For most of the modern era, college football was dominated by teams from the Midwest or the South. In the 30 seasons prior to the beginning of the Bowl Championship Series (1968-1997), there were 38 “consensus” national champions recognized by the NCAA.
Here’s a rough breakdown of what that looked like geographically:
–15 national champions came from what is traditionally considered the Midwest. That includes the Big 8, Big 12 and Big Ten schools at the time of their titles. You could argue that Oklahoma belongs in the South, but as the Sooners played all but one year of that span in the Big 8 alongside Kansas, Iowa State, Nebraska, et al. I’m comfortable calling the Sooners “Midwestern.”
–15 national champions came from the South, which includes Texas. With their access to recruits, the Longhorns always more closely resembled an SEC team.
–5 national champions came from the West. This is an easy one to figure. USC had three, BYU and Washington one.
–3 national champions came from the East: two for Penn State, one for Pittsburgh.
And here’s the breakdown in the BCS era (1998-2011):
–11 national champions from the South, which, again, includes Texas.
–2 national champions from the Midwest (Oklahoma and Ohio State).
–1 national champion from the West in USC. The Trojans won convincingly over Oklahoma but had to vacate the title due to the Reggie Bush sanctions.
Monday’s title game between Notre Dame and Alabama represents the first matchup between a Midwestern team and a Southern team since the 2009 BCS title game between Florida and Oklahoma. In the BCS era, teams from the two regions have met eight times with the South going 6-2. The average score in those games: South 30.25 Midwest 17.88.
That’s a reasonably clear shift southward. Teams from the Midwest are still getting to the title games, but the gap between regions is as wide as its been in nearly a half-century. If you’re a Nebraska fan longing for a return to the national stage while dealing with the lingering question of whether or not the game has shifted south permanently – which should describe just about every Husker fan – tonight’s title game offers a pretty clear rooting interest.
Seventeen weeks ago, Notre Dame fans were wondering the same thing.
If the Irish win tonight, they would become the northernmost team to win a title in the BCS era. North of Lincoln even. If Notre Dame loses, the same wouldn’t apply to any champion of the past 15 seasons.
That alone wouldn’t signal a move away from the Southern dominance of recent years, but it would at least offer some sort of proof of concept for what Nebraska hopes to accomplish.
In terms of tradition and expectation, Nebraska and Notre Dame have a lot in common. But even with those valuable resources, both need to recruit nationally to succeed. As the premier brand in college football – and, really, that’s all Notre Dame was for most of the past 20 or so years – the Irish will always have it easier than Nebraska on the recruiting trail. But the Huskers’ path to their next national title more closely resembles Notre Dame’s approach than it does that of Alabama.
Over the past four years, Alabama has had, on average, the No. 2 recruiting class in the country according to Rivals. Notre Dame’s average is 16.25, with a high of No. 10 in 2011. The Huskers average class of the past four years comes in at 22.5. If the Irish were in the Big Ten, their average class would rank right behind Ohio State (10.75) and Michigan (14). In other words, the spot Nebraska should hold in the recruiting rankings in most years.
But talent isn’t everything. It took Notre Dame more than a decade to find the right coach after Lou Holtz left following the 1996 season. Brian Kelly is the sixth coach since then. Nebraska’s on its third since Tom Osborne’s retirement after the 1997 season.
Rooting for Notre Dame isn’t easy. College football fans are nearly hard-wired to hate the Irish. There’s the fiercely defended Independent status, the Notre Dame Broadcasting Corporation (a.k.a. NBC), the special exemption to even allow the Irish into the title game – all of those things make Notre Dame a tough program to like.
Yet, if you’re a Nebraska fan, it makes a lot of sense to like the Irish on Monday. The Huskers are a lot closer to replicating Notre Dame’s success than they are Alabama’s.
And, yes, there’s the legacy angle. With a national title tonight, Alabama would equal Nebraska’s run of three titles in four years and become the first team to win outright national titles in back-to-back years since the 1994-95 Huskers.
But that’s really just icing on the cake. For Nebraska fans – or any college football fan outside of SEC country – what Notre Dame really represents is hope. Hope that teams from the North aren’t doomed to also-ran status. Hope that a traditional power can win despite having a non-traditional talent base. Hope that there’s no S-E-C chant for the seventh consecutive year.
Play like champions tonight, Irish.