Our college football memories are local and recent — we remember our teams and our conferences, and we remember teams that played during our time. Where we went to school and when will directly impact who we think of as the greatest players, or teams, or coaches, or units.
This makes sense, of course. College football’s history is immense and you cannot know everything, so you dial down into what you can know. But here’s where numbers can add layers and context to our memories. We can never compare teams from the 1900s or 1940s to the present day because of size and general improvements in athleticism, but we can compare them on the greatness scale. Greatness happens every year, but which eras or teams or offenses had the greatest greatness?
On Monday, I used an estimated version of my S&P+ ratings — using points scored and allowed (the only data points available) to compare output to expected output based on opponent strength — to rank which programs were the best in each decade going back to the 1890s. It used 10-year averages and didn’t give bonus points for championships, which meant that Penn State fans were frustrated by a low 1980s ranking (yes, the Nittany Lions won two national titles; they also won eight or fewer games five times) and Nebraska fans were angry that their Huskers were overtaken by FSU in the 1990s (yes, the Huskers won 2.5 national titles; FSU won two and was generally better in the non-title seasons).
Today, let’s use these numbers to look at one specific side of the ball: offense.
Offenses usually have the advantage over defenses. Offensive innovations change how we perceive the sport; defensive innovations are the counters to offensive innovations. It is a give and take that has gone on since Princeton and Rutgers met on a New Jersey field in 1869.
Offenses also have the advantage statistically. Whereas the perfect defensive score (zero) has never changed, offenses can go higher and higher and higher. And they sometimes have. That means certain teams have figured out a way to stretch further and further down the long tail of the bell curve.
Per my estimated S&P+ numbers, the best defense of all time (which we will discuss later in the week) had a percentile grade of 99.87 percent, meaning it was deep into the 99th percentile when compared to other defenses from that season. In all, only seven defenses have hit the 99.5 level.
Meanwhile, 120 offenses have hit 99.5 or higher, and, when rounded to one decimal point, 23 have been what I’ll call 100 percenters. I’ll talk about the 99 Club soon in a Football Study Hall post. But for now, let us celebrate offensive perfection.
The 100 percenters
1907 St. Louis
Because Amos Alonzo Stagg’s 1906 Chicago team is on the 50 Best* list, I’ve been reading a little bit about the 1906 season, the first after Teddy Roosevelt helped institute rules changes that both opened football up and saved it. Chicago was one of the first teams to figure out how to move the ball via forward pass, but the Maroons aren’t on the 100 percent list. Instead, those honors go to Dan McGugin’s Vanderbilt Commodores and Eddie Cochems’ Saint Louis Billikens (or whatever SLU was known as at the time).
SLU actually completed the first official forward pass in college football history, and while this team didn’t exactly play the toughest of schedules, the Billikens-To-Be outscored opponents by a 407-11 margin that year. In 1907, against a mix of big and small schools, SLU was almost as proficient. It outscored Arkansas, Washington (Missouri), Kansas and Nebraska by a combined 171-6. Decent.
“What struck me the most … was the perfection which the eleven has attained in the forward pass. It was the most perfect exhibition of the possibilities of the new rules in this respect that I have seen all season, and much better than that of Yale and Harvard. St. Louis’ style of pass differs entirely from that in use in the east. There the ball is thrown high in the air and the runner who is to catch it is protected by several of his teammates, forming an interference for him. The St. Louis university players shoot the ball hard and accurately to the man who is to receive it, and the latter is not protected. With the high pass protection is necessary, as the ball requires some time to reach its goal, time enough for the defensive side to mix in. The fast throw by St. Louis enables the receiving player to dodge the opposing players, and it struck me as being all but perfect.”
So while Yale was playing a game of 500, or almost inbounding the ball rugby-style, St. Louis was actually playing what we would come to know as football.
1917 Georgia Tech
In 1916, Georgia Tech beat Cumberland, 222-0. In 1918, John Heisman’s ramblin’ wreck outscored Furman, 11th Cavalry and NC State by a combined — and yes, this is true — 369-0.
In 1917, Tech never hit triple digits but might have had its best team, and offense, of the bunch. The Engineers beat a nine-win Penn team, 41-0, early in the year, but didn’t hit their stride until late October. In their final five games of the year (against Washington & Lee, Carlisle, decent Vanderbilt and Tulane teams, and 6-2-1 Auburn), they scored 360 points. Yes, 98 of those came against Carlisle. But they also beat future SEC mates Vandy, Tulane and Auburn by a combined 199-7. This Heisman guy was kind of a jerk, but I think he may have known a thing or two about how to put the football in the end zone.
Going by my decade rankings, USC may have been the best program of the 1920s despite being brand new. And despite two losses (15-7 to Cal, 13-12 to Notre Dame), the Trojans were far too much for every other opponent on the schedule to handle. They beat UCLA, 76-0. Washington: 48-0. Idaho: 72-0. Carnegie Mellon: 45-13. An awesome Pitt team: 47-14. Howard Jones’ tenure at USC was still on the rise — the Trojans would go 30-2-1 from 1931-33 — but while the defense would improve in the coming years, there was no improving on what the offense produced in the final year of the 1920s.
The 1930 Utah team made its way into my book by force. Few teams have put together a more prolific run than Ike Armstrong’s Utes from 1929-32. They were, at worst, in the 99.6 percentile in each of those years, peaking in 1930, when they scored 340 points in eight games, including 320 in six Rocky Mountain Conference contests. BYU went 5-2-4 but lost, 34-7. Colorado went 6-1-1 but lost, 34-0.
Utah was an interesting program at that time. The school was easily the class of the RMC and between 1928 and 1932, it lost only to Pacific Coast Conference foes (Washington and Oregon State in 1931, USC in 1932). It was a little bit of a Boise State situation, where we couldn’t get a complete read on them because they were isolated in an iffy conference. Regardless, compared to projected output, they aced the 1930 test.
With Glenn “Mr. Outside” Davis and Doc “Mr. Inside” Blanchard, Army was unstoppable for most of three seasons (1944-46). The two combined to score 97 touchdowns, a duo record that stood until broken by Reggie Bush and LenDale White. In 1945, Blanchard won the Heisman. In 1946, Davis won the Heisman after two runner-up finishes. The Cadets not only put up crazy numbers — 56 points per game in 1944, 46 in 1945 and “only” 26 in 1946 — but did so against the nation’s best teams. They put up 59 on No. 5 Notre Dame and 23 on No. 2 Navy in 1944, then took things to another gear.
Here are actual scores from the 1945 season:
- No. 1 Army 28, No. 9 Michigan 7
- No. 1 Army 48, No. 19 Duke 13
- No. 1 Army 48, No. 2 Notre Dame 0
- No. 1 Army 61, No. 6 Penn 0
- No. 1 Army 32, No. 2 Navy 13
When I post the top 50 teams since World War II (which technically ended right before the 1945 season), don’t be surprised to see 1945 Army ranking really, really high. This team — and especially this offense — was a wrecking machine. And while I doubt anyone will feel too sorry for Crimson Tide fans, Army was so good that it overshadowed another nearly perfect football team in the South.
The balance of power shifted to Notre Dame and the service academies as World War II came to a close, but that didn’t stop Alabama’s absurd 1945 run. The Crimson Tide scored 25 points on a Tennessee team that allowed only 27 combined in eight other games. They scored 26 on an LSU team that otherwise allowed eight per game. They scored 55 on Mississippi State, 60 on Kentucky and 71 on Vanderbilt. And in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, with Army at home having already secured the national title, the Tide romped over hometown USC, 34-14.
Alabama averaged 43 points per game … and was completely overshadowed.
Bud Wilkinson’s Split T was particularly unstoppable in 1952 and 1956. In a defensive era, the Sooners were held under 34 points just twice in 1952 and once in 1956. But let’s talk about the perfection that was the 1959 Syracuse offense.
Ben Schwartzwalder’s Orangemen were in the middle of a nice run — they finished in the top 10 in both 1956 and 1958 and would go 15-5 in 1960-61 as well — but 1959 was the pinnacle. Despite a schedule that featured eight of 11 teams finishing .500 or better, Syracuse was steady and phenomenal. The Orange beat Navy, 32-6, then took down Holy Cross and WVU by a combined 86-6. They took on eastern powers Pitt and Penn State back-to-back, both on the road, and scored a combined 55 points in two wins. They emasculated Colgate and Boston University by a combined 117-0. And to finish the regular season, they headed west to UCLA and won, 36-8.
Despite tension and (if you believe the telling in The Express) iffy officiating, The ‘Cuse finished the season by putting 23 points on a Texas defense that had allowed just seven points per game to that point.
Sophomore (and future Heisman winner) Ernie Davis was the star of the offense with 686 yards (7 per carry), but Syracuse was powered by remarkable balance. Three players rushed for at least 500 yards, seven more rushed for at least 115 and five finished with at least 100 receiving yards. This offense could do everything and ended up with a national title ring.
After a defense-heavy 1960s, Oklahoma became one of the first teams to perfect the game-changing wishbone formation. In 1971, with head coach Chuck Fairbanks and offensive coordinator Barry Switzer, the Sooners posted rushing numbers that would seem absurd even today. Greg Pruitt rushed for 1,760 yards, quarterback Jack Mildren rushed for 1,289 (and passed for 889 on only 32 completions) and the foursome of Leon Crosswhite, Roy Bell, Joe Wylie and Tim Welch pitched in with another 2,116 yards.
Oklahoma hung 33 points on No. 17 USC, 48 on No. 3 Texas (which had invented the wishbone only a few years earlier), 45 on No. 6 Colorado, 31 on No. 1 Nebraska and 40 on No. 5 Auburn. Their only loss came via Johnny Rodgers’ perfect punt return in the late-November Game of the Century against Nebraska. While the Huskers had the better defense (they didn’t allow more than 17 points in any other game), OU’s offense was as good as it got in the 1970s.
Behold, the horror of hapless Kansas State trying to stop Oklahoma in a 75-28 loss.
1988 Oklahoma State
BYU put its best overall team on the field in 1983, but Jim McMahon led its best offense three years earlier. Meanwhile, the exploits of Turner Gill and Mike Rozier in the 1983 Nebraska offense are legendary. But I’m not going to lie: It made me so happy to see 1988 Oklahoma State on this list.
You might remember some guy from that team.
OSU was enjoying a reasonable run of success in the mid-1980s. The Cowboys would pay for that with sanctions that would wreck the program in the early-1990s, but they had gone 10-2 in both 1984 and 1987, and they would do so again in 1988.
But 1988 was different. The ‘Pokes averaged 26 points per game in 1984 and, with Thurman Thomas taking most of the carries, 34 in 1987. In 1988, they lost Thomas, a future NFL Hall of Famer, and improved by 15 points per game.
Texas A&M fell, 52-15. Colorado and Missouri fell by a combined 90-42. Nebraska prevailed over the Cowboys in Lincoln, but OSU scored 42 points in the meantime. Kansas State, Kansas and Iowa State fell by a combined 157-79. Texas Tech gave up 45. Wyoming gave up 62 in the Holiday Bowl.
The 1988 OSU team was one of the last ones eliminated when I was paring my 50 Best* list to 49. I regret it, and if you want to donate $70 to the Kickstarter to earn a vote on the 50th team, then vote for the ‘Pokes, I wouldn’t complain.
Since the era of scholarship limitations kicked in, only two teams have produced perfect offenses. The 1995 Huskers were one and it’s almost boring to talk about them because we all acknowledge how unstoppable they were. They played a scheduled that featured seven teams that finished .500 or better and four that won at least 10 games. They averaged 53 points per game. They outscored Michigan State and Arizona State in September by a combined 127-38 and wrapped up a perfect regular season with a 37-0 win over Oklahoma that could have been much worse.
Average score against those four 10-win teams: NU 49, Haplessly Overmatched Foe 18.
This team was just … actually … I don’t need any more words. I only need this (and you knew what it was before you even saw there was a video embedded here):
That’ll do it.
I’m sure it will annoy Texas fans that my numbers only graded the 2005 Longhorns out at 99.3 percent on offense and 93.6 percent on defense, one of the most perfect, well-rounded teams in recent college football history. But really, UT fans should celebrate. Their team won one of the greatest games of all-time because they stuffed this killing machine on fourth-and-2, then went downfield and won the game.
USC scored 600 points in 12 regular season games — 70 on Arkansas, 45 on Oregon, 34 on Notre Dame, 55 on Washington State, 51 on Stanford, 50 on Fresno State, 66 on UCLA — and then scored 38 against a Texas defense that was just about the best of the season.
That touchdowns record set by Davis and Blanchard? White and Bush broke it. They combined for 3,042 rushing yards, 697 receiving yards and 44 touchdowns in 2005. Matt Leinart threw for 3,815. Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith caught 151 passes for 2,231 yards. There was absolutely nothing this offense couldn’t do.
Except get two yards on fourth-and-2, I guess.
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