The Top 100 College Football Teams of the Last 100 Years: Part V
by Bill Connelly
How much do you value a single loss? Or, better yet, a single play? Depending on how you answer that question, you will either be intrigued by the team that ranks No. 1 on this list of the Top 100 teams of the last century (according to Estimated S&P+), or you will be outraged. No matter how much weight was attached to individual losses in the formula, the 1959 Ole Miss Rebels continually ranked No. 1. They were as dominant as a team has ever been, but thanks to one incredible punt return by Billy Cannon, they did not go undefeated.
For many, wins and losses are all that matter in the end. If you won, you were great; if you didn't, you were less than great. This is how national titles are usually (justifiably) determined, and this is how we choose what and what not to remember as time progresses. But I love the grey areas. I did not know who the No. 1 team on this list would be when I began this, but I love the grey tint the No. 1 team puts on a countdown that is, for so many, nothing but black and white. What was quite possibly the closest thing to perfection that college football has produced, lost a game. And because of a single play, no less. (Cue 2007 New England Patriots comparisons.)
It is strangely poetic if you think about it. The greatest team ever not only did not win the AP national title, but did not go undefeated? With a playoff structure, the Ole Miss Rebels would have likely shrugged off their heartbreaking loss to LSU on Halloween night and gone on to wreak havoc in a playoff. But that isn't the way it works in college football. It is likely both the greatest and the worst thing about the sport.
I invited a couple of individuals to speak with me for a podcast about this countdown; we will post that later in the week. For now, here are Teams No. 20 through No. 1.
20. 1943 Notre Dame
Best Wins: def. Iowa Pre-Flight (9-1) 14-13, def. Navy (8-1) 33-6, def. Michigan (8-1) 35-12
Blemishes: def. by Great Lakes Navy (10-2) 19-14
Point Differential: +271 (340-69)
Through four parts of this series, we have yet to highlight just how successful Frank Leahy was as a head coach. We will do so right now. Leahy was a head coach at the major college level for just 13 seasons (two at Boston College, 11 at Notre Dame), and his teams lost just 13 games. He coached four Heisman winners (Angelo Bertelli, Johnny Lujack, Leon Hart, and John Lattner) and recruited a fifth (Paul Hornung). His teams went undefeated seven times and only once lost more than two games in a year. He spent 1944-45 in the Navy and retired at the young age of 45. If he had enjoyed the same long career as other great coaches, there is no telling how many wins he could have racked up in South Bend (or elsewhere, for that matter). Leahy was an extreme taskmaster who built teams that were as tough as any. This was a very good thing in 1943, as the Irish took on possibly the toughest schedule in history and came within less than a minute of perfection.
For all intents and purposes, the Irish fielded two separate teams in 1943. The first one, quarterbacked by Bertelli, was incredible. They outscored their opponents by a combined 260-31, these weren't all lightweights. Soon-to-be Sugar Bowl champion Georgia Tech fell by a ridiculous 55-31 margin. Michigan and Navy were handed their only losses of the season by a combined 68-18. Meanwhile, Bertelli was so impressive that, even though he was called into service by the Marines after just six games, he won the Heisman anyway. He completed 69 percent of his passes for ten touchdowns (numbers that were unheard of in 1943), and it seemed impossible that anybody could replace him.
Enter Johnny Lujack. The future Heisman winner (it was hard recruiting to Notre Dame in the 1940s, eh?) took the reins in November, and the Irish did not miss a beat at first. They shut out unbeaten Army, 26-0, at Yankee Stadium; then they mauled 5-1 Northwestern, 25-6, in Evanston. As if this schedule had not been grueling enough, they wrapped up the 1943 campaign by taking on two great military all-star teams, Iowa Pre-Flight and Great Lakes Navy. Iowa's Seahawks led 13-7 late, but Notre Dame halfback Creighton Miller scored to give the Irish a 14-13 lead. He then did the same against Great Lakes, scoring with 1:06 left to give Notre Dame a 14-12 lead, but Great Lakes scored on a desperation heave and won 19-14. The Irish had almost gotten through an amazingly tough slate unscathed, but they fell less than a minute short. Regardless, with strength of schedule playing such a large role in this list, it goes without saying that they make the Top 20 after taking down this schedule by a combined 340-69 margin.
19. 1986 Oklahoma
Conference: Big 8
Best Wins: def. Nebraska (10-2) 20-17, def. Arkansas (9-3) 42-8
Blemishes: def. by Miami (11-1) 28-16
Point Differential: +427 (508-81)
The 1986 Oklahoma Sooners are proof that even when you are better and more experienced, that doesn't mean your results will automatically be better than the year before. Winning a national title requires catching lightning in a bottle, and though these Sooners had the same record as the 1985 national champions, plus a better statistical profile, one slip-up required them to watch as Miami and Penn State fought it out for the national title. Make no mistake: the 1986 Sooners were better than their predecessors. They scored 137 more points and allowed 22 fewer, despite the loss of star defensive tackle Tony Casillas. Casillas aside, seemingly every name-brand Oklahoma star from the 1980s played on this team -- Brian Bosworth, Keith Jackson, Jamelle Holieway, Lydell Carr, and Spencer Tillman, to name a few. They slaughtered bad teams (Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri fell by a combined 197-13) and they slaughtered decent teams (Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Colorado each won at least six games, and they lost to the Sooners by a combined 85-0).
The Sooners' season was structured around three main games: the season opener against preseason No. 4 UCLA, a late-September showdown against preseason No. 3 Miami, and a late-November trip to Lincoln to face No. 8 Nebraska. The first test was not even a slight challenge. Oklahoma rushed for 470 yards against a solid UCLA defense, and the Sooners smoked the Bruins, 38-3. The trip to Miami, however, did in Oklahoma's hopes for a second straight national title. The hometown Hurricanes were too much in the second half. A 7-3 halftime deficit quickly turned to 21-3, and Oklahoma couldn't come back, falling 28-16. The Sooners crawled back to No. 3 in the country when they faced No. 5 Nebraska in one of the greatest games in the storied series. Down 17-7, Oklahoma rallied to tie the game with under two minutes left, then scored on a game-winning field goal with under ten seconds left. The comeback gave Oklahoma the Big 8 crown; their reward was a 42-8 romp over No. 9 Arkansas in the Orange Bowl. The Penn State-Miami game decided the national title, but from start to finish, Oklahoma was quite possibly 1986's best team.
18. 2004 USC
Best Wins: def. Oklahoma (12-1) 55-19, def. California (10-2) 23-17
Point Differential: +327 (496-169)
USC seemed unbelievable, but they are surprisingly only the third-best team of the 2000s by our method. The Trojans were not always as good as they were in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma, but they held off every challenge and won at least a portion of their second straight national title (they split the title with LSU in 2003). This team had stars everywhere you looked: quarterback (and Heisman winner) Matt Leinart and running backs Reggie Bush and LenDale White in the backfield, Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith at receiver, Shaun Cody, Mike Patterson and Matt Groodegoed on the defensive line, Lofa Tatupu at linebacker.
How is this team only third among 2000s teams? Because the Orange Bowl gave us at least a slightly inflated perception. USC was great, but they weren't the greatest of the decade. They began the season in Landover, Maryland, where they knocked off an unranked Virginia Tech squad, 24-13. After destroying Colorado State and BYU by a combined 91-10, they survived a baffling near-upset at Stanford (31-28) and outlasted No. 7 California (23-17) at home. No. 19 Arizona State fell hard (45-7), as did Washington and Washington State, but a near-loss at Oregon State could have knocked them from the No. 1 ranking had No. 2 Oklahoma not struggled with Texas A&M the same week. The Trojans mauled Notre Dame (41-10), then almost lost at UCLA (29-24).
Of course, none of the struggles and almosts mattered when USC met Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. What was an interesting game early (Oklahoma took a 7-0 lead on their opening drive) turned into a laugher when the Trojans scored three touchdowns in six minutes early in the second quarter. Their lead would balloon to a shocking 55-10 in the fourth quarter before OU scored nine late points. Stanford and UCLA were forgotten -- by gaining 525 yards and beating an outstanding Oklahoma team by 36 points, the Trojans' place in this list's Top 20 was solidified.
17. 1962 LSU
Best Wins: def. Texas (9-1-1) 13-0, def. Florida (7-4) 23-0
Blemishes: tied Rice (2-6-2) 6-6, def. by Ole Miss (10-0) 15-7
Point Differential: +141 (175-34)
Those who say the SEC is more powerful now than it has ever been might be mistaken. In 1959, 1961 and 1962, the league managed to do what it was not able to do in this past decade: get multiple teams onto this Top 100 list. Both the 1961 and 1962 seasons saw three SEC teams make the cut, including this squad, a one-loss team from Baton Rouge that actually managed to rank higher than the title team of 1958.
Whereas the 1959 LSU team ranks the highest (No. 28) among all two-loss teams, this team ranks the highest among two-blemish teams. How? Strength of schedule. You can question the methodology that leads us to sticking this team in the Top 20, but this team certainly has a decent case, apart from a rather unforgivable tie to Rice, anyway. Coming off a year in which they finished 10-1 and fourth in the country, the 1962 Tigers started the season ranked fifth despite the introduction of a new coach, Charlie McClendon, into the mix. They obliterated Texas A&M in front of a killer night crowd, but in the second week they just tripped over themselves against Rice. Rice quarterback Walter McReynolds completed a fourth-and-27 desperation heave for a touchdown, but the Owls missed the extra point. When LSU scored the tying touchdown in the third quarter, they too botched the PAT, and as they were driving for the winning score late, they fumbled at the Rice 10-yard line. Statistical domination didn't matter -- sometimes the bounces don't go your way.
After that, though, the Bayou Bengals took on the rest of their brutal slate with aplomb. No. 5 Georgia Tech fell by 10-7 margin, then No. 14 Miami did the same, 17-3. LSU shut out a Florida team that averaged over 20 points per game, and they were ranked fourth when they took on No. 6 Ole Miss over, once again, Halloween weekend. Ole Miss had yet to exact revenge for the 7-3 loss to LSU that wrecked their perfect season in 1959 (they had tied in 1960, and LSU had won in 1961), but the undefeated Rebels finally got the best of the Tigers in Tiger Stadium, 15-7. LSU beat a good TCU team, then wiped the floor with Mississippi State and Tulane and shut out undefeated Texas in the Cotton Bowl, 13-0. For the season, they allowed just 34 points, and while they played it conservatively on offense, leaning on Heisman runner-up Jerry Stovall and playing ball control, this defense was one of the greatest of all-time.
(Pop Quiz: Who actually beat Stovall and won the Heisman that season? Oregon's Mel Renfro? Minnesota's Bobby Bell? Nope. Oregon State quarterback Terry Baker, later to become the worst first overall pick in NFL history.)
16. 1952 Georgia Tech
Best Wins: def. Ole Miss (8-1-2) 24-7, def. Alabama (10-2) 7-3
Point Differential: +266 (325-59)
Easily the greatest team of Bobby Dodd's storied career, 1952's Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech dominated an SEC that was beginning to get its footing, struggling only twice. Dodd proved that there are countless successful coaching styles. Frank Leahy ran brutal, physical practices, whereas Dodd's method focused more on efficiency of effort, character development and technical perfection. It is hard to argue with Leahy's record, but Dodd was not exactly chopped liver. In 23 seasons in Atlanta, Dodd went 165-64-8, and his coaching tree included the likes of Frank Broyles, a future national champion coach (and meddlesome athletic director) at Arkansas.
The 1952 Engineers were extremely well-rounded, with a punishing line that included tackle Hal Miller and center Pete Brown, and a backfield that featured All-Americans Leon Hardeman and Bobby Morehead. Coming off of a fantastic 11-0-1 season, they began the season ranked third in the country and rarely gave opponents even the slightest glimmer of hope. In the second game of the season, however, the upstart Florida Gators nearly bit them; Tech won, 17-14, but they fell to sixth in the polls. Florida would end up making a surprise trip to the Gator Bowl. After easily dispatching of SMU, Tulane, Auburn, and Vanderbilt by a combined 97-7, they took on undefeated, sixth-ranked Duke in Durham. Here, they made a grand statement, stomping on the Blue Devils by a 28-7 margin. Now ranked second, they took out No. 12 Alabama, 7-3, in Atlanta. With the season-ending bowls coming before the polls, Tech finished second behind Michigan State (they were named the national champion by other sources); they made a statement by rocking 8-0-2 Ole Miss, 24-7, in the Sugar Bowl. As well-balanced as you can get, Georgia Tech scored at least 17 points in 10 of 12 games (easier said than done those days) and only allowed double-digit points once.
15. 1979 Alabama
Best Wins: def. Arkansas (10-2) 24-9, def. Auburn (8-3) 25-18
Point Differential: +316 (383-67)
At the end of the 1960s, Bear Bryant's luster had worn off a bit. He hadn't really accomplished that much more than Ole Miss's Johnny Vaught to that point, and Alabama failed to win more than eight games in any of four seasons from 1967-70. In 1971, however, Bryant got his second wind in Tuscaloosa. Adopting the Wishbone and integrated recruiting, the Crimson Tide won double-digit games in all but one season from 1971-80 (in 1976, they only won nine). His second surge at Alabama peaked in 1979 with this team, one that could easily have found its way into the top 10 of this list had the schedule strength been a little better. Anchored by a line that featured both Dwight Stevenson (regarded by some as the greatest center in the history of football, college or pro) and All-American tackle Jim Bunch, this was a mean, fast, and young team. Underclassmen like running back Major Ogilvie and future top five draft pick E.J. Junior (a linebacker) also played major roles.
Following their dominant national title season of 1978, the Tide picked up right where they had left off. They began 1979 having won 24 of their last 26 games, and they won all 12 this time around. Thanks to USC's dominance, however, they had to wait until mid-October to get the No. 1 ranking. They began the season feasting on a series of cupcakes. Vanderbilt, Wichita State and Florida combined to go just 2-30-1 that season, and they predictably fell hard to the Tide (they lost by a combined 144-3). The Tide faced their first true test of the season on the third Saturday in October when they knocked off No. 18 Tennessee, 27-17. After cleaning up against Virginia Tech, Mississippi State, LSU (a tough 3-0 win over the future Tangerine Bowl champions), and Miami, it was finally time for the true meat of the schedule. They fumbled four times and allowed No. 14 Auburn to hang around in the Iron Bowl, actually trailing in the fourth quarter for the first time all season. However, they won 25-18, then took out No. 6 Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl to win the national title. They had now won 36 of their last 38 games, and they would win their first seven of 1980 before an upset loss at Mississippi State.
14. 1987 Miami
Best Wins: def. Oklahoma (11-1) 20-14, def. Florida State (11-1) 26-25
Point Differential: +287 (412-125)
The best team of Jimmy Johnson's tenure in Miami, these Hurricanes finally closed the deal after losing three straight bowl games. They had to replace a boatload of players from the great 1986 squad -- eight were selected in the 1987 NFL Draft, including three of the top nine picks (quarterback Vinny Testaverde, running back Alonzo Highsmith, and defensive tackle Jerome Brown). With all the losses, they began the season ranked just 10th in the AP poll. It would not take them long to show the country that they had lost neither their talent nor their swagger with the outgoing class. They killed No. 20 Florida, 31-4, to start the season, then they handed No. 10 Arkansas their worst loss since before World War II, 51-7, in Little Rock. New quarterback Steve Walsh provided no drop-off from Testaverde's departure, and receivers Brian Blades and Michael Irvin were dominant. In just two games, the Hurricanes were already back to third in the country, and they would hold onto the ranking when they defeated No. 4 Florida State 26-25 in Tallahassee. They came back from a 19-3 deficit to take a 26-19 lead, and they stopped Florida State's two-point conversion attempt with 42 seconds left to win.
After a series of massacres (they faced six consecutive teams that finished with losing records and were, predictably, never seriously challenged), they took on a resurgent No. 10 Notre Dame team. No contest. Miami won 24-0 and, with No. 2 Oklahoma defeating No. 1 Nebraska in Lincoln, the stage was set for an Orange Bowl showdown between the new No. 1 Sooners and No. 2 Hurricanes. Homefield advantage gave the Hurricanes the nod. Oklahoma put up a better fight than it had the previous two seasons, but their Wishbone still could not get going -- many credit Miami's team speed for creating the blueprint for how to stop the 'Bone -- and despite a late Oklahoma touchdown, Miami won, 20-14. They were the only team to score 20 points on the Sooners all year, and the game was a microcosm for the entire season. In the final AP Poll, Miami was an easy No. 1, having defeated both No. 2 Florida State and No. 3 Oklahoma. They averaged 34 points a game and allowed just 10. Most frightening of all, a good portion of the team returned for 1988, when the Hurricanes came within a single points (a 31-30 loss to Notre Dame) of winning it all again.
13. 2000 Oklahoma
Conference: Big 12
Best Wins: def. Florida State (11-2) 13-2, def. Kansas State (11-3) 41-31 & 27-24
Point Differential: +287 (481-194)
This one is a bit of a surprise. Despite not having the reputation of 2004 USC, 2005 Texas, or 2009 Alabama, Bob Stoops' 2000 Sooners rank second among all teams from the previous decade. And when you look into the numbers, it isn't hard to see why. While most remember the team for sneaking by Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship and winning a less-than-entertaining Orange Bowl (13-2 over Florida State, a team many claim shouldn't have been selected over Miami), this was an unbelievable team -- especially before Josh Heupel developed arm trouble. In just two seasons, Stoops managed to finish a complete rebuild of the Oklahoma program following a lost decade in the 1990s. This lightning-in-a-bottle squad mostly avoided the injury bug and knocked off five teams that won at least nine games.
The Sooners started the season at No. 20 and cleaned house against inferior competition to start the season. After disposing of Kansas in their Big 12 conference opener, the Sooners made a jarring, unequivocal statement in Dallas against No. 10 Texas. They scored on the first five drives, built a 42-0 lead before Texas could get on the board, and despite taking their foot off the gas, they still won a shocking 63-14 contest over the Longhorns. Now eighth in the polls, they won at No. 3 Kansas State, 41-31, then easily dispatched of No. 1 Nebraska, 31-14, in Norman. In a three-game span, they had beaten three top ten teams by a combined 138-59. They were coasting to a national title game appearance before some chinks in the armor began to appear late in the season. Following an elbow injury in practice, Heupel's production began to suffer. The Sooners scored 56 against Baylor, then 35 against Texas A&M, 27 against Texas Tech and just 12 against Oklahoma State. They needed a late defensive stand to beat the Cowboys, 12-7. A rematch against No. 7 Kansas State in the Big 12 title game also went down to the wire; the game was tied at 17-17 after three quarters before Heupel found Andre Woolfolk for the go-ahead touchdown, and Oklahoma kicker Tim Duncan salted the game away with a 46-yarder. Oklahoma advanced to the national title game with a 27-24 win.
With all the talk of Florida State being selected over Miami for the national title game, Oklahoma was almost forgotten in the run-up to the game. They quickly asserted themselves, however, particularly on defense. The Seminoles had averaged 46 points per game since their loss to Miami, and the Sooners shut them out until an intentional safety late in the contest. The 13-2 win was not glamorous, but it was devastatingly effective. The Sooners had vanished off the national radar in the 1990s, but as soon as the 2000s started, they were back.
12. 1971 Nebraska
Conference: Big 8
Best Wins: def. Oklahoma (11-1) 35-31, def. Alabama (11-1) 38-6, def. Colorado (10-2) 31-7
Point Differential: +403 (507-104)
Most experts would put this team in the top five, and with a small tweak in the formula, they could have made the top 10 here. Regardless of where they rank, this team was just tremendous. They took on the teams that finished second (Oklahoma), third (Colorado) and fourth (Alabama) in the final AP Poll and beat them by a combined 104-44; those three teams would go a combined 32-1 against the rest of the country.
Really, Nebraska's season came down to those three games. After receiving a No. 2 ranking to start the season (Notre Dame was No. 1), the Huskers moved to the top spot after a Week 1 annihilation of Dan Fouts and Oregon. They coasted through a series of weaklings before facing No. 9 Colorado, an out-of-nowhere surprise, in Lincoln. The Buffaloes had gone just 6-5 in 1970, but with an explosive offense that included quarterback Ken Johnson and receiver Cliff Branch, they won ten games for the first time in their history that season. They didn't beat Nebraska, however. The Huskers dominated from start to finish, holding Colorado to 135 total yards and winning 31-7. After dominating Iowa State and Kansas State, it was time to head to Norman. Billed as the Game of the Century, the game between No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Oklahoma lived up to all hype. Johnny Rogers returned an early punt return for one of the greatest touchdowns in college football history ("Holy moly! Man, woman and child ... that put 'em in the aisles!"). Nebraska held leads of 14-3 and 28-17, but they couldn't shake quarterback Jack Mildren and the Sooners. Mildren ran and threw for touchdowns, and the Sooners took the lead, 31-28, before Nebraska I-Back Jeff Kinnie scored the game-winner in a classic 35-31 contest.
(Fun fact: Rogers didn't actually win the Heisman until 1972, not 1971. I must admit, I didn't realize this until the writing of this piece.)
What was supposed to be an epic battle between the No. 1 Huskers and resurgent No. 2 Alabama in the Orange Bowl quickly became a laugher. Nebraska locked up their second straight AP national title by sprinting out to a 28-0 halftime lead against a team good enough to rank 40th on this list. They coasted to a 38-6 win. They were as dominant as dominant can be.
11. 1946 Notre Dame
Best Wins: def. Illinois (8-2) 26-6, def. USC (6-4) 26-6
Blemishes: tied Army (9-0-1) 0-0
Point Differential: +247 (271-24)
10. 1946 Army
Best Wins: def. Michigan (6-2-1) 20-13, def. Oklahoma (8-3) 21-7
Blemishes: tied Notre Dame (9-0-1) 0-0
Point Differential: +183 (263-80)
For these two near-flawless teams, the 1946 season came down to but a single game: No. 1 Army vs. No. 2 Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium on November 9. This game, a slugfest between two of the top 11 teams of all-time (according to this list), might be the greatest ever played. The previous two seasons, Army had handed Notre Dame defeats by a combined score of 107-0. But in 1946, the Irish were getting some of their stars back from military service. Johnny Lujack, the savior of the 1943 squad, would not only return in 1946, but he would play All-American caliber football in advance of his 1947 Heisman run. With Lujack back on the field and Frank Leahy back on the sideline, the 1946 squad would be ready for the Black Knights. Of course, Army was not exactly going to back down, not with halfback Glenn Davis (Mr. Outside) and fullback Doc Blanchard (Mr. Inside) in the backfield. Quite likely the most talented backfield combination of all-time, they split both carries and the Heisman Trophy -- Blanchard won in 1945, Davis in 1946. In fact, this was the only time in college football history when three former or future Heisman winners would grace the field at the same time.
Heading into the battle in the Bronx, which was likely the first of approximately 74 games deemed the "Game of the Century," both teams had been untouchable. Notre Dame had rocked a very good Illinois team (26-6) in Champaign to start the season, then mopped the floor with Pittsburgh, Purdue, Iowa and Navy by a combined 151-12. Army, meanwhile, had knocked out two excellent teams, Oklahoma and Michigan, by a combined 41-20, and mopped the floor with five lesser teams. Since the moment the 1945 season had ended, the entire college football world had been waiting for this most epic of rematches. This physical, intense game lived up to all the hype, especially if you are a fan of defense. Both teams' explosive offenses were completely shut down. Notre Dame threatened and failed to score twice in the first half, first turning the ball over on downs at the Army 1-yard line (Leahy did not believe in kicking field goals), then throwing an interception. In the third quarter, Blanchard broke free into the Notre Dame secondary, but Lujack narrowly brought him down by the ankles, saving the game; Army would throw an interception on this drive and their final serious drive of the day. The game ended in a scoreless tie, commemorated here on Youtube.
(Here's a tidbit that should give even the harshest of BCS critics a second's pause: this matchup was the last "No. 1 vs. No. 2" matchup for over 16 years, until No. 1 USC faced No. 2 Wisconsin in the 1963 Rose Bowl. Though not a playoff, the BCS does guarantee us one such matchup each season. It could be much, much worse.)
The rest of the season was just about as easy for both teams as it was before the trip to Yankee Stadium. Both finished undefeated, with the tie as the only blemish (the first blemish of any type for Army since 1943). Notre Dame finished with the better scoring margin, but Army's tougher schedule gives them the slimmest of edges here.
9. 1972 Oklahoma
Conference: Big 8
Best Wins: def. Texas (10-1) 27-0, def. Penn State (10-2) 14-0, def. Nebraska (9-2-1) 17-14
Blemishes: def. by Colorado (8-4) 20-14
Point Differential: +325 (399-74)
Fun with statistical oddities: The team that won the Big 8 the year after one of the conference's most celebrated teams (1971 Nebraska) actually managed to rank a hair higher on this list. There is no justification for why this team may have warranted a higher rank than the previous year's Cornhuskers, so let's just use this space to say that the 1972 Sooners really were pretty damn good. With the Selmon brothers wrecking shop on defense and Heisman runner-up Greg Pruitt toasting defenses, they were great on both sides of the ball (as were all teams on this portion of the list). They started out ranked fifth (third in the Big 8 behind preseason No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Colorado) but quickly moved up with strong non-conference performances. They beat Utah State, Oregon and Clemson by a combined 169-6, then pummeled No. 10 Texas, 27-0 (with help from two defensive touchdowns). It was the Longhorns' only loss of the season. However, as they did in 2007, Oklahoma hit a bump when they headed to Boulder for an early-conference showdown. No. 9 Colorado had been mauled by Oklahoma State a couple of weeks earlier (their starting quarterback was out, and they fumbled 10 times in his absence), but their wishbone was effective against the Sooners, and they forced four Oklahoma turnovers. (Later this week, you will hear a fun tidbit about this game from Beano Cook in a special Varsity Numbers podcast. Let's just say that Colorado's mascot, Ralphie, may have played a role in Oklahoma's defeat.)
With the national title still very much in play, the Sooners regained their composure and dodged a series of landmines. They beat No. 14 Iowa State in Ames (20-6), then took out No. 14 Missouri in Norman (17-6). They handled Kansas with ease, then went searching for redemption in Lincoln. Nebraska had fallen from their No. 1 perch after a season-opening loss to UCLA, but the Cornhuskers had risen back to No. 5 in the polls. They took a 14-0 lead on the Sooners, who were without an injured Pruitt. But Oklahoma forced six turnovers and scored the last 17 points of the game to lock away the Big 8 title. They met Penn State in the Sugar Bowl, and Paterno's Nittany Lions were no contest. Freshman receiver Tinker Owens scored both of Oklahoma's touchdowns in a 14-0 win, and the Sooners were in position for a national title if No. 3 Ohio State could upset No. 1 USC in the Rose Bowl. Alas, the Trojans won big and took the crown. The second-ranked Sooners did have the distinction of beating the No. 3 (Texas) and No. 4 (Nebraska) teams, both away from home, by a combined 41-14.
8. 1962 Alabama
Best Wins: def. Oklahoma (8-3) 17-0, def. Auburn (6-3-1) 38-0
Blemishes: def. by Georgia Tech (7-3-1) 7-6
Point Differential: +250 (289-39)
Bear Bryant's 1962 Tide are the second 1962 SEC team to make the Top 20. As the South fell under upheaval and the balance of power began to slowly shift north and west, the 1962 was the last of the SEC's first great era. Alabama, Ole Miss, and LSU were all fantastic, and the great Tide lost a bitter game to another great rival.
Despite the loss of great quarterback Pat Trammell, Alabama was still expected to make plenty of noise in 1962, following their historic title run in 1961. They ranked third in the AP's preseason poll, and it took them just one week to reassume the top ranking. Cocky sophomore Joe Namath took the reins at quarterback, and he torched Georgia for three touchdowns in a 35-0 win. Just like that, the Tide (which hadn't lost since mid-October 1960) were off and running. They took out Tulane, Vanderbilt, and Houston by a combined 75-16, and they mauled a slumping Tennessee squad, 27-7. Tulsa, Mississippi State and Miami fell by the wayside, and Alabama was just two tests away from another national title.
Now, a quick word about a forgotten rivalry: Bobby Dodd and Bear Bryant did not like each other. Read this for background on why. When Dodd withdrew Georgia Tech from the SEC later in the 1960s, the dirty play supposedly encouraged by Alabama was a primary reason why. There is still bitterness lingering in this series, even among fans who were not alive when Tech belonged in the SEC. In 1962, the rivalry was at potentially its most explosive point. The unranked Engineers took a 7-0 lead after a long interception return by Mike McNames. Late in the fourth quarter, Alabama scored what could have been the equalizer, only Bryant elected to go for two and the win. Backup quarterback Jack Hurlbut was stopped short of the goal line, and after another late goal-line stand, Tech had pulled the 7-6 upset. From there, Alabama coasted. They shut out Auburn and easily coasted by No. 8 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. But their perfect season had been broken up by what may have been Alabama's most bitter early-1960s rival.
7. 1957 Auburn
Best Wins: def. Tennessee (8-3) 7-0, def. Florida (6-2-1) 13-0
Point Differential: +179 (207-28)
The 1957 season was one of transition, similar to 2007 and 1998, a season where the national powers took a step backwards but other emerging powers were not quite ready. In 1957, Oklahoma's 47-game winning streak ended, Notre Dame was slipping, Alabama had already slipped, and the SEC's mid-decade powers, Georgia Tech and Tennessee, both took steps backwards. Into the void stepped Auburn and Texas A&M, ready to make a run at greatness. In Auburn's case, they were banned from bowl participation, but that would not stop them.
While their run was not sustained (they went 19-0-1 in 1957-58, then fell back into the 6-8 win swamp from which they had emerged), the Tigers were no fluke in '57. They scored points when they needed to, but few teams have been more merciless on defense than this crew. Ranked 15th in the preseason, they got a chance to make an immediate statement when they traveled to Knoxville and shut out No. 8 Tennessee, 7-0, in a driving rainstorm. Auburn held the Vols to just 84 yards of offense and threw back three Tennessee advances inside their 30-yard line. After disposing of Chattanooga, Kentucky, Georgia Tech and Houston by a combined 97-14, Auburn headed into November ranked fourth in the country. They disposed of an upstart No. 19 Florida squad (13-0), then took out No. 17 Mississippi State (15-7) in Birmingham. Still, they ranked just third behind Bear Bryant's Texas A&M Aggies and Bud Wilkinson's still-undefeated Sooners. The next week, however, that changed. While Auburn was shutting out Georgia, a tiring Oklahoma squad lost to unranked Notre Dame at home, while Texas A&M, possibly distracted by talks of Bear Bryant heading to Alabama, got upset by Rice. Suddenly Auburn had a legitimate chance at the national title … but after a dominant performance over Minnesota, one-loss Michigan State jumped them for the No. 1 ranking. No matter. Pollsters were fickle in those days. Perhaps realizing the error of their ways, they dropped the Spartans to third despite an easy win over Kansas State, and Auburn's similarly easy win over Florida State bumped them to No. 1. When they destroyed Alabama 40-0, they won not only their first SEC title, but their first national crown as well. (The margin of victory led to Alabama hiring a new coach -- Bear Bryant.)
6. 2001 Miami
Conference: Big East
Best Wins: def. Nebraska (11-2) 37-14, def. Syracuse (10-3) 59-0
Point Differential: +395 (512-117)
The only post-1972 team to make the Top 10, this team was simply incredible. Butch Davis had rebuilt this program in the shadow of probation. He had handed the clipboard to Larry Coker before the 2001 season, departing for the Cleveland Browns in the offseason, but his handiwork was all over this team's footprint. Their depth was like an old 125-scholarship teams of yore. You want running backs? How about Clinton Portis, Frank Gore, Willis McGahee, and Najeh Davenport? Receivers? Do Andre Johnson and Jeremy Shockey fit the bill? Bryant McKinnie at left tackle? Lienbackers Jonathan Vilma, D.J. Williams, and Chris Campbell were the best in college football. Defensive tackle William Joseph racked up 22 tackles for loss, end Jerome McDougle had 16. Oh yeah, and they had Mike Rumph and Phillip Buchanon (a devastating punt returner) at corner and somebody named Ed Reed at strong safety. Almost as impressive as their main contributors is who barely saw the field. Players like Sean Taylor, Antrel Rolle, Kellen Winslow, McGahee and Jason Geathers had to patiently wait for their moment low on the depth chart.
Already ridiculously talented, the Hurricanes had motivation on their side as well. They had been denied a shot at the national title the season before, losing out to a Florida State team they had beaten in the regular season; plus, they actually began the season ranked behind another in-state team, the Florida Gators. They took out their frustrations on everybody who tried to get in the way, getting tested only once and winning all but two games by more than 22 points. Penn State was the first to fall -- Miami moved to No. 1 by demolishing the Nittany Lions, 33-7, in State College. Rutgers, Pittsburgh and Troy fell by a combined 142-28, then the Hurricanes traveled to Doak Campbell Stadium and knocked out No. 14 Florida State, 49-27. After two more cakewalks, Miami survived a bit of a scare at Boston College. Hurricanes quarterback Ken Dorsey threw four interceptions in a swirling wind; they led only 12-7 in the final minute, with the Eagles driving for the winning score. But defensive end Matt Walters intercepted a deflected pass; Ed Reed, being Ed Reed, ripped the ball from his teammate's hands and returned it for the game-clinching touchdown.
The scare reinvigorated the Hurricanes -- in back-to-back home games, they absolutely crushed No. 14 Syracuse (59-0) and No. 12 Washington (65-7, revenge for handing Miami their only loss in 2000) and headed to Blacksburg to face No. 14 Virginia Tech. They built a 26-10 lead before the Hokies came back, scoring once to make it 26-18, then scoring again. Miami stopped the two-point conversion, however, and won 26-24. The scares against the Eagles and Hokies probably did just enough to knock Miami down from a top five slot, but that's just nit-picking. The Hurricanes destroyed Nebraska in the national title game, cementing their slot as the greatest team of my own lifetime, and many others'.
5. 1945 Army
Best Wins: def. Notre Dame (7-2-1) 48-0, def. Navy (7-1-1) 32-13, def. Michigan (7-3) 28-7
Point Differential: +366 (412-46)
4. 1944 Army
Best Wins: def. Notre Dame (8-2) 59-0, def. Navy (6-3) 23-7
Point Differential: +469 (504-35)
We won't spend a lot of time on these two teams, as we covered their greatness above. But we should probably spend another few moments explaining just how great these wartime teams were. The aforementioned "Mr. Inside" Doc Blanchard led the country in touchdowns in 1945, winning the Heisman and Maxwell Awards. "Mr. Outside" Glenn Davis won the Maxwell in 1944 and had to wait until 1946 to get his Heisman. The two would combine for 97 career touchdowns. With great depth (aided in part by high enlistment numbers, obviously) and the two best players in the country, the Cadets were unstoppable. They astoundingly won seven of their nine games in 1944 by at least 46 points; only good Duke (27-7) and Navy (23-7) teams were able to keep it even reasonably close. That season, they also beat 8-2 Notre Dame by 59, 5-3 Penn by 55 and 6-3 Coast Guard by 76. Unreal.
In 1945, their schedule was even tougher, at least in theory. A seven-win Michigan team gave it the old college try but fell 28-7 at Yankee Stadium. Duke went down by a 48-13 score, and Notre Dame improved to just a 48-0 defeat. The 1945 Army-Navy game was one of the most anticipated of all-time -- Army was an easy No. 1, while the 7-0-1 Midshipmen of Navy were No. 2. In front of over 100,000 fans in Philadelphia, Blanchard scored three times, twice on offense and once on a pick-six. The effort gave him a narrow win over Davis for the Heisman (Davis had also finished second in 1944).
It is almost boring to have three teams from the same school in the same three-year span in the top 10. But this series of Army teams -- even with a bit of an unfair recruiting advantage at the time -- was simply amazing. Their only blemish in the three-year span was the 1946 tie with Notre Dame.
3. 1966 Notre Dame
Best Wins: def. Purdue (9-2) 26-14, def. Army (8-2) 35-0, def. USC (7-4) 51-0
Blemishes: tied Michigan State (9-0-1) 10-10
Point Differential: +324 (362-38)
Some years, no team truly deserves the national title. In others, more than one does. In 1966, a great Alabama team was denied another title while a Notre Dame squad that had weathered a controversial tie received the No. 1 ranking. It was very much unfair to Alabama, and it is easy to see why 'Bama fans are still annoyed by the snub, but make no mistake, Notre Dame was absolutely phenomenal that season. Easily Ara Parseghian's best squad, the Irish shut out six of 10 opponents, allowed double-digit points only twice (to the No. 2 and No. 8 teams in the country), and won eight of 10 games by at least 24 points. They outscored four Top 10 opponents by a combined 125-24. But oh, that tie.
Ranked eighth when they played their first game, Notre Dame got an early opportunity to make an impact by taking on Bob Greise and No. 7 Purdue. Quarterback Terry Hanratty and end Jim Seymour connected 13 times for 276 yards, and the Irish overshadowed the explosive Purdue offense, locking away a 26-14 win. Against Northwestern, Army and North Carolina, the Irish didn't break a sweat. Now ranked No. 1 after some odd goings-on in the polls (Alabama was now fourth despite remaining undefeated and untied), the Irish gave voters no reason to change their minds in late-October. Against No. 10 Oklahoma in Norman, they were absolutely dominant. They handed the Sooners a 38-0 defeat, their worst loss since 1945. Seymour injured his ankle, but the Notre Dame offense actually seemed to pick up speed. They beat Navy, Pittsburgh and Duke by a combined 135-7 and headed to East Lansing for a famous battle with No. 2 Michigan State.
Now, when it comes how the 10-10 tie unfolded, I do think Notre Dame gets a bit of an unfair rap. Hanratty separated his shoulder early in the game, leaving Parseghian to try and win with his backup quarterback, Coley O'Brien. When Irish kicker Joe Azzaro missed the potential go-ahead field goal with 4:39 remaining, Michigan State let the air out of the ball, attempting nothing fancy before punting the ball back to Notre Dame with 1:24 left. O'Brien had missed his previous six passes (there were concerns that his diabetic condition was impacting him), and Parseghian quite justifiably feared that throwing the ball would lead to a turnover and a Michigan State win. So the Irish sat on the ball and took the tie. From a coaching perspective, it was the smart play. From the "You're No. 1, and you're playing not to lose" perspective, it caught Parseghian a lot of ridicule. Regardless, the Irish remained No. 1 in the AP Poll, further outraging both Michigan State and Alabama fans in the process. They took out their frustrations on USC, 51-0, in the finale, and won one of the most controversial national titles of all-time. It's a shame, as this really was one of the greatest teams ever. But it is a self-inflicted, and somewhat justifiable, burden.
(Due to the wonders of YouTube, you can watch much of this game with this playlist.)
2. 1961 Alabama
Best Wins: def. Arkansas (8-3) 10-3, def. Georgia Tech (7-4) 10-0
Point Differential: +272 (297-25)
These Est. S&P+ rankings are gluttons for punishment. First, they rank 2009 Alabama rather low, then they rank 1966 Alabama below 1966 Notre Dame. And now the 1961 Alabama team is only second on the list? Needless to say, the next time I order some Dreamland barbecue sauce online (it's incredible, by the way), I will do so under a pseudonym ... just in case.
While many will vehemently disagree with the top team in these rankings, there was only one team anywhere close to knocking them out of the top spot: the 1961 Tide. While Alabama had already enjoyed a storied history, this team was a first in a lot of ways. They earned their first national title of the AP Polling era, Bear Bryant's own first title, and their first Sugar Bowl victory. Quarterback Pat Trammell finished fifth in the Heisman voting, and the offensive line was the best in college football, led by Billy Neighbors and Lee Roy Jordan. Great as the offense was, this team made its bones on the defensive side of the football. They allowed five teams to score all season: North Carolina State scored seven in a 19-point loss, Georgia and Vanderbilt each scored six points in blowouts, and Tennessee and Arkansas each scored just three. In a rugged SEC still enjoying tremendous success and dept, the Tide were barely challenged. Ranked third to begin the season, they plowed through the early portion of their schedule before taking on what should have been a challenging Tennessee team on the third Saturday in October. But the Vols were no match for Alabama in Birmingham; the Tide won, 34-3. After easily dispatching of Houston (17-0), Mississippi State (24-0), and Richmond (66-0), they went back to Birmingham to face Georgia Tech. In the game referenced above in the 1962 Alabama section, Tech coach Bobby Dodd was outraged by what he felt was rough play and cheap shots. Still, Alabama left with an easy 10-0 win. They destroyed a good Auburn team, 34-0, then won a 10-3 battle with No. 9 Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl to ice an undefeated season.
If this was not the best defensive team of all-time, they were second behind the one team above them on this list.
1. 1959 Ole Miss
Best Wins: def. LSU (9-2) 21-0, def. Arkansas (9-2) 28-0
Blemishes: def. by LSU (9-2) 7-3
Point Differential: +329 (350-21)
Yeah, but they lost. It's OK to go ahead and say it. And it's OK if you believe that a team with a loss, even one as excusable as the one that this team suffered, cannot be the greatest team of all-time. There is nothing I can say that will change minds, but allow me to make a case regardless:
While most say that 1961 Alabama had the greatest defense of all-time, giving up just 25 points in a more offensively proficient era, the 1959 Ole Miss Rebels gave up just 21. Seven came in a blowout win over Tulane, seven came in a blowout win over Tennessee, and seven came via the legs of Billy Cannon in one of the greatest punt returns of all-time. It took either a blowout or a superhuman effort for teams to score on 1959 Ole Miss.
Of the teams that make the Top 20 of this list, only two others played another team from the Top 30: 1946 Army and Notre Dame played each other and tied. None had to go on the road to face an all-time great, and needless to say, none lost because of an amazing punt return and a last-second goal-line stand. If any team in the Top 20 had played at LSU that Halloween night, they most likely would have lost too. (Ole Miss got a rematch against the Bayou Bengals in the 1960 Sugar Bowl and won, 21-0.)
Of the teams in the Top 20, only three others managed to finish first in both Offensive and Defensive S&P+: 1944 Army, 1966 Notre Dame and 2001 Miami. None of them had to face even another Top 100 team.
Playing in an SEC that was possibly at its most competitive point (Tennessee and Georgia Tech were still very good, Auburn and LSU were both coming off of national titles, and Alabama was getting its footing again under Bear Bryant), the Rebels dominated. LSU game aside, no team came within 15 points of them. They even slaughtered a nine-win Arkansas team, 28-0, in Memphis in non-conference play.
There's the case. If your response is, "Yeah, but they lost," that's fine. There is no right answer here anyway. But as I said at the top, there is something poetic to the thought that the best team of all-time might not have even won the national title, especially when most of us spend our waking hours yearning for a playoff that would right such wrongs.
We will discuss this team further in a podcast later in the week... and then it's time to dive into the 2010 season.