Of all the lists compiled by Sporting News to celebrate the 150th anniversary of football’s birth, there could have been no one more difficult than identifying the big game teams.
Could we judge how concentrated the talent was, how difficult their schedules were, how dominant their performances were? All of this had to be taken into account, no doubt, but which components were more important?
CFB 150: Sports news celebrates 150 years of college football
One element was a given: perfection. Why could a team claim to be the best if it was no doubt better than any team they played?
With so many undefeated teams in college history, it seemed incompatible to think of even the best of those who slipped once. Otherwise, it was a job. But the best of the best is something I see.
With that: the final entry of CFB 150 SN: The top 10 teams in college football history.
(Team rankings reflect the AP Top 25 after the end).
2009 Alabama (14-0)
Result: 32.1 ppg (No. 22)
Defense result: 11.7 ppg (No. 2)
Graduated Victims: No. 2 Texas (37-21), No. 3 Florida (32-13), No. 10 Virginia Tech (34-24), No. 17 LSU (24-15)
Nearest game: Tennessee (12-10)
Larger explosion: North Texas (53-7)
Consensus Americans: RB Mark Ingram (Heisman), G Mike Johnson, DT Terrence Cody, LB Rolando McClain (Butkus, Lambert), CB Javier Arenas
The tide had two close calls on the way to the start of the Nick Saban dynasty with a dominant win over Texas at the 2010 BCS Championship Game. Alabama attempted to beat Tennessee in a home game on the third Saturday in October that was not secured until Condi blocked Daniel Lincoln’s attempt at a 45-meter field court. The Tide also won tough victories against Virginia Tech, LSU and Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The tide beat the Tigers in the Jordan-Hague margin 26-21 despite overcoming and rushing in the contest. The tide, however, burst through what caused their biggest challenge to Tim Tebow and defending national champion Florida in the SEC title game. The Gators scored just six points in the first half, but closed in the second half as the Tide defense took command. The Tide were a complete team all season, with five All-American consensus and offensive, defensive and specialist players of the year in Ingram, McClain and Arenas, respectively.
1971 Nebraska (13-0)
Result: 39.0 ppg (No. 3)
Defense result: 8.0 ppg (No. 2)
Graduated Victims: No. 2 Oklahoma (35-31), No. 3 Colorado (31-7), No. 4 Alabama (38-6)
Nearest game: Oklahoma (35-31)
Larger explosion: Kansas (55-0)
Consensus Americans: WR Johnny Rodgers, DT Larry Jacobson (Outland), DE Willie Harper
The Huskers almost never broke a sweat during their historic time, the highlight of legendary coach Bob Devaney’s career. It was really contested only once, winning every game – except for the “game of the century” against Oklahoma – at least 24 points. Thanksgiving match obscured the NFL games played that day. Rodgers started the graduation, returning 72 yards for a touchdown, one of the most memorable games in college football history. But Oklahoma led a very good game, including the last few minutes, until they could not relax a last Huskers move that ended with the star running back Jeff Kinney’s short run. Kinney finished with 151 rushing yards in the second half alone. The Huskers had no such difficulties in their last two games, surpassing Hawaii and Alabama 83-9 en route to the national title.
1968 Ohio (10-0)
Result: 32.3 ppg (No. 9)
Defense result: 15.0 ppg (No. 19)
Graduated Victims: 4 USC (27-16), No. 10 Purdue (13-0), No. 12 Michigan (50-14), No. 14 SMU (35-14)
Nearest game: Michigan (25-20)
Larger explosion: Michigan (50-14)
Consensus Americans: T Dave Foley
Some of the Buckeyes’ most talented players – defensive lineman Jim Stillwagon, defensive back Jack Tatum, quarterback Rex Kern running back John Brockington – were only sophomores at a time when the champions were not allowed to play. But they were effective partners in a team that dominated the Big Ten and turned Michigan’s opponent in what appeared to be a huge showdown between elite teams. As was Woody Hayes’ preference throughout his career, the Buckeyes committed a conservative offense that saw Rex Kern score just 13 attempts to succeed the game, while Jim Otis popped for 4.5 yards per carry. (and 17 touchdowns). Against USC’s unbeaten Rose Bowl, the Buckeyes allowed Heisman winner O.J. Simpson an 80-yard touchdown run and an early 10-0 lead for the Trojans to lead. However, it took five rounds (including a Simpson key to wrestle) and beat USC 27-6 in the last 2½ quarters.
7. 1972 USC (12-0)
Result: 38.9 ppg (No. 3)
Defense result: 11.2 ppg (No. 8)
Graduated Victims: No. 9 Ohio (42-17), No. 14 Notre Dame (45-23), No. 15 UCLA (24-7), No. 19 Washington (34-7)
Nearest game: Stanford (30-21)
Larger explosion: Oregon State (51-6), Michigan State (51-6)
Consensus Americans: TE Charle Young
The most memorable occasion of the Trojans’ dominant era came in the annual rivalry game with Notre Dame, when sophomore Anthony Davis returned two kicks for touchdowns and scored four more with a hit to the then Irish top 10. But there was too Sam “Bam” Cunningham in the Rose Bowl, when he jumped four times in the finish line against the defending Buckeyes. The Trojans threw top teams from their own league, the Pac-8, as well as the Big Ten and the Southwest Conference. Coach John McKay’s son, “J.K.”, caught 23 passes for four touchdowns on it, his second of the season.
6. 2018 Clemson (15-0)
Result: 44.3 ppg (No. 4)
Defense result: 13.1 ppg (No. 1)
Graduated Victims: No. 2 Alabama (44-16), No. 5 Notre Dame (30-3), No. 15 Syracuse (27-23), No. 16 Texas A&M (28-26)
Nearest game: Texas A&M (28-26)
Larger explosion: Wake Forest, 63-3
Consensus Americans: T Mitch Hyatt, DE Christian Wilkins (Campbell), DE Clelin Ferrell (Hendricks)
The Tigers entered the college football game of the football game with Alabama as a 5-point underdog and proceeded to kick the tide from the building before half-time. Presbyterian Trevor Lawrence dominated an excellent defense in Alabama and finished with 347 passing yards and three touchdowns. What was expected to be a classic did nothing other than play the ACC championship game against Pitt, a game he considered to be a path and certainly was. The Tigers had two narrow wins on the road for their perfect season, both early in the season. The A&M game happened before Dabo Swinney made the tough choice to get veteran QB Kelly Bryant and start Lawrence after swapping the two for the first four games. A narrow victory over Syracuse came to Lawrence’s first start. After that, he and the Tigers rarely challenged him, including the Fighting Irish 30-3 in the Playoff semifinal. At beating Alabama, Clemson also became the first big team in modern college football – and the first by Penn in 1897 – to go 15-0.
1979 Alabama (12-0)
Result: 31.9 ppg (No. 7)
Defense result: 5.6 ppg (No. 1)
Graduated Victims: No. 8 Arkansas (24-9) No. 14 Baylor (45-0), No. 16 Auburn (25-18)
Nearest game: LSU (3-0)
Larger explosion: Vanderbilt (66-3)
Consensus Americans: Jim Bunch
The Crimson Tide did not face the most overwhelming schedule, but their defense was one of the best the game has ever seen. The Tide threw five shutouts, allowing just eight touchdowns all season and only twice allowing the opposition to double figures. The defense was so dominant that the offense should never have resorted to the passing game. Starter Steadman Shealy dropped only 81 times all year. The Tide just wanted their way into a perfect season in a decade, covered by a dominant performance against Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl that seemed more of a formality than anything else. This resulted in Bear Bryant’s final of six titles in Tuscaloosa.
4. 2005 Texas (13-0)
Result: 50.2 ppg (No. 1)
Defense result: 16.4 ppg (No. 9)
Graduated Victims: No. 20 Texas Tech (52-17), No. 22 Colorado (42-17), No. 4 Ohio State (25-22)
Nearest game: USC (41-38), Ohio State (25-22)
Larger explosion: Colorado, 70-3
Consensus Americans: QB Vince Young (Maxwell, Davey O’Brien, Manning), T Jonathan Scott, S Michael Huff (Thorp)
You can try to point Mack Brown’s Longhorns on average half-a-hundy per game if you like, blaming it for the meager defense that is sometimes played in the Big 12. But these guys played in the same gunslinging league and only allowed it three congressional groups violate the 20-point mark. So they could score and stop you. And, when they needed it, they could deliver the big game. The most notable of these was the last 9-yard USC last-minute showdown against the USC at the Rose Bowl. He’s made what could be the biggest college game – certainly for the BCS era – and is probably Heisman’s most individual runner-up: 267 passing yards, 200 rushing yards, three touchdowns and a 2-point conversion run.
2004 USC (11-0)
Result: 38.2 ppg (No. 6)
Defense result: 13.0 ppg (No. 3)
Graduated Victims: 3 Oklahoma (55-19), no. 7 California (23-17), no. 10 Virginia Tech (24-13), no. 19 Arizona (45-7)
Nearest game: Stanford (31-28)
Larger explosion: Colorado (49-0)
Consensus Americans: QB Matt Leinhart (Heisman, Walter Camp), DT Shaun Cody, LB Matt Grootegoed, ATH Reggie Bush
Obviously, the SN constituency does not believe in vacations. Well, she believes in the holidays, but the discharge of the victories? Meh. Pete Carroll’s 2004 team won a narrow victory over UCLA and that Orange Bowl BCS win over Oklahoma was destroyed by the NCAA Offenses Commission, but our voters know what they saw. They found that Leinhart completed 65% of his passes for 33 touchdowns and just six interceptions. They found the LenDale White and Reggie Bush muscle / noise team for a total of 2011 yards and 21 touchdowns. They saw Dwayne Jarrett catch 13 touchdowns. They found a defense under Grootegoed’s leadership and Lofa Tatupu controls the opposition. He saw a team that overcame talent by crushing its rivals.
1995 Nebraska (12-0)
Result: 53.2 ppg (No. 1)
Defense result: 14.5 ppg (No. 4)
Graduated Victims: No. 2 Florida (62-24), No. 5 Colorado (44-21), No. 7 Kansas State (49-25), No. 9 Kansas (41-3)
Nearest game: Washington State (35-21)
Larger explosion: Iowa (73-14)
Consensus Americans: QB Tommie Frazier
Many people have argued that the 1971 Nebraska team is the best in Huskers history, but do we believe that the entire football world is simply called sick in 1995? Because nobody – nobody – came close to the second of Tom Osborne’s three national title teams. With Ahman Green and Lawrence Phillips running backs and Frazier a full-time quarterback, Nebraska averaged more than 50 points per game, though Frazier still didn’t finish 100 last season. With a few more inches won in any of their dozens of games, they would have averaged 400 rushing yards per game! 400! Injured at 399.8! They took 7 meters per attempt! This is so ridiculous that it is impossible to stop using exclamation marks! The closest team to reaching the Huskers all season was the state of Washington, which was two more falls worse than the overwhelming Nebraska attack. They gained teams an average of 38.7 points per game. Frazier’s run over Florida at the Fiesta Bowl was the final confirmation of what everyone knew all season: Nebraska was the best team in college football ever, perhaps. Up to at least six seasons later.
1. 2001 Miami (12-0)
Result: 42.7 ppg (No. 3)
Defense result: 9.8 ppg (No. 1)
Graduated Victims: No. 8 Nebraska (37-14), No. 14 Syracuse (59-0), No. 15 Florida (49-27), No. 18 Virginia Tech (26-24)), No. 21 Boston College (18-7)
Nearest game: Virginia Tech (26-24)
Larger explosion: Rutgers (61-0)
Consensus Americans: T Bryant McKinnie (Outland), S Ed Reed
The debate about the most talented teams in college football history begins, and probably ends, with these hurricanes. Quarterback Ken Dorsey won the Maxwell Award despite not receiving All-American status. The backfield included Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee and Frank Gore and Najeh Davenport waited for his chance. The crew received Andre Johnson. Jeremy Shockey was the starting tight end and Kellen Winslow II was his backup. The defense was led by an army of future NFL homeless, including Hall of Famer Ed Reed but also Jonathan Vilma, Phillip Buchanon and new backs Sean Taylor and Antrel Rolle. Half of the teams they beat finished in the top 25. Interestingly, this team was not trained by a legend. This was the first season for Larry Coker, who took over for Butch Davis, who let him train in the NFL. Coker has been an assistant for over two decades and was probably not fit for the role of coach. But he did the job at the time – as everyone has ever had. With a team as talented as his, it would be impossible to fail.