The Best College Football Teams To Never Win a National Championship
College football can sometimes be a cruel game. The margin of error for winning a National Championship can be so small. In any other sport, teams can recover from losing one game during the regular season. But in college football, there is no such guarantee.
Even after reaching the College Football Playoff, the margins are microscopic. Just look at Georgia’s title game loss to Alabama in the 2017 season or Oklahoma’s double-overtime loss to Georgia in the semifinals that year. There are also those Clemson-Alabama championship game clashes that could have gone either way.
The point is there are some seriously great teams that fell short of winning a championship by the smallest of margins. With that in mind, we felt it was appropriate to pay homage to some of the great college football teams of all-time that didn’t win a National Championship but deserve some kind of recognition for their accomplishments.
10. Alabama Crimson Tide, 2018
Admittedly, it’s a little unusual to include a team that lost 44-16 in the National Championship Game on this list. But 'Bama was exceptional until that point, going 14-0 and typically winning in blowout fashion.
Tua Tagovailoa was nearly flawless for most of the season while leading a prolific offense. The Alabama defense was nearly as dominant as well.
In early November, the Crimson Tide shutout LSU and Mississippi State, both ranked teams, in back-to-back weeks. No team got closer than 22 points until the SEC Championship Game.
However, Nick Saban’s team just didn’t show up in the title game, getting out-classed by Clemson in what most assumed would be another close and competitive matchup between the two powerhouses.
9. Florida State Seminoles, 1987
The '87 Florida State team kicked off a glorious era of 14 straight seasons of finishing the season ranked in the top five. A failed two-point conversion against Miami is all that prevented the Seminoles from winning the National Championship.
Rather than tie the game with a simple extra point, Bobby Bowden went for the win when the two Sunshine State rivals met in early October.
The Hurricanes got the stop, ran the table and won the National Championship. Meanwhile, Florida State had to settle for 11-1, including a road win over No. 6 Auburn and a Fiesta Bowl win over No. 5 Nebraska.
8. LSU Tigers, 2011
It’s hard to erase the memory of this team getting beat 21-0 by Alabama in the title game. The ineptitude of the LSU offense that night was shocking. But up until that game, the Tigers were perfect and had played like a champion.
LSU beat eight ranked teams during the regular season, including a road win over Alabama and a 42-10 thrashing of Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.
At the very least, we expected another close game in the BCS title game, but the LSU offense couldn’t get anything going and was shut out despite scoring at least 35 points in 11 of their previous 13 games.
7. Ohio State Buckeyes, 2019
Despite losing in the College Football Playoff semifinals, the Buckeyes weren’t far from winning the National Championship. One could argue that Ohio State outplayed Clemson in that game and should have gotten a chance at LSU. Before the loss to Clemson, the Buckeyes had obliterated every team they faced, winning by an average of 36 points.
OSU’s schedule wasn’t exactly easy; they played Wisconsin twice and took care of both Penn State and Michigan. In fact, the three non-conference teams they blew out all played in their conference championship game.
With Justin Fields and J.K. Dobbins leading the offense and Chase Young on defense, this Ohio State team was loaded and might have had a better chance against LSU than Clemson.
6. Penn State Nittany Lions, 1994
The Nittany Lions can only imagine if the College Football Playoff had been around in 1994. Kerry Collins and Ki-Jana Carter led an offense that scored at least 35 points every game and topped 50 points in five of their 12 games.
Penn State ran the table, but in those days, they automatically went to the Rose Bowl as Big Ten champs rather than getting a shot at No. 1 Nebraska.
The Nittany Lions took care of business against Oregon but the Cornhuskers beat No. 3 Miami in the Orange Bowl to remain No. 1 in both polls to win the National Championship.
Of course, one could easily argue that Penn State was equally deserving.
5. Alabama Crimson Tide, 2016
This Alabama team was painfully close to winning back-to-back titles for the second time in the Nick Saban era. It would have been well-deserved, too.
Outside of a 10-0 road win over LSU, nobody came particularly close to beating the Crimson Tide this year. In the SEC Championship Game, the Tide ripped apart Florida 54-16. It took a Herculean effort from Deshaun Watson to carry Clemson to victory. Watson found Hunter Renfrow in the end zone with one second left on the clock, giving the Tigers a 35-31 win, leaving the Crimson Tide one second and one play short of another championship.
4. Nebraska Cornhuskers, 1983
From start to finish, the Cornhuskers were the top-ranked team in the country in 1983. However, that changed following their loss to Miami in the title game.
In one of the most compelling college football games of all time, Nebraska erased an early 17-point deficit, scoring late to make it a 31-30 game. If the Cornhuskers had simply kicked the extra point and settled for the tie, they likely would have been crowned champions. Instead, Tom Osbourne went for two points and failed, costing Nebraska the title, which went to the Hurricanes.
Nebraska’s offense led by quarterback Turner Gill was something special that year. The Cornhuskers scored over 50 points six times, including 84 points against Minnesota, 72 points against Iowa State and three other games of 60-plus points.
If you saw Nebraska at any point that season, you’d be shocked to learn that they didn’t win a National Championship.
3. Miami Hurricanes, 2000
Despite all of their titles, there were some Miami teams that were equally deserving of championship glory. In 2000, the Hurricanes lost a Week 2 road game to No. 15 Washington 34-29. Sadly, that one blemish early in the season was enough to cost them a National Championship.
The Hurricanes went on to beat No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Virginia Tech during the regular season. However, the Seminoles slipped ahead of them in the BCS rankings, giving them a date with No. 1 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
If the Hurricanes had gotten the chance to play Oklahoma, especially in Miami, an offense with Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Jeremy Shockey and Clinton Portis probably would have been too much for the Sooners. Having a defense led by Ed Reed, Damione Lewis, and William Joseph would have helped, too.
2. USC Trojans, 2005
Without question, the losers of the greatest college football game ever played were going to end up on our list. By the time this game was played, the Trojans had won 34 in a row with eyes on a third straight title and two Heisman winners on the roster.
Although every win from this season has been vacated, USC had little trouble rolling the table during the regular season outside of the famous Bush Push against Notre Dame. They also put up 50-plus points in five of their last six games, so the Trojans looked close to unstoppable ahead of their Rose Bowl showdown with Texas.
In fact, the Trojans just needed one more stop on fourth down to secure a third straight title. Of course, Vince Young had other plans and USC couldn’t quite seal the deal on another championship.
1. Miami Hurricanes, 2002
Miami reached the Fiesta Bowl against No. 2 Ohio State on a 34-game winning streak. Both Ken Dorsey and Willis McGahee were Heisman finalists and were joined by Andre Johnson, Frank Gore and Kellen Winslow Jr.
The defense was equally loaded with Sean Taylor, Vince Wilfork, Antrel Rolle and those were the underclassmen. In other words, this championship was in the bag.
Even after a couple of close calls during the regular season, the Hurricanes would take care of business. In fact, Miami appeared to have the game won at the end of overtime before a controversial pass interference call after a failed fourth-down play by Ohio State. The penalty gave new life to the Buckeyes, who ended up winning in double-overtime, turning the 2002 Hurricanes into the best team to never win a National Championship.
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