Fans of a college football team on probation and ineligible for a bowl berth can feel a void in that season, no matter the results. However, a perfect season can provide adequate consolation to those fans. In the last 45 seasons of college football, only three major college football teams have completed a perfect season while on probation and ineligible for postseason play.
The Oklahoma Sooners did it in 1974, the Auburn Tigers did it in 1993, and the Ohio St. Buckeyes did it just last season. Achieving such a rare feat may not take away the pain of missing the bowls due to off-the-field issues, but it does give those fans an opportunity to say they witnessed history.
In 1974, the Sooners were not seen on television, but still went undefeated at 11-0 and ended up winning a share of the national championship when the Associated Press awarded them their version of the national title. The Sooners weren’t eligible for the UPI/Coach’s national title due to any team ineligible for the post-season being ineligible for ranking in the poll. This was the last team to win at least a share of the national title without winning a bowl game.
The similarity that the Tigers and Buckeyes share is that both teams achieved this feat while on probation in their respective coach’s first year with the university.
Terry Bowden was hired with the knowledge that the Tigers would be facing sanctions and probation from the NCAA. Bowden took the job anyway and became the first coach in FBS history to achieve a perfect season in his first year coaching an FBS team as the Tigers went 11-0 in ’93. The #4 finish in the AP poll is one of only two top-five finishes for the Tigers, along with a #2 finish in 2004, over the past 20 seasons.
Urban Meyer came back to college football after a year off to take over as head coach of the Buckeyes after the scandal involving former coach Jim Tressel was cooling down and the penalties & sanctions had already been handed down to the team. Meyer helped make people forget about the scandal by coaching the Buckeyes to a 12-0 season and top-five finish.
What separates the Sooners from the Tigers and Buckeyes is that the Sooners were coming off an undefeated season the year before. In 1973, the Sooners went 10-0-1 in Barry Switzer‘s first year as coach, but ended up on probation in 1974 mainly for infractions that took place during Chuck Fairbanks‘ time as head coach. On the other hand, The Tigers were coming off two poor seasons at the end of Pat Dye‘s time as head coach before their perfect season while the Buckeyes went 6-7 in 2011 and hired Meyer before the season ended.
One thing that stuck with me during the Buckeyes’ perfect season last year was the notion that they were under “a different kind of pressure” because they weren’t going to be playing after the regular season. And “different kind of pressure” meant less pressure because they weren’t going to win a share of the title or play for it. I do subscribe to this line of thinking to a degree because having the knowledge that the regular season is your season long before the season even begins does take some of the weight off of your shoulders when it comes to winning every week. You still want to, you still pursue victories every week, but the consequences of a loss are non-existent when you’re not going to be playing in the postseason.
But now the Buckeyes are going to be eligible for the postseason. So can they win it all? Looking at the two teams in a similar situation as the Buckeyes are in, it’s tough to tell. The Sooners did win it all in both polls the first year they were off of probation, but the closest the Tigers got to the title in the 90’s was an SEC title game loss in the third season after their probation.
For Meyer and the Buckeyes, the real pressure begins in August when they will begin their quest toward a national championship. A second straight perfect season may be necessary, and achieving back-to-back perfect seasons is another rarity in college football. The last team to do so was the Nebraska Cornhuskers in 1994 and 1995. They won the national title in both seasons.