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Even the best team struggles at some point in a four-month season, and it won’t always be against an especially good opponent. Every year, when a top-five contender has an iffy moment (maybe even a loss) against a lesser team, it’s tempting to declare that team out of the running entirely. But history shows that’s usually premature, especially now that FBS has an actual championship format, such as it is.
First, here’s a run through the BCS/Playoff era for very nearly annual examples of national champs looking shaky.
(Maybe in the offseason, I’ll see if there’s a way to expand to every national champ).
1998 Tennessee 17, Auburn 9
In raw points, the third-best effort all year by Auburn’s defense. The Tigers would go 3-8 amid parting ways with Terry Bowden. The injured Vols scored all their points within the first 13 minutes, including a 90-yard interception return by 290-pounder Shaun Ellis, and then held Auburn to field goals — despite Tennessee fumbling away the ball at its own one-yard line. The Vols slipped a spot in the polls for all this.
1999 Florida State 17, Clemson 14
The inaugural Bowden Bowl! Tommy’s Tigers weren’t bad, losing to the country’s two undefeated teams (counting Marshall) and both the BCS Championship’s teams (counting Virginia Tech), plus two other final-ranked teams. And if Tommy goes for it on fourth down with two minutes left, it’s possible he gives his dad’s BCS title spot to Frank Solich’s Cornhuskers.
2000 Oklahoma 12, Oklahoma State 7
A 19-of-36, 154-yard, two-INT performance against the Pokes (who beat nobody better than a 5-7 Tulsa) might’ve cost Josh Heupel the Heisman, but Bedlam ended up with the same overall result as almost always.
2001 Miami against both Boston College and Virginia Tech
The Madden player’s pick for best college football team ever almost collapsed twice, but Ed Reed kept happening.
This turned a potential 14-12 lead for BC into what looks like a tidy, two-score Miami victory:
And roughly the same thing happened in Miami territory during the final minutes of a two-point win against VT, minus the all-time pick six part.
2002 Ohio State 23, Illinois 16 (OT)
In one-score wins, Ohio State:
- Was outgained by 123 yards against 7-7 Cincinnati
- Needed a late interception to hold off 8-6 Wisconsin
- Lost four turnovers against 9-4 Penn State, then fell by two spots in the polls
- Was outgained by 74 yards against 7-6 Purdue
- Was outgained by 104 yards against 10-3 Michigan
- And was outgained by 102 yards against spiritual national champ Miami
2012 Notre Dame is impressed! But none of these can top being dragged to overtime (and yes, outgained) by 5-7 Illinois.
2003 Florida 19, LSU 7
These 8-5 Gators held three teams in single digits: FAMU, San Jose State, and the national champ. On this day, Ron Zook simply outcoached Nick Saban, and LSU OC Jimbo Fisher could do nothing against Charlie Strong.
2004 USC 31, Stanford 28
“I don’t think it was anger. It was excitement,” Reggie Bush said of USC’s halftime locker room, shortly after the Trojans had trailed Buddy Teevens’ final bad Stanford team by 11. “These are the type of games that we miss, that we love. It’s easy to blow a team out. When you win a game like this, you feel so much better.”
The Trojans would then chase this feeling once a month afterward, coming a Bush miracle or two away from losing to 7-5 Oregon State and 6-6 UCLA.
2005 Texas: N/A
There were a couple two-score road wins against mediocre conference rivals, but the only one-score wins were against final #2 USC in the game that would provide the Longhorn Network’s entire broadcast schedule and final #4 Ohio State in Columbus.
2006 Florida 25, Vanderbilt 19
The loss to Auburn wasn’t impressive, but it was on the road, close, and against a top-10 team.
These Gators were constantly in ugly scraps, leading Urban Meyer to stump for BCS placement based on schedule strength. That was fair overall, even if needing the backup QB (fella by the name of “Tebow”) to put away 4-8 Vanderbilt (after the starter threw three picks) did not display strength.
2007 LSU lost two triple-OT games against five-loss teams
2008 Ole Miss 31, Florida 30
I’d love to pick something besides The Speech Game, but these Gators were awesome otherwise. Even if that extra point had gone through, this game would be the choice for this list.
Houston Nutt lost to Vanderbilt at home, then went on the road to beat one of the five or so best college football teams of my lifetime, and then lost to South Carolina at home.
2009 Alabama 12, Tennessee 10
One big hand prevented Lane Kiffin from quite possibly putting the Cincinnati Bearcats in the BCS title game. The Tide fell from #1 and wouldn’t return until December.
2010 Auburn vs. everyone
Cam Newton’s Auburn was the most entertaining team of the BCS era, even though way too many people missed it because they’d yet to snap out of the NCAA’s spell. Unlike 2002 Ohio State, Auburn tempted fate in exciting ways.
Without Cam, this team really could’ve gone 4-8. So Auburn’s closest call was actually on — or shortly before — National Signing Day.
2011 LSU 9, Alabama 6 (OT)
I don’t want to talk about what happened next.
2012 Texas A&M 29, Alabama 24
The future head coach of the Arizona Wildcats and future head coach of the Arizona Cardinals watched as their star protege, a future Memphis Express backup, produced several GIFs against one of the most talented college defenses ever constructed.
2013 Florida State: N/A
The Noles let Boston College score a few too many points and needed clutch plays to beat Auburn in the final, but this team mostly spent all season demonstrating schedule strength can be very, very deceptive.
2014 Virginia Tech 35, Ohio State 21
Noisy onlookers rushed to demonstrate their instant understanding of the brand-new system by declaring the entire Big Ten officially eliminated (as of September 6) from placing a team in the Playoff. There is no law that requires you to listen to these people.
Rarely remembered detail: despite shouters treating this all season like the ghastliest loss ever, the Hokies finished 7-6. That means the Playoff committee eventually treated it like a loss to a bowl team, little different from CFP snub Baylor’s loss to 7-6 West Virginia.
(Is this still the worst loss by a champ on this list? Yeah, probably. You might have to go back to 1983 Miami getting crushed by a really good Florida to find a worse one. I’m close to contradicting myself and will move on.)
2015 Ole Miss 43, Alabama 37
A perfectly executed plan. Sorry you didn’t think of it first, Nick. Follow the procedure:
Everything went great for Ole Miss after that.
Let’s also recall Bama needing to make plays on both sides of the ball in the final three minutes to hold off Butch Jones’ Vols. Bama then hired him in order to eliminate a threat.
2016 Pitt 43, Clemson 42
Our good Pitt upset boys riddled the Tigers for 464 yards, with frequent chunks on the same shovel option play over and over. This also required one of the worst games of Deshaun Watson’s college career ... in terms of the three INTs, at least. He still threw for 580 yards lmao.
One of the best college QBs ever threw for 580 yards, and Nathan Peterman’s unranked 8-5 team won anyway. Pitt is incredible.
2017 Auburn 26, Alabama 14
So many SEC schools reached their goals- AU won the division, UGA won the conference and Bama won the Title. Great year all around pic.twitter.com/RP8FTjVp27— Rick Carpentry (@RickMuscles) January 9, 2018
2018 Clemson’s one-score wins amid QB shuffling
The Tigers beat final #16 Texas A&M on the road and final #15 Syracuse at home, needing soon-to-be transfer departure QB Kelly Bryant in the former and third-string call-up QB Chase Brice in the latter. Clemson dropped from #2 to #4. Trevor Lawrence, an NFL receiving corps, and an NFL defensive line handled things from there.
2019 LSU: N/A
The only teams to come within a score: Citrus Bowl champ Alabama (in Tuscaloosa), Iron Bowl champ Auburn, and Alamo Bowl champ Texas (in Austin).
And now that we have a four-team Playoff field, the chances of a single loss totally ruining a Power 5 team are as small as ever.
If you win a P5 conference and only lose to a team that finishes in the top 15, it’s gonna take a lot for you to miss the Playoff. But you can even lose to a team with a losing record and still make it — or at least, that’s already been done.
Losing to eventual four-loss teams didn’t end these national title hopes:
- 2014 Ohio State: Virginia Tech, 6-6 on Selection Sunday
- 2015 Michigan State: Nebraska, 6-6
- 2015 Oklahoma: Texas, 5-7
- 2016 Clemson: #23 Pitt, 8-4
- 2017 Clemson: Syracuse, 4-8
- 2017 Oklahoma: Iowa State, 8-5
- 2018 Oklahoma: #15 Texas, 9-4
- 2019 Oklahoma: Kansas State, 8-4
(You should still try to look competitive in these virtual freebie losses. Don’t push your luck by giving up 49 points to Purdue, for example.)
And if we’d had a four-team field at the time, teams would’ve made CFP fields despite such unglamorous Ls as these:
- 2007 LSU: Arkansas, 8-4, and Kentucky, 7-5
- 2007 Oklahoma: Colorado, 6-6, and Texas Tech, 8-4
- (Also count 2007 Virginia Tech, who lost to two two-loss teams, which adds up to four: #2 LSU, 11-2, and #14 Boston College, 11-2)
- 2008 Florida: #25 Ole Miss, 8-4
- 2011 Oklahoma State: Iowa State, 6-6
- 2013 Michigan State: Notre Dame, 8-4