The Georgia Bulldogs now face perhaps the hardest task in sports.
After a crushing defeat to SEC rival Alabama in Monday’s College Football Playoff title game, the Bulldogs now must emulate the Crimson Tide’s feat over the past 12 months: Respond after losing the National Championship Game and get all the way back to the top the following year.
The past two national champions, Clemson and now Alabama, did just that. But losing the final in any sport and then winning it all the next year is still tough. In the Super Bowl era (since the 1966 season) only two NFL teams have lost the big game then come back to win it the following year, and the last team to do so was the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
Similarly, for every success story in the 20 years of true Football Bowl Subdivision championship games (dating to the formation of the Bowl Championship Series) in which the losing team rebounded well, there have also been a lot of teams which fell far short the next season.
Here are our choices for the five best rebounds and five biggest flops after title game losses, in chronological order:
1999 Florida State: The Seminoles appeared in the first three BCS Championship Games, winning only the middle one. FSU lost to Tennessee in the 1998 inaugural edition, but came roaring back the next year and knocked off Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl in a meeting of undefeated teams. This season was also the last in a remarkable run of 13 consecutive seasons in which the Seminoles finished in the top four of the AP poll.
2004 Oklahoma: The Sooners capped a run of five consecutive appearances in major bowls with this campaign. In 2003 they were edged by Nick Saban’s LSU Tigers in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship. Then in 2004 Oklahoma was part of a remarkable run, going 12-0 in the regular season and staying at No. 2 wire to wire in the rankings. But USC, No. 1 all season, blew out the Sooners in the Orange Bowl.
2007 Ohio State: Two consecutive meetings with SEC teams in BCS title games, two blowout losses for the Buckeyes. This second one came against LSU, concluding perhaps the wackiest college football season in recent memory. Ohio State lost late in the season to Illinois but bounced back into the BCS title game after beating Michigan and getting help elsewhere. LSU got even more help to reach the BCS Championship Game with two losses, then routed OSU to win it all.
2016 Clemson: So that Deshaun Watson guy was a pretty good college quarterback, huh? The Tigers won the national title in dramatic fashion in Part II of their CFP trilogy against Alabama. The Tigers also shed decades of a reputation as an underachiever. Remember the term “Clemsoning?” You haven’t even thought about that word in the past three or four years, have you? Clemson finally won the big one last season, and even this year’s CFP semifinal loss to the Tide doesn’t dull the shine off this program.
2017 Alabama: It should be considered an anomaly that two consecutive national champions grabbed that title a year after losing the CFP finale in heartbreaking fashion. Yet this is the model Georgia should follow. It is perhaps instructive that coach Nick Saban called the Tide’s 2016 season a “failure” after that team went 14-1 and only lost the championship to Clemson on the final play. Saban’s former assistant, Kirby Smart, will similarly have to find a way to refocus his Georgia squad in 2018.
2002 Nebraska: The decline of the Cornhuskers starts here. A year after Miami waxed Nebraska in the Rose Bowl, it was shocking to see Big Red go 7-7 including a loss in the Independence Bowl. Nebraska was unranked in the final AP poll for the first time since 1968. After that the Huskers have finished out of the rankings nine times, including the past five years.
2009 Oklahoma: The Sooners finished only three seasons unranked under Bob Stoops in his 18-year coaching tenure. This was one of those seasons. Oklahoma, ranked No. 3 in the preseason, won the Sun Bowl and wound up 8-5 — but that is a bad season by the high standards of the fans and alumni in and around Norman, especially when a blowout loss against Texas Tech is factored in:
2010 Texas: The only team in the past 20 years to follow a defeat in the national title game with a losing season. The Longhorns went 5-7, and of course were unranked and did not appear in a bowl. This disappointing followup campaign began a precipitous slide for Texas; since losing to Alabama in the BCS title game to end the 2009 season, the Longhorns have finished ranked just once.
2013 Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish (9-4) barely get the nod over the 2005 Oklahoma squad that finished No. 22 in the final AP poll. This Notre Dame team finished No. 20, two spots higher in the rankings than the ’05 Sooners. But it speaks volumes that the Irish fell from the heights of reaching the BCS title game to settling for a Pinstripe Bowl victory, over Rutgers no less, one year later.
2014 Auburn: The good news for the Tigers was that they scored 44 points against Alabama. The bad news was that they lost 55-44 in the Iron Bowl, capping a 4-4 mark in the SEC. Auburn finished 8-5 and lost the Outback Bowl to Wisconsin, leading to a No. 22 final ranking. In the four seasons since losing the final BCS title game, Auburn has dropped at least four games each year.