Surprise! Most teams that win national championships are good the next year.
Between 1870 and 2018, a total of 179 teams won a national championship as recognized by the AP, Coaches Poll, BCS/Playoff, National Championship Foundation, FWAA, or Helms (which paid a historian to declare old champs). Though we could just pick one definitive champ each year, all these teams were really good.
The combined winning percentage the year after a title is 81.5 — about 10-2 under current conditions. Since the AP Poll debuted in 1936, all but 12 defending champs have finished ranked.
But occasionally, a defending champion will be mediocre. And sometimes, it will be downright terrible.
In my hunt to find the worst defending champ ever, I took all 179 followup seasons and narrowed the list to teams that played at least eight games, won less than 65% of them, and finished unranked.
That left 14 candidates for the crown of The Single Worst Defending Champ Ever, including one clear choice above the rest.
Category 1: Failed to replace an irreplaceable QB
SRS ranking: 61st
In 1934, Sammy Baugh took over as the Horned Frogs’ quarterback. After Baugh’s three years as the starter, TCU replaced him with Davey O’Brien, who started two years. Suddenly, Dutch Meyer had to win without an all-time great QB.
While acknowledging it might take a year for new QB Jack Odle to kick into gear, Meyer told the AP, “This boy’ll make ‘em forget O’Brien.”
Despite the loss of O’Brien, all-American Ki Aldrich, and a few other key pieces, Meyer told reporters his offense would be “just as strong” as it had been with O’Brien.
“Now don’t get any idea we’re out of the running,” he said. “I think we should be in the same class as SMU and Arkansas as dark horses.”
Odle got hurt and never became the successor Meyer envisioned. TCU lost to SMU, Arkansas, and every other good team they played. Their wins were over Centenary (2-9-1), Tulsa (4-5-1), and Rice (1-9-1). The problem was the O’Brien/Baugh-less offense, which declined from 24.5 points per game to 11.6.
SRS ranking: 46th
Cam Newton was a one-man national championship:
The 2010 Auburn offense was shockingly barren. Running back Michael Dyer is only famous for being down (though he wasn’t). Newton’s receivers and tight ends combined for zero NFL receptions. A couple of linemen had cups of coffee in the league. But Newton was there, so Auburn finished a runaway #1 in Offensive SP+.
Meanwhile, Auburn’s defense was 44th, one of the worst defenses to ever win a title. Other than Newton, Auburn had average power-conference talent.
The two years before, the Tigers lost 12 games. Because Newton chose to play on the Plains, Auburn won 2010. Then he left, and Auburn lost 14 games the next two years.
Category 2: Scheduled too ambitiously
These teams acted outside their Ambition Tiers. They could’ve been good, but riding the highs of titles, they put too much dip on their chip.
SRS ranking: 45th
In 1910, Pitt went 9-0 with a cumulative scoring margin of 282-0. Five of those wins, though, were against non-majors Ohio Northern, Westminster, Waynesburg, Ohio Medical, and West Virginia (which wouldn’t get real about football for a few more years).
In these days, scheduling largely happened before each season. ADs didn’t agree to games 12 years in advance, as they do now.
In 1911, the defending champs added Cornell, Notre Dame (still not a major, but had gone 4-1-1 the prior year against opponents similar to Pitt’s), and Jim Thorpe’s Carlisle.
The defense fell to 25th out of 71 majors in points allowed per game. Thorpe ran over them, like he did to everybody.
1929 Georgia Tech
SRS ranking: 52nd
1929 Tech was not that bad. The defending champs beat Florida 19-6, and the Gators went 8-2. They lost just 20-14 to Tulane, and the Wave went 9-0. (Here, ponder what would’ve happened if Tulane did not intentionally tank in football 25 years later.) But Tech’s only non-conference opponent was Notre Dame, which would replace Tech as national champ.
Tech played the hardest schedule in the country, per Sports-Reference. That’s how an average team (52nd of 100 in SRS) goes 3-6 instead of 6-3.
1967 Michigan State
SRS ranking: 38th
MSU probably thought it was doing the right thing when it looked at its 1967 schedule and saw Houston, USC, and Notre Dame.
Houston had yet to take off under former Spartan assistant Bill Yeoman. USC had been a seven-win team the previous four years. Notre Dame was a rival the Spartans had owned for most of the previous decade. (It would’ve looked bizarre to drop them immediately following a 10-10 tie in 1966’s Game of the Century of the Mid-’60s.)
Meanwhile, MSU was fresh off a co-title, starting out at #3 in the AP Poll, and had QB Jimmy Raye and some other cogs back.
But MSU was not doing the right thing. Houston turned out to be good, finishing #7 in SRS. USC wound up going undefeated. Notre Dame finished fifth in the AP. The Spartans might’ve gone 6-4 if they’d played another average schedule.
Category 3: Scheduled too ambitiously + war stuff
1943 Ohio State
SRS ranking: 15th (!)
The Buckeyes lost an armload of all-Americans in tackle Charles Csuri, fullback Gene Fekete, guard Lin Houston, end Bob Shaw, and halfback Paul Sarringhaus. But World War II made for an unusual football environment. Ohio State wasn’t the only team to lose a ton of crucial players.
These defending champs struggled in particular because they had 1943’s #1 strength of schedule. They lost to ranked Iowa Pre-Flight and Great Lakes Navy, two excellent teams of literal troops the Buckeyes willingly chose to face.
They also lost to ranked Purdue, Northwestern, and Michigan. In all, OSU was 3-1 against unranked teams and 0-5 against ranked teams.
Category 4: War stuff, exclusively
1950 Notre Dame
SRS ranking: 45th
World War II allowed Notre Dame to build the best recruiting class of all time in 1946, when a bunch of veterans wanted to exhaust their eligibility with fellow troop Frank Leahy. With 23-year-old freshmen, Leahy built a machine that won three titles in four years and finished #2 the other year.
After 1949, those players were out of eligibility. Notre Dame’s dynasty ended ultra-suddenly.
Category 5: Lost a historically great class
1971 Ohio State
SRS ranking: 19th
If your recruiting class gets its own section of your program Wikipedia page, it was a good class.
Such is the case for Ohio State’s “Super Sophomores.” After sitting out as freshmen in 1967, this recruiting class keyed a 1968 AP title. A handful were three-year starters. After three top-five finishes and another NFF title in 1970, many of them left for the NFL.
Former Super Sophomores John Brockington (RB) and Jack Tatum (DB) were among four first-round picks in 1971. The team had 13 draftees in total.
Losing such a collection means a decline. Ohio State didn’t lose a 1971 game by more than one possession, though.
Category 6: A collection of little things
1913 Penn State
SRS ranking: 51st
The Pittsburgh Daily Post said the team’s “biggest problem” had been replacing ends Dexter Very and Al Wilson. Very, a multi-year all-American who started every game from 1909 through 1912, was key on every side of the ball, as a pass-catcher and TD-scorer, kick returner, and top tackler.
Penn State got blown out by Washington & Jefferson, Harvard, and Penn. This was despite PSU returning a lot, including eventual CFB Hall of Fame QB Shorty Miller as a senior. The Lions finished their title-followup year without a win over a recognized major.
SRS ranking: 51st
One of 1914’s champs, Army went 9-0 but might not have been that good. The Cadets were 17th in SRS and played five non-majors. The next year, their schedule strength barely moved. World War I would not interrupt their football operations until 1917.
The ‘14 team was stacked with future CFB Hall of Famers. Some of them left, but Army remained pretty loaded. The Cadets just didn’t have quite the same ingredients, and they lost three games by one score each, all to teams that lost one game.
SRS ranking: 33rd
Wallace Wade was pretty up front: “Last year’s line was exceptionally good,” the coach wrote in his own Birmingham News column. He pointed out four of those linemen were gone and that it was “doubtful” he’d find a pair of ends who could play as well. The Tide also returned just one regular back.
Bama lost in frustrating ways. A 24-game unbeaten streak ended when they out-gained Georgia Tech by 44 yards but fumbled on their own one-yard line to hand Tech a TD. They gave up a 95-yard punt return TD in a one-score loss to Florida. They got stopped on a fourth-and-goal in a one-score loss to Vanderbilt. They tied LSU 0-0.
It wouldn’t have been that hard to go 8-2 instead of 5-4-1.
SRS ranking: 8th
This team was solid but lost to final #6 Wisconsin and #17 Notre Dame, plus to decent Northwestern and Purdue teams. Those losses came by a combined 21 points, while all of Iowa’s wins were by multiple scores. By some combination of avoiding Notre Dame (a common lesson for several of these old teams) and/or getting a few more breaks, the Hawkeyes could’ve finished with one or so losses.
Category 7: The championship wasn’t in New Orleans, so LSU wasn’t allowed to play
SRS ranking: 37th
I am kidding. But only sort of.
The 2007 Tigers were a relatively weak champion. They had two losses (albeit both in triple overtime) and made the title game because all the other contenders ate each other. The entire 2007 season was chaos, and LSU was the team that fell victim at exactly the right times. Then QB Matt Flynn, some of his best skill weapons, and a bunch of key line starters left.
LSU was not the title favorite in 2008. They started seventh and wound up being OK.
Category 8: The worst defending champion ever, thanks to almost literally the entire team leaving
SRS ranking: 94th
Between 1932 and ‘33, Michigan went 15-0-1. In those two years, they gave up 31 total points.
In ‘32, they might’ve won the title if the Rose Bowl had invited them instead of a Pitt team that had a worse record. Instead, USC crushed Pitt and won the title. Michigan had wanted an invitation, but the Rose Bowl passed, probably because the Big Ten might not have allowed Michigan to play and USC demanded to know its opponent quickly.
In ‘33, Michigan didn’t even need a bowl to become the recognized champ.
In the spring of 1934, almost all of Michigan’s best players graduated. One way or another, 13 of 17 listed starters were gone. The departures included multi-year stars like captain Stanley Fay, fellow halfback Herman “Flying Dutchman” Everhardus, tackle Whitey Wistert, and end Ted Petoskey.
Some of that was a function of the era. The two-platoon system didn’t come around until the ‘40s, which meant those stars who left after 1933 were predominantly two-way players. If a team lost its offensive stars, it also lost its defensive stars. Their replacements were not nearly as good, although 1934 Michigan MVP and future president Gerald Ford became one of the country’s best players.
Michigan got shut out five times and finished 124th out of 124 majors in scoring. The defense was barely better, finishing 115th.
A decade later, a different Michigan coach, Fritz Crisler, introduced the idea of splitting offensive and defensive players. A few years after that, Michigan won its next title. 72 years after that, an NFL team swiped a play from Crisler’s team to win the Super Bowl.