I was inspired to do this analysis by an article in the economist, about events of signature significance. The idea is that some events are so rare, they carry a substantial amount of information or predictive power, even with a sample size one.
On November 4th of this year, Ohio State travelled to Iowa City, Iowa, and got blown out by the Iowa Hawkeyes. They lost by 31 points (55-24) to a team that wasn't ranked the entire year.
This loss was an event of signature significance.
- Iowa was unranked when they beat Ohio State
- Iowa ended the season unranked
- Iowa beat Ohio State by 31
Of course there is data. Let's start with past national champions.
Past National Champions
I looked at College Football consensus national champions going back to 1978. I think this is overly inclusive. The game of football has changed so much in the last 40 years, that even games from the 1990s look to me as if they're in slow motion. But, I wanted to air on the side of inclusion. I found that no national champion had a loss this bad. No national champion had a loss close to this bad. Let's take a look.
To start, 25 National Champions went undefeated; count them safely in the bucket of "did not have a loss as bad as Ohio State."
Moving on, 14 National Champions had one loss, but it was to an opponent who was either ranked on the day of the game, ranked at the end of the year, or both.
Here is a list of all such losses. For example, in 1978, Alabama won a national title, but lost to USC, who was ranked #7 on game day and finished the year at #2. Bama lost that game by 10. Most of these opponents were also highly ranked, none of these losses were by more than 31, and only a couple of these losses were close. Let's pause on that point.
No national champion (since 1978) has lost a game by 31 or more, to any caliber opponent.
Our last group of 1-loss title winners had a loss to a team who was un-ranked (both on game day and at the end of the year), but none of these losses were nearly as bad as Ohio State's.
No national champion has lost to an un-ranked team by more than 14.
All Ranked Teams
I don't think it's harsh to compare Ohio State to past national champions. The CFP for teams who could be national champions! But in the interest of being fair and thorough, I expanded my analysis to include all ranked teams.
Since 1978, ranked teams have played un-ranked teams 8,186 times. Out of all those games, the un-ranked team has won by 31 or more just 26 times, a rate of 0.32%. It's only happened 6 times in the last 10 years. Here's the complete list of those games. None of these teams finished higher than 14th.
I don't mean to say Ohio State isn't a good team (they are). I'm not saying that Ohio State won't win tonight (I have them favored). I'm just saying they aren't the best team in the country.
The best team in the country doesn't lose to unranked Iowa by 31, not even once.