Ohio State is No. 1, but college football has a way of surprising us

As great as a dynastic college program or professional sports organization might be, the prevailing truth about big-time sports remains intact: It’s extremely hard to win repeat championships.

Go through the histories of teams that repeated as either professional or collegiate champions. There will always be an exception here and there, but for the most part, the daunting nature of winning back-to-back titles reveals itself in some form or fashion. 

Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, on one level, made repeat championships look fairly easy. Viewed through one lens, the Bulls weren’t threatened all that much in their double-threepeats in the 1990s NBA. After all, Chicago and Jordan were never even taken to a Game 7 in any of their six NBA Finals triumphs. Chicago won “easily,” when seen with that kind of emphasis.

However, when looking at the details of competition, the Bulls’ journeys proved to be a lot more complicated.

Chicago had to erase a 17-point second-half deficit (15 entering the fourth quarter) in Game 6 of the 1992 NBA Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers. Had an anonymous reserve named Bobby Hansen not sparked the team (Phil Jackson was thinking he’d rest his starters for Game 7…), Chicago wouldn’t have closed out that series in six games.

In Game 6 of both the 1993 and 1998 NBA Finals, the Bulls were down by at least three points in the final minute, but Jordan scored on layups to trim those deficits. The Bulls then produced defensive stops; took the lead in the final seven seconds; and made one last defensive stand to win those contests on the road, avoiding a Game 7 in enemy territory.

In 1997, the Bulls needed Jordan’s extraordinary “Flu Game” to beat the Utah Jazz.


In the NFL, the New England Patriots repeated as Super Bowl champions in the 2004 season, but they barely squeaked by the Philadelphia Eagles with a flawed performance — good enough to win, but one which needed Donovan McNabb to be well below his best. The Patriots, in fact, have won all four of their Super Bowls by no more than four points. That last Super Bowl was pretty close and poised on the razor’s edge of fortune in its own right, or so I heard.

When the Denver Broncos repeated as NFL champions in 1998, they dominated the league, but the front end of that back-to-back march was highly improbable. Denver won the AFC from the wild card position, and the Super Bowl XXXII upset of the Green Bay Packers was one of the biggest surprises in the event’s history.

When the Dallas Cowboys repeated in 1993, Troy Aikman was concussed in both the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl. Having Bernie Kosar as a backup quarterback sure helped; what also helped was that the Buffalo Bills’ vaunted offense could never play up to its capabilities in a Super Bowl.


In baseball, the addition of four playoff teams in 1995 made it exponentially more difficult to repeat as World Series champion. Over the past 20 years in this new playoff format (which has since added two more teams to the eight-team field of 1995), only one team has repeated: the New York Yankees. Those Yankee teams represent the one true example of a dynasty which was never seriously threatened on its procession to the king’s castle. This is, of course, the exception which proves the rule, and it leads us to an exploration of college football repeat champions in recent times.


The 2015 college football season begins with the Ohio State Buckeyes being — in a word — unfair.

No team should be this deep, this stacked, this able to use a Plan C if Plan A and Plan B are unavailable due to suspension or injury:

Having Urban Meyer as a coach (and Ed Warinner as offensive coordinator with Tom Herman now at Houston) certainly helps in this regard. Few other coaches could so nimbly adjust from one quarterback to the next as Meyer did last season (with Herman there to assist), but if there wasn’t grade-A talent on hand to begin with, Ohio State couldn’t have done what it did.

This year, the Buckeyes bring back that raw talent… only with more seasoning and the essential wisdom which comes from being tested in — and by — the cauldron of championship-game pressure. The Big Ten is strong at the top, but not as deep as the Pac-12 or the SEC, so an Ohio State team with few (if any) daunting road games is a natural favorite to return to the College Football Playoff. Once there, Meyer will get almost four weeks to prepare for his semifinal opponent. Meyer will be the superior coach in the national championship game, unless Nick Saban — the only man who can reasonably claim to be his equal — is standing on the opposite sideline. If, somehow, Alabama does make it back to college football’s big stage, the Tide’s talent will pale in comparison to what the Buckeyes can offer.

The 2015 season is one set up for Ohio State to not merely succeed, but dominate.

Yet, if college football has taught us anything, it is that the expected doesn’t happen… especially in the case of repeat championships. This is the delicious subtext to the coming autumn: We know Ohio State is the best team on paper, but college football has a way of shoving that paper into a live fireplace.


The good people of Los Angeles will say, with considerable justification, that their USC Trojans repeated as national champions in 2003 and 2004. The claim is valid, but it is not indisputable — anything but. Right or wrong, it is a plain point of fact that the 2003 Trojans did not reach the BCS National Championship Game. For reasons beyond their control, the Trojans did not repeat as BCS champions. (AP? Yeah. Not the BCS. It’s messy, which is college football’s middle name — and sound’s like Lionel’s last name.)

If you remove 2003 and 2004 USC from the equation, only two teams have repeated as college football national champions over the past 25 years: Nebraska in 1994 and 1995, and Alabama and 2011 and 2012. Nebraska’s 1995 team is arguably the best team in the sport’s 146-year history, but the 1994 national championship was in many ways the product of an absurd occurrence: Penn State allowing two meaningless garbage touchdowns against Indiana, causing voters (who didn’t watch the game) to assume the Nittany Lions had struggled and subsequently move them down in the polls.

In the case of Alabama, the 2012 team crushed Notre Dame in the championship game, but it did need Kansas State and Oregon to lose in November in order to get there. It also needed Georgia to use poor clock management and catch a deflected pass in bounds and on the ground to survive the SEC Championship Game.

The 2011 Crimson Tide were even more fortunate: Like Nebraska in 2001, they lost their divisional game of the year; did not play in their conference title game; and somehow reached the big one in an appalling BCS formula debacle. Former Big 8 school Colorado, newly in the Big 12, was jobbed in 2001; former Big 8 school Oklahoma State, also in the Big 12, was screwed in 2011. Those two repeat national titles — especially Bama’s, but also Nebraska’s on the front end in 1994 — were anything but easy.

Then consider all the repeat bids that were somehow denied by wildly preposterous events. The sport’s history is replete with them.


Alabama’s drive toward a third straight national title in 2013 was denied in no conventional way:

USC was this close to winning back-to-back national championships, but Vince Young put on his Superman cape in the final minutes of the 2006 Rose Bowl… and USC’s offensive line missed an assignment on the fourth-and-two carry by LenDale White which the Longhorns were able to stop short of a first down. Texas needed dozens of things to go exactly right in the final several minutes of that game… and the Longhorns watched everything come up Bevo in Pasadena.

In the 2001 Orange Bowl, Florida State stood 60 minutes from a repeat title. However, the Seminoles’ vaunted offense — led by a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Chris Weinke — did not score a single point. If you had told Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops before the game that his own turbo-charged offense would score only 13 points — with seven of them essentially being set up by the defense, which created and recovered a fumble at the Florida State 15 — he would have doubted his team’s ability to win. Only a safety scored in the game’s final minute — when the outcome had already been decided — prevented the Sooners from a clean shutout of a juggernaut… but the improbable had become reality.

This leads us back to Ohio State.

The Buckeyes weren’t the team trying to repeat in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl; they were trying to deny one of the all-time great squads in the sport’s history its place in the pantheon.

Miami — like USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl a few years later — was the most talented and ascendant team in the sport. The Hurricanes — like the Trojans — carried a 34-game winning streak into a BCS title tilt. The U — like the Men of Troy — entered a national title game after having won the BCS championship the year before, and after having finished in the top two of the final AP poll the previous season. This game was supposed to be a crowning moment for the Canes, and much like the 2006 Rose Bowl, the 2003 Fiesta Bowl put the dynastic power on the precipice of winning in the final minutes.

Just one more play would have lifted Miami to an even greater height, the top of the mountain where repeat champions get to look down on the rest of the college football world.

Then THIS happened:

Note, by the way, that the above video is presented from a vantage point sympathetic to Ohio State’s position. Even if one acknowledges that a case could have been made for a flag against Miami, one can also acknowledge that in the annals of college football history, a call the other way would hardly have been outrageous. This is diplomatic language, so as to not incite a fresh war between Ohio State and Miami fans. The larger point is that even if you’re an Ohio State fan, you know this was a tenuous situation and a fortuitous twist of history for the Buckeyes, denying a team a repeat title.


Now, very simply, Ohio State steps into the postiion of the would-be dynasty, the school trying to stamp itself as immortal.

College football history shows that while repeat champions occasionally emerge, the crazy nature of an overwhelmingly emotional sport played by 19- and 20-year-old male members of the human species — with an odd-shaped ball that takes all sorts of funny bounces — militates against repeat championships.

Bobby Bowden didn’t repeat.

Steve Spurrier didn’t repeat.

Pete Carroll — if viewed solely through the prism of the BCS — didn’t repeat.

Urban Meyer hasn’t repeated… yet.

Will he this season? We’ll see what Ohio State’s opponents — and college football history — have to say about the matter.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |