College football: Can a team that plays nine conference games win a national title?

Alabama coach Nick Saban leads his team onto the field.
Alabama coach Nick Saban is in favor of Power Five leagues playing nine conference games.
(Dave Martin / Associated Press)

J. Brady McCollough looks at the biggest storylines in college football. Why do SEC and ACC teams have better odds of making the College Football Playoff?


When Alabama coach Nick Saban speaks, people listen. But he has been banging the drum on one topic for years now, to no avail.

Saban wants the Southeastern Conference to add a ninth conference game to the regular season, joining the Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten. Heck, he’d be just as happy with a 10th conference game, and if he had his dream scenario, the extra two games would be played against other Power Five schools.

“I think we need to have more really, really good games on TV for the players,” Saban said at the 2018 SEC media days. “We can’t have fans who pay a lot of money for tickets and boxes and loges who support our programs to pay for games that no one is interested in watching.”


Those are some good reasons, but he left out a big one. How about fairness?

Let this sink in: No team in college football history has won a national championship playing nine conference games.

Stanford coach David Shaw has been one of the loudest supporters of the College Football Playoff mandating that Power Five leagues must play the same number of conference games.

At this year’s Pac-12 media day, Shaw brought up a scenario from the 2017 season, when USC went 11-2 and won the Pac-12 championship with its lone losses a nail-biter at Washington State and a beatdown at Notre Dame. Meanwhile, Alabama did not win the SEC because of a loss at Auburn but was let into the playoff with an 11-1 record.

J. Brady McCollough looks at the biggest storylines in college football ahead of the 2019 season.

Aug. 1, 2019

Shaw’s point is not that Alabama wasn’t worthy — the Crimson Tide went on to beat Clemson and Georgia to win the CFP crown. It’s that Alabama had an easier time putting together a one-loss resume than USC, which played nine conference games, Texas and Notre Dame, plus Stanford a second time in the Pac-12 title game. Alabama, by contrast, played eight conference games and Florida State, which finished that season unranked.

Take this season. Alabama plays eight league games plus Duke. USC plays nine league games plus travels to play Brigham Young and Notre Dame.

Say what you want about how much tougher Alabama’s SEC schedule is over eight games than USC’s Pac-12 slate over nine, but nobody can argue the structure is fair.

Will a team with nine conference games win the CFP this year? Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Oklahoma, Texas, Washington, Oregon and Utah would like to think so.


They also know the odds of making it through the regular season with a favorable CFP resume are lower because of something out of their control.