The Duke Blue Devils came from behind to defeat Wisconsin for the NCAA men’s basketball national championship Monday night in Indianapolis. It is the fifth time Duke has celebrated the national championship on the hard court, while Wisconsin continues to search for its first national title in the sport since 1941. The Badgers look to be getting closer after a second straight season ending in the Final Four, this time even holding a lead in the second half before seeing things get away from them. Now Wisconsin fans will continue to count down to the start of the college football season, as the football Badgers look to continue on its own search for a national championship.
Every season when the NCAA tournament rolls around I like to look through the tournament field and see which schools are football schools and which are more closely identified as basketball schools. Duke, despite some nice seasons in previous years, is without a doubt a basketball school. The same goes for Kentucky and Kansas. Wisconsin, I would argue, belongs under neither category. Considering there is just one national championship between the two programs since World War II, I feel confident in saying Wisconsin does not deserve either label.
The other question that popped in my head leading up to the national championship game on Monday night was which school would win a college football national championship first. Wisconsin is probably the more obvious choice here, and I would not necessarily argue that. Could Duke win a national championship? Almost anything seems to be possible, but when it comes to college football Duke is light years away from the possibility. The same cannot be said of Wisconsin.
Wisconsin is just a more equipped football program compared to Duke, and the academic standards and requirements at each school should allow Wisconsin to have the upper hand in that conversation for years to come. This is not meant to suggest Wisconsin enrolls a bunch of guys with rocks for brains. Last year’s football APR scores in the Big Ten would attest to that (Wisconsin football had a 989 APR, second-highest in the Big Ten behind only Northwestern). But Duke’s academic profile limits the kind of talent the program can bring in. And this is what will ultimately hold a program like Duke back from being a national title contender in football. You can get away with it in basketball, where the rosters are smaller and the one-and-done recruiting strategy can be utilized to your advantage. You do not have those luxuries, if you choose to call them that, in football. There is no question Duke is capable of competing for the ACC from time to time. The Blue Devils just played for the ACC title two seasons ago before running into the wall that was Florida State. Duke playing in a wide-open division like the ACC Coastal certainly helped as well.
Trends in college football could also give Duke a slight edge. If recruiting trends continue to move south and out of the cold north that is Wisconsin and Big Ten territory, that could theoretically open up some more opportunities for a program like Duke, especially with the age of autonomy creating another divide in the collegiate athletics world. The question is whether or not Duke will manage to keep pace with added benefits and luxuries compared to the rest of the southern programs from the ACC and SEC. There is a reason programs like Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Northwestern and Stanford have typically been buried in conference supremacy over the years on the college football timeline (yes, Stanford appears to be an exception of late).
As far as the ACC is concerned, the Blue Devils will always be the longshot when Florida State and Clemson are in the mix. Duke typically will have to compete to get by Virginia Tech, Miami, UNC and Georgia Tech just to have a shot as well. For Wisconsin, the path to a College Football Playoff run should be a bit more clear. Not to belittle what sits in front of Wisconsin, but the biggest hurdle in most years will be getting by Nebraska or Iowa in the regular season and then winning the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State or Michigan State or, in the years to come, Michigan or Penn State.
Winning a national championship is hard. Some very good programs are still looking for a football crown, or at least the first one in decades. Oregon has not won one yet despite the rise of that program over the past decade. Neither has West Virginia, Missouri, Arizona or Arizona State. The waiting list is pretty sizable, and Wisconsin is on it. Duke is much further down the waiting list unless they can pull a Ferris Bueller and convince the College Football Playoff they are in fact the sausage kings of Durham.