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TCU would join long list


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Should TCU knock off Georgia in Monday night’s College Football Playoff championship game, the Horned Frogs would enter the annals of college football history as one of the sport’s most unexpected national champions.

Just 5-7 last season and 23-24 over the previous four years, TCU hadn’t even been to a bowl game since 2018 before coach Sonny Dykes arrived and dramatically reversed the program’s fortunes. Even with a loss to Georgia, the Frogs’ run ranks as one of the top Cinderella stories in recent Bowl Subdivision memory.

But while ridiculously rare, TCU’s national title wouldn’t be without precedent.

In recent history alone, teams such as Auburn in 2010 and Oklahoma in 2000 have come out of relative obscurity to score shocking championships. Going back deeper into the record books, Clemson in 1981 and Southern California in 1962 meet the standard of out-of-nowhere national champs.

TCU would just join the list of teams who shocked the world in winning it all. Here are 10 others during the poll era, beginning in 1936, that stand as the most unexpected title winners in FBS history.

2010 Auburn (14-0)

Auburn went 8-5 in 2009, 3-5 in the SEC, and began 2010 at the very back end of the Top 25. But the Tigers rode quarterback Cam Newton’s cape to the national championship with a series of close wins: 17-14 against Mississippi State, 27-24 in overtime against Clemson, 24-17 against LSU, 28-27 against Alabama and 22-19 against Oregon in the title game.

2002 Ohio State (14-0)

The Buckeyes were seen as a Big Ten factor entering former coach Jim Tressel’s second season but not as a contender for the broader FBS championship. Like Auburn in 2010, OSU stacked a run of narrow wins – against Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Illinois and most famously Purdue – and then got past Michigan in the regular-season finale before taking on Miami (Fla.) as major underdogs in the Fiesta Bowl. But the Buckeyes scored the upset in double overtime to win the program’s first title since 1968.

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2000 Oklahoma (13-0)

Bob Stoops had reversed a losing culture in 1999, his first year, bringing the Sooners back into bowl play after disappointing runs under former coach Barry Switzer’s three immediate successors. No one thought Oklahoma had a chance to win the whole thing, though. But OU exploded on the national scene in October with wins against Texas, Kansas State and Nebraska. The defense then delivered an epic performance in shutting down defending champs Florida State in a 13-2 Orange Bowl win.

1990 Georgia Tech (11-0-1)

The Yellow Jackets went 2-9 in 1987, coach Bobby Ross’ debut season, and then 3-8 in 1988 and 7-4 in 1989. That 1989 team won seven of eight after an 0-3 start, building some momentum heading into 1990. But no one thought Tech was a national player; the Jackets remained unranked until October and didn’t crack the top five until an ugly 6-3 win against Virginia Tech on Nov. 10. Beating Nebraska 45-21 in the Citrus Bowl gave Tech a share of the title with Colorado.

1984 Brigham Young (13-0)

Still the last of the current Group of Five programs to win the national championship, BYU were crowned by virtue of being the only unbeaten team in the FBS. Even then, detractors pointed to the Cougars’ paltry list of quality opponents, which featured just one ranked team, and place in a very weak Western Athletic Conference that had just three teams with more than six wins. Beating a mediocre Michigan team 24-17 in the Holiday Bowl was enough to land BYU at No. 1 in the final polls.

1983 Miami (Fla.) (11-1)

Miami came into 1983 having earned some national relevancy across the previous three seasons under coach Howard Schnellenberger, even if the 1982 squad was a slight disappointment at 7-4. Still, the Hurricanes were not anywhere near the championship conversation entering the season and dropped off the radar completely after losing 28-3 to Florida in the season opener. But then Miami blanked Notre Dame 20-0 on Sept. 24, surging into the rankings. From there, the Hurricanes rode the arm of Bernie Kosar and a terrific defense to 11 consecutive wins and an unforgettable defensive stop on a late two-point try to beat Nebraska 31-30 in the Orange Bowl and claim the first title in program history.

1981 Clemson (12-0)

The program’s last championship before winning again in 2016 and 2018 under Dabo Swinney, the Tigers were unranked entering the year after going 6-5 in 1980. But voters began to pay attention after a 13-3 smothering of defending champion Georgia on Sept. 19. While not always dominant, Clemson gutted out a tough win against North Carolina on Nov. 7 and locked down No. 1 with a 22-15 win against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.

1962 Southern California (11-0)

Heading into 1962, this was a program seen as a blueblood fallen on hard times: USC went 1-9 in 1957, 4-5-1 in 1958 and was a combined 8-11-1 in 1960-61, legendary coach John McKay’s first two seasons. But the Trojans soared into the top 10 after beating Duke in the season opener and steadily climbed higher and higher in the polls, eventually rising to No. 1 after topping Navy on Nov. 17 and securing an unbeaten season by outscoring Wisconsin 42-37 in the Rose Bowl.

1959 Syracuse (11-0)

Syracuse reached the Cotton Bowl in 1956 and the Orange Bowl in 1958, giving the Orange plenty of national credibility heading into 1959. But they didn’t become a player for the national title until a dominant October on the defensive side of the ball, when the Orange allowed just 12 points in beating Maryland (29-0), Navy (32-6), Holy Cross (42-6), West Virginia (44-0) and Pittsburgh (35-0). Led by this defense and future Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis, Syracuse gave up more than eight points just three times and had just one game decided by fewer than nine points.

1938 TCU (11-0)

Before 2022 TCU, there were the 1938 Horned Frogs. Just 4-4-2 in 1937 thanks to a sputtering offense that managed just 88 points all season, the 1938 team quickly turned things around behind star quarterback and Heisman winner Sammy Baugh. While not ranked until the second half of October, TCU scored at least 20 points in all but two games and outscored opponents 269-60 overall. The Frogs locked down a perfect season with a 15-7 comeback win against Carnegie Tech in the Sugar Bowl.

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