clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Let’s talk college football title droughts. Which school is our Cleveland Indians?

If this had been published one day earlier, it would be titled, “Which school is our Chicago Cubs?”

NCAA Football: Battle at Bristol-Tennessee vs Virginia Tech
Michael Vick was Virginia Tech’s best hope for a championship yet
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

In a series so dramatic and full of interesting stories that even noted baseball hater Spencer Hall watched it to conclusion, the Chicago Cubs ended their 108-year title drought while extending the Cleveland Indians’ drought to 68 years and counting.

Thanks to Theo Epstein winning titles for the Red Sox and Cubs (as well as the White Sox winning a World Series that ESPN erased from history like a Soviet-era censor), the Indians now hold the longest title drought in pro sports.

But what about college football?

It’s a subject that does not lend itself to discussing with precision, because of the number of teams (no one is going to get worked up about San Jose State or Middle Tennessee State not having won a national title) and the fact that teams began playing the sport in such wildly different years, not to mention the fact that before 1998, the title of national champion was mythical.

Here are six candidates, based on a specific criteria.

Limiting ourselves to the major-conference teams that are in the top 30 on the list of winningest programs in CFB history and with a broad definition of national titles (Wikipedia has a good tracker that shows everything from definitive championships to dubious claims to random selectors), here are our candidates.

Plenty of other teams claim no titles, but these are the ones who’ve won the most games, yet have little more than bowl and conference banners to show for it.

Arizona State
No Claimed National Titles
Closest Call: 1996

Is this the most tortured fan base in college football? You would not ordinarily think it, partially because of a perceived lukewarm fan base (insert standard West Coast defenses: "We have so much to do outdoors other than go to football games!" and "How would you know, when you never stay up to watch our games?") and the fact that they only joined the Pac-10 in 1978, but this is a team with a long tradition of winning that has no claimed national titles.

The Sun Devils don’t have many close calls, as they have not won an outright conference title in two decades, but that league crown brought Arizona State to the precipice.

In 1996, Arizona State started by ending Nebraska’s 26-game winning streak with a 19-0 win and ran over the Pac-10. The Sun Devils played 10-1 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, took the lead with 1:40 to play, and then watched as Joe Germaine drove Ohio State to the winning touchdown.

Ohio State’s win opened the door for Steve Spurrier to win Florida’s first national title. The Gators have added two more since, while the Sun Devils still sit without.

Virginia Tech
No Claimed National Titles
Closest Call: 1999

As any Virginia fan will tell you within minutes of meeting (shortly after they work Ralph Sampson into the conversation), Virginia Tech has not won a national title in any team sport.

The closest the Hokies came was in 1999, after a program that had risen on the basis of strong defense and special teams added a redshirt freshman named Michael Vick. Vick led the unbeaten Hokies in the BCS Championship against a vintage Florida State team, then put on a show for the ages.

Virginia Tech took a 29-28 lead into the fourth quarter, but Vick ran out of magic and the Seminoles scored 18 unanswered points to win Bobby Bowden his second title.

Hokie fans could not be blamed for thinking their title was right around the corner. Instead, Vick injured his ankle the next year. The Canes rolled, Vick became the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, and Frank Beamer never got another shot.

Justin Fuente in now tasked with putting that first trophy in the empty cabinet, which was relocated at some point.

Texas A&M
Last Claimed National Title: 1939
Closest Calls: 1992 and 2012

In the same way that the Cubs’ stretch of futility was strange in light of a large, loyal fan base and a big market — both of which should have translated into payroll advantages — Texas A&M is a weird case. The Aggies have a large group of devoted fans and sit in one of the three most talent-rich states in the country.

And yet, not only has Texas A&M not claimed a title since 1939 (and only recently decided to claim two even older ones, based on retroactive computer ratings), it doesn’t even have much of a Leon Durham-Steve Bartman culture of almosts.

Texas A&M came close in 1992, when it was unbeaten going into the Cotton Bowl, but even with a win over Notre Dame, it was not going to pass the winner of unbeaten Alabama and Miami in the Sugar Bowl. The Southwest Conference garnered little respect and, as Notre Dame showed in whipping the Aggies, the league’s reputation was deserved.

Two decades and conferences later, Kevin Sumlin produced an outstanding team in A&M’s first year in the SEC. The Aggies lost a pair of close home games to Florida and LSU, but then ran the table, beating eventual national champions Alabama in Tuscaloosa and routing Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. Change the result of either of the narrow losses, and Texas A&M wins the West, moving on to play Georgia for the right to make the national title game.

West Virginia
No Claimed National Titles
Closest Call: 2007

Is there a fan base in college football that would celebrate harder, buy more t-shirts, or burn more stuff than West Virginia’s if their team finally won a national championship?

West Virginia had unbeaten regular seasons in 1988 and 1993, but the Mountaineers where crushed in major bowl games, first by Notre Dame and then by Florida.

2007, on the other hand, was a legitimate chance. In a crazy year in college football, Rich Rodriguez’s team was clearly one of the best, as he had finally paired a good defense with his then-unstoppable offense. West Virginia merely had to take care of business against 4-7 Pitt to earn the right to play Ohio State in the BCS Championship, a game in which West Virginia would likely be favored.

Mountaineer fans, this is the point at which you should look away:

No Claimed National Titles
Closest Calls: 2004 and 2008

Utah presents an interesting case, because the Utes only joined a major conference in 2011. Like Arizona State, Utah usually lacked national attention prior to obtaining Pac-12 membership.

Arizona State’s unbeaten teams in 1970 and 1975 did not get shots at the national title. The same was true for Utah under Urban Meyer in 2004 and Kyle Whittingham in 2008.

Would those Utah teams have won the Pac-10 in those years over Pete Carroll’s dynastic USC teams? We’ll never know. We do know that the Utes whipped Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl and Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to end those unbeaten, uncrowned seasons.

Utah fans are left to rue the fact that their teams were not as lucky as their archrival BYU was in 1984 to go unbeaten in a year in which the major conference contenders all knocked one another off.

Last Claimed National Title: 1964
Closest Calls: 1968, 1969, 1977, and 2010

Is it safe to say that older Arkansas fans really, really hate Texas? Three times in a 10-year period (1968, 1969, and 1977), Arkansas won every regular season game, save for the tilt against Texas. Two of the losses were at home by a combined five points.

In 1969, Richard Nixon was on hand to present the title to the winner, and the Hogs blew a 14-point fourth quarter lead. (Watch LHN in the summer, and you are certain to see this game on a weekly basis.) In 1977, Arkansas was a 13-9 loss away from joining a delicious mix of teams vying for the title in college football’s decade of chalk.

An underrated near miss for Arkansas came in 2010. The Hogs’ game against Auburn turned out to decide the West. The teams were in a shootout for three quarters — Auburn led 37-35 heading into the final stanza — before the Tigers pulled away for a 65-43 win. Arkansas fans can hold a grudge about this game for two reasons. First, Ryan Mallett got hurt in the first half, which is just unlucky. Second, the game featured a pair of high-leverage close calls that both went against them.

Change at least some of that bad fortune, and Arkansas wins the West, likely thrashes South Carolina in the SEC Championship, and plays Oregon in Glendale.

Bobby Petrino, national champion? It could have happened.

What do you think? Head to the comments to weigh in.

Others that don’t make the list include Oregon, which was bad until the last couple decades, and Minnesota, which last claimed a title in 1960 but has rarely contended since then (Ole Miss was in this group as well, until recently), as well as a host of mid-majors like Boise State and Miami (Ohio), who’ve had periods with lots of wins, but relatively little time spent near the top.