Greatness and great seasons do not completely overlap. A pointy football and a short season assure us of that. Some of the beauty of college football comes from how the structure of the season assures us of so much sports tragedy, so many what-ifs.
It’s probably a character flaw of mine that I think of “beauty” and “tragedy” anytime I dive into numbers. But part of the reason I underwent a recent series of historical posts based on an estimated version of my S&P+ team ratings (the 10 best programs of each decade, the 20 best matchups ever, the 25 best defenses of then and now and the 23 most perfect offenses ever) is because I love the dissonance and the reminders of randomness.
We tend to think of the great teams as the ones that ended up with rings and the ones that saved their best performances until the final act. Miami crushing Nebraska from the opening kickoff in the 2001 season finale. An incredible Texas outlasting an incredible USC in the final seconds. The 1995 Nebraska team — still doubted heading into the national title game — romping over Steve Spurrier’s Gators.
But as stat heads like to point out, the numbers see every game. My estimated S&P+ ratings basically look at frequency of greatness; they don’t bury teams solely for the single-week slip-ups we never forget. That can mean some results that make people angry.
I wanted to finish this series by ranking the best teams since World War II (i.e. 1945 to present). As you take a look, recall this about ratings: they make suggestions. They start conversations. They don’t end them. They drop hints about who we might be overrating or underrating. They don’t care how many eventual pros a team featured. They compare your output to your expected output against your opponents and see how far you stretched away from the rest of the pack*.
If I were to come up with a list, I’m sure it would look different, just as yours would. But for me, lists like this create an opportunity to appreciate greatness, in whichever order it appears.
All 50 were spectacular. Some tripped up during their seasons, and others did not. You will find that some are underrated and others are overrated. So be it. But let’s celebrate greatness, arguments and all. (I’ve included the poll rankings of each team’s opponents at kickoff rather than final poll rankings, to contrast the full-season S&P+ ratings with the experience of watching these teams play through their schedules in real time.)
* Pre-2005 numbers are based on a formula similar to my S&P+ ratings, but I replaced my single-game ratings based on play-by-play data with ratings derived from points scored and allowed, due to the data available. Tweaking home-field advantage through the decades, I was able to retroactively ‘predict’ between 79 and 89 percent of results correctly with these ratings. I will continue to share more at Football Study Hall.
50. 1987 Miami (12-0)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 Oklahoma (W, 20-14),No. 4 Florida State (W, 26-25),No. 8 South Carolina (W, 20-16),No. 10 Notre Dame (W, 24-0),No. 10 Arkansas (W, 51-7),No. 20 Florida (W, 31-4)
All-Americans: DL Daniel Stubbs, DB Bennie Blades
The notorious 1986 team lost to Penn State, lost a ton of difference-makers … and got better.
49. 1977 Alabama (11-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 USC (W, 21-20),No. 9 Ohio State (W, 35-6),No. 18 LSU (W, 24-3)
All-Americans: TE Ozzie Newsome
After a 9-3 misstep in 1976, Bear Bryant’s Tide charged back, only missing out on a perfect record because of a 31-24 loss at Nebraska in week 2.
48. 1986 Oklahoma (11-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 2 Miami (L, 16-28),No. 4 UCLA (W, 38-3),No. 5 Nebraska (W, 20-17),No. 9 Arkansas (W, 42-8).
All-Americans: TE Keith Jackson, OG Mark Hutson, LB Brian Bosworth
Oklahoma from 1985-87: 0-3 against Miami, 33-0 against everybody else.
47. 1977 Penn State (11-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 9 Houston (W, 31-14),No. 10 Pittsburgh (W, 15-13),No. 15 Arizona State (W, 42-30).
All-Americans: OT Keith Dorney, DT Randy Sidler
Pulverizing lines and a nice play-action game: 1970s Penn State in a nutshell. Wins over three top-15 teams were countered by a strange home loss to Kentucky.
46. 2015 Alabama (14-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 Clemson (W, 45-40),No. 3 Michigan State (W, 38-0),No. 4 LSU (W, 30-16),No. 8 Georgia (W, 38-10),No. 9 Texas A&M (W, 41-23),No. 15 Ole Miss (L, 37-43),No. 18 Florida (W, 29-15),No. 20 Mississippi State (W, 31-6),No. 20 Wisconsin (W, 35-17).
All-Americans: RB Derrick Henry, OL Ryan Kelly, DL A’Shawn Robinson, LB Reggie Ragland
Eight wins over top-25 teams, five over top-10s. Alabama over the last two years: 0-2 against Ole Miss, 26-1 against everybody else.
45. 1990 Miami (10-2)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 2 Florida State (W, 31-22),No. 3 Texas (W, 46-3),No. 6 Notre Dame (L, 20-29),No. 16 BYU (L, 21-28)
All-Americans: OT Mike Sullivan, DT Russell Maryland, LB Maurice Crum
A two-loss team in the top-45? That’s what happens when you beat two top-three teams by a combined 52 and eight unranked teams by an average of 41-13.
44. 2002 USC (11-2)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 3 Iowa (W, 38-17),No. 7 Notre Dame (W, 44-13),No. 14 Oregon (W, 44-33),No. 17 Washington State (L, 27-30),No. 18 Colorado (W, 40-3),No. 22 Washington (W, 41-21),No. 23 Oregon State (W, 22-0),No. 25 UCLA (W, 52-21),No. 25 Kansas State (L, 20-27).
All-Americans: QB Carson Palmer, S Troy Polamalu
A month into his second season, Pete Carroll was 9-8. His Trojans would win 51 of their next 53. This team lost tight road games to 10-win KSU and Wazzu but beat seven ranked teams, all by double digits.
43. 2011 Alabama (12-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 LSU (W, 21-0),No. 1 LSU (L, 6-9),No. 12 Florida (38-10),No. 14 Arkansas (W, 38-14),No. 23 Penn State (W, 27-11).
All-Americans: DB Mark Barron, RB Trent Richardson, OL Barrett Jones, LB Dont’a Hightower, LB Courtney Upshaw, DB Dre Kirkpatrick, DB DeQuan Menzie
The Tide needed an Iowa State upset of Oklahoma State to reach the BCS Championship and get a second shot at LSU. They took advantage.
42. 1945 Alabama (10-0)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 16 USC (W, 34-14).
All-Americans: QB Harry Gilmer, C Vaughn Mancha
Probably the most overlooked Alabama team of all time, Frank Thomas’ second-to-last team ripped through nine regular-season opponents by an average of 33-7, then whooped USC in the Rose Bowl. But with Army doing what Army was doing, there wasn’t much room in the headlines.
41. 2014 Ohio State (14-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 Alabama (W, 42-35),No. 3 Oregon (W, 42-20),No. 7 Michigan State (W, 49-37),No. 11 Wisconsin (W, 59-0).
All-Americans: DL Joey Bosa, DL Michael Bennett
An early, turnover-laden loss to Virginia Tech threw us off the scent. But Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes won their next 11 by an average of 48-20, then took down Alabama and Oregon to win the first College Football Playoff.
40. 1983 Nebraska (12-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 4 Penn State (W, 44-6),No. 5 Miami (L, 30-31)
All-Americans: RB Mike Rozier, OG Dean Steinkuhler, WR Irving Fryar
Stats don’t like this team as much as eyeballs and memories did. (This team is also not a favorite of SRS’.) The offense put up video-game numbers, but the defense was glitchy compared to other Nebraska teams, and schedule adjustments (the Big 8 was strangely off that year) aren’t kind.
39. 1996 Florida (12-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 Florida State (W, 52-20),No. 2 Florida State (L, 21-24),No. 2 Tennessee (W, 35-29),No. 11 Alabama (W, 45-30),No. 12 LSU (W, 56-13),No. 16 Auburn (W, 51-10).
All-Americans: QB Danny Wuerffel, WR Ike Hilliard, WR Reidel Anthony
Spurrier’s masterpiece. The Gators averaged 47 points, beat five ranked teams and spent most of the year at No. 1. Like Alabama in 2011, the Gators got a rematch after losing, and to say the least, they capitalized.
38. 2008 Texas (12-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 Oklahoma (W, 45-35),No. 6 Texas Tech (L, 33-39),No. 7 Oklahoma State (W, 28-24),No. 10 Ohio State (W, 24-21),No. 11 Missouri (W, 56-31).
All-Americans: QB Colt McCoy, DE Brian Orakpo
In 2006, 2007, 2009 or 2010, this team would have been the best in the country. But the Longhorns were one of four nearly perfect teams in an impossibly loaded 2008.
37. 1973 Oklahoma (10-0-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 USC (T, 7-7),No. 10 Nebraska (W, 27-0),No. 10 Missouri (W, 31-3),No. 13 Texas (W, 52-13),No. 16 Colorado (W, 34-7),No. 17 Miami (W, 24-20),No. 18 Kansas (W, 48-20).
All-Americans: DT Lucious Selmon, LB Rod Shoate, OT Eddie Foster, RB Joe Washington, DB Kenith Pope
The Sooners won 47 straight in the 1950s and were easily the best program of the decade, but their best run might have come in the first half of the 1970s.
36. 1946 Army (9-0-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 2 Notre Dame (T, 0-0),No. 4 Michigan (W, 20-13),No. 5 Penn (W, 34-7),No. 11 Columbia (W, 48-14),No. 13 Duke (W, 19-0).
All-Americans: HB Glenn Davis, FB Doc Blanchard, E Hank Foldberg, E George Poole, G Joe Steffy, G Arthur Gerometta, QB Arnold Tucker
After fielding two flawless teams in 1944 and 1945, Army was merely great in the final go-round for Mr. Inside (Blanchard) and Mr. Outside (Davis).
35. 1972 Oklahoma (11-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 5 Penn State (W, 14-0),No. 5 Nebraska (W, 17-14),No. 9 Colorado (L, 14-20),No. 10 Texas (W, 27-0),No. 14 Missouri (W, 17-6),No. 14 Iowa State (W, 20-6),No. 20 Oklahoma State (W, 38-15).
All-Americans: RB Greg Pruitt, C Tom Brahaney, TE Al Chandler, OG Ken Jones, DT Derland Moore
In Chuck Fairbanks’ final season before taking over the New England Patriots and handing the reins to offensive coordinator Barry Switzer, the Sooners blinked in Boulder but otherwise rolled.
34. 1961 Ole Miss (9-2)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 3 Texas (L, 7-12),No. 6 LSU (L, 7-10).
All-Americans: T Jim Dunaway, G Bookie Bolin, QB Doug Elmore, FB Billy Ray Adams
An 0-2 record against top teams but a spot in the top 35? How? Here’s how: In the other nine games, John Vaught’s second-best squad outscored opponents by 319-28.
33. 1947 Texas (10-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 7 Alabama (W, 27-7),No. 8 SMU (L, 13-14),No. 15 Oklahoma (W, 34-14).
All-Americans: QB Bobby Layne, E Max Bumgardner, T Richard Harris
In an era of great Texas quarterbacks (TCU’s Davey O’Brien, SMU’s Doak Walker, etc.),Bobby Layne was nearly overshadowed. But he captained Blair Cherry’s best Longhorns in 1947.
32. 2008 USC (12-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 5 Ohio State (W, 35-3),No. 6 Penn State (W, 38-24),No. 21 California (W, 17-3),No. 23 Oregon (W, 44-10).
All-Americans: LB Rey Maualuga, LB Brian Cushing, S Taylor Mays
We knew Oregon State’s 27-21 upset in week 4 was a big deal, but it ended up being one of the most noteworthy upsets in history. USC was absurdly good otherwise, scoring 35 or more eight times and holding opponents to 10 or fewer points 10 times.
31. 1965 UCLA (8-2-1)
Results vs. AP top 10: No. 1 Michigan State (W, 14-12),No. 6 USC (W, 20-16),No. 7 Tennessee (L, 34-37).
All-Americans: QB Gary Beban, DT John Richardson
Since the AP was ranking only 10 teams at the time, let me expound on this team’s results. UCLA tied 8-2-1 Missouri in Columbia, won at Stanford and Penn State, and lost by narrow margins to two great teams on the road. And then the Bruins kept Michigan State from winning the national title in a classic Rose Bowl.
30. 2000 Miami (11-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 Florida State (W, 27-24),No. 2 Virginia Tech (W, 41-21),No. 7 Florida (W, 37-20),No. 15 Washington (L, 29-34)
All-Americans: OT Joaquin Gonzalez, OT Bryant McKinnie, LB Dan Morgan, S Ed Reed, ATH Santana Moss
Butch Davis was averaging eight wins through four years of rebuilding, but as with 2002 USC, an early loss threw us off the scent. After that loss at what turned out to be an awesome Washington, Miami caught fire, setting the table for a dominant 2001.
29. 1972 USC (12-0)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 3 Ohio State (W, 42-17),No. 4 Arkansas (W, 31-10),No. 10 Notre Dame (W, 45-23),No. 14 UCLA (W, 24-7),No. 15 Stanford (W, 30-21),No. 18 Washington (W, 34-7).
All-Americans: TE Charle Young, DT John Grant, OT Pete Adams, RB Sam Cunningham, RB Anthony Davis, LB Rich Wood
A week 1 destruction of No. 4 Arkansas in Little Rock sent USC to No. 1, and John McKay’s Trojans wouldn’t give voters any reason to change their minds.
28. 1980 Pittsburgh (11-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 7 Penn State (W, 14-9),No. 11 Florida State (L, 22-36),No. 18 South Carolina (W, 37-9)
All-Americans: OT Mark May, DE Hugh Green, DE Ricky Jackson, TE Benjie Pryor
The 1980 season was complicated and loaded, and only a loss in Tallahassee to Bobby Bowden’s first fantastic FSU squad kept the Panthers from a shot at the national title.
27. 2001 Miami (12-0)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 4 Nebraska (W, 37-14),No. 12 Washington (W, 65-7),No. 14 Virginia Tech (W, 26-24),No. 14 Syracuse (W, 59-0),No. 14 Florida State (W, 49-27).
All-Americans: TE Jeremy Shockey, OT Bryant McKinnie, OT Joaquin Gonzalez, CB Phillip Buchanon, S Ed Reed, K Todd Sievers
Like 1983 Nebraska, stats aren’t as adoring of this team as eyeballs were, in part because of schedule adjustments. But whether they were friends of decimal points or not, Larry Coker’s Hurricanes were still ridiculous, loaded with pro-ready talent, third in offensive points per game and first in defensive points per game allowed.
26. 2011 LSU (13-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 2 Alabama (L, 0-21),No. 2 Alabama (W, 9-6),No. 3 Arkansas (W, 41-17),No. 3 Oregon (W, 40-27),No. 12 Georgia (W, 42-10),No. 16 West Virginia (W, 47-21),No. 17 Florida (W, 41-11),No. 19 Auburn (W, 45-10),No. 25 Mississippi State (W, 19-6).
All-Americans: DB Morris Claiborne, DB/ATH Tyrann Mathieu, OG Will Blackwell, DE Sam Montgomery, P Brad Wing
A dud of a final act in the BCS Championship knocked this team from “one of the best ever” to merely “incredible for 13/14 of the season.”
25. 1946 Notre Dame (8-0-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 Army (T, 0-0),No. 16 USC (W, 26-6),No. 17 Iowa (W, 41-6).
All-Americans: QB Johnny Lujack, T George Connor, G George Strohmeyer
South Bend was a post-war destination for many of the nation’s top athletes; Notre Dame had seven players picked in the 1947 NFL Draft and nine in 1948. While Beano Cook’s favorite team (the 1947 Irish) doesn’t make this list because of a strangely terrible schedule (only one opponent won more than five games),the 1946 team, which was even more dominant, does. The Irish shut out prolific Army and allowed only 24 points all year.
24. 2012 Alabama (13-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 Notre Dame (W, 42-14),No. 3 Georgia (W, 32-28),No. 5 LSU (W, 21-17),No. 8 Michigan (W, 41-14),No. 13 Mississippi State (W, 38-7),No. 15 Texas A&M (L, 24-29)
All-Americans: DB Dee Milliner, OL Chance Warmack, DB C.J. Mosley, OL D.J. Fluker, OL Barrett Jones, DL Jesse Williams
It took a superhuman effort from Heisman winner Johnny Manziel for an opponent to score more than 28 points against this defense, and in an era of prolific offenses, only two teams scored more than even 17. What was probably Nick Saban’s best Alabama offense averaged nearly 40 points per game.
23. 1987 Florida State (11-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 3 Miami (L, 25-26),No. 5 Nebraska (W, 31-28),No. 6 Auburn (W, 34-6).
All-Americans: DB Deion Sanders, LB Paul McGowan, TE Pat Carter
Bowden’s third-best team had a two-point conversion attempt broken up in a loss to Miami, eked past a great Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl and otherwise outscored opponents by an average of 43-11.
22. 1991 Washington (12-0)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 4 Michigan (W, 34-14),No. 7 California (W, 24-17),No. 9 Nebraska (W, 36-21).
All-Americans: WR Mario Bailey, DL Steve Emtman, OT Lincoln Kennedy, LB David Hoffman, K Jason Hanson
Don James’ Huskies averaged seven wins per year from 1985-89, leading fans to assume James was past his prime. But Washington surged to 10-2 in 1990, then put a nearly perfect squad on the field in 1991. UW split the title with Miami, but the Huskies were superior.
21. 1993 Florida State (12-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 2 Nebraska (W, 18-16),No. 2 Notre Dame (L, 24-31),No. 3 Miami (W, 28-10),No. 7 Florida (W, 33-21),No. 13 North Carolina (W, 33-7),No. 15 Virginia (W, 40-14),No. 21 Clemson (W, 57-0).
All-Americans: QB Charlie Ward, DL Derrick Alexander, LB Derrick Brooks, DB Corey Sawyer
After falling short to Miami countless times, Bowden’s Seminoles finally broke through. A tight loss at Notre Dame nearly prevented a title, but BC’s classic upset of the Irish put the Noles back atop the polls.
20. 1995 Nebraska (12-0)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 2 Florida (W, 62-24),No. 7 Colorado (W, 44-21),No. 8 Kansas State (W, 49-25),No. 10 Kansas (W, 41-3).
All-Americans: QB Tommie Frazier, OL Aaron Graham, DE Jared Tomich
As long as Bowden had to wait for a title, Tom Osborne had to wait even longer. But after his 1994 squad — not even one of his best — won a ring, his 1995 team was perfection. Yes, this team is only 20th, but it was the best of the 1990s, an era of increasing parity.
19. 1978 Alabama (11-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 Penn State (W, 14-7),No. 7 USC (L, 14-24),No. 10 Nebraska (W, 20-3),No. 11 Missouri (W, 38-20)
All-Americans: DT Marty Lyons, LB Barry Krauss
Bryant’s last great team took on a brutal early slate — three top-11 teams in the first three weeks — and tripped up in Birmingham against a fantastic USC. After that, the Tide cruised, taking down No. 1 Penn State in the Sugar Bowl and sharing the title with the Trojans.
18. 1971 Oklahoma (11-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 Nebraska (L, 31-35),No. 3 Texas (W, 48-27),No. 5 Auburn (W, 40-22),No. 6 Colorado (W, 45-17),No. 17 USC (W, 33-20).
All-Americans: RB Greg Pruitt, OL Tom Brahaney, OG Ken Jones, QB Jack Mildren, LB Steve Aycock
The third early-1970s Sooner team was the first to really master the wishbone. Switzer’s offense, led by Jack Mildren and Greg Pruitt, not only averaged 45 points, but 39 against ranked teams. Only a nearly flawless Nebraska could give this Sooner squad a blemish.
17. 1965 Michigan State (10-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 4 Notre Dame (W, 12-3),No. 5 UCLA (L, 12-14),No. 6 Purdue (W, 14-10).
All-Americans: DB George Webster, DE Bubba Smith, WR Gene Washington, QB Steve Juday, RB Clinton Jones, RB Bob Apisa, DT Harold Lucas, LB Ron Goovert
The best-ever Spartan team gave up just seven points per game and maneuvered through a tricky slate until the Rose Bowl against UCLA, when a two-point conversion attempt — with a tie and possibly the national title on the line — came up just short.
16. 1980 Nebraska (10-2)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 9 Oklahoma (L, 17-21),No. 11 Penn State (W, 21-7),No. 15 Missouri (W, 38-16),No. 16 Florida State (L, 14-18),No. 17 Mississippi State (W, 31-17).
All-Americans: OG Randy Schleusener, RB Jarvis Redwine, DE Derrie Nelson
Nebraska lost only to a great Oklahoma and even greater Florida State, but handled three other ranked teams and manhandled unranked teams by an average of 50-4.
15. 1980 Florida State (10-2)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 3 Nebraska (W, 18-14),No. 4 Oklahoma (17-18),No. 4 PItt (W, 36-22).
All-Americans: DT Ron Simmons, LB Reggie Herring, DB Bobby Butler, K Bill Capece, P Rohn Stark, OT Ken Lanier
FSU beat two teams from this list in back-to-back weeks in October, but the Noles slipped up against Howard Schnellenberger’s first good Miami team, then lost an epic Orange Bowl against Oklahoma. The numbers suggest the Noles may have finished with the best record if the season lasted 30 or 40 games. But in 12, they came up short.
14. 1978 USC (12-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 Alabama (W, 24-14),No. 5 Michigan (W, 17-10),No. 8 Notre Dame (W, 27-25),No. 14 UCLA (W, 17-10),No. 19 Washington (W, 28-10).
All-Americans: RB Charles White, OG Pat Howell
John Robinson’s Trojans beat an incredible Alabama in Birmingham and won twice in Pasadena — once against UCLA and once against Michigan. This was a nearly perfect team, suffering only a loss at a nine-win Arizona State in mid-October.
13. 1977 Notre Dame (11-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 Texas (W, 38-10),No. 5 USC (W, 49-19),No. 7 Pitt (W, 19-9),No. 15 Clemson (W, 21-17).
All-Americans: TE Ken MacAfee, DE Ross Browner, DB Luther Bradley
Dan Devine’s Fighting Irish started with a win over Pitt and an upset loss to Ole Miss in Jackson. Good team so far? Sure. But not one of the greats. In Week 3, however, injury forced Devine to go with third-string quarterback Joe Montana. And in their final seven, they averaged 45 points per game and beat two top-five teams by a combined 58. That’s great.
12. 1974 Oklahoma (11-0)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 6 Nebraska (W, 28-14),No. 17 Texas (W, 16-13).
All-Americans: RB Joe Washington, LB Rod Shoate, OG John Roush, WR Tinker Owens, C Kyle Davis, DE Jimbo Elrod, DT Lee Roy Selmon, DT Dewey Selmon, DB Randy Hughes
On probation and therefore ineligible for the postseason (or for votes in the UPI poll),Switzer’s second team settled by romping to the AP national title. After a nip-and-tuck win over Texas, the Sooners won their final seven by an average of 42-9. Texas was the only team to stay within 13 points all year. Switzer would go on to win two more titles (in 1975 and 1985),but this was probably his best team.
11. 1981 Penn State (10-2)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 Pitt (W, 48-14),No. 6 Alabama (L, 16-31),No. 8 USC (W, 26-10),No. 15 Nebraska (W, 30-24).
All-Americans: OG Sean Farrell, RB Curt Warner
Joe Paterno’s first 30 years proved the value of simply being good as frequently as possible. His 1968, 1969 and 1973 teams went undefeated but didn’t take the national title, and he finally won the title in 1982 and 1986 with what might not have been his best teams. His single best may have been this one, capable of beating the No. 1 team on the road by 34. Of course, it was also capable of losing to a good Miami.
10. 1966 Notre Dame (9-0-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 2 Michigan State (T, 10-10),No. 7 Purdue (W, 26-14),No. 10 USC (W, 51-0),No. 10 Oklahoma (W, 38-0).
All-Americans: DE Alan Page, LB Jim Lynch, RB Nick Eddy, OG Tom Regner, WR Jim Seymour, C George Goeddeke, DT Pete Duranko, DT Kevin Hardy, DB Tom Schoen
Ara Parseghian’s best Irish team is one of college football history’s most maligned, settling for a tie against Michigan State but still taking the title over Alabama. I’m sure it will make Alabama fans feel at ease to know that, while the Tide were undefeated, Notre Dame was good. I’m sure.
9. 2005 Texas (13-0)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 USC (W, 41-38),No. 4 Ohio State (W, 25-22),No. 10 Texas Tech (W, 52-17),No. 24 Colorado (W, 42-17).
All-Americans: QB Vince Young, OL Jonathan Scott, OL Justin Blalock, DT Rodrique Wright, DB Michael Huff
Texas opened with a Week 2 win over an awesome Ohio State in Columbus, blazed through the Big 12 — only one conference foe stayed within 19, and the Big 12 title game was a 70-3 shellacking of Colorado — and took a last-second win over a wonderful USC in the Rose Bowl, one of football’s greatest games. Yeah, No. 9 feels low.
8. 1959 Syracuse (11-0)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 4 Texas (W, 23-14),No. 7 Penn State (W, 20-18),No. 17 UCLA (W, 36-8).
All-Americans: G Roger Davis, E Fred Mautino, T Bob Yates, HB Ernie Davis, HB Gerhard Schwedes
Syracuse finished 8-2 the year before but was a preseason afterthought in 1959. Romps over Maryland and Navy got the Orange(men) into the top 10, and an early-November win at Penn State moved them to No. 1. A win over Texas in the hostile Cotton Bowl validated their national title, but because they were an integrated team, they weren’t able to arrange a meeting with the other incredible team of 1959, which ranks No. 2 here.
7. 1971 Alabama (11-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 Nebraska (L, 6-38),No. 5 Auburn (W, 31-7),No. 5 USC (W, 17-10),No. 14 Tennessee (W, 32-15),No. 18 LSU (W, 14-7).
All-Americans: RB Johnny Musso, T John Hannah, DE Robin Parkhouse
After just 28 wins in four years, Bryant’s tenure in Alabama was at a crossroads. The Tide adapted a new offense and put the finishing touches on one of their best defenses ever, and voila: greatness again. An Orange Bowl loss to Nebraska was one of just 11 the Tide would suffer between 1971 and 1979.
6. 2008 Florida (13-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 Alabama (W, 31-20),No. 2 Oklahoma (W, 24-14),No. 4 LSU (W, 51-21),No. 8 Georgia (W, 49-10),No. 23 Florida State (W, 45-15),No. 24 South Carolina (W, 56-6).
All-Americans: QB Tim Tebow, LB Brandon Spikes, ATH Percy Harvin, ATH Brandon James
Florida had a Heisman winner and a terrifying offense in 2007 but didn’t have the defense. In 2008, the defense did its part. An early loss to Ole Miss forced the team to redouble its efforts, and most of the season was a cakewalk. They beat LSU by 30, Georgia by 39, South Carolina by 50, FSU by 30 and rolled Alabama in the fourth quarter. The BCS Championship against Oklahoma was defined by a couple of plays, and the Gators made those plays.
5. 2005 USC (12-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 2 Texas (L, 38-41),No. 9 Notre Dame (W, 34-31),No. 11 UCLA (W, 66-19),No. 14 Arizona State (W, 38-28),No. 16 Fresno State (W, 50-42),No. 24 Oregon (W, 45-13).
All-Americans: RB Reggie Bush, QB Matt Leinart, WR Dwayne Jarrett, OL Taitusi Lutui, OL Sam Baker, DB Darnell Bing
This squad represented the pinnacle of the Carroll era in terms of on-field product, but it will forever be associated with what-ifs. What if LenDale White hadn’t gotten stuffed on fourth-and-2 against Texas? What if Reggie Bush had been on the field for that play, even as a decoy? And my goodness, what if the nearly perfect 2005 offense had combined with the nearly perfect 2004 defense?
4. 1971 Nebraska (13-0)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 2 Alabama (W, 38-6),No. 2 Oklahoma (W, 35-31),No. 9 Colorado (W, 31-7).
All-Americans: WR Johnny Rodgers, DT Larry Jacobson, DE Willie Harper, OT Carl Johnson, OG Dick Rupert, QB Jerry Tagge, RB Jeff Kinney, DT Rich Glover
Every year produces excellent teams, but sometimes we go years without a team that is truly transcendent. And then sometimes we get a few in one year. 2008 produced four teams on this list. 1980 produced three, none of which won the national title because they all beat up each other. 1971 produced three, as well. Oklahoma and Alabama both lost once … each to Nebraska. It took a once-in-a-lifetime team to keep either the Sooners or the Crimson Tide from the national title.
3. 2008 Oklahoma (12-2)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 Florida (L, 14-24),No. 2 Texas Tech (W, 65-21),No. 5 Texas (L, 35-45),No. 11 Oklahoma State (W, 61-41),No. 16 Kansas (W, 45-31),No. 19 Missouri (W, 62-21),No. 24 TCU (W, 35-10).
All-Americans: QB Sam Bradford, TE Jermaine Gresham, OT Phil Loadholt, OG Duke Robinson, DT Gerald McCoy
Yes, 2005 USC is ahead of Texas. Yes, 2008 Oklahoma is ahead of Florida (and Texas). Yes, this is when stats and ratings are at their most antisocial. But while I’d have loved for Florida to end up ahead, just for the sake of my email inbox, I can at least justify this ranking with personal anecdotes. Living in Big 12 country, I saw basically every game this team played, and not since 1995 Nebraska had a team been so capable of knocking you out five minutes into the game.
If the Sooners got an early step on you, it was over. They were never looking back. Texas fell behind by 14-3, but a Jordan Shipley kickoff return and an injury to OU linebacker Ryan Reynolds helped the Horns turn the game around. Florida made a goal line stand and picked off a pass in the end zone late in the second quarter. Both were lifelines. The Sooners were Punch-Out‘s Mike Tyson — if you lasted into the third or fourth quarter, maybe you could figure things out. But they knocked almost every other opponent out with about three punches.
2. 1959 Ole Miss (10-1)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 1 LSU (L, 3-7),No. 3 LSU (W, 21-0),No. 9 Tennessee (W, 37-7),No. 10 Arkansas (W, 28-0).
All-Americans: FB Charlie Flowers, G Marvin Terrell
Ole Miss allowed three touchdowns in 1959: twice on drives that started inside the Rebels’ 10 because of turnovers and once because of Billy Cannon’s superhuman punt return in the famous Halloween Night LSU battle. Meanwhile, they scored at least 28 points in seven of 10 games and whooped LSU in a Sugar Bowl rematch. Despite the lack of a title, and despite the Halloween blemish, this team was one of the most sensational that the sport has produced.
But the fact that the Rebels and Tigers were involved in a rematch will always be a source of frustration. Culture and college football are always intertwined, but never have they been quite as tangled as in 1959, when two segregated conference mates played in the Sugar Bowl while integrated No. 1 Syracuse had to face No. 4 Texas. It didn’t reflect well on the Southern teams, but it also deprived us of a matchup of two of the greatest teams ever.
1. 1945 Army (9-0)
Results vs. AP top 25: No. 2 Navy (W, 32-13),No. 2 Notre Dame (W, 48-0),No. 6 Penn (W, 61-0),No. 9 Michigan (W, 28-7),No. 19 Duke (W, 48-13)
All-Americans: HB Glenn Davis, FB Doc Blanchard, T Tex Coulter, G John Green, E Hank Foldberg, T Albert Nemetz, G Arthur Gerometta, C Herschel Fuson, QB Arnold Tucker, HB Thomas McWilliam
In a no-platoons era, when teams didn’t necessarily play more than 11 players, Army’s 1945 team produced 10 All-Americans. Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis combined for 1,652 rushing yards, 379 receiving yards and 34 combined touchdowns, numbers that would still be impressive today in a far more offense-friendly environment.
It’s almost hard to argue for any other team in this top spot, isn’t it? Army beat four top-10 teams by a combined 169-20. Navy, Michigan, Penn, Notre Dame … these were legitimately strong teams, and they had no chance against the Cadets. Perhaps no team has had this collection of elite-for-its-era talent (besides maybe the Notre Dame teams of 1946 and 1947),and no team deployed that talent in such a merciless way. The only way to keep 1945 Army off the top is to start the list in 1946.
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