Kentucky hadn’t had a winning record in SEC play since 1977, but the Wildcats ended that streak when they rallied to beat Missouri on Saturday.

That, and Georgia’s win over Florida the same day, set up a winner-take-all game this weekend when Kentucky hosts Georgia in Lexington. The winner will clinch the SEC East division title and a spot in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 1 in Atlanta.

If Kentucky wins it would certainly give us one of the most surprising division champions in recent memory. So this seems like a good time to review the most surprising division winners in recent college football history.

It makes sense to start this list with the SEC — not only because this is an SEC website but because the SEC invented divisional play and a conference championship game in Division I-A back in 1992.

It has taken a few decades but each of the 10 conferences in what is now called the Football Bowl Subdivision has a championship game. Even the Big 12 and Sun Belt, which have 10 teams each, now hold title games. The Big 12 is the only league with no divisions; it simply pairs the top two finishers in the league for a title game. When that game was reinstated last year after a 6-year hiatus it meant that, for the first time, every Power 5 conference had a league title game (the Pac-12 and Big Ten didn’t have one until 2011).

Here are our choices for the most surprising Power 5 conference division winners since 2000.


Missouri, 2013

The Tigers arrived in the SEC in 2012 as the less-hyped defector from the Big 12. Texas A&M had the bigger name, bigger stadium and certainly the bigger star in the inaugural season of a 14-team SEC, as Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy. But a year later, Mizzou made its presence felt in a big way, beating four ranked conference opponents to win the East Division in its second SEC season. The Tigers fell to Auburn 59-42 in the league title game.

Arkansas, 2006

The Razorbacks were coming off consecutive losing seasons in 2006 but stamped themselves as SEC West contenders early by winning at No. 2 Auburn. That was part of a 10-game winning streak for Arkansas, which won the division despite a late defeat against LSU. The Razorbacks made the SEC Championship Game for the third time but fell to 0-3 in Atlanta, this time losing 38-28 to Florida.

Auburn, 2000

Let’s be honest: Any SEC West title during Alabama’s decade of dominance qualifies as a surprise. As such, one certainly could argue for two other later Auburn teams: The 2010 team went 14-0 and won the national championship after finishing 8-5 (3-5 SEC) in 2009. But that was all about Cam Newton. The 2013 team was a bigger surprise. After finishing 3-9 in 2012, the Tigers fired Gene Chizik, hired Gus Malzahn, won the SEC West and nearly knocked off Florida State in the BCS Championship Game.

But let’s not forget the 2000 Tigers, who were coming off back-to-back losing seasons. Tommy Tuberville’s first Auburn squad went 5-6 (2-6 SEC) in 1999 but in 2000 the Tigers beat LSU early. They then knocked off Georgia in overtime and shut out Alabama to earn a title game trip as West Division champs, but lost 28-6 to Florida.


Duke, 2013

They had 18 consecutive losing seasons before winning the Coastal Division 5 years ago. Eighteen! That included four winless seasons and eight winless conference records. Coach David Cutcliffe led the Blue Devils to perhaps the least likely league title game berth on this whole list, turning them around from a bunch that had back-to-back seasons with identical records (3-9 overall, 1-7 ACC) in 2010 and ’11. Duke lost to Florida State in the ACC title game, but just getting there was remarkable.

Wake Forest, 2006

The Demon Deacons were there to take advantage when both Clemson and Florida State were down at the same time. One could argue that any time those two powerhouse programs both fail to win the ACC Atlantic Division, it’s an upset. Certainly few would have seen it coming in 2006 when Wake Forest, which hadn’t had a winning record in ACC play since 1988, not only won the division but went on to defeat Coastal Division winner Georgia Tech 9-6 for the conference championship.

Big Ten

Penn State, 2016

The Nittany Lions were only a couple of years removed from NCAA sanctions and were coming off three consecutive 7-win seasons when they jumped up to win the East Division. They started 2-2 in 2016, including a loss to Michigan to open B1G play. But Penn State racked up 9 consecutive victories, including a squeaker over then-No. 2 Ohio State and a comeback win for the ages in the league title game against Wisconsin.

Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin, 2012

This was a division earned by attrition. The top two finishers in the (since-renamed) Leaders Division, Ohio State and Penn State, were both ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA sanctions. Enter the Badgers and their 4-4 conference record (including three overtime losses). Once they sneaked in, the Badgers lit things up at the title game in Indianapolis, trouncing Legends Division winner Nebraska 70-31 to earn perhaps the most unlikely Rose Bowl berth in Big Ten history.

Big 12

TCU, 2017

This is cheating slightly, since the Big 12 no longer has divisions (it has not had them since Colorado and Nebraska left at the end of the 2010 season). The Horned Frogs are usually good but they had an up-and-down introduction to life in the Power 5 after joining the Big 12 in 2012. They famously and narrowly missed out on the initial Playoff in 2014 but went 6-7 in 2016 so it was somewhat of a surprise when they made the championship game when the Big 12 reinstated it in 2017. TCU lost to Oklahoma in the title game.

Colorado, 2001

The Buffaloes show up twice on this list as a member of two conferences. In 2000, Colorado finished 3-8, but the Buffs had quite the turnaround in 2001. They stunned No. 1-ranked Nebraska just to clinch the North Division championship, then in the Big 12 title game Colorado knocked off Texas, which had defeated the Buffs 41-7 in the regular season.


Colorado, 2016

The success that the Buffaloes had in the late 1980s and into the 1990s was long gone by the time they left the Big 12 in 2011. When Colorado came aboard along with Utah, turning the Pac-10 into the Pac-12, the guys from Boulder mostly could not get out of their own way. The Buffs finished in the basement of the South Division in each of their first 5 years in the league, then had a stunning turnaround season, winning the division before losing to Washington in the league title game.

Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

UCLA, 2011

Another team that reached the league title game because the first-place team in a division was ineligible. Thanks to sanctions against rival USC, the Bruins won the South Division with a 5-4 league record and 6-6 overall. UCLA lost to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game and to Illinois in the Fight Hunger Bowl to give the Bruins a unique distinction: A team that played in a league title game but wound up with eight losses.