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College Football’s Dusty Finishers

The List of Teams that Have Beaten the NCAA Champs in the BCS/Playoff Era

NCAA Football: Alabama at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Ric Flair famously said “to be The Man, You’ve Gotta beat the man.” While this axiom holds generally true in professional wrestling, there are some who beat the man only to have their titles stripped immediately after the match by disqualification or technicalities. This ending is known as the “Dusty Finish” named for the American Dream Dusty Rhodes who used this story line often as a promoter.

Beating the man without the hardware to show for it is the definition of Hard Times.

College football games, we’re told, are important. Every game is a playoff . . . unless, it isn’t. In the BCS/Playoff era, ninety-eight programs have played a combined 273 games against teams that won a national title at the end of the year. The Champs are a combined 262-11 against the rest.

This article is dedicated to the eleven.

The number above includes only teams that won a BCS or Playoff Championship game. It does not include games against 2003 USC, 2004 Auburn, 2004 Utah, 2017 UCF, or any other team with a claim to the title who did not win the game. It does include 2004 USC even though its title was vacated.

In the modern era, the SEC has produced the most champions. As a result, SEC teams have had the most opportunities to play the eventual champion. But almost all major conference teams have had at least once chance to beat the eventual champion. Only three P5 teams, Iowa, Iowa State, and Utah, have never had the opportunity to face the eventual national champions.

Iowa and Iowa State’s inclusion on this list demonstrates what makes this feat so difficult. Beating the best team in the country decreases that team’s odds of winning the national title. Had Iowa State not beaten Oklahoma State in 2011, Oklahoma State would have played for the national title. Had Iowa not beaten Penn State in 2008, the Nittany Lions could have played for the title.

To be included on this list you need not only a quality win, but your victim needs a significant amount of luck.

Nine programs have been Dusty Finishers in the modern era: Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Kentucky, LSU, Ole Miss, Pittsburgh, Texas A&M, and Virginia Tech. Of these, only two teams have had multiple Dusty Finishes, Auburn and Ole Miss.

While most of these teams were mediocre, none were horrible. All of these teams at least made a bowl. Most finished ranked. A few of them were truly talented teams that could have won the title themselves with one or two breaks.

The first Dusty Finish came in 2003 when 3-3, unranked Florida upset then #6 LSU in Baton Rouge. The Gators went on to finish 8-5 and a #25 finish in Coach Zook’s second season.

In 2006, the eventual national champion Gators fell victim to Auburn in one of the strangest upsets in the list. Auburn (5-1, #11) beat #2 Florida 27-17 without scoring an offensive touchdown. Auburn went on to finish 11-2 and #8 in the polls.

2007 was one of the strangest college football seasons in recent memory. It yielded a strange 2 loss national champion in LSU. As LSU fans love to point out, the Tigers were undefeated in regulation, dropping two triple overtime decisions at Kentucky and at home to Arkansas.

Kentucky and Arkansas went on to mediocre 8-5 seasons. Only Kentucky finished ranked in the polls.

In 2008, Florida dropped a game to Ole Miss 31-30 in the Swamp. Florida dominated the game but three turnovers did them in. The game is best remembered for Tim Tebow’s tearful pledge to work harder in the post game press conference. Ole Miss finished 9-4 and ranked #14.

In 2011, LSU managed to beat the eventual national champs in the regular season, yet lose to them when it mattered most. The 2011 Alabama/LSU regular season game was one of many games called the Game of the Century. LSU won 9-6 in overtime and no one watching could agree what they had seen. Was it the best two defenses ever to take the field or were the offenses just that bad? The game was the college football equivalent of the debut of the Rite of Spring in 1913 which caused riots inside a normally reserved Paris theater.

LSU finished 13-1 and #2, dropping a rematch to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in a game where they never crossed the 50 yard line.

In 2012, Alabama lost a game to Johnny Football and the Texas A&M Aggies. Manziel threw for 253 yards and ran for 107 more in the game that sealed the Heisman for him. The Aggies went on to finish 11-2 and #5.

In 2014, the Ohio State Buckeyes dropped an early season matchup to Virginia Tech. The win was the highlight of the Hokie schedule as they went on to finish 7-6, 3-5 in the ACC. That night in Columbus, however, the Hokies won 35-21.

On September 19, 2015, Ole Miss became the first team to make a second appearance on the list, beating Alabama in a wild 43-37 upset in Tuscaloosa. Ole Miss and Chad Kelly never trailed. Ole Miss went on to go 10-3 and ranked #9.

2016 Clemson dodged early season challenges from Auburn and Troy and rolled into a November game against unranked Pitt 9-0. Pitt stunned Clemson in a wild 43-42 upset on a last second field goal. Despite the upset, Pitt finished unranked at 8-5.

Last year, Auburn made another appearance on the list, drubbing in-state rival #1 Alabama 26-14 in a game that never felt close. Auburn was ranked #6 at the time. The game took its toll on the Tigers who dropped the next two games to finish 10-4 and ranked #10.

As more games are added to the season, the odds of midseason upsets increase. As the years go on, more teams will be added to this dubious fraternity of Dusty Finishers.