The Top 100 College Football Teams of the Last 100 Years: Part II
by Bill Connelly
You can find Part I here.
For fans of teams on this list, now is a good time to share a friendly reminder: As with the Oscars, ESPYs and AVN Awards, the real honor is just being nominated in the first place. There have been more than 11,000 teams participating in the last 100 years of big-time college football. We always tend to favor the teams either from our school or our era, but making the Top 100 of this list is a significant accomplishment -- even if your team only ranks in the 70s or 80s. This is the 99th percentile we are talking about here.
To get a true feel for what it means to be part of this list, consider some of the teams that didn't make it: 1929 Notre Dame, 1994 Nebraska, 1998 Tennessee, 1997 Nebraska, 1994 Penn State, 1985 Oklahoma, 1978 Alabama, 1923 Michigan, 2008 Florida, and 1935 SMU all finished between Nos. 101 and 200. With just a tweak in the formula here and there, virtually any team that has finished in the Top 100 could have ended up in the Top 10.
With that disclaimer out of the way, here are teams 80 through 61.
80. 1973 Alabama
Best Wins: def. LSU (9-3) 21-7, def. Tennessee (8-4) 42-21
Blemishes: def. by Notre Dame (11-0) 24-23
Point Differential: +364 (477-113)
How good was the Alabama offense in 1973? Good enough to still hold 14 single-game and single-season Alabama records more than 35 years later. Star running back Wilbur Jackson, who officially broke the color barrier for the Crimson Tide a few years earlier, rushed for a ridiculous 7.9 yards per carry as Alabama rode the Wishbone (still a fairly new formation) to infinite success.
They came up one point short of an AP national title, but this was one of Alabama's most dominant teams. They began the season ranked sixth in the country but quickly ascended with a series of dominant wins. They obliterated California 66-0 in Week 1, then spotted Kentucky a 14-0 lead before pulling away to win by two touchdowns. They shut out Vanderbilt (as good teams should), then pulled a magic act, scoring twice in the last 2:22 to beat Georgia, 28-14. From there, they rolled to the Sugar Bowl, winning just once by fewer than 21 points and shutting out Auburn, 35-0, to end the season. In one of the better Sugar Bowls ever, they were taken down, 24-23, by No. 3 Notre Dame, giving the Irish a surprising national title. It was a disappointing end to a dominant roll by the Tide.
79. 1939 Tennessee
Best Wins: def. Alabama (5-3-1) 21-0, def. Kentucky (6-2-1) 19-0
Blemishes: def. by USC (8-0-2) 14-0
Point Differential: +198 (212-14)
It is an understatement to say that 1939 Tennessee was a defense-oriented team. All they did was pitch a shutout for the entire calendar year of 1939 and pitch 15 consecutive shutouts, starting in mid-1938. Ignoring postseason games (since they were, in those days, exhibitions as much as anything else), the shutout streak actually reached 17 games before LSU scored a whopping six points on the Volunteers in 1940.
General Robert Neyland (who, by the way, was an actual Brigadier General ... that wasn't just a clever nickname), was clearly known for his defensive prowess, but the 1939 Volunteers could score too. Led by All-American wingback George Cafego, the Vols scored more than 20 points five times and outscored opponents 212-0 in the regular season. Inexplicably, they fell from No. 1 to No. 2 in the polls (behind Texas A&M) after beating Vanderbilt, and they stayed there despite wins over solid Kentucky and Auburn squads to close the regular season. They were defeated 14-0 by USC in the Rose Bowl. Despite giving up an unacceptable 45 points, they won a second national title in 1940 after being deprived of one by AP voters this time around.
78. 2009 Alabama
Best Wins: def. Texas (13-1) 37-21, def. Florida (13-1) 32-13
Point Differential: +285 (449-164)
There is a reason why only two SEC teams went undefeated in the decade of the 2000s -- it was really difficult. Even to have a chance at such an accomplishment, one needs a little bit of luck. For Alabama, it came via two blocked kicks from the paws of massive tackle Terrence Cody in a 12-10 win over Tennessee. Beyond that game and a scare against Auburn, Alabama was simply better than everybody they faced in 2009. They beat a defense-oriented Virginia Tech team by scoring 34 points, and they whipped Arkansas and their explosive offense by holding the Hogs to seven. They outlasted LSU, they mauled Florida in the SEC Championship game, and with assistance from an injury to Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, they handled the Longhorns by 16 to win the national title.
It is somewhat ironic that a team known primarily for its dominant defense also became the first Alabama team to produce a Heisman Trophy winner. Mark Ingram, with assistance from freshman Trent Richardson, helped produce a healthy offense that scored more than 30 points nine times. Meanwhile, a defense that produced six NFL Draft picks held opposing offenses to 15 points or fewer 10 times. Nick Saban's third Alabama team was both well-rounded and disgustingly athletic.
77. 1973 Notre Dame
Best Wins: def. USC (9-2-1) 23-14, def. Alabama (11-1) 24-23
Point Differential: +293 (382-89)
If it is possible for a Notre Dame team to fly under the radar, the 1973 Fighting Irish did just that. The second of a staggering four 1973 teams to make the Top 100 (all of whom, strangely, fall within today's portion of the list), Notre Dame began the season ranked eighth in the country and never advanced further than fifth until the final regular season poll, thanks to the utter dominance of Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and Oklahoma. When they got their chance to shine, however, Dan Devine's Irish took advantage, taking out Alabama by one point in the Sugar Bowl and leap-frogging Oklahoma to finish first in the AP Poll.
While Notre Dame is often complimented for its challenging schedules, the 1973 slate was not one of its toughest. They took out three Big Ten squads -- Northwestern, Purdue, and Michigan State -- to start the season, then walloped Rice and Army by a combined 90-3 to move to 5-0. In their first big-time contest of the season, the Irish held USC's all-world running back Anthony Davis to just 55 yards rushing in a 23-14 win over the No. 6 Trojans. From there, they coasted to an undefeated record and a matchup with Alabama. The Irish never gave up more than 15 points until the Sugar Bowl. A team with little star power, the Irish got the job done all season long.
76. 1965 Michigan State
Conference: Big Ten
Best Wins: def. UCLA (8-2-1) 13-3, def. Notre Dame (7-2-1) 12-3
Blemishes: def. by UCLA (8-2-1) 14-12
Point Differential: +187 (263-76)
The mid-1960s were one giant "What if?" experience for Michigan State. In 1966, they famously tied Notre Dame and finished just 9-0-1, missing out on the national title shot they might have had if they had won. In 1965, a title was even more within their grasp. After rolling through everybody in their path by an average score of 25-6, the Spartans were ranked No. 1 in the country after the regular season. But they lost a rematch against quarterback Gary Beban and No. 5 UCLA, and the Bruins clipped them 14-12.
The end of the season does not dampen just how dominant the Spartans were. A defense led by Charles "Bubba" Smith and George Webster was impenetrable. They gave up double-digit points only three times in the regular season, and one time was in a cakewalk over Indiana. They began the season with an easy win over UCLA, throttled both Michigan and Ohio State, knocked off No. 6 Purdue on the road, and finished the season with a 12-3 pasting of No. 4 Notre Dame. The Spartans held the Irish, who had the second-ranked rushing offense in the country, to negative yardage. In their Rose Bowl loss to UCLA, the Spartans continuously threatened, but turnovers and a surprise onside kick gave the Bruins the game and kept State from the title.
75. 1933 Pittsburgh
Best Wins: def. Nebraska (8-1) 6-0, def. Duquesne (10-1) 7-0
Blemishes: def. by Minnesota (4-0-4) 7-3
Point Differential: +134 (147-13)
In the list of underrated and somewhat forgotten coaches from the first half of the twentieth century, Pittsburgh's Jock Sutherland should be near the top, along with Minnesota's Bernie Bierman and Alabama's Frank Thomas. Sutherland played under Pop Warner himself at Pitt in the 1910s, then replaced Warner as head man in 1924. In 15 years, he went 111-20-12 before resigning in 1938. Pitt claimed five national titles from Sutherland's tenure -- 1929, 1931, 1934, 1936, 1937 -- but strangely, one of his very best teams doesn't make that list because of a couple of fumbles.
Pittsburgh's defense was always a strength with Sutherland at the helm, but the 1933 defense was likely his best. They gave up just 13 points all season, pitching seven shutouts along the way. They overpowered Washington & Jefferson and West Virginia to start the 1933 campaign, then pummeled a good Navy team by a 34-6 margin. An Oct. 21 trip to Minnesota, however, doomed them. Against Bernie Bierman's team, the Panthers twice fumbled inside their own 5-yard line, and Minnesota actually managed to score once. Pittsburgh fell 7-3. The rest of the season was a cakewalk. They beat Notre Dame 14-0 and handed both Duquesne (7-0) and Nebraska (6-0) their only losses of the season.
74. 1982 Penn State
Best Wins: def. Nebraska (12-1) 27-24, def. Georgia (11-1) 27-23
Blemishes: def. by Alabama (8-4) 42-21
Point Differential: +199 (395-196)
After a ridiculous number of near-misses -- they had finished top five in the AP poll six times in Joe Paterno's tenure, three times falling short despite undefeated records -- the Nittany Lions broke through and won a national title in 1982. Todd Blackledge piloted a prolific offense (33 points per game) that overcame occasional defensive breakdowns, and the defense came through when it mattered, holding Georgia's Herschel Walker in check in the national title game.
In the past, pollsters had occasionally been able to ignore Penn State's gaudy records because the squad's strength of schedule did not pass muster. That was not the case in 1982. After outlasting Maryland (39-31) in an early shootout, Penn State hosted No. 2 Nebraska at the end of September. Thanks to a couple of favorable calls on their final drive, the Nittany Lions scored with nine seconds left to take a 28-24 victory. Two weeks later, they were pummeled at the hands of No. 4 Alabama (42-21). Then, the defense finally rounded into shape. They shut out No. 13 West Virginia in Morgantown, held Doug Flutie and Boston College to 17 points in a huge win (52-17), outlasted No. 13 Notre Dame (24-14), and held Dan Marino and No. 5 Pittsburgh without a touchdown pass in a 19-10 win. With other top teams all losing (or, in the case of No. 4 SMU, tying Arkansas), the table was set for a winner-take-all showdown versus No. 1 Georgia. Penn State running back Curt Warner outrushed Herschel Walker in the Sugar Bowl, and Paterno won his first national title.
73. 1973 Ohio State
Conference: Big Ten
Best Wins: def. USC (9-2-1) 42-21, def. Minnesota (7-4) 56-7
Blemishes: tied Michigan (10-0-1) 10-10
Point Differential: +349 (413-64)
In 1973, the Big Ten saw more soap opera storylines than almost any conference in any season in memory. And virtually all of them involved Ohio State and Michigan. At the midpoint of the "Ten-Year War" between Ohio State's Woody Hayes and Michigan's Bo Schembechler, the two teams ran roughshod through the regular season. Michigan, who began the season ranked fifth, outscored opponents by a 320-58 margin in 10 dominant wins (closest game: a 14-0 win over Navy). Ohio State, ranked second, did the same by a 361-33 margin. When the teams took the field in Ann Arbor on Nov. 24, they were ranked first (OSU) and fourth (UM) in the country, and the Ohio State players tried to tear down the M Club Banner through which Michigan always ran before the game. That set the table for the most epic of OSU-UM battles. Ohio State took a 10-0 lead in the first half on the legs of Archie Griffin, but Michigan came back, first kicking a field goal in the third quarter, then scoring on a 10-yard fourth-down run by quarterback Dennis Franklin. Michigan had two separate chances to win, but they missed two field goals in the last minute, first wide left and then wide right. It was one of the more dramatic ties in the sport's history.
With Michigan and Ohio State deadlocked atop the conference, Big Ten athletic directors met via phone to determine who would go to the Rose Bowl. With a solid performance against the higher-ranked Buckeyes, and with Ohio State having attended the year before, Michigan expected to get the nod. They did not. Whether because of Franklin's injury or the "petty jealousies" Schembechler named as the cause, Ohio State would once again attend the Rose Bowl. Meanwhile, Michigan, the No. 114 team on this list, went home, as the Big Ten sent only one team to a bowl in those days. The Buckeyes whipped USC in the Rose Bowl, the Big Ten's first win in Pasadena in five tries, but Notre Dame still took the national title.
All the drama overshadowed the fact that this was likely Hayes' best overall team. Despite Hayes' conservativism, the Buckeyes averaged almost 38 points per game while allowing fewer than six.
72. 1950 Tennessee
Best Wins: def. Kentucky (11-1) 7-0, def. Texas (9-2) 20-14
Blemishes: def. by Mississippi State (4-5) 7-0
Point Differential: +264 (335-71)
General Robert Neyland makes his second appearance on the countdown with a team that finished just fourth in the final AP Poll. The 1950 Volunteers were one of the final teams in what was his third tenure as Tennessee head coach. He served as coach from 1926-34 before serving the military along the Panama Canal for a season. Then, he coached from 1936-40. He was called to military service again during World War II, then went back to the Vols for seven final years, 1946-52. His 1950 team suffered a surprising 7-0 loss to Mississippi State in the second game of the season before pummeling every team remaining in its path.
Mississippi State had gone 0-8-1 in 1949, and the loss dropped the Vols, ranked fourth in the preseason, all the way out of the AP Poll. They would never catch up to undefeated Oklahoma and Army, but their dominance over a rugged schedule got them back up near the top. They responded to the Mississippi State loss by beating No. 14 Duke 28-7, crept by a nine-win Alabama squad (14-9) and an eight-win Washington & Lee team (27-20), and knocked out Bear Bryant's best Kentucky team. The 7-0 win over the No. 4 Wildcats got Tennessee back into the top five, then they knocked off No. 3 Texas, 20-14, in the Longhorns' backyard, the Cotton Bowl. They gave up double-digit points just three times in 12 games and went 6-against teams with winning records. Kentucky defeated No. 1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, meaning if polls were taken after bowls in those days, Tennessee quite possibly would have come away with the crown.
71. 1931 Notre Dame
Best Wins: def. Pittsburgh (8-1) 25-12, def. Penn (6-3) 49-0
Blemishes: tied Northwestern (7-1-1) 0-0, def. by USC (10-1) 16-14, def. by Army (8-2-1) 12-0
Point Differential: +175 (215-40)
One of the stranger teams to show up on this list, Notre Dame gets the No. 71 slot despite two losses and a tie. How is this possible? There are two main reasons: (1) they played a ridiculous schedule; four opponents went a combined 31-4-1 in games not against Notre Dame, and (2) In their six wins, they outscored their opponents 201-12.
The most notable aspect of Notre Dame's 1931 season is that it was played without Knute Rockne, who had died in a plane crash the previous March. He was replaced for three seasons by Hunk Anderson. The emotionally spent Irish held on as long as possible. In their first seven games, only a scoreless tie versus loaded Northwestern marred a perfect start. Despite the tragic offseason, the Irish were cruising as well as ever. However, a 16-14 loss to an outstanding USC team (we will talk about them soon enough) was followed by a limp 12-0 defeat at the hands of Army. It was a sad end to an emotional season, but led by a killer defense, this was still a very good Notre Dame team.
70. 1950 Army
Best Wins: def. Michigan (6-3-1) 27-6, def. Penn State (5-3-1) 41-7
Blemishes: def. by Navy (3-6) 14-2
Point Differential: +227 (267-40)
Our second 1950 team of the day, Army also had to deal with tragedy. The cadets absolutely rolled through the first eight games of their schedule. Red Blaik's squad outscored opponents 265-26 along the way, with help from a young assistant named Vince Lombardi. They played five opponents with winning records (Colgate, Penn State, Michigan, Penn, Stanford) and defeated them by an average score of 26-5.
The final AP Poll of the season was released on November 27, before the annual Army-Navy game. Army had risen to No. 1 in mid-October, but they were passed, first by SMU, then Ohio State, and finally Oklahoma. They finished No. 2. As frustrating as this may have been, their emotions were tried much more heavily by late-November news that 1949 team captain Johnny Trent had been killed in action in Korea. This came after 1944 captain Tom Lombardo had died in action in September. The Cadets, wracked with emotion, understandably laid an egg in the Army-Navy game, losing 14-2, their first loss to the Midshipmen since 1943.
69. 1926 Michigan
Conference: Big Ten
Best Wins: def. Ohio State (7-1) 17-16, def. Illinois (6-2) 13-0
Blemishes: def. by Navy (9-0-1) 10-0
Point Differential: +153 (191-38)
Fielding Yost is another coach who has been somewhat forgotten over time, at least compared to other coaches of the time like Pop Warner and Amos Alonzo Stagg. (Note to self: if you want to be remembered for decades, have either a football league or an award named after you.) In 25 seasons at Michigan, Yost went 165-29-10. He began his stay at Michigan by going 55-1-1 from 1901-05, and he ended it by going 33-3-2 in his final five seasons (1921-23, 25-26). His 1926 club, led by one of college football's most prolific early passing combinations (Bennie Friedman to Bennie Oosterban), wasn't quite as good as his 1925, but they were just as successful in the win column.
Heading into a late-October meeting with Navy in Baltimore, Michigan had one of the more staggering streaks of complete football college football had ever seen. Since a 39-14 loss to Red Grange and Illinois in 1924, Michigan had gone 15-2, with a videogame-esque scoring margin of 436-24. That is an average score of 26-1. (That is also a testament to Grange in 1924 -- he alone scored more points against the Wolverines than their next 17 opponents combined.) When Michigan lost to the Midshipmen, 10-0, it didn't exactly damage those scoring margins much. The careers of Yost, Friedman, and Oosterban all ended with tight, exciting wins over Ohio State (17-16, the Buckeyes' only loss) and Minnesota (7-6).
68. 1973 Oklahoma
Conference: Big 8
Best Wins: def. Nebraska (9-2-1) 27-0, def. Texas (8-3) 52-13
Blemishes: tied USC (9-2-1) 7-7
Point Differential: +267 (400-133)
The best team from a loaded 1973 season not only did not win the national title, but they were ineligible for the postseason thanks to NCAA sanctions. Barry Switzer came to and departed from Norman with Oklahoma on probation, but that didn't stop him from winning ... a lot. And it started immediately. Switzer went 32-1-1 in his first three seasons at the helm, and in 1973, the Sooners took on a tough slate of teams (six of eleven opponents were ranked, which gives them the overall edge among the five 1973 teams finishing in the Top 114 of this list) and wiped the floor with almost all of them.
This team had star power. Switzer's wishbone attack was led by two sophomores -- quarterback Steve Davis and running back Joe Washington -- while the Selmon brothers (Lee Roy, Dewey, and Lucious) of Eufala, Oklahoma, anchored a punishing defense. Despite the tough slate, Oklahoma outscored opponents by an average score of 36-12. They tied No. 1 USC in California early in the season, obliterated No. 13 Texas (52-13) in Dallas, easily handled tests from No. 16 Colorado (34-7), No. 10 Missouri (31-3), No. 18 Kansas (48-20) and No. 10 Nebraska (27-0). Their absence in the postseason allowed No. 3 Notre Dame to jump ahead of them in the final AP Poll, but the Sooners get the nod from Est. S&P+.
67. 1937 Pittsburgh
Best Wins: def. Nebraska (6-1-2) 13-7, def. West Virginia (8-1-1) 20-0
Blemishes: tied Fordham (7-0-1) 0-0
Point Differential: +169 (203-34)
Now for one of Jock Sutherland's title teams. Playing a schedule mixed with regional opponents (Ohio Wesleyan, West Virginia, Duquesne, Fordham, Carnegie Tech, Penn State) and big-time programs (Notre Dame, Nebraska, Duke), Pitt ran roughshod over everyone in their path, with a schedule strength just good enough to get them the nod over 9-0-1 California for the national title (cue the "East coast bias!" chant). The Panthers and their "dream backfield" of Marshall Goldberg (third in the Heisman voting in 1937), John Chickerneo, Dick Cassiano, and Harold Stebbins were rugged on offense and untouchable on defense, and only a scoreless tie with Fordham (who finished third in the final AP vote that season) marred a perfect slate.
Almost as interesting as Pittsburgh's performance was what was happening to the university behind the scenes. Pittsburgh chancellor John Gabbert Bowman was bound and determined to improve academic perceptions of his university at all costs. He initiated the construction of Pitt's famous Cathedral of Learning and worked to deemphasize the role athletics played at the school. He dissolved the school's Alumni Athletic Council and placed the athletic department under faculty control. He instituted the strictest recruiting standards in the country. This had a rather predictable effect -- Sutherland resigned after the 1938 season (he ended up coaching two pro teams, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Steelers), the university's academic reputation grew, and the football program fell apart, winning no more than six games (rarely more than four) from 1940 to 1955.
66. 1955 Georgia Tech
Best Wins: def. Duke (7-2-1) 27-0, def. Pittsburgh (7-4) 7-0
Blemishes: def. by Auburn (8-2-1) 14-12, tied Tennessee (6-3-1) 7-7
Point Differential: +143 (189-46)
Another interesting choice, 1955's Rambling Wreck was by all means a very good football team, but they did not seriously threaten for the national title. They are the first of three Bobby Dodd teams on this list. Beginning in the mid-1950s, the SEC began one of its most impressive stretches of play; an SEC team would finish atop the year's Est. S&P+ rankings every year from 1955 to 1962. Most impressive is the variety. Georgia Tech, Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss, and Alabama all took turns atop the list, with Tennessee coming close.
An odd lack of connectivity isolated the SEC in 1955. Only LSU, Alabama, and Georgia Tech played non-conference teams that finished the season ranked in the AP Poll -- a poor LSU team played No. 3 Maryland (L, 13-0) and No. 17 Texas A&M (L, 28-0), the worst Alabama team of a generation played No. 6 TCU (L, 21-0) and Georgia Tech played No. 11 Pittsburgh in the Sugar Bowl (W, 7-0). What this meant was nobody could get a very good read on the SEC, and despite a solid record with a respectable loss to No. 8 Auburn, Tech ended up ranking just No. 7 in the final AP Poll. But they are 1955's best team according to the Est. S&P+ rankings.
65. 1986 Miami
Best Wins: def. Oklahoma (11-1) 28-16, def. Florida State (7-4-1) 41-23
Blemishes: def. by Penn State (12-0) 14-10
Point Differential: +280 (430-150)
One of the better, "Oh, what could have been" teams on the list, the 1986 Hurricanes, made up primarily of players they signed while riding the 1983 national championship wave (making ESPN's first "What If ..." an interesting one). Still angry from the beatdown they received in the Sugar Bowl the year before (the 35-7 loss to Tennessee prevented them from staking a claim for the national title), Miami dispatched of a tough early schedule. They dispatched of South Carolina and Florida on the road, then swarmed an outstanding Oklahoma team, 28-16, in a late-September "No. 1 versus No. 2" showdown. The rest of the schedule offered few obstacles, and Miami looked destined to take down Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl and win their second national title in four seasons.
Of course, it didn't play out that way. A Shane Conlan interception set up D.J. Dozier's go-ahead touchdown, and the immortal Pete Giftopolous recorded the Nittany Lions' fifth interception of the night to ice the epic 14-10 upset. The best Miami team to date (and one of the cockiest teams in history) had faltered at the worst possible time. But that, of course, does not completely dampen how good this team was the rest of the season.
64. 1921 Chicago
Conference: Big Ten
Best Wins: def. Colorado (4-1-1) 35-0, def. Wisconsin (5-1-1) 3-0
Blemishes: def. by Ohio State (5-2) 7-0
Point Differential: +98 (111-13)
The Chicago Maroons make their first and only appearance on the countdown with this squad, one of Amos Alonzo Stagg's many great teams. While Stagg's best overall decade had to be the 1900s (Chicago went 56-7-5 from 1902-09, though unfortunately for him, this countdown begins in 1910), his career saw a minor resurgence in the early 1920s. His teams lost just four games from 1921-24, but 1921 was by far his best overall team since 1910; the offense finished first in Est. S&P+, the defense second. The Maroons handed Colorado and Wisconsin their only losses of the season, and they took out solid Illinois and Princeton squads. Their only loss was to an Ohio State squad that was quite good themselves.
At this point, Stagg is known as much for his longevity as for his success. He won 224 games at Chicago, winning mythical national titles in 1905 and 1913 and taking home seven titles in the best conference in the country. He was forced to retire from Chicago following the 1932 season (Chicago had only one winning season in his last eight years), but he couldn't stop coaching. He coached at Pacific for another 13 seasons, winning another 60 games and five conference titles. Even then he couldn't stop coaching. He assisted his son at Susquehanna College for another six seasons and continued to volunteer for years after that. He finally passed away in 1965 at the age of 102, and his contributions and innovations are endless.
63. 1975 Alabama
Best Wins: def. Penn State (9-3) 13-6, def. Tennessee (7-5) 30-7
Blemishes: def. by Missouri (6-5) 20-7
Point Differential: +302 (374-72)
Our sixth Alabama team enters the countdown at No. 63. After back-to-back six-win seasons in 1969 and 1970, Bear Bryant's career at Alabama got its second wind in a major way, and it correlated rather directly with two events: (1) the Alabama football team finally breaking the color barrier, and (2) Bryant adopting the Wishbone. The spread of its day, the Wishbone allowed teams to incorporate both speed and deception. The results were devastating. Alabama lost just six games from 1971-75 and, after a "down" season in 1976 (an unacceptable 9-3), lost just two games from 1977-79. They were incredibly dominant.
Unfortunately for the 1975 squad, they could not overcome a shocking loss in the season opener -- the Wishbone could not get going in an upset loss to Missouri in Birmingham. The loss jarred the Tide awake, and they won their next six games by a combined score of 255-20. They slowed up a bit in November, beating Mississippi State and LSU by just 11 and 13, respectively. But they finished strong, shutting out Auburn (28-0) in the Iron Bowl. A series of late-season upsets caused some crazy developments in the AP Poll. No. 1 Oklahoma was shocked by Kansas on Nov. 8 and fell to No. 7, but when they blew out No. 2 Nebraska over Thanksgiving weekend, they leaped Alabama in the polls again. This was huge, as No. 2 Texas A&M was upset by Arkansas, then No. 1 Ohio State was upset by UCLA in the Rose Bowl, giving the Sooners the national title despite a strong Alabama performance in the Sugar Bowl (they beat No. 7 Penn State, 13-6).
62. 1987 Florida State
Best Wins: def. Auburn (9-1-2) 34-6, def. Nebraska (10-2) 31-28
Blemishes: def. by Miami (12-0) 26-25
Point Differential: +318 (481-163)
Just one point separated Bobby Bowden from his first national title in 1987. No. 4 Florida State took a 19-3 second-half lead over No. 3 Miami in early-October (a missed PAT prevented it from being 20-3). Two touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions later, it was improbably tied at 19-19. With just a little more than two minutes remaining, Miami's Michael Irvin scored on a 73-yard bomb to give Miami a 26-19 lead (if the 'Noles hadn't missed the PAT, the score would have likely been 24-20), but Danny McManus found Ronald Lewis for what could have been the tying touchdown. Instead, Florida State went for two and failed, giving Miami a 26-25 lead. The missed extra point eventually doomed the Seminoles, just like missed field goals would in the early 1990s.
Miami coasted to a national title after that, leaving Florida State to play for second place. They did just that, handing Auburn their only loss of the season with a 34-6 blowout, then taking out No. 5 Nebraska by a 31-28 margin in the Fiesta Bowl. The "What If ..." potential of the 26-25 loss overshadowed what the Seminoles accomplished in 1987, but this team was outstanding regardless.
61. 1934 Alabama
Best Wins: def. Tennessee (8-2) 13-6, def. Stanford (9-1-1) 29-13
Point Differential: +271 (316-45)
Now it is time for the seventh Alabama team on the list. In Frank Thomas' fourth team as Tide coach, Alabama barely had to break a sweat in rolling to an undefeated season. The SEC was not yet the SEC at this point, but the Tide still had to take on plenty of salty teams. They knocked off General Neyland's Tennessee Volunteers by a 13-6 margin (as we have learned, scoring double digits on Tennessee was rare), then they easily handled good Georgia and Vanderbilt squads to finish the season undefeated and win a share of the national title with Minnesota. They then proved their worth in an outstanding 29-13 Rose Bowl win over 9-0-1 Stanford.
As with many of Thomas' Alabama teams, the Tide were extraordinarily well-rounded. Their defense was untouchable, giving up double-digit points just twice and allowing just five points per game versus winning teams. Meanwhile, the offense featured a passing combination that was not quite Friedman-to-Oosterban, but it was close. Dixie Howell won All-American honors at quarterback, while Don Hutson, one of the game's first modern route-runners, did the same at end -- needless to say, scoring over 30 points per game in the mid-1930s was not exactly common.