Ranking the Best National Championship Runs Since 2000

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 7, 2021

Ranking the Best National Championship Runs Since 2000

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Winning a national championship is the ultimate goal in college football. The reward is the same, but the path to a title can have a dramatically different feeling.

    The last two decades alone have 10 undefeated teams and 10 other champions with one or even two losses.

    So let's focus on the first group.

    From my perspective, the best championship runs include zero losses. That requires one note: The ranking, then, is not a list of the "best teams" to win a national title. It's a review of the 10 undefeated champions since 2000, based on their overall performance while factoring in competition level.

    And secondly, the champions are from the Bowl Championship Series or College Football Playoff national titles; polls are not considered (sorry, 2017 UCF).

10. 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Ohio State turned a year of survival into an improbable title.

    While the Buckeyes defeated five Top 25 opponents, they also clipped four unranked teams by seven points or less. They edged No. 18 Penn State and No. 12 Michigan late in the season thanks to a defense that surrendered only 13.1 points per game.

    Most impressively, though, Ohio State stunned heavily favored Miami in the 2002 season's national championship. The Buckeyes toppled the reigning champs 31-24 in double overtime after a controversial pass interference flag went their way.

    Ohio State ended 14-0 with seven one-score victories. Not overwhelming, but a champion all the same.

9. 2010 Auburn Tigers

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    Otherwise known as "The Cam Newton Year," 2010 featured a highly unexpected Auburn championship.

    Newton accounted for 50 touchdowns in a Heisman-winning season, passing for 2,854 yards and running for 1,473. His primary targets were Darvin Adams, Terrell Zachery and Emory Blakeplayers who never made a dent in the NFL.

    But the lack of surrounding star power didn't slow Auburn, which had seven wins over opponents that finished the season in the Top 25. Most notably, Auburn toppled 11-win LSU, shocked Alabama with the 24-point "Camback" and stunned Oregon in the national championship on Michael Dyer's legendary run.

    While seven-one score wins are comparable to 2002 Ohio State, the depth of Top 25 victories gives 2010 Auburn an edge.

8. 2000 Oklahoma Sooners

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    AMY E. CONN/Associated Press

    Oklahoma put victories over No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 on its resume and totaled five wins against Top 12 finishers. It's fair to say the Soonersdespite Miami's controversial exclusion from the BCS title gametruly had to earn this championship.

    Three of Oklahoma's last five opponents kept it within one score, though two were Top 25 teams. Compared to 2010 Auburn, it was a less nerve-wracking year for the Sooners, who opened 2000 with eight straight double-digit wins.

    Throw in a defense that allowed just 14.9 points per game, and Oklahoma has a clear advantage in the comparison.

7. 2009 Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Alabama's wins in 2009 weren't as top-heavy as 2000 Oklahoma's, but the Crimson Tide came awfully close. Account for performance in those Top 25 matchups, and they pull slightly ahead. In six games against ranked teams, Alabama won by nine-plus points.

    Only two opponents (7-6 Tennessee and 8-5 Auburn) hung within a possession of the Tide all season.

    Yes, the national title has a small asterisk because Texas quarterback Colt McCoy exited with a shoulder injury. Still, Alabama's powerful running game slammed the door in the fourth quarter anyway.

    The Tide surrendered a measly 11.7 points per game, holding every opponent to 24 points or fewer.

6. 2004 USC Trojans

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    CHRIS O'MEARA/Associated Press

    Technically, this national title doesn't exist because USC star Reggie Bush received "improper gifts" from a couple of agents. Realistically, though, that doesn't change the season.

    USC accomplished a wire-to-wire championship, holding a preseason No. 1 ranking and never leaving that spot.

    Led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart and Bush, the Trojans finished 13-0. They cruised through a schedule that included four end-of-year Top 25 teams, capping it with a 55-19 smackdown of No. 2 Oklahoma in the BCS title game.

    One-score wins over Stanford, Oregon State and UCLAall five-plus-loss teamsdrop USC's standing in the list. But, let's be clear, the 2004 Trojans are a legendary team.

5. 2018 Clemson Tigers

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    If we wanted to rank the champions based on dominance, 2018 Clemson would be much higher. This roster absolutely shredded the competition with a 31.2-point average margin of victory.

    Finding the right spot is a challenge, though. Similar to 2004 USC, the schedule didn't have a bunch of landmines. The ACC only had two other eight-win teams.

    Simultaneously, Clemson sidestepped Texas A&M and never worried about an upset once then-freshman Trevor Lawrence took over (and stayed healthy post-Syracuse). The Tigers won each of their last 10 games by at least 20 points and eviscerated No. 3 Notre Dame and top-ranked Alabama by a combined score of 74-19.

    Undoubtedly one of the best teams in the sport's history, but judged solely on the path to a title, other teams had it tougher.

    Acknowledging that does nothing to diminish Clemson's excellence.

4. 2005 Texas Longhorns

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    Vince Young's iconic touchdown run sealed the national title for Texas and capped a brilliant season of scoring.

    The Longhorns averaged 50.2 points and knocked off four Top 25 teams. (You can throw out 7-6 Colorado and sub in 8-4 Oklahoma, if you'd like). Other than a 25-22 road victory over No. 4 Ohio State, they scored 40-plus points in every game. Young became the first player to pass for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 in a season.

    As if a record-breaking offense wasn't enough, the defense allowed 16.4 points per game. Ohio State and top-ranked USC were the only teams to stay within 10 points of the Longhorns.

    2004 USC, 2018 Clemson and 2005 Texas have similar profiles; listing them in any order is reasonable.

3. 2013 Florida State Seminoles

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    Florida State didn't simply beat everyone in 2013. No, the Seminoles annihilated each opponent until the BCS title game.

    While beating four Top 25 teams through the ACC Championship Game, FSU only played one game within 27 points. And the 'Noles squashed Boston College by 14. Sure, it was a relatively soft schedule, but that's an absurd level of control.

    In the national championship, Heisman winner Jameis Winston's late touchdown pass stopped Auburn's miracle run. Kelvin Benjamin's catch gave FSU a 34-31 lead with 13 seconds to play.

    Not a bad moment for the lone nerve-testing win of the season.

2. 2001 Miami Hurricanes

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    Clinton Portis
    Clinton PortisGetty Images (Jon Soohoo)

    Florida State held its breath once in 2013. Miami did twice in 2001, but it navigated a late gauntlet in remarkable fashion.

    The Hurricanes rolled to seven wins of 22-plus points before escaping Boston College. They responded by crushing No. 14 Syracuse 59-0 and No. 12 Washington 65-7, then survived a trip to No. 14 Virginia Tech to reach the national championship. Miami left no doubt and hammered Nebraska 37-14.

    All season, the 'Canes allowed just 117 points in 12 gamesonly four opponents cracked seven points. Miami averaged a 32.9-point margin of victory and tallied five Top 25 wins.

    Miami has an edge because it overwhelmed a more challenging schedule, but 2013 FSU has a persuasive case for No. 2, too.

1. 2019 LSU Tigers

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    Whether 2019 LSU is the greatest team in college football history can be argued. What isn't up for debate, however, is the historically daunting slate the Tigers navigated.

    No team had ever recorded seven AP Top 10 wins in a season. Those opponentsClemson, Georgia, Florida, Oklahoma, Alabama, Auburn and Texasended the year ranked second, fourth, sixth, seventh, eighth, 14th and 25th, respectively.

    Like Miami, the Tigers had a remarkably tough finish. Well, it was supposed to feel that way. Instead, Heisman-winning quarterback Joe Burrow propelled LSU past No. 4 Georgia, No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 3 Clemson by a combined score of 142-63.

    While powering through that schedule, LSU set an FBS single-season record with 726 points. The combination resulted in the best championship run of the last 20 years.