College football: When national champions lost, if they did
Don't fret, Alabama fans. The Crimson Tide have done it (twice) before, and they can do it again.
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Alabama lost to Ole Miss in Week 3, and a loss like that, especially one within the division, can feel like a big dent to the high hopes of a national championship. But with history as an indication, it's far from a fatal blow.
Plenty of teams have won a national championship after losing in the regular season. In fact, six out of the 16 BCS champions suffered a loss during the season, and Ohio State’s 2014 squad, the winner of the first College Football Playoff in the post-BCS era, suffered a 14-point loss to unranked Virginia Tech before one of the great season-ending runs we have ever seen.
The information below details the losses of national champions -- when they happened and to whom. For the purposes of this exercise, we only looked at champions determined by a national championship game, so that goes back to the start of the BCS era in 1998.
There is not a ton of data in those 17 years, but there is enough to draw some conclusions about what has to happen to rebound from a loss (or in one case, two losses) to win a national title.
Ohio State last season is the only instance of a non-SEC team achieving the feat. Granted, this is skewed by the sheer number of SEC champions, but the other six champs (excluding USC’s vacated 2004 title) from other conferences since 1998 all went undefeated. Meanwhile, just three of the nine champions from the SEC had perfect seasons. So while it’s not impossible to come back from a loss, it certainly seems easier to do if you’re going through that grueling SEC schedule.
Timing of a loss matters -- to a point. Only 2007 LSU lost after its 10th game of the season. But most of the losses are right in the middle of the season. So while it helps to lose earlier in the season, it may not be as critically important as previously thought. Mid-season losses are recoverable.
What might matter more is the nature of the loss. Overtime losses are prevalent on this list, including LSU’s two triple-overtime losses in 2007. Seven of the eight losses are by 10 points or fewer, though just half of them are to ranked teams. It seems easier to let a team with a close loss into the title game than one which truly struggled against another team.
Also factoring in, of course, is what the teams do after. Many of these teams -- 2008 Florida, for example, had the look of a national champion for the rest of the season. It allowed the voters or formulas to see the loss as more of an outlier than a discredit to the team’s championship caliber.
Finally, some factors are completely out of these teams’ control. Sometimes there are other contenders, sometimes there are not. Some of these teams were helped out by timely losses in the final weeks of the season from top teams -- like when Oklahoma State lost in 2011 or West Virginia fell in the 2007 Backyard Brawl.
Especially now, with the College Football Playoff, overcoming a loss to still have a shot at a national championship is more likely than ever. What history tells us is that if you’re going to lose, make sure it’s close, learn from it, don’t lose too late, and come back even stronger.
Ohio State, 2014: The Buckeyes fell earlier than any of the champions of the BCS era, with a loss to Virginia Tech in Week 2. With Ohio State home and ranked No. 8 at the time and Virginia Tech not expecting to contend, it was perhaps the most shocking result on this list. When J.T. Barrett got hurt later in the season, it looked even more dire for the Buckeyes, but Cardale Jones stepped in and Ezekiel Elliott ran for 200-plus yards in the Big 10 championship, national semifinal and championship game to lead Ohio State to the first College Football Playoff title.
Alabama, 2012: Ah, the Manziel game. The growing legend of Johnny Football was cemented into college football history when he scrambled around and gave Texas A&M a 29-24 win in Tuscaloosa -- the Tide's most recent home loss before this past weekend. No worries for the Crimson Tide, though -- they worked their way into the national title game after a 49-0 thrashing of Auburn and a dramatic SEC championship game victory against Georgia. In the national title game, previously unbeaten Notre Dame looked to be no match for one-loss Alabama.
Alabama, 2011: It was called the “Game of the Century” at the time -- No. 1 vs. No. 2. Then neither team scored a touchdown, and LSU’s field goal in the first overtime gave the then-top-ranked Tigers a 9-6 win. The Tide dropped just one spot in the BCS rankings, and two weeks later, No. 2 Oklahoma State was upset by Iowa State. That put Alabama back in that second slot and set up a rematch in the national title game, despite Alabama not playing in the SEC title game. Nick Saban’s squad, led by AJ McCarron and Trent Richardson then shut out LSU 21-0 to get revenge and win the BCS championship.
Florida, 2008: The Gators had no problem moving the ball against an underdog Ole Miss team, but three turnovers and a blocked extra point did in then-No. 4 Florida in a 31-30 loss in Week 4. They then went on a tear, winning their remaining conference games by 31, 30, 58, 39, 38 and 50 before beating Alabama in the SEC title game. The BCS championship game pitted Florida against another prolific offense in Oklahoma, but it turned out to defy expectations. Despite the Sooners averaging more than 50 points a game and the Gators more than 40, Tim Tebow led his team to a 24-14 win and a second title in three years.
LSU, 2007: LSU’s 2007 team is the only two-loss champion of the BCS era. Two things had to come together for that to happen: 1. The losses were not bad losses, and 2. A lack of other contenders. Luckily for the Tigers, both happened. The first loss game in Week 7, as No. 17 Kentucky won a three-overtime 43-37 thriller. Five weeks later, unranked Arkansas took the Tigers to three overtimes and won 50-48 in one of the all-time classics of the rivalry. But LSU still got to the SEC championship game and beat Tennessee 21-14, and key late-season losses from Kansas, Missouri and West Virginia opened the door for the national title game. The Tigers won that 38-24 against Ohio State.
Florida, 2006: Becoming the second one-loss champion of the BCS era, Florida had to rebound from a loss in its seventh game of the year. The Gators were No. 2 and visiting No. 11 Auburn; the Tigers held Florida out of the end zone for the entire second half and won 17-9. The Gators then won out, taking the SEC championship against Arkansas. In the BCS championship game, then-No. 1 and undefeated Ohio State looked completely outmatched by Florida, which won 41-14 and started a seven-year stretch of SEC domination in the title game.
LSU, 2003: After five years of undefeated BCS champions, LSU became the first team to lose a game and go on to win a national championship game. The Tigers’ loss came in their sixth game of the season, when an unranked Florida squad came into Death Valley and left with a 17-9 win, knocking the Tigers down from No. 6 to No. 10. It was early enough for LSU to work its way back up the rankings, and after a convincing 34-13 win against Georgia in the SEC championship, a spot in the BCS championship game awaited. LSU lifted the trophy after a 21-14 win against Oklahoma.