Which Team had the Toughest Road to its National Title, 2019 LSU or 2015 Alabama?

Christopher Walsh

Not all championships are created equal, and with the advent of the College Football Playoff on top of 12-game regular seasons and conference title games, there have progressively been more marquee matchups in the sport.

The last time a consensus national champion didn’t have to face any top-five opponents was Georgia in 1980. 

The only time that one didn’t have to face any ranked teams at all was Oklahoma in 1956.

Last season, LSU faced seven ranked opponents en route to winning its title, but that's not a record. Alabama and Nick Saban faced nine in 2015, and were on the verge of topping that a year later, but ended up losing to its 10th-ranked foe on the final play of the season to Clemson, 35-31.  

2015 Crimson Tide Ranked Opponents

  1. vs. No. 20 Wisconsin
  2. No. 15 Ole Miss
  3. at No. 8 Georgia
  4. at No. 9 Texas A&M
  5. No. 4 LSU
  6. at No. 20 Mississippi State
  7. vs. No. 18 Florida  
  8. vs. No. 3 Michigan State
  9. vs. No. 1 Clemson

However, all seven ranked teams that the Tigers faced in 2019 were all in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll at the time. Four were in the top five, which hadn't happened since Frank Leahy's 1943 Notre Dame team.

Another difference between 2019 LSU and 2015 Alabama was that the Crimson Tide lost a game, to No. 15 Ole Miss — although that wouldn't influence the strength of schedule aspect.  

2019 LSU Ranked Opponents

  1. at No. 9 Texas 
  2. No. 7 Florida
  3. No. 9 Auburn
  4. at No. 2 Alabama
  5. vs. No. 4 Georgia
  6. vs. No. 4 Oklahoma
  7. vs. No. 3 Clemson

One thing that's become clear is since college football starting inching toward the playoff with the Bowl Championship Series, the road to the national title has never been tougher (which was the idea).

The following is every consensus national champion during the poll era, along with the number of ranked opponents each faced, and those ranked in the top five of the AP poll (Note: From 1962-67 the poll only ranked 10 teams). Previous to when the Bowl Championship Series began in 1998, the team atop the AP poll is listed with one exception, 1947.

Most Ranked Opponents

Year, Coach, Team, Ranked Opponents, Top 5

2019 LSU Ed Orgeron, LSU 7 4

2018 Dabo Swinney, Clemson 6 1

2017 Nick Saban, Alabama 6 3

2016 Dabo Swinney, Clemson 5 3 

2015 Nick Saban, Alabama 9 3

2014 Urban Meyer, Ohio State 4 2

2013 Jimbo Fisher, Florida State 5 2

2012 Nick Saban, Alabama 6 3

2011 Nick Saban, Alabama 5 2

2010 Gene Chizik, Auburn 6 1

2009 Nick Saban, Alabama 6 2

2008 Urban Meyer, Florida 6 3

2007 Les Miles, LSU 8 1

2006 Urban Meyer, Florida 5 1

2005 Mack Brown, Texas 4 2

2004 Pete Carroll, USC (vacated) 3 1

2003 Nick Saban, LSU 5 2

2002 Jim Tressel, Ohio State 5 1

2001 Larry Coker Miami 5 1

2000 Bob Stoops, Oklahoma 6 3

1999 Bobby Bowden, Florida State 5 2

1998 Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee 6 2

1997 Lloyd Carr, Michigan 7 2

1996 Steve Spurrier, Florida 6 3

1995 Tom Osborne, Nebraska 4 1

1994 Tom Osborne Nebraska 5 2

1993 Bobby Bowden, Florida State 7 3

1992 Gene Stallings, Alabama 4 1

1991 Dennis Erickson, Miami 4 1

1990 Bill McCartney, Colorado 7 2

1989 Dennis Erickson, Miami 4 1

1988 Lou Holtz Notre Dame 4 3

1987 Jimmy Johnson, Miami 6 2

1986 Joe Paterno Penn State 2 2

1985 Barry Switzer, Oklahoma 4 2

1984 LaVell Edwards, Brigham Young 1 1

1983 Howard Schnellenberger, Miami 3 1

1982 Joe Paterno, Penn State 6 4

1981 Danny Ford, Clemson 3 2

1980 Vince Dooley, Georgia 3 0

1979 Paul “Bear” Bryant, Alabama 3 0

1978 Paul “Bear” Bryant, Alabama 5 1

1977 Dan Devine, Notre Dame 4 2

1976 Johnny Majors, Pittsburgh 3 1

1975 Barry Switzer, Oklahoma 7 3

1974 Barry Switzer, Oklahoma 2 0

1973 Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame 3 1

1972 John McKay, USC 6 2

1971 Bob Devaney, Nebraska 3 2

1970 Bob Devaney, Nebraska 4 2

1969 Darrell Royal, Texas 3 1

1968 Woody Hayes, Ohio State 4 3

1967 John McKay, USC 3 3

1966 Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame 4 1

1965 Paul “Bear” Bryant, Alabama 1 1

1964 Paul “Bear” Bryant, Alabama 4 1

1963 Darrell Royal, Texas 2 2

1962 John McKay, USC 3 1

1961 Paul “Bear” Bryant, Alabama 1 0

1960 Murray Warmath, Minnesota 3 2

1959 Ben Schwartzwalder, Syracuse 3 1

1958 Paul Dietzel, LSU 2 0

1957 Shug Jordan, Auburn 3 0

1956 Bud Wilkinson, Oklahoma 0 0

1955 Bud Wilkinson, Oklahoma 3 1

1954 Woody Hayes, Ohio State 6 1

1953 Jim Tatum, Maryland 3 1

1952 Biggie Munn, Michigan State 3 0

1951 Bob Neyland, Tennessee 3 1

1950 Bud Wilkinson, Oklahoma 4 2

1949 Frank Leahy, Notre Dame 3 1

1948 Bernie Oosterbaan, Michigan 4 1

1947 Fritz Crisler, Michigan 3 1

1946 Frank Leahy, Notre Dame 3 1

1945 Red Blaik, Army 5 2

1944 Red Blaik, Army 2 2

1943 Frank Leahy, Notre Dame 5 4

1942 Paul Brown, Ohio State 3 1

1941 Bernie Bierman, Minnesota 2 1

1940 Bernie Bierman, Minnesota 3 1

1939 Homer Norton, Texas A&M 2 1

1938 Dutch Meyer, Texas Christian 1 0

1937 Jock Sutherland, Pittsburgh 4 0

1936 Bernie Bierman, Minnesota 2 2

Decade-by-decade breakdown

Decade, Ranked opponents, Top 5 (Ratio)

2010s 59 24 (5.9/2.4)

2000s 53 17 (5.3/1.7)

1990s 55 19 (5.5/1.9)

1980s 36 18 (3.6/1.8)

1970s 40 14 (4.0/1.4)

1960s 28 15 (2.8/1.5)

1950s 30 7 (3.0/0.7)

1940s 33 15 (3.3/1.5)

1930s-x 9 3 (2.25/.75)

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