by Bill Connelly
Click here for the first two parts of our list:
One of the most interesting parts of this list, as least from my own perspective, is how pockets of great teams have emerged. Whether you believe this Top 100 list is the end-all-be-all of Top 100 lists, or (more likely) whether you are following along and rolling your eyes, what this has pointed out is that it is a lot harder to be truly great in some decades or eras than in others. When the NCAA went to an 85-scholarship limit in 1994 (after cutting to 95 in 1991), the pool of truly great teams dried up a bit. From 1994-99, a six year span from which we would expect to see approximately six teams on this list, only three teams made it. And as we will see today, none fared better than No. 47.
Easily the most surprising team featured in today's portion of the countdown is 1995 Nebraska, featured at the aforementioned No. 47 slot. For many younger football fans (a group in which I still like to include myself, even if you have to stretch the definition of "younger" a bit), the 1995 Huskers were the gold standard. They were completely and utterly destructive in every way. They had a young Grant Wistrom rushing the quarterback, the Peter brothers at tackle, Mike Minter, Tony Veland and Eric Warfield in the secondary, and Jared Tomich, et al, at linebacker. The Blackshirts were as good as they have ever been, and of course they had Tommie Frazier and pre-felony Lawrence Phillips (following blocks from Joel Mackovicka) in the backfield. They were the perfect football team in the mid-1990s.
What this list is suggesting is that what constituted near-perfection in the 1990s would have just been really good in other decades. You are a product of your era, and while the 1995 Huskers did all they could to dominate the schedule they faced, the numbers as presented say that a number of teams from different eras would have done as well or better against Nebraska's schedule. You can choose to believe this analysis or not, but it's been interesting to watch the list unfold. The numbers suggest that it was much harder to stand out in the 1930s and 1980s than it was in the 1990s, and it was damn near impossible to stand out in the 1910s and 1920s.
We are living in an era where parity is much stronger than it used to be (a shocking thing to say considering the oligarchy in which we continue to live), but we might be seeing greatness as near-godliness, when most of the truly greatest teams have already come and gone.
Or not. Your call.
60. 1997 Michigan
Conference: Big Ten
Best Wins: def. Ohio State (10-3) 20-14, def. Washington State (10-2) 21-16
Point Differential: +208 (322-114)
Only Alabama and Notre Dame produce more teams on this list than Michigan ... and yet, only one Michigan team from after 1950 makes an appearance. (The conservative offensive approaches of both Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes clearly did not impress the Est. S&P+ formula.) It is a bit unexpected, then, that the 1997 Wolverines, one of the most expected of recent champions, is the one to make it. In Lloyd Carr's third season running the show in Ann Arbor, Michigan began the season ranked 13th but managed a share of the national title with Nebraska thanks to an efficient offense and an explosive defense.
How good was Michigan's defense in 1997? So good that they never gave up more than 16 points to any of the four Top 10 teams they faced. So good that they produced the first defensive Heisman winner since voters started focusing on just one side of the ball. So good that it got them on this list despite an offense that ranked just 26th in Est. S&P+. The Wolverines began the season by crushing No. 8 Colorado, 27-3 (after the game, Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel said "We have to rebuild ourselves emotionally."), spotted Notre Dame a 14-7 halftime lead before coming back to win, and held off No. 15 Iowa in Ann Arbor. In late October, Michigan was ranked fifth in the country, then made their move. They whipped Michigan State thanks to five interceptions (including this one by eventual Heisman winner Charles Woodson), then mauled No. 3 Penn State in Beaver Stadium by a 34-8 margin. Combined with Nebraska's fluky escape at Missouri, Michigan jumped to No. 1 in the AP Poll. They did nothing to earn a downgrade -- they handled No. 23 Wisconsin and No. 4 Ohio State to finish the regular season undefeated, then knocked off Ryan Leaf and No. 8 Washington State by a 21-16 margin to win the AP title.
59. 1980 Pittsburgh
Best Wins: def. Penn State (10-2) 14-9, def. South Carolina (8-4) 37-9
Blemishes: def. by Florida State (10-2) 36-22
Point Differential: +250 (380-130)
Pittsburgh makes a surprising fourth appearance on the countdown, and it's not with the team you were probably expecting. Tony Dorsett's 1976 national champion didn't make the list, but this epic squad did. The 1980 Panthers produced three first-round draft picks and featured an offensive line with Mark May and Russ Grimm. Defensive end Hugh Green won the Walter Camp, Lombardi and Maxwell Awards while May won the Outland Trophy. Oh, and Rickey Jackson roamed the field at linebacker. This team was absolutely loaded with big, physical football players.
Ranked third to start the season, Pittsburgh did not catch fire early. The Panthers combined for 16 turnovers in a 14-6 win over Boston College and took out Kansas by just an 18-3 margin in Lawrence. They whipped unranked Temple and Maryland squads by a combined 74-11 margin, but after falling to fourth in the rankings, they fell to Bobby Bowden and his upstart, No. 11 Florida State team. That was the wake-up call they needed. During the last seven games, the Panthers outscored opponents by an average score of 32-9, and they were not playing cupcakes. West Virginia, Tennessee and Syracuse fell by a combined 115-26. Then, in a big intra-state matchup, the No. 6 Panthers traveled to Happy Valley and knocked off No. 7 Penn State by a 14-9 score. They killed No. 18 South Carolina by four touchdowns in the Gator Bowl but couldn't quite pull off the national title. Undefeated No. 1 Georgia held off No. 7 Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl to win the crown. But Pittsburgh is a computer darling, having been recognized as the best team of the season by Sagarin's and the New York Times' formulas.
58. 1925 Michigan
Conference: Big Ten
Best Wins: def. Navy (5-2-1) 54-0, def. Minnesota (5-2-1) 35-0
Blemishes: def. by Northwestern (5-3) 3-2
Point Differential: +224 (227-3 ... yes, 227-3)
The best Fielding Yost team on this list (his 1900s teams were ridiculous), the 1925 Wolverines were the precursor to the 1926 team we have already discussed. This was the pinnacle of Friedman-to-Oosterban, of Michigan's 1920s dominance, and of the second half of Yost's career. Future Michigan Regent Robert Brown captained a squad that accomplished something very difficult: they gave up three points all year ... and lost a game. The loss came to Northwestern in front of 20,000 people at what would become Soldier Field in Chicago. With torrential rain pouring from the sky, Yost attempted to get the game postponed, but to no avail. Too many tickets had been sold (about 40,000 in total) to turn back. Benny Friedman fumbled the game's opening punt, and Northwestern converted a dropkick field goal for what turned out to be the winning points. Michigan scored on a safety when the Wildcats downed the ball in their endzone instead of risking a botched punt. The rules of the day specified that the offense get the ball back after a safety, so Northwestern was able to get the ball back and kill more clock. Needless to say, Yost was unimpressed with the rule, and it was changed that very offseason.
Apart from the single blemish, however, this team's games took on an almost comical bent. They beat Michigan State 39-0. They beat Indiana 63-0. They handed Wisconsin its only loss via 21-0 shutout in Madison. They bounced back from the Northwestern loss to beat Ohio State, 10-0, and maul a good Minnesota team, 35-0. This was an unbelievable team that, in good weather, could not be beaten.
57. 1939 Tulane
Best Wins: def. Clemson (9-1) 7-6, def. Ole Miss (7-2) 18-6
Blemishes: tied North Carolina (8-1-1) 14-14, def. by Texas A&M (11-0) 14-13
Point Differential: +134 (194-60)
Consider this an ode to the great programs of the 1930s that were too soon forgotten. Tulane, Santa Clara, Fordham, Villanova ... here's to you.
It is pretty safe to say that Red Dawson was the greatest coach in Tulane history. He was handed the keys in 1936 and managed a 26-10-4 record in his first four seasons. He coached a total of six years in New Orleans, then assumed control of the Buffalo Bills after World War II. His Green Wave peaked in 1939, allowing just 24 points in their first eight games and taking on a murderous slate with aplomb. They knocked off a great Clemson team to start the season, then took out Auburn (12-0) and the aforementioned Fordham (7-0). After a tie with North Carolina, Tulane caught fire. They handled Ole Miss with ease, then shut out Alabama, Columbia, and Sewanee, ringing up 77 points combined against the last two schools. They held off an offensive charge from LSU in a 33-20 win, then hosted national champion Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl. Bobby "Jitterbug" Kellogg (one has to figure "Jitterbug" was a much more common nickname then than it is now) returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 7-7, and a touchdown run by Monette Baker gave Tulane a 13-7 advantage. Unfortunately, the extra point attempt was blocked, and when A&M threw a late touchdown pass, that was the margin of defeat in a 14-13 game. Still, their showing against the national champions proved they were the real deal (as did, obviously, the SEC title in their back pocket).
56. 1993 Florida State
Best Wins: def. Nebraska (11-1) 18-16, def. Florida (11-2) 33-21
Blemishes: def. by Notre Dame (11-1) 31-24
Point Differential: +407 (536-129)
Bobby Bowden's Seminoles finally won a national title in 1993, but it wasn't easy. They were statistically dominant and won 10 of their games by an average score of 45-7, but two games almost cost them the title. They lost a "No. 1 versus No. 2" showdown with Notre Dame in November, but after the Irish were upset by Boston College, the Seminoles were given new life. They defeated new No. 1 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, 18-16, and squeaked by Notre Dame by just 54 points in the AP Poll (this is still a point of controversy with Notre Dame fans). For what it is worth, Florida State gets the Est. S&P+ nod over the Irish. Obviously that will make Irish fans sleep better.
Despite the loss to Notre Dame, few 1990s teams were as dominant as the 1993 Seminoles. Of the eight players whose numbers have been retired in Tallahassee, this team featured two of them -- Heisman winner Charlie Ward and linebacker Derrick Brooks. The talent flowed from every direction. First-round draft pick William Floyd at running back, and Tamarick Vanover at wide receiver/kick returner. Derrick Alexander at defensive tackle with a young Peter Boulware at defensive end. Corey Sawyer, Corey Fuller, Clifton Abraham and Devin Bush in the secondary. Two more Bowden teams will make this countdown, though both are a bit unexpected -- this team is widely regarded as Bowden's best.
55. 1959 Syracuse
Best Wins: def. Texas (9-2) 23-14, def. Penn State (9-2) 20-18
Point Differential: +340 (413-73)
There might not have been a better football season than the one that took place in 1959. The SEC was unbelievable, with Ole Miss, LSU, Georgia, and Alabama all finishing in the Top 10. The Southwest Conference was not far behind -- Texas, TCU and Arkansas also finished in the Top 10. The national championship went to the best team in Syracuse history … and they are but the first of three teams from that season that will appear on this list. It is a shame that they never got to play either of the teams ranked above them on this list.
Despite who they didn't play, the Orange absolutely proved all they could against who they did play. They trailed Kansas 7-6 in the opening game of the season, but for the next five-and-a-half games, they outscored opponents 211-26. They came back to whip Kansas (35-21), had no trouble with solid Maryland and Navy teams, got big revenge on Holy Cross (42-6) after an upset loss the previous season, and traveled to Pittsburgh to take away a 35-0 shutout win. That set up the showdown that would determine whether 'Cuse had a legitimate shot at the national title. Now ranked fourth in the country, the team traveled to Happy Valley to take on No. 7 Penn State. (It is interesting how winning at Penn State is something of a rite of passage with teams on this portion of the list!). Up 20-6 in the second half, the Orange allowed two second-half touchdowns but stopped both two-point conversion attempts and held on, 20-18. The win vaulted them to No. 1 in the country, and they stayed there the rest of the season. They were already named national champions when they headed to Dallas to take on No. 4 Texas, but some still doubted if they were up to the standard of the SWC and SEC. Their 23-14 win over the Longhorns shut up most doubters.
(This season was also featured in the Disney-fied, somewhat tough-to-watch The Express, the movie based on the awesome story of Ernie Davis. Davis and Gar Schwedes were the workhorses for the 1959 champs, and he would eventually win the Heisman Trophy. But the movie inserted extra racial tension for drama's sake, and it somewhat ruined what was already a great story without the exaggeration.)
54. 2000 Miami
Conference: Big East
Best Wins: def. Florida State (11-2) 27-24, def. Virginia Tech (11-1) 41-21
Blemishes: def. by Washington (11-1) 34-29
Point Differential: +316 (506-190)
Most of the time, people complaining about the evil BCS and its evil computers are really complaining about just one thing: The BCS cannot figure out how to fit more than two teams on the field at the same time. Such was the case in 2003 and 2004, when three teams had nearly identical resumes, and such was really the case in 2000, when three teams worthy of the Top 100 faced off and one was left out. Miami did wonderfully in 2000, but despite a head-to-head win over Florida State, they were left out in favor of an FSU-Oklahoma title showdown. Still, 2000 marked the return of Miami to big-time football. When Butch Davis took over for Dennis Erickson in Coral Gables, the Hurricanes were about to get waylaid by NCAA punishment. They were banned from postseason play in his first season, and they were docked over 30 scholarships. As a result, Miami fell from 8-3 and 9-3 in Davis' first two seasons, to 5-6 in 1997. With limited scholarships and a sour reputation, Davis had to rebuild the Miami program from scratch. And with outstanding recruiting and top-notch defense, he did just that.
After bottoming out in 1997, Miami had bounced back with nine-win seasons in 1998-99, and by 2000 their athletic depth was staggering. Willis McGahee sat behind James Jackson, Clinton Portis, and Najeh Davenport in the backfield. Andre Johnson waited for his turn behind Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne. Jonathan Vilma backed up Dan Morgan. Bryant McKinnie anchored the offensive line. And of course, we must not forget the great Ed Reed in the secondary. Miami started the season ranked sixth, but thanks to an early loss to a great Washington team, they were forgotten for a while in the polls. They cracked the Top 10 again after a 64-6 win over Rutgers, but it wasn't until they beat No. 2 Florida State, 27-24, that the nation officially took notice. They were ranked third when they took on new No. 2 Virginia Tech. Michael Vick was hobbled and could only play about one quarter, but the Hokies were down 21-0 when he departed. They beat Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Boston College (all three had winning records) by a combined 113-13 … and fell behind Florida State in the computer polls because of strength of schedule. (How good was FSU's strength of schedule? Good enough to get them ahead of Miami on this list as well. Bobby Bowden has possibly never touched a computer in his life, but he benefited from them in 2000.) The Hurricanes easily beat No. 7 Florida in the Sugar Bowl, and Oklahoma beat Florida State in the national title game, giving Miami a strong claim to lead the "Most screwed by the BCS rankings" list.
53. 1939 Texas A&M
Best Wins: def. Tulane (8-1-1) 14-13, def. SMU (6-3-1) 6-2
Point Differential: +181 (212-31)
In debt to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars as the Great Depression began to take hold, the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas considered dropping football in 1934. According to The 1939 Texas Aggies: The Greatest Generation's Greatest Team, they gave new coach Homer Norton five years to right the ship, or Aggie Football might be a thing of the past. After four years of up-and-down results, the fifth year, 1939, yielded epic results.
The Aggies began what was expected to be a rather nondescript campaign by shutting out Oklahoma State and Centenary by a combined 46-0. They traveled west and handed Santa Clara their only loss of the season, 7-0. Then, back in Texas, the Aggies whipped a good Villanova squad, 33-7. They had performed well enough to earn a ninth-place ranking in the first AP Poll of the season, but they were only getting started. Defending national champion TCU was the next to fall, then Arkansas and No. 13 SMU. At this point, something rather odd happened: the Aggies passed No. 1 Tennessee in the polls despite the Vols having yet to allow a point. Aside from a 21-0 win over Alabama, Tennessee had yet to play anybody remotely impressive. It was a lead that the Aggies would not relinquish. They shut out Texas 20-0 over Thanksgiving weekend to win their only national title.
52. 1943 Navy
Best Wins: def. Army (7-2-1) 13-0, def. Duke (8-1) 14-13
Blemishes: def. by Notre Dame (9-1) 33-6
Point Differential: +157 (237-80)
Like Army, Navy thrived through the war years for obvious reasons. With more young men enlisting in the armed forces, their pool of available talent was much larger than it was at other times. When the war ended, the talent took a turn for the worse. From 1940-45, the Midshipmen went 39-12-3. From 1946-48, they went 2-23-2.
The 1943 Navy squad was rock solid, especially on the line. All-America guard Don Whitmire was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, and he was joined up front by end Roe Johnston and center Jack Martin. Against teams not named Notre Dame, the Middies were dominant. They outscored their eight vanquished victims by a 231-47 margin. And their opponents weren't all lightweights. True, they beat Cornell and Columbia by a combined 107-7, but they also handed Duke its only loss of the season (14-13) and took out Penn State (14-6), Penn (24-7) and an excellent Army squad (13-0). Their only slip-up was a doozy -- they were dominated in Cleveland by a Notre Dame squad we will be mentioning in future weeks. According to Est. S&P+, this is the second-best Navy team of all-time.
51. 1933 Michigan
Conference: Big Ten
Best Wins: def. Ohio State (7-1) 13-0, def. Iowa (5-3) 10-6
Blemishes: tied Minnesota (4-0-4) 0-0
Point Differential: +113 (131-18)
After Fielding Yost retired following the 1926 season, Michigan turned first to former Yost protege Elton Wieman, who managed a 6-2 record during Bennie Oosterbaan's final season and struggled to a 3-4-1 finish in 1928. He then learned through a local paper that he and athletic director Yost had agreed to a parting ways. It was news to him. Wieman was replaced by Harry Kipke (another Yost disciple), who fared much better for a while. After a 5-3-1 season in 1929, the Wolverines took off once again, going 31-1-3 over the next three seasons and winning the 1932-33 national titles.
The 1933 Wolverines were led by a stout line that included All-American center Chuck Bernard and tackle Whitey Wistert (who, in 1934, had a brief stint as a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds). They did not outscore teams by a 227-3 margin or anything, but they handled a stout schedule with ease. Only one of their eight opponents had a losing record, and they still dominated. Michigan State and Cornell fell by a combined 60-6, then Ohio State was handed its only loss of the season in from 80,000 at Michigan's homecoming. The Wolverines went on the road to knock off Chicago (28-0) and Illinois (7-6), then faced their toughest stretch. They knocked off Iowa at home (10-6), then fought mighty Bernie Bierman's second Minnesota team to a scoreless draw. An easy 13-0 win over Northwestern polished off another undefeated season and national championship.
It was the beginning of the end for Kipke, however. As players like Bernard filtered out, their replacements weren't nearly as talented. Michigan would go just 10-22 over the next four seasons (including two 1-7 campaigns), and Kipke would resign to make way for Michigan's next great coach, Fritz Crisler.
50. 1956 Georgia Tech
Best Wins: def. Pittsburgh (7-3-1) 21-14, def. Auburn (7-3) 28-7
Blemishes: def. by Tennessee (10-1) 6-0
Point Differential: +201 (248-47)
While Oklahoma was destroying everybody in their path in the middle of their 47-game winning streak, Georgia Tech was doing almost the same against better opponents. The Sooners' schedule (they played one team that finished with a winning record) prevents them from making this list, and Tech (seven teams) gets the nod for 1956. They are the second of three mid-1950s Bobby Dodd teams to make this list. Riding a defense that pitched five shutouts in six games and didn't give up more than seven points in a game until the Gator Bowl, Dodd's Rambling Wreck tripped up just once. No. 2 Tech took on No. 3 Tennessee in Atlanta, and the two defense-heavy squads combined for 23 punts, often on second and third downs (which was still a rather common practice in 1956). Thanks to the arm of Tennessee back (and future coach) Johnny Majors, the Volunteers engineered a perfect, 65-yard scoring drive in the third quarter, and that was that. Tech drove late, but they threw an interception inside the Tennessee 10, and the Vols held on to win. The win vaulted Tennessee past cupcake-eating Oklahoma for No. 1 in the polls for a week, but Oklahoma stole the spot back a week later and held on for the national title (a vote that looked a lot better when Tennessee lost to Baylor in the Sugar Bowl).
Tennessee's scoring drive was the only one Georgia Tech would allow in the last six games of the regular season. They finished the year by outscoring Alabama, Florida and Georgia by a combined 90-0, then held off No. 13 Pittsburgh, 21-14, in an exciting Gator Bowl. Center Don Stephenson was Tech's only true All-America candidate, as Dodd got the job done with execution and smarts over star power.
49. 1986 Penn State
Best Wins: def. Miami (11-1) 14-10, def. Alabama (10-3) 23-3
Point Differential: +207 (340-133)
A team that made the most of what turned out to be a rather weak schedule, the 1986 Nittany Lions became possibly Joe Paterno's most popular team ever when they knocked off a Miami team that had become the nation's villain in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. Following a whipping at the hands of Oklahoma in the 1986 Orange Bowl, a loss that prevented them from winning the national title, Penn State returned a majority of their talent and began the season ranked sixth in the country. As Miami grew in fame, Penn State worked mostly under the radar. They didn't play a ranked team until the end of October, when they traveled to Tuscaloosa to take on No. 2 Alabama. This was their lone opportunity to prove themselves, and they did so, to say the least. Alabama was averaging 266 rushing yards per game, but the Nittany Lions held them to just 44, sacking Alabama quarterback Mike Shula five times and forcing five turnovers. Their 23-3 win vaulted them from No. 6 to No. 2 in the polls, where they would stay the rest of the regular season.
The Fiesta Bowl was not the "Fiesta Bowl" as we see it until 1986. It had certainly grown in stature since its initial days in 1971, when the WAC's Arizona State took on pre-Bowden Florida State, but it was not regarded in any higher stature than the Cotton Bowl, Citrus Bowl or any other New Year's Day affair. That changed when No. 2 Penn State knocked off No. 1 Miami. The biggest game of the year saw one of the most heroic defensive efforts. Legendary Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky's schemes confused Heisman winner Vinny Testaverde all game long. He passed for 285 yards, but it took him 50 attempts, and he threw five interceptions in the process. Shane Conlan snared two of the picks, and after D.J. Dozier scored to put Penn State up 14-10, Pete Giftopoulos registered the fifth pick at the Penn State 5 as time was expiring. The upset gave Paterno his second national title in five years and won him legendary status. That Hurricanes was considered invincible, but the Nittany Lions took them down.
48. 1912 Harvard
Best Wins: def. Yale (7-1-1) 20-0, def. Vanderbilt (8-1-1) 9-3
Point Differential: +154 (176-22)
Let's be honest. There aren't going to be quite as many detailed accounts of the 1912 Crimson of Harvard as there are for the 2009 Crimson Tide of Alabama, or any team that took the field in the last 90 years. But we should still pause to admire the only team dominant enough to stand out in a decade in which great schools pummeled terrible schools with reckless abandon. Harvard did plenty of pounding -- they beat Maine, Holy Cross, Williams, and Amherst by a combined 98-3 -- but when it came time to face their future Ivy League mates, the Crimson kept their foot on the throttle. Somehow, they managed to hand Princeton (16-6), Vanderbilt (9-3), and Yale (20-0) their only losses of the season. (Oddly, Princeton and Yale didn't play each other.) Their only true struggle of the season came against two-loss Dartmouth (3-0). Harvard had begun an unbeaten streak in 1911 that would last 33 games.
While the information on Harvard's players is scarce, their coach, Percy Haughton, was fascinating. In nine seasons in Cambridge, his Crimson went 71-7-5 and won three national titles. He and his entire coaching staff enlisted for military service after the 1916 season, and when he returned, he took over at Columbia. For his career, he went 91-17-6 before his untimely death at the age of 48. He also penned an excited, loving, and almost arrogant book entitled Football And How To Watch It, which is available for free reading on Google Books. In it, he compares his brand of football to the works of O. Henry and provides the following quote, to which anybody reading this column would probably agree: "When properly understood, Football is both mentally and physically such a glorious sport that it seems a pity that so many who witness it should not be conversant with its salient points."
47. 1995 Nebraska
Conference: Big 8
Best Wins: def. Florida (12-1) 62-24, def. Colorado (10-2) 44-21
Blemishes: none ... not even close
Point Differential: +464 (638-174)
The 1995 season was one of the more entertaining in recent memory, if one can call 15 years ago "recent." A series of coaching changes would alter college football's landscape and/or offer severe unintentional comedy -- Howard Schnellenberger took over at Oklahoma (there was nothing more enjoyable than having Schnellenberger say, "I would prefer [injured Colorado quarterback Koy] Detmer play. Our football team would prefer Detmer play. I don't want a damn asterisk when we beat their ass," then watching backup John Hessler pass for 348 yards in a 38-17 Colorado win), Rick Neuheisel at Colorado, Butch Davis at Miami, Lloyd Carr at Michigan, Nick Saban at Michigan State, and Tommy Tuberville at Ole Miss. Northwestern made a dramatic run to the Rose Bowl, and Florida took another step forward under Steve Spurrier.
Meanwhile, amid all the entertainment, Nebraska dominated at a level few teams ever have. With senior quarterback Tommie Frazier at full health after a blood clot scare the year before, the Cornhuskers averaged a rather disgusting 53 points per game and won just one game by fewer than 23 points. They were an absolute machine, and they are commonly referred to as one of the best teams in college football history.
The question, then, is how in the hell isn't this team higher on the list? The main reason: using points allowed as the measure, their defense was only good, not outstanding. If you perused the box scores from 1995, you would probably see quite a few times where the Nebraska scrubs allowed late touchdowns, and if play-by-play data existed for 1995, then our S&P+ and F/+ measures might bump them right to the top of this list. But without that data, we use points scored and allowed, and garbage-time points factor into the equation. Also, though four Big 8 teams won 10 games that year, their schedule strength was hurt by the fact that they played five teams that lost eight games or more. This is what happens when you use math to determine such things. If you want to continue considering this team one of the five or ten best ever, nobody here will stop you.
46. 1931 USC
Conference: Pacific Coast
Best Wins: def. Tulane (11-1) 21-12, def. Georgia (8-2) 60-0
Blemishes: def. by St. Mary's (8-2) 13-7
Point Differential: +311 (363-52)
For one of the greatest teams of all-time, the 1931 USC Trojans did not start out so hot. They were tripped up in their season opener by another one of the forgotten powers of the 1930s, St. Mary's. The Gaels knocked the Trojans off by a 13-7 score on their way to a surprising 8-2 season that also included wins over 8-2 California, 6-2-2 Oregon, and 9-1-1 SMU. Once the blemish was out of the way, however, USC set about murdering the 10 teams remaining in their path. Oregon State, Washington State, and Oregon all finished the season with six wins. USC, led by quarterback All-American Gus Shaver, beat them by a combined 121-6. Eight-win California (6-0) and seven-win Stanford (19-0) were shutout victims. Poor one-win Montana (69-0) was defeated before the opening kickoff. But here's where things begin to get really impressive.
First, the Trojans took a cross-country jaunt to South Bend, spotted host Notre Dame (a Top 100 team themselves) a 14-0 lead, and came back to win 16-14 on a 33-yard field goal as time expired. According to the USC media guide, 300,000 fans welcomed the Trojans back home in celebration of the huge win. From there, USC was in its own league. The Trojans knocked off five-win Washington, 44-7, then absolutely destroyed eight-win Georgia, 60-0. Granted, that was a long trip for Georgia to have to make (possibly by train), but … 60-0! The Dickinson ratings system gave USC the national title over undefeated Tulane, but before too many people could get outraged about it, USC knocked off the Green Wave, 21-12, in the Rose Bowl to justify the title. Turnovers killed Tulane's chances, and USC was the accepted national champion.
45. 1961 Ole Miss
Best Wins: def. Arkansas (8-3) 16-0, def. Tennessee (6-4) 24-10
Blemishes: def. by LSU (10-1) 10-7, def. by Texas (10-1) 12-7
Point Differential: +281 (333-52)
44. 1962 Ole Miss
Best Wins: def. LSU (9-1-1) 15-7, def. Arkansas (9-2) 17-13
Point Differential: +194 (247-53)
As luck would have it, these two teams fall back-to-back on the list, and we will combine their summaries. Mississippi's John Vaught is almost certainly one of the most underrated coaches in college football history. Vaught, who retired in 1970 following health problems but still managed to live to 96, put together one of the most consistently successful programs the SEC has ever seen. Through 25 seasons in Oxford, Vaught's Rebels lost three or fewer games 19 times, won six SEC titles (five of which came in what could be considered the SEC's heyday, 1954-63). They won shares of three national titles, and four consecutive Vaught teams -- 1959-62 -- make appearances on this list. The 1961 and 1962 squads represented the end of Vaught's career peak. The Rebels went 47-3-3 from 1959 to 1963.
Few teams have combined offensive and defensive success like these Ole Miss teams. The two-loss 1961 team was actually statistically better, scoring more points and allowing fewer against a better schedule. But they slipped up twice, to No. 6 LSU in Baton Rouge and to No. 3 Texas in Dallas, by a combined eight points. They finished fifth in the final AP poll. Meanwhile, all the 1962 squad did was go undefeated and assist in tamping down hostilities during the school's forced integration. (ESPN's Wright Thompson wrote a phenomenal piece on the subject recently. Instead of summarizing it here, you should really just read the whole thing. And while we're at it, here is Governor Ross Barnett's speech from the night of the Kentucky-Ole Miss game.) Whether because of other teams' successes or because voters resented the hostilities taking place in the South, Ole Miss finished third in the AP voting that year, though the school still claims a title thanks to the Litkenhous Poll. This was a dramatic time for both college football and the country, and Thompson's piece does a wonderful job of explaining how they were linked and how much Vaught's Rebel teams meant to the school.
43. 2002 Ohio State
Conference: Big Ten
Best Wins: def. Miami (12-1) 31-24, def. Michigan (10-3) 14-9
Point Differential: +227 (410-183)
In his second season as Ohio State head coach, Jim Tressel rode a freshman running back and a ridiculous defense to the national title that had been eluding the Buckeyes since 1968 (or 1970, depending on who you ask ... again, college football is just awesome).
Ranked just 12th to start the season, the Buckeyes made a strong early statement, holding Mike Leach and his explosive Texas Tech offense in check and taking a 38-7 lead into the fourth quarter of a 45-21 win. Not yet star-crossed star freshman Maurice Clarett ran for 175 yards in his collegiate debut. Two weeks later, they handled No. 11 Washington State with ease, 25-7. After a near-miss at Cincinnati, Ohio State geared up for the Big Ten run. This was not a team capable of blowout after blowout, but they just kept winning. They beat Wisconsin by five, Penn State by six, Purdue by four (thanks to this play), Illinois by seven, and Michigan by five. They were completely overshadowed by the insanely dominant defending champions, the Miami Hurricanes. But, like Penn State in 1986, they took down Miami when they had the chance. With some help from one of the more controversial pass interference calls in college football history (I go back and forth on this -- there was just enough contact to understand what the ref may have seen to call it, but ... in the deciding play of the national title game?), Ohio State won the national title in overtime and secured a high place on this list.
How does this conservative team, one that was never dominant but almost always in control, make the list when similar teams did not? Two reasons: (1) strength of schedule -- the Big Ten was fantastic that year, and the Buckeyes beat nine teams that won at least seven games (five that won at least nine), and (2) defense. Against a slate that included great offensive teams like Texas Tech and Miami, the Buckeyes allowed just 13 points per game in an offense-heavy season.
42. 1945 Navy
Best Wins: def. Michigan (7-3) 33-7, def. Duke (6-2) 21-0
Blemishes: tied Notre Dame (7-2-1) 6-6, def. by Army (9-0) 32-13
Point Differential: +155 (220-65)
If this Navy team had taken the field at a time when Notre Dame and Army weren't disgustingly dominant, they would have almost certainly gone undefeated. Instead, the Midshipmen, made up of most of the same players that made up the No. 52 team above, outscored seven opponents by a 201-27 margin but tied Notre Dame (6-6) and fell hard (32-13) to an Army team that will be found quite high on this list. Army-Navy was a battle of the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country. Played in front of 102,000 (including President Truman) at Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia, it was deemed the "Game of the Century," sharing that title with approximately 75 other games, of course. But Doc Blanchard and Army were far too much for anybody to handle that year, and the Midshipmen fell short. Still, this was a great team that just wasn't quite as great as one of the top teams of all-time.
41. 1953 Maryland
Best Wins: def. Ole Miss (7-2-1) 38-0, def. South Carolina (7-3) 24-6
Blemishes: def. by Oklahoma (9-1-1) 7-0
Point Differential: +260 (298-38)
Jim Tatum was, to put it bluntly, a hell of a coach. His career was cut short when he contracted Rocky Mountain spotted fever and died before the 1959 season, but in his nine seasons at the University of Maryland, he went a staggering 73-15-4. During that time, he earned three conference titles (one in the Southern Conference, two in the newly formed ACC), three top five finishes, and, in 1953, a national title. Despite only winning 100 games as a head coach (his careers was cut short by both World War II and his untimely death), he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1984.
Though the Terps went undefeated in 1951 (while still in the Southern Conference), no Tatum squad proved more than the 1953 team. They handled road challenges with ease, beating Missouri, Clemson, North Carolina and Miami away from home by a combined 96-6 (they let Missouri, coached by Tatum's war-time mentor Don Faurot, score a touchdown, which was nice of them). At home, however, they were really mean. They killed Georgia, 40-13 (the only time they would give up double-digit points all season), then took out South Carolina, 24-6. Jim Tatum's Ole Miss Rebels fell 38-0, then Alabama did the same by a 21-0 score.
Strangely, if the final AP Poll had been taken after the bowls, they would have won the national title in 1951 (they beat No. 1 Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl), but they wouldn't have won in 1953 -- they lost to No. 4 Oklahoma, 7-0, in the Orange Bowl. Regardless, this team was loaded. Quarterback Bernie Faloney finished fourth in the Heisman voting, and halfback Chet Hanulak was a scoring machine. This was the greatest team for a great coach.
Next Tuesday: Teams 21-40.