The X-factor: Five aspiring national champs and what each one needs
There have been 10 BCS championship teams to date, and each has been defined by its own unique flavor. One rode the shoulders of a near-unstoppable quarterback (Texas in 2005). One played things as close to the vest as possible (Ohio State, 2002). Others threw the ball all over the field (Florida State, 1999; USC, 2004) or suffocated opponents with their defenses (LSU, 2003; Florida, 2006).
An examination of statistics, however, reveals there are several common areas in which nearly every champion excelled.
SI.com first examined the idea of a "national championship formula" in 2004, and our updated analysis simply backs up the conclusion we reached back then: Whether a team likes to run the ball or throw the ball, boasts a star quarterback or a caretaker, it doesn't really matter. Nearly all national champions exhibit the following five characteristics:
A dominant run defense. On average, the 10 national champions allowed fewer than 100 yards per game on the ground (96.7), with six ranking in the top 10 nationally in rushing defense.
Positive turnover margin. All 10 teams finished the season with more turnovers gained than lost, a few even eclipsing a 2-to-1 margin.
Superior offensive and defensive lines. The 10 national champions racked up an average of 36 sacks on defense while allowing just 21. Only two had a sack/sacks allowed margin under 10.
An efficient quarterback. Not every championship QB puts up Matt Leinart-type numbers, but nearly all have a high completion percentage and avoid mistakes. The average pass efficiency rating of the champions' starting QBs was 146.2, with most finishing in the top 20 nationally.
At least one gamebreaker. This one's more subjective, but every champion has a player who can take it to the house on any given play. All but one champion boasted at least one receiver who gained 15 or more yards per catch. A Vince Young-type breakaway runner counts as well.
Not every champion excelled in all five areas, but in the few instances where a team fell significantly below average in one category, it compensated by thoroughly dominating another. For instance, 2001 Miami's run defense wasn't all that great (132.7 yards allowed per game), but the 'Canes posted an absurd 39-to-4 sack ratio and a plus-2.4 turnover margin.
Looking ahead to this season, the top five teams in this year's preseason polls -- Georgia, Ohio State, USC, Oklahoma and Florida -- all posted 2007 statistics that largely fit the mold of the aforementioned champions. That's what makes them primary contenders for the '08 BCS championship.
However, each of them will need to improve in at least one of the five categories to rise to the level of those previous champions. Call it the "X-factor" in each team's national title hopes.
Here's how each of the five contenders stack up in the five key categories (based on 2007 statistics), with the X-factor area in italics.
Run defense: 109.9 yards per game
X-factor: Quarterback efficiency.
Georgia excelled in nearly every defensive category last season -- even its rushing average, although below the BCS champions' average of 96.7 yards, still ranked in the top 20 nationally.
However, QB Matthew Stafford's efficiency rating was 20 points below average and lower than that of any previous champion's. The next closest was LSU's 133.6 rating last season with Matt Flynn and Ryan Perrilloux -- but the Tigers' profile in general was furthest from the mold because they lost two games. This year's champion might not get away with that.
Last season, Stafford completed 55.8 percent of his 348 pass attempts for 2,523 yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. If Stafford were to throw the same exact number of passes, he would reach the 146.2 efficiency average by modestly improving his stat line to: 59 percent completions for 2,900 yards, 23 touchdowns and eight picks.
Run defense: 82.8 yards per game
X-factor: Turnover margin.
It's pretty simple what the Buckeyes need to improve: No previous BCS champion has finished with a negative turnover ratio.
Ohio State's defenders did a fantastic job limiting opponents' yardage last season, finishing first nationally in total defense (233 yards per game) and third in rushing defense (82.8). The Buckeyes also ranked sixth in the country with 43 sacks. (Though they'll need to make up for the 14 produced by departed star Vernon Gholston.)
But the Buckeyes failed to produce game-changing turnovers at the rate of Jim Tressel's previous championship contenders. They forced just 19 turnovers, down from 27 the year before and 30 during their 2002 national title season. It will help if All-America LB James Laurinaitis can return to his 2006 form, when he produced eight on his own (he had two last year). QB Todd Boeckman could afford to cut down on his 14 interceptions as well.