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5 Close Calls for College Football’s Eventual National Champions Since 2000

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Clemson’s overtime win at home this past Saturday over an NC State team that was outmatched on paper may be causing some worries in Death Valley. However, forgive the cliché, the college football season is a marathon, not a sprint.

Many eventual national champions have survived close games prior to winning the title against teams they should have probably blown out. Here are five such games since 2000 (in chronological order, most recent to earliest) that come to mind.

Auburn 27, Clemson 24 (OT)

Sept. 18, 2010 – Auburn, Ala.

In this early-season game, Auburn was coming into its own with its offense and a then-relatively unknown quarterback named Cam Newton. Clemson capitalized on Auburn’s state of flux by jumping out to a 17-0 second quarter lead. Auburn came back to take a 24-17 advantage at the end of third quarter, but Clemson tied it to go into overtime. There, Auburn’s Wes Byrum kicked a 39-yard field goal. Clemson missed on its possession and finished the season 6-7.

Alabama 12, Tennessee 10

Oct. 24, 2009 – Tuscaloosa, Ala.

In Lane Kiffin’s one season as Tennessee’s head coach, the Volunteers capitalized on a late Mark Ingram fumble with a touchdown and then recovered an onside kick. Tennessee kicker Daniel Lincoln attempted a 44-yard field goal, which was blocked by nose guard Terrence Cody, his second of the game. The nail-biter proved to be the closest scrape of Nick Saban’s first national title with the Crimson Tide.

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USC 31, Stanford 28

Sept. 25, 2004 – Stanford, Calif.

The 2004 Trojans are considered to be one of the best college football teams of the past 20 years, but found themselves down 28-17 at the half to the Cardinal. According to Reggie Bush, the USC players were excited at halftime because they were actually in a close game, and that energy carried over to the second half. The Trojans scored the final 14 points and took the lead on a two-yard run by LenDale White with 6:30 left. USC went on to win its second straight championship (which has since been vacated by the school) by blowing out Oklahoma 55-19 in the Orange Bowl. Stanford finished the season 4-7.

Ohio State 23, Illinois 16 (OT)

Nov. 16, 2002 – Champaign, Ill.

The Buckeyes were on the verge of playing for their first national title since 1968, but could not put a 4-6 Illinois team away. The Illini seemed to match Ohio State score for score and a 48-yard field goal by John Gockman with seven seconds left sent the game into overtime. The Buckeyes got the ball first and Maurice Hall, who was filling in for an injured Maurice Clarett, put his team ahead with an eight-yard run. Ohio State then stopped Illinois on its possession and escaped Champaign with its perfect season intact. The next week, Ohio State beat Michigan and then upset Miami in the Fiesta Bowl to win the national championship.

Oklahoma 12, Oklahoma State 7

Nov. 25, 2000 – Stillwater, Okla.

Anything can happen in a rivalry game, but the Sooners were 10-0 coming into Bedlam, while the Cowboys were 3-7. Oklahoma’s vaunted offense was shut down by Oklahoma State and the Sooners managed to hang on for an ugly 12-7 win. The Sooners went on to beat Florida State in the Orange Bowl to win their first national championship since 1985.

— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.

(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)