- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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So you think your team has a chance to reach the national championship game this season. You think this could be the year.
Hold up a second.
While there are always questions of timing and scheduling and the human element to winning college football games and reaching the national championship, there are some surprising similarities between teams that have been able to lift a crystal football at the end of the season and those who have come close.
Some, like talent, coaching and, at least for the past seven years, residing in the SEC, are obvious. But what about what takes place on the field?
Since 2006, when the Southeastern Conference began dominating college football, there have been specific criteria which have fit all of the champions plus three other teams (Florida in 2009, Penn State in 2008 and Ohio State in 2006), all of whom reached the Bowl Championship Series.
The criteria would have even been more streamlined, except Auburn’s defense in 2010 was a statistical tire fire and Florida found a bunch of ways to not score or rush too well in 2006. Had they been better in those areas, almost every statistical category measured by the NCAA would have had a strong baseline ranking for a champion.
While this isn’t foolproof -- again, see Auburn and Florida -- the following criteria could give you an idea as the season goes along how much of a chance your school really has at winning it all.
Rank 38th or better in rushing offense: Every national champion averaged more than 160 yards rushing during its national championship season and all save that 2006 Florida team gained more than 214.4 yards a game on the ground and ranked in the top 16.
Rank 23rd or better in scoring offense: National champions have been able to score a lot, which is even more impressive considering every national title winner since the 2006 season has been in the defense-oriented SEC. Every title team averaged at least 29.7 points a game and only 2006 Florida was under 32 points.
Rank 37th or better in passing efficiency: The national title winners have all been in the upper third when it comes to passing the ball -- again, a mild surprise considering the level of defenses in the SEC. Every national champion had a passer efficiency rating of 133.61 or better and was ranked 37th or better.
Have a top 15 run defense: For all the prior criticism of Auburn’s defense in 2010, the Tigers actually fared well here, ranking ninth in rushing defense that season. They did give up the most yards per game of any of the national champions, though, with 109.07. All, too, were ranked in the Top 15. Interestingly, Alabama has been the top rushing defense in the country the past two seasons when it won national titles. Of the seven national champions, four held opponents under 80 yards rushing a game.
Rank in the top 40 in sacks (but don’t rank too high): Surprisingly, none of the national title winners was in the top 10 in sacks, either, but all landed in the Top 40, somewhere between 2.29 and 2.64 sacks a game and somewhere between No. 24 and No. 40. So putting some pressure on an opponent’s quarterbacks -- but not too much? -- should be at a premium when it comes to fielding a title contender.
Have at least one player selected in the first round of the NFL draft following the national title game: This, actually, should not be much of a surprise considering the national champion should have at least some NFL-caliber talent on it to survive the season. Defending national champion Alabama did a good job of this in this past draft with three players in the top 11. The total first-rounders for the Crimson Tide actually dropped from the 2012 draft, which saw four players taken from the school. Every title winner, though, has had at least one the following April.
Have a player score at least 10 touchdowns rushing and/or receiving: Again, this seems like a no-brainer, especially considering how many points a game the national champion teams are averaging. But it also shows if a team spreads it around too much, there might not be that gamebreaker type of player to get a team a score when it was absolutely necessary.
Did not lose a non-conference game in the regular season: Again, not a stunner here. The national champions over the past seven years which have lost games have all lost them within the confines of the SEC. This, though, actually blows up the theory that losing early is better than losing late when it comes to the national polls and winning a national championship considering most non-conference games are played in September and early October. So as you get ready to dig in to conference play, know if your team dropped a game, it could be in real trouble to win a title. And/or if it has a difficult non-conference game (see Georgia vs. Clemson in August and Michigan vs. Notre Dame in September), that game might loom even larger.