Clemson obliterating Alabama in 2018’s national title game was one of the most stunning results in college football history, once you account for the weight of history.
But was it THE most jolting championship game ever?
This is an awkward question, because we’ve only had formal national title games for a couple decades now. However, we can also dig into the vaults and find old bowl games that just so happened to pair the top two teams and functioned as de facto championships.
According to the NCAA’s record books, what follows is a complete list of season-ending games in which the AP #2 team beat the #1 team.
This leaves out some midseason #1 vs. #2 matchups that happened to decide a season, but the majority of those were quite old (so good luck trying to figure out point spreads), and some have extra context. In 1963, Texas won the title after beating former No. 1 Oklahoma, but OU would lose another game, so that doesn’t really stand up as a title game. Just for one example.
So let’s just go with bowl games.
This also leaves out some games that were essentially title games, such as seasons with #1 vs. #3 bowls that also had the #2 team getting little chance to make an impressive final argument. But we’re going by modernity’s strict definition of a title game.
Here’s the list. I’ve categorized things a little bit.
The old games I can’t find point spreads for, but which couldn’t possibly have been all THAT shocking, because look at them
- 1978’s Sugar Bowl: #2 Alabama 14, #1 Penn State 7
- 1982’s Sugar Bowl: #2 Penn State 27, #1 Georgia 23
- 1986’s Fiesta Bowl: #2 Penn State 14, #1 Miami 10
- 1987’s Orange Bowl: #2 Miami 20, #1 Oklahoma 14
I mean, even if the #1 team in any of these had happened to have been favored by 20 points or something (and I sure don’t believe that was the case for any), these were still just one-score games.
I’m guessing ‘86 Penn State was a significant underdog, considering the storyline was Evil Goliath vs. Virtuous David (hindsight is really something) and the fact that PSU had looked quite beatable all season long. But still, it was a one-score result.
The big upsets that still came down to one play
- 2002 BCS Championship: No. 2 Ohio St. 31, No. 1 Miami (-12) 24
- 2005 BCS Championship: No. 2 Texas 41, No. 1 USC (-7) 38
Great (or terrible, depending on your vantage) games, but not world-melting upsets once you consider how close they were on the field. I mean, the whole world briefly thought Miami won that game, before refs determined Miami actually hadn’t.
The upsets that were technically not even upsets
- 2007 BCS Championship: No. 2 LSU (-4) 38, No. 1 Ohio State 24
- 2011 BCS Championship: No. 2 Alabama (-2.5) 21, No. 1 LSU 0
- 2012 BCS Championship: No. 2 Alabama (-10) 42, No. 1 Notre Dame 14
- 2015 National Championship: No. 2 Alabama (-6.5) 45, No. 1 Clemson 40
In each of these, the lower-ranked team was actually favored by Vegas anyway.
2007 was pure pants-on-head lunacy from start to finish, so that result was well within relative reason. Everyone knew 2012 Notre Dame was trumped-up. And Nick Saban’s Bama beating anybody can’t possibly be an actual upset.
Still, in hindsight, I’ll never know exactly why 2011 Bama was favored to beat the clear best team in the country to that point, a team that’d already beaten Bama that season, but that’s what the card says. Everyone sensed LSU was about to attempt to become Georgia Southern on the fly, I guess.
Thus the only actual contenders for the title of “most shocking championship game ever” are:
- 1992’s Sugar Bowl: No. 2 Alabama 34, No. 1 Miami (-8) 13
- 2006 BCS Championship: No. 2 Florida 41, No. 1 Ohio State (-7) 14
- 2018 National Championship: No. 2 Clemson 44, No. 1 Alabama (-5) 16
In hindsight, Miami was a little inflated in that Sugar Bowl, thanks to its undefeated streak that dated back to 1990 and a close win over No. 2 Florida State. Meanwhile, Gene Stallings’ Bama had beaten four final ranked teams. Per modern math (Sports-Reference’s SRS), the Tide had a comparable scoring margin against a highly comparable schedule, and this spread probably should’ve been narrower. Easy to say now, I guess.
The 2006 BCS title game’s big controversy: Florida even getting a chance to play Ohio State to begin with. Many (fairly) argued Michigan should get a rematch shot. The Gators lost by 10 at Auburn, scored in the 20s almost all year, and had five one-score wins. Ohio State had, among other things, allowed 17 points for the entire month of October. This game was supposed to be all about the Buckeyes holding the Gators to .01 points. Anyway, this game birthed the SEC chant, the SEC speed meme, and like everything else you hate about the SEC.
And then there’s 2018. There are two ways of looking at it.
- Clemson was dominant, undefeated, talented, improving, and only a point or so behind Bama in all the power rankings, including exactly one point in S&P+.
- This is Saban’s Alabama, the greatest dynasty in FBS history. Throw your little power rankings aside and prepare to be digested by The Process.
Well, the numbers were right to respect Clemson, while the INVINCIBLE BAMA narratives that’d been hammered into our heads over the previous decade were all wrong on this particular night.
Based strictly on the disparity between Vegas’ expected result and the actual result, the 2006 title game takes the cake, but once you add in the fact that this was the worst L suffered by college football’s greatest coach since back when he was in the NFL, I think you have to hand it to 2018.