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

The Top 100 College Football Teams of the Last 100 Years: Part V
The Top 100 College Football Teams of the Last 100 Years: Part V
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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

Record: 9-1
Conference: Independent
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

Record: 11-1
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

Record: 13-0
Conference: Pac-10
Best Wins: def. Oklahoma (12-1) 55-19, def. California (10-2) 23-17
Blemishes: none
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

Record: 9-1-1
Conference: SEC
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

Record: 12-0
Conference: SEC
Best Wins: def. Ole Miss (8-1-2) 24-7, def. Alabama (10-2) 7-3
Blemishes: none
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

Record: 12-0
Conference: SEC
Best Wins: def. Arkansas (10-2) 24-9, def. Auburn (8-3) 25-18
Blemishes: none
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

Record: 12-0
Conference: Independent
Best Wins: def. Oklahoma (11-1) 20-14, def. Florida State (11-1) 26-25
Blemishes: none
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

Record: 13-0
Conference: Big 12
Best Wins: def. Florida State (11-2) 13-2, def. Kansas State (11-3) 41-31 & 27-24
Blemishes: none
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

Record: 13-0
Conference: Big 8
Best Wins: def. Oklahoma (11-1) 35-31, def. Alabama (11-1) 38-6, def. Colorado (10-2) 31-7
Blemishes: none
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

Record: 8-0-1
Conference: Independent
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

Record: 9-0-1
Conference: Independent
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

Record: 11-1
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

Record: 10-1
Conference: SEC
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

Record: 10-0
Conference: SEC
Best Wins: def. Tennessee (8-3) 7-0, def. Florida (6-2-1) 13-0
Blemishes: none
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

Record: 12-0
Conference: Big East
Best Wins: def. Nebraska (11-2) 37-14, def. Syracuse (10-3) 59-0
Blemishes: none
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

Record: 9-0
Conference: Independent
Best Wins: def. Notre Dame (7-2-1) 48-0, def. Navy (7-1-1) 32-13, def. Michigan (7-3) 28-7
Blemishes: none
Point Differential: +366 (412-46)

4. 1944 Army

Record: 9-0
Conference: Independent
Best Wins: def. Notre Dame (8-2) 59-0, def. Navy (6-3) 23-7
Blemishes: none
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

Record: 9-0-1
Conference: Independent
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

Record: 11-0
Conference: SEC
Best Wins: def. Arkansas (8-3) 10-3, def. Georgia Tech (7-4) 10-0
Blemishes: none
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

Record: 10-1
Conference: SEC
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.


112 comments, Last at 22 Apr 2013, 5:15pm

#1 by UTchamps (not verified) // Jul 27, 2010 - 3:54pm

I thought we adopted this crappy BCS system so we have one national champion every year. Why is the only exception to this rule the 2003 USC team? They were named national champions by the Associated Press because the media is in love with USC but they DIDN'T PLAY IN THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME!!! Surprise, surprise I am not what you would call a USC fan and this is one of the main reasons why.

Points: 0

#4 by CuseFanInSoCal // Jul 27, 2010 - 4:19pm

In reply to by UTchamps (not verified)

The AP Poll named 2003 USC #1 in its final poll because the writers polled, in the aggregate, believed 2003 USC was the best team. Since the coaches' poll and the AP poll (but not the BCS computers and some oddball factors in the pre-2005 BCS rankings formula) had them #1 in the final regular season poll, and USC was unquestionably more dominant in its victory over #4 (in both the polls and the BCS rankings) Michigan than LSU was over Oklahoma (#2 vs #1 according to the BCS, but #2 vs #3 according to both major polls) in the Sugar Bowl, it's hardly surprising that USC remained #1. Indeed, it's likely that without the contractual ties between the BCS and the coaches' poll, USC would have been #1 in both polls at the end of the year, if only due to polling inertia.

Prior to 2006, there was no BCS championship game. In the first two iterations of the BCS, one of the BCS-affiliated bowls agreed to feature the #1 and #2 teams in the BCS standings.

There still is not a 'BCS championship'. The crystal football is the Coaches' Poll trophy. That it's utterly ludicrous for anything to call itself a poll without allowing a vote on #1 (as the final coaches' poll in the BCS era does) is kind of ignored by the system.

The FBS conferences agreed to assign teams to the BCS bowls according to the BCS selection formula. That's it.

The coaches' poll agreed to name the winner of the BCS #1 vs. BCS #2 game as it's champion. That's it.

I'm sorry you're under the mistaken impression that the BCS championship game is an actual 1-game playoff, but it just ain't so. If you're an SEC superiority cultist or shameless LSU homer, you may well believe 2003 LSU was in fact a better team than 2003 USC. But no one else does.

Points: 0

#11 by TomKelso // Jul 27, 2010 - 4:42pm

You seem to have forgotten that USC and the Pac-10 (and the AP) agreed to this system -- until it didn't give them the results they wanted.

Including the AP poll, the BCS system still picked Oklahoma and LSU. If you want to say the system was flawed, fine -- they changed it. If you want to say that we don't want to be part of it anymore, fine -- the AP dropped out of it.

But to say that you're the champions when the system you agreed to produces another result -- well, that's the way my 6-year-old plays. If she doesn't win, sometimes, she stomps around, yells it's not fair, raises a fuss and says she would have won if everyone else was "fair". Sometimes, she even gets people to agree with her, just for the sake of peace and quiet.

I don't accept it from her, and I don't accept it from USC. Under the rules they agreed to use, they didn't win the title. Nothing changes that. LSU was the champion based on the recognized criteria.

Points: 0

#27 by DoubleB4 (not verified) // Jul 27, 2010 - 9:14pm

"But to say that you're the champions when the system you agreed to produces another result -- well, that's the way my 6-year-old plays."

USC isn't saying they are the national champions of 2003--the Associated Press is, a poll that for better or worse has been recognized as a de facto national championship in major college football since 1936. The AP has never been obligated to vote the BCS winner as #1 (unlike the coaches) and in 2003 chose not to.

Points: 0

#29 by CuseFanInSoCal // Jul 27, 2010 - 9:30pm

You're claiming that BCS participants agreed to something they did not.

USC and the Pac 10 agreed to send the Pac 10 champ to the Rose Bowl (or another BCS game, under certain circumstances), and a Pac 10 team to other BCS bowls under certain conditions. They did not agree to anything else, because neither the conferences nor individual schools (nor, crazily, the NCAA) names a national champion in FBS college football.

The Coaches' poll agreed to name the winner of the BCS #1/BCS #2 game as its champion (which was crazy, as it makes the poll by definition not a poll).

The AP, which is the oldest major national championship selector, did not agree to anything, except that they asked to be removed from the BCS formula when they came to see it as a conflict of interest (ESPN dropped its affiliation with the Coaches' poll for the same reason at about the same time). They were not consulted in drawing up the BCS formula, and had no obligations to the BCS at all.

The BCS system arranges bowls, and has an agreement with the coaches' poll to name the BCS #1/BCS #2 game winner as its champion. That's all it does, and all it has ever done. And no one agreed to any more than that, and no one other than the FBS schools, one or more TV networks, and the Coaches' poll ever agreed to anything.

Points: 0

#37 by Counterfactual (not verified) // Jul 27, 2010 - 11:52pm

But CuseFanInSoCal never agreed to abide by the BCS system, so isn't he perfectly free to say whatever he wants about who he thinks is #1? Just for the record, let me state that I do not agree to the BCS system of determining the national champion. There, now TomKelso might let me have an opinion (and even post about it!) on who the national champion is at the end of this season :)

Points: 0

#51 by TomKelso // Jul 28, 2010 - 2:16pm

No one is saying anyone can't have an opinion -- but opinions can be wrong, and are not to be regarded as sacrosanct simply because they exist. To say that anyone is saying you or Cuse aren't entitled to your opinion is either wrong-headed or a deliberate fallacy.

But for USC to claim a "share" of the national title -- as they do -- is wrong. The AP can hold its poll, and can be part of the BCS formula or not a part, however they wish. For example, TCU in 1938 was regarded by a poll as the national champion, not Tennessee, and they're not on this list. But that's the system that was in existence at the time.

Opinions are great -- and a lot of what makes college football fun is the ability to argue opinions. USC should have been in the title game against LSU in 2003, if you want my opinion. But the system they agreed to didn't put them there. The system has since been changed. Whether it would have put USC in the game if it had been in effect back then I honestly don't know.

But when you make a deal, you live with the results. USC obviously disagrees with that; which makes their opinion as valid as anyone else's -- and as likely to be wrong.

Points: 0

#62 by CuseFanInSoCal // Jul 28, 2010 - 6:06pm

Something seems to be completely going over your head here.

Neither USC, nor the Pac 10, nor LSU, nor the SEC, nor Oklahoma, nor the Big 12 agreed to name a national champion in a specific way by becoming part of the BCS system. They did not agree to such a thing, because they did not name a national champion previously, and did not have the authority to do so. They just agreed to play in the BCS #1/BCS #2 game if they qualified for it.

The coaches' poll agreed to name the BCS title game winner as its champion. No matter who it's been affiliated with over the years, the coaches' poll has been a major national championship selector for a long time, and was considered one of the major polls (along with the AP poll) when the BCS got started in 1998.

The coaches' poll did not get any special blessing from the NCAA to make its champion any more official than any other ranking systems'; it derives its authority from the history and tradition of the coaches' poll.

The NCAA did not make any agreements with the BCS; the BCS #1/#2 game winner is not an official NCAA champion.

So if you understand that, then you realize that the AP did not magically lose its status as a major poll and major national championship selector when the BCS was created. And as such USC is hardly doing anything underhanded by claiming a share of the 2003 national title.

There's not a school in the country that would refuse to acknowledge an AP title, especially in a season where they were #1 in both major polls going into the postseason and won their bowl against a top-5 team easily.

Points: 0

#63 by TomKelso // Jul 28, 2010 - 6:45pm

The only thing going over anyone's head is that the BCS was set up by the schools and the bowls to present a championship game, in lieu of an actual playoff. The NCAA does not recognize a national champion, so that is immaterial. This is an arrangement made between those conferences, Notre Dame, and the four bowls.

That you can't seem to acknowledge that USC was fine with that until it didn't get what it wanted is the sticking point. The AP can name whomever it wishes as national champion -- but USC agreed to a system that said it would be part of the BCS.

So when USC decides to claim a national championship, instead of following the agreement they made, yeah, that smacks as being wrong. You can say they got screwed, and I would even agree with you, but that doesn't make their claim valid. Not even USC gets to change the rules at the end of the game.

Points: 0

#71 by CuseFanInSoCal // Jul 29, 2010 - 12:25am

And again, you're wrong. USC agreed to nothing regarding naming a national champion in football when the Pac 10 agreed to join the BCS. All they agreed to do was play in a BCS bowl if they were selected under the BCS rules. If they had agreed to something, then the other parties to that agreement would have taken legal action against them.

Points: 0

#72 by Jetspete // Jul 29, 2010 - 8:32am

Cuse fan is correct. College football does not recognize a national champion through a playoff, it does so through two polls. The deal was worked in 98 that the winner of the BCS Championship Game (or back then the 1 v 2 bowl game) would win the Coaches poll. And yes, for those that think the crystal trophy, which is awarded to the winner of the Coaches poll, signifies the only national champion then USC would have no claim to the 03 title. However USC was number 1 in the AP poll, and as such there were split national champions.

And to back up Cuse's point, you only have to go back 2 years to find a similar situation. Before the bowls, it was widely believed that had Oklahoma beaten florida several AP voters wouldve made Texas their national champion.

Points: 0

#112 by Rock Dawg 1979 (not verified) // Apr 22, 2013 - 5:15pm

In reply to by UTchamps (not verified)

There was a Defense that probably will always be overlooked but they were a great group of guys to play with. The Gulf South Conference or Gulf States Conference had a defense in 1978 that led the Nation in scoring defense. They gave up 37 points in the conference and 41 outside the conference for a total of 78 points in an 11 games season. They had a Second, Third, and Ninth round draft pick on the team. Southeastern Louisiana University was the team and we played in Division II at the time.37 years later the team is still the scoring leader for fewest points allowed in an 11 game season in the conference. Great Team with Great Guys (Billy Brewer of Ole Miss Fame was the coach)

Points: 0

#2 by Art Deco (not verified) // Jul 27, 2010 - 3:59pm

A little surprised that 1996 Florida didn't make this list - beat #2 Tennessee at Knoxville 35-29 but that game was 35-0 in the second half; beat #12 LSU and #16 Auburn by a combined 106-23 followed by a 47-7 win over Georgia, beat #11 Alabama 45-30 in the SEC Championship Game, and their only blemish was a 24-21 loss at then-#2 Florida State which was almost immediately avenged with a 52-20 blowout of the Seminoles in the Sugar Bowl for the national title.

Points: 0

#3 by Bill Connelly // Jul 27, 2010 - 4:14pm

They were No. 162. Really, there was very, very little difference between approximately Nos. 50 and 200, so they acquitted themselves rather well.

Points: 0

#98 by fatmosh (not verified) // Aug 13, 2010 - 3:20pm

In reply to by Bill Connelly

Look at the 1996 Gators overall point differential. I came up with +390! How does that not make the Top 100?

Granted, their defense wasn't anything special, but their offense was incredible.

Points: 0

#56 by Mike Henry (not verified) // Jul 28, 2010 - 4:08pm

I agree Art, no UF team in the Top 100?!?!? Come on. The 1995 team was probably even better than the 1996 team and the 2006 put up incredible numbers on defense.

Points: 0

#60 by cfn_ms // Jul 28, 2010 - 4:42pm

Cribbing a post I made on a Florida board here re 2006 defense:

It wasn't exactly a historically dominant defense. They pitched a shutout against UCF, held USM and Kentucky to 7 points each (all EARLY in the year), and then never held any other 1-A team to less than 10.

In fact, Vandy got 19 against Florida, which was above average for their SEC games (their average was 16.4; they also only scored 7 against Michigan).

South Carolina's average offensive output in SEC play was 18.4 points, and they scored 17 against Florida. Take away Vandy (reasonable since this should be an elite standard to measure up against), and the Gamecocks' points scored against Florida was HIGHER than average vs SEC teams (though they did score 31 against Clemson).

Florida St's average offensive total against ACC teams not named Duke was 18.4 (though they did get 44 in their bowl game against UCLA). They scored 14 against Florida, which doesn't seem like much of an outlier (especially since Wake shut them out two weeks prior).

Arkansas' SEC points average was 27.7, and they scored 28 against Florida. They then only scored 14 in their bowl game against Wisconsin.


how, exactly, were these "incredible numbers"?

Points: 0

#5 by Jetspete // Jul 27, 2010 - 4:20pm

Best defense does not, and should not, equal best team. In the NFL, have you ever heard the 2000 Ravens mentioned as the greatest team of all time? That is the equivalent here. I'm looking at Ole Miss' 1959 schedule, and at face value it is worthless. There only quality wins were Arkansas at home and LSU on a neutral field. There is no way anyone can claim their schedule matches anything a championship team from the last two decades has seen, and for two months all I have heard was weak schedule weak schedule from Bill and the FO gurus when someone defends a current big-boy.

I cant find records for Memphis and Chattanooga, so i'll assume they were lightweights (if i'm mistaken i apologize), but of Ole Miss' other 8 wins, only 2 came against teams that won over half their games. And no offense to Bill from his Ole Miss write-up, but i think its much better for a case of greatness to lose your only game in triple OT, or on one of the most disputed calls in NCAA history than on a punt return.

Points: 0

#13 by Bill Connelly // Jul 27, 2010 - 4:45pm

"Of Ole Miss' other 8 wins, only 2 came against teams that won over half their games."

Here's the problem with that: in those days, up to eight of your ten games were in-conference. Ole Miss only played six, but here was the combined non-conference record for their six conference foes (Kentucky, Vandy, Tulane, LSU, Tennessee, Mississippi State): 16-2. Average score in those 18 games: SEC Team 25, Opponent 7. The SEC was magnificent that season, and it's silly to look at each team's overall record -- a large portion of their schedules came against each other!

Points: 0

#50 by Jetspete // Jul 28, 2010 - 1:58pm

Very true Bill, and i agree in context you dont want to look generically at records. But when you look at those 16 wins, only one appears impressive (LSU over TCU), two others LSU and Kentucky over Miami look solid, and a lot of those games were cupcakes.

At the end of the day this ole miss team, no matter how dominant defensively, only had three real contests, in which they were 2-1.

Points: 0

#52 by Bill Connelly // Jul 28, 2010 - 2:29pm

Let's not overstate the defense thing here. Again, they were one of a very small handful of teams to rank No. 1 in defense and in offense. They scored a lot of points on teams with great defenses.

Points: 0

#77 by Muldrake (not verified) // Jul 29, 2010 - 12:08pm

While that's true, it could also mean that all the teams in conference were mediocre and that Ole Miss, while better than them, wasn't even the best team in the country that year.

The problem is most evident in the 1986 Oklahoma entry, which states that OU beat respectable squads in ISU and OkSt, who both managed at least 6 wins. What isn't said is that ISU didn't beat a team that won more than 3 games all season and that OkSt actually by more than 2 TDs to a Houston team that finished 1-10. The Big 8 was weak that year, and the fact that a number of teams are hovering around .500 is indicative of the weakness...not evidence that they were all good.

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#101 by HottyToddyJosh (not verified) // May 02, 2011 - 11:37am

I just want to say that we where awarded the national championship by multiples poles and was rated as team of the decade. I understand why people would disagree I'm just saying that there are valid points to ranking the '59 team as the best team ever. The 59' team was great and if you saw video you would see how dominating they were.

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#17 by billsfan // Jul 27, 2010 - 6:00pm

Have you ever head the 1985 Bears mentioned as the greatest team of all time?

(I also like the Eagles)

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#49 by Jetspete // Jul 28, 2010 - 1:39pm

yes, but the bears had a good offense led by a hall of fame RB. Ravens were offensively challenged. As is this ole miss team

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#54 by observer (not verified) // Jul 28, 2010 - 3:15pm

How on earth could you suggest Ole Miss was "offensively challenged"? That's just flat out wrong. They scored just under 32 points per game - IN 1959. As bill stated, they led the nation in both offense and defense.

In fact, they set school records for points per game and points in a season - records that weren't broken until Eli Manning came along in the early 2000's. In an era not exactly known for high-flying offenses and not even counting the 21-0 Sugar Bowl blowout of LSU, the average score of their games was 29.9 to 1.9.

If you want to debate the strength of their opponents, fine. There are a number of teams who could claim to be the greatest of all time. But this argument that they were only good on defense is completely absurd.

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#61 by Jetspete // Jul 28, 2010 - 5:01pm

I dont fire up on blowing out bad teams, which was my point about their offense. Wow, look at the way they scored 50 on Tennessee-chattanooga! They scored 16 points in each of their first two games, and unfortunately i cant find game data from that season to know how many points were scored on defensive td's or ypg data. Ok, i was a bit harsh on offensively challenged, but i was speaking generally about good teams. Great offenses dont score 3 points in losing efforts. Think of the way that would be criticized in today's media. Take a look at the National Champion that year, Syracuse. They had no trouble scoring points and put up the most points against each of its opponents except two, and missed out by 4 and 2 respectively.

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#92 by SheepDog (not verified) // Jul 31, 2010 - 3:40pm

I have seen the 1985 Bears mentioned as one of the Best teams of all time- not that I necessarily agree, but they are certainly in the discussion

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#105 by jspiker (not verified) // Apr 20, 2012 - 10:12am

RE: Baltimore Ravens. Even more to point are the 1977 Atlanta Falcons who were both statistically and in practice more impressive than the Ravens. They surrendered just 9.2 points per game (the Ravens gave up more than 10). Granted, their was more offense in 2000. But the Falcons' offense was god-awful. Not just average like the Ravens'. Downright god awful. Thus, the team finished 7-7. If ever there was an example of the bet defense doesn't necessarily mean best team, that's it.

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#7 by cfn_ms // Jul 27, 2010 - 4:30pm

Surprised to not see them in the top 100. Where were they, and what changes had you made from the list you had sent me? If I recall right, you had them #1 of the last five years.

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#8 by Bill Connelly // Jul 27, 2010 - 4:36pm

That's where I was thinking we were off. The list I sent you did not have an extra year-specific adjustment involved. Each of the 100 season had era- and year-specific adjustments based on standard deviations. I can explain via e-mail if need be.

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#40 by cfn_ms // Jul 28, 2010 - 2:29am

Yes, I'd be quite curious about that. I can certainly see era-specific adjustments making sense (though I wouldn't know much about how exactly to do them), but the year-specific ones aren't something I understand. I'd be quite curious to hear about how and why they were implemented.

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#6 by dmstorm22 // Jul 27, 2010 - 4:26pm

Not a big college football guy, but really enjoyed these rankings, and it was good to see that the best college football team of my lifetime (the 01 Hurricanes) were so highly ranked.

This is different than being the best college team, but in terms of having NFL talent as starters (so not guys like Taylor, Rolle and McGahee that barely saw the field) there can't be any team close to that one, right?

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#9 by Bill Connelly // Jul 27, 2010 - 4:37pm

In the podcast coming later this week, Beano Cook mentions the 1947 Notre Dame team that had something like 30+ future pros on it. What Miami accomplished with 85 scholarships was staggering (for this era, it was probably the best), but it was probably bit more common back in the day.

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#42 by Mr Shush // Jul 28, 2010 - 6:38am

I don't know anything about 1947 Notre Dame (look forward to the podcast), but it's not just the volume of NFL talent on that Miami team, it's the quality. A mortal lock first ballot Hall of Famer (Reed), another guy who will probably end up in Canton if his career continues along its current arc (Johnson) and eight other players who would go on to make pro bowls (Portis, Gore, McGahee, Shockey, Winslow, McKinnie, Vilma, Taylor). That's ten guys who weren't just pros but stars in the pros. Utterly amazing.

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#68 by Displaced Cane // Jul 28, 2010 - 8:34pm

When UM and FSU played each other in 1987, there were 56 players on the field who would later make it to the NFL. That's got to be a record. I wonder whether the 87 Canes' roster was as impressive as 01....

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#94 by brute (not verified) // Aug 02, 2010 - 2:51pm

Not even close. Depending on how you define "make it to the NFL," 2002 Ohio State had between 37-40 NFLers by themselves. Add to that Miami's robust number (couldn't track down their accurate info as easily), and it's got to be close to 75 for the 2002 title game. Can't verify it, but I've heard that game had the most NFL players ever.

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#10 by Dan in Philly (not verified) // Jul 27, 2010 - 4:40pm

and I enjoyed your embracing the controversy. One small nit to pick, when you say that ole miss would have gone on in a playoff, you miss the real possibility that in a playoff system, their one loss might very well have been in that playoff, and they still would not have won (again referencing the Pats/Giants). I know there are good arguments for a playoff, but there are good ones against, as well.

Thanks for the great series and letting youngsters like me (39) know more about the great teams of the past.

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#12 by Bill Connelly // Jul 27, 2010 - 4:44pm

In reply to by Dan in Philly (not verified)

That's very true.

And let's just say that if you're a youngster, I'm very much also a youngster. :-)

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#14 by Salur (not verified) // Jul 27, 2010 - 5:23pm

And now all that needs to be done is the bottom 100 football teams of the last 100 years...

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#104 by OleMissFan (not verified) // Nov 25, 2011 - 11:20pm

The 2011 Ole Miss squat might top that list, too...we're a school of extremes...

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#15 by RebelYank24 (not verified) // Jul 27, 2010 - 5:44pm

The #1 pick is terrible. If you're talking about the best defense equaling the best team then why not pick 1930 Alabama as your #1? They allowed just 13 points all season long. Hell, why not pick 1901 Michigan? They shutout every team they played. Their closest game was a 21-0 win over Ohio State.

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#24 by dbostedo // Jul 27, 2010 - 8:34pm

In reply to by RebelYank24 (not verified)

There was no "pick". This list is based on a mathematical rating system. Disagree with the system if you wish, but once it was in place, it was out of anyone's hands. The comments with each team are an attempt to explain the ratings of the system, not justify any subjective "pick".

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#32 by billsfan // Jul 27, 2010 - 9:40pm

In reply to by RebelYank24 (not verified)

1901 Michigan wasn't within the last 100 years, or even the best team that season.

That 21-0 game was against an Ohio State team that went 0-2 that year, and was Michigan's only road game. They also beat Albion, Case Western, and Stanford, who were a combined 0-4. That's right. 4 shutouts against teams that played (and lost) a total of 6 games. Now that's a cupcake schedule.

1901 Harvard, meanwhile, was also undefeated, allowing 24 points, with victories over Dartmouth (9-1), Yale (11-1-1), Army (5-1-2), and Penn (10-5). The Yale game was a shutout.

Against their sole common opponent Carlisle: Harvard 29-0, Michigan 22-0.

Shame this guy only does yearly rankings.

(I also like the Eagles)

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#16 by Jeff Fogle // Jul 27, 2010 - 5:44pm

I really am a big fan of this project and FO's college efforts. I have to say though that putting forth an all-white team from a segregated conference as "the top team of all time" is unsatisfying given what we know about the arrow of time in this sport.

A quick excerpt from an article I'll link to regarding the 2008 HBO documentary on the integration of college football:

"...the stories of men like Bubba Smith, who grew up in Texas but had to go north to Michigan State to play big-time football. The Spartans' coach, Duffy Daugherty, recognized the value of recruiting black players from the South, and he never had a player better than Smith, a defensive lineman who starred on teams that went a combined 19-1-1 in his junior and senior seasons, and who was the first pick in the 1967 NFL draft.

Smith's senior season, which culminated with a 10-10 tie against Notre Dame, represented a major shift in power in college football, as the Fighting Irish and Spartans finished first and second in the AP poll, while undefeated and untied Alabama finished third. The AP voters recognized that Alabama's 11-0 record, built in a segregated Southeastern Conference, was inferior to the 9-0-1 records of Notre Dame and Michigan State, which played with and against the best athletes in the land, regardless of skin color."

The full article:

A list of 2010 inductees from the Black College Football Hall of Fame shows the caliber of athletes that weren't on SEC rosters at the time, including Buck Buchanan (Grambling '59-63), and Deacon Jones (Mississippi Valley State '58-60)

The best team of all time didn't even have some of the best players of its time from the South?

It's a complicated issue, because it's hard to know how competitive balance would have shifted if at all given a modern distribution of athletes in that time frame. Stephen J. Gould showed in his 1995 book "Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin" that extremes in performance are less common with more competitive balance (there are no more .400 hitters because depth of talent evolved to having very few truly awful pitchers at the bottom of pitching staffs).

Ole Miss of '59 was the best of an all-white league...and, based on BC's methodology the best of an all-white era in the SEC. Do we want to make the case that this makes them the best college football team of all time?

And, do you want to deal with a headline somewhere that says:
"Football Outsiders Says Best College Team Ever Was All White"

I'm not in any way suggesting BC or FO are racist. College football was racist in the South for many decades in terms of who got to play. Measurements that don't account for that are prone to polluted results.

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#19 by Eddo // Jul 27, 2010 - 6:59pm

In reply to by Jeff Fogle

Jeff, you make a lot of really interesting and apt points, if this were a subjective list of teams. However, all the model knows is the on-field results, more specifically, how well a team did against its competition in a given year.

Could Bill have put in a "segregated team" variable? Probably, though that brings up a whole boatload of questions. Do you only apply it in years where there were integrated teams?

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#21 by M // Jul 27, 2010 - 7:45pm

In reply to by Jeff Fogle

Sports statisticians have tried to account for segregation (and subsequent integration) many ways over the years, and it is never, never, easy. Bill James once tried to statistically compare the talent gap between the NL & AL that existed over much of the 50's & 60's; while he had a very good hypothesis (the NL was far more integrated over those years than the AL was), he did not seem very satisfied at his results. Interestingly, one of the elements necessary that didn't exist then was interleague play, as it would allow more accurate measures of schedule strength and therefore provide a better tool to compare performance of players in the NL vs. the AL.

Reading his statements over the past month, my guess is that Bill has already probably pushed the edges of what he considers to be "qualitative" adjustments to the model. Any "integration adjustment" would have become the sole discussion point of this series, and instead of developing an appreciation of college football history, it probably would have degenerated into bitter sniping (Disclaimer - Jeff, I'm sorry if I'm getting too close to that bitter sniping line right now; I've been on both sides of this issue!).

Furthermore, while I haven't read SJG's book, I've read many references to it over the years by statisticians, and of the key items that I've seen addressed over time is the "process variance" inherent in player performance. Regarding the .400 hitter phenomenon, there are a few changes in the game that probably have ALOT more influence on the disappearance than integration - night vs. day baseball, better gloves and more devotion to defensive technique, higher reliance on relief pitchers, increased emphasis on power(including the effects of ballpark design) - these are just a few of the factors that are likely influencing this phenomenon in addition to the talent pool. However, given SJG's background as an evolutionary biologist, he forgot one very, very key thing - many of the best athletes now play football or basketball. Given roster sizes (especially with teams carrying more pitchers than just 25 years ago), it wouldn't be difficult to argue that the talent pool/roster space ratio for pitchers available for baseball now vs 70 years ago is at worst EXACTLY THE SAME!

A final thought - the 1927 Yankees are often (but not always) considered to be the best baseball team of all time. This argument has been made using both quantitative and qualitative methods. It's also been said that you can't compare eras because that was before Jackie Robinson and integration. I personally find it a lot of fun to compare teams from such different eras (such as the 1998 Yankees) despite the obvious challenges. Stating categorically that an "all-white" team can't be rated number one purely due to that obvious fact kills any discussion or debate before it can even begin. Frankly, I love the fact that BC's methodology gives us such a controversial all-time best team; it's been a much more rewarding payoff than seeing one of the usual suspects at the top of the list. It's been entertaining as hell seeing what people get up in arms about, be they concerns about the model (overvaluing defense compared to offense), or be they concerns about the sociopolitical aspects of college football history. It's all been rewarding, IMHO.

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#28 by Jeff Fogle // Jul 27, 2010 - 9:29pm

Think I agree with everything you said M. I should clarify that SJG's thesis wasn't that "integration" was the cause of competitive balance. I didn't explain that as clearly as I could have. Yes, there were many changes in baseball that helped bring about the disappearance of .400 hitters. Integration was arguably among them. As you point out, there were many influences. To me, the sum of SJG's point was that better depth of competitive balance helped drive out the weakest links that allowed the strongest links to fly way above the norm. I think, in college football, integration would have played a much more dramatic role in that regard had it happened sooner in the SEC.

It's very tough to mathematically account for this. I'm not saying I have the solution. It would be fun to be part of a group that searches for the solution.

I've been trying to research what I can on this issue on the web this afternoon. Really tough to get a sense of the pace of integration across the sport during those decades. I do know that once integration took hold, there was a flood of African Americans earning starting positions such a breakneck pace that few watching it happen would have thought to themselves, "You know who the best college football teams ever were? The pre-integration teams of the SEC in the late 50's and early 60's." The game wasn't just changing, it was IMPROVING. And, once Alabama integrated after the 1970 home loss to USC (, this affected the whole nation rather than just parts of the nation.

Some of my first football memories are seeing OJ Simpson on TV. Here's a clip from 1967...which is just 6-8 years removed from the all-white teams that finished 1-2 on FO's list:

I don't want to suggest that the all-white SEC was a "minor" league that couldn't play football. It was a different league though. And, that difference may be at the heart of what's allowing them to float above other top nominees in this particular methodology. Maybe playing non-integrated non-conference games allowed them to pad their records in a way that created illusions in strength of schedule. Maybe playing a field position war rather than a more wide open game created condensed scoring that allowed the best SEC teams to throw more shutouts than the rest of the country was seeing (margins of 350-21 rather than 420-100 or something). The sheer consistency of teams from that era floating to the top (four of the top six of the "non-Army/non-war era) teams in a counter-intuitive way suggest something's awry. I mean...I'm guessing we've all watched a lot of college football over the years. Four of the six best non-military teams OF ALL TIME were all-white schools within an integration a sport where integration EXPLODED in terms of jobs won by African Americans as soon as the doors were open?

I agree that it's difficult to know for sure. To me, the burden of proof is on those who would suggest that all-white pre-integration teams were the best of all time, not on those who think otherwise. It seemed to be clear to fans of the 60's, the sportswriters of the 60's, and ultimately the head coaches of the 60's that integration led to better teams rather than worse teams. The youtube clip of Bear Bryant didn't suggest he was thinking "Crap, my teams will get worse but I have to obey those damn federal laws." That would mean the post-integration teams of the early 70's were better than the pre-integration teams of the late 50's and early 60's. And, THAT would mean that teams of the late 50's and early 60's weren't the best of all time, or deserving of spots 1-2 on a list of all-time teams. Being in a bubble that excluded many of the best athletes of the region helped create illusions that we've yet to figure out...

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#57 by M // Jul 28, 2010 - 4:11pm

Very well put, Jeff, and I agree with all of your points here. I am just glad you didn't take the gloves off after my response to your post.

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#69 by Jeff Fogle // Jul 28, 2010 - 8:44pm

Uh oh...don't want to be seen as a guy who is taking his gloves off all the Enjoyed reading your posts last season. Look forward to reading them this year. I'd, uh, gladly carry your shoulder pads to the locker room to use this week's football metaphor...

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#106 by jspiker (not verified) // Apr 20, 2012 - 10:19am

I think there is another factor that needs to be considered in discussing segregation era baseball: competition from other sports. really, in the 1920's, baseball was absolutely king. Pro football was just starting. The NBA was far off. So, while the talent pool was diluted by excluding Blacks, it was greatly enhanced by the fact that baseball was pretty much the only real professional team sport option so all the top athletes took that route rather than football or basketball.

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#23 by Travis // Jul 27, 2010 - 7:54pm

In reply to by Jeff Fogle

Ole Miss of '59 was the best of an all-white league...and, based on BC's methodology the best of an all-white era in the SEC. Do we want to make the case that this makes them the best college football team of all time?

Looking at the list, 12 of the top 50 schools played in the SEC from 1956-1962, the period immediately following the Pitt-Georgia Tech Sugar Bowl (which led to several southern states passing laws prohibiting their teams from playing against teams with black players) and also Brown v. Board of Education. (The schools: 1959-62 Ole Miss; 1958-59, 61-62 LSU; 1961-62 Alabama; 1957 Auburn; 1956 Georgia Tech.)

Is connectivity another factor here? If NESCAC schools (who don't play anyone outside the conference) were included, would 2003-2005 Trinity be one of the top dynasties of all time?

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#31 by CuseFanInSoCal // Jul 27, 2010 - 9:35pm

In reply to by Jeff Fogle

And I was just annoyed with the #1 because the consensus national champs in 1959 were my Orange, and that was the only time that's ever happened.

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#95 by KenNorth (not verified) // Aug 10, 2010 - 1:43pm

In reply to by Jeff Fogle

>> based on BC's methodology the best of an all-white era in the SEC

There's no question that SEC football was changed after USC's Sam "Bam" Cunningham had a performance against Alabama that convinced Bear Bryant it was time to break the color barrier.

But we should not be so quick to dismiss those '50s-'60s SEC teams because they played in an all-white conference. 1966 comes to mind because the best three teams of that year (Notre Dame, Michigan and Alabama) are on my personal All-Time Best College Team list.

Alabama was undefeated in 1966 but many football fans believed it could not beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Sugar Bowl. The Big 8 conference was integrated and Nebraska had lost only a single game by a point to Oklahoma (10-9). During the regular season, Nebraska had outscored opponents by 216-84 and the Cornhuskers were ranked #4 by the AP poll. The Cornhuskers outweighed the Crimson Tide by about 30 lbs. per player.

But Bear Bryant's Alabama teams during that era were marked by quickness and an explosive line surge. Alabama defeated Nebraska 34-7 in the Sugar Bowl to remain undefeated and untied, but it was still ranked behind Notre Dame and Michigan State in a year that produced three of the best college teams ever .

If you check the NFL draft that followed that season, four of the first eight picks were from that great 1966 Michigan State team.

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#96 by KenNorth (not verified) // Aug 10, 2010 - 3:29pm

1966 was a year when three teams on my personal best list ended up 1-2-3 in the polls. It was also the year when a game matching Notre Dame and Michigan State was billed the "Game of the Century".

Both programs were powerhouses during that era. Michigan State had rolled over UCLA in the January 1966 Rose Bowl. Ara Parseghian's Notre Dame teams were given the McArthur Trophy in 1964 and were voted the national champions in 1966 and 1973.

Both teams were undefeated and untied going into the 1966 game. Notre Dame was ranked #1 and Michigan State was ranked #2. They played to a 10-10 tie but remained 1-2 in the polls.

The rosters for both team were loaded with talent, including names that are recognizable from their pro football career.

    Notre Dame 1966

Rocky Bleier (Steelers), Larry Conjar (Browns, Eagles, Colts), Pete Duranko (Broncos), Nick Eddy (Lions), Bob Gladieux (Patriots), George Goeddeke (Broncos), Terry Hanratty (Steelers), Kevin Hardy (49ers, Packers, Chargers), Bob Kuchenberg (Dolphins), George Kunz, (Colts, Falcons), Jim Lynch (Chiefs), Mike McGill (Vikings, Cardinals), Alan Page (Vikings), John Pergine (Rams, Redskins), Tom Regner (Houston Oilers), Paul Seiler (Jets, Raiders), Jim Seymour (Bears),Tom Schoen (Browns), Steve Quinn (Oilers), Joe Azzaro, Don Gmitter

    Michigan State 1966

Bob Apisa, Clint Jones (Vikings, Chargers), Dwight Lee (Falcons, 49ers Alouettes), Jimmy Raye (Eagles), Jeff Richardson (Jets, Dolphins), Bubba Smith (Colts, Raiders, Oilers), James Summers (Broncos), Eugene Washington (Vikings, Broncos), George Webster (Oilers, Steelers, Patriots).

Four Michigan State players were among the first eight players taken in the first round of the 1967 NFL draft:

Bubba Smith (1), Clint Jones (2), George Webster (5), Gene Washington (8).

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#18 by Elroy (not verified) // Jul 27, 2010 - 6:17pm

2004 USC did not "almost lose" to 2004 UCLA. It was 29-17 and UCLA scored a touchdown to make it 29-24. After getting within five, the Bruins had the ball for all of one play at their own 20 for the rest of the game and turned it over on that play. Not even close to scoring the game winning TD.

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#20 by D // Jul 27, 2010 - 7:28pm

Just out of curiosity, where would 2005 USC rank. Even before they lost to Texas most agreed they weren't as good as the '04 squad, but how much did they drop? Also, is it possible to get all the teams' actual Est. S&P+ rating somewhere?

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#25 by Marko // Jul 27, 2010 - 8:37pm

They probably wouldn't rank too high because they were winless. Although they did play in the BCS National Championship Game.

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#22 by Tom Gower // Jul 27, 2010 - 7:51pm

Since I'm in a contrarian mood, here's why each of these teams is unworthy of a ranking among the 20 best college football teams of the past 100 years.

20. 1943 Notre Dame
Other teams (e.g., 1942 champ Ohio State) crippled for the entire year. Lost. Segregation era.

19. 1986 Oklahoma
Lost. Inferior (by polls, and likely this as well) bowl opponent because of loss.

18. 2004 USC
No real objections here, since I don't think the Bush payoffs had started yet. The Oklahoma-Auburn debate only has an obvious answer in retrospect, and I won't punish the Trojans for the problem of 3 teams and only 1 game. As Bill detailed, not as impressive as some other teams aside from 55-19.

17. 1962 LSU
Tied 2-6-2 Rice. Let me repeat that: tied 2-6-2 Rice. Also lost. Single platoon era. Segregation era. Didn't win conference.

16. 1952 Georgia Tech
Single platoon era. Segregation era. Played conference opponent in bowl game.

15. 1979 Alabama
Does Alabama ever play a team from outside the South? I guess Wichita State counts... stuck with inferior bowl opponent (Arkansas didn't win SWC) because of conference tie-ins. Not much to complain about here, aside from the SEC's apparent hatred of leaving the South, ever.

14. 1987 Miami
Beneficiary of Florida State's Adventures in Kicking, Vol. I. Played bowl game at home. Beyond that, fine.

13. 2000 Oklahoma
Beneficiary of weakened FSU with loss of only offensive threat in Snoop Minnis. Like 2004 USC, I won't blame them for FSU/Miami/Washington imbroglio not of their making. Bowl game was desultory, and Bill noted Heupel's arm injury, but generally very impressive, but probably not in my personal top 5 of last 20 years (off top of my head, penalizing losses heavily: 2005 Texas, 2004 USC, 2001 Miami, 1999 FSU, 1995 Nebraska). Not as much NFL talent as you'd expect, especially on offense.

12. 1971 Nebraska
Beat teams ranked 2, 3, and 4. Effectively, season was maybe 4 or 5 games long. Not much to complain about here, aside from mis-identifying George Rogers as 1971 Heisman winner rather than Auburn QB Pat Sullivan once cost me brownie points at work.

11. 1946 Notre Dame
10. 1946 Army
No bowl game. Limited substitution era. Segregation era. Army still benefited from massive wartime advantage. Immediate post-WW2 years featured weird mix of older vets on GI Bill and normal high school graduates.

9. 1972 Oklahoma
Lost. Deprived of superior bowl opponent by conference tie-ins, though Penn State was fairly respectable. Officially forfeited 9 games this year and ended up on probation because of NCAA violations.

8. 1962 Alabama
Lost. Segregation era. Single platoon era. Didn't win conference.

7. 1957 Auburn
Segregation era. Single platoon era. No bowl game, as one-tied Ole Miss went to Sugar Bowl.

6. 2001 Miami
Almost lost to Boston College, which produced a massive HUH? when I first heard it. Nebraska making the Rose Bowl despite 62-36 loss to Colorado and not winning B12 produced BCS formula change and probably deprived Miami of best possible opponent. FTR, I thought Florida was only team that could've given Miami a game, but Gators lost to Auburn when missing top 3 TBs and Tennessee without top TB Graham and when they couldn't tackle Travis Stephens in 9/11-rescheduled game, settled for blowing out Maryland.

5/4. 1944/45 Army
No bowl game. MASSIVE recruiting advantage. Rest of college football mostly/completely crippled thanks to World War II.

3. 1966 Notre Dame
No bowl game. Tie is the only other real blemish.

2. 1961 Alabama
Segregation era. Single platoon era. Stuck with inferior bowl opponent (again, Arkansas didn't win SWC) thanks to conference tie-ins.

1. 1959 Ole Miss
Lost. Segregation era. Single platoon era. Didn't win conference. Lucked into rematch with conference opponent in bowl game thanks to LA/Sugar Bowl's racism.

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#26 by Shattenjager // Jul 27, 2010 - 9:13pm

Tom has removed the need for any further comments here.

However--Colorado beat Nebraska, and badly, just three years before I went there?! I'm just glad it didn't happen while I was there--that would have been scary.

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#55 by Anonymous Jones // Jul 28, 2010 - 3:21pm

Huh? Tom's lengthy (though interesting) post merely pointed out that (1) this is a "most dominant in any one year" list (obviously, with the aid of a time machine, 1959 Ole Miss would get throttled by almost every team in 2010) and (2) statistics are abstracts that often do not account for many factors like segregation, cheating, field conditions, etc.

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#67 by Shattenjager // Jul 28, 2010 - 8:09pm

You thought I was serious?

Other than the CU-Nebraska comment (which was serious), I thought that was obvious enough that I was not that I didn't need to add a disclaimer saying, "I don't really think that Tom just exhausted all possible areas of discussion on this issue for all time." Apparently, I did need such a disclaimer. So, here it is:

I don't really think that Tom just exhausted all possible areas of discussion on this issue for all time, or even the useful life of this comment thread. I was joking. Hopefully, you find it humorous and smile. If not, I apologize for my failed attempt and hope you find more enjoyment elsewhere. Have a pleasant day.

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#30 by Jeff Fogle // Jul 27, 2010 - 9:34pm

Fun to be on your side of a debate Tom. Agree with that breakdown, though I very much enjoyed reading the backdrops of the teams provided by BC.

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#35 by Travis // Jul 27, 2010 - 10:37pm

In 1953, college football enacted a rule under which substituted players couldn't return to the field until the next quarter.

This was loosened somewhat in 1958, when a player could leave and return once per quarter; 1959, when a single player (or "wild card") could enter at any time when the clock was stopped; and 1960, when that wild card could enter at any time.

Fully unlimited substitution wasn't reinstated until 1965, though there was near-unlimited substitution in 1963 and 1964.

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#34 by RebelYank24 (not verified) // Jul 27, 2010 - 10:07pm

Just so you know Tom, Alabama played a lot of teams outside the south in the 70s. '79 was just an anomaly. You usually saw USC, Nebraska, Missouri, Washington, etc. on the regular season schedule during the 1970s.

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#39 by Tom Gower // Jul 28, 2010 - 2:00am

Yup, 1947-70 was really the main era when Alabama didn't travel at all (by which I mean they didn't play a single game outside the South* (*-1860 slave states) from that era). In that way, 1979 (all Southern teams except Wichita State) was kind of a fluke for Alabama for the 1970's, but indicative of how much of their history had been. (For comparison's sake, look at Ohio State, who played 10 west coast road games in that 1947-70 time frame). If you like, transfer my modern complaints about SEC scheduling to Florida, which I don't believe has played a non-conference game out of state since 1991, and Georgia, who only played non-conference games in Georgia and South Carolina after a 1972 trip to Tulane until recently.

Re single platoon, my mistake-I thought the substitution limitations went into place in 1952 rather than 1953. Complaints on 1952 Georgia Tech therefore revised to segregation era, bowl game v. conference opponent, and I'll also add that 8 of their 11 regular season games, including 5 of 6 conference games, were home contests, Michigan State was unbeaten and #1 in both polls, only one of their five non-conference opponents was better than .500, and perhaps most damningly, Billingsley ranked the Yellow Jackets #1 over the Spartans.

1952 is an interesting season. Michigan State was #1 in UPI every week and in AP every week but went, when #8 Wisconsin leapfrogged them after a victory over then-#2 Illinois, but the Spartans didn't join the Big 10 until the following season and were left out of the bowls. Their best win by a reasonable margin was Notre Dame, who finished #3 in the polls despite 2 losses and a tie thanks to wins over otherwise-unbeaten Oklahoma and USC (who in turn gave UCLA its only loss). In addition to twice-tied Ole Miss, Georgia Tech also avoided in conference play once-tied Tennessee (who lost out of conference to a Duke team Georgia Tech beat) and otherwise mediocre Kentucky, who nevertheless tied both Ole Miss and Tennessee.

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#36 by Travis // Jul 27, 2010 - 11:03pm

1957 Auburn was on NCAA bowl probation for recruiting violations (as mentioned by Bill above) and thus was ineligible for the Sugar Bowl.

1952 Georgia Tech played in the (old) two-platoon era.

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#38 by Bill Trainer (not verified) // Jul 28, 2010 - 12:08am

You should check your facts more thoroughly. 1952 was not single platoon. Single platoon was instituted in 1953.

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#45 by andrew // Jul 28, 2010 - 9:33am

Many of the teams are discounted for having been great in the segregation era.

Which begs the question, should any of the historically black colleges have been considered? I know its almost impossible since they couldn't play against the other top teams, but there is no question many of those schools were far more potent in those days when they had near exclusive access to some of the top athletes in the country.

I wouldn't know where to start singling out teams, but a friend of mine (who is admittedly biased) said to look at the 1965 Florida A&M team that went undefeated, outscored its opponents 506-33, and he claims (can't find it online) allowed about 70 yards a game. I think Bob Hayes was on that team.

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#65 by M // Jul 28, 2010 - 7:34pm

Tom, regarding Oklahoma - you forgot to include the fact that Brian Bosworth had a really bad 80's fauxhawk mullet haircut (search for pix from the movie "Stone Cold"). That alone should be enough to get them off of the top 20 list.

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#107 by jspiker (not verified) // Apr 20, 2012 - 10:25am

Exactly why does being a single platoon era team mean the team wasn't great? You could say that if the two-way team played two-way against a platoon team playing platoon football, they'd be ground down and wouldn't have the specialized skills to stay wit them. But that's comparing apples to oranges. If a two-platoon squad had tow play both ways against a two-way squad, they'd wear out. And they wouldn't have the comprehensive skills to compete with guys who knew offensive and defensive positions. The two platoon team would have to either field an ineffectual offend of defensive players, a defense of offensive players that would get shredded, or mix the two and have gaping holes on both sides of the line.

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#109 by jspiker (not verified) // Apr 20, 2012 - 11:25am

Does Alabama ever leave the South? Not unless you count numerous games against Penn State, Notre Dame, Missouri, Southern Cal, Nebraska, Washington, Cincinnati, UCLA, Boston College...I could go on.

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#41 by Anonymous1112 (not verified) // Jul 28, 2010 - 3:02am

The description of the 2001 Miami team made me wonder, with all of the ridiculous talent they had, why couldn't they find a good quarterback. Three players who would go on to be stars at the RB position in the NFL and you had to start Ken Dorsey at QB??? Ken Dorsey?!?!?! It just doesn't make sense to me. I know he put up good numbers in college, but with the talent around him, it's pretty obvious why that was.

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#43 by andrew // Jul 28, 2010 - 9:19am

In reply to by Anonymous1112 (not verified)

Ken Dorsey was the leader of that offense, he showed a lot of grit and determination, especially the year before hanging in against a terrific punishment from the Seminoles to deliver the ball despite being murdered.

Teams are more than just great NFL talent.

He was very much a part of that team, he earned his spot there. Could they have been better with someone else at QB? Maybe. But don't assume you could just plug in anyone who went to the NFL and think they'd have been better.

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#44 by dbostedo // Jul 28, 2010 - 9:30am

In reply to by Anonymous1112 (not verified)

Ken Dorsey may not have made it in the pros, but he was a very highly recruited high school QB, and had some outstanding performances in college. Judging him by his lack of pro success, and then assuming that meant that Miami seemingly couldn't pull in a better college QB is a little backward I think. He was a very, very good college QB (given the talent and system around him).

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#53 by Yaguar // Jul 28, 2010 - 2:29pm

To some extent, playing for a team that good might have made the transition especially difficult.

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#64 by Pat F. // Jul 28, 2010 - 6:51pm

In reply to by Anonymous1112 (not verified)

It's also worth remembering that Ken Dorsey started 13 NFL games. That's a lot more than most college QBs, probably including most of the ones on this list.

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#46 by j4r (not verified) // Jul 28, 2010 - 10:53am

How about the 1932 Colgate University team - undefeated, untied, unscored upon and... uninvited. The season included victories over Penn State and Syracuse. They expected to go to the Rose Bowl, but Pitt went instead and lost 35-0. Colgate may not be #1 or even in the top 10, but I find it hard to believe that they're not in the top 100.

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#47 by Bill Connelly // Jul 28, 2010 - 11:36am

Strength of schedule killed them. They played four teams that would have been considered Non-D1 at the time (St. Lawrence, Case, Niagara, Mississippi College), and their average result against those teams (Colgate 37, Opp 0) would have just been considered an average or above average result. They beat good Brown and NYU teams, but Syracuse and Penn State were very average, and Lafayette was well below average. As a result, 1932-Colgate ranked just 1007th.

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#48 by billsfan // Jul 28, 2010 - 11:42am

Only one "good" win, over 7-1 Brown, with 4 winless teams (combined 0-7) and only two teams with winning records, Brown and 5-3 NYU.

USC, meanwhile, went 10-0 (13 points allowed), including shutouts over one-loss Wash St., Utah, and Pitt (Rose Bowl).

Michigan went 8-0, (also 13 points allowed), over two one-loss teams.

Both of Pitt's ties were against one-loss teams (Nebraska and Ohio State), and they beat two-loss Army, Penn, and Notre Dame.

(I also like the Eagles)

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#58 by M // Jul 28, 2010 - 4:32pm

Bill - Minnesota had 5 "National Champions" from 1934 to 1941, along with highly ranked teams in 1960-62 & 1967. What are the highest ranked Minnesota teams on this list. Based on what I've seen, I'd say one of 1934, 1935, or 1941 would have to be in the 101-150 range. In looking over some data, I see why the 1940 Gophers made the list - they played one of the toughest schedules in the country (#2 on one list).

That said, I'm gathering that there was a huge Big Ten bias in pooling during that era, and that Minnesota unfairly benefited a few times.

(Disclaimer - "reluctant" Gopher alum)

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#59 by Bill Connelly // Jul 28, 2010 - 4:41pm

Here are the Top 20 Minnesota teams according to their Est. S&P+ rank...

98. 1940 Minnesota
104. 1941 Minnesota
164. 1911 Minnesota
226. 1910 Minnesota
233. 1936 Minnesota
290. 1934 Minnesota
424. 1917 Minnesota
447. 1935 Minnesota
481. 1927 Minnesota
537. 1914 Minnesota
598. 1915 Minnesota
710. 1928 Minnesota
753. 1912 Minnesota
781. 1961 Minnesota
846. 1962 Minnesota
893. 1933 Minnesota
962. 1925 Minnesota
1028. 1938 Minnesota
1078. 1949 Minnesota
1081. 1956 Minnesota

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#66 by M // Jul 28, 2010 - 7:40pm

It's notable that the 1960 "National Champions" are not even in the top ELEVEN-HUNDRED teams. I sense there could have been significant buyers-remorse from the voters after the Rose Bowl that year.

Thanks for the quick reply! Is there any chance of having a FO download available soon for an Excel sheet with all of the thousands of teams? It'd be fun to filter by year/conference/coach, etc. That might be a good way for people to admit "Hmmm...there really IS a lot of compression in the data once you get further down the list. Maybe this ranking stuff is more difficult than I thought!".

Maybe I'm just naive. Regardless, I still think this has been an awesome series.

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#70 by Jeff Fogle // Jul 28, 2010 - 8:46pm

This page with a team picture helps paint a picture of gradual integration in the North in 1960. Minnesota's QB Sandy Stephens (if the info is correct by the showcase picture) was an African-American....

And the results page:

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#97 by KenNorth (not verified) // Aug 10, 2010 - 5:39pm

> Minnesota's QB Sandy Stephens was an African-American ...

That's correct. I watched him play in the Rose Bowl.

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#73 by mikeym (not verified) // Jul 29, 2010 - 10:32am

I'm pretty sure a monkey could put a better list together.

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#76 by Bill Connelly // Jul 29, 2010 - 11:25am

That would be awesome.

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#110 by jspiker (not verified) // Apr 20, 2012 - 11:30am

And a better post.

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#74 by Jetspete // Jul 29, 2010 - 10:38am

as a side note, i wonder where the rest of the unbeatens from the last 30 years rank on this list?

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#75 by young curmudgeon // Jul 29, 2010 - 11:11am

Re post #55: "obviously, with the aid of a time machine, 1959 Ole Miss would get throttled by almost every team in 2010"

I often hear this argument, and if you take a good 2010 team back to play an outstanding team from 1959 straight up, I can't really offer much to dispute you. But don't make the time travel just one day; let's give the 1959 athletes a "life long" time machine. They receive more modern medical care--even prenatal care, for that matter. They have the benefit of a better understanding of nutrition. They play organized football from the age of 6 instead of sandlot. They get high quality coaching in high school, maybe even in middle school. They practice and play on turf instead of grass. They spend the off season in the weight room instead of on the baseball team or working on the family farm. They concentrate on football instead of trying to be a three sport athlete. They have access to modern training methods (and sometimes, regrettably, various modern chemical aids to physical enhancement). If injured, they can be treated by new methods (just as one example, arthroscopic surgery has reduced recovery time from many knee injuries significantly). I could go on (you might say I have already!)

If you accept these conditions, I think the advantage that the 2010 team has (and, again, I don't disagree that it has one) is greatly diminished. I honestly believe that a great athlete then would be a great (if different) athlete now. There was a thread comment in an earlier part of this series denigrating Red Grange, who was 5'11 and 175 lbs. when he played. I think if Grange were playing today, he might be just as quick, just as elusive, but, with the changes I listed above, maybe he'd weigh 225 and still be a great player. He'd still be 5'11'' though!

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#80 by Jeff Fogle // Jul 29, 2010 - 12:28pm

Hope this wasn't the comment you considered as denigrating Red Grange...

"Red Grange was listed at 5'11, 175 in college registries, 6'0" 180 in the NFL (lol, he grew an inch as a pro!). He was truly super-duper-fantastic for his time."

Jeez a double hyphenated superlative...and that's denigrating?

Agree with much of what you said YC. You can probably add in changes in game strategy too. The players would know more variations of the offense. Are you going to integrate them too? Or would it still be an all-white team?

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#83 by young curmudgeon // Jul 29, 2010 - 8:07pm

Thanks Jeff, I agree that game strategy advances would be another huge factor, probably more significant than many I listed. And I don't think the Red Grange comment you quote is the 'denigrating' one I thought I remembered; if it is, I clearly misapprehended your meaning and apologize.

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#78 by rmft13 (not verified) // Jul 29, 2010 - 12:11pm

The 2004 Auburn Tigers are the best team to ever step foot on a college football field.

(And I'm a BAMA fan)

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#79 by cfn_ms // Jul 29, 2010 - 12:21pm

good one. got a good chuckle out of that statement. Just a few counter-arguments:

Their schedule was pretty mediocre. Not only did they play an AA opponent, but the SEC was definitely not good enough that year (4-4 regular season vs BCS leagues/ND, plus losses to Navy, Memphis, UAB, and Ohio, among others; and those last four losses were each by a different SEC team) to make a schedule that contained ULM and Louisiana Tech seem imposing.

Their last three games were pretty meh for a supposedly legitimate national title contender, much less "best team ever"; 21-13 against Bama, 38-28 against Tennessee, and 16-13 against Virginia Tech aren’t the sorts of games that make you think “awesome team”

So... not particularly dominant in the biggest games of the year (especially late), an overall mediocre schedule for an AQ team... yeah, I'm not seeing it, and I don't think too many others are either. Whether you're actually a Bama fan or just an Auburn fan trying to get cute is irrelevant, because you're wrong.

If you'd like to actually back up your statement with something other than "because I say so", feel free to try, but don't expect anyone to take you seriously until you do.

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#81 by Jeff Fogle // Jul 29, 2010 - 12:47pm

SEC in bowls that year...

Failed to match expectations:
Alabama (-1.5) lost to Minnesota 20-16
Florida (+4) lost to Miami-Fla 27-10
Georgia (-7) beat Wisconsin 24-21
LSU (-5) lost to Iowa 30-25
Auburn (-6) beat Virginia Tech 16-13

Beat expectations:
Tennessee (+4) beat Texas A&M 38-7

The "best team to ever step foot on a college football field" would have been more than -6 over Virginia Tech at a neutral site. And, they would have won by more than a statement game where they should have been trying to show the whole world that they were a true #1. (Jason Campbell was the QB of the best college team to step on the field?)

Total Yardage: VT 375, Auburn 299
Yards-per-play: VT 6.3, Auburn 5.1

Some late game inflation there as Auburn got conservative with a 16-0 lead and it almost bit them in the butt. It did bite their alumni in the butt if they bet the game, lol.

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#82 by Jeff Fogle // Jul 29, 2010 - 5:10pm

A man named Valeriy Brumel of the Soviet Union set the World High Jump record in June of 1961 at 2.23 meters. He gradually lifted it up a hundredth of a meter at a time to 2.28 by July of 1963. That record stayed in the books for a few more years. Any "top high jumper of all time" study done in 1965 would have had Brumel as the guy, no questions asked.

Dick Fosbury showed the world the Fosbury Flop in the 1968 Olympics. That became the preferred approach to the event. Brumel's record finally fell in 1970. Then there was a gradual progression upwards:

2.35 meters in 1980
2.40 meters in 1985
2.44 meters in 1989
2.45 meters in 1993, which is still the current world record held by Javier Sotomayor of Cuba (who also had the 2.44 in '89).

Making a determination NOW, would we still consider Brumel the top high jumper ever? Of his era...certainly. Of the pre-Fosbury era...certainly. Of all time?

I know this isn't a perfect parallel to this series...but there have been evolutionary changes in football involving the arrow of time that I think should influence any true estimate of the "top teams of all time." YC mentioned several of them a bit ago, after we had already established integration. Surely strategic changes...the move toward more of a run/pass balance...the move toward spreading everyone out and hitting a variety of receivers rather than just going deep and hoping for a connection...are all part of the mix too.

I hope the group will consider thinking about those arrow of time issues, and coming up with ways to chart evolution in the sport...then perhaps stability in the sport. Note that high jumping hit a wall with Sotamayor 17 years ago, putting an end to the march through time to higher levels.

Did college football evolve through 1990 then hit a wall? Did it evolve through the 40's and 50's...hit a wall in the 50's and 60's (with the SEC teams highlighted above representing the best of all time then...but looking like Valeriy Brumel after integration), then pick up again with integration, before hitting a wall when scholarships were trimmed and everyone had speed at all the speed positions? Is it still evolving now in such a way that the teams of 2010 are demonstrably superior to the teams of 2000, the way that high jumping in 1975 was superior to that of 1965?

It may or may not lead to a deeper understanding of what's happening in today's game. I'm currently having an email debate with somebody who thinks that the spread offense is revolutionizing football, and is still revolutionizing football. I'm saying that I think it did for awhile, but now defenses have figured out ways to deal with it, and the tide is turning back the other way (pointing out the many spread offenses that took steps backward last year, particularly against good defenses---with Colt McCoy's struggles vs. OU and Nebraska being prime evidence).

If we develop ways to spot evolutionary ticks, or at least monitor the ebb and flow of predator vs. prey, it may help us properly rate teams in any active season...and properly gauge how things ranked in the past. Then we can say 1959 Ole Miss was the best team of its era, without having to suggest that an all-white run heavy team that couldn't score a TD in its biggest regular season game of the year was the top college football team of all time...just as nobody's saying Valeriy Brumel is the top high jumper ever even though he truly was dominant in his era.

Wanted to get that off my chest because the topic will drift off the front page within a couple of days and everyone will be discussing other things. I do think this is important in terms of football analysis...and I'm grateful BC put so much work and research into this project. He said at the very beginning that the rankings were "debate starters." Maybe they can be a discussion starter in this particular area...

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#84 by Jetspete // Jul 30, 2010 - 11:48am

Jeff youve had some great analysis on this discussion. I like your high jump analogy, however in most sports, as in other areas of society those that came before us set the benchmarks that those of us find new methods to attain. The cuban who set the record in 1990 did so because his benchmark was 2.40, if his benchmark was 2.47 you wonder if he could have set that higher mark.

also you have to look at how college football has evolved to include a greater player pool. Were youth sports an option in the 1940s and 1950's for black kids in the south, especially Florida? Today athletes are groomed from a young age, whereas in that era few kids were likely trained in that manner. So even if you try to keep scientific advances equal, you are still left with major social factors that you eloquently described.

This list has rewarded all-white teams that for societal reasons would not play outside its region. But take into account that those teams built themselves to play only each other. Mississippi had to be built to be a power team that could beat power teams. Mississippi was not forced to evolve on the football field the way the North or West did, so in essence they were the best at what they did because they did not have to worry about more athletic teams that could spread the field.

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#85 by Jeff Fogle // Jul 30, 2010 - 1:23pm

Agree with your thoughts JP about the player pool. Obviously population's a lot bigger, even before you talk about the impact of "trained" athletes who grew up with youth leagues. Much deeper pool by leaps and bounds.

Don't think I agree about the benchmark though. There are limits that eventually get reached I think. You see that with horse racing speeds. Even if Sotomayer was somehow influenced by a benchmark, there's been about 17 years of international high jump competitions since then with other people and the bar hasn't moved. Can see benchmarks during evolution...but there are walls that can come into play at a certain point.

Does anyone have team stats on the '59 Rebels? Looked all over for them and kept coming up dry. I know Jake Gibbs threw sometimes (and went on to play catcher for the Yankees). I know their stud running back was top five in the Heisman balloting. Just don't know what their pass/run split was. Feels like smash mouth football...but it may have been more wide open than I'm imagining...albeit wide open with only white players.

Ultimately, the way we "define" era's may come down to run/pass ratios. I could see using 1970 as a cut-off point for integration, because that's kind of symbolically recognized with the Bear Bryant story referenced in an earlier post. If we have a cut-off for when passing became xxx amount of the play calling in the sport as a whole (I'd have to see some numbers to get a sense of a reasonable cut-off), we can use that combination to isolate when "the modern game" basically took hold.

Given that Archie Manning played in the late 60's and Ole Miss, and is remembered for passing (though pass-happy back then is different from pass happy now), that transition point may also be in that general vicinity.

Could be though that it's more like 1990 or so when passing reached thresholds that more represent what we watch now...and represent the end of an evolutionary tick that increased production in a way that became fairly standardized (with a handful of wishbone type teams on one extreme end of the spectrum, and extremely pass heavy spread offense teams on the other). Would be fun to research. So hard to find stats from past eras though...

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#86 by Travis // Jul 30, 2010 - 1:54pm

Team stats for 1959 Ole Miss from the Ole Miss record book:

Total Offense (10 games): 698 plays, 3686 yards, 43 td
Rushing: 528 carries, 2391 yards, 33 td
Passing: 170 passes, ? completions, 1295 yards, 10 td, ? int

Total Defense (10 games): 517 plays, 1472 yards, 2 td
Rushing: 383 carries, 939 yards, 1 td
Passing: 132 attempts, 61 completions, 533 yards, 1 td, ? int

FWIW, the statistics for the 1959 Syracuse team:

Total Offense (10 games): 728 plays, 4515 yards
Rushing: 570 carries, 3136 yards
Passing: 158 attempts, 1379 yards

Total Defense: ~481 plays, 962 yards
Rushing: 299 carries, 193 yards [not a typo]
Passing: ~182 attempts, 769 yards, 2 td, 19 int

Note: statistics don't include bowl games.

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#88 by Travis // Jul 30, 2010 - 3:32pm

Additionally, the top ten teams of 1959 in various categories can be seen here. Syracuse finished 1st by wide margins in both offensive and defensive yardage per game, while Ole Miss finished 5th and 3rd. (No adjustment for schedule strength, of course.)

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#89 by cfn_ms // Jul 30, 2010 - 8:57pm

The big problem with trying to make adjustments like that is that virtually all numbers in CFB are against defenses. If you throw for 400 yards, is that because your offense is great, or because the other defense blows? It's impossible to say. And that's true for virtually every number in college football.

Of course, players are faster and stronger now than before. Of course, integrating rosters made the teams better. But you can't put a number on that, because teams improved on offense and defense, not just one or the other.

You can always look at things like field goal numbers, kickoff distances, etc. , and while those are pretty direct measurable (though field goal blocking, and the potential to rush kicks because of field goal blocking, affects FG numbers to some degree) they're ultimately unimportant measurables. You can say that kickers have gotten X percent better, but that percentage doesn't necessarily tie to (or even approximate) how much better other positions have gotten, and there's no way that the kicker position makes a huge difference in valuing a team.

I'm curious if anyone out there has a tangible idea for how to account for the impact of integration, players and schemes improving over times, etc. , because I can't think of anything that would take us from "yes, we know this is happening but we can't measure how important it is" to actually being able to adjust for it.

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#90 by Jeff Fogle // Jul 30, 2010 - 11:08pm

I think we can get there thematically. Access to stats from the earlier decades will make it very difficult to fully implement any sort of adjustments though.

We start with the premise that evolution is happening in college football...and not just the meandering "survival of what fits" theme that's represented by branches on a tree (the random walk where things change, but don't necessarily get better or worse). It's predators and prey driving each other. Gazelle's eluding jaguars.

An example of the "what fits" evolution would be the old story about how white moths used to be common in England when all the roofs where white. Then, after the industrial revolution, the roofs were covered in soot and gray moths became more populous. Before the factories were built, gray moths used to stick out like a sore thumb, while white moths were better disguised from things that eat moths. Suddenly, it was the white moths sticking out like sore thumbs. The environment changed...and gray moths fit better. Gray moths weren't "tougher" or "superior" to white moths in terms of an inherent quality. The world took a random walk and they were better favored.

College football isn't like that in terms of what we're measuring. Gravity wasn't really intense in the 1950's, but then so light and airy in the 80's that passing became more common. The savannah stayed the same, and our creatures were left to their own devices to develop survival strategies. Some worked for awhile. Those that went extinct (or almost extinct like the option attack) were inferior strategies that couldn't survive.

From that starting point, we can pretty reasonably assume that strategies which went extinct were inferior strategies in terms of the arrow of time. Those that are still around are better than what used to exist (but may actually go extinct in the future as the predator/prey issues continue---quarterbacks who run may disappear because of new understandings about the impact of concussions for example).

Never Passing: went extinct
Single Platoon Football: went extinct
All-White Teams: went extinct
The Quick Kick: mostly extinct, particularly in terms of how it was described in BC's podcast with the Ole Miss star.

We can at least start with that. Assume that extinctions are a reflection of inferiority rather than a side effect of a random walk.

CFN's point about defenses is a good one, but I think it becomes less of an issue when you look at the season level. If you gain 400 yards in a game, we can't tell if the defense was good or bad. But, if you gain 4,800 yards over 12 games, we have to assume you didn't play 12 bad defenses in a row.

We can also consider using the Olympic Diving method and throwing out some of the best and worst performances to focus on the middle. I do this a lot with a variety of stat things in all sports because it focuses on the diamond in the middle that's been created by the outside forces. Most recently I used it to see how the NL was closing the gap with the AL in Interleague play. The won-lost record didn't change all that much from last year. But, if you threw out the high's and low's, the NL clearly made big strides. It's just that Pittsburgh and Houston were so horrible they drove the league-wide record down this season. In the past few years, almost ALL NL teams were consistently losing (except Colorado and the Mets I think). This year, several NL teams started winning, which was important to notice if you were trying to predict game by game results.

Anyway, USC struck me as having an ungodly offense a few years ago when they were popping ridiculous yardage totals often.

2005 USC Gained:
518 yards vs. Hawaii
736 yards vs. Arkansas
593 yards vs. Oregon
631 yards vs. ASU
724 yards vs. Arizona
476 yards vs. Notre Dame
390 yards vs. Washington
745 yards vs. Washington State
529 yards vs. Stanford
434 yards vs. California
508 yards vs. Fresno State
679 yards vs. UCLA
574 yards vs. Texas

Good lord. I've been logging boxscores for 25 years and I'd never seen anything like that (wish I had been SAVING boxscores for 25 years, lol). If you throw out the 3 best (736-724-745) and 3 worst (390-434-476) you still have:
518-593-631-529-508-679-574 for the middle seven. Everything in the middle seven was over 500 yards, with a couple cracking 600. Can't imagine seeing anything like that in any other era...making me fairly confident that USC of 2005 had the best offense ever.

Now, nothing's perfect. Some teams will play schedules vs. 8 crappy teams, meaning some of the middle hunk comes vs. crap. Some will play 8 good teams, meaning their middles will be lower than is fair. If we're focusing on large hunks of games (conferences, sets of major conferences), we should at least be able to draw conclusions.

I'd also suggest something like looking at the "volume" of contributors. Meaning, how many DIFFERENT guys on a team made it past xxx number of yards receiving, rushing, or returning kicks. My impression is there's a general march of time toward bigger volume in this area. A few guys per team would do that in the 50's and before. As the game opened up (and integrated), more receivers and kick returns reached the threshold (and possibly a couple of USC cheerleaders in 2005 given all that yardage).

This sort of stuff can at least help is define "eras". Maybe it's just too much apples and oranges to compare 1959 Ole Miss to somebody from the 1990's, or even last year's Alabama team. We've got to take baby steps before we can run a marathon anyway.

My baby steps would be

*Isolating what went extinct so we can get a firmer sense of the arrow of time.

*Trying to find hunks that avoid strength of schedule pollution as best as possible (probably impossible to completely crack this nut).

*Use some Olympic Diving stuff to get rid of outliers (which helps throw out seasons vs. very weak or very strong schedules).

*And, look at volume of contributors rather than game totals to get a sense of competitive balance, and how integration opened up the weaponry (remembering that defenses were trying to counter-act this in ways that are even harder to measure because individual defensive stats barely exist).

It's a start anyway. Hope others will share their ideas too...

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#87 by Jeff Fogle // Jul 30, 2010 - 3:13pm

Thanks Travis. Will try to spend some time this afternoon looking through those links...

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#91 by jebmak // Jul 31, 2010 - 12:08am

1944 Army

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.

Yeah, I know about the wartime advantage. But, that is re-god-damn-diculous.

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#93 by Flux (not verified) // Aug 02, 2010 - 12:03am

I haven't read all the comments on any of these posts, but was there ever any listing or discussion of the worst teams of the past 100 years?

Obviously there are some of those early 1900s teams that played just a couple of games and were basically exhibition efforts, but how about some numbers and commentary on major conference schools that managed to go 0-10 with point differentials in the -350 range? I suspect most would be crippled by something; probation, lost scholarships, just moved up a division, etc, but it would be a fun list to kick around.

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#99 by DJ_Sooner (not verified) // Aug 16, 2010 - 6:58am

I went through the list a few times, and maybe I missed it, but I don't recall seeing any of the 1950's OU teams. At least the 1955 team should be in the top 20. They only shut out 6 of their 10 opponents. It was in the middle of the NCAA 47 game win streak and were scoring 46.6 points while only allowing 41 total points for the season(average of 4.1 per game) They also amassed 481.7 yards a game. They defeated UT 45-0 and Notre Dame 40-0. So, even if I did miss them earlier on in the list, how are they not in the top 10 or 20???

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#100 by Charles Wilkinson (not verified) // Aug 25, 2010 - 5:39pm

Never allowed a sustained drive of even 1 first down for a touchdown. Tulane recovered a fumbled punt inside the 10 yard line, Tennessee blocked a quick
kick around the 20 yard line and threw a pass to score and the Cannon punt
return was the 3 touchdowns allowed in 11 games.

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#102 by eric (not verified) // Jul 07, 2011 - 10:48am

There is a reason most people believe either the 1971 or 1995 Nebraska team was the best ever. This piece or calculated stats or whatever don't come close to reality. 1995 Nebraska team set the standard of being the best ever and to think Ole Miss would be better.. no way. I don't give this article much credibility.

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#103 by jrupes (not verified) // Jul 08, 2011 - 3:32pm

I don't mean to be negative, but I simply can't agree with some of the results. I don't know the specifics of the formulas used to rank these teams, but the results show clear issues. Probably most obvious is the apparent lack of outlier exclusion. Additionally, football is a game of wins and losses, where winning by 60 shows comparably little more than winning by 40. Running teams are clearly disadvantaged here, where a lead of 14-21 would be enough to play extremely conservatively. As long as at-the-time polls and computer ranking systems didn't (and can't) use margin of victory it isn't fair to use them now. I hope the system accounts for a diminishing returns approach where winning by 40 essentially equates to 60 regardless of opponent. Additionally, by ranking the offensive and defensive statistics separately, there is another clear variable missing. If a team leads by 40 the general approach is to use 2nd, followed by 3rd and even 4th string players (this strategy is used by a large number of teams but not all). This means that shutouts, etc should basically be valued lower than they clearly are. Teams generally play BELOW their abilities in already decided games. Teams that kept starters in and ran up the score against lesser competition would be greatly rewarded by this poll. Again, if that were the standard they were judged by at the time, the majority of teams would have followed this strategy.

In the end it is very difficult to complete a fair and accurate ranking of teams for different years. The most accurate historical ranking available is a number of human polls (with obvious bias) and is only provided on a year by year basis. Still, they MUST be more accurate than changing the rules of the game (benefiting teams that run up the score, benefiting aggressive offensive styles, etc) to create a new method of ranking them. The teams played for ranking in the polls at the time they played. To me this means that any mathematical ranking of teams that doesn't closely agree with at least the historical annual rankings such as this one really does miss the mark.

Regardless, to make everything fair for all teams involved one must set a defined formula, make it known to all teams playing for it, and stand by it at all costs. If the BCS would devise a simple (or complex) formula for ranking teams then I believe no one could hold any issue with the final rankings. The rules were known and followed. Say margin of victory were accounted for but limited to 14 points, one would see top-level teams ahead by 7 throwing a hail mary at the end of regulation and nobody would have an issue with it. But until the rules of the game are changed, one has to be careful how they use historical data to rank and judge teams.

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#111 by ng (not verified) // Dec 03, 2012 - 4:17pm

Are the actual estimated numbers posted somewhere? I'd like to be able to fill in this imaginary Top 100 List moving forward.

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