By James Reno

Who really has a shot to win the National Title?

I have a simple formula to determine which teams have a realistic chance of winning the National Title. This formula can be stated simply as: # of Teams (minus) Recruiting Rankings2 (minus) Strength of Schedule (minus) Vegas Win Total = Number of National Title Contenders.

Let’s start with the Recruiting Rankings2 portion of the formula (and yes, I give greater value to Recruiting Rankings, which is why that portion of the formula is squared.) No team in recent memory has won a National Title without having landed at least ONE top ten recruiting class (Per Rivals) in the previous four years. Using the Recruiting Rankings2 metric, only 16 teams are viable National Title contenders.

The following is the list of those 16 teams. I have included each teams respective recruiting ranking over the past four seasons, starting with the 2016 class:

Alabama 1, 2, 1, 1

Ohio State 3, 9, 3, 2

Florida State 2, 3, 4, 10

LSU 5, 8, 2, 6

Auburn 9, 7, 9, 9

Georgia 11, 6, 7, 12

USC 12, 1, 10, 13

Clemson 6, 4, 13, 14

Notre Dame 13, 11, 11, 3

aTm 17, 10, 6, 11

Tennessee 15, 5, 5, 21

UCLA 10, 13, 16, 8

Florida 14, 23, 8, 4

Ole Miss 8, 21, 19, 7

Texas 7, 12, 20, 24

Michigan 4, 51, 31, 5

Special Note: Only five teams: Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State, LSU, and Auburn have had Top Ten classes for each of the past four recruiting cycles.

Championships are not won… they are scheduled!

While I assign more weight to recruiting rankings than strength of schedule, scheduling does matter quite a bit. A team with an easier path to the playoffs has a much greater chance of actually making the playoffs (duh!). And you can’t win a national title if you fail to make the playoffs (again, Duh!).

So which of the 16 teams have schedules that make it easier (or more difficult) for them to make the playoffs? For starters, let’s rank our the Strength of Schedule for each of our National Title Contenders using Phil Steele’s national rankings for the Toughest Schedules in College Football:

#1 USC
#2 Ole Miss
#3 Alabama
#5 Auburn
#7 aTm
#11 LSU
#12 Texas
#14 Florida State
#20 Ohio State
#22 Notre Dame
#35 UCLA
#55 Florida
#57 Georgia
#58 Tennessee
#61 Clemson
#67 Michigan

I eliminate any team from National Title Contention if they have a Strength of Schedule that is ranked in the Top Ten Unless that team has had Multiple Top Five recruiting classes in the previous four cycles. Teams eliminated using this criteria: USC, Ole Miss, Auburn, aTm.

Second, let’s look at the line Vegas has set for each teams Regular Season Win Total:

Clemson 10.5
Alabama 10
Florida State 10
Michigan 10
LSU 9.5
Notre Dame 9.5
Ohio State 9.5
Tennessee 9.5

Georgia 8.5
Ole Miss 8.5
UCLA 8.5
Florida 8
USC 7.5
Texas 7
Auburn 7
aTm 6.5

Using the Vegas line as a guide, I eliminated all teams from National Title Contention who have a Regular Season Win Total that is less than “9.” My theory is that Vegas has factored in talent level and strength of schedule when calculating a teams Regular Season Win Total. This leaves Eight teams who are bona fide National Title Contenders:

Clemson, Florida State, Alabama, LSU, Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio State, and Notre Dame.

So which teams should make the playoffs?

Logic dictates that a conference will only send one team to the playoffs. If that is the case, then the playoffs will break down as follows:

Winner of Clemson/Florida State = 1 Playoff berth. A team with the higher recruiting ranking will defeat a team with a lower ranking 66% of the time. In this case, Florida State has a higher recruiting ranking than Clemson. The Seminoles also get to host Clemson in Tallahassee. Advantage: Florida State.

Winner of Michigan/Ohio State = 1 playoff berth. A team with the higher recruiting ranking will defeat a team with a lower ranking 66% of the time. In this case, Ohio State has a higher recruiting ranking than Michigan. Ohio State also gets to host Michigan in Columbus. Advantage: Ohio State.

Notre Dame = 1 playoff berth

The SEC Champ = 1 playoff berth. Alabama travels to both LSU and Tennessee. The winner of the Alabama/LSU game will likely play Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game. Since Alabama must travel to LSU, I give the edge to the Bayeux Tigers. And in a head to head matchup between LSU and Tennessee, I must also go with the Tigers.

So the Four Playoff Teams Should Be: Florida State, Notre Dame, LSU, and Ohio State.

But not so fast!

The fly in the ointment: Oklahoma. The Sooners have not had a Top Ten recruiting class in the past four cycles, which makes me doubt their ability to go the distance and win a Title. However, OU does have a very good chance of making the playoffs considering they are favored to win all 12 of their regular season games. If OU runs the table they WILL be a playoff team. Also, Vegas has set their Win Total at “10” which places the Sooners in the National Title Contender category.

Other scenarios: It’s also possible that a conference could send TWO teams to the playoffs. What if Alabama, LSU, Florida State, or Clemson only have one loss at the end of the season, but fail to win their respective Conference Championship? If the chips fall just right, they could still make the playoffs along with the Champion from their conference.

So what do I think will really happen?

I believe one of the Eight teams I listed as “Bona Fide National Title Contenders” will ultimately win the National Title. Once again, those teams are: Clemson, Florida State, Alabama, LSU, Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio State, and Notre Dame.

But only four of those teams – or possibly Oklahoma – will make the playoffs. So what do I believe will really happen?

LSU. I believe this is LSUs season. The Tigers are loaded, and return almost everyone on both sides of the ball. If their QB play improves from last season, they will definitely be the team to beat. The clincher is that the Tigers possess the home field advantage over Alabama. LSU won’t run the entire SEC gauntlet unscathed, but they will eventually emerge as the SEC Champion, finish 14-1, and notch another National Championship.

Clemson. I go back and forth between Clemson and Florida State as to who will win the ACC and make the playoffs. While Florida State has a higher recruiting ranking, Deshaun Watson will be the best player on the field. So I have to go with Deshaun Watson and Clemson over FSU, but it’s close.

Michigan. I also go back and forth between Ohio State and Michigan. I’m going with the Wolverines over the Buckeyes primarily because Michigan’s schedule is easier. Michigan will be the favorite in all 11 games leading up to their end of the season showdown with the Buckeyes.

Here’s one possible scenario: What if Ohio State loses to Oklahoma, then loses a conference game to say, Wisconsin or Penn State…. But then turns around and defeats an undefeated Michigan team on the final game of the Regular Season?

Which team would make the playoffs? An 11-2 Buckeye team who won the B1G Championship? Or an 11-1 Wolverine team? If Michigan got in over Ohio State, many would cry foul, claiming Ohio State got penalized for playing a tougher nonconference schedule. After all, the Playoff Committee has stated that they award extra points to those teams who schedule tough nonconference games.

Oklahoma. It’s a close call between Oklahoma and Notre Dame for the 4th and final playoff spot. I have the Sooners favored in all 12 of their Regular Season Games. The Irish are favored in 11 of theirs. Neither team has a conference championship game to worry about. I’m going with Oklahoma’s experience to prevail here. But if the Sooners drop the game to Ohio State, the Irish will have the advantage. If either team runs the table, they’ll make the playoffs.

So that’s my official prediction for the season. But I could be very wrong. Florida State, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Tennessee, and Alabama are all viable contenders who could make mince meat of my predictions.