As we look ahead to the 2020 college football season previews and predictions, picking conference champions has become, mostly, an automated process. You can rock back and forth between Alabama and Georgia or maybe even talk yourself into Florida winning the SEC. The Pac-12 has no shortage of challengers for betting favorite Oregon, who itself has just recently returned to the top of the conference. However, this season, like most in the College Football Playoff era, looks like another sequel in the series of dominance that we’ve seen from Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State in their respective conferences.
It’s not uncommon for one program to hold court over the rest of their conference peers. The most notable and overwhelming dominance in the modern era saw Bobby Bowden and Florida State win 70 of its first 72 ACC conference games and claim at least a share of nine straight conference championships upon its arrival in 1992 through the 2000 season. Around the same time, Tom Osborne had Nebraska running through and over its conference competition in the Big Eight/Big 12 as his head coaching career was winding down. Steve Spurrier was installing a championship mentality at Florida that would produce nine top-10 finishes and six SEC championships in his 12 seasons.
But since 2000, the SEC has only had one repeat champion — Alabama with three in a row from 2014-16 — and the Pac-12 has not seen another challenger take the throne for an extended period of time since Pete Carroll left USC. Chip Kelly won three straight league titles from 2009-11 and Mark Helfrich followed with another in 2014, but the league has not seen a repeat champion in the College Football Playoff era.
Things are different in the ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten, where there’s not only active championship runs but indicators that suggest these conference dynasties won’t be slowed or overthrown anytime soon. We’re going to consider the case of all three, judging their runs against league history and the present state of the conference. Picking Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma seems like the correct choice until proven otherwise on the field, but should it be? Let’s dig in, starting with the program that has achieved this dominant status in multiple eras.
Time is a flat circle for the Sooners
No program has dominated a major conference quite like Oklahoma in the Big 12, and this current run of five straight league titles is particularly impressive when you consider that no other team has more than three Big 12 championships since the league’s official formation in 1996. But zoom out and include the Big Seven and Big Eight eras and it becomes clear that there is something foundational and institutional about the Sooners commitment to being the best football program in their conference.
It starts with Bud Wilkinson’s 13 straight conference championships from 1947-59, a run that included three national championships and an NCAA Division-I record 47-game winning streak from 1953-57. Wilkinson’s Sooners lost just one conference game in those 13 seasons and recorded two ties, setting in place expectations that continue to have an impact on the program to this day. Barry Switzer was the next coach to meet that standard with eight straight Big Eight championships from 1973-80 and another four straight conference titles from 1984-87.
Switzer’s run of conference dominance was not unopposed though, as the 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of Nebraska as a Big Eight power and worthy challenger to the Sooners’ championship expectations. This rivalry would power the conference through the next four decades and from 1962-95, only two seasons of Big Eight football finished without Oklahoma and/or Nebraska claiming at least a share of the league title.
Which brings us back to the Big 12 era, where Bob Stoops carried on the tradition of conference dominance with seven league championships from 2000-10 and the first two of the current five-year Big 12 championship streak before handing the reins off to Lincoln Riley. Previewing or picking the Big 12 champion should be a more thoughtful process, with consideration to what Tom Herman is building at Texas, Oklahoma State’s offensive firepower under Mike Gundy or the potential of a TCU or Baylor rising up to challenge the Sooners. But in just three years, Riley has matched Texas’ entire program total of Big 12 football championships and exceeded the number of Bedlam wins that Gundy has in 15 years as head coach of the Cowboys.
According to the oddsmakers, Oklahoma is the closest to seeing its run end in 2020. The Sooners are the only of these three teams receiving plus-odds (+100) to win their conference, but if you check the record books and the trophy cases, it’s better to sit back and wait to be proven otherwise before declaring the end of the latest edition of Oklahoma dominance. Riley has a long way to go before he can put his name alongside the likes of Stoops or Switzer, but all signs point to the 36-year old keeping the Sooners in the driver’s seat of the Big 12. There may be a Nebraska-like rival in the future, but that program has not emerged in this century.
Clemson still not to Bowden-levels of dominance
Clemson has established a firm dominance over the rest of the ACC, but while Oklahoma has previous history of doing the same in multiple eras of conference competition, the closest comparison the Tigers have is the program they had to finally overcome to break through in the early part of the 2010s.
When Clemson won the ACC title in 2011, it was the program’s first conference crown in 20 years. Dabo Swinney, then in only his third full year as head coach, spoke about the journey to get there and the steps that were ahead to accomplish their goals. That success proved to be short-lived because Florida State would reassert itself as the ACC’s flagship football program with three-straight league titles, a national championship in 2013 and a College Football Playoff appearance in 2014.
But ever since then it’s been all Clemson, and the closest comparison that the ACC has in its league history is Florida State. Not the Jimbo Fisher-led four conference titles in five years, but the legendary run of league dominance led by Bobby Bowden upon the Seminoles’ arrival in the ACC. For comparison, Clemson’s current run includes five straight ACC titles to Bowden’s nine and a 38-2 combined conference record to Bowden’s 70-2. Swinney has won as many national championships as Bowden did during his nine-year stint at the top of the league, but he’s also got as many conference losses.
While Florida State would go on to win three more conference titles in 2002, 2003 and 2005, the Seminoles would not again go undefeated in ACC play until Jimbo Fisher’s national championship-winning season in 2013. So historically speaking, even Clemson’s upper hand on the rest of the league might be tenuous, and the Tigers continue to push forward knowing all the well what motivates the rest of the conference to close the gap, having been in that same position under FSU’s thumb in the 1990s.
Ohio State’s forecast points an unprecedented run
It may seem like Ohio State is outpacing the rest of the league based on talent level and recruiting rankings, but historically speaking, the Buckeyes and their three straight Big Ten titles are presently just another in a long line of mini-runs in Big Ten history.
Title runs of three years of more have been accomplished on 13 different occasions in the league’s storied history. Michigan has matched such runs six times, most recently in its five-year conference title run from 1988-92. The Buckeyes have now done it four times including their present reign. Minnesota won three straight Big Ten titles on two different occasions in the first half of the 20th century and Wisconsin ran off three straight conference titles from 2010-12, the first of which was a shared championship with Michigan State.
Ohio State (1972-77)
Ohio State (2005-09), Michigan (1988-92)
Michigan (1971-74), Michigan (1947-50), Michigan (1930-33), Michigan (1901-04)
Ohio State (2017-19), Wisconsin (2010-12), Michigan (1976-78), Ohio State (1968-70), Minnesota (1933-35), Minnesota (1909-11)
The first thing to point out is the widening gap between Michigan’s long runs of success in the 20th century and its absence of conference championships since Lloyd Carr’s retirement in 2007. While Jim Harbaugh has done plenty to restore stability and raise the floor of a program that lost its conference footing under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke — Michigan went a combined 24-32 in Big Ten play with a pair of 6-2 finishes from Hoke in 2011 and 2012 as the only years with a winning conference record in that seven-year stretch — the obvious next step is the Wolverines first conference championship since 2004.
The second is the influence of Urban Meyer and the notion that he has elevated the Buckeyes both on the field and behind the scenes in a way has changed their relationship not just with Michigan, but the rest of the conference. Of the three teams identified here, Ohio State has the shortest streak of conference championships but stands second only to Clemson in terms of being an overwhelming betting favorite to win the league. Meyer brought in infrastructure that included new approaches to player personnel and recruiting that have carried over to the Ryan Day era.
Unlike the ACC and Big 12, the Big Ten has a defined and proven group of threats to Ohio State’s dominance. Teams have risen up in the last decade to claim the crown and even done work on the recruiting trail to try and close the talent gap, but those same teams have been falling short when they go head-to-head against the Buckeyes of late. Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin seem to have an upper hand on much of the league, but when it comes the one game they need to win, the Buckeyes seem to find a way to emerge with their dominance intact. The presence of these threats make picking Ohio State to win the next handful of Big Ten championships a tenuous proposal, but the initial results of the Day era and the lingering influence of Meyer have positioned the Buckeyes to establish a single-school dynasty that can stand alongside the most impressive examples of conference dominance from college football’s history.