While an upset like UMBC beating No. 1 Virginia was historic, upsets are typical in tournaments like March Madness. So it’s no small wonder college football’s powers have never been keen to include mid-majors in the BCS or the Playoff.
Which mid-major teams would college football’s blue bloods have been most afraid of seeing in any kind of playoff format? Let’s go through all the non-powers that finished undefeated and untied since the last one, 1984 BYU, won a national title.
8. 1998 Tulane, 12-0
The Conference USA champs beat down BYU, 41-27, in the Liberty Bowl. They finished No. 10 but were left out of the BCS, which wouldn’t expand mid-major inclusion rules for almost another decade.
Beyond a sticky-fingered secondary with three seniors, what made this team effective were two men on offense. The OC was option innovator Rich Rodriguez, while senior QB Shaun King threw for 3,508 yards and 38 touchdowns with another 641 rushing yards and 11 rushing scores.
A spread like this was unique at that time, particularly one based around a dual-threat QB. The Green Wave’s talent level wasn’t terrifying, but King would have given any 1990s defensive coordinator pause.
7. 1999 Marshall, 13-0
The Herd opened by winning at Clemson, which had just hired ... head coach Tommy Bowden from Tulane. Also like Tulane, Marshall finished by smashing BYU in the Liberty Bowl.
The Herd’s strength of schedule was a bit lower than Tulane’s, but winning in Death Valley gives them the nod. Marshall was led by a star QB who went on to play in the NFL (Chad Pennington) and a defense that included future pro safety Rogers Beckett and picked off 20 passes.
Pennington’s pro-style offense included future pros like RB Doug Chapman, WR James Williams, and WR Nate Poole. Here’s Pennington sticking in the dagger against Clemson:
The Herd’s level of talent would have made them an unpleasant draw in the postseason.
6. 2008 Utah, 13-0
The Mountain West champs picked off a No. 11 TCU and whipped a No. 14 BYU (every team on here whipped BYU at some point, it seems). After that and a season-opening victory over the Wolverines in Ann Arbor, the Utes were rewarded with a trip to the Sugar Bowl to play Nick Saban’s emerging Alabama.
Then Utah rocked the Tide, 31-17, kicking off the “Alabama’s weakness is the spread offense” meme and finishing No. 2 in the AP, with 16 No. 1 votes.
However, the Utes weren’t a particularly terrifying team, ranking 19th in opponent-adjusted offensive S&P+ and 25th on defense. S&P+ though both TCU and Boise State had stouter teams overall that year. They were led on offense by Brian Johnson, a mobile QB who is now the QB coach at Florida, and the RB committee was led by future pro RB Matt Asiata. Left tackle Zane Beadles was an eventual Pro Bowler.
Kyle Whittingham’s defense, coordinated by future head coach Gary Andersen, had future NFL players like DE Paul Kruger, LB Koa Misi, and CBs Brice McCain and Sean Smith. While Johnson had a strong day against Saban’s defense, Whittingham’s influential zone blitz package was the real terror, inflicting seven sacks and two interceptions:
The Tide might’ve been poorly motivated for that game, but they were taken apart regardless. Most likely, the other top teams of 2008 wouldn’t have wanted to prove they could do better.
5. 2006 Boise State, 13-0
This was Boise State’s first undefeated squad, rewarded with a trip to the Fiesta Bowl to play Adrian Peterson’s Sooners, who were favored by 7.5 points. The Broncos won in one of college football’s greatest games with a gutsy Statue of Liberty call before star RB Ian Johnson proposed to his girlfriend, a Boise cheerleader. A Disney film could scarcely have ended more dramatically.
Chris Petersen’s Broncos were still in the WAC and hadn’t played much competition before then, save for a strong Hawaii.
Like every Boise State team, this squad was keyed by a run game. Johnson put up 1,713 yards at 6.2 yards per carry with 25 touchdowns. QB Jared Zabranksy threw for 2,587 yards at 9 a pop, plenty of it off play action. The Broncos were masters of using TEs and motion to create leverage for their run game before taking shots. Their line was mostly scrappy overachievers, but also future Pro Bowler Ryan Clady.
Their defense was solid, though not as good as in subsequent seasons, and included longtime Dallas Cowboys nickel Orlando Scandrick at corner. This unit forced a lot of turnovers, including three interceptions in the Fiesta Bowl, and was pretty stout against the run.
Of course, the enduring images and memories of those teams were the lethal trick plays. Boise State excelled at out-preparing and attacking mentally with carefully orchestrated tactics to pick at weak spots.
4. 2009 Boise State, 14-0
These Broncos beat Pac-10 champ Oregon and beat TCU in the Fiesta Bowl, but more on them at the end.
3. 2017 UCF, 13-0
Scott Frost’s Knights won an AAC title and an exciting Peach Bowl victory over Auburn, against whom they revealed why they’d have been a terrifying opponent for most any squad.
The key was dynamic QB McKenzie Milton in Frost’s cutting-edge, spread-option offense. Milton threw for 4,037 yards and 37 touchdowns, adding another 613 rushing yards and distributing to tons of young, fast weapons. The Knights excelled at sending the ball where defenses weren’t, with a diverse and attack-oriented playbook. Auburn’s simple, execution-based defense really struggled to keep tabs.
UCF’s defense was also trouble, mostly because it’s DL and ILBs were legitimately stout (multiple 300-pound DL and led in tackles by inside-backer Pat Jasinski) and outside linebacker hybrid Shaquem Griffin was a lethal blur.
Griffin terrorized War Eagle before going on to run a 4.38 40 at the combine at 227 pounds.
No one wants to get into a high-stakes matchup with a team with a complicated offensive scheme like Frost’s, a physical defensive front, and a playmaker like Griffin.
2. 2010 TCU, 13-0
The Frogs had a few defenses around this time that were better than their 2010 unit, but this was their best all-around team. The reasons were four-year starting QB Andy Dalton, future Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente at OC, three senior wideouts, and four redshirt senior OL, including future Patriots starter Marcus Cannon.
Whereas the similarly brilliant 2009 Horned Frogs met their match from 2009 Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl, the 2010 Frogs were largely untested, with a victory over a No. 24 Oregon State before rolling through the Mountain West and demolishing the No. 6 Utes.
Then they went to the Rose Bowl Zedzto play an 11-1 Wisconsin that had won the Big Ten, thanks to a NFL-laden OL and a star named JJ Watt.
The expectation was that TCU’s famous 4-2-5 defense would be mauled by a run game that included four eventual NFL backs. Instead, the Frogs tackled well and proved their spread passing attack was the more dangerous component, with Dalton throwing for 219 yards (to Wisconsin’s 226 rushing) at 9.5 yards a pass.
In the end, the Frogs’ 4-2-5 made a few key plays, particularly a few in which they blitzed star linebacker Tank Carder, like on this fateful two-point try:
Highly experienced Dalton in Fuente’s advanced scheme was a fright, and when paired with a typical Gary Patterson 4-2-5 defense that was also ahead of its time, you had a team that punched above its weight.
1. 2004 Utah, 12-0
Back in the day, the Utes had one of the most impressive coaching staffs in the history of football. Besides head man Urban Meyer, the team was coordinated by future WKU head coach Mike Sanford on offense and Whittingham on defense, with future Florida head coach Dan Mullen on staff. These guys did their job on the recruiting trail, because this team was considerably more talented than anyone would have expected, with no one on the schedule coming within 13 points.
Their toughest opponents were probably Texas A&M at the start of the year or Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl, when the Utes became the first non-power to crash the BCS. Before college football could see what these guys might have been able to do with another shot against tougher competition, QB Alex Smith left for the NFL and Florida chomped up Meyer.
What made the Utes terrifying was a combination of Smith in Meyer’s cutting-edge spread, the talent level, and Whittingham’s blitz packages. The talent is hard to believe, but it included two-time Super Bowl-winning guard Chris Kemoeatu, longtime Bengals DL Jonathan Fanene, Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle, and starting Jets DL Sione Po’uha. The safety tandem of Weddle and eventual Utah DC Morgan Scalley combined for 10 interceptions and allowed the Utes to boost their lethal blitz package.
A spread team that could run and throw while mixing in stuff like this ...
... combined with an aggressive, loaded defense would have been a nightmare for plenty of teams back in 2004.
But 2010 Boise State might’ve been the scariest of all, despite losing a game.
The 2006 Fiesta Bowl was the breakthrough, the 2009 Fiesta Bowl proved the Broncos as perennial contenders, and then this group improved on almost everything the 2009 team did. Almost.
This was the best of the Kellen Moore era, finishing with an S&P+ rating of 26.2, better than national title participants Oregon and Auburn. They started with a high-profile win over Virginia Tech before rolling through the WAC and rising as high as No. 2 in the AP ... until their season was ruined at the home of the No. 19 Nevada Wolf Pack, led by a fellow named Colin Kaepernick. The 34-31 overtime loss included Boise missing kicks of 26 and 29 yards. The Broncos were punished for this with a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl, where they thrashed No. 19 Utah.
This team still had the multiple-TE run game and eventual All-Pro RB Doug Martin, but the passing game around Moore was on another level from the Zabransky teams. Eventual NFL WRs Titus Young and Austin Pettis each had 950-plus yards, and the Broncos were dicing teams up with insane efficiency. Their play-action schemes became indefensible with TE Kyle Efaw and these speedy wideouts running on conflicted defenders, like on the winning play against Virginia Tech in the season opener:
Boise’s defense, led by current Washington coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, was also on another level. The Broncos’ safeties, including future pros George Iloka and Jeron Johnson, made their version of the 4-2-5 as nasty as the one from Fort Worth. They played aggressively on the perimeters on standard downs, swarming with numbers and speed, and then bringing the heat on passing downs with NFL DL Shea McClellin and Tyrone Crawford.
All of college football’s blue bloods breathed a sigh of relief when Nevada took Boise down and it became safe to relegate them to a lower bowl, because this team could’ve won it all. The real BCS Championship featured an Auburn with the lowest-rated defense in modern championship history scraping by Oregon, 22-19. Boise might have smoked either one, especially if it’d made its kicks.