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One Game Away: Five Duck Teams That Nearly Won A Natty

So close to a football national championship

National Championship - Oregon v Ohio State Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

SB Nation is taking a look back at some of the best teams to not win a Championship, so we here at ATQ figured it’s about time we take a look back at the five football teams to nearly win it all. Each of these seasons feature some truly fantastic players and coaches, as well as arguably the three biggest villains outside of Corvallis.

The 2014 Oregon Football Team

The team that gave the Ducks their first Heisman winner also nearly earned the program its first national championship. Marcus Mariota led this Mark Helfrich coached team to a 13-2, 8-1 season, a historic Rose Bowl victory over Florida State that turned Jameis Winston into a meme, and Oregon’s second ever national championship appearance.

The Ducks passed their first big test of the season by rallying back from a 27-18 deficit against No. 7 Michigan State in the friendly confines of Autzen Stadium. Then PAC-12 play opened up with a couple of nail-biters, first a game at Washington State that required a defensive stop on the Cougar’s final drive, and then a frustrating upset at the hands of Scooby Wright and the Arizona Wildcats. But the Ducks bounced back from the surprise loss by dismantling the rest of their conference foes and then exacting their revenge on the Wildcats in a 51-13 beatdown in the PAC-12 Championship game.

The victory punched the Ducks’ ticket to the first ever college football playoff, where they raced past Jameis Winston and the Florida State Seminoles in a 59-to-20 victory that at the time broke the record for most points scored in a Rose Bowl. Oregon was one game away from joining the list of national title winners, but former third-string, freshman quarterback Cardale Jones and Ezekiel Elliot proved too much for the Duck defense.

Still, this team should be celebrated for it’s amazing cast of characters, led by the G.O.A.T. of Oregon football in his final season as a Duck.

National Championship - Oregon v Ohio State Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images


  • (W) SOUTH DAKOTA, 62-13
  • (W) #7 MICHIGAN STATE, 46-27
  • (W) WYOMING, 48-14
  • (L) ARIZONA, 24-31
  • (W) #18 UCLA, 42-30
  • (W) WASHINGTON, 45-20
  • (W) CALIFORNIA, 59-41
  • (W) STANFORD, 45-16
  • (W) #20 UTAH, 51-27
  • (W) COLORADO, 44-10
  • (W) OREGON STATE, 47-19

2014 NATIONAL CHAMPION: Ohio State Buckeye

The 2012 Oregon Football Team

Marcus Mariota took control of the program in 2012. The redshirt freshman had some large shoes to fill after the departure of Darron Thomas, and to the delight of Duck fans around the world the young quarterback not only met the high bar that Thomas set before him, but showed potential of becoming the best player in program history.

In a program that was once defined by its high-scoring offense, this is quite possibly the best offense that the Ducks ever produced... then came the Stanford game. Oregon was a perfect 10-0, and had yet to find a team to really challenge them for four quarters - and in many cases, the outcome was decided by halftime, providing ample live-practice for their backups. But the Cardinal were able to stuff the nation’s best offense and steal their spot in the PAC-12 championship game.

A series of close calls added up against the Ducks in their lone loss of the season; Kicker Alejandro Maldonado missed two field goals, including one in overtime, Zach Ertz was ruled in-bounds for a touchdown after initially being ruled out, and perhaps the most memorable mistake was De’Anthony Thomas (AKA Black Mamba) outrunning his coverage resulting in a sure-92-yard keeper from Mariota falling short when he was caught from behind.

The Black Mamba recorded a legendary Duck highlight by taking the opening kick of the fiesta bowl to the house against Kansas State, but his missed block lingers as one of Oregon’s biggest ‘what ifs?’ If the Ducks would’ve beaten the Cardinal on November 17, 2012, they would’ve likely made the Natty and faced an undefeated, yet underwhelming, Notre Dame team.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl - Oregon v Kansas State Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images


  • (W) ARKANSAS STATE, 57-34
  • (W) FRESNO STATE, 42-25
  • (W) TENNESSEE TECH, 63-14
  • (W) #22 ARIZONA, 49-0
  • (W) #23 WASHINGTON, 52-21
  • (W) ARIZONA STATE, 43-21
  • (W) COLORADO, 70-14
  • (W) #18 USC, 62-51
  • (W) CALIFORNIA, 59-17
  • (L) #14 STANFORD, 14-17
  • (W) #16 OREGON STATE, 48-24

2012 NATIONAL CHAMPION: Alabama Crimson Tide

The 2010 Oregon Football Team

In his second year as head coach, Chip Kelly continued the trajectory that he helped create under Mike Bellotti by streamlining his blur offense into a holistic philosophy that took a group of overlooked, motivated three and four star players to the program’s first ever national championship appearance.

Outside of a thriller in Berkeley, the Ducks were relatively untested heading into the national championship game against Auburn. The game has been picked to death by Duck fans over the years, but suffice to say that Michael Dyer was down and $cam Newton shouldn’t have been in the game in the first place... yes, we’re still a little bitter about it.

But again, let’s not let the final game of the season distract us from what ended up being a revolutionary season not just for duck fans, but for college football as a whole.

NCAA Photos Archive


  • (W) NEW MEXICO, 72-0
  • (W) TENNESSEE, 48-13
  • (W) PORTLAND STATE, 69-0
  • (W) ARIZONA STATE, 42-31
  • (W) #9 STANFORD, 52-31
  • (W) UCLA, 60-13
  • (W) #24 USC, 53-32
  • (W) WASHINGTON, 53-16
  • (W) CALIFORNIA, 15-13
  • (W) #20 ARIZONA, 48-29
  • (W) OREGON STATE, 37-20

2010 NATIONAL CHAMPION: Auburn Tigers

The 2001 Oregon Football Team

The 2010 and 2014 teams experienced the ultimate roller coaster ride of reaching a national championship game and losing, but the 2001 squad suffered a different form of letdown by being a national title contender that was never given the opportunity to compete.

Much like the 2012 team, the Stanford Cardinal ended up serving the Ducks their lone loss of the season; both losses derailed what could have been undefeated seasons heading into a national championship appearance. And in 2001, just like in 2012, the team was led by a charismatic quarterback who at times was asked to put the team on his back: Joey Harrington, AKA Captain Comeback.

The Ducks finished the regular season with a 10-1 record and were ranked second in the country by both the AP Poll and USA Today, but the computers figured that Nebraska was a better matchup for powerhouse Maimi in the national championship game.

Would the Ducks have beaten the Hurricanes? Who knows, it certainly would have been a tough ask. But what is known is that Nebraska, the team that was chosen instead of Oregon, was blown out in the title game, and was also beaten by Colorado, the very same Colorado that would go on to lose to the Ducks 38 to 16 in the Fiesta Bowl. So Miami may have been a behemoth, but Duck fans knew never to count out Harrington.

Fiesta Bowl X


  • (W) #22 WISCONSIN, 31-28
  • (W) UTAH, 24-10
  • (W) USC, 24-22
  • (W) UTAH STATE, 38-21
  • (W) ARIZONA, 63-28
  • (W) CALIFORNIA, 48-7
  • (L) STANFORD, 42-49
  • (W) #14 WASHINGTON STATE, 24-17
  • (W) ARIZONA STATE, 42-24
  • (W) UCLA, 24-21
  • (W) OREGON STATE, 17-14
  • FIESTA BOWL (W) #3 COLORADO, 38-16

2001 NATIONAL CHAMPION: Miami Hurricanes

The 1916 Oregon Football Team

Then we have to go way back to find Oregon’s other national title contender. Coached by the great Hugo Bezdek in his fifth season as coach of the Lemon Yellows, the 20-year old program reached unprecedented heights by reaching the granddaddy of them all, the Rose Bowl.

Oregon’s defense blanked seven of their eight opponents during the 1916 season, and in a time where national champions were chosen by a selection committee as opposed to head-to-head battles, Bezdek’s resume would’ve certainly been good enough to be considered a co-national champion alongside Pitt... if not for one ugly blemish.

Despite playing in Eugene, the November 4th, 1916 game favored washington. The field was a muddy mess and neither team was able to get their offense going. In fact, Oregon missed two field goals and fumbled the ball twice in scoring territory. Often running backs would fall to the ground without being tackled, and the end result was a 0-0 tie that ruined the Ducks’ perfect season.

Still, Oregon’s Rose Bowl appearance was a remarkable achievement considering it wasn’t just their first to the battle of the roses, it was also the last time they would win the historic bowl game until the 2012 victory over Wisconsin.


  • (W) WILLAMETTE, 97-0
  • (W) CALIFORNIA, 39-14
  • (T) WASHINGTON, 0-0
  • (W) OREGON STATE, 27-0

1916 NATIONAL CHAMPION: Pittsburgh Panthers and Army Black Knights (though only Pitt claims the championship)