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SEC National Championship Streak Shows It's Best to Be Lucky and Good

Having high quality teams is only part of the formula.

Mike Ehrmann

An SEC team will be playing for the national championship for the eighth consecutive season. It's a testament to how the conference's schools have collectively been able to to produce really good teams year in and year out.

It's also partially a testament to good fortune. The latest example was Ohio State's Big Ten Championship Game loss to Michigan State. The Buckeyes were 12-0 heading into it, and they'd almost certainly be in the big game against FSU had they won. Of course, it's not a huge stroke of luck; at 12-1 itself, Michigan State is no patsy. Still though, it was the one thing that the eventual SEC champ had to have happen in order to play for the national title, and it happened.

Let's review some of the critical games that have helped SEC teams win national championships in the not too distant past.

1996: Texas 37, Nebraska 27 and Ohio State 20, Arizona State 17

The inaugural Big 12 Championship game pitted 10-1, No. 3 Nebraksa against 7-4, unranked Texas. Back then we had the Bowl Alliance system, which was kind of like the BCS except that the Big Ten, Pac-10, and Rose Bowl didn't participate. With Arizona State at No. 2 and not going to appear in the national championship game, it meant that No. 3 was going to face No. 1 Florida State. All Nebraska had to do is win and it would play the Seminoles.

Instead, the Longhorns pulled off the first of many Big 12 Championship Game upsets. This result moved Florida up from No. 4 to No. 3, allowing for the first national championship game rematch. The Gators avenged their regular season loss, romping to a 52-20 blowout over the Seminoles. Florida got an assist from Ohio State, which knocked off undefeated ASU in the Rose Bowl. The path opened up perfectly for Steve Spurrier to win his national championship.

2003: Cal 34, USC 31 (3OT) and Kansas State 35, Oklahoma 7

The 2003 Cal Bears weren't a good team. They began the year just 2-3 and would finish it 7-6, but the sixth game was a triple overtime win over mighty USC. At the end of the regular season, undefeated OU looked like it was going to cruise to the national championship game, but it lost convincingly to 10-3 Kansas State 35-7 in another Big 12 Championship Game upset.

Oklahoma probably should have defeated that KSU team, and USC definitely should have beat Cal. Had they done so, Nick Saban and LSU wouldn't have had the chance to overcome their puzzling loss to Ron Zook's Florida. Given that USC was better than Oklahoma, you could also argue the Tigers got some help from the BCS formula, where computers overruled the human polls (where USC was a unanimous No. 1) and put OU and LSU together. The formula changed after that season.

2006: UCLA 13, USC 9

Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, Florida was in the No. 4 spot with the national championship game seemingly a lock to be No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 USC. The Buckeyes' season was done, and all the Trojans had to do was beat their 6-5 crosstown rivals.

I'll let the AP writeup's headline take it from here: "Trojans' BCS title hopes in ruins after stunning loss to UCLA". No one—and I mean no one—saw this one coming. USC dropped in the polls, Florida won the debate over Michigan for the right to play Ohio State, and the rest is history.

2007: Stanford 24, USC 23 and Pittsburgh 13, West Virginia 9

The 2007 season was so chaotic, it would take too much time to run down every game that paved the way for a two-loss LSU team to win the national championship. Two stick out above the rest as being particularly lucky for the Tigers' sake, however.

USC's loss to Stanford was probably the biggest upset of the season, even more so than Appalachian State over Michigan. App State went on to win the I-AA national championship, after all, while the Cardinal was a dreadful 4-8 team. This loss was about as unthinkable as they come, and it kept 10-2 USC from entering the discussion once it became clear that a two-loss team was going to be playing 11-1 Ohio State for the national title.

Heading into the final week, LSU was famously No. 7 in the polls. It needed losses at the top to have any kind of chance. It got one from No. 1 Missouri, which fell for the second time that season to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. It also somehow got one from No. 2 West Virginia, which froze up and fell to 5-7 Pitt. The 11-2 Tigers leaped those teams plus 10-2 Georgia (no conference title), 11-1 Kansas (same, plus laughably bad schedule), and 11-2 Virginia Tech (lost to LSU already) to get to play for the national title.

2008: Oregon State 27, USC 21

It really is amazing just how much the SEC's national championship record owes to USC losing games it shouldn't have lost. This might count as the second-least lucky event, after last weekend's Big Ten title game, as Oregon State was pretty good that year. It did have a nasty loss to 5-7 Stanford, but its other losses were to eventual 11-2 Penn State, 13-0 Utah, and 10-3 Oregon.

Still though, the early season upset by the Beavers reinforced a growing narrative that USC had turned from juggernaut to choke artist despite that year probably having Pete Carroll's best defense. That loss by USC meant that one-loss Florida was able to slide up to No. 2 and play Oklahoma, the highest scoring team of all time until FSU scores its 28th point against Auburn. Florida might have been able to squeeze past OU had USC gone undefeated, but it's unlikely given that OU's loss was to 11-1 Texas and Florida's was to 8-4 Ole Miss.

2011: Iowa State 37, Oklahoma State 31 (2OT)

No one outside the Alabama fan base wanted a rematch of LSU and the Tide for the national championship. Too bad. Oklahoma State missed a field goal with just over a minute to go in regulation, and the eventual 6-7 Cyclones improbably pulled it out in double overtime.

This game doesn't represent good luck for the SEC necessarily, as LSU was safely in the BCS title game as the undefeated conference champion. It does, however, represent plenty of good luck for the team that ended up taking home the crystal football.

2012: Baylor 52, Kansas State 24

Any time a one-loss team plays for the national championship, it had help along the way somewhere. With one spot in the BCS National Championship Game occupied by undefeated Notre Dame, one-loss Alabama needed all other teams to have at least a loss to play the Irish for the title.

Kansas State was standing in the way as an undefeated team until mid-November. With the Wildcats' Collin Klein banged up and not quite himself, the eventual 8-5 Bears ran K-State off the field in a surprisingly dominant performance. A one-loss team's sole stumble really shouldn't come against a five-loss team, but Baylor did the Crimson Tide's dirty work. Three of Saban's four national titles hinged in part on upsets in the Big 12. Go figure.