12 Modern Sports Teams That Had No Business Being in Title Games
While championship settings are usually reserved for truly elite teams, every so often an otherwise forgettable squad will make an appearance, taking full advantage of favorable timing and circumstance.
In 2015, for example, LeBron James turned superhero to carry an injury-riddled team and historically average supporting cast through a weak Eastern Conference and all the way to the NBA Finals.
Likewise, in 2008, the 9-7 Arizona Cardinals were barely better than average through 16 regular-season games, but they got hot at exactly the right time to make a surprising—and largely undeserved—Super Bowl appearance.
And all the way back in 2000, the New York Mets did precisely the same thing, using momentum and clutch play to upset San Francisco and St. Louis before returning to reality and getting humbled by the crosstown-rival Yanks.
With these fluky finalists in mind, we’ve done our best to highlight "12 Modern Sports Teams That Had No Business Being in Title Games."
It’s worth noting, in the name of "give our list some structure and limits," we only considered title contenders from the 21st century, eliminating from contention all finalists before the year 2000.
That said, we’ve still managed to spotlight a diverse group of overachievers, honoring the most average contenders of the last 15 years while also documenting exactly how they defied the odds to climb so far.
2010-11 Butler Basketball
In 2009-10, the Butler basketball team was nationally elite, finishing the year with a gaudy 33-5 record and a two-point loss to Duke in the NCAA title game.
One year later, however, the Bulldogs took a sizeable step back, losing 10 games for the first and only time in then-head coach Brad Stevens’ career, including five times in conference play, which equaled their Horizon League loss total from the previous three seasons combined!
Somehow, though, Butler still managed to trek it’s way back to the NCAA finals, becoming just the third No. 8 seed ever to do so and the first non-BCS school since Cincinnati in 1961 and 1962 to reach the game in back-to-back seasons.
Still, for a title contender, the team was incredibly average, winning three of five tournament games by three points or less and none by more than eight.
And once in the title game, the out-of-place Bulldogs were brought back to reality, falling to Connecticut by 12 in one of the sloppiest title games in a long time.
2014 Kansas City Royals
In the 2014 World Series, the Kansas City Royals took on the San Francisco Giants and formed one of the least prolific matchups in championship history. Combined, the two teams won only 177 games—the Royals won 89, the Giants 88—the fourth-lowest total in series history and the second-lowest ever if you throw out shortened seasons.
Once there, Kansas City predictably fell to San Fran in seven games.
The Royals, it turns out, weren’t good enough to win their own division either, losing out to the Tigers before needing a wild-card play-in game just to make a playoff appearance.
In fact, before ripping off an admittedly impressive eight-game postseason winning streak, Kansas City was far from title-worthy.
During the regular season, it finished ninth in the AL in runs scored and fourth in runs allowed. And, according to Baseball-Reference.com, the Royals weren’t even a top-five team in baseball, much less an elite one.
But if you still need further proof of Kansas City’s relative mediocrity, simply take a look at the 2014 AL All-Star roster, which includes only two Royals, one a relief pitcher (Greg Holland)!
2005-06 Edmonton Oilers
After finishing the 2005-06 NHL regular season third in the Northwest Division with just a mediocre 89 points, the Edmonton Oilers enjoyed a magical postseason run, advancing all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
In doing so, Edmonton became the first No. 8 seed to reach the championship round since the current playoff format was introduced back in 1994. To make the final, the relatively pedestrian Oilers were forced to play in 24 contests and won 12 games by two goals or fewer!
It's hardly a surprise that during the regular season, they were middle-of-the-road in both offense and defense.
In fact, to put their one-time-only out-of-nowhere postseason run into perfect perspective, consider this: Immediately following the season, the team’s best player—Chris Pronger—sought greener pastures and ultimately demanded to be traded!
2007 Ohio State Football
Like every other team on our list, the 2007 Ohio State Buckeyes made it all the way to the national title game, where they met—and eventually lost to—a two-loss group of Tigers from LSU.
In getting there, the Buckeyes took advantage of an all-time easy schedule, beating just three ranked teams along the way. And those teams weren’t exactly elite, either. To be exact, Ohio State first took down an incredibly average 23rd-ranked team from Purdue, 23-7 and then got by No. 24 Penn State, 37-17.
But, before defeating the third and final ranked team on the docket—the Michigan Wolverines—the Buckeyes suffered an embarrassing loss at home, falling to Illinois, 28-21.
The loss came in the season’s second-to-last game and ordinarily would have been a crippling defeat for a team in the title chase.
However, the 2007 college football season was uniquely devoid of elite teams, which allowed the Buckeyes to stay alive. In fact, in the final rankings of the year, seven of the top 10 teams in America sported two losses, while another team had three!
More than anything, Ohio State—which finished the season ranked fifth—was uneventful and surprisingly mediocre on offense, where middle-of-the-road quarterback Todd Boeckman led the nation’s 42nd-ranked unit to just 31.4 points per game! Fittingly, a passing game that was without a 1,000-yard receiver was carried by a bulldozing ‘back by the name of Beanie Wells.
One man wasn’t enough in the end, though, and both the offense and the defense were exposed in a 38-24 championship loss to the Tigers.
2000 New York Giants
Some things never change.
When the New York Giants were winning big games back in 2000, they were doing so with a to-be-expected top-five defense, which took them all the way to the Super Bowl.
Of course, the team needed all the defense it could muster, thanks to a middle-of-the-road offense that scored just over 20 points per contest. On seven separate occasions, the G-Men put up 19 points or less and, not surprisingly, had only two Pro Bowlers on the entire roster (OL Ron Stone, LB Jessie Armstead).
But thanks to favorable matchups—New York got to play and defeat Philadelphia for a third time before taking on Minnesota's porous defense and talented but inexperienced offense—and to getting hot at the perfect time, the Giants cruised through the postseason, outscoring their two opponents, 61-10!
With everything on the line, though, they came crashing down to earth, getting demolished by Baltimore in the Super Bowl, 34-7.
On the reality-check day, the offense predictably struggled, as quarterback Kerry Collins threw four interceptions while leading an attack that managed to accumulate just 152 total yards. And upon finding itself on a stage it didn’t belong, the defense appeared overwhelmed and out of place too, allowing more points than it had in 17 of its 18 prior contests!
2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers
In 2000-01, the Philadelphia 76ers sported the East’s top regular-season record and rode it all the way through the conference playoffs and to the NBA Finals.
They managed to dominate the East; however, it was far from a legitimate proving ground.
En route to earning the conference’s top seed, the Allen Iverson-led Sixers edged out the Milwaukee Bucks—who had a quality trio in Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and Michael Redd, but nonetheless they remained the same defensively challenged Bucks—and a team from Miami that averaged less than 89 points per game.
And in the postseason, Philly had an even easier road, first dismantling a pedestrian Isiah Thomas-coached team from Indiana before taking out upstart Toronto and one-dimensional Milwaukee, requiring a seventh game against both the latter two.
Of course, Iverson, the NBA’s 2001 MVP, was surrounded by nothing more than a group of role players—most notably, Dikembe Mutombo, Eric Snow and George Lynch—and could only carry them so far.
Philly’s Batman showed up in a major way in Game 1 of the championship series, stunning the Los Angeles Lakers on the road with a memorable 48-point, six-assist, five-rebound, five-steal performance.
From that point on, though, L.A. seized control and exposed the 76ers for being nothing more than the pretenders they were, sweeping them decisively in the next four outings while winning by an average of 10 points per contest!
2001-02 Carolina Hurricanes
Few teams in sports history demonstrated the value of getting hot at the right time quite like the '01-'02 Carolina Hurricanes.
Sure, as champs of the Southeast Division, the Hurricanes entered postseason play as a respectable No. 3 seed.
In actuality, though, Carolina was far from elite throughout the regular season and boasted the second-lowest point total among all playoff teams.
The opportunistic ‘Canes were led by an aging about-to-retire Ron Francis and sported just a single All-Star (Sami Kapanen).
Still, despite middle-of-the-road rankings in both total offense and defense, Carolina used the latter to navigate its way past New Jersey, Montreal and Toronto. In fact, in their 12 wins en route to the Stanley Cup Final, the Hurricanes allowed more than two goals on just one occasion.
But with the Stanley Cup on the line, Carolina’s defensive third regressed back to its regular-season norm, falling to Detroit in five games while allowing three goals in each of its four losses!
2001 Nebraska Football
For most of the 2001 college football season, the Nebraska Cornhuskers were all about two things: defense and rushing.
On the year, team held opponents to an average of 15.8 points per game while bulldozing their way to 314.7 rushing yards per contest.
They won, however, despite a one-dimensional offense—led by Eric Crouch, who threw for just 1,510 yards and seven TDs—and against a weak Big 12, running into only two ranked opponents—No. 17 Notre Dame and No. 2 Oklahoma—in their first 11 wins.
But down the stretch, Nebraska’s obvious flaws were exposed in a major way.
In their final regular-season battle, the ‘Huskers were embarrassed, 62-36, by No. 14 Colorado, giving up 582 yards of offense on the night.
Yet despite failing to make it to its own conference championship game, Nebraska was still slotted to appear in the national title game, where it would be embarrassed once again, this time by Miami.
In a contest in which it had no business competing, Nebraska appeared slow, unathletic and overmatched. The final score, 37-14, made the game look closer than it actually was, as the Hurricanes were actually in control of the game and the national title when they took a commanding 34-0 halftime lead.
2000 New York Mets
The New York Mets put together a wonderful run in 2000, clawing their way to 94 wins and to a second-place finish—one game behind the Braves—in the vaunted NL East.
And the Bobby Valentine-managed team defied all odds in doing so, ranking seventh in the NL in runs scored per game and 14th in runs allowed per contest.
Still, thanks to timely hitting from Mike Piazza and Edgardo Alfonzo—the only two Mets to hit above .300 on the year—and to consistent pitching from Mike Hampton and Al Leiter, New York managed to upset its way to a World Series appearance.
Playing the role of underdog in each of the first two rounds, the Mets got by San Francisco in a four-game divisional series and then disposed of St. Louis in a hard-fought five-game National League Championship Series showdown.
Finally, it all culminated in a made-for-Hollywood dream World Series matchup between the Mets and the crosstown-rival Yankees.
The fairytale’s ending, however, had far less drama, as the Yanks quickly dismantled the overachieving Mets, prematurely ending the highly anticipated Subway Series in a quick five-game rout.
2001-02 Indiana Basketball
After posting an average 19-10 regular-season record in 2001-02, no one expected the Indiana Hoosiers to make any sort of title run.
The team fell to Iowa in the second round of its conference tournament and entered the Big Dance as a forgotten fifth seed as a result.
Of course, Indiana’s mediocrity was hardly surprising. The Hoosiers were led by a second-year coach, with plenty to prove, in Mike Davis and boasted only two double-digit scorers in future NBAer Jared Jeffries and the forgettable Tom Coverdale.
Come tourney time, though, Indiana took its game to another level while simultaneously benefitting from a relatively easy road—the Hoosiers had to get by both Duke and Oklahoma, but also lucked into playing 12th-seeded Utah, 13th-seeded UNC-Wilmington and 10th-seeded Kent State.
Yet while competing on an NCAA Championship stage against a truly elite team, Indiana showed its true colors, trailing Maryland nearly the entire night before watching the Terrapins seal the deal with a late 22-8 title-winning run.
2008 Arizona Cardinals
With one of the absolute worst defenses in all the NFL—officially ranked 28th overall—the 2008 Arizona Cardinals stumbled their way to a pedestrian 9-7 regular-season record, eventually becoming just the second team ever to advance to the Super Bowl with such a lowly record.
During their mediocre 16-game run, Arizona sported a pathetic one-point scoring differential. By comparison, out of the other 11 playoff teams that year, Tennessee and Baltimore tied with the highest mark at plus-141, while Miami brought up the rear with a plus-28 differential, still a full 27 points better than the Cardinals’.
Yet in a subpar NFC West that produced no other teams with an above-.500 record, Arizona managed to secure a spot in the NFC Wild Card Game.
And thanks to getting hot at just the right time—and to an admittedly dynamic offense led by Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin—the Cardinals slipped by Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia on their way to the Super Bowl, outscoring their three opponents by a collective 33 points.
Not surprisingly, the Pittsburgh Steelers still entered the season’s final game as the prohibitive favorite and played like one early, jumping out to a commanding 20-7 third-quarter lead. The Cards managed to fight back with a 16-point fourth-quarter scoring frenzy, yet they were once again spurned by their in-over-its-head defense, which gave away the Super Bowl by giving up a predictable game-winning touchdown drive.
2014-15/2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers
Prior to the 2014-15 NBA season, LeBron James and Kevin Love decided to team up with Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, forming one of the most talented and explosive trios in all the NBA.
Yet, by the time the Cavs were in a position to finish off the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, James served as the team’s only true star, as both Love and Irving were prematurely lost to injury.
Of course, behind legendary effort and ridiculous production, James led a historically bad roster all the way to the 2015 NBA Finals. In fact, out of all the finalists between 1985 and 2015, only two—James’ 2007 Cavaliers, who made it through a putrid Eastern Conference, and 1999 New York—could claim weaker supporting casts.
Accordingly, while relying heavily on journeyman and role players such as Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, the Cavs stood no chance against the truly elite Golden State Warriors.
After capturing a shocking 2-1 series lead, the King’s Cavs were in their rightful place, dropping the final three games in uncompetitive fashion, by an average of 14 points.
Oh, and for the record, the 2006-07 team may have been even worse, falling in four games to the San Antonio Spurs while scoring just 80.5 points per contest.