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One game away: remembering the College Football Playoff’s near misses

Tennessee and TCU, both unranked entering the college football season, continued their surprising starts by improving to 7-0 on Saturday. Tennessee did not let up following their thrilling win over Alabama, scoring 52 first-half points and coasting to a 65-24 victory against UT Martin. TCU had a more difficult test in the form of No. 17 Kansas State. After falling behind 28-10 in the first half, the Horned Frogs rattled off four consecutive touchdowns behind another big performance from quarterback Max Duggan to emerge with a 38-28 win.

Both teams remain among the six undefeated FBS teams still standing. But while the other four that are unbeaten — Georgia, Ohio State, Clemson and Michigan — are among college football’s premier programs of the past decade, the excellent seasons from Tennessee and TCU have seemingly come out of nowhere. Tennessee closed last season with 7-6 record but has posted the best offense in the country this season behind quarterback Hendon Hooker, a current Heisman favorite, and Jalin Hyatt, who leads the nation with 12 receiving touchdowns. Last year, TCU fired longtime head coach Gary Patterson midway through a 5-7 season. After poaching new coach Sonny Dykes from in-state rival SMU, the Frogs have already defeated four ranked teams.

Tennessee and TCU may yet falter down the stretch, but it would send major shockwaves through college football if either team were to break into the playoff, given that the elusive four spots have been so consistently hoarded by a select handful of dominant programs. That being said, it has not been uncommon to see less heralded programs on the doorstep of the playoff. These teams have largely been lost to history due to the belief in hindsight that teams like Alabama and Clemson were always destined to reach the final four. In reality, had a few results been different, a host of other programs could have found themselves in the playoff. As Tennessee and TCU continue their attempt to overthrow college football’s hierarchy, here is a look at some of the teams that have never reached the playoff but have come within a single game of doing so.

Honorable Mention: Missouri – 2007 and 2013

While these seasons both occurred slightly before the playoff’s introduction, Missouri holds the ignominious distinction of having been one win away from the reaching the national championship game not once, but twice in the last fifteen seasons alone. Missouri, now a middling program that has posted a 41-43 record since 2015, exemplifies how quickly fortunes can change in college football.

The 2007 season was the most chaotic in recent memory. The early No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams lost in the same week three different times. This opened the door for two-loss LSU to claim the national title, the first champion with multiple defeats since Minnesota in 1960.

Missouri began the season unranked but jumped out to a 5-0 start before suffering their first defeat against Oklahoma. Led by star quarterback Chase Daniel, who finished fourth in Heisman voting, the Tigers rolled to five more wins, setting up a critical regular season finale against No. 2 Kansas, with the winner advancing to the Big 12 Championship. Missouri won 36-28 and was ranked No. 1 heading into conference championship week, needing a win to reach to the national title game. It was not to be, however, as they were bested by Oklahoma for the second time, leaving them to settle for a Cotton Bowl victory.

Fast forward to 2013, expectations were low for Missouri after they posted a losing record the previous season, their first in the SEC. Just as they had six years earlier, the Tigers came out of nowhere, starting the season unranked but finishing 11-1 on the back of an electric offense. No. 5 Missouri faced No. 3 Auburn in the SEC Championship, with No. 4 Alabama idle after ceding their division to Auburn. When No. 2 Ohio State lost in the Big Ten Championship, the door was open for the winner of Auburn and Missouri to sneak into the national title game. Auburn earned the victory, pulling away in the fourth quarter to win 59-42 while compiling an absurd 545 rushing yards. Missouri again won the Cotton Bowl but came up painfully short of their ultimate goal.

TCU and Baylor – 2014

In an alternate universe, TCU could have been national champions in the very first year of the playoff. Entering the final week of the season, the Horned Frogs and Big 12 foe Baylor each held 10-1 records and were ranked No. 3 and No. 6, respectively, despite the Bears having beaten TCU in a 61-58 shootout earlier in the season. TCU closed their slate with a dominant 55-3 win over Iowa State, which seemingly cemented their place in the top four. Baylor matched them by defeating No. 9 Kansas State. When the selections were revealed, though, TCU shockingly dropped to No. 6, one spot behind Baylor, while Ohio State vaulted into the fourth playoff spot. The committee looked good after the Buckeyes rolled to the national championship, but both schools justifiably felt wronged at having not been given a chance at the title.

Iowa – 2015

In recent years, Iowa’s calling card has been their dismal offense. But in 2015, the Hawkeyes were mere seconds away from a playoff berth. Unranked entering the season, Iowa worked their way to a 12-0 record. They were ranked No. 4 entering the Big Ten Championship, a de facto playoff quarterfinal matchup with No. 5 Michigan State. As expected, the game was a defensive slugfest. Iowa’s C.J. Beathard connected with Tevaun Smith for an 85-yard touchdown that gave the Hawkeyes a 13-9 advantage in the fourth quarter. Needing an answer, Michigan State embarked on a 22-play drive lasting over nine minutes and culminating with an L.J. Scott touchdown run that sent the Spartans to the semifinals. Michigan State would go on to lose 38-0 to eventual national champion Alabama, and Iowa’s loss likely spared them from a similar fate.

Wisconsin and Auburn – 2017

Entering conference championship week in 2017, the top of the national rankings looked highly unusual. Auburn held a 10-2 record but were propelled to No. 2 behind with two victories over the top-ranked teams in the country. Wisconsin was the nation’s only undefeated team but was dragged down to No. 4 due to a weak strength of schedule. Both teams would be guaranteed a playoff berth with a win, but neither were able to take advantage. In a rematch of their regular season matchup, Georgia dominated Auburn to win the SEC Championship, while a late interception proved costly in Wisconsin’s 27-21 loss at the hands of Ohio State. Despite losing, Wisconsin was still widely expected to sneak into the playoff, but Alabama received the nod despite not qualifying for the SEC Championship. The Tide went on to win the national championship, while Wisconsin claimed the Orange Bowl crown.

Utah – 2019

The Pac-12 has been often ridiculed for failing to produce elite teams. The conference has not had a playoff representative since 2016, and their best opportunity came from Utah in 2019. The Utes ranked No. 5 entering the Pac-12 Championship after a strong 11-1 regular season. After No. 4 Georgia was demolished in the SEC Championship by the Joe Burrow-led LSU freight train, a Utah victory against Oregon would have sent them to the playoff for the first time. With the stakes at their highest, Utah fell 37-15 to the Ducks and the Pac-12 still awaits another playoff participant.

Contact Matthew Crow at mcrow@nd.edu.

The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.