10 Most Successful College Football Teams That Started the Season Unranked

These teams prove that being left out of the preseason Top 25 is not a death sentence

The college football preseason poll is out and includes a lot of familiar teams. For fans, having the experts put your program in the Top 25 is reassuring of its talent and potential. However, an omission from the preseason poll is not a death sentence.

 

Many teams have started the season unranked, but have ended it with conference titles, and in some cases, national championships. Here are the 10 best college football squads ever that started the season unranked.

 

10. 2012 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Finished: 12-1, losing to Alabama 42-14 in the BCS National Championship Game

Final Ranking: 3

The Irish returned to the national title picture after almost 20 years with a perfect regular season that included wins over Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Oklahoma and USC. Although they were throttled by Alabama in the national championship game, the year proved that Notre Dame was still a force in college football.

 

9. 1993 Auburn Tigers

Finished: 11-0, beating Alabama 22-14

Final Ranking: 4

Head coach Pat Dye left in the wake of NCAA sanctions and a 5-5-1 1992 season. New coach Terry Bowden inherited an unranked team that was banned from television and postseason play. The silver lining was that expectations were low. With nothing to lose, Auburn took things one game at a time, beating No. 4 Florida and No. 11 Alabama en route to a perfect regular season.

 

8. 2006 Boise State Broncos

Finished: 13-0, beating Oklahoma 43-42 (OT) in the Fiesta Bowl

Final Ranking: 5

Under first-year head coach Chris Petersen, the Broncos beat Oregon State early in the season and went 12-0, becoming the second non-Power 5 team to earn a BCS bid (The 2004 Utah Utes were the first). In the Fiesta Bowl, they faced Big 12 champion and 11-1 Oklahoma. Unless you have been living on the moon since before that game, you are probably aware that Boise State upset the Sooners in one of the most dramatic games in college football history.

 

7. 1975 Arizona State Sun Devils

Finished: 12-0, beating Nebraska 17-14 in the Fiesta Bowl

Final Ranking: 2

The Sun Devils sported a defense with two first-round picks — including future Hall of Famer Mike Haynes — and held its opponents to an average of 10 points a game. Today, an undefeated Arizona State team would be in the College Football Playoff. In 1975, they were in the WAC and had to settle for playing sixth-ranked Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl. There, they showed they could play with the big boys by overcoming a 14-6 fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Huskers and finish with the highest ranking in school history.

 

6. 2017 UCF Knights

Finished: 13-0, beating Auburn 34-27 in the Peach Bowl

Final Ranking: 6

The Knights managed to stay focused despite not playing for three weeks in September due to Hurricane Irma and went undefeated. Then, of course, No. 12 UCF upset No. 7 Auburn 34-27 in the Peach Bowl. Since the Tigers beat both Alabama and Georgia, who played for the national championship, the 2017 UCF Knights may be the best argument for why an undefeated non-Power 5 team should be a considered for a College Football Playoff spot.

 

5. 1990 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Finished: 11-0-1, beating Nebraska 45-21 in the Citrus Bowl

Final Ranking: 1 (shared national title with Colorado)

The 6-0-1 Yellow Jackets beat top-ranked Virginia in early November and quickly became national championship contenders. They finished the wacky 1990 season as its only unbeaten team, the only blemish being a 13-13 tie with North Carolina. The AP awarded 11-1-1 Colorado — who had a tougher schedule — the national title. But the Coaches Poll gave Georgia Tech its first national championship since 1952.

 

4. 1984 BYU Cougars

Finished: 13-0, beating Michigan 24-17 in the Holiday Bowl

Final Ranking: 1

BYU upset No. 3 Pittsburgh to start the season and quickly moved up in the rankings. As the Cougars kept winning and other programs kept losing, they rose in the polls, finally attaining the No. 1 ranking the last weekend of the season. BYU then beat Michigan in the Holiday Bowl to join Notre Dame as the only schools outside of the Power 5 to win the national title since Army way back in 1944-45.

 

3. 2008 Utah Utes

Finished: 13-0, beating Alabama 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl

Final Ranking: 2

The Utes upset Michigan in Ann Arbor in the season opener and quickly entered the Top 25. Along the way, they beat Oregon State and Mountain West foes No. 11 TCU and No. 14 BYU to finish the season undefeated, earning a bid to the Sugar Bowl. In New Orleans, Utah shocked No. 4 Alabama with a 31-17 upset to finish the season ranked No. 2 in the AP poll.

 

Related: Top 10 Non-Power 5 Conference College Football Teams of All Time

 

2. 1983 Miami Hurricanes

Finished: 11-1, beating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl

Final Ranking: 1

Miami’s omission from the Top 25 seemed valid when the Hurricanes dropped their season opener to Florida, but the Hurricanes never lost again. Led by redshirt freshman quarterback Bernie Kosar, Miami reeled off 10 straight wins to earn a No. 5 ranking and a showdown with top-ranked Nebraska. At home in the Orange Bowl, the Hurricanes earned their first national title by beating the Cornhuskers in one of the biggest upsets in college football history.

 

1. 1981 Clemson Tigers

Finished: 12-0, beating Nebraska 22-15 in the Orange Bowl

Final Ranking: 1

The Tigers recorded nine turnovers in a 13-3 upset of defending national champion Georgia in the third game of the season and were vaulted into the national title picture. Clemson proceeded to dominate the rest of the season, allowing an NCAA-best 8.8 points per game and giving up more than 15 points only once. The Tigers went undefeated along the way and won the school’s first national championship.

 

— 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)

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