College sports fans are known to be displeased if they believe their team isn't given enough credit by the polls, and, yes, having a favorable preseason ranking does affect a team's mindset, how far they have to climb in the polls and, in the pre-BCS era of college football, could literally decide championships.
But, have no fear, sports fans, for proving the polls wrong can be done, and it has been done in both football and basketball.
The following are six college teams who started the season unranked and finished the season as national champions, and the seventh team started the season ranked 23rd before going on to win a BCS National Championship, the lowest ranked team to climb the ladder and win a championship in the BCS era.
Let's get started, shall we?
1981 Clemson TigersIn 1981, Clemson, coming off a 6-5 season, wasn’t expected to be anything spectacular. Or even competitive. Head coach Danny Ford was still new and had no accolades to his name. But, that wouldn’t stop the Tigers from turning the college football world upside down by defeating three top ten teams, including defending national champion Georgia, on the way to the school’s first national title.
Clemson started the season unranked, but, after the Tigers upset the fourth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs 13-3, the voters started to take notice. Clemson would stay on a upward trajectory for the rest of the season, squeaking by No. 9 North Carolina 10-8 for their second victory over a top ten squad. Their third top 10 victory came in the Orange Bowl over No. 4 Nebraska to maintain their No. 1 ranking and become the Consensus National Champions.
1983 Miami HurricanesHoward Schnellenberger made good on his oft-remembered promise to bring a national championship to the University of Miami in his fifth year as head coach. Schnellenberger had created a physical, exciting culture for the Hurricane football program in those five years, but, in 1983, the Canes weren’t ranked or expected to do much better than their 7-4 record in 1982.
In fact, that expectation seemed to be spot on in Week 1 as Miami was manhandled by the 16th-ranked Florida Gators to a tune of 28-3. However, the Canes quickly made it known that the Florida game was a fluke, defeating No. 13 Notre Dame, No. 12 West Virginia and No. 1 Nebraska to win the first of five national championships. Miami snapped the Huskers 22 game win streak, the longest such streak at that time, in the Orange Bowl on a deflected two-point conversion pass that left Miami with a one-point lead as time expired.
1984 BYU CougarsPerhaps after two unranked teams ended up winning Consensus National Championships in the past three years, the pollsters decided they could give a tiny bit more credit to teams outside the Top 25. Maybe that’s why when unranked BYU upset No. 3 Pitt on September 1, 1984, AP voters immediately pushed the Cougars to No. 13 in the following week’s poll.
But, the voters may have given BYU a little too much credit. Sure, the Cougars went undefeated in 1984 and averaged 35 points per game. However, Pitt was the only ranked team they played. And, their bowl victory to cap off their national championship season was a Holiday Bowl win over a lackluster Michigan team. Regardless, the Cougars pulled off an undefeated season and became the third team in four years to capture a national title despite being unranked in the preseason.
1984-85 Villanova WildcatsWhile BYU was still celebrating their Cinderella story, a new one was just starting at Villanova University. The Wildcats’ men’s basketball team had just posted a 8-1 non-conference record just three days before the start of 1985, and Villanova was still unranked.
Of course, going into Big East play would be much more challenging since the conference contained No. 1 Georgetown, No. 3 St. John’s and No. 15 Syracuse. However, after defeating Syracuse and Connecticut, the Wildcats fell to St. John’s by only five points, and that was enough to impress the pollsters. The 16th-ranked Wildcats then had to face the top-ranked Hoyas of Georgetown. Nova fell by two points.
The Wildcats wouldn’t forget that tough loss, however, as Nova, once again unranked, entered the NCAA Tournament and just wouldn’t stop winning. On April 1, 1985, Villanova faced No. 1 Georgetown for the third time that season. And, with that early season 52-50 loss replaying in their minds, the Wildcats played like men on fire. Then, the buzzer sounded, the confetti fell and the scoreboard read unranked Villanova 66 No 1. Georgetown 64. The Wildcats were national champions. By two points.
1987-88 Kansas Jayhawks
The 1987-88 Kansas Jayhawks weren’t your typical Cinderella; after all, they started the season in the AP Top 10. But, after starting the regular season with a 12-5 record and having only played two ranked teams, the Jayhawks would not have a number in front of their name for the remainder of the season.
In fact, after being knocked out of the Big Eight Tournament in the second round, Kansas had 11 losses, no eventual champion had dropped so many games. However, that didn’t discourage Larry Brown and his boys as they started the NCAA Tournament. Kansas defeated juggernauts No. 20 Kansas State, No. 5 Duke and No. 4 Oklahoma in succession to win the national championship, having not been ranked since January and with eleven losses to their name.
1990 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
With highly-touted Clemson and Virginia teams in the same conference, the 1990 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets weren’t expected to do much. But, after a 27-6 dismantling of No. 25 South Carolina in Week 3, the voters saw fit to invite Tech into the Top 25. The Jackets were ranked 18th when No. 15 Clemson came to visit, and the Tigers left Atlanta with their tails between their legs, giving Georgia Tech real clout. The following week, however, the 11th-ranked Yellow Jackets drew even with UNC in Chapel Hill, a result that would haunt them later in the polls.
Georgia Tech rebounded in a huge way on November 3, with a road upset over No. 1 Virginia. The Jackets were down two scores at the half, but in the third quarter both offenses exploded, reeling off big plays and finding the endzone a combined four times. But, Jacket kicker Scott Sisson hit a 37-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining to complete the upset.
Tech would climb to No. 2 in the AP Poll after blow out wins over Wake Forest and arch-rival Georgia. The Jackets downed No. 19 Nebraska 45-21 in the Citrus Bowl to finish off an undefeated season, the only team without a loss in Division 1-A college football that year. However, the AP Poll voted Colorado (10-1-1) their national champion after they defeated No. 3 Notre Dame 10-9 in the Orange Bowl. But, the UPI Coaches Poll voted Georgia Tech their national champion by a single vote, reportedly cast by Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, the only coach to have played both Tech and Colorado that season.
2010 Auburn TigersIn 2010, the Auburn Tigers were pretty hopeful about their new junior college transfer quarterback, Cam Newton. But, the AP voters weren’t convinced Newton could have immediate, dramatic success in a conference that provided the past four BCS National Champions and gave the Tigers a preseason ranking of 22. And, it looked like the voters were right when, in Week 3, unranked Clemson scored 17 unanswered points in Jordan-Hare Stadium in the first half. The second half was a completely different story, though, as Newton rallied Auburn to a 21 point third quarter, and Auburn held on for a 27-24 victory.
The rest of the season was a highlight filled blur as the Tigers downed No. 15 South Carolina, No. 12 Arkansas, No. 6 LSU, and No. 9 Alabama to clinch the SEC West Division title. The 2010 SEC Championship saw a rematch between the top-ranked Tigers and the No. 18 South Carolina Gamecocks, but, unlike their close 35-27 regular season contest, this game was all Tigers as Newton racked up 408 total yards of offense for an SEC Championship Game record on the way to a 56-17 win.
Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy while preparing to face No. 2 Oregon in the BCS National Championship Game. That game, which is to this day the most-watched program in cable television history, lived up to the hype as safeties and two-point conversions put numbers unusual to football fans on the scoreboard. After starting ranked 22nd with an untested JUCO transfer behind center, Auburn finished off a season full of upsets and Top 25 matchups with a Heisman Trophy-winning QB leading them to a 22-19 victory in the national championship game.