of the trickiest strategists in the nation. The biggest trick will be impressing the selection committee, which will require flawless seasons and convincing beatdowns of quality non-conference foes.

8. Kansas State Wildcats

Last claimed national championship

None. K-State was considered one of the country's worst programs when Bill Snyder took over in 1989. The Wildcats just missed the 1998 and 2012 BCS Championships, but going from backwater to champion within 30 years would still be astounding.

How do they get the players?

Kansas is home to multiple JUCO programs, and Snyder and his staff have more JUCO pipelines in California and other states. One benefit is that the JUCO ranks are filled with great athletes and players who have already learned to transition to college life. This is particularly helpful in choosing linemen, since it's easier to tell how they'll look after collegiate conditioning.

How do they even the playing field?

Bill Snyder is quietly one of the best offensive coaches in the history of the game. His offense takes the best from option football, the wildcat, the spread passing game, and a power run game and somehow creates a coherent amalgamation.

The makeup of the line is generally quick, tall, and light, creating movement with double-teams, angles, and stretch blocking. Snyder has a diverse enough playbook to feature dynamic playmakers at any skill position, while the rest of the roster is comprised of tough role players. Featured athletes are often set up with phenomenal opportunities to exploit defenses.

An essential ingredient to their overall strategy is their excellent special teams play, which frequently ranks at the top of the nation, and their simple defense. They play the same nickel personnel about 90 percent of their snaps, and rarely play anything other than base coverages. Then they just wait for mistakes, then their strong defensive lines create negative plays.

How do they get their chance?

KSU's ability to field legitimate linemen puts it in a unique class within the Big 12, where most programs lack premier defensive line talent. If the Wildcats continue to mine Texas for dual-threat quarterbacks as the Longhorns get back on track, they can win the Big 12 again.

7. Louisville Cardinals

Last claimed national championship

None. The Cardinals finished No. 6 twice during Bobby Petrino's first stint, and now they likely have to beat Clemson, Florida State, and the ACC Coastal champion in order to finish higher.

How do they get the players?

The state of Kentucky gives the Cardinals only about five players per year. They have to steal their blue-chippers from Big Ten and SEC programs, with the sales pitch of working in Petrino's pro-friendly schemes. Moving to the ACC should give them greater access to said blue-chippers.

How do they even the playing field?

Petrino is a well-regarded offensive mind whose preferred methods have often been referred to as power-spread, but are basically modern pro-style. The key to the Petrino offense are his passing-game concepts, such as shallow cross, blended with a physical run game.

When Petrino has a big line, a running back who can bang between the tackles and catch out of the backfield, and a quarterback who can threaten every part of the field with accuracy, there's little opponents can do. Petrino's skills in teaching his passing game and gameplanning opponents are beyond most of his colleagues.

On defense, Petrino brought aboard Georgia's Todd Grantham. The Bulldog defenses under Grantham were largely defined by their zone blitzes and stunts, mixed with conservative coverages on non-blitz downs. When they had Jarvis Jones, this was generally effective. When they didn't have Jarvis Jones, it was less effective.

How do they get their chance?

The Cardinals have improved their odds of landing premier talent, and by hiring Petrino back, they have a coach with a history of developing NFL players. They'll be depending on his ability to build them into an elite program, as he was close to doing previously in Louisville and at Arkansas.

6. Oklahoma State Cowboys

Last claimed national championship

None. The Cowboys came a handful of votes away from a shot in 2011. Was that as good as it gets? If Texas wakes all the way back up and Oklahoma remains steady, how many more contenders can the Big 12 field?

How do they get the players?

OSU relies on its access to Texas, developing and plugging in three- and four-stars.

How do they even the playing field?

Mike Gundy has kept OSU at the forefront of spread offense innovation. The offense has grown into a balanced attack that utilizes the quick-game concepts of the air raid, a physical zone-run game, and a vertical attack from both play-action and drop-back passing. They come at you with fast tempo as well.

The trick to OSU's Big 12 championship in 2011 and status as an annual conference contender is its development of a strong D to match its offense. The Cowboys managed this by getting solid line play and taking advantage of Texas' large number of speedy linebackers and defensive backs.

New defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer moved the approach in 2013 from safe, two-deep coverages to aggressive, single-deep safety coverages that allow his well-coached linebackers to control the middle of the field. While OSU loses likely first-round cornerback Justin Gilbert, its success has resulted in better defensive recruiting.

How do they get their chance?

Gundy overseeing a strong, turnover-creating defense to go along with his cutting-edge offense makes OSU a perennial Big 12 contender and consequently a potential Playoff team.

5. Baylor Bears

Last claimed national championship

None. Before Art Briles' 2010, Baylor went 15 years without a bowl trip. Its last one-loss season? A six-game 1923.

How do they get the players?

Baylor's visually appealing offense, new stadium, and improving facilities mean it's moving from fielding overlooked Texas athletes to landing some of the state's best players every year. The Bears just pulled in their best recruiting class ever, suggesting they haven't hit their full potential yet.

How do they even the playing field?

This hasn't really been an issue for Baylor. The Bears offense adds vertical and inside stress to the typical horizontal stress created by spread alignments. Teams have started to unearth means of defending the Bears, but the growing influx of premier talent at receiver might frustrate those advances.

Baylor's ability to field a top-10 defense in 2013 was a key part to its league championship. Its schemes are similar to Michigan State's, except its recruiting hasn't yet allowed it to find lockdown corners.

The pressing point with Baylor is that its style is unapologetically aggressive. They throw deep early and often and look to suffocate you on D or create turnovers. The Bears don't care if they get down 20-7, knowing the percentages are likely to even out and see them win 63-34.

How do they get their chance?

Another Big 12 title would get them within Playoff range. Once there, opposing teams are likely to be overwhelmed attempting to deal with the unfamiliar stresses created by Art Briles' offense. Their overall team aggressiveness makes them dangerous at every point in a game.

4. Missouri Tigers

Last claimed national championship

None. Mizzou has showed its best teams can compete in the SEC just as well as they could in the Big 8 and Big 12. But the Tigers haven't had a one-loss season since 1962.

How do they get the players?

Gary Pinkel is the ultimate three-star general. He locks down in-state talent and picks over the overlooked three-stars from Texas and SEC country for the fastest team he can assemble. In particular, his staff has shown a great eye for tight ends and defensive linemen, putting such players in the NFL as Sheldon Richardson, Aldon Smith, Chase Coffman, Michael Egnew, and soon to be Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

How do they even the playing field?

Missouri looks to create favorable numbers in the box to run zone read, except Missouri works downfield with vertical routes more often than most. The offense becomes truly threatening when Pinkel has dynamic tight ends or freakishly tall receivers to pull down those vertical tosses.

Defensively, Missouri relies on its area's ability to produce strong linemen. Its ideal is to bring pressure and control the line of scrimmage with the front four. Then it can succeed with an average defensive backfield.

How do they get their chance?

We've already seen how Missouri's spread-option attack paired with vertical threats has challenged SEC defensive tactics. More of the same and another great defensive line could give the Tigers a top-four seed.

3. Wisconsin Badgers

Last claimed national championship

None. Wisconsin might feel like a power program, but it's only been consistently good for about 15 years now, with some fattened records as of late.

How do they get the players?

New head man Gary Andersen has continued the Badger tradition of picking up big bodies from Wisconsin and the surrounding Midwest while also adding athletes from Florida. The Badgers' natural recruiting grounds have long produced NFL linemen on both sides of the ball but lacked premier speed.

How do they even the playing field?

The Badgers have mastered offensive line development since athletic director (and selection committee member) Barry Alvarez was named head coach in 1990. They have a claim to the current Offensive Lineman U title, with running backs becoming stars behind those lines. Andersen welcomed the Badger tradition of smashmouth tactics, but will likely evolve the offense to mix in more spread-option tactics.

The Badgers also rely on their supply of powerful, crafty, and mean-spirited linemen to build their defense around, and lacked only better athletes at the safety positions to have a truly dominant unit in 2013.

Their ability to get pressure with their four-man zone blitzes and stuff the run without committing safeties to the box make this a fierce bend-don't-break defense. Andersen, a Rocky Mountain man, also has at least as much experience stopping spread offenses as most Big Ten schools do at running them.

How do they get their chance?

If Wisconsin can continue to crank out NFL players in the trenches, while adding just a few more NFL speed players, you'll see a dominant team.

2. UCLA Bruins

Last claimed national championship

1954 (Coaches, National Football Foundation). History shows it's hard for both UCLA and USC to be elite at the same time. Considering the Trojans have owned both the local battle and the national war in most years, can the Bruins continue rising as USC frees itself from NCAA sanctions?

How do they get the players?

UCLA will always be well-positioned to recruit the West Coast. It's simply lacked a strong enough program to take advantage. Jim Mora's changed that.

How do they even the playing field?

Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone is one of college football's finest at packaging together a system that's simple and versatile. In particular, the system is suited to take advantage of the West Coast's preponderance of speed and limited number of big boys.

The Bruins relentlessly attack the perimeter with the quick passing game and screens until you only have five guys in the box to handle the zone read. Good luck with that.

Similarly, their defense uses a 3-4 scheme that brings pressure from multiple angles. Their usage of players like Anthony Barr and Myles Jack in blitzes allows them to recruit defensive line 'tweeners or squatty tackles who are hard to move but don't need to offer much of a pass-rush.

How do they get their chance?

The Bruins' combination of access to elite athletes and schemes that are designed to unleash them in space makes them a load for any team to handle. Winning a conference as strong as the Pac-12 is hard to top as a Playoff résumé line.

1. Michigan State Spartans

Last claimed national championship

1966 (National Football Foundation). The Spartans finished No. 3 in 2013. But with such modest success in the last 50 years and Ohio State nearing its full potential, can MSU take another step?

How do they get the players?

For the most part, Mark Dantonio manages to field great teams because his staff's evaluations and development of two- and three--star players is consistently on the mark. The legendary 2013 defense featured former two-star players at both cornerback positions, one of whom is a likely first-rounder in the 2014 NFL Draft. We've told you cornerbacks are hard to evaluate and recruit, and the MSU staff is good at it.

How do they even the playing field?

Dantonio's preferred strategy on offense is to recruit a large number of bludgeonsextra blocking surfaces, and giants, and then to plow the road. The risk-averse style plays well with their dominant defense.

The genius of the Spartan defense is that it's based on a scientific formula for stuffing college offenses. The difficulties for this defense are in finding safeties who can hold up in coverage and cornerbacks who can play press coverage on the outside with little safety help. They play their cover 4 over as much as 80 percent of their snaps, occasionally mixing in exotic zone blitzes.

How do they get their chance?

The Spartan defense has an answer for anything from a power run game to a spread offense and, most importantly for their title chances, a hybrid of the two like Meyer's Buckeyes.

Your turn

Who's your choice for the most likely Playoff party-crasher? And who's your wildest pick for an out-of-nowhere champion?