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28 Jun 2010

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

by Bill Connelly

In essence, the S&P+ and FEI formulas used for most of the college football work here at Football Outsiders are pretty easy to explain: Compare a team's output (and allowed output) to what would have been expected given the situation and the opponent, and voila ... ratings! Obviously there is a lot more to it than that, but that's the premise.

What do we do without play-by-play or drive data? Well, there's no reason we can't use other statistics and the same basic concept. Since points scored and allowed are recorded in the college football annals, we can create an Estimated S&P+ rating based around points.

Obviously, points scored and allowed are a much broader statistic than drive- or play-specific data and are therefore not going to be analyzed with nearly as much depth. But by using the principles of the S&P+ and its cousin, the Est. S&P+, we can have some fun in ranking teams.

These historical estimates began with an article in the upcoming Football Outsiders Almanac 2010 about the historical impact of conference realignment. Playing around with them, we realized it would be fun to just rank the best teams in college football history. (If you follow me on Twitter, you saw the beginnings of this; be aware that the formula has changed slightly since then.) During the next few weeks, we will count down the top 100 teams of the last 100 years.

We can talk about how great certain teams looked, but when comparing the almost 12,000 teams that have taken the field in the last 100 years, that doesn't get us too far. This is partially because our eyes sometimes lie to us, and partially because none of us, not even Beano Cook, have seen every single team of the last 100 years.

Certain teams are often brought up among the best ever, and television has a lot to do with that. We've seen highlights from the Game of the Century for almost 40 years now, and we saw almost every single game that some recent great teams (2005 Texas, 2004 USC, 2001 Miami, 1995 Nebraska) played on television. We know they were great. But few of us can really compare them to teams like 1961 Alabama, or 1944 Army, or 1923 Illinois, because we weren't alive to see those older teams -- and because college football was a different sport then.

The statistics used for Est. S&P+ don't care how good a team looked on television. They just care that the teams scored a lot more points and allowed far fewer points than would have been expected given their schedule, and that they played a lot of tough teams. If one unit was only good and not great, or if the team's strength of schedule just wasn't on par with other top teams, it will hurt their ratings no matter what our eyeballs tell us about those teams.

There are penalties in the formula for losses and ties, but not so much that this is only a list of undefeated teams. Seven two-loss teams make the list, either because they narrowly lost to other great teams, or they dominated all of their remaining opponents to a historical degree, or both. Even the best teams get unlucky sometimes, and they shouldn't be punished too severely for that.

Also, during the last century, college football has seen ebbs and flows in terms of how large the "ruling class" of elite teams is. Because of this, an era's standard deviation -- the gap between the best teams and the worst -- is taken into account. Therefore you will see quite a few teams from some decades and very few from others. The gap between the best and worst teams in the 1910s and 1920s was significant. For instance, seven of Alabama's ten wins in 1920 came against Southern Military Academy, Marion, Birmingham Southern, Mississippi College, Samford, Sewanee, and Case.

According to the Est. S&P+ figures, certain eras just didn't see as many truly dominant teams. Below is the breakdown of Top 100 teams from each decade:

  • 1910s: 1
  • 1920s: 4
  • 1930s: 17
  • 1940s: 12
  • 1950s: 12
  • 1960s: 11
  • 1970s: 12
  • 1980s: 13
  • 1990s: 7
  • 2000s: 11

Without further ado, let's take a look at the first 20 teams on the list. This is meant as a debate starter, not a debate finisher. It reframes the typical "best team ever" argument with a little bit of math, but the argument will never actually stop.

100. 1932 Michigan

Record: 8-0
Conference: Big Ten*
Best Wins: def. Michigan State (7-1) 26-0, def. Ohio State (4-1-3) 14-0
Blemishes: none
Point Differential: +110 (123-13)

* The Big Ten has been known by many things over the years -- the Western Conference, the Big Nine, the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives, etc. For continuity's sake, we will just refer to all of the conference's teams on this list as Big Ten teams, whether or not the conference was known as that at the time.

Michigan was in the middle of a dominant stretch at the start of the 1932 season. The Wolverines went 16-1-2 in 1930-31, winning the national title in 1931. Entering Harry Kipke's fourth season as head coach, Michigan was a favorite to win it all again. They did just that. With future New York Giants quarterback Harry Newman running the show (and somebody named Gerald Ford coming off the bench), Michigan was simply untouchable. They put together the No. 1 offense in the country according to Est. S&P+. Oh yeah, and they gave up 13 points all season.

In 1932, the Western Conference (which would become the Big Ten) was still the class of the country. Although Michigan was not as dominant on the scoreboard as other teams from this time (they won just two games by more than 14 points), taking out the likes of Michigan State, Ohio State, Bernie Bierman's first Minnesota team, and Amos Alonzo Stagg's last Chicago team earns you quite a bit of credit.

99. 1938 Notre Dame

Record: 8-1
Conference: Independent
Best Wins: def. Minnesota (6-2) 19-0, def. Army (8-2) 19-7
Blemishes: def. by USC (9-2) 13-0
Point Differential: +110 (149-39)

One of the forgotten Notre Dame teams, this one split the national title with undefeated TCU. (It should be noted that TCU was the AP's champion, giving the school a slightly more legitimate claim for the title.) The Irish played six consecutive teams with winning records to end the regular season, beating both Army and Navy away from home, taking out always tough Minnesota at home, and beating 4-1-2 Northwestern in Evanston before faltering at USC. The loss gave TCU the AP title, but the brutal schedule -- not to mention the 4.4 points allowed per game -- get the Irish a spot on this list.

98. 1940 Minnesota

Record: 8-0
Conference: Big Ten
Best Wins: def. Michigan (7-1) 7-6, def. Nebraska (8-2) 13-7
Blemishes: none
Point Differential: +83 (154-71)

Starting in Bernie Bierman's third season as Gophers coach, Minnesota went on a historic run. They went 23-1 from 1934 to 1936, winning the national title in all three seasons. The golden juggernaut continued at a high level the next two seasons, going 6-2 each year, but in 1939 they took a step backwards, winning just three of eight games. That did not sit well with Bierman or his players. They responded by winning every game on a treacherous schedule. Only one of their eight games came against a team that would finish with a losing record, and the Gophers used every bit of magic they could summons. They won five games by a touchdown or less, then took care of Wisconsin (22-13) in the season finale to wrap up Bierman's fourth national title in the Twin Cities.

Led by all-star runners George Franck and Bruce Smith, the Gophers averaged almost 20 points per game against a series of rugged defenses. Four of their opponents -- Washington, Nebraska, Northwestern and Michigan -- would rack up a record of 28-3 against teams not named Minnesota.

97. 1945 Alabama

Record: 10-0
Conference: SEC
Best Wins: def. Tennessee (8-1) 25-7, def. Georgia (9-2) 28-14
Blemishes: none
Point Differential: +350 (430-80)

World War II shook up a lot of rosters and coaching staffs, but personnel was starting to get back to normal by the fall of 1945. For Alabama, veterans returning from the war mixed with a roster that had made the 1945 Sugar Bowl with mostly freshmen, and the results were spectacular. Whereas 1940 Minnesota makes the list because of their brutal schedule, 1945 Alabama qualifies simply because of their brutality. They whipped good teams (Tennessee and Georgia went a combined 17-1 against teams not named Alabama, and the Tide beat them by a combined 53-21), and they simply embarrassed bad teams (combined score against Kentucky and Vanderbilt: 131-19). Even USC in the Rose Bowl was no competition -- Alabama was up 27-0 in the third quarter when the Trojans managed their first first down.

Harry Gilmer was the star of an offense that put up numbers that were simply unheard of for the mid-1940s. Gilmer gained more than 4,600 yards in his time in Tuscaloosa, and the 1945 Tide averaged 43 points per game. That would seemingly be the equivalent of about 60 points per game today.

96. 1958 Army

Record: 8-0-1
Conference: Independent
Best Wins: def. Penn State (6-3-1) 26-0, def. Navy (6-3) 22-6
Blemishes: tied Pittsburgh (5-4-1) 14-14
Point Differential: +215 (264-49)

They were solid throughout portions of the 1960s and 1980s, but the Cadets of Army were last truly great in 1958. (Not coincidentally, it was also the final season for coach Earl "Red" Blaik.) Led by Heisman winner and Rhodes Scholar Pete Dawkins, who accomplished far more in one life than any reasonable person should, the Army offense averaged nearly 30 points per game. They took on seven teams who would finish .500 or better, and they were only truly challenged twice. They were tied at Pittsburgh and only won at Rice by a touchdown.

The Cadets' season started with a startlingly easy 45-8 win over what would be a 7-3 South Carolina team, followed by a 14-2 win at Notre Dame a couple of weeks later. Utilizing the "lonely end" formation and throwing often to a split end to loosen up defenses, Army whipped poor Virginia and Colgate teams by a combined 103-12, then took down Navy, 22-6, in the season finale. Blaik's final team was explosive on offense and as stingy as almost any defense in the country. They finished third in the country behind LSU and Iowa, one of whom will be featured later in this countdown.

95. 1977 Notre Dame

Record: 11-1
Conference: Independent
Best Wins: def. Pittsburgh (9-2-1) 19-9, def. Texas (11-1) 38-10
Blemishes: def. by Ole Miss (5-6) 20-13
Point Differential: +281 (420-139)

Only a shocking loss to Ole Miss in the second week of the season kept this Notre Dame team from perfection. In Dan Devine's third season at the helm, Notre Dame got better and better as the season progressed. The offense was led by first-year starter Joe Montana (maybe you've heard of him), running backs Vagas Ferguson and Jerome Heavens, and tight end Ken MacAfee. Meanwhile, the defense had even more star power: Defending Outland Trophy winner Ross Browner anchored the line with end Willie Fry, while linebacker Bob Golic and defensive backs Luther Bradley and Ted Bergmeier rounded out a defense that was strong against the run and the pass.

The Fighting Irish won the national title despite one of the toughest schedules imaginable. After taking down defending national champions Pittsburgh (ranked seventh) on the road in Week 1, Notre Dame was upset by Ole Miss the following week, then needed a fourth-quarter comeback to overtake Purdue. After Montana's heroics against the Boilermakers, however, things began to click. Notre Dame won five in a row against solid teams -- Michigan State (16-6), Army (24-0), No. 5 USC (49-19), Navy (43-10), and Georgia Tech (69-14). Back in the Top Five, the Irish needed more late heroics to get by No. 15 Clemson on the road, then unloaded on Air Force and Miami to finish a 10-1 campaign. In the Cotton Bowl, Notre Dame mauled No. 1 Texas to leap Alabama for the national title.

94. 1996 Ohio State

Record: 11-1
Conference: Big Ten
Best Wins: def. Penn State (11-2) 38-7, def. Arizona State (11-1) 20-17
Blemishes: def. by Michigan (8-4) 13-9
Point Differential: +324 (455-131)

John Cooper's career at Ohio State featured quite a few "what if" teams who slipped up in single games and failed to win the national title. The Buckeyes lost just one game in each year, 1993, 1996, and 1998, and the 1996 squad was easily the best of the bunch. All-world lineman Orlando Pace led the offense with platooning quarterbacks Stanley Jackson and Joe Germaine, while freshman linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer came out of nowhere to become potentially the best defensive player in college football.

The Buckeyes started the season ranked ninth in the country, and it did not take them long to start moving up the polls. They destroyed Rice and Pittsburgh by a combined 142-7 in the first two games of the season and had leaped to fourth by late September. From there, the wins kept coming. They beat No. 5 Notre Dame by 13 in South Bend, then took out No. 4 Penn State, 38-7. They struggled to take down Wisconsin, but a series of easy wins led them to 10-0 and No. 2 in the country. However, they were taken down by No. 21 Michigan, at home no less, to end the regular season. Thanks to Florida's easy win over No. 1 Florida State in the Sugar Bowl, the Michigan loss would prevent Ohio State from a national title, but their consolation was winning one of the greatest Rose Bowls ever.

93. 1923 Illinois

Record: 8-0
Conference: Big Ten
Best Wins: def. Chicago (7-1) 7-0, def. Nebraska (4-2-2) 24-7
Blemishes: none
Point Differential: +116 (136-20)

Illinois claims shares of five national titles, four of which came before 1930. The 1923 squad, led by a newcomer by the name of Harold "Red" Grange, was its best. The Illini went just 2-5 in 1922, but the insertion of Grange into the lineup reaped immediate dividends. Grange scored three touchdowns in a season-opening, 24-7 win over a very good Nebraska squad. Illinois beat Butler (21-7) and Iowa (9-6) ... and then they didn't give up a point the rest of the season. They dominated most teams, beat a very good Chicago squad, 7-0, and dominated a five-win Mississippi State team, 27-0. A 9-0 win over Ohio State completed the perfect season.

Perhaps the biggest what-if involved with the 1923 Illini is that they did not get to play Michigan, who at 8-0 also claimed a share of the national title. Illinois would have to wait until 1924 to get bragging rights. Grange helped christen Illinois' new stadium by scoring four touchdowns in the first quarter and leading the Illini to a dominant 39-14 win over a Michigan squad that had won 20 games in a row.

92. 2005 Texas

Record: 13-0
Conference: Big 12
Best Wins: def. Ohio State (10-2) 25-22, def. USC (12-1) 41-38
Blemishes: none
Point Differential: +439 (652-213)

In just one offseason, Vince Young went from colt to stallion, from a high-upside quarterback racked with inconsistency to the most dominant player in college football. Despite an 11-1 season in 2004, it was hard to trust that Young was truly ready to take the leap. As late as midseason, he had been booed at home as he followed up a shutout loss to Oklahoma with a major struggle against Missouri. But an outstanding 2005 Rose Bowl set the table for what was to come.

Texas struggled just twice in 2005, and they were the best possible struggles. They beat No. 4 Ohio State by three in Columbus at the start of the season, and they outlasted No. 1 USC by three in the national championship game. Everything else was a total cakewalk. Average score in the other 11 games: Texas 53.3, Opponent 13.9. They ended a five-game losing streak against Oklahoma with a 45-12 win. They spotted Oklahoma State a 28-9 lead, then scored 37 straight points to win easily. They beat Kansas and Baylor by a combined 128-14. They humiliated Colorado, 70-3, in the Big 12 Championship game. This was a machine. Why aren't they ranked higher? Through no fault of Texas, the Big 12 was rather weak that season, and despite their wins over Ohio State and USC, their strength of schedule numbers were less than stellar. Plus, while their offense was the best in the country, their defense was only very good, not great. That sounds like nit-picking, but most of the teams on this list were either fantastic on offense and defense, or they took down a brutal slate of opponents.

91. 1989 Miami

Record: 11-1
Conference: Independent
Best Wins: def. Notre Dame (12-1) 27-10, def. Alabama (10-2) 33-25
Blemishes: def. by Florida State (10-2) 24-10
Point Differential: +299 (426-127)

Five of the six Miami teams between 1986 and 1991 find their way onto this list. The 1989 was comparatively one of Miami's lesser teams, but Dennis Erickson's first squad in Coral Gables was still outstanding. Tackles Cortez Kennedy, Russell Maryland, and Jimmie Jones anchored a dominant defense, while quarterback Craig Erickson led an offense that took advantage of every opportunity the defense gave them.

Scoring a touchdown against this defense was an accomplishment, something only half of Miami's 12 opponents could do. The Hurricanes outscored their first six opponents by a 250-49 margin, but their perfect record was disrupted by a 24-10 loss at Florida State. No matter. They beat No. 14 Pittsburgh by 21 on the road, and with a dominant, 27-10 home win over No. 1 Notre Dame, they were right back in the picture for a national title. A 33-25 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama clinched it.

90. 1972 Nebraska

Record: 9-2-1
Conference: Big 8
Best Wins: def. Colorado (8-4) 33-10, def. Notre Dame (8-3) 40-6
Blemishes: def. by UCLA (8-3) 20-17, tied Iowa State (5-6-1) 23-23, def. by Oklahoma (11-1) 17-14
Point Differential: +404 (501-97)

Despite the fact that this team failed to win a national title after back-to-back championships and actually lost two games, this team makes the list because almost no team has had a more dominant stretch of games than the Huskers did for two months from mid-September to mid-November. The Huskers were upset by quarterback Mark Harmon (yes, the same guy who now stars in NCIS) and UCLA's new wishbone attack in the first week of the season, which dropped the two-time defending national champions to 10th in the polls. They then outscored their next seven opponents, 348-24. That's an average score of 50-3.

These opponents weren't chumps either. Army, a 77-7 victim, went 6-4. Mizzou, massacred by a 62-0 margin, would upset Notre Dame the very next week on the way to a Fiesta Bowl bid. Gator Bowl participants Colorado went down via a comparatively competitive 33-10 margin in Boulder. Unfortunately for the Huskers, they ran out of gas late in the regular season. They were shockingly tied by Liberty Bowl-bound Iowa State, and they lost at home to soon-to-be national runner-up Oklahoma, 17-14, in the season finale. Though they could not wrap up their third national title, they took out their frustrations in style, destroying Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl by a 40-6 margin.

89. 1989 Notre Dame

Record: 12-1
Conference: Independent
Best Wins: def. Michigan (10-2) 24-19, def. Colorado (11-1) 21-6
Blemishes: def. by Miami (11-1) 27-10
Point Differential: +238 (427-189)

The formulas don't care about head-to-head matchups, therefore Notre Dame gets the slight nod over a Miami team that served them their only loss of the 1989 campaign. Really, the only difference between the performances of the 1988 national champion and 1989 squad were that the 1989 Irish played Miami on the road. Their one-point home win in 1988 served as the primary catalyst of their title run, but they couldn't knock off the mighty Hurricanes (the "convicts" of the infamous "Catholics vs. Convicts" battles) in Miami. As a result, they finished second in the polls to Miami, whereas the exact opposite happened the year before. Strangely enough, it was Notre Dame's easy 21-6 Orange Bowl win over No. 1 Colorado that gave the Hurricanes the title.

The 1989 Notre Dame offense was even more loaded than the title-winning 1988 unit. Tony Rice finished fourth in the Heisman voting, but Raghib "Rocket" Ismail was the attention-getter. He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in a tight win against Michigan, and his 37-yard touchdown against Colorado gave Notre Dame a 14-0 lead it would not relinquish. Meanwhile, tackle Chris Zorich anchored a defense that was not as successful as 1988's, but was good enough against every team but Miami.

88. 1936 Alabama

Record: 8-0-1
Conference: SEC
Best Wins: def. Mississippi State (7-0), def. Tulane (6-3-1) 34-7
Blemishes: tied Tennessee (6-2-2) 0-0
Point Differential: +133 (168-35)

Bear Bryant's first season in control in Tuscaloosa (he was an assistant from 1936-39) saw the Crimson Tide lay waste to an improving SEC. They shut out five of their first six opponents and gave up more than seven points just once, in a 20-16 win over Georgia Tech. This was the beginning of the first golden age in the SEC, with Alabama, Tennessee and others rising to prominence. This was also the first season that the Associated Press began ranking college teams. The South was strangely underrepresented in the polls, at least until November when both Alabama and LSU forced writers to notice. (Alabama was ranked just 14th when they whipped No. 10 Tulane on November 7.) In the end, LSU finished the season ranked second, Alabama fourth. Statistically, however, 'Bama gets the nod.

87. 2004 Oklahoma

Record: 12-1
Conference: Big 12
Best Wins: def. Texas (11-1) 12-0, def. Colorado (8-5) 42-3
Blemishes: def. by USC (13-0) 55-19
Point Differential: +233 (452-219)

First impressions mean a lot in the dating world, but last impressions are all that matter in college football. The 2004 Oklahoma Sooners were a killing machine, outscoring 12 overmatched opponents by a 433-164 margin (average score: 36-14). They gave Texas their only loss of the season, a 12-0 shutout in Dallas. They got hot down the stretch of the regular season, outscoring their final three opponents -- Nebraska, Baylor and Colorado -- by a combined 107-6. But they had the eventual misfortune of drawing USC in the BCS championship game, and ... let's just say that USC team will be featured quite high on this list. The 55-19 massacre that occurred in Miami soured people on the quality of this team -- somewhat justifiably so -- but they were still one of the best teams of the 2000s.

Another thing that mars people's view of this OU team is that they lost in the BCS title game for the second straight year after being picked above teams that, retroactively, seemed more deserving. In 2003, they lost to LSU by a touchdown (a respectable margin considering the game was New Orleans, and that Jason White was fighting a broken hand and foot) while one-loss USC missed the proceedings. In 2004, Oklahoma was chosen over undefeated Auburn. Both times, the BCS formula's main failing was that it couldn't fit three teams on the same field. OU had a decent case in 2003 and a great case in 2004, but the teams failed when the spotlight was shining the brightest.

(And yes, it is certainly odd that this team still gets the nod over 2005 Texas. That's how much weaker the Big 12 got in 2005.)

86. 1969 Penn State

Record: 11-0
Conference: Independent
Best Wins: def. West Virginia (10-1) 20-0, def. Missouri (9-2) 10-3
Blemishes: none
Point Differential: +232 (322-90)

It takes a lot for the virulently conservative Joe Paterno to say something negative in public about anybody, much less a Republican president. But he couldn't bite his tongue when it came to the 1969 college football season. After an epic 15-14 Texas win over Arkansas which President Richard Nixon attended (commemorated in this great book), Nixon proclaimed Texas the national champion ... despite the fact that Penn State was still undefeated, and the bowl games had not taken place yet. How much this affected poll voters' intentions is impossible to say, but when Texas beat Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, and Penn State beat Missouri in the Orange Bowl to finish an undefeated season, Texas won the title.

When Nixon called to offer a plaque to Penn State for their long unbeaten streak, Paterno reportedly said, "You tell the president to take that trophy and shove it." Years later, at the 1973 Penn State commencement speech, Paterno said "I'd like to know, How could the president know so little about Watergate in 1973 and so much about college football in 1969?"

Sadly, this story dominates people's memories of this squad of Nittany Lions, when it was one of their best ever (and is the only 1969 squad to make this list). They allowed just 8.2 points per game and outscored their two highest-ranked opponents (West Virginia and Missouri) by a combined 30-3.

85. 1932 Notre Dame

Record: 7-2
Conference: Independent
Best Wins: def. Kansas (5-3) 24-6, def. Army (8-2) 21-0
Blemishes: def. by Pittsburgh (8-1-2) 12-0, def. by USC (10-0) 13-0
Point Differential: +224 (225-31)

Like 1972 Nebraska, this two-loss Notre Dame team makes the list because of what it did in its wins. In the second season after Knute Rockne's passing, the Irish outscored their seven vanquished foes by a combined score of 225-6. They beat three lesser teams -- Haskell, Drake, and Carnegie Tech -- by a combined 177-0 to start the season. After their loss to Pittsburgh, they rolled through Kansas, Northwestern, Army, and Navy by a combined 78-6. We often suggest here that killing bad teams is almost as telling as simply beating good ones, and this team's presence on that list suggests that the statistics agree.

84. 1947 Michigan

Record: 10-0
Conference: Big Ten
Best Wins: def. Michigan State (7-2) 55-0, def. USC (7-2-1) 49-0
Blemishes: none
Point Differential: +341 (394-53)

Ah, college football. It is the only sport for which so many teams can just "claim" national titles without the matter having actually been settled on the field. At the end of the 1947 regular season, the Associated Press named Notre Dame its national champion by a small margin over Michigan. But after Michigan ran up the score on USC in the Rose Bowl, demolishing the Trojans by a 49-0 margin, the AP decided to break its own rules and take another poll after the bowls. This time, it was Michigan who was named the national champion. Naturally, both programs still claim this title. It took almost another decade and a half before the AP began issuing its final poll after the bowls were over.

The Est. S&P+ gives Michigan the nod. The 10-0 Wolverines outscored opponents by an average margin of 39.4 to 5.3, slightly better than the 32.3 to 5.8 margin that Notre Dame produced. Plus, they played a much better schedule (combined record of Michigan's opponents: 41-45-5; Notre Dame: 29-46-7) and beat USC by a slightly bigger margin (49-0 to 38-7).

While this Michigan team is known most for controversy, it should not be forgotten that the on-the-field product was simply fantastic. Bob Chappuis and Bump Elliott led an offense that averaged almost 40 points per game in an era where that simply did not happen. Chappuis finished second in the Heisman race, while Chappuis, Elliott, and Al Wistert all earned spots in the College Football Hall of Fame.

83. 1992 Alabama

Record: 13-0
Conference: SEC
Best Wins: def. Tennessee (9-3) 17-10, def. Miami (11-1) 34-13
Blemishes: none
Point Differential: +244 (366-122)

Believe it or not, this team was much more than just George Teague's amazing forced fumble and recovery. But wow, is that one of the most memorable and re-watchable plays in college football history.

Despite being ranked ninth in the preseason AP poll, Alabama snuck up on people in 1992. This is likely because it was a foregone conclusion that a dominant Miami team would probably win the tile. But the Crimson Tide continued to hang around and win games. They overcame multiple turnovers to defeat a good Southern Miss squad in Birmingham. They built a 17-0 lead at No. 13 Tennessee, then held on for a 17-10 win. They scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to hold off Mississippi State, 30-21. When Antonio Langham returned an interception for a touchdown with 3:25 left to give the Tide a 28-21 win over Florida in the SEC Championship game, Alabama improbably had a shot at a national title if they could beat the seemingly invincible No. 1-ranked Miami Hurricanes.

They did just that, of course. They obliterated Miami by a 34-13 margin and, in their 100th year of football, claimed their 12th national title.

82. 1988 Florida State

Record: 11-1
Conference: Independent
Best Wins: def. Clemson (10-2) 24-21, def. Auburn (10-2) 13-7
Blemishes: def. by Miami (11-1) 31-0
Point Differential: +283 (455-172)

For those who have seen ESPN's The U., you will recognize this team as the one that was voted preseason No. 1 above defending national champion Miami, only to get wrecked by the Hurricanes in the first week of the season. The Seminoles disappeared from the title race after that, but from the second week of the season on, they were every bit as good as they were predicted to be.

In his second consecutive All-America campaign, the Seminoles' Deion Sanders had one of the best seasons possible for a cornerback. He picked off a Brett Favre pass and returned it for a touchdown in a 49-13 romp over Southern Miss, then returned a punt 76 yards for a go-ahead touchdown against a very good Clemson squad (a game won by the famous Puntrooskie). Then, with Florida State leading 13-7 in one of the more enjoyable Sugar Bowls ever, Sanders picked off a pass intended for Lawyer Tillman in the Seminoles' endzone to clinch a 13-7 win.

81. 1936 Pittsburgh

Record: 8-1-1
Conference: Independent
Best Wins: def. Nebraska (7-2) 19-6, def. Washington (7-2-1) 21-0
Blemishes: def. by Duquesne (8-2) 7-0, tied Fordham (5-1-2) 0-0
Point Differential: +190 (224-34)

The 1936 Panthers finished third in the AP voting, but they were named champions through more minor sources. Again, college football is the best. Why Missouri isn't hanging two banners because of their 1960 Polling System title and their 2007 Anderson & Hester title, or Utah because of their 2008 Massey Ratings title, one never knows. They might as well join the party!

Led by Jock Sutherland, the Panthers were barely challenged in 1936, playing only three games decided by a touchdown or less. Unfortunately for them, they went 1-1-1 in those three games. They won at Ohio State (always an accomplishment) by a 6-0 margin, were upset by Duquesne, and tied a very good Fordham squad. (The Rams were a legitimately solid program in the 1930s.) They won the other seven games on their schedule by a combined 218-27 margin. They killed Nebraska, 19-6, in Lincoln and easily handled a 7-1-1 Washington squad in the Rose Bowl, 21-0. Running back Bobby LaRue and a strong line headlined by Averell Daniel and future Nebraska coach Bill Glassford were central to the team's success.

Coming next Tuesday: Teams 61-80.

Posted by: Bill Connelly on 28 Jun 2010

61 comments, Last at 13 May 2013, 5:11pm by Louis1945

Comments

1
by CandlestickPark :: Tue, 06/29/2010 - 4:25pm

Pete Dawkins fun fact: He gained a rugby blue at Oxford while a Rhodes Scholar and invented the modern lineout throw. Before Dawkins wingers threw the ball into the lineout with a motion akin to Rick Barry's underarm freethrows. Dawkins gunned it into the lineout like a quarterback and that throw has since become standard in rugby.

2
by Bill Connelly :: Tue, 06/29/2010 - 5:07pm

Sheesh...did he also cure polio and walk on the moon using pseudonyms?

3
by The Avocado Lobby (not verified) :: Tue, 06/29/2010 - 5:20pm

Actually while the one-handed quarterback style lineout throw was standard for many years, the preferred technique used today more closely resembles a long snap (only stood upright).

4
by kleph :: Tue, 06/29/2010 - 6:05pm

It's a little galling that two teams coached by Alabama's legendary coach Frank Thomas make this list but he isn't even name checked. It's not unusual though. Thomas is one of the most criminally overlooked coach in the history of college football due to the sheer scale of achievements of his most famous protege - Paul W. Bryant.

But Thomas was the bona fide thing. A player and coach under Knute Rockne he brought the Notre Dame Box to Southern Football and launched the first great era of the Southeastern Conference. (Rockne once called him the smartest player he ever coached). Thomas achieved a lifetime record of 144–33–9 and never coached a losing season. During his 14 years at Alabama his teams allowed an average of just 6.3 points per game.

Last year Florida's victory over Arkansas gave Urban Meyer his 50th win as head coach of the Gators. It took him 59 games - a total that tied Thomas' march to the same mark.

So calling the 1936 Alabama team Bryant's is probably pushing the facts a bit. It was Bryant's first year as an assistant and he had been playing under Thomas in the National Championship squad the year prior. Honestly, offensive line coach Hank Crisp probably deserves more credit for that team's achievements than Bryant.

Still, this is a great effort and it's wonderful to see these great teams from the past get credit for their achievements. I look forward to the rest of the entries.

5
by kleph :: Tue, 06/29/2010 - 6:47pm

also... that 1945 squad was the last of alabama's to play a bowl game in pasadena until this january.

6
by chemical burn :: Tue, 06/29/2010 - 7:11pm

Gotta say, as someone who doesn't follow college football in any capacity, this is really cool. It's a nice snapshot of the history of the college game, if nothing else, with a laudable reduction in the blow-hard nonsense and homerism that keeps me away from the college game in the first place... really cool stuff...

7
by kleph :: Tue, 06/29/2010 - 7:25pm

funny... that's the exact same reason i avoid the pro game.

9
by chemical burn :: Tue, 06/29/2010 - 10:15pm

Hey, to be fair FO's laudable reduction in blow-hard nonsense and homerism is also why I read their Pro coverage, too...

8
by dmb :: Tue, 06/29/2010 - 9:26pm

Echoing some of chemical burn's sentiments, I'm not a particularly avid fan of the college game, but this project is extremely impressive. Just doing the rankings must have taken considerable effort; unless several people contributed to this, doing rankings and adding historical information about each team must have been a Herculean task.

24
by Aaron Schatz :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 4:02pm

Give your props to Mr. Connelly, then, because this is all him (except for David Gardner serving as grammar police and layout).

50
by jebmak :: Thu, 07/01/2010 - 10:12pm

Props to Mr. Connelly then. I dislike college football, but I find this article interesting.

I also appreciate the amazing amount of work put into this, and look forward to the next four articles.

52
by Bill Connelly :: Thu, 07/01/2010 - 10:30pm

Thank you much!

10
by Could have been a cool list with a little research (not verified) :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 12:24am

Man, I love lists and especially college football lists of any sort. So naturally I was excited to look at this one and see the opinion of this poll. So started reading and started out not bad (hard to rank 50-100, no doubt) but then my first laughter started when I got to #92: 2005 Texas. Really? Need I say more, Im a bama fan but come on, is there anyone that knows anything about college football that doesn't think that was at least a top 10 football team all time? So, obviously my next outburst was when I arrived at #83: 1992 Alabama. I don't have enough time in the day to explain how ridiculous that is. They may not be quite top 10 material but come on, to not have them in the top 25 is a JOKE. The 1961 Bama team is considered best ever and 2009 might not be too far from that team but 1992 is right behind 61 and maybe 09, just based on that ridiculous defense. Two other awful rankings are #86: 1969 Penn State and #87: 2004 Oklahoma, no question both should be much higher. But I'll give you the benefit of the doubt on those 2 bc making these type of rankings is tough and objective. But come on man!!! What a total letdown and waste of my time, this list lost all credibility at #92 and #83.

11
by mathesond :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 9:30am

You're absolutely right. How foolish of them to tackle a project like this without doing any research whatsoever. Whom do we speak with in order to get our money back?

12
by Cro-Mags (not verified) :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 10:12am

As punishing as that '92 Alabama defense was, on the other side of the ball they were pretty pedestrian. Jay Barker, while having an astronomical win PCT, was servicable at best, with some real shaky performances like tossing for only 18 yards and 2 INTs in the Sugar Bowl.
Very lopsided team.

20
by DT4Bama (not verified) :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 2:14pm

I'd have to say that Barker was a bit more than "servicable". I'd agree that he wasn't the best pure passer, but he was the best at not screwing up and running the system in which he was placed. He could throw the ball when he to. With that defense in 1992, he very often did not have to. The lack of production was often a product of Coach Stallings himself. Stallings always said that there were 5 possible outcomes on a passing play, and ... "4 of 'em ain't no good" (1-complete pass,2-incomplete pass,3-interception,4-fumble,5-sack). In his opinion, the running play was far superior statistically speaking. Passing was only a tool to assist the running game.

28
by kleph :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 6:25pm

i got called out on Roll Bama Roll for suggesting barker was just "don't screw it up" qb who rode some of alabama's strongest defenses to the best career record in school history. turns out he was something of a game manager in the '92 campaign but his production exploded toward the end of '93 and he was a bona fide all-american and heisman candidate with his '94 performance.

so this might be part of the story for the '92 squad but it certainly isn't the whole book on barker.

42
by Cro-Mags (not verified) :: Thu, 07/01/2010 - 10:05am

I'm not out to bury Barker, just pointing out why I think this team's offense would hold them back from being ranked higher among the top 100. They did have a solid running attack with Lassic, but the defense and return game did most of the heavy lifting for that team. It seemed like most of the team's success was predicated on the dominant defense and return game winning the field position battle and the offense playing a low risk, ball control, time-of-possession type game.
As nasty as that defense was, I think the offense is what prevents this team from being ranked higher.

Still have fond memories of them sticking it to Miami, what a stunner.

13
by Todd S. :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 10:16am

I don't want this to come off as a personal attack, I just want to point out what I see (and maybe I'm wrong) as a common contradiction-usually in the [redacted] world. So you're saying that you agree with 90% of this list (2 exceptions) and yet it has no credibility? That just doesn't make sense to me.

14
by chemical burn :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 11:45am

Also, there's something about seeing two more recent teams (from 2005 & 1992) as Top Ten material (and another from 20904 as needing to be ranked much higher) that reeks of a lack of historical perspective. I don't follow college football, so I can't say how outrageous the rankings appear on the surface of things, but saying two recent teams belong in the Top 10 feels like a critic over-valuing games from within their own era (i.e. "i saw these teams, so they loom large in my imagination...")

It's like people who think the 2004 Patriots & the 1993 Cowboys & the 1994 49er's & the 1999 Rams & the 1998 Broncos & the 2000 Ravens & the 2006 Colts are all Top 10 All-Time teams...

15
by dmb :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 1:08pm

chemical burn,

Please stop making so much sense in this thread. Every time I'm about to contribute something, you've written it; as a result I don't have anything of value to add!

Sincerely,
dmb

16
by Jeff Fogle :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 1:23pm

BC,

I was wondering if you thought about breaking this into "eras" rather than making one long list. You mentioned that "college football was a different sport then" in your intro. Doesn't that set up too much of an apples and oranges issue? In terms of just size, speed, physicality, it's hard to imagine that the Reggie Bush or Vince Young led teams of 2005 would be "worse" than somebody from before 1960. It would be guys with "Ivy League bodies" trying to tackle explosive forces who weren't being tackled by 2005 bodies (you called Young "the most dominant player in college football" for that year).

Also, is there a way to compare your data with the height', weights, projected 40-yard speeds, racial integration issues, of the earlier times to build either a timeline, or maybe an equivalency sense of college history. There's a sense now that what we see from the Ivy League in 2010 is kind of a "throwback football" to the way it was played in prior decades. THAT'S what football looked like in terms of body size, speed, general schematics, at a certain period of time. The military academies represent kind of a mix, using a 1960's offense with bodies that are bigger/faster than Ivy League but not with the sustained physicality of the elite modern powers.

The games are so different. Would #92 Texas and #93 Illinois be near pick-em if you could do a "Field of Dreams" game or accurately simulate it on computer? Red Grange was listed at 5'11, 175 in college registries, 6'0" 180 in the NFL (lol, he grew an inch as a pro!). He was truly super-duper-fantastic for his time. Vince Young was/is 6'5", maybe 6'4" if you assume PR padding, well over 200 pounds, and also threw passes. I think those two teams are only neck and neck if you IGNORE a million different things. Put them on the field against each other in front of all of us, and nobody would have them close together in "true" rankings on a scale of team greatness. (Or put 2005 Texas on the field in 1923, or 1923 Illinois on the field in 2005...would they post roughly even results? I don't think you're saying that. Are you saying that?)

Illinois was about as dominant in its time as Texas was in its time, I can buy that. Evolution happens. I can buy a title of "Top 100 College Football Teams of the Last 100 Years Ranked by How Dominant They Were in Their Era." Hope you'll consider developing a "true scale" as best as possible. Might be a fun project. What elements should go into developing that kind of scale? Do we assume college football is always evolving? Or, has it hit a "physicality plateau" similar to horse racing speeds and some events in track and field (or swimming before the wetsuits). If so, when did that start?

Or, which past eras are most like the Ivy League today in terms of size, speed, schematics? Which represent a transitional period that's in synch with the 2010 military schools (old schematics with modern bodies)? Something to think about.

Thanks very much for the passion and energy you're bringing to FO's college football coverage...

17
by witless chum :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 2:10pm

"Illinois was about as dominant in its time as Texas was in its time, I can buy that. Evolution happens. I can buy a title of "Top 100 College Football Teams of the Last 100 Years Ranked by How Dominant They Were in Their Era." Hope you'll consider developing a "true scale" as best as possible. Might be a fun project. What elements should go into developing that kind of scale? Do we assume college football is always evolving? Or, has it hit a "physicality plateau" similar to horse racing speeds and some events in track and field (or swimming before the wetsuits). If so, when did that start?"

This is really what they're already doing, because of the way they're using stats. And calling it the Top 100, rather than the 100 Best covers it and is pithier.

And I bet Red Grange threw passes from a single wing formation.

22
by Jeff Fogle :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 2:37pm

Not sure witless. From a web encyclopedia:

"Grange captained the Illini in 1925. After the young team lost three of its first four games, he was moved to quarterback and they won the final four games."

"In his 20-game college career, he ran 388 times for 2,071 yards (5.3 average), caught 14 passes for 253 yards and completed 40-of-82 passes for 575 yards."

Doesn't specify if all of that passing was from the four games in 1925, or if he threw any passes in 1923...and we're comparing '23 to '05. If it's from those four games, that about 10 of 21 per game for 144 yards. He certainly would have been capable of throwing passes for a 1923 team if they needed him to in a matchup against a 2005 team.

Also,

"In seven games as a sophomore he ran for 723 yards and scored 12 touchdowns, leading Illinois to an undefeated season and the 1923 Helms Athletic Foundation national championship."

So tough to compare eras. That's 103 yards per game.

18
by Eddo :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 2:11pm

I can buy that. Evolution happens. I can buy a title of "Top 100 College Football Teams of the Last 100 Years Ranked by How Dominant They Were in Their Era."

Isn't that what this is, just not explicitly titled as such?

I know I wouldn't like to see extra credit given to modern teams. I mean, Ohio State's team last year, which was far from being dominant, would probably handily beat the 1923 Illinois team. Players are that much bigger and faster and well-conditioned these days. If you start to play the "who would win if they played" game, you'd wind up with only teams from the last 10-20 years on your list. What would be the point of that?

21
by Bill Connelly :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 2:29pm

This list is essentially the "Top 100 College Football Teams According To How Well They Did Against The Teams They Played, In The Era In Which They Played." Obviously even this year's New Mexico State team (spoiler alert: they're projected to rank dead last in FBS this year) would wipe the floor with the best 1920s team, so there would be no purpose to a "Who would beat whom?" list unless it were "Who would beat whom, with era-specific athletes?"

23
by Jeff Fogle :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 3:13pm

Appreciate the reply BC. Wasn't clear. As you said, the content is a debate starter rather than a debate finisher anyway. Just that the material says: "It reframes the typical "best team ever" argument with a little bit of math."
Then it posts the material in the same format as a standard "poll" which generally reflects team quality when it's used...and has:

*17 of the "best team ever" entries from the 1930's (10 years)
*18 from the TWENTY year period of the 1990-2000's

*29 from the 1930's-1940's (20 years)
*31 from the THIRTY year period of the 1980's-2000's

*The 1930's looking like a juggernaut of greatness (17) while the 1990's looks like a wasteland (7)

The prior 30 years of my life saw 31 "best team ever" entries. A similar hunk from my grandfather's life (if he were still around) saw 41 entries (30-40-50's). I think we all agree that's not exactly what "best team on the field" would mean (and that Jay Barker was a lousy passer, lol). I guess I'd vote for "100 Most Dominating College Football Teams Ever" as a more accurate title, with the rankings being clear that they're measuring "level of dominance." Then we could debate:

*whether a scoring differential of 136-20 is really more dominant than 652-213. Texas wins differential +439 to +116, but Illinois wins "percentage of points" 87% to 75%.

*whether dominating during a time of a relatively small landscape is the same as dominating at a time of a wider landscape (isn't it harder to dominate in your data in 2004 than it would have been in 1934? that's just a guess). Should we be more impressed with 1936 Alabama or 1992 Alabama in that context?

*the what's and wherefore's of the evolutionary process as to how it reflects proper team evaluations.

Don't want to sound like a troll. Just trying to clarify the debate that's being structured....

25
by Aaron Schatz :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 4:03pm

Yes, as editor-in-chief, I already had to shorten the title of this in order to fit it on the front page. Please do not attempt to drive me insane. Thank you.

26
by Jeff Fogle :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 5:58pm

lol...not my intention. And, if it was, I'd try to make it something in the NFL anyway for maximum effect!

That is a bear to try to express the 100 teams over 100 years with the trickiness of what "top" teams means in this context. Maybe something like:

"A CENTURY OF DOMINANCE (Part I)
From "Red Grange" to "Big Red" and beyond, Billy Connelly uses an Estimated S&P+ formula to rank the 100 most dominant college football teams of the last century. The monthlong countown begins today..."

Then it's more clear that we're talking about dominance as measured by S&P+, rather than a more traditional "best team ever" kind of ranking. And, BC can make his point about how the worst major college team of 2010 would wipe the floor with the teams of the 1920's somewhere early...to help avoid the potential confusion within the format that comes from having 2005 Texas (who I think we'd agree would wipe the floor with 2010 New Mexico State) ranked so close to a team from the 1920's.

Looking forward to reading the rest of the series...(and counting up the additional teams 2005 Texas would mop the floor with!)

35
by cfn_ms :: Thu, 07/01/2010 - 12:01am

is very clearly a major component of their rankings, as shown by Texas not doing well on their list (and their comments about why). and I suspect that it's either overweighted or (my guess) the system is doing some sort of weird calculation that is REALLY penalizing Texas for playing Rice and ULL.

I agree with you that they're underrating 2005 Texas, but no model is perfect. Hopefully the list will overall look pretty solid, though certainly there's a lot of arbitrariness involved in comparing a team from the 2000's to the 1920's, etc.

51
by jebmak :: Thu, 07/01/2010 - 10:23pm

Depends on the target audience. As someone who pays little attention to college football, I wouldn't have clicked on that headline (which I do think sounds good).

Of course, if this wasn't on a site that I really liked, I wouldn't have clicked on something saying 'Top Whatever' anyway. I generally hate articles like that (this one is good though, as I say above).

59
by jspiker (not verified) :: Thu, 04/19/2012 - 6:12pm

If you took a team from today and put them back in 1925, Vince Young would not be 6'5, 230 pounds. He and all the other Texas players would be more the size of the teams from that era. Or, if you took that Illinois bunch and had them born in 1985 with contemporary nutrition and training, they'd all be bigger, faster and stronger. So, yes, it might well be a pick 'em.

19
by t.d. :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 2:13pm

180 pound linemen from the 1940s would have no problems against modern athletes, you're right. Never mind, I see another poster makes the same argument

58
by jspiker (not verified) :: Thu, 04/19/2012 - 6:06pm

Actually, I know a great deal about college football history and have several friends who do also. And not a single one of us would give even a cursory consideration to putting 2005 Texas in the all-time top ten. Or the top 25. Maybe someone who just loves Vince Young would go top fifty. But, really, is there anyone thatACTUALLY knows anything about college that would have that Texas team anywhere near the top?

27
by Fred (not verified) :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 6:01pm

I can accept that a team may still be great even if they happened to lose a game, especially if it was early or there were other circumstances, but when a team gets shellacked 55-19 as '04 Oklahoma did to USC, or 31-0 as '88 Florida State did to Miami, they can't be called the greatest anything. The proof is right there on the field.

29
by chemical burn :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 7:41pm

I know this is definitely true in regards to Pro football - I mean, just look at that Patriots team in 2003 that got SHELLACKED by the Bills 31-0 in the first game of the season, what did they ever accomplish?

Kidding aside, this is something that I find hard to figure out in regards to college ball - how much should losses be weighted? Right now, I think that I kinda can't get into the game too much because one convincing loss more or less tanks a team's reputation. I'd imagine Fred's view isn't uncommon... but it seems pretty unforgiving and I know such views would be laughable in regards to the NFL's greatest teams...

30
by Vincent Verhei :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 9:07pm

I like that one loss can derail a team's season. That makes games like Oregon State upsetting USC (to name one example) not just unexpected, but crucially important.

Also consider that there is a much, much greater disparity between the best and worst teams in college football than in the NFL. You almost never see NFL point spreads go higher than two touchdowns, but there are 30-and-higher point spreads in college football every weekend. Alabama plays 12 regular season games this year, but probably half of those are gross mismatches that it's almost impossible they could lose. Our projection system in the book gives them a 25 percent chance of going 12-0, and a 40 percent chance of going 11-1. So it may not be fair that one loss can tank a season, but the fairness is somewhat mitigated because they don't *really* have that many opportunities to lose.

32
by Jeff Fogle :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 9:54pm

"Alabama plays 12 regular season games this year, but probably half of those are gross mismatches that it's almost impossible they could lose."

I'll give you San Jose State, Duke, Georgia State, and Mississippi State (though it's a tough spot on the schedule after a Tennessee/LSU road sequence).

What are the two additional gross mismatches out of (in order of FO's College rankings)
2. Florida
8. Penn State
10. LSU
18. Arkansas
20. Tennessee (road, after 4 straight FO ranked teams)
23. South Carolina (road, week after Ark-Fla combo)
25. Ole Miss (fourth toughie in four weeks)
Just outside 25: Auburn

Plus, to finish #1 they'll probably need to play in the SEC championship game, which would be Florida again, or another highly regarded team.

Some are suggesting Tennessee is overrated. Could be. Alabama only beat them 12-10 last year though.

Would have picked Boise State as somebody with fewer opportunities to lose. Many others I'm sure too...tough to make Alabama an example of that point this year or last...

34
by Vincent Verhei :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 11:54pm

Honestly, I typed that without even looking at their schedule. That's why I wrote "probably."

36
by cfn_ms :: Thu, 07/01/2010 - 12:03am

So instead of half, you have four of 12 games as gross mismatches no top 5 team should even play a contest with a single digit margin, much less actually have a shot at losing. Moreover, home games against Ole Miss and Auburn (both overrated by the system IMO) are major mismatches and a legitimate top 5 team has little business struggling against.

So basically, an overstatement but not a crazy one.

37
by Jeff Fogle :: Thu, 07/01/2010 - 1:02am

Was 2009 Florida a legitimate Top 5 team when they lost at home to Ole Miss 31-30 as 23-point favorites? They would go onto win the National Championship that year. Part of the dynamics of the season are clearing the hurdles that come up against lesser but potentially dangerous teams when emotional or physical fatigue set in. And, you can actually end up being a national champion even if you don't clear one of the hurdles.

Guess it depends on how we choose to define "mismatch." We'll have to disagree cfn about whether or not Ole Miss and Auburn are potential threats or major mismatches.

Trying not to be a super-nit Vince...but, you know, you could have spent 30 seconds looking up the schedule before you typed something like that. Previous BC articles within the last few days have mentioned Alabama's brutal schedule, and had multiple commenters referring to that brutal schedule. There's clearly an Alabama contingent reading the articles based on comments in this thread and those others. YOU WORK HERE. Value them by looking up the schedule first. Think Alabama fans who've been reading this week are impressed by an FO writer using the "probably" defense? BC deserves better with all the amazing work he did compiling this data (even if I disagree with some of the teams, I marvel at the work, passion, and enthusiasm). You're always representing FO even when speaking off the top of your head in friendly discussions.

38
by cfn_ms :: Thu, 07/01/2010 - 2:07am

2008 Ole Miss beating Florida was a MAJOR upset at the time, with very good reason. However, they ended up a top 25 team, so while clearly a big knock on Florida it wasn't an enormous one.

However, in 2010 it is highly likely Ole Miss will take a few steps back from where they've been the past two seasons (losing starting QB, HB, top 2 WR's and a bunch of other guys rarely results in a better team), and it is fair to say that a top 5 team has little business struggling at home against a team outside the top 25. Since both Auburn and Ole Miss are projected by almost everyone to be outside the top 25... yes, I think it's a fair statement.

Of course, I (and almost everyone else) could be wrong about either or both of those teams, in which case my statement doesn't apply. But I would be enormously surprised to see more than four out of LSU, Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina, Ole Miss and Auburn as top 25 teams. In fact, I'd guess that at the end of the day, only three would be in the top 25. Still a solid slate, of course, but the original statement doesn't seem to be an enormous overstatement to me.

39
by Muldrake (not verified) :: Thu, 07/01/2010 - 2:43am

Ole Miss lost to Vandy the week before the Florida game. At home. VANDY!!!!

Ole Miss also lost their next two games, albeit to better teams than VANDY!!!!

Even in retrospect that Florida victory is a pretty big upset.

45
by Jeff Fogle :: Thu, 07/01/2010 - 12:15pm

It's great to see so many people posting with enthusiasm and fair takes. Maybe we can come up with some standard terminology we can agree on so we're not debating terminology. Seems like we're mostly pretty close, but there's a difference of opinion on what "gross mismatch" means in terms of the distance between two teams, and what realistic expectations are for top five teams.

"Negotiate" isn't the right word...but maybe we can work toward a pointspread approximation of what "gross mismatch" means, or in the rankings...and then just use that as a base framework for discussions this year. Will cut down on the "yes it was," "no it wasn't," stuff that an Ole Miss upset of Florida might generate. We all agree it was a big upset. Heading into the game, was it a "gross mismatch?" In the SEC when there's tons of talent everywhere and part of the challenge is staying mentally focused for all games? To me, the threshold for "gross mismatch" would be up near 30. Maybe 28. I might come down to 25 but only if I'm outnumbered. Alabama -34 vs. Florida International is a gross mismatch (516-214 total yards ultimately). We're getting to the range where upsets should stop surprising us when you get down to where Ole Miss/Florida was.

Also, we should probably standardize what we mean by top 25. I think BC's "top 25" is going to be weighted more toward true quality of the teams regardless of record, while the wire service "top 25" will be ranking the records for the bazillionth year in a row, using quality as a tie-breaker within similar records (a snarky simplification, but too true). It's true that Alabama may be facing several teams who don't end up in the AP top 25...but who do "grade out" amongst the top 25 with BC. Want to make sure we're on the same page when making points in those areas.

"it is fair to say that a top 5 team has little business struggling at home against a team outside the top 25"

I just have to disagree, particularly in the tough SEC where many teams are better than their poll ratings because pollsters rank the records and SEC teams beat each other up. South Carolina and Tennessee didn't finish in the top 40 of the AP poll last year.

*Alabama was -18 vs. SC, and only led 13-6 until very late in the game. Total yardage was 356-278, which is +78 yards. Using standard yards-per-point stuff, that's less than a TD difference. It was a struggle, and it was a team outside the top 40, let alone top 25.

*Alabama had to dodge bullets in the fourth quarter to survive Tennessee in a 12-10 win as a 14-point favorite. Tennessee actually won total yardage 341-256. It was a "stat loss" by a NATIONAL CHAMPION...AT HOME...AGAINST A TEAM OUTSIDE THE TOP 40. So, I don't agree with the "litle business" line of thought in terms of what really happens on the field within a superpower conference like the SEC.

Note that Alabama also lost yardage to Auburn 332-291 in a game they barely survived as a 10-point favorite. Teams can't peak every week, or even play "average" every week. This has an impact when you're talking about potential "mismatches" or "games they should win" in a power conference.

Don't want to suggest Alabama was lucky to be champions or anything. They crushed Virginia Tech 498-155, beat LSU 452-253, Florida 490-335...they had great peaks. Even champions have peaks and valleys.

So, anyway, I'd vote for -30 as a starting point for "gross mismatches" if we're talking about expectations for a game. And, I'd hope we can include the concepts of physical fatigue and mental fatigue when physical opponents are strung together consecutively (Florida had just won a blowout in a TV grudge battle with Tennessee the week before Ole Miss). Feel free to vote high or low. Might be low, and 33-34-35 is a better range for that descriptor.

(And, ps...let's all confirm our points as best as possible before posting, so we're not jumping in with a "probably!")

Can't wait for the season to get here...

49
by Fred (not verified) :: Thu, 07/01/2010 - 7:30pm

Alabama-Duke or Kansas State-1AA patsy is a gross mismatch. I don't think anybody argues that. But again, in all but maybe 3 of Alabama's games it would be a pretty decent surprise if they lost. Would a loss be a total, complete shock against a middle-of-the-pack SEC team? Of course not. But Florida losing to Ole Miss was a big enough surprise to make Tebow throw that tantrum, and Ole Miss was certainly a quality team that year. Nobody is arguing that Alabama can just show up to games against the Tennessees and Auburns and expect to win by three touchdowns. However, we all know it's going to take a big game from those teams, a strategic edge, and probably some luck and Alabama mistakes for them to mount the upset, and even then Alabama is more likely than not to hang on and eke out the victory.

In essence, with top 5 teams I think you need to merge all their conference rivals together into being one or one and a half evenly matched opponent. What I mean is, it would be a shock beyond shocks if a full-strength Alabama team lost to all of Tennessee and Auburn and Arkansas and Ole Miss and South Carolina. In fact, in a given year they're likely to win comfortably against three of those teams and at worst go down to the wire against the other two. It's that one upset they're trying to avoid. When they play Florida or LSU (in a good year), they know they need to bring their A-game if they hope to win. With everybody else it's just "don't fuck up and we'll win."

So with these top 5 teams I think you really can say that they practically only have a 4 or 5 game schedule. They have their 2 or 3 games against the other big swinging dicks in the conference (or the rare quality non-conference opponent), and then that inevitable one or two games where a lesser opponent will play them close. Then the bowl game.

47
by Vincent Verhei :: Thu, 07/01/2010 - 1:50pm

I spent a half-hour last night writing a diplomatic reply, thoughtful to not offend anyone ... then my Internet connection died and it was lost. So I'll just say this: I promise that when I mean to use generalities, I will actually use generalities and not specific teams, if you promise to address my main point and not one exaggerated sentence.

48
by Jeff Fogle :: Thu, 07/01/2010 - 3:37pm

"I like that one loss can derail a team's season. That makes games like Oregon State upsetting USC (to name one example) not just unexpected, but crucially important."

Agree with this completely. One of my favorite things about college football is how important consistent successful performance is when it comes to isolating who gets to play for the national championship.

"Also consider that there is a much, much greater disparity between the best and worst teams in college football than in the NFL. You almost never see NFL point spreads go higher than two touchdowns, but there are 30-and-higher point spreads in college football every weekend."

This one's kind of super-obvious, but you were responding to an NFL comment from a prior post, so I can see why you laid it out that way. Would only add in...as it relates to Alabama and the SEC...I don't think college football analysts/pundits/rating systems/oddsmakers have fully come to terms with the fact that the SEC has kind of morphed within the past five years into something that's both GREAT and has RELATIVE PARITY in ways that we're not used to seeing in college football. And, that a schedule that strings together PHYSICAL teams of that caliber provides more of an in-season challenge than the SEC is given credit for. I know all coaches talk about how great their conferences are, and how every game's a toughie. The SEC has actually brought that to life, but everyone got so used to tuning out what coaches say that reality hasn't registered the way it should. There are more of what you could call "B-plus" or "B-minus" type teams in the SEC who end up not getting ranked because they suffer too many losses in a league with physicality and relative parity...and nobody can avoid playing them in back-to-back-to-back sequences (or longer, with travel involved). This reflects back on prior discussions within the CF framework here at FO...and got pulled in (by me)when you chose Alabama as an example.

"I spent a half-hour last night writing a diplomatic reply, thoughtful to not offend anyone ... then my Internet connection died and it was lost."

Because even KARMA knew Alabama was such a bad example that it just wanted you to say "Sorry, my bad, I should have looked up the schedule first." (lol)

If we're all aiming to present and discover reality, then we've got a better chance of figuring it all out. Think we're all poised to do that...

40
by Fred (not verified) :: Thu, 07/01/2010 - 3:12am

So you agree that a third of their games are gross mismatches. That would be like an NFL team being allowed to start the season 5-0. And obviously the chance for upset is always there with conference games, particularly on the road, but what you should look at is how much Alabama will likely be favored in these games. Basically, no matter how spry these teams are in your SEC bias universe, 2/3 of Alabama's games would be major upsets if they were to lose, like lead story on Sportscenter upset. That means there's basically only 3 or 4 games where the result would be at least somewhat expected if they were to lose. Maybe throw in the inevitable one pesky SEC underdog that will play it close, and you're still looking at, on paper, 5 competitive games at most. Losing 2 of these five games would still make them 10-2 on the season, which may be a slight disappointment for a team with title expectations but is still a pretty dominant record.

43
by Mr Shush :: Thu, 07/01/2010 - 10:43am

"That would be like an NFL team being allowed to start the season 5-0."

I'm not sure that the 2005 Seahawks didn't get to effectively start 8-0, what with their inhumanly pathetic division and games against the dismal 2-14 Texans and almost-as-pathetic 4-12 Titans. That's six games against the DVOA bottom four, plus two more against the merely crappy Cardinals.

46
by Fred (not verified) :: Thu, 07/01/2010 - 12:30pm

The extreme scheduling luck the Seahawks experienced that season was a rarity. Sure, there's always teams with weaker schedules than others, but it's rare to have an NFL team with that many favored games. With teams like Bama, Texas, Ohio State, etc. it's the norm. And still, what you're talking about with the Seahawks against those NFC west/AFC south teams is essentially the same as what Bama faces with those pesky non-elite SEC teams. The Seahawks were probably anywhere from 6 point favorites (if/when they played the Rams on the road) to 17 point favorites (if/when they played the 49ers at home), which is pretty consistent with what Bama would be against teams like Ole Miss, Auburn, and Arkansas. And similarly to Bama against these teams, it wouldn't be that shocking if the Rams or Cardinals had nutted up and pulled the upset at home against the Seahawks, but it wouldn't be expected either and certainly wouldn't be expected to happen more than once (and, indeed, from looking at the schedule it appears that the 49ers almost pulled the upset in week 11 and the Rams almost pulled the upset in week 5). So, I mean, you have an extreme scheduling situation with the Seahawks that year, basically the easiest schedule an NFL team can hope for, and it still lines up with what the Bama fan commenter labeled competitive games for Bama. There is no comparison for the Duke-level automatic victories.

44
by chemical burn :: Thu, 07/01/2010 - 10:56am

But that's what sorta stink about its, too, the 30-point spreads - you get penalized if you are good team that doesn't annihilate bad teams. In essence, if the game is at all compelling or fun to watch (because blowouts are, in fact, boring) then you're going to be penalized for not winning convincingly, let alone if you lose a close game.

Anyway, it's interesting to read the replies here because this is a nice primer and having historical context makes it fascinating - in a way, it feels like college teams are playing for their place in history much more than in the NFL, like a good team like the 2005 Texas team isn't just trying to be the best in the league, but so good as to be in the conversation about the best of all time...

I suppose also I can't get into it because my college didn't have a football team and all my relatives went to Vanderbilt... and watching a couple seasons of them will turn you off pretty good (it's just no fun to watch them get pounded flat by Tennessee and Alabama - teams that, incidentally, don't have the most modest fan-bases in the world)...

31
by Fred (not verified) :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 9:10pm

Oklahoma lost its FINAL GAME 55-13. There's no other argument after that. A top 100 all time team doesn't get beat by that much in its defining game. And obviously, in the NFL only one team has ever gone undefeated while it happens pretty often in college football, so one loss is far less significant. In fact, I would venture to guess that an NFL team that goes 14-2 (or 13-1/12-2) or better and wins the super bowl is far rarer than a major conference college team going undefeated through the regular and bowl season. Add to that the NFL being playoff-centered, while the regular season is the playoff in college football.

33
by cfn_ms :: Wed, 06/30/2010 - 11:53pm

I don't know if the formula takes into account when a game is played, which means that losing 80-0 in week 1 could well be just as damaging as losing 80-0 in the title game.

The author would have to confirm one way or the other, but if not, that certainly would make the results look different than what we'd intuitively assume. Of course, if the system did take into account when games were played, then the question becomes how much more weight do you give later games, which is a pretty arbitrary process IMO.

41
by Bill Connelly :: Thu, 07/01/2010 - 8:34am

Every game is treated completely equally by the formulas. I could tweak and tinker all day long with what I thought was important, and certainly what happened at the end of the season tends to be treated with more weight, but in the end, simpler was better. This thing was complicated enough with me trying to figure out what was a fair weight to apply to losses and ties. Went through about 100 iterations of the rankings off of that one factor alone!

53
by cfn_ms :: Fri, 07/02/2010 - 2:15am

Is there any chance that we could see a similar list for the top 100 (or top 50 if that's easier) of this past decade?

I think that it would be useful to have a list that focuses on relatively recent history, especially since a century-long list is going to be fairly dependent on what kind of assumptions and normalization procedures you use. For instance, if you're just taking the average of all teams at the same designated level of play, making that 0, and then measuring how much better than avg. each team is, then the fact that the 1920's had teams like Southern Military Academy, Marion, Birmingham Southern, Mississippi College, Samford, Sewanee, and Case, and the 2000's don't, skews the averaging.

54
by zlionsfan :: Sat, 07/03/2010 - 10:03pm

I am looking forward to the fireworks that will ensue when people find out which of their personal favorites didn't make the top 100.

College football fans, IME, can actually come across as more passionate than pro football fans. I think you'll see what I mean.

I like this list - it's a nice starting point for discussion. It must have been a pretty cool project on which you worked, Mr. Connelly.

55
by Lukey (not verified) :: Thu, 07/29/2010 - 3:27pm

2005 Texas #92? No other UT team worthy of top 100 consideration? Are you kidding me? What about 1963, 64, 68, 69, 70, 81? Did you include an algorithm that says: if "Texas" then "value" = 0?? This thing is a complete joke. It appears to overwhelmingly reward teams that gave up few points in an era when offenses were boring and one-dimensional and teams rarely played outside of their regions, as well as any team with "SEC" next to its name.

56
by Lukey (not verified) :: Thu, 07/29/2010 - 3:31pm

2004 OU better than '05 Texas. LMAO!! 'Nuff said, your model is about as valid as those showing that subprime mortgages would not default!

57
by tominthesack (not verified) :: Fri, 08/06/2010 - 8:59pm

had usc beat texas, usc would be on this list. i guarantee it would have been above 92. parity makes numbers look good but the reality is that 2005 texas team was stacked with talent on both sides of the ball. if the sec stopped its partial qualifier/ sneaky cheating scandals and had some academic credibility texas might consider joining it. i think whatever formula that was used to make this list needs some x factor multipliers. i think there should be a number for nfl starters at quality positions that should improve certain teams. for example a "great" college team with a quality nfl quarterback at the helm should improve a teams standing over team with a mediocre quarterback. i dont know how the numbers work for historic teams. does anyone know the college team with the most nfl players on it?

60
by CFB FAN (not verified) :: Wed, 02/06/2013 - 12:58am

Absolute joke that the 1988 WVU team isn't on here.

61
by Louis1945 (not verified) :: Mon, 05/13/2013 - 5:11pm

Whoever wrote this has no clue at all.