It's nearly inconceivable that a national championship team, one that defeated the top two teams in the country with its third-string quarterback, lost earlier in the season to a school that had a losing conference record and barely qualified for a bowl game. But somehow Virginia Tech defeated Ohio State, by two touchdowns in Columbus, OH, on Sept. 6. While it's not rare for a national champion to drop a game (since 1968, there have been 25 losses and ties among champions), it's unusual for a champion to lose to such a bad team. So we examined how Virginia Tech compares to other teams who beat national champions to see if they were the worst team to ever beat the best team.
College football has changed a ton this past century and hardly resembles the same sport Princeton won a title in 1869. So we restricted comparisons to a "modern era." But choosing a cutoff point here can seem arbitrary since there's no nice clean break like the NFL merger. Popular cutoffs include 1906 when the first legal pass was completed, 1945 when military academy dynasties began fading after WWII ended, or the 1980s where NCAA regulation and TV broadcasts changed the game and pushed it towards its current format.
And obviously, this being the first year of the playoff, Ohio State stands apart as the only team to have lost to such a bad opponent and had a mechanism through which to have a shot at the title despite not going back to the top of the rankings.
We chose 1968 as a cutoff point, because frankly, national champions were chosen with shabby-ass methods before then. Until 1968, the AP released its final poll before bowl season. So you get things like Alabama claiming a title in 1964, despite losing their goddamn bowl game. The Coaches Poll did the same thing until 1974 (we only counted Coaches Poll champs from 1974 onward). We examined only champions in the AP or Coaches Poll because otherwise you get years like 1970 where three teams were named "champions" in an era of 11 regular-season games, no conference-championship game, and where top teams often avoided each other in bowls due to conference affiliations. To measure team strength, we used Sport Reference's SRS ratings, which measures teams' expected point differential against an average opponent.
Below is a table that shows the team strength of every team since 1968 that defeated or tied a national champion. "YrRk" is teams' SRS rank from that season. "SRSRk" is how these teams rank among each other according to their SRS score ("SRS"). "RkRk" is how these teams rank among each other according to their SRS position ("YrRk").
Virginia Tech's SRS of 6.54 ranked 40th among this year's college football teams. Which is the lowest that a team who beat a national champion has ranked since 1968. The only two teams that really compare to Va Tech's shittiness are 1977 Ole Miss and 1990 North Carolina. Ole Miss of '77 had a losing record, but beat Notre Dame by seven at home. 1990 North Carolina had a slightly better record, 6-4-1, and managed to tie Georgia Tech at home.
Although Carolina's SRS (5.52) is lower than Va Tech's (6.54), the Va Tech win is still more perplexing. Because Va Tech did in fact beat Ohio State while North Carolina merely tied Georgia Tech. And in 1990, Georgia Tech wasn't even the undisputed champion—they split it with Colorado. Ohio State on the other hand, just defeated the country's top two teams. And what makes Va Tech's win more impressive than 1977 Ole Miss's is that Va Tech won by 14 on the road, while Ole Miss won by seven at home.
Virginia Tech was so shitty that they had to beat a five-win Virginia team in the last week of the season just to gain bowl eligibility. And while ACC daytime games are generally unwatchable, they took it to another level in their game against Wake Forest, which was the first scoreless through regulation contest in nearly a decade. They lost that game after only scoring three points in double overtime.
Sure, the game was early in the season and was just J.T. Barrett's second start. But it makes no sense that Ohio State was held to 21 points, their lowest of the season, and allowed Tech to score 35, which ties for their highest of the season. William & Mary held Virginia Tech to fewer points for fuck's sake.
It takes a loss this bad to create controversy around a team slipping into the four spot after winning their conference-title game by 59 points. In previous years, this loss would have cast Ohio State to the Rose Bowl to play a meaningless game as far as title concerns go. For the Buckeyes, the playoffs came just in time.