On November 23, 2013, Georgia Southern beat Florida on the road without completing a single pass. It instantly became a reliable, long-lasting tool for those looking to make Florida fans feel bad about their choices.
This game also bestowed this gift upon the college football internet.
This was quite possibly the most embarrassing loss in team history, but I don’t think it’s the worst. Make this a win and the Gators finish the season 5-7 instead of 4-8. The Georgia Southern loss was salt in a wound, but that wound was not looking great anyways.
The opposite end of the loss spectrum, Florida getting absolutely pulverized by Nebraska in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl, really fit in the category of worst loss. Most humbling, maybe, but it feels off to say a program’s worst loss came at the hands of one of the most dominant teams of its time.
I think the true measurement for how bad a loss stings is regret. College football seasons rest on a razor’s edge in ways other sports don’t. Your team enters most weeks knowing a loss could seriously damage or destroy their goals.
We can separate the truly staggering losses from the merely unpleasant with three criteria:
- Larger stakes. What were the lasting consequences of this loss? Did it just sting for one Saturday, or did it have a ripple effect that kept your team from something greater, like a playoff spot or a conference championship game?
- A genuine underdog. And by “underdog” I really mean “you lost to a mediocre-to-bad opponent.” Getting beat by a good opponent is unpleasant, but it’s just math. Getting beat by a crappy team means math abandoned you.
- Dumbness. If you get tripped up by a team playing perfectly, that’s frustrating but admirable. Your worst loss requires more failure on your part, however – big, distinct screwups, like muffed punts and fumbles out of the end zone.
Keeping those rules in mind, here are the worst losses since 1980 for every SEC East team. (We’ll get to a bunch of other conferences/divisions later, don’t worry.)
Ole Miss 17, Florida 14 (2002)
When Steve Spurrier left Gainesville for the NFL, Florida fans wondered how the team would change under new head coach Ron Zook. Would the Gators look anything like the team Spurrier had built over a decade?
In one respect, the answer was yes: as they had many times under the Ol’ Ball Coach, Florida dropped a game to an SEC West opponent they should have beaten on paper. The Gators led this game 14-2 at halftime. (A weird two-score lead, but a two-score lead nonetheless.)
Then Florida squandered that lead in the second half, with four three-and-outs and three interceptions, the last of which was returned for the game-winning score. “But this was an Eli Manning team!” Yeah, and he went 18 of 33 for 154 yards and no touchdowns. 2002 Ole Miss beat two other SEC opponents: 3-9 Mississippi State and 2-10 Vanderbilt. This wasn’t some flawed juggernaut.
What did it cost Florida? Oh, just a spot in the SEC Championship Game, where a Georgia team they’d beaten stomped Arkansas 30-3. At least the Gators got the privilege of losing to Michigan in the Outback Bowl as a consolation prize.
South Carolina 16, Georgia 12 (2007)
How do you lose to a Gamecocks team that goes 1 for 11 on third down? You take six drives that get inside the South Carolina 35 yard line and turn them into...four made field goals! OOOO YEAH FEEL THE EXCITEMENT!
South Carolina turned the momentum of this monumental win into a 6-6 record and the unique indignity of “bowl eligible, but not picked to play.” Outside of this game, and beating no. 8 Kentucky – again, 2007 was just weird as hell – nothing about this Gamecocks season stands out as a pleasant memory. The loss wound up keeping Georgia out of the SEC Championship; Tennessee won the East instead and lost a close game to LSU, who went on to win the national championship.
Flip this result and you’re forced to wonder if the Bulldogs could have beaten Les Miles. If they do, it’s probably fair to assume they’d beat Ohio State in the BCS title game. So, without straining reality too far, you can believe that this South Carolina win in September kept Georgia from winning a title. (It’s understable if you forgot about this game in the ocean of other Moments Where Georgia Could Have Won A Title But Screwed Up.)
Tennessee 24, Kentucky 7 (2018)
Kentucky wasn’t winning the SEC East without help from Auburn, which wouldn’t end up coming, but they didn’t know that when they played Tennessee on the afternoon of November 10. They, and everyone else, did know this was the best Wildcat season in decades, with a shot at the program’s first ten-win season since 1977.
Tennessee, on the other hand, was in the middle of Jeremy Pruitt’s first year and barely clinging to a shot at bowl eligibility.
Naturally, the Wildcats punted seven times and fell in a 24-point hole before they put a point on the board. The same Tennessee team that hadn’t managed three yards a carry against Georgia, Auburn, Florida, Alabama, or Charlotte finished with 5.38 yards per rushing attempt.
Kentucky still got to ten wins thanks to their bowl game, while Tennessee missed its shot at the postseason with consecutive blowouts to Mizzou and Vanderbilt. And even though Georgia clinched the East that night with a win over Auburn, handing them the division early by losing to this uninspiring Vols team could not have been pleasant.
Texas Tech 24, Missouri 17 (2010)
In 2010, Missouri beat Oklahoma for the second time in 21 years. They followed that with a loss to Nebraska, but the Huskers did them the favor of dropping two other conference games, which should have put Mizzou in position to win the Big 12 North.
Instead, the Tigers lost to a Tommy Tuberville squad that only beat two other Power 5 teams in the regular season. And it could’ve been worse! In the second half, Texas Tech threw a pick on third and goal from the Missouri 4 and missed a 54-yard field goal. Those mistakes didn’t matter, thanks in large part to Blaine Gabbert’s final stat line: 12/30, 95 yards, 0 TDs.
(I am legally obligated to remind you that, five months later, the Jacksonville Jaguars took Gabbert with the tenth pick.)
Had Missouri won this game and the North, they’d have gotten another game against Oklahoma. Win that, and they’re in a fancy BCS game, instead of losing to Iowa in the Insight Bowl.
Navy 38, South Carolina 21 (1984)
Garnet and Black Attack previously named this game the biggest disaster in South Carolina history, and it’s hard to argue with that conclusion. Had the Gamecocks beaten Navy, they would have played Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl in a de facto national championship game. The Sooners wound up losing to Washington, so it’s reasonable to think South Carolina could have won.
Now, take that opportunity and sacrifice it at the altar of a Navy team that went 1-6-1 against their other Division I opponents. Navy scored 36 combined points against Syracuse, Notre Dame, Arkansas, and Virginia. How’d they beat undefeated South Carolina? Five turnovers and a blocked field goal helped, but Navy didn’t even have their starting quarterback for this game.
Of all the details surrounding this game, this, from the Associated Press, is probably the most depressing.
South Carolina fans had already bought more than 6,000 tickets for the Orange Bowl.
We didn’t even have Windows in 1984, much less the Internet! How the hell are you gonna sell your tickets on MS-DOS?
Arkansas 25, Tennessee 24 (1992)
Tennessee started the 1992 season 5-0, with wins over ranked Florida and Georgia teams. They seemed to be in good position to win the newly formed SEC East and play in the conference’s first-ever championship game.
Then they lost at home to an Arkansas team that:
- was giving freshman QB Barry Lunney, Jr. his first start
- fired its head coach after a Week 1 loss to The Citadel
- finished the year 3-7-1
- trailed in the fourth quarter 24-16
Two more conference losses meant Florida, not the Volunteers, would be the East’s representative, and a frustrated Tennessee bought out Johnny Majors and gave the program to Phil Fulmer, a man who would never disappoint them like Johnny ha–
Kentucky 48, Vanderbilt 43 (2005)
This is a real good news/bad news situation, Vanderbilt. The good news is you don’t have a lot of losses that fit my criteria. The bad news is that’s because you usually don’t have a season good enough to ruin. Sorry.
Still, the 2005 Commodores were close to a big moment in program history: getting bowl eligible for the first time since 1982. At 4-6, Vandy needed to beat Kentucky and Tennessee, both of whom had struggled mightily that season.
Kentucky should have been the easier win. The Wildcats had lost by 35 to a bad Indiana team, by 28 to a mediocre South Carolina team, and served as Ole Miss’s only conference win of the year. Things started fine! Vandy recovered a fumble on Kentucky’s opening drive and turned that into a field goal.
And then Kentucky scored THIRTY-FOUR STRAIGHT POINTS. Vanderbilt managed to make the game close by the end, but, again, giving up THIRTY-FOUR STRAIGHT POINTS TO KENTUCKY proved to be a bit of problem.
As an inadvertent twist of the knife, Vandy went on the road and beat Tennessee the next week, which left this confusing loss as the nearest thing to blame for the missed chance at a bowl.