The Top 100 College Football Teams of the Last 100 Years: Part IV
by Bill Connelly
When it comes to listing off the teams atop my own personal "best ever" rankings, I am, like everybody else, biased. I grew up in Big 8 country and could tell you all you want to know about the greatness of the some obscure Nebraska or Oklahoma teams. But I am a blank slate when it comes to what happened in other conferences before I was born. Even though I have worshiped this sport since I was two years old, there are giant gaps in my knowledge of history, and justifiably so -- there are too many teams' histories to follow. Most of us have an extremely regional viewpoint on college football.
If I had created a Top 100 list based on my own opinions, I'd have had all the usual suspects at the top -- 1971 and 1995 Nebraska, 2005 Texas, a couple late-1980s Miami teams, and all the historical teams I've been told were great. It would have closely resembled everybody else's lists, it would have been based only partially in actual, first-hand knowledge, and it would have been rather pointless to read because it wouldn't have told you anything most didn't already know.
In basketball, new-age scouts talk about making evaluations with eyes, ears, and numbers. If we are treating every team from the last 100 years with the same criteria, we are stuck with just numbers. The Estimated S&P+ figures used in one of the Football Outsiders Almanac 2010 essays gave me a nice tool for comparing teams across eras. It is not without its flaws, of course, but creating the perfect tool was never the point. I wanted to take an unbiased look at every team of the last 100 years, using a specific set of criteria, and react to the results. I don't agree with every single one of the rankings here (especially No. 36), and I'm sure no reader does either. But in terms of taking suggestions regarding which teams might be overrated or underrated, or which eras produced the greatest stretch of teams, this has been a supremely enjoyable series to write.
As we roll through Part Four, featuring teams 21-40, I am now issuing a challenge: Tell me your own all-time top 10. This countdown is based on just one method for determining history's best college football teams. Since it is Wisdom of the Crowds week once again for FO on Twitter, let's find out what the wisdom of crowds tells us in the college realm. Which teams would an informal poll of FO readers choose as the best teams in college football history?
While I await the answer, here are 20 more great teams.
40. 1971 Alabama
Best Wins: def. Ole Miss (10-2) 40-6, def. Tennessee (10-2) 32-15
Blemishes: def. by Nebraska (13-0) 38-6
Point Differential: +246 (368-122)
The eighth Alabama team to reach the countdown, the 1971 squad represented something of a turning of the Tide. (Sorry about that.) After going just 12-10-1 in the last previous two seasons, Bear Bryant's program was at a bit of a precipice. At this stage in his career, he was not considered the greatest coach of all-time -- with John Vaught doing his thing at Ole Miss, he might not have even been the greatest coach of the previous decade in his own conference. But change was in store. First, he adopted the Wishbone offense. A recent creation at the University of Texas, the Wishbone was new enough that defenses had not yet caught on -- think of the spread offense in about 2005 -- and with Alabama's talent and athleticism, it was deadly.
The other change that hit Alabama that year was bigger: The first two African-American players recruited to Alabama hit the field. However slowly, change was finally making its way to the South. Junior college transfer John Mitchell became the first black player to play in an Alabama uniform, starting all 24 games of his career at defensive tackle. Between a talent upgrade and their unexpected, new offense, Alabama thrived. They got revenge on No. 5 USC for the previous year's thrashing, took out Ole Miss and Tennessee in October, and coasted toward a huge Iron Bowl against No. 5 Auburn. They held the Tigers and star quarterback Pat Sullivan in check, winning 31-7.
Of course, there is a particular 1971 team that most of us know about: Nebraska. Johnny Rogers and the Huskers rolled over Alabama in a "No. 1 versus No. 2" showdown in the Orange Bowl, preventing Bear's new-look Tide from winning another national title. Still, when your only loss is against one of the greatest teams of all time, and you defeat everybody else on your schedule by an average score of 33-8, you find yourself in a pretty good spot on this list.
39. 1980 Florida State
Best Wins: def. Pittsburgh (11-1) 36-22, def. Nebraska (10-2) 18-14
Blemishes: def. by Oklahoma (10-2) 18-17, def. by Miami (9-3) 10-9
Point Differential: +266 (369-103)
One of the more peculiar teams on this countdown, Bobby Bowden's first great team at Florida State managed to fly under history's radar for the most part, thanks to its lack of historical gravitas (in 1980, the FSU program had accomplished very little) and two heart-breaking, one-point losses. If you view greatness in terms of pure wins and losses, then you will disagree virulently with this team's inclusion in the top 40. But if you look at what the team actually accomplished, the Seminoles have a reasonable case.
Ranked 13th to start the season, Florida State won at LSU, then pounded two hapless opponents (East Carolina and Louisville) by a 115-7 margin. Ranked No. 9, the team tripped against Miami in their fourth game. Florida State cornerback Bobby Butler partially blocked a Miami field goal late in the third quarter, but it went in anyway, giving Miami a 10-9 win. The 'Noles immediately bounced back, pulling a huge upset against No. 3 Nebraska in Lincoln the next week, then taking out No. 4 Pittsburgh in Tallahassee. They beat their next four opponents (three that ended with a winning record) by a combined 141-19. Then, after an odd three-week break, quarterback Rick Stockstill rallied the Seminoles to a 17-13 win against Florida in the season finale. At this point, Florida State had outscored opponents a crazy 96-0 in the fourth quarter. Now ranked second in the country, the Seminoles headed south to the Orange Bowl to take on No. 4 Oklahoma for the second straight season. They led 17-10 heading into the final minutes, but Oklahoma quarterback J.C. Watts threw for a touchdown and the game-winning two-point conversion. If you must lose two games, doing so by a combined two points, against ranked teams away from home, is a respectable way to go about it.
38. 1991 Miami
Best Wins: def. Florida State (11-2) 17-16, def. Penn State (11-2) 26-20
Point Differential: +286 (386-100)
While the 1995 Nebraska team is generally recognized as the best team of the 1990s (and potentially the best team ever), the Est. S&P+ formula disagrees. It sees two teams from the beginning of the decade achieving at a higher level. The first team on the list is a rather familiar one. It is the third Miami team from between 1986 and 1991 to make our list, with two more to come. The 1991 Hurricanes were not quite as flashy as their predecessors -- their 386 points scored was their lowest total since the 1983 national title team -- but the defense was ridiculous. It featured three All-Americans and the absurd linebacker corps of Jessie Armstead, Michael Barrow, and Darrin Smith. Facing four teams that won at least nine games, the Hurricanes allowed just 100 points all season, allowing three points or fewer five times and giving up more than 10 points just four times.
As was the case in 1988, Miami began the season ranked behind Florida State despite having beaten the Seminoles the year before. Both teams rolled through the early portions of their schedules, feasted on cupcakes into November and then took on each other for the inevitable No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup in Coral Gables. Florida State took a 16-7 lead in the fourth quarter, but a Carlos Huerta field goal and a one-yard touchdown run by Coleman Bell gave the Hurricanes a 17-16 lead. As had been the case two years earlier, Florida State once again missed a make-able field goal wide right, and by inches, Miami was now the No. 1 team in the country.
Most people enjoy taking potshots at the BCS, but as has been said before in this space, they mostly hate it because it can't figure out how to put more than two teams on the same field. For the job it is asked to do -- pick the two teams most deserving of fighting for the national title -- it has done an admirable job most of the time. And it would have come in very handy in 1991. Instead of getting another No. 1 versus No. 2 showdown between two fantastic teams, Miami and Washington, Miami went off to the Orange Bowl to stomp No. 10 Nebraska, 22-0, while the best Washington team in history rolled over No. 3 Michigan, 34-14. These two teams were far and away the best of 1991 (Florida State lost to Florida, knocking them down the totem pole), but they never faced off against each other.
37. 1930 Notre Dame
Best Wins: def. Northwestern (7-1) 14-0, def. Army (9-1-1) 7-6
Point Differential: +191 (265-74)
There is strength of schedule, and there is strength of schedule. Knute Rockne's final Notre Dame team took on all comers, playing nine teams that finished with a winning record, giving up double-digit points just three times and scoring at least 20 points (the equivalent of scoring 40 today) eight times. With quarterback Frank Carideo, halfback Marchy Schwartz and fullback Joseph Savoldi in the backfield, the Irish were simply untouchable.
How good was Notre Dame? In games against teams not named Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Northwestern, Army and USC went a combined 30-2-2, outscoring opponents by an average of 29.3 to 3.2. Northwestern beat seven opponents by a margin of 182-22. Only one of them stayed within single digits of Notre Dame. The Irish took out Pittsburgh (35-19) on the road, knocked off Northwestern (14-0), and obliterated USC (27-0). Only Army stayed close, losing 7-6 in Chicago after Marchy Schwartz raced 54 yards in front of 110,000 fans at a rainy Soldier Field.
Really, the primary question regarding this team is: How in the world are they not ranked higher?
36. 2000 Florida State
Best Wins: def. Florida (10-3) 30-7, def. Clemson (9-3) 54-7
Blemishes: def. by Oklahoma (13-0) 13-2, def. by Miami (11-1) 27-24
Point Differential: +375 (511-136)
In an odd twist, two Florida State teams with losses to Miami and Oklahoma, playing 20 years apart, each make it onto our list.
It is rather obvious that, when it comes to numbers, this team is bulletproof. How else can one explain the fact that the Seminoles were (a) selected over one-loss Miami for inclusion in the national title game despite a head-to-head loss, and (b) ranked ahead of 1995 Nebraska? What gives?
The recipe for Florida State's dominance of computer rankings is simple. Despite the two losses, they faced a ridiculously tough schedule and dominated it. Heading into the national title game, they were averaging 42.4 points per game and allowing 10.3. They took on seven teams that won at least eight games that season (including Miami and Oklahoma), and the average score was Florida State 32.1, Opponents 12.7. They beat very good Clemson and Florida teams by a combined 84-14. Chris Weinke threw for more than 4,100 yards, Snoop Minnis led the country with 1,340 receiving yards, and defensive end Jamal Reynolds won the Outland Trophy. They had eight players picked in the first four rounds of the NFL Draft. They dominated all season ... except when it counted the most. Statistically, this goes down as Bobby Bowden's best team, even though it is remembered mostly for providing ammunition for BCS (and now Est. S&P+) haters. It is likely the reason haters will continue to think computer formulas are a load of hooey. I prefer to think of them as the exception that proves the Est. S&P+ rule.
35. 2004 Auburn
Best Wins: def. Georgia (10-2) 24-6, def. Tennessee (10-3) 34-10 and 38-28
Point Differential: +270 (417-147)
In 2000, Florida State benefited from one of the more controversial BCS selections. In 2004, Auburn was the victim of another. Tommy Tuberville's Tigers rolled through an SEC that was a bit down, and while strength of schedule was one of the major factors that cost Auburn a spot in the national title game, these rankings smile upon them (in part because Auburn has the luxury of not having been destroyed by USC as Oklahoma was).
Coaches' seats are perpetually warm in the SEC. Les Miles won a national title in 2007, and people now talk about him like it is almost a foregone conclusion that he is gone after this season. Nobody knows how this game works better than Tommy Tuberville, who was catching serious heat at the end of 2003. He had coached five years at Auburn after ditching SEC West rival Ole Miss, and though Auburn had made the SEC Championship game in his second year, Auburn had yet to win more than nine games and was quickly losing ground to LSU, which had been reborn under Nick Saban.
All Tuberville did to stave off the critics in 2004 lead one of only two SEC teams all decade to an undefeated record. That season, Auburn was timely in every way. Their performance was certainly timely for Tuberville himself, but the offense made timely plays with its powerful running game and deep passing. The defense allowed some points, but they never did so with the game on the line. Auburn sent an early message by beating No. 4 LSU (the defending national champions) at home, 10-9, and they were rarely seriously challenged after that. They drilled No. 8 Tennessee (34-10) in Knoxville, easily handled No. 5 Georgia (24-6) at home, then held off Tennessee again to win the SEC title. They avoided a letdown game in the Sugar Bowl by beating No. 9 Virginia Tech (16-13) after being passed over for a chance at the national title.
34. 1960 Ole Miss
Best Wins: def. Arkansas (8-3) 10-7, def. Tennessee (6-2-2) 24-3
Blemishes: tied LSU (5-4-1) 6-6
Point Differential: +210 (280-70)
In the late-1950s and early-1960s, Ole Miss went on a run not unlike what Miami produced in the late-1980s. Four straight John Vaught teams make this list -- 1959-62. The third one to be unveiled so far is the 1960 squad that claims a share of the national championship even though Minnesota took the AP title. Ranked second behind Syracuse in the preseason, and No. 1 just one week into the season, the Rebels could have run away with a consensus title if not for one minor blemish.
The Rebels were untouchable early in the season. Quarterback Jake Gibbs destroyed Houston with his arm (three touchdown passes) and Kentucky with his legs (two touchdown runs), and though they had to hold off a strong charge from a good Memphis State team, the Rebels headed to Little Rock an easy 5-0. They needed a controversial field goal as time expired to beat No. 14 Arkansas (Frank Broyles swore the kick had sailed wide) and ceded their No. 1 ranking to Iowa (rankings were much more volatile at that time than they are today). Then they tied unranked LSU in Oxford, dropping them to sixth. That was apparently the kick in the pants that the Rebels needed.
After that, they demolished No. 14 Tennessee in Knoxville, manhandled Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl, and defeated Rice in the Sugar Bowl to finish 10-0-1. The 1960 season was a crazy one, as the No. 1 ranking changed hands three times in November. With great football coming from every region in the country, this would have been the perfect season for a playoff, or at least a BCS system to help things out. These rankings suggest that Ole Miss was the best in a year full of great teams, and the strength of schedule they derived from maneuvering through the SEC and handling Arkansas out of conference gives them a nice spot on this list.
33. 1932 USC
Conference: Pacific Coast
Best Wins: def. Pittsburgh (8-1-2) 35-0, def. Notre Dame (7-2) 13-0
Point Differential: +188 (201-13)
To say the 1931 loss to St. Mary's was a wake-up call is the understatement to end all understatements. After USC's loss to the Gaels, the 1931 Trojans (which we discussed last week) won the final 10 games on their schedule by an average score of 36 to 4. Fewer than nine months later, the Trojans were still wide awake. They took on Utah and Washington State to start the season and handed each their lone losses of 1932 ... by a combined score of 55-0. They took it easy on Oregon State, Loyola Marymount and Stanford (they were already showing a Pete Carroll-esque tendency of not getting up for the lesser opponents), saving their best efforts for a murderous final two months of the schedule. A 5-2-1 California team went down, 27-7, then 5-1-1 Oregon fell harder, 33-0. A stellar Washington team welcomed the Trojans to Seattle and put up a fight, but they lost by a 9-6 margin. Then the Trojans kicked it into fifth gear. They shut out 7-1 Notre Dame; the Irish had given up just 18 points all season, and USC scored nearly that many themselves in a 13-0 win. Finally, Pittsburgh came to town for the Rose Bowl. The Panthers had given Notre Dame their only other loss of the season and brought an 8-0-2 record (with ties to great Ohio State and Nebraska squads) to Pasadena. Yawn. The Trojans knocked them around, 35-0.
USC's greatest strength had to be its mammoth line. Future College Football Hall of Famer Ernie Smith anchored one side, along with fellow All-American tackle Raymond Brown. All-American guard Aaron Rosenberg joined in the fun, too. Every Division I team the Trojans played in 1932 finished with a winning record (combined record: 57-13-10 against teams other than USC), but thanks to their brutally effective play in the trenches, they gave up just 13 points in 10 games. Football was deeper in the Midwest in the 1930s, and the South was just beginning to fall in love with the sport, but USC had already established itself as one of the country's big-time programs.
32. 1948 Michigan
Conference: Big Ten
Best Wins: def. Northwestern (8-2) 28-0, def. Minnesota (7-2) 27-14
Point Differential: +208 (252-44)
As Beano Cook would tell you, no time in college football's history had a deeper array of talent than the years following World War II. Not only were the typical 19-22 year olds catching onto the sport in larger and larger numbers, but the 23-26 year olds returning from the war had some eligibility remaining as well. As we will see, teams from Army and Notre Dame dominated the post-war years, but behind All-American quarterback Pete Elliott, vicious guard Dominic Tomasi, war veteran and receiver Dick Rifenburg, and new coach (and former star Michigan end) Bennie Oosterbaan, the Wolverines of 1948 proved plenty dominant themselves. They had to replace quite a few talented individuals (Bob Chappuis, Pete's older brother Bump Elliott, and outgoing coach Fritz Crisler to name three) from the great 1947 team, but despite a rugged schedule, the Wolverines were barely challenged.
Perhaps the toughest win of Michigan's entire season came in the opener in East Lansing, against soon-to-be conference mate, Michigan State. The Spartans, likely bitter from Michigan's supposed efforts to prevent them from joining the Big Ten, had fallen to the Wolverines by a combined 150-7 the last three seasons, but Michigan had to hold on to win a tight 13-7 battle this time around. It was the closest anybody got all season. No. 15 Purdue fell, 40-0, then No. 3 Northwestern got mauled, 28-0. Michigan held off Illinois by a 28-20 margin (the Illini scored almost as much in one game as everybody else did combined), and after dispatching Navy and Indiana by a combined 89-0, the Wolverines held off No. 18 Ohio State in Columbus, 13-3, to complete their second consecutive national championship season.
31. 1988 Notre Dame
Best Wins: def. Miami (11-1) 31-30, def. West Virginia (11-1) 34-21
Point Differential: +237 (393-156)
Few teams had better feel for the moment than Lou Holtz's 1988 squad. With land mines everywhere they looked, the Fighting Irish knocked off Michigan in the clutch, took out Miami in one of the more renowned games of the last 25 years, and coasted through every other challenge they faced. They lacked true star power -- quarterback Tony Rice and receiver Rocket Ismail were both at least one year away from playing their best football, and their two All-Americans, defensive lineman Frank Stams and linebacker Michael Stonebreaker, were workhorses more than flashy stars -- and still dominated.
Before taking the Notre Dame job, Lou Holtz was the Bobby Petrino of his day. He coached William & Mary for three seasons, then jumped to North Carolina State. He led the Wolfpack to four bowls in four years, then jumped to the NFL, where he resigned from coaching the New York Jets before the end of his first season. He returned to the college ranks at Arkansas, finding plenty of initial success (30-5-1 in his first three years) before fading and eventually getting fired by Frank Broyles. He moved on to Minnesota, where he coached two seasons and jumped to his dream job, Notre Dame.
After spending a couple of years cleaning up the mess left by the failed Gerry Faust experiment, Holtz had the Irish ready to rock and roll in 1988. Ranked 13th to start the season, Notre Dame got by No. 9 Michigan in their first game after walk-on kicker Reggie Ho kicked four field goals, including the game-winner with under two minutes left. They handled a solid Michigan State team in East Lansing and coasted toward a showdown with No. 1 Miami in mid-October. The famed "Catholics versus Convicts" game ended in Notre Dame's favor when Notre Dame defensive back Pat Terrell broke up a two-point conversion to give the Irish a 31-30 win. This vaulted them to No. 2 in the rankings behind Troy Aikman and UCLA, and when the Bruins were upset by Washington State, the No. 1 Irish drilled No. 2 USC and headed to the Fiesta Bowl one game from the national title. Tony Rice dominated great West Virginia quarterback Major Harris, and Notre Dame's 34-21 win over the Mountaineers gave them Holtz's only title.
30. 1961 LSU
Best Wins: def. Ole Miss (9-2) 10-7, def. Colorado (9-2) 25-7
Blemishes: def. by Rice (7-4) 16-3
Point Differential: +202 (259-57)
Three years removed from a national title, LSU bounced back in a major way in 1961. They had gone just 5-4-1 in their first season since star Billy Cannon's departure, and when they lost at No. 11 Rice to begin the season, it looked like the Tigers' best days were behind them. Au contraire. Riding halfbacks Jerry Stovall (1962's Heisman runner-up) and Wendell Harris, LSU caught fire. The Tigers won their last 10 games of the season by a combined 256-41 margin. They shut out No. 3 Georgia Tech (10-0), then knocked off No. 2 Ole Miss (10-7). While overshadowed by a disgustingly good Alabama team, the Tigers dominated. They eventually met No. 7 Colorado in the Orange Bowl and blocked two punts on the way to an easy 25-7 win.
We have discussed many underrated coaches throughout this countdown, from Harvard's Percy Haughton, to Ole Miss's John Vaught, to Alabama's Frank Thomas, to Pittsburgh's Jock Sutherland. To that list we must add LSU's Paul Dietzel. In the five seasons before he took the LSU job, the Tigers had gone just 24-24-6 in an increasingly difficult SEC. After three floundering years (1955-57) in which LSU went just 11-17-2, Dietzel began to utilize the assets at his disposal (we will get to that soon enough) and, despite competing in what might have been the SEC's greatest era, the Tigers ripped off seasons of 11-0 in 1958, 9-2 in 1959 and 10-1 in 1961. Dietzel has been forgotten a bit because he did not succeed for long. He took the Army job (still very prestigious) in 1962, won only 21 games in four seasons, fought through nine mediocre seasons at South Carolina, before bouncing around as an athletic director. His career did not have longevity, but for a four-year span as the '50s turned into the '60s, Dietzel's Bayou Bengals were as strong as almost any program in the country. His teams will make two more appearances in just this piece alone.
29. 1938 Tennessee
Best Wins: def. Oklahoma (10-1) 17-0, def. Clemson (7-1-1) 20-7, def. Alabama (7-1-1) 13-0
Point Differential: +277 (293-16)
One year before they gave up zero points in the entire regular season, the 1938 Tennessee Volunteers had the audacity to allow three teams to score on them. Somehow this egregious slip-up did not prevent them from finding their way into the top 30 of this list. General Neyland's late-1930s teams were just vicious, none more so than a 1938 squad that shutout eight opponents, handed three different teams their only losses of the season, and rampaged through the SEC slate with a combined score of Tennessee 167, SEC Opponents 9. Tailback George Cafego gave the Vols all the offense they needed, and a defense led by guard Bob Suffridge and end Bowden Wyatt was suffocating.
In the three seasons leading into 1938, the Vols were solid but not great, posting a 16-10-3 record. They had begun the season unranked, but they made their first statement of the season by handing Clemson their only loss, 20-7. Two weeks later in Birmingham, they earned their first ranking of the year by handing Alabama their only loss, 13-0. LSU, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Mississippi State all fell by increasing margins, with the Vols' win over the Bulldogs finalizing an undefeated season and earning an Orange Bowl bid against the great Sooners of Oklahoma. No contest. Tennessee won easily, 17-0, earning a share of the national title from various sources (Davey O'Brien and TCU won the AP title, though they do not appear on this list).
28. 1959 LSU
Best Wins: def. Ole Miss (10-1) 7-3, def. TCU (8-3) 10-0
Blemishes: def. by Ole Miss (10-1) 21-0, def. by Tennessee (5-4-1) 14-13
Point Differential: +114 (164-50)
Our second of four LSU teams on the list is also officially the highest-ranked two-loss team of all-time. How can a two-loss team rank as one of the 30 best of all-time? By beating one of the teams ranked ahead of them, for starters. Plus, one of their losses came to a team ranked ahead of them, to boot. This was a wonderful team that was just not only one point away from the national title, but one foot.
Things were set up perfectly for back-to-back national titles in the Bayou. Billy Cannon was set to make a Heisman run, and with Paul Dietzel's perfect substitution patterns, no team was better equipped to win games in hot, muggy conditions than LSU. They began the season ranked No. 1 in the country and did nothing to dissuade voters in September and October. They took out three SWC foes -- Rice, No. 9 TCU, and Baylor -- by a combined 58-3 to start the season, then easily handled Miami. They faced down their first two road trips of the season with relative ease, beating Kentucky and Florida by identical 9-0 margins. This set up what has to be considered a legitimate candidate for the greatest game of all-time.
On Halloween night in Baton Rouge, No. 1 LSU welcomed No. 3 Ole Miss to town with, for all intents and purposes, a national title on the line. On a sloppy track with what seemed to be 110 percent humidity, Cannon fumbled early, setting Ole Miss up with great field position. They settled for a field goal and took a 3-0 lead. With the way Ole Miss's defense typically played, three points might be enough. They were still nursing the 3-0 lead with about 10 minutes remaining, when Cannon unleashed one of the greatest punt returns you will ever see (1:08 of the video linked above). With under a minute left, Ole Miss moved the ball to the LSU two-yard line, but on fourth-and-goal with the game on the line, Rebels quarterback Doug Elmore was stuffed at the one, and LSU took the victory. (A quick soapbox stance: LSU and Ole Miss should be playing on Halloween weekend every season, and they should have been doing so for the last 50 years. Make this happen, please.)
If ever there were a time when a letdown game was not only possible but probable, it had to be when LSU had to travel to Knoxville to take on No. 13 Tennessee a week after winning what some sportswriters were already calling the greatest college football game ever played. Sure enough, LSU's 19-game unbeaten streak fell when Tennessee's Jim Cartright took an interception 54 yards for a touchdown and, down 14-7, LSU scored and went for two points and the win. Cannon was stuffed just short, and Tennessee held onto a 14-13 upset. The Tigers would handle Mississippi State and Tulane, but they missed out on a repeat national title. Their second loss would come in a Sugar Bowl rematch with Ole Miss.
27. 1940 Michigan
Conference: Big Ten
Best Wins: def. Northwestern (6-2) 20-13, def. Penn (6-1-1) 14-0
Blemishes: def. by Minnesota (8-0) 7-6
Point Differential: +162 (196-34)
The Big Ten was still the class of college football in 1940. Though the Michigan Wolverines did not win a national title -- they did not even win their conference for that matter -- their performance through a brutal Big Ten slate gets them recognition on a list so dominated by strength of schedule. Led by Heisman winner Tom Harmon and quarterback Forest Evashevski, Michigan passed every test but one, coming up a point short at Minnesota.
Michigan began the 1940 season in Berkeley, where they unloaded on poor California, 41-0. All you need to know about this game comes from one play: Tom Harmon toying with the entire Cal defense on an 86-yard touchdown run. The Wolverines faced a brutal final month of the season. They took out No. 8 Penn, 14-0, before heading to Minnesota. The eventual national champion Gophers got a heroic performance from back Bruce Smith, who rushed for 116 yards and Minnesota's only touchdown. Minnesota made its PAT and Michigan did not, and the Wolverines fell, 7-6. With no time to rest, the Wolverines returned home and took out No. 10 Northwestern, 20-13, then blew past Ohio State in Columbus, 40-0.
A team like this reaches the top 30 because of both strength of schedule and size of schedule. The Wolverines played only eight games, four against big-time programs and only one against a cupcake. In a typical 11- or 12-game schedule, a couple more weaklings would have been involved, and it would have been tougher for this team to reach this high, especially with more opportunities for a loss. Regardless, Tom Harmon was amazing, and the team deserves celebrating.
26. 1991 Washington
Best Wins: def. Michigan (10-2) 34-14, def. Nebraska (9-2-1) 36-21
Point Differential: +380 (495-115)
After winning at least 10 games five times in an eight-year span and finishing second in the nation in 1984, Don James hit a dry spell over the last half of the 1980s. From 1985-89, the Huskies never had a losing record, but never won more than eight games, going just 36-21-2. They had entered what I like to call Glen Mason Territory, where you are consistently respectable but never elite (a paralyzing place to be as a fan or administrator -- there isn't a bright future, but there isn't a justifiable reason for making a change). But then something unexpected happened: Washington became elite again. With a batch of phenomenal recruits -- most notably defensive tackle Steve Emtman, receiver Mario Bailey, defensive back Dana Hall, and quarterbacks Billy Joe Hobert and Mark Brunell -- the Huskies surged to 10-2 and a Rose Bowl bid in 1990. Then, in 1991, they put together one of the greatest seasons of all-time.
Ranked fourth to start the season, Washington played in the shadow of Miami and Florida State all fall. But their results were staggering. They took out a good Stanford team (42-7) on the road, then they manhandled No. 9 Nebraska (36-21) in Lincoln. They beat Kansas State, Arizona and Toledo by a combined 158-3. Still ranked just third thanks to Miami's and Florida State's dominance, the Huskies faced down their toughest challenge on Oct. 19, surviving against No. 8 California, 24-17, in Berkeley. Beno Bryant took a handoff 65 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
From there, it was smooth sailing. Washington handled disappointing USC in L.A., then scored a combined 114 points against Oregon State and Washington State to lock up a Rose Bowl bid. The final coaches' poll of the regular season improbably had Miami and Washington tied with an identical 1,443 points. And of course, instead of the perfect national championship matchup, Miami went to pummel Nebraska in the Orange Bowl while Washington took on No. 3 Michigan. Hobert and Brunell combined to go 25-for-42 passing for 281 yards and three touchdowns as the Huskies completed their perfect season with a 34-14 romp. They won a share of the national title with Miami, but with the BCS still almost a decade away, they did not get a chance to face off with the Hurricanes.
25. 1988 Miami
Best Wins: def. Florida State (11-0) 31-0, def. Nebraska (11-2) 23-3
Blemishes: def. by Notre Dame (12-0) 31-30
Point Differential: +302 (418-116)
The second-best team of the Jimmy Johnson/Dennis Erickson era at Miami, these Hurricanes missed out on the national title by a single point, like many other teams on this portion of the list. Without that loss, they would have ended up in the top ten. They took on a brutal schedule (six opponents would win nine games or more), and if they played the famed Catholics vs. Convicts game ten times in South Bend, they probably would have won at least five or six. But they lost the one that counted.
No single team from The U. had more swagger, talent, and focused anger than this one, and they proved it in the opening week of the season. Despite 32 consecutive regular season victories, they began the season ranked eighth behind, among other teams, No. 1 Florida State. With the "Disrespect!" card to readily played, the Hurricanes never gave Florida State a chance in an opening-week massacre. They held star running back Sammie Smith to six yards rushing and intercepted FSU five times on the way to an easy, 31-0 statement win that vaulted them straight back to No. 1. They had to turn around and go to Ann Arbor to face No. 9 Michigan two weeks later and found themselves down 30-14 with five minutes remaining. Two touchdowns and a Carlos Huerta field goal later, however, they were celebrating a dramatic 31-30 win. After pummeling Wisconsin and Missouri, it was time to head to South Bend for what was easily the game of the year. The Hurricanes found themselves down 31-21 and driving for a score when Cleveland Gary committed a controversial fumble at the Notre Dame goal line (4:20 of this video -- it didn't appear he had actually caught the ball before losing possession). They rallied, however, and scored what would have been the tying touchdown with under a minute left. They went for two points and the win, but Steve Walsh's pass was broken up, and the Hurricanes fell, 31-30.
From there, it was back to dominating. No. 11 LSU fell by 41 points in Baton Rouge, then after dispatching of No. 8 Arkansas at home, they outgained No. 6 Nebraska, 354-135, in an easy 23-3 win. Small consolation, of course. Notre Dame got the banner and the rings, thanks to one lousy point.
24. 1966 Alabama
Best Wins: def. Nebraska (9-2) 34-7, def. Ole Miss (8-3) 17-7
Point Differential: +257 (301-44)
It's hard to blame Alabama fans for being greedy. Any fans would likely be the same. Despite two straight national titles, and despite a blemish in Notre Dame's record (a tie against Michigan State), undefeated Alabama finished third in the final AP Poll of 1966, and their fans are likely still rather annoyed by it. This team is the subject of a Keith Dunnavant book, The Missing Ring: How Bear Bryant and the 1966 Alabama Crimson Tide Were Denied College Football's Most Elusive Prize. As national sentiment turned against the South in the midst of the civil rights movement, there is a decent chance that Alabama's football team paid the price for it. The Tide team on the field had nothing to do with the politics off of it -- all Ken Stabler, Ray Perkins, Cecil Dowdy and company did was dominate.
While the SEC as a whole was falling behind a bit, due in part to their own slow movement toward desegregation, Alabama was still top dog. After an easy 34-0 win over Louisiana Tech, the Tide fell to No. 3 in the AP Poll, behind a dominant Michigan State team and UCLA. They knocked off a good Ole Miss team, 17-7, in Jackson, and fell to No. 4. They weathered a furious fight from Tennessee in Knoxville, winning 11-10, and then they picked up the pace. Only one of their next six opponents would stay within three touchdowns, and on Nov. 19, it looked as if they might move back into the top spot. No. 1 Notre Dame tied No. 2 Michigan State and caught major flack for not trying harder to win. Instead of making up ground, the Tide fell from 93 points behind Notre Dame in the polls to 109. Alabama blew out Auburn to finish the regular season, then obliterated No. 6 Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl, but No. 3 was where they were destined to finish.
(Lest this seem too sympathetic to the Tide, I should point out that we haven't seen 1966 Notre Dame's name on this list yet. And we will.)
23. 1958 LSU
Best Wins: def. Ole Miss (9-2) 14-0, def. Clemson (8-3) 7-0
Point Differential: +229 (282-53)
As mentioned above, Paul Dietzel discovered two definite advantages heading into the 1958 campaign: Billy Cannon and depth. Cannon possessed what seemed to be an almost supernatural combination of speed and power, but the latter advantage was just as important. With rules that prevented constant substitution (a player could only come out and return to a game once per quarter), Dietzel put together three distinct units -- the first stringers (the White Team), the second-string offense (the Go Team), and the wild second-string defense (the the Chinese Bandits -- a name that, needless to say, probably would not fly today). Playing all of their games in the muggy South (their road games were in Houston, Mobile, Miami, Jackson and New Orleans), the depth advantages Dietzel's substitutions forced were significant. Opponents wilted in the second half, and a 5-5 the season before was suddenly unstoppable.
It took only one week for LSU to get ranked. They pummeled Rice in Houston and found themselves ranked 15th when they headed to Mobile to face Alabama. The Chinese Bandits wrecked shop, and LSU returned home with a 13-3 win. The Tigers soon became No. 1 in the country and welcomed No. 6 Ole Miss to Baton Rouge over Halloween weekend (make this happen!). LSU stuffed the Rebels on a goal-line stand (just as in 1959) in the second quarter, then iced away the 14-0 win in the fourth quarter. LSU survived a deluge in Jackson, winning 7-6 when Mississippi State missed an early PAT, and demolished Tulane, 62-0, to clinch their first national title. They put away No. 7 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl for good measure. The Bayou Bengals had come out of nowhere with Cannon and the Chinese Bandits (worst band name ever) and ended up atop the college football world.
22. 2003 LSU
Best Wins: def. Oklahoma (12-2) 21-14, def. Georgia (11-3) 17-10 and 34-13
Blemishes: def. by Florida (8-5) 19-7
Point Differential: +321 (475-154)
Crazy, obsessed fans? Check. Oodles of great athletes in their backyard? Check. Great conference to showcase their wares? Check. LSU has long had all the makings of a top-tier, national program. But for a couple of decades, they were nothing but inconsistent. After the great success of the late-1950s and early-1960s, and after another round of strong play in the early-1970s, LSU wafted in and out of national consciousness. From 1980 to 1999, the Bayou Bengals went just 125-99-6. Enter Nick Saban, the Kent State product who had just led Michigan State to a 10-2 season. Saban took over for Gerry DiNardo, and within four seasons, LSU was national champion for the first time since 1958.
Things came together swiftly for Saban. The Tigers did win 26 games in his first three seasons in Baton Rouge, but they were still ranked just 15th when 2003 began. They feasted on early cupcakes, winning their first three games by a combined 143-27 margin, and got their first opportunity to make a statement when No. 7 Georgia came to town. With under 90 seconds remaining, Matt Mauck found Skylar Green for a 34-yard touchdown, and the Tigers won 17-10.
They would suffer a setback, however. Ranked sixth, they fell at home to an underachieving Florida squad, a game in which penalties and turnovers doomed the Tigers. But with their national title hopes likely quashed, they caught fire. South Carolina, Auburn, Louisiana Tech and Alabama fell by a combined 140-27 margin. No. 15 Ole Miss went down in Oxford. With national powers falling left and right, LSU found themselves ranked third in the country, and after taking out No. 5 Georgia for the second time (34-13 in the SEC Championship), they got a ticket to play Oklahoma for the BCS Championship (this was controversial, as LSU, USC and Oklahoma all had one loss, but OU's came last; the computers kept OU over USC). With Sooners quarterback Jason White limited by both injury and the Tigers' swarming defense, OU could not keep up in the second half. LSU won 21-14 and claimed their first national title in 45 years.
21. 1974 Oklahoma
Conference: Big 8
Best Wins: def. Nebraska (9-3) 28-14, def. Texas (8-4) 16-13
Blemishes: the stink of probation
Point Differential: +381 (473-92)
Because of probation and/or his success in the mid-1980s, it is easy to forget how successful Barry Switzer was in his first seasons as Oklahoma head coach. Taking over for Chuck Fairbanks in 1973, Switzer faced down NCAA sanctions without batting an eye. No postseason? No problem -- the Sooners went 32-1-1 in Switzer's first three seasons, winning shares of the national title in 1974 and (with the postseason ban lifted) 1975.
A forgotten champion of sorts, the 1974 Oklahoma Sooners were voted first in the AP Poll despite probation that prevented them from participating in the postseason or receiving votes in the other major poll, the UPI. Regardless of what confused polls had to say, this team was really, really good. Led by star running back Joe Washington (who finished third in the Heisman voting), they were challenged only once, running roughshod over a Big 8 conference in transition. Ranked No. 1 in the preseason, Oklahoma quickly lost the top spot after they dilly-dallied in defeating Baylor -- they led only 7-5 in the fourth quarter before exploding for a 28-11 win. They embarrassed Utah State and Wake Forest by a combined 135-3 margin, then hunkered down for their biggest test of the season. Against No. 17 Texas in Dallas, the game was tied at 13-13 in the fourth quarter when all-world defensive tackle Lee Roy Selmon met Texas back Earl Campbell at the goal line and forced a fumble. Kicker Tony DiRienzo kicked the game-winning field goal soon after. From there, Oklahoma was untouchable. Back at No. 1 after an Ohio State loss, they knocked off a solid Missouri team (37-0) then headed to Lincoln to face No. 6 Nebraska. With no postseason, this was their bowl game. They trailed 14-7 in the third quarter before unleashing hell -- three touchdowns and three interceptions led to an easy 28-14 win for the Sooners.
Heading into the postseason, there was a chance that the No. 1 Sooners would be punished by being out of sight and out of mind. But when No. 2 Alabama lost to No. 9 Notre Dame in Ara Parseghian's final game as coach, and No. 3 Ohio State lost to No. 5 USC in the Rose Bowl, the Sooners stayed atop the AP Poll.