"Hail to the Victors" in 2007 = "Let the Big Dawg Eat" in 2008

Last weekend, I asked the question, "Which teams possess the ingredients for a national championship run?" My pursuit of this inquiry was inspired by the work of The Band Is Out On The Field's Kevin, who outlined his reasons for believing Cal was a national title contender:

Here are my criteria for organic success:
  1. Good coach willing to stay at the program (you are out Louisville, Northwestern, Utah and 1991 Cal
  2. Good recruiting (helps if you can bring something other schools can't -- like say the Bay Area)
  3. Easily tap-able talent pool (necessary to break through the upper ceiling)
  4. Money (and contrary to common belief, we have absolute shitloads of it)
  5. Area wherein it makes sense that a major power would be located there (so long Rutgers, which wouldn't make the list regardless)

This seemed to me to be a reasonable list and these characteristics of a top-tier program appeared applicable to Georgia under the stewardship of Damon Evans and Mark Richt. Upon further reflection, though, I realized that Kevin's criteria were missing one critical element.

Obligatory photograph of Rutgers alumna Kristin Davis to accompany Kevin's disparaging reference to the Scarlet Knights.

To some extent, the sixth attribute of a national title contender is a corollary to Kevin's second and third factors, but an available talent pool and effective recruiting are not alone enough, as evidenced by the fact that Louisiana State arguably has been the S.E.C.'s most talented team the last three years yet has not won so much as a conference crown during that span.

The sixth criterion is this:

A transcendent player whose talent, leadership, and determination to find a way to win can carry the team to victory even in games in which all hope appears lost.

The Bulldogs, obviously, had such players on their three national championship teams: Frank Sinkwich in 1942, Charley Trippi in 1946, and Herschel Walker in 1980. Teams that "come from nowhere" to win it all almost always seem to have such a player on their roster: Georgia went from 6-5 in 1979 to 12-0 in 1980 because of the Bulldogs' true freshman tailback; Tony Dorsett's 2,150-yard breakout season in 1976 propelled Pitt from an 8-4 campaign in 1975 to an undefeated record the following fall; an L.S.U. squad that went 5-5 in 1957 posted an 11-0 ledger in 1958 because Billy Cannon averaged six yards per carry en route to a better season than he would have in his Heisman Trophy-capturing 1959 campaign.

Likewise, it is not difficult to detect the presence of such remarkable athletes on such top-ranked teams as Florida State in 1993 (Charlie Ward) and 1999 (Peter Warrick), Nebraska in 1994 (Lawrence Phillips) and 1995 (Tommie Frazier), Michigan in 1997 (Charles Woodson), Ohio State in 2002 (Maurice Clarett), Southern California in 2004 (Matt Leinart), and Texas in 2005 (Vince Young).

While all of these teams had copious amounts of talent, each of them boasted a single special player who supplied the missing piece of the puzzle and transformed a top 10 team into a national champion. In light of that fact, any survey of realistic national title hopefuls must ask, "Which of these teams has not just loads of talent, but a single extraordinary talent capable of carrying the team, much as Michael Jordan carried the Bulls to one N.B.A. championship after another?"

The "loads of talent" part would be why having a single extraordinary talent like Michael Jordan didn't do a lot for the Washington Wizards.

Some teams have obvious talent in need of development. For instance, Georgia's Matthew Stafford, Florida's Tim Tebow, and Texas's Colt McCoy all are quarterbacks of exceptional ability, but each probably is another year away from reaching his full potential. The Bulldogs, the Gators, and the Longhorns will be good under their respective signal-callers' direction in 2007, but those squads most likely will not be in the hunt for No. 1 in November until 2008.

Likewise, squads such as California, Louisiana State, Ohio State, Oklahoma, U.C.L.A., and Virginia Tech look like solid contenders for conference honors, but they all lack the single "franchise player" who can catapult them into the national title discussion. (Significantly, four of those six squads lost what would appear to be breakout players in the Golden Bears' Marshawn Lynch, the Bayou Bengals' JaMarcus Russell, the Buckeyes' Troy Smith, and the Sooners' Adrian Peterson.)

With whom does that leave us? Based upon this crucial criterion (and without considering the applicability of Kevin's other qualities common to organic candidates for the top spot), the contenders would seem to be these:

Arkansas: Darren McFadden
Louisville: Brian Brohm
Michigan: Mike Hart
West Virginia: Steve Slaton
Wisconsin: P.J. Hill

Southern California represents something of an X-factor in the equation, as the Men of Troy must be considered national championship contenders (and probably frontrunners) by virtue of their sheer stockpile of talent . . . yet I'm not altogether sure that there is a single standout on a par with Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, or Reggie Bush to provide the leadership that rather clearly was lacking in U.S.C.'s loss to the Bruins in the Trojans' regular-season finale.

The preceding reference to the 2006 Southern California-U.C.L.A. game was sponsored by Bruins Nation.

Of course, when we apply Kevin's other five criteria to the preceding list, we run into a serious problem with his fifth factor, if not before. On the list of college towns where "it makes sense that a major power would be located," it's hard to argue that Fayetteville, Louisville, Madison, and Morgantown would be ahead of Athens, Austin, Gainesville, and Los Angeles. Of course, if it were all about location, a team in downtown Atlanta would have a considerable advantage over a team in northern Indiana, yet Notre Dame has the most storied tradition in the sport and Georgia Tech has enjoyed only sporadic success since Bobby Dodd stepped down four decades ago.

As Kevin noted, the Cardinals' coaching instability has long proven to be a significant impediment to their ability to break through the glass ceiling, as both John L. Smith and Bobby Petrino bolted U. of L. under particularly gut-wrenching circumstances for jobs with better name recognition, even though it is open to debate whether coaching the Michigan State Spartans or the Atlanta Falcons really represents an improvement. Louisville is about to break in its ninth new head football coach in my lifetime and only two of the seven U. of L. coaches since Lee Corso left the Bluegrass State with a winning record.

The other four putative contenders meet Kevin's criterion of having a "[g]ood coach willing to stay at the program," although the Razorback faithful appear bound and determined to aid outgoing and increasingly disastrous athletic director Frank Broyles in his quest to run off every Arkansas coach that might eclipse his achievements.

That just leaves Michigan, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, who are led by Lloyd Carr, Rich Rodriguez, and Bret Bielema, respectively. Coach Carr is a Michigan man through and through, a Bo Schembechler disciple who captured a national championship a decade ago. Coach Rod turned down the Alabama job to remain at his alma mater and Coach Bielema was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach by athletic director Barry Alvarez upon Coach Alvarez's departure from the sidelines following 118 career wins and three Rose Bowl victories.

Barry Alvarez also proved his leadership skills in Southeast Asia before Martin Sheen showed up and interfered.

While all three of those coaches have recruited well, only the Maize and Blue have the cachet and the location to be able to claim an "[e]asily tap-able talent pool" is at their disposal. The Mountaineers may have long-term staying power, but, for the moment, they're the flavor of the month . . . and, given the fact that they share a conference with Greg Schiano, Ray Rice, and Rutgers, they may not even be that. Many observers are equally curious to learn what Coach Bielema will do for an encore at a program that has not posted three consecutive seasons with double-digit win totals in its history.

If Kevin's criteria are accurate and my corollary is correct, the Wolverines are likely to do what they failed to do last season: find their way into the national championship game. Should that prove not to be the case, it will be back to the drawing board for SportsBlogs Nation writers on both coasts.

Should the Six Characteristics of Highly Effective Football Programs be confirmed by a Michigan appearance in the B.C.S. title tilt, though, the presence of Matthew Stafford and Tim Tebow on the rosters of the S.E.C. East's top two programs likely portends a showdown in Jacksonville in November 2008 that will determine which of two teams, Georgia or Florida, will play for the top spot in the final coaches' poll in January 2009.

Go 'Dawgs!

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