Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

13 Jul 2010

The Top 100 College Football Teams of the Last 100 Years: Part III

by Bill Connelly

Click here for the first two parts of our list:

One of the most interesting parts of this list, as least from my own perspective, is how pockets of great teams have emerged. Whether you believe this Top 100 list is the end-all-be-all of Top 100 lists, or (more likely) whether you are following along and rolling your eyes, what this has pointed out is that it is a lot harder to be truly great in some decades or eras than in others. When the NCAA went to an 85-scholarship limit in 1994 (after cutting to 95 in 1991), the pool of truly great teams dried up a bit. From 1994-99, a six year span from which we would expect to see approximately six teams on this list, only three teams made it. And as we will see today, none fared better than No. 47.

Easily the most surprising team featured in today's portion of the countdown is 1995 Nebraska, featured at the aforementioned No. 47 slot. For many younger football fans (a group in which I still like to include myself, even if you have to stretch the definition of "younger" a bit), the 1995 Huskers were the gold standard. They were completely and utterly destructive in every way. They had a young Grant Wistrom rushing the quarterback, the Peter brothers at tackle, Mike Minter, Tony Veland and Eric Warfield in the secondary, and Jared Tomich, et al, at linebacker. The Blackshirts were as good as they have ever been, and of course they had Tommie Frazier and pre-felony Lawrence Phillips (following blocks from Joel Mackovicka) in the backfield. They were the perfect football team in the mid-1990s.

What this list is suggesting is that what constituted near-perfection in the 1990s would have just been really good in other decades. You are a product of your era, and while the 1995 Huskers did all they could to dominate the schedule they faced, the numbers as presented say that a number of teams from different eras would have done as well or better against Nebraska's schedule. You can choose to believe this analysis or not, but it's been interesting to watch the list unfold. The numbers suggest that it was much harder to stand out in the 1930s and 1980s than it was in the 1990s, and it was damn near impossible to stand out in the 1910s and 1920s.

We are living in an era where parity is much stronger than it used to be (a shocking thing to say considering the oligarchy in which we continue to live), but we might be seeing greatness as near-godliness, when most of the truly greatest teams have already come and gone.

Or not. Your call.

60. 1997 Michigan

Record: 12-0
Conference: Big Ten
Best Wins: def. Ohio State (10-3) 20-14, def. Washington State (10-2) 21-16
Blemishes: none
Point Differential: +208 (322-114)

Only Alabama and Notre Dame produce more teams on this list than Michigan ... and yet, only one Michigan team from after 1950 makes an appearance. (The conservative offensive approaches of both Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes clearly did not impress the Est. S&P+ formula.) It is a bit unexpected, then, that the 1997 Wolverines, one of the most expected of recent champions, is the one to make it. In Lloyd Carr's third season running the show in Ann Arbor, Michigan began the season ranked 13th but managed a share of the national title with Nebraska thanks to an efficient offense and an explosive defense.

How good was Michigan's defense in 1997? So good that they never gave up more than 16 points to any of the four Top 10 teams they faced. So good that they produced the first defensive Heisman winner since voters started focusing on just one side of the ball. So good that it got them on this list despite an offense that ranked just 26th in Est. S&P+. The Wolverines began the season by crushing No. 8 Colorado, 27-3 (after the game, Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel said "We have to rebuild ourselves emotionally."), spotted Notre Dame a 14-7 halftime lead before coming back to win, and held off No. 15 Iowa in Ann Arbor. In late October, Michigan was ranked fifth in the country, then made their move. They whipped Michigan State thanks to five interceptions (including this one by eventual Heisman winner Charles Woodson), then mauled No. 3 Penn State in Beaver Stadium by a 34-8 margin. Combined with Nebraska's fluky escape at Missouri, Michigan jumped to No. 1 in the AP Poll. They did nothing to earn a downgrade -- they handled No. 23 Wisconsin and No. 4 Ohio State to finish the regular season undefeated, then knocked off Ryan Leaf and No. 8 Washington State by a 21-16 margin to win the AP title.

59. 1980 Pittsburgh

Record: 11-1
Conference: Independent
Best Wins: def. Penn State (10-2) 14-9, def. South Carolina (8-4) 37-9
Blemishes: def. by Florida State (10-2) 36-22
Point Differential: +250 (380-130)

Pittsburgh makes a surprising fourth appearance on the countdown, and it's not with the team you were probably expecting. Tony Dorsett's 1976 national champion didn't make the list, but this epic squad did. The 1980 Panthers produced three first-round draft picks and featured an offensive line with Mark May and Russ Grimm. Defensive end Hugh Green won the Walter Camp, Lombardi and Maxwell Awards while May won the Outland Trophy. Oh, and Rickey Jackson roamed the field at linebacker. This team was absolutely loaded with big, physical football players.

Ranked third to start the season, Pittsburgh did not catch fire early. The Panthers combined for 16 turnovers in a 14-6 win over Boston College and took out Kansas by just an 18-3 margin in Lawrence. They whipped unranked Temple and Maryland squads by a combined 74-11 margin, but after falling to fourth in the rankings, they fell to Bobby Bowden and his upstart, No. 11 Florida State team. That was the wake-up call they needed. During the last seven games, the Panthers outscored opponents by an average score of 32-9, and they were not playing cupcakes. West Virginia, Tennessee and Syracuse fell by a combined 115-26. Then, in a big intra-state matchup, the No. 6 Panthers traveled to Happy Valley and knocked off No. 7 Penn State by a 14-9 score. They killed No. 18 South Carolina by four touchdowns in the Gator Bowl but couldn't quite pull off the national title. Undefeated No. 1 Georgia held off No. 7 Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl to win the crown. But Pittsburgh is a computer darling, having been recognized as the best team of the season by Sagarin's and the New York Times' formulas.

58. 1925 Michigan

Record: 7-1
Conference: Big Ten
Best Wins: def. Navy (5-2-1) 54-0, def. Minnesota (5-2-1) 35-0
Blemishes: def. by Northwestern (5-3) 3-2
Point Differential: +224 (227-3 ... yes, 227-3)

The best Fielding Yost team on this list (his 1900s teams were ridiculous), the 1925 Wolverines were the precursor to the 1926 team we have already discussed. This was the pinnacle of Friedman-to-Oosterban, of Michigan's 1920s dominance, and of the second half of Yost's career. Future Michigan Regent Robert Brown captained a squad that accomplished something very difficult: they gave up three points all year ... and lost a game. The loss came to Northwestern in front of 20,000 people at what would become Soldier Field in Chicago. With torrential rain pouring from the sky, Yost attempted to get the game postponed, but to no avail. Too many tickets had been sold (about 40,000 in total) to turn back. Benny Friedman fumbled the game's opening punt, and Northwestern converted a dropkick field goal for what turned out to be the winning points. Michigan scored on a safety when the Wildcats downed the ball in their endzone instead of risking a botched punt. The rules of the day specified that the offense get the ball back after a safety, so Northwestern was able to get the ball back and kill more clock. Needless to say, Yost was unimpressed with the rule, and it was changed that very offseason.

Apart from the single blemish, however, this team's games took on an almost comical bent. They beat Michigan State 39-0. They beat Indiana 63-0. They handed Wisconsin its only loss via 21-0 shutout in Madison. They bounced back from the Northwestern loss to beat Ohio State, 10-0, and maul a good Minnesota team, 35-0. This was an unbelievable team that, in good weather, could not be beaten.

57. 1939 Tulane

Record: 8-1-1
Conference: SEC
Best Wins: def. Clemson (9-1) 7-6, def. Ole Miss (7-2) 18-6
Blemishes: tied North Carolina (8-1-1) 14-14, def. by Texas A&M (11-0) 14-13
Point Differential: +134 (194-60)

Consider this an ode to the great programs of the 1930s that were too soon forgotten. Tulane, Santa Clara, Fordham, Villanova ... here's to you.

It is pretty safe to say that Red Dawson was the greatest coach in Tulane history. He was handed the keys in 1936 and managed a 26-10-4 record in his first four seasons. He coached a total of six years in New Orleans, then assumed control of the Buffalo Bills after World War II. His Green Wave peaked in 1939, allowing just 24 points in their first eight games and taking on a murderous slate with aplomb. They knocked off a great Clemson team to start the season, then took out Auburn (12-0) and the aforementioned Fordham (7-0). After a tie with North Carolina, Tulane caught fire. They handled Ole Miss with ease, then shut out Alabama, Columbia, and Sewanee, ringing up 77 points combined against the last two schools. They held off an offensive charge from LSU in a 33-20 win, then hosted national champion Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl. Bobby "Jitterbug" Kellogg (one has to figure "Jitterbug" was a much more common nickname then than it is now) returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 7-7, and a touchdown run by Monette Baker gave Tulane a 13-7 advantage. Unfortunately, the extra point attempt was blocked, and when A&M threw a late touchdown pass, that was the margin of defeat in a 14-13 game. Still, their showing against the national champions proved they were the real deal (as did, obviously, the SEC title in their back pocket).

56. 1993 Florida State

Record: 12-1
Conference: ACC
Best Wins: def. Nebraska (11-1) 18-16, def. Florida (11-2) 33-21
Blemishes: def. by Notre Dame (11-1) 31-24
Point Differential: +407 (536-129)

Bobby Bowden's Seminoles finally won a national title in 1993, but it wasn't easy. They were statistically dominant and won 10 of their games by an average score of 45-7, but two games almost cost them the title. They lost a "No. 1 versus No. 2" showdown with Notre Dame in November, but after the Irish were upset by Boston College, the Seminoles were given new life. They defeated new No. 1 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, 18-16, and squeaked by Notre Dame by just 54 points in the AP Poll (this is still a point of controversy with Notre Dame fans). For what it is worth, Florida State gets the Est. S&P+ nod over the Irish. Obviously that will make Irish fans sleep better.

Despite the loss to Notre Dame, few 1990s teams were as dominant as the 1993 Seminoles. Of the eight players whose numbers have been retired in Tallahassee, this team featured two of them -- Heisman winner Charlie Ward and linebacker Derrick Brooks. The talent flowed from every direction. First-round draft pick William Floyd at running back, and Tamarick Vanover at wide receiver/kick returner. Derrick Alexander at defensive tackle with a young Peter Boulware at defensive end. Corey Sawyer, Corey Fuller, Clifton Abraham and Devin Bush in the secondary. Two more Bowden teams will make this countdown, though both are a bit unexpected -- this team is widely regarded as Bowden's best.

55. 1959 Syracuse

Record: 11-0
Conference: Independent
Best Wins: def. Texas (9-2) 23-14, def. Penn State (9-2) 20-18
Blemishes: none
Point Differential: +340 (413-73)

There might not have been a better football season than the one that took place in 1959. The SEC was unbelievable, with Ole Miss, LSU, Georgia, and Alabama all finishing in the Top 10. The Southwest Conference was not far behind -- Texas, TCU and Arkansas also finished in the Top 10. The national championship went to the best team in Syracuse history … and they are but the first of three teams from that season that will appear on this list. It is a shame that they never got to play either of the teams ranked above them on this list.

Despite who they didn't play, the Orange absolutely proved all they could against who they did play. They trailed Kansas 7-6 in the opening game of the season, but for the next five-and-a-half games, they outscored opponents 211-26. They came back to whip Kansas (35-21), had no trouble with solid Maryland and Navy teams, got big revenge on Holy Cross (42-6) after an upset loss the previous season, and traveled to Pittsburgh to take away a 35-0 shutout win. That set up the showdown that would determine whether 'Cuse had a legitimate shot at the national title. Now ranked fourth in the country, the team traveled to Happy Valley to take on No. 7 Penn State. (It is interesting how winning at Penn State is something of a rite of passage with teams on this portion of the list!). Up 20-6 in the second half, the Orange allowed two second-half touchdowns but stopped both two-point conversion attempts and held on, 20-18. The win vaulted them to No. 1 in the country, and they stayed there the rest of the season. They were already named national champions when they headed to Dallas to take on No. 4 Texas, but some still doubted if they were up to the standard of the SWC and SEC. Their 23-14 win over the Longhorns shut up most doubters.

(This season was also featured in the Disney-fied, somewhat tough-to-watch The Express, the movie based on the awesome story of Ernie Davis. Davis and Gar Schwedes were the workhorses for the 1959 champs, and he would eventually win the Heisman Trophy. But the movie inserted extra racial tension for drama's sake, and it somewhat ruined what was already a great story without the exaggeration.)

54. 2000 Miami

Record: 11-1
Conference: Big East
Best Wins: def. Florida State (11-2) 27-24, def. Virginia Tech (11-1) 41-21
Blemishes: def. by Washington (11-1) 34-29
Point Differential: +316 (506-190)

Most of the time, people complaining about the evil BCS and its evil computers are really complaining about just one thing: The BCS cannot figure out how to fit more than two teams on the field at the same time. Such was the case in 2003 and 2004, when three teams had nearly identical resumes, and such was really the case in 2000, when three teams worthy of the Top 100 faced off and one was left out. Miami did wonderfully in 2000, but despite a head-to-head win over Florida State, they were left out in favor of an FSU-Oklahoma title showdown. Still, 2000 marked the return of Miami to big-time football. When Butch Davis took over for Dennis Erickson in Coral Gables, the Hurricanes were about to get waylaid by NCAA punishment. They were banned from postseason play in his first season, and they were docked over 30 scholarships. As a result, Miami fell from 8-3 and 9-3 in Davis' first two seasons, to 5-6 in 1997. With limited scholarships and a sour reputation, Davis had to rebuild the Miami program from scratch. And with outstanding recruiting and top-notch defense, he did just that.

After bottoming out in 1997, Miami had bounced back with nine-win seasons in 1998-99, and by 2000 their athletic depth was staggering. Willis McGahee sat behind James Jackson, Clinton Portis, and Najeh Davenport in the backfield. Andre Johnson waited for his turn behind Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne. Jonathan Vilma backed up Dan Morgan. Bryant McKinnie anchored the offensive line. And of course, we must not forget the great Ed Reed in the secondary. Miami started the season ranked sixth, but thanks to an early loss to a great Washington team, they were forgotten for a while in the polls. They cracked the Top 10 again after a 64-6 win over Rutgers, but it wasn't until they beat No. 2 Florida State, 27-24, that the nation officially took notice. They were ranked third when they took on new No. 2 Virginia Tech. Michael Vick was hobbled and could only play about one quarter, but the Hokies were down 21-0 when he departed. They beat Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Boston College (all three had winning records) by a combined 113-13 … and fell behind Florida State in the computer polls because of strength of schedule. (How good was FSU's strength of schedule? Good enough to get them ahead of Miami on this list as well. Bobby Bowden has possibly never touched a computer in his life, but he benefited from them in 2000.) The Hurricanes easily beat No. 7 Florida in the Sugar Bowl, and Oklahoma beat Florida State in the national title game, giving Miami a strong claim to lead the "Most screwed by the BCS rankings" list.

53. 1939 Texas A&M

Record: 11-0
Conference: SWC
Best Wins: def. Tulane (8-1-1) 14-13, def. SMU (6-3-1) 6-2
Blemishes: none
Point Differential: +181 (212-31)

In debt to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars as the Great Depression began to take hold, the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas considered dropping football in 1934. According to The 1939 Texas Aggies: The Greatest Generation's Greatest Team, they gave new coach Homer Norton five years to right the ship, or Aggie Football might be a thing of the past. After four years of up-and-down results, the fifth year, 1939, yielded epic results.

The Aggies began what was expected to be a rather nondescript campaign by shutting out Oklahoma State and Centenary by a combined 46-0. They traveled west and handed Santa Clara their only loss of the season, 7-0. Then, back in Texas, the Aggies whipped a good Villanova squad, 33-7. They had performed well enough to earn a ninth-place ranking in the first AP Poll of the season, but they were only getting started. Defending national champion TCU was the next to fall, then Arkansas and No. 13 SMU. At this point, something rather odd happened: the Aggies passed No. 1 Tennessee in the polls despite the Vols having yet to allow a point. Aside from a 21-0 win over Alabama, Tennessee had yet to play anybody remotely impressive. It was a lead that the Aggies would not relinquish. They shut out Texas 20-0 over Thanksgiving weekend to win their only national title.

52. 1943 Navy

Record: 8-1
Conference: Independent
Best Wins: def. Army (7-2-1) 13-0, def. Duke (8-1) 14-13
Blemishes: def. by Notre Dame (9-1) 33-6
Point Differential: +157 (237-80)

Like Army, Navy thrived through the war years for obvious reasons. With more young men enlisting in the armed forces, their pool of available talent was much larger than it was at other times. When the war ended, the talent took a turn for the worse. From 1940-45, the Midshipmen went 39-12-3. From 1946-48, they went 2-23-2.

The 1943 Navy squad was rock solid, especially on the line. All-America guard Don Whitmire was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, and he was joined up front by end Roe Johnston and center Jack Martin. Against teams not named Notre Dame, the Middies were dominant. They outscored their eight vanquished victims by a 231-47 margin. And their opponents weren't all lightweights. True, they beat Cornell and Columbia by a combined 107-7, but they also handed Duke its only loss of the season (14-13) and took out Penn State (14-6), Penn (24-7) and an excellent Army squad (13-0). Their only slip-up was a doozy -- they were dominated in Cleveland by a Notre Dame squad we will be mentioning in future weeks. According to Est. S&P+, this is the second-best Navy team of all-time.

51. 1933 Michigan

Record: 7-0-1
Conference: Big Ten
Best Wins: def. Ohio State (7-1) 13-0, def. Iowa (5-3) 10-6
Blemishes: tied Minnesota (4-0-4) 0-0
Point Differential: +113 (131-18)

After Fielding Yost retired following the 1926 season, Michigan turned first to former Yost protege Elton Wieman, who managed a 6-2 record during Bennie Oosterbaan's final season and struggled to a 3-4-1 finish in 1928. He then learned through a local paper that he and athletic director Yost had agreed to a parting ways. It was news to him. Wieman was replaced by Harry Kipke (another Yost disciple), who fared much better for a while. After a 5-3-1 season in 1929, the Wolverines took off once again, going 31-1-3 over the next three seasons and winning the 1932-33 national titles.

The 1933 Wolverines were led by a stout line that included All-American center Chuck Bernard and tackle Whitey Wistert (who, in 1934, had a brief stint as a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds). They did not outscore teams by a 227-3 margin or anything, but they handled a stout schedule with ease. Only one of their eight opponents had a losing record, and they still dominated. Michigan State and Cornell fell by a combined 60-6, then Ohio State was handed its only loss of the season in from 80,000 at Michigan's homecoming. The Wolverines went on the road to knock off Chicago (28-0) and Illinois (7-6), then faced their toughest stretch. They knocked off Iowa at home (10-6), then fought mighty Bernie Bierman's second Minnesota team to a scoreless draw. An easy 13-0 win over Northwestern polished off another undefeated season and national championship.

It was the beginning of the end for Kipke, however. As players like Bernard filtered out, their replacements weren't nearly as talented. Michigan would go just 10-22 over the next four seasons (including two 1-7 campaigns), and Kipke would resign to make way for Michigan's next great coach, Fritz Crisler.

50. 1956 Georgia Tech

Record: 10-1
Conference: SEC
Best Wins: def. Pittsburgh (7-3-1) 21-14, def. Auburn (7-3) 28-7
Blemishes: def. by Tennessee (10-1) 6-0
Point Differential: +201 (248-47)

While Oklahoma was destroying everybody in their path in the middle of their 47-game winning streak, Georgia Tech was doing almost the same against better opponents. The Sooners' schedule (they played one team that finished with a winning record) prevents them from making this list, and Tech (seven teams) gets the nod for 1956. They are the second of three mid-1950s Bobby Dodd teams to make this list. Riding a defense that pitched five shutouts in six games and didn't give up more than seven points in a game until the Gator Bowl, Dodd's Rambling Wreck tripped up just once. No. 2 Tech took on No. 3 Tennessee in Atlanta, and the two defense-heavy squads combined for 23 punts, often on second and third downs (which was still a rather common practice in 1956). Thanks to the arm of Tennessee back (and future coach) Johnny Majors, the Volunteers engineered a perfect, 65-yard scoring drive in the third quarter, and that was that. Tech drove late, but they threw an interception inside the Tennessee 10, and the Vols held on to win. The win vaulted Tennessee past cupcake-eating Oklahoma for No. 1 in the polls for a week, but Oklahoma stole the spot back a week later and held on for the national title (a vote that looked a lot better when Tennessee lost to Baylor in the Sugar Bowl).

Tennessee's scoring drive was the only one Georgia Tech would allow in the last six games of the regular season. They finished the year by outscoring Alabama, Florida and Georgia by a combined 90-0, then held off No. 13 Pittsburgh, 21-14, in an exciting Gator Bowl. Center Don Stephenson was Tech's only true All-America candidate, as Dodd got the job done with execution and smarts over star power.

49. 1986 Penn State

Record: 12-0
Conference: Independent
Best Wins: def. Miami (11-1) 14-10, def. Alabama (10-3) 23-3
Blemishes: none
Point Differential: +207 (340-133)

A team that made the most of what turned out to be a rather weak schedule, the 1986 Nittany Lions became possibly Joe Paterno's most popular team ever when they knocked off a Miami team that had become the nation's villain in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. Following a whipping at the hands of Oklahoma in the 1986 Orange Bowl, a loss that prevented them from winning the national title, Penn State returned a majority of their talent and began the season ranked sixth in the country. As Miami grew in fame, Penn State worked mostly under the radar. They didn't play a ranked team until the end of October, when they traveled to Tuscaloosa to take on No. 2 Alabama. This was their lone opportunity to prove themselves, and they did so, to say the least. Alabama was averaging 266 rushing yards per game, but the Nittany Lions held them to just 44, sacking Alabama quarterback Mike Shula five times and forcing five turnovers. Their 23-3 win vaulted them from No. 6 to No. 2 in the polls, where they would stay the rest of the regular season.

The Fiesta Bowl was not the "Fiesta Bowl" as we see it until 1986. It had certainly grown in stature since its initial days in 1971, when the WAC's Arizona State took on pre-Bowden Florida State, but it was not regarded in any higher stature than the Cotton Bowl, Citrus Bowl or any other New Year's Day affair. That changed when No. 2 Penn State knocked off No. 1 Miami. The biggest game of the year saw one of the most heroic defensive efforts. Legendary Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky's schemes confused Heisman winner Vinny Testaverde all game long. He passed for 285 yards, but it took him 50 attempts, and he threw five interceptions in the process. Shane Conlan snared two of the picks, and after D.J. Dozier scored to put Penn State up 14-10, Pete Giftopoulos registered the fifth pick at the Penn State 5 as time was expiring. The upset gave Paterno his second national title in five years and won him legendary status. That Hurricanes was considered invincible, but the Nittany Lions took them down.

48. 1912 Harvard

Record: 9-0
Conference: Ivy
Best Wins: def. Yale (7-1-1) 20-0, def. Vanderbilt (8-1-1) 9-3
Blemishes: none
Point Differential: +154 (176-22)

Let's be honest. There aren't going to be quite as many detailed accounts of the 1912 Crimson of Harvard as there are for the 2009 Crimson Tide of Alabama, or any team that took the field in the last 90 years. But we should still pause to admire the only team dominant enough to stand out in a decade in which great schools pummeled terrible schools with reckless abandon. Harvard did plenty of pounding -- they beat Maine, Holy Cross, Williams, and Amherst by a combined 98-3 -- but when it came time to face their future Ivy League mates, the Crimson kept their foot on the throttle. Somehow, they managed to hand Princeton (16-6), Vanderbilt (9-3), and Yale (20-0) their only losses of the season. (Oddly, Princeton and Yale didn't play each other.) Their only true struggle of the season came against two-loss Dartmouth (3-0). Harvard had begun an unbeaten streak in 1911 that would last 33 games.

While the information on Harvard's players is scarce, their coach, Percy Haughton, was fascinating. In nine seasons in Cambridge, his Crimson went 71-7-5 and won three national titles. He and his entire coaching staff enlisted for military service after the 1916 season, and when he returned, he took over at Columbia. For his career, he went 91-17-6 before his untimely death at the age of 48. He also penned an excited, loving, and almost arrogant book entitled Football And How To Watch It, which is available for free reading on Google Books. In it, he compares his brand of football to the works of O. Henry and provides the following quote, to which anybody reading this column would probably agree: "When properly understood, Football is both mentally and physically such a glorious sport that it seems a pity that so many who witness it should not be conversant with its salient points."

47. 1995 Nebraska

Record: 12-0
Conference: Big 8
Best Wins: def. Florida (12-1) 62-24, def. Colorado (10-2) 44-21
Blemishes: none ... not even close
Point Differential: +464 (638-174)

The 1995 season was one of the more entertaining in recent memory, if one can call 15 years ago "recent." A series of coaching changes would alter college football's landscape and/or offer severe unintentional comedy -- Howard Schnellenberger took over at Oklahoma (there was nothing more enjoyable than having Schnellenberger say, "I would prefer [injured Colorado quarterback Koy] Detmer play. Our football team would prefer Detmer play. I don't want a damn asterisk when we beat their ass," then watching backup John Hessler pass for 348 yards in a 38-17 Colorado win), Rick Neuheisel at Colorado, Butch Davis at Miami, Lloyd Carr at Michigan, Nick Saban at Michigan State, and Tommy Tuberville at Ole Miss. Northwestern made a dramatic run to the Rose Bowl, and Florida took another step forward under Steve Spurrier.

Meanwhile, amid all the entertainment, Nebraska dominated at a level few teams ever have. With senior quarterback Tommie Frazier at full health after a blood clot scare the year before, the Cornhuskers averaged a rather disgusting 53 points per game and won just one game by fewer than 23 points. They were an absolute machine, and they are commonly referred to as one of the best teams in college football history.

The question, then, is how in the hell isn't this team higher on the list? The main reason: using points allowed as the measure, their defense was only good, not outstanding. If you perused the box scores from 1995, you would probably see quite a few times where the Nebraska scrubs allowed late touchdowns, and if play-by-play data existed for 1995, then our S&P+ and F/+ measures might bump them right to the top of this list. But without that data, we use points scored and allowed, and garbage-time points factor into the equation. Also, though four Big 8 teams won 10 games that year, their schedule strength was hurt by the fact that they played five teams that lost eight games or more. This is what happens when you use math to determine such things. If you want to continue considering this team one of the five or ten best ever, nobody here will stop you.

46. 1931 USC

Record: 10-1
Conference: Pacific Coast
Best Wins: def. Tulane (11-1) 21-12, def. Georgia (8-2) 60-0
Blemishes: def. by St. Mary's (8-2) 13-7
Point Differential: +311 (363-52)

For one of the greatest teams of all-time, the 1931 USC Trojans did not start out so hot. They were tripped up in their season opener by another one of the forgotten powers of the 1930s, St. Mary's. The Gaels knocked the Trojans off by a 13-7 score on their way to a surprising 8-2 season that also included wins over 8-2 California, 6-2-2 Oregon, and 9-1-1 SMU. Once the blemish was out of the way, however, USC set about murdering the 10 teams remaining in their path. Oregon State, Washington State, and Oregon all finished the season with six wins. USC, led by quarterback All-American Gus Shaver, beat them by a combined 121-6. Eight-win California (6-0) and seven-win Stanford (19-0) were shutout victims. Poor one-win Montana (69-0) was defeated before the opening kickoff. But here's where things begin to get really impressive.

First, the Trojans took a cross-country jaunt to South Bend, spotted host Notre Dame (a Top 100 team themselves) a 14-0 lead, and came back to win 16-14 on a 33-yard field goal as time expired. According to the USC media guide, 300,000 fans welcomed the Trojans back home in celebration of the huge win. From there, USC was in its own league. The Trojans knocked off five-win Washington, 44-7, then absolutely destroyed eight-win Georgia, 60-0. Granted, that was a long trip for Georgia to have to make (possibly by train), but … 60-0! The Dickinson ratings system gave USC the national title over undefeated Tulane, but before too many people could get outraged about it, USC knocked off the Green Wave, 21-12, in the Rose Bowl to justify the title. Turnovers killed Tulane's chances, and USC was the accepted national champion.

45. 1961 Ole Miss

Record: 9-2
Conference: SEC
Best Wins: def. Arkansas (8-3) 16-0, def. Tennessee (6-4) 24-10
Blemishes: def. by LSU (10-1) 10-7, def. by Texas (10-1) 12-7
Point Differential: +281 (333-52)

44. 1962 Ole Miss

Record: 10-0
Conference: SEC
Best Wins: def. LSU (9-1-1) 15-7, def. Arkansas (9-2) 17-13
Blemishes: none
Point Differential: +194 (247-53)

As luck would have it, these two teams fall back-to-back on the list, and we will combine their summaries. Mississippi's John Vaught is almost certainly one of the most underrated coaches in college football history. Vaught, who retired in 1970 following health problems but still managed to live to 96, put together one of the most consistently successful programs the SEC has ever seen. Through 25 seasons in Oxford, Vaught's Rebels lost three or fewer games 19 times, won six SEC titles (five of which came in what could be considered the SEC's heyday, 1954-63). They won shares of three national titles, and four consecutive Vaught teams -- 1959-62 -- make appearances on this list. The 1961 and 1962 squads represented the end of Vaught's career peak. The Rebels went 47-3-3 from 1959 to 1963.

Few teams have combined offensive and defensive success like these Ole Miss teams. The two-loss 1961 team was actually statistically better, scoring more points and allowing fewer against a better schedule. But they slipped up twice, to No. 6 LSU in Baton Rouge and to No. 3 Texas in Dallas, by a combined eight points. They finished fifth in the final AP poll. Meanwhile, all the 1962 squad did was go undefeated and assist in tamping down hostilities during the school's forced integration. (ESPN's Wright Thompson wrote a phenomenal piece on the subject recently. Instead of summarizing it here, you should really just read the whole thing. And while we're at it, here is Governor Ross Barnett's speech from the night of the Kentucky-Ole Miss game.) Whether because of other teams' successes or because voters resented the hostilities taking place in the South, Ole Miss finished third in the AP voting that year, though the school still claims a title thanks to the Litkenhous Poll. This was a dramatic time for both college football and the country, and Thompson's piece does a wonderful job of explaining how they were linked and how much Vaught's Rebel teams meant to the school.

43. 2002 Ohio State

Record: 14-0
Conference: Big Ten
Best Wins: def. Miami (12-1) 31-24, def. Michigan (10-3) 14-9
Blemishes: none
Point Differential: +227 (410-183)

In his second season as Ohio State head coach, Jim Tressel rode a freshman running back and a ridiculous defense to the national title that had been eluding the Buckeyes since 1968 (or 1970, depending on who you ask ... again, college football is just awesome).

Ranked just 12th to start the season, the Buckeyes made a strong early statement, holding Mike Leach and his explosive Texas Tech offense in check and taking a 38-7 lead into the fourth quarter of a 45-21 win. Not yet star-crossed star freshman Maurice Clarett ran for 175 yards in his collegiate debut. Two weeks later, they handled No. 11 Washington State with ease, 25-7. After a near-miss at Cincinnati, Ohio State geared up for the Big Ten run. This was not a team capable of blowout after blowout, but they just kept winning. They beat Wisconsin by five, Penn State by six, Purdue by four (thanks to this play), Illinois by seven, and Michigan by five. They were completely overshadowed by the insanely dominant defending champions, the Miami Hurricanes. But, like Penn State in 1986, they took down Miami when they had the chance. With some help from one of the more controversial pass interference calls in college football history (I go back and forth on this -- there was just enough contact to understand what the ref may have seen to call it, but ... in the deciding play of the national title game?), Ohio State won the national title in overtime and secured a high place on this list.

How does this conservative team, one that was never dominant but almost always in control, make the list when similar teams did not? Two reasons: (1) strength of schedule -- the Big Ten was fantastic that year, and the Buckeyes beat nine teams that won at least seven games (five that won at least nine), and (2) defense. Against a slate that included great offensive teams like Texas Tech and Miami, the Buckeyes allowed just 13 points per game in an offense-heavy season.

42. 1945 Navy

Record: 7-1-1
Conference: Independent
Best Wins: def. Michigan (7-3) 33-7, def. Duke (6-2) 21-0
Blemishes: tied Notre Dame (7-2-1) 6-6, def. by Army (9-0) 32-13
Point Differential: +155 (220-65)

If this Navy team had taken the field at a time when Notre Dame and Army weren't disgustingly dominant, they would have almost certainly gone undefeated. Instead, the Midshipmen, made up of most of the same players that made up the No. 52 team above, outscored seven opponents by a 201-27 margin but tied Notre Dame (6-6) and fell hard (32-13) to an Army team that will be found quite high on this list. Army-Navy was a battle of the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country. Played in front of 102,000 (including President Truman) at Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia, it was deemed the "Game of the Century," sharing that title with approximately 75 other games, of course. But Doc Blanchard and Army were far too much for anybody to handle that year, and the Midshipmen fell short. Still, this was a great team that just wasn't quite as great as one of the top teams of all-time.

41. 1953 Maryland

Record: 10-1
Conference: ACC
Best Wins: def. Ole Miss (7-2-1) 38-0, def. South Carolina (7-3) 24-6
Blemishes: def. by Oklahoma (9-1-1) 7-0
Point Differential: +260 (298-38)

Jim Tatum was, to put it bluntly, a hell of a coach. His career was cut short when he contracted Rocky Mountain spotted fever and died before the 1959 season, but in his nine seasons at the University of Maryland, he went a staggering 73-15-4. During that time, he earned three conference titles (one in the Southern Conference, two in the newly formed ACC), three top five finishes, and, in 1953, a national title. Despite only winning 100 games as a head coach (his careers was cut short by both World War II and his untimely death), he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1984.

Though the Terps went undefeated in 1951 (while still in the Southern Conference), no Tatum squad proved more than the 1953 team. They handled road challenges with ease, beating Missouri, Clemson, North Carolina and Miami away from home by a combined 96-6 (they let Missouri, coached by Tatum's war-time mentor Don Faurot, score a touchdown, which was nice of them). At home, however, they were really mean. They killed Georgia, 40-13 (the only time they would give up double-digit points all season), then took out South Carolina, 24-6. Jim Tatum's Ole Miss Rebels fell 38-0, then Alabama did the same by a 21-0 score.

Strangely, if the final AP Poll had been taken after the bowls, they would have won the national title in 1951 (they beat No. 1 Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl), but they wouldn't have won in 1953 -- they lost to No. 4 Oklahoma, 7-0, in the Orange Bowl. Regardless, this team was loaded. Quarterback Bernie Faloney finished fourth in the Heisman voting, and halfback Chet Hanulak was a scoring machine. This was the greatest team for a great coach.

Next Tuesday: Teams 21-40.

Posted by: Bill Connelly on 13 Jul 2010

43 comments, Last at 17 Oct 2010, 8:35pm by AnonymousX

Comments

1
by billsfan :: Tue, 07/13/2010 - 1:40pm

Glad to see at least one of the Ancient Eight managed to crack the top 100!

FYI, this site is an invaluable reference for college football history:

http://www.phys.utk.edu/sorensen/cfr/cfr/Output/CF_History.html

(I also like the Eagles)

2
by Jetspete :: Tue, 07/13/2010 - 2:23pm

any list that wont feature 1994 penn state in the top 100 is not a list i can take seriously

4
by Bill Connelly :: Tue, 07/13/2010 - 2:40pm

I had this argument with a big Penn State friend of mine. PSU 1994 gave up 21 points per game and had only an average strength of schedule. They came in at 133rd because of that. They may have given up a lot of garbage points like NU 1995, but while I personally would have probably found a spot for them in top 100, it's not hard to see why the numbers disagreed.

7
by Jetspete :: Tue, 07/13/2010 - 3:02pm

i unfortunately can't find game logs, but i distinctly remember Penn State being a team that called off the dogs in garbage time (I could be mistaken). But Penn State also averaged 47 per game. Is it really 90 spots more impressive to win games 28-13 (Ohio State 02) than 47-21 ('94 Penn State)? And if the numbers aren't taking into account garbage time, i'm afraid how skewed some of the teams will be in the top 20.

8
by Tom Gower :: Tue, 07/13/2010 - 3:50pm

Strength of schedule. Penn State played 8-3-1 USC, 2-9 Temple, and 5-5-1 Rutgers non-conference before 9-4-1 Oregon in the Rose Bowl, while Ohio State was the only B10 team to win >8 games (9-4). Ohio State missed Iowa, but beat 10-3 Michigan and 9-4 Penn State in conference, plus 9-5 Texas Tech, 10-3 Washington State (Rose Bowl, only other regular season loss in 3OT), 7-7 CUSA co-champ Cincinnati, and 3-9 Kent St. out of conference before 12-1 Miami.

9
by Jetspete :: Tue, 07/13/2010 - 6:19pm

using SOS as a factor, lets go look at top 25 wins (using end of season polls)

Penn State 94: beat 11 Oregon, 12 Michigan, 13 USC and 14 Ohio state
Ohio State 02: beat #2 Miami, 9 michigan, 10 Wazzu and 16 penn state

What Penn State lacks is the signature win over a top five team, and of course in that era Big Ten teams were not given the chance to face such a team if it did not hail from the Pac 10.

Looking alone at those four wins for PSU, one was close (Mich), one was convincing (Oregon), one was a blowout (USC), and another was a historic beatdown (OSU).

Looking alone at those four wins for OSU, one was convincing (Wazzuu), two were very close defensive battles (Mich and PSU) and a fourth (miami), while a great win< is mired in controversy. I'd be interested to know from the guys where OSU would be on the list if PI wasnt called.

And as i look at it more the more dumbfounded i get. Ohio State's offense was mediocre, led by a poised, gutsy qb and a freshman phenom. They scored a lot of points against bad teams and had trouble scoring against good ones (no offensive td's vs penn state, one vs Purdue, only 14 points vs Michigan). Penn State never scored less than 31, put 38 up on USC (no one else put up more than 31), put 61 up on OSU (no one else put up more than 25) and put 35 up against Illinois in a tense battle (only one other team put up more than 20).

If you were to tell me that 90 spots separated these teams, i would have guessed it were the other way around.

10
by cfn_ms :: Tue, 07/13/2010 - 7:07pm

1) Using the AP poll numbers is flawed; it's not like they're anywhere close to 100% accurate. Of course, there's no better source publicly available (I think), so it's OK to use them, just be aware that they're flawed.

2) Pretty much every year, there's a BIG difference between the top couple (sometimes 2, something 4-5) teams and anyone outside the top 10. In other words, 2002 Ohio St beat one VERY good team, while 1994 Penn St beat zero.

3) You're ignoring the quality of everyone outside the top 25, which is probably relevant (though I don't have the numbers).

4) How was Penn St unable to play a top team? Playing Oregon in the Rose Bowl means that they played USC in the regular season. Was there a rule in place that said they couldn't also schedule, say, Nebraska?

.

Of course, I should also point out that I really don't know which of those two teams was better, and I actually suspect that it was 1994 Penn St. But your schedule arguments are flawed (I don't feel like researching the individual game scores enough to argue that point).

11
by Tom Gower :: Tue, 07/13/2010 - 8:12pm

So, by your own numbers, Ohio State played 3 teams better than anybody Penn State played, including 2002's equivalent of Nebraska? And, I notice you didn't mention Penn State beat 3 teams by a single score (including the infamous Indiana game).

Keep in mind, too, that when we're talking about a difference of 90 points in the rankings, we're talking about out of probably something like 15,000 team-seasons, so while it seems like a big difference, in the big scheme of things it's not really. I mean, if I was doing this exercise based on my own observations, I would've set a bottom floor for 1995 Nebraska at #5 overall.

Three general observations about Bill's list (and since this list has been Bill's project, I'm not speaking here in any sort of official capacity):
1. Strength of schedule seems to play a very heavy hole in these rankings. SoS in CFB is always a very tricky subject, especially with wide variations in team quality. I have relatively weak views on how SoS should be handled in a project like this one.
2. Beyond SoS, defense v. offense-biased is another very difficult question, especially with deeper rosters and the possibility of backups after going up 45-0 and a 52-24 final. Sagarin's predictor ratings, for example, seem to privilege higher-scoring games. These rankings seem to value defense.
3. Any ranking based on points for/points allowed is ultimately inherently flawed because it's ignoring valuable information.

37
by cfn_ms :: Fri, 07/16/2010 - 4:16pm

1) I think it's good that SOS plays a heavy role, but it may be possible that it's too heavy a role, and it may also be possible that it's penalizing teams too much for the occassional REALLY awful team they play. There's really no meaningful difficulty difference for a top team whether they play the 100th best or 120th best 1-A team, but since #100 is merely bad and #120 is atrocious, the model probably gives a huge penalty for this. Of course, it's quite difficult to "fix" this issue, so pretty much everyone does this to some degree.

2) It's good to see a model that values defense, though I'm not sure whether it's doing it a bit too much, or whether garbage-time points are skewing the results. I'd love to see some relevant comparisons that would shed light on the issue, though that'd be difficult to put together (and might shed more light on the inner workings than FO would prefer)

41
by TheSmose (not verified) :: Sat, 07/31/2010 - 12:09am

Penn State definitely called off the dogs. If nothing else, they had to in order to preserve the defense. Early in the year the games were complete domination on both sides. But as the year wore on, and the offense scored so quickly, the defense was on the field the whole game, so the injuries started piling up.

I was at most of the Penn State games that year. The USC game, at 38-14, wasn't at all competitive. In two minutes it was 14-0, and it was 35-0 before USC managed to score on an interception return against the backup QB.

Iowa's 21 points came late, well after PSU went up 42-0 in the first 16 minutes.

State had to beat a superb Michigan team, full of NFL talent, on the road. U of M later fell apart that season, after Kordell's hail mary and then the loss to PSU took them out of national and conference title contention. Hail Mary aside, Michigan were fundamentally better than the Colorado team that formed the signature win for the 94 huskers.

The 63-14 pounding of Ohio State saw the starters on the bench by the 2nd quarter. I had family who lived in Columbus at the time; they said the local news didn't even report on the game afterward, as if they wanted to forget that it ever happened.

PSU led Indiana by 21 late in the 4th before Indiana scored 2 garbage touchdowns, even going for a 2 point conversion as time expired.

PSU truly proved its offensive mettle by coming back from a disastrous 21-0 1st quarter deficit against Illinois. The Illini had a stacked defense including Simeon Rice and the 94 and 95 Butkus award winners Dana Howard and Kevin Hardy. Nobody else (including Michigan and Ohio State) managed to score more than 22 on Illinois (the average was about 10), but in the remaining 3 quarters, PSU put up 35 to seal the win and the Big Ten title.

I'm sure every team on the list was impressive, but PSU's incredible stats that year don't even begin to do the team justice. They were an absolute, unstoppable, terror.

3
by Jetspete :: Tue, 07/13/2010 - 2:38pm

2nd and final point for me today, the 02 Buckeyes are number 43? I dont want to take away from a great year, but does anyone remember how many close calls they had? They needed a miracle 4th down play to beat Purdue, went to Overtime against illinois and didnt even have to play the "co-champions" of the big Ten, fellow 8-0 Iowa. But if you were to give me 94 Penn state -10 against this OSU team, or Nebraska '95 giving two touchdowns i would lay those points in a heart beat.

6
by cfn_ms :: Tue, 07/13/2010 - 2:55pm

That team had a major quality defense, and did beat a VERY good 2002 Miami team (plus quality opponents Tx Tech and Wazzu, both fairly convincingly). I'd probably pick 94 PSU and 95 NU over this team, but laying double-digits seems like a big overstatement to me.

5
by cfn_ms :: Tue, 07/13/2010 - 2:52pm

You said you don't have in-game data, but do your models factor in scores by quarter at all? I'd think those data still exist, and it would probably help make the garbage-time points less of an issue. Of course, you'd still have to figure out how to factor those in, but I'd think it could at least help.

12
by MM (not verified) :: Tue, 07/13/2010 - 9:18pm

While I 100% agree with you cfn_ms, just putting this list together is pretty staggering. (Bill - any way you'd be willing to divulge how much time you spent on this? Maybe it's not as hard as I think, but...) The only improvement that I can see to the model is that it seems to overvalue defensive prowess at the expense of offensive prowess; however, to not do that would make it nearly impossible for older teams to make the list since scoring used to be so much lower.

I think an interesting exercise would be having an informal poll to determine exactly where on this list certain teams would be placed - the first ones that come to mind are 1994 Penn State, 1995 Nebraska, and 2005 Texas - as other rankings have implied those teams are "historically great".

Lastly, does anyone know if Jeff Sagarin has ever published his historical college football rankings. I tried like hell to find them on the internet (is there a book?), but gave up years ago.

13
by schuhbdoo (not verified) :: Wed, 07/14/2010 - 12:28am

How about teh 1983 Huskers??? Without the USFL they have the top 3 players in the NFL draft.Fryar, Rozier and Steinkuler. Top 10 for sure.

14
by DaveRichters :: Wed, 07/14/2010 - 6:55am

You are a product of your era, and while the 1995 Huskers did all they could to dominate the schedule they faced, the numbers as presented say that a number of teams from different eras would have done as well or better against Nebraska's schedule. You can choose to believe this analysis or not

The numbers say nothing of the sort. I must be confused, are you really saying that you think this analysis suggests a stand-out team from the 30s would do well against today's teams? I can't imagine you believe this, but it certainly seems you state it.

Why not publish this model? I understand why DVOA isn't published, though I strongly disagree with the decision, but why not something like this? The model and its development could be quite interesting, in my opinion far more interesting than this list, and you could get some advice from certain members of your readership who develop models.

15
by mental :: Wed, 07/14/2010 - 10:52am

"Ranked third to start the season, Pittsburgh did not catch fire early. The Panthers combined for 16 turnovers in a 14-6 win over Boston College and took out Kansas by just an 18-3 margin in Lawrence."

!!

16
by Travis :: Wed, 07/14/2010 - 11:23am

Pitt "only" turned it over 9 times (4 fumbles, 5 Dan Marino interceptions). BC had 7 turnovers (3 fumbles, 4 interceptions).

"I did pretty well," said Marino, who completed 23 of 43 for 221 yards. "Two of the interceptions were tipped. These things happen. It's nothing to worry about." Recap.

17
by AbsolutCam (not verified) :: Wed, 07/14/2010 - 2:32pm

Sorry but I'm pretty sure that after the numbers were crunched and the output included 1995 Nebraska at #47, it was time to cancel the column and mothball the project. It becomes pretty tough to take anything else here seriously.

18
by Scott P. (not verified) :: Wed, 07/14/2010 - 4:49pm

Maybe there was a mistake and 1995 Florida was supposed to be #47. That I would believe.

19
by Anonymous1 (not verified) :: Wed, 07/14/2010 - 6:05pm

I'm reminded of something I believe I was told Bill James once said. I can't find the quote now, but it was something like "A ranking that is 0% or 100% accurate is equally useless." In other words, the best rankings tell you some things you already knew, and somethings you didn't know (or were wrong about). To say that a ranking is useless because 1995 Nebraska is ranked 47th is pretty absurd. At least wait until we see what other contemporary teams are ranked above them.

20
by Anonymous1 (not verified) :: Wed, 07/14/2010 - 6:08pm

I wrote that wrong. It should say "A ranking that matches up with popular opinion 100% or 0% of the time is equally useless."

22
by AbsolutCam (not verified) :: Thu, 07/15/2010 - 1:16am

Silly. 1995 Nebraska at #47 should be pretty near your useless 0% opinion rating amongst informed and unbiased college football afficianados. And it is but one example on this list. If I read a top 25 list from the 2009 season, and I run into Alabama at #14, I would know what to think of those rankings without carrying on through the top 13. Don't know why we need to be more deferential here. I like the Football Outsiders and stats in sports for many purposes, but this list (and therefore the statistical methodology that produced it) should be embarassing, and we shouldn't be afraid to say so as we all seek to do better.

Sincerely, #45 1961 Ole Miss (9-2)

38
by Adam H (not verified) :: Mon, 07/19/2010 - 5:12pm

A better analogy might be if the 2009 rankings were something like...
1) Boise State
2) Ohio State
3) Alabama

It's not COMPLETELY unreasonable for an unbiased computer model to rank the top three teams this way. Then again... pretty ridiculous. A little like 95 Nebraska at #47.

23
by cfn_ms :: Thu, 07/15/2010 - 2:56am

And yet, somehow the rest of us find it within ourselves to try.

Actually, one thing that I think would be helpful would be a more substantial comparison of Nebraska to other top teams from the 90's and 00's. It seems like the "answers" are schedule strength (probably fair) and garbage-time points (probably unfair), but it's not at all clear which one has a more substantial effect.

Given some of the model numbers in the past, I'd guess the biggest issue was schedule strength, but I'd be curious to find out if that was really the case or just conjecture on my end.

26
by Muldrake (not verified) :: Thu, 07/15/2010 - 11:52am

There's apparently a pretty dubious definition of schedule strength as well though, since 4 Big 8 teams (which is, of course, half the conference) finished in the top 10. The three schools that weren't NU won their bowl games by an average score of 47-19...so they were pretty good too. Using straight won-lost records for the remaining part of the conference is kind of dubious when more than a third of their schedules were against top ten teams. For example, OU was 5-1-1 when not playing those 4 top ten schools.

It's also kind of hard to determine what garbage time points are with this team, since more than half the points they gave up were after the Huskers had already scored at least 30...and they averaged 29.8 ppg going into halftime. The Huskers gave up 21 points to Arizona State in the first half, but they also scored 35 in the first quarter and 63 in the first half. Even without replacements there was probably some loss of focus with that many scores so early.

21
by jebmak :: Thu, 07/15/2010 - 12:09am

I find it amusing that some people are so offended by the 'faulty ranking' of one team, that the entire system and perhaps even the site that it was posted on are worthless.

40
by CDB (not verified) :: Thu, 07/29/2010 - 2:17pm

The reason so many are up in arms is that a ton of empirical data supports Nebraska being much higher on the list. Putting them at 47th basically says they are "average" for a season's best team, something that is very hard to swallow. Factor that in with the era argument that seems to apply only to 1993-1997 (there are teams ranked higher from both earlier and late 90s) and it really becomes tough to swallow. Once you have that large outlier, it puts a strong shadow of doubt over the entire enterprise.

I don't think having Nebraska outside the top 10 is all that big of a deal. However, having them behind 2 loss teams from the early '00s doesn't sit well with me...at all.

24
by Bill Connelly :: Thu, 07/15/2010 - 10:41am

1. It makes me happy to see that others love hating lists as much as I do.

2. I had no doubt that people would be dissatisfied with a lot of the results here (and you haven't even seen the worst one yet, trust me ... I love the list as a whole, but there is one team in the 20s that irks me). It was an inevitability. I could tell you ten teams that I disagree with right now. But the point was never to create a perfect list with which everybody agreed. The point was to see what some of the principles we use for college FO data could tell us about history, and to use that as a jumping-off point for talking about college football history. In that way, I consider these columns a rousing success. I've learned a ton in writing these columns, and I would hope that others have too.

I wasn't naive enough to think that nobody would care about the rankings themselves, and that everybody would just enjoy the trip through yesteryear, but I hope people are enjoying that aspect nonetheless. And if you're really willing to say that one team's ranking negates the whole exercise, then with all due respect, there was no satisfying you anyway.

3. Like I said a while back, schedule strength is very influential here, simply because we are dealing with such a small sample size. No team from 1912 Harvard to 2009 Alabama gave us a sample size of more than 14, so at most we're dealing with basically 28 data points (14 offense, 14 defense). That's a terribly small number to use, so I have to massage it for all it's worth. If we heavily weight those 18-28 data points to who they came against, we can get the most out of it. Schedule strength is actually taken more into account with these estimations than they are in our regular F/+ or S&P+ (or FEI, I think) data, simply because it's all we have to go by. Especially because...

4. ...garbage time points really are the biggest enemy of quality when using points scored/allowed. That's why we don't use it in S&P+ and FEI. But when we go more than a few years back, that's all we have to work with. And yes, that punishes, however slightly, teams who chose not to run up the score as much (like the late-1940s Notre Dame teams, for instance). It also punishes teams like the mid-1970s Ohio State squads, who were almost never seriously challenged while winning games 21-7. If I had play-by-play data, I would use it, but I don't and never will. (And for that matter, I don't have per-quarter data either. Could probably throw it together back to about 1999, but it would be difficult beyond that.)

By next offseason, I'll have yardage figures recorded for games back to 1994, and that is much better than points scored (touchdowns are fluky sometimes), but even that is flawed -- it does nothing to solve the garbage time issue. Sadly, play-by-play data just does not go that far back, though I'm taking volunteers if you want to help put together as much data as possible from 2004 and earlier.

That said, I still trust even flawed math over pure opinions when it comes to evaluating teams that almost nobody has seen. Of course we think teams like 1995 Nebraska are the greatest ever -- none of us have seen most of the teams on this list. You can scoff at comparing '95 Nebraska to '62 Ole Miss if you want, but I can almost guarantee you never saw '62 Ole Miss play, so you're biased. So am I. It happens.

5. "I must be confused, are you really saying that you think this analysis suggests a stand-out team from the 30s would do well against today's teams?" We've gone over this a few times now, and I'll keep trying to hammer it home: If you had a team from the 1930s playing today, they would lose to New Mexico State. I realize that. It is impossible to get around that. But if you took a team from the '30s, magically allowed them to be born about 20 years ago and raised with today's training/nutrition/size differences/development/advanced coaching, and put them on the field today, yes, I do think they could compete.

You have to compare teams to what they did in their own era, otherwise this whole exercise is pointless (and I realize it's half-pointless anyway). This data is telling us that quite a few teams from the 1930s were better in the 1930s than good teams are in their current era. Maybe it's right, maybe it's not, but it's what the message is, with the data we have to use.

6. The numbers really don't like 1983 Nebraska, at least as much as one would think, and I can tell you exactly why: they only beat three teams that won more than seven games (Penn State, Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma, all of whom won only eight), and they beat two of the three by a touchdown or less. And technically, they were 0-1 against teams that won more than eight games. They dominated a Big 8 conference that was in serious transition. They scored over 60 points five times, and only once against a team that won more than four games. I'm not saying they weren't great, but you can see why a system based heavily on opponent adjustments wouldn't be as impressed by this team as others.

29
by DaveRichters :: Thu, 07/15/2010 - 2:05pm

5. "I must be confused, are you really saying that you think this analysis suggests a stand-out team from the 30s would do well against today's teams?" We've gone over this a few times now, and I'll keep trying to hammer it home: If you had a team from the 1930s playing today, they would lose to New Mexico State. I realize that. It is impossible to get around that. But if you took a team from the '30s, magically allowed them to be born about 20 years ago and raised with today's training/nutrition/size differences/development/advanced coaching, and put them on the field today, yes, I do think they could compete.

Well I disagree based on a simple probabilistic argument. There is a much larger pool of players now than in 1930, it has very little to do with "today's training/nutrition/size differences/development/advanced coaching". Honestly, though, I don't know what it would mean to raise a player from 1930 with today's "size differences". But Kudos trying to hammer your point home by saying things like "a number of teams from different eras would have done as well or better against Nebraska's schedule". I can't imagine where the confusion comes from!

30
by AbsolutCam (not verified) :: Thu, 07/15/2010 - 2:08pm

Thanks Bill for the considered response. I am indeed enjoying the "trip through yesteryear", despite my continuing opinion on the (lack of) value of this methodology for producing an effective or meaningful list of the "Top 100 College Football Teams of the Last 100 Years", so my original comment was perhaps too harsh. Cheers.

25
by jlb (not verified) :: Thu, 07/15/2010 - 11:21am

That said, I still trust even flawed math over pure opinions when it comes to evaluating teams that almost nobody has seen. Of course we think teams like 1995 Nebraska are the greatest ever -- none of us have seen most of the teams on this list. You can scoff at comparing '95 Nebraska to '62 Ole Miss if you want, but I can almost guarantee you never saw '62 Ole Miss play, so you're biased. So am I. It happens.

'95 Nebraska isn't even the best team of the 1990s according to the list. Part I gives a breakdown of the number of teams by decade. Five from the 1990s have appeared. Two still remain. The '62 Ole Miss argument is a red herring.

I look forward to seeing where the math puts the '96 Florida team or maybe an FSU team.
We've seen those teams.

In this case the algorithm is flawed, not the opinion.

28
by cfn_ms :: Thu, 07/15/2010 - 1:54pm

I would agree that '62 Ole Miss is a red herring, but I think it's fair to at least wait and see what other 80's, 90's and 00's teams pop up. Hopefully we'll see at some point a more in-depth comparison of many of the more recent teams, so that we can better judge whether we agree with those results at least.

I'm inclined to believe that the Nebraska rating is "wrong", but I'm willing to be convinced if there's a compelling explanation behind it. And if not, then maybe it can highlight what specifically is "wrong" with the system that would cause it to create such a result.

31
by Bill Connelly :: Thu, 07/15/2010 - 4:34pm

No "compelling" argument, really...it's just that they countered playing Colorado, Florida, Kansas and Kansas State by also playing average Michigan State and Oklahoma teams and absolutely terrible Iowa State, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Pacific and Washington State teams. Therefore they were EXPECTED to kill a lot of these teams and didn't perform over "expectations" as much as the 46 teams ranked ahead of them on this list (in part because they gave up some garbage-time points that I can't separate out because play-by-play doesn't exist ... then again, a lot of the other teams on this list did too). And instead of being in the 99.8 percentile of all teams playing in the last 100 years, they were in the 99.7 percentile. That's pretty much the entire explanation.

They would end up ranking higher if I removed some of the schedule strength adjustments, but if I do that, then suddenly a team like 1970 Dartmouth, who thoroughly destroyed everybody in their path (but didn't play anybody), starts to show up in the Top 50 or 75, as does 2004 Utah. Every adjustment has benefits and drawbacks. I ran through about 1000 different scenarios here, and this was the methodology I liked the best. Most of the teams on this list are extremely justifiable where they are, but when you use a straight 'numbers' approach without manual adjustments (which would add my own biases to the list and ruin the point), there are going to be some placements that don't make as much sense.

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by Jeff Fogle :: Thu, 07/15/2010 - 4:39pm

Found some neat things inspired by this discussion. Not going to add to points I made in prior weeks. Even if I disagree with some of the ratings, I love the enthusiasm BC is bringing to college football coverage...and marvel at the amount of work that went into this project.

A cool wiki page on the 1995 Nebraska team that has scores by quarter and game-write ups that refer to yardage and other details:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1995_Nebraska_Cornhuskers_football_team

Went through by hand to get full scoring by each quarter:
First: 164-44
Second: 204-38
Third: 150-39
Fourth: 120-53

So, garbage time scoring may not be a big deal here. Basically a two TD jump over the full slate of games as compared to the other quarters. More than a third of that was in a 19-7 fourth quarter "loss" to Kansas State that was garbage time...as Nebraska led 42-6 entering the fourth.

Nebraska generally had things taken care of by halftime, with leads of 35-6, 31-14, 14-3, and 35-10 in "the big four" games of their schedule (Kansas State, Colorado, Kansas, Florida). Well, 14-3 isn't taken care of...but that was on the way to a 41-3 win at Kansas.

Nebraska surprisingly did well against the Vegas spread, considering how high they were priced to begin with:

Nebraska -27 beat Oklahoma State 64-21
Nebraska -19 beat Michigan State 50-10
Nebraska -27 beat Arizona State 77-28 (with Jake Plummer)
Nebraska -28.5 beat Washington State 35-21 (only non-cover)
Nebraska -42.5 beat Missouri 57-0
Nebraska -23 beat Kansas State 49-24 (42-6 after 3 quarters)
Nebraska -8 beat Colorado 44-21
Nebraska -41 beat Iowa State 73-14
Nebraska -25 beat Kansas 41-3 (market didn't buy the Kansas ranking)
Nebraska -34 beat Oklahoma 37-0
Nebraska -3.5 beat Florida 62-24

All this from: http://www.covers.com/pageLoader/pageLoader.aspx?page=/data/ncf/teams/pa...

Such a strong closing salvo, with blowouts in the second half of the season in their "challenge" games. They won their only two single-digit spread games by a combined 106-45 score, and neither game was in Lincoln. Easy to see why this team lingers so strongly in the memory of modern fans (particularly sports bettors, lol).

27
by JPS (not verified) :: Thu, 07/15/2010 - 12:47pm

I read the linked Wright Thompson article about Ole Miss in '62. Really something! I've seen the Oxford portion of the "Eyes on the Prize" documentary (6-hour miniseries on episodes in the Civil Rights struggle). There's even a video in it of part of Barnett's halftime speech at Ole Miss/Kentucky. It was fascinating to pair that with Thompson's football angle on things from that time.

33
by RollTide1987 (not verified) :: Fri, 07/16/2010 - 12:34am

I can understand not putting '95 Nebraska in the Top 5. But putting them just inside the Top 50 shows that there is a flaw in your logic. Sure they played some pretty crappy teams that they were expected to kill. But they also played a record four teams that finished in the Top 10 and likewise destroyed them as well. Did you ever see '95 Nebraska play? There is a reason why experts who have been around a lot longer than we have rank them as the greatest team of all-time. They HAVE seen these other teams you speak of play and most agree that they had never seen a team like the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers. They ran an undefeated and very dominant Florida Gators team right out of Tempe, Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl.

Just take a look at this.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGMJ77IZ1yk

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by JLB (not verified) :: Fri, 07/16/2010 - 2:49am

Since 1904, the '95 Huskers have the 4th highest point total in 1-A/BSD and THE highest points per game average of 53.16 in 1-A/BSD.

Average score 53 to 15. Closest game? 14 points, next 23 points.

The average half time lead was about 24 points. 31 to 7. Closest half time lead: 11 points. The second half was garbage time. Opponents scored 92 of the 172 points in the second half.

Plus, Nebraska had a 30-point per game average margin of victory against the four teams that finished in the AP top ten.

And oh yeah - they were 12-0. Not 7-1-1 or 9-2 or 10-1. But undefeated.

For comparison we'll use the '62 Ole Miss team that was pulled out of a hat. They played two teams that finished in the top 10 and had an average margin of victory of 6 (six) points. Please also note: they played an 0-10 Tulane team and a 1-9 Vanderbilt team. The strength of schedule argument is out the window.

I can keep going...
But I know this falls on deaf ears, so I'll stop.

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by Bill Connelly :: Fri, 07/16/2010 - 6:35am

Deaf ears? Are you kidding me? One last time: These aren't my opinions. I don't need convincing. I lived in Oklahoma in 1995 -- I saw every televised game this team played. They were phenomenal. As I've said many times in the last three weeks, you're not going to agree with every team on this list. I know this because I don't agree with every team on this list. The whole point was to apply the same method to every team of the last 100 years and see what happens. I can't make that any clearer. I've said it many times now. I'm not trying to convince you who's better. College football arguments are like political arguments -- nobody's mind ever changes. I'm saying that if you use the principles of 'output versus expected' that we use for pretty much any measure, and we apply it to what is unfortunately the only thing available to us for old teams (points), this is what happens. And then I write a couple paragraphs about each teams because it's fun. The end.

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by Jetspete :: Fri, 07/16/2010 - 10:34am

I dont really understand why there is a bigger uproar over Nebraska at 47 than Penn State at 133, but Bill I think this is a case of people shouldnt shoot the messenger. You (or whoever) developed a model and these were the results. Take them for what it is worth.

I guess my biggest problem is the ability judge wins, and points allowed, over time, especially in the era before the forward pass was an offensive staple of most college football teams? Is 1931 USC's 52 points allowed really comparable to allowing 52 points in the 1990's? is there a factor for points allowed during each particular year?

Also, i can't believe strength of schedule means the same in 1920 as it does in 2000. For example, in your Harvard write-up you talk about how they beat 8-1, Vandy, but Vandy beat four schools that we know very little about (Center, Bethel, Rose and Maryville) and another (Sewanee) that did not appear to be a great power in those times. So is beating 8-1 1912 Vanderbilt (winning percent 88) more impressive than beating 10-2 1995 Kansas (winning percent 83)?

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by CDB (not verified) :: Thu, 07/29/2010 - 6:25am

So, let me great this straight. You are a "product of your era," but Nebraska, pretty much universally regarded as the most dominant team of the past 60 years, is 47th whilst undefeated with a point differential of +464 while 2000 Florida State is 36th at 11-2 with a point differential of 375. Really? You're gonna stick by that system?

Sorry, the landscape of college football didn't change so much that a two loss FSU team with a point differential near 10 ppg worse than The Huskers could be seen as 11 spots better.

You wanna say the 95 Huskers are top 20 or so, I might buy the system. SOS means a lot and point differentials can only overcome down years by so much. 47th? You're basically saying they are an average champion. Anyone who saw that team utterly dismantle everyone in their path understands the absurdity of that statement.

I love statistical analysis, but sometimes, it can lead to leaps of logic that simply aren't based in reality.

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by OhioGregBigRed (not verified) :: Sat, 07/31/2010 - 11:36pm

What happens if you run your model 10 different ways taking into account the issues and options brought up above and then out line how the model was changed in each run. I think it would be educational to the masses how statistics can be used to skew results e.g. the United Nations study that showed the United States having something like the 47th best Health Care (ok...I just looked it up 38th) behind countries such as Andora, Malta, Cyprus, Columbia, United Arab Emarates, Chile, Dominca, Coasta Rica to name just a few. If you believe the U.N. Study then 95 Nebraska is only the 47th best team of the last 100 years and we needed a Health Care take over by the U.S. Government. I applaud your effort and I think all need to understand the model uses the same set of data and rules to evaluate all of the teams...it is consistent. A different set of data and rules would yield different results. What I love about this effort and college football is the discussion and the uncertainty in all outcomes. It doesnt matter if you are talking the human polls, the calls by refs that influence games, computer models or fan opinion, College Football is filled with uncertainty and that is what makes us one heck of a good time.

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by AnonymousX (not verified) :: Sun, 10/17/2010 - 8:35pm

Why is it that when discussing 2000 Miami, no one EVER points out that the Hurricanes lost to the Washington Huskies -- thereby completely nullifying Miami's superiority claim over Florida State?

Washington was the team that should have played in the BCS title game -- not FSU, not Miami.

Just another slight in a long line of BCS snubs of the Pac-10, for reasons beyond rational comprehension by any objective analyst: Washington in 2000, Oregon in 2001, USC in 2003, Cal in 2004, etc.