College football is about as great as American sports get to me, even when the season opener is a comedy of errors. As Miami vs. Florida was last weekend. There is so much passion for the sport in most of our land that it extends to arguments way off the field and long after the fact. The most fun to me are not the “Who gets to play in the playoff?” in-season arguments. Instead, I like the legacy ones. Would Auburn in 2004 have beaten Southern Cal? Who were the top five quarterbacks of all-time? Or coaches? Or who are the ten greatest college football teams?
Today the last one is the one I want to tackle. Yet before we get to the list, there are a few things that are important to know before you lambast me in the comment section (which has happened quite a few times in my sports articles, to the surprise of no one who has read them).
The List Criteria
A. I am only considering teams I have personally witnessed. The first college football game I remember watching was the 1987 Fiesta Bowl when Penn St. intercepted Vinny Testaverde something like 32 times and won the 1986 title, 14-101. It simply is not fair for me to try to compare teams I did not watch. Because that, in my opinion, makes the process too mechanical and even presumptuous to me. Also, this eliminates significantly era differences. Since comparing any player or team from 50 years ago to today is like tangerines to oranges. So, if you are looking for 1971 Nebraska or 1901 Michigan (who outscored its opponents 550-0 on the season), you’ll have to go elsewhere.
B. Only undefeated teams were considered. As great as 2008 Florida was after that Tebow speech, they still lost to a 9-4 Ole Miss team at home. And that is too big a stain to overcome when comparing to teams who did not suffer a loss.
C. Due to the unfair nature of how College Football crowned champions before 2014 and especially before 1998, undefeated teams that did not win the National Championship (i.e., 1994 Penn St. and 2004 Auburn) were considered. And this includes 2017 Central Florida but I had zero doubt they wouldn’t make it.
The Greatness Criteria
Here is what I heavily considered as I ranked these teams, in reverse order of importance.
A. The number of ranked teams defeated. Because going through a gauntlet of good to great teams matters more than beating a couple of good teams and a bunch of average to bad ones.
B. Whether the wins vs. ranked teams were at home, on the road or at a neutral site. Because winning away from home in sports should be a big deal.
C. Where the defeated ranked teams were ranked. Because beating #7 is more impressive than beating #18.
D. How badly the team beat the best teams they played. Because when the #1 team is significantly better than #2 and #3 on the field, that matters.
Sometimes even with that detailed criteria, I still made tough calls. Is beating four Top 15 teams or beating two Top 5 teams more impressive? This kind of thing came up several times.
The Data on Ranked Teams Defeated
The rankings given below for defeated ranked teams are from the Final AP Poll that year. Beating #10 in the first game of the year is not impressive if they go on to finish 4-8, which happens often.
So, with that in mind, here is the list. But before I give the Top 10, I feel I must deal with a major omission that may cause vitriol in protest. So at least our readers are aware that I realize it is a huge omission and so if you disagree, you at least know my reasoning for leaving them out.
Biggest Omission: Miami 2001
The long-term reputation: Back in 2005 when Southern Cal was supposed to be the best team of all-time (yet weren’t even the best team that year), ESPN had fans vote for 2005 SC vs. historically great teams. And the only team that beat them in the voting was 2001 Miami. They are regularly listed as either the #1 team of all time or easily in the Top 2-3. People revere this team the way NFL fans revere the 1985 Bears.
Why they were not higher: They defeated six ranked teams, which is high, but only one in the top ten that year. And that was the #8 team. Their championship game opponent was one of the weakest of the BCS era, a Nebraska team that had just gotten throttled by Colorado and didn’t even make their conference championship. They struggled on the road, coming very close to losing at Boston College and at Virignia Tech. When you compare the quality of the teams they beat vs. my list below, they come up lacking.
This team basically earned its reputation by beating Top 15 teams Washington and Syracuse at home late in the season by 58 and 59 points, respectfully. And by opening up a 34-0 halftime lead in the BCS Championship, before cruising to a 37-14 win. Those were all impressive wins, but none of those teams were highly enough ranked for that to move them ahead of the teams below.
Now, the list:
10. Miami 1987
Number of ranked teams defeated: Four
#2 Florida State by 1 (road)
#3 Oklahoma by 6 (championship, “neutral site”)
#15 USC2 by 4
#17 Notre Dame by 24
The Impressive: One of only two teams on this list to beat the #2 and #3 teams in the Final AP Poll. And four Top 17 wins, all in major hype games vs. traditionally good programs.
Why they aren’t higher: Only four ranked teams defeated, with two outside the Top 10.
Other commentary: I also was very surprised at this team’s resume and inclusion. Actually, I thought this team had lost a game. But that was true of Miami’s championship teams in 1983 and 1989. Also, they won the championship by playing in the Orange Bowl, their home stadium. Hence the quotation marks around “neutral site” above.
9. Alabama 1992
Number of Ranked Teams Defeated: Five
#2 Miami by 21 (championship, neutral site)
#10 Florida by 7 (conference championship, neutral site)
#12 Tennessee by 7 (road)
#16 Ole Miss by 21
#23 Mississippi State by 9 (road)
The Impressive: Four of Five ranked wins away from home, including three vs. the Top 12. One of the most impressive championship victories of any team on this list, beating unbeatable, cocky and undefeated Miami like a drum, in a game that felt more lopsided than 34-13.
Why they aren’t higher: After the Miami win, the drop off in quality of ranked wins is bigger than many other teams ahead of them in this list.
Further Commentary: Alabama stunned the world this season and notably in the Sugar Bowl, with two epic defensive ends (Curry and Copeland) leading the charge. The same team that struggled to put away La. Tech and Southern Miss at home in September trampled Miami in Louisiana in January.
8. Southern Cal 2004
Number of Ranked Teams Defeated: Four
#2 Oklahoma by 36 (championship, neutral site)
#9 California by 6
#10 Virginia Tech by 11 (“neutral site”)
#19 Arizona State by 38
The impressive: Three Top 10 wins, including about as thorough dismantling of another undefeated team in the championship as you’ll see (rivaled by the #1 team below). Southern Cal beat OU 55-19 but those in the game will tell you that the Trojans could have won by 50 had they wanted to. A 38-10 halftime score testifies to that.
Why they aren’t higher: Only four ranked wins and another big drop-off after the championship. No true road wins vs. ranked teams.
Further Commentary: I really thought this team would be in the Top 3-4 because that is where the eye test has them and where I’ve always considered them. To be noted as well as that their “Neutral” game vs. Va. Tech was in Maryland. So almost a road win there.
7. Texas 2005
Number of Ranked Teams Defeated: Four
#2 Southern Cal by 3 (Championship, “Neutral Site”)
#4 Ohio St. by 3 (road)
#20 Texas Tech by 35
#22 Oklahoma by 33 (neutral site)
The Impressive: Beating 2005 Southern Cal, who ESPN wanted to be the greatest team ever, for starters. Up there with 1992 Miami, 1995 Florida and 2018 Alabama as the most invincible teams to lose in the championship, few expected Southern Cal to do anything other than walk all over Texas. Also, Texas’s true road win over the #4 Buckeyes is the second-highest ranked road win of any team on this list, after 1987 Miami beating #2 Fla St. in Tallahassee.
Why they aren’t higher: Four ranked teams are few and two of them are lowly ranked.
Further Commentary: They beat Southern Cal in Pasadena, which makes them the only team I can think of that won a #1 vs. #2 championship game in this era in what was basically a road game3.
6. Auburn 2010
Number of Ranked Teams Defeated: Seven
#2 Oregon by 3 (Championship, Neutral Site)
#8 LSU by 7
#10 Alabama by 1 (road)
#12 Arkansas by 22
#15 Mississippi St. by 3 (road)
#22 USC by 8
#22 USC by 39 (Conference Championship, Neutral Site)
The Impressive: Oregon 2010 wasn’t quite as good as Florida 1996 or Alabama 2018 but this was still an A-level championship win. Also, seven ranked teams (five in the Top 15) is the most any team has defeated on their way to a championship in this era. So to go 14-0 vs. that schedule is alone worth a place on this list.
Why they aren’t higher: After Oregon, there is a drop in quality of the ranked teams they defeated. The four teams I have ahead of them all dealt with multiple teams in the Top 5. Also, they played a lot of close games and did not manhandle any of the Top 10 teams they played.
Further commentary: I still do not think Cam Newton should have played the end of that season. But I’ll take my frustrations with the NCAA out elsewhere.
5. Notre Dame 1988
Number of ranked teams defeated: Four
#2 Miami by 1
#4 Michigan by 2
#5 West Virginia by 13 (championship, neutral site)
#7 Southern Cal by 17 (road)
The Impressive: This is the only team of any considered with three wins vs. the top five. And one of only two teams with four top ten wins.
Why they aren’t higher: Only four ranked wins and two were very close calls at home.
Further Commentary: It is unjust that this is Lou Holtz’s only actual championship. Not even considering that 1993 should have been one, he just took a lot of terrible teams and made them great. But they don’t give championships for turning 0-11 teams into 9-3 teams.
4. Alabama 2009
Number of Ranked Teams Defeated: Five
#2 Texas by 17 (championship, neutral site)
#3 Florida by 19 (conference championship, neutral site)
#10 Virginia Tech by 10 (neutral site)
#17 LSU by 9
#20 Ole Miss by 19 (road)
The Impressive: They are the only team considered to defeat the #2 and #3 teams in the Final AP Poll by double digits. Florida and Texas were a combined 26-0 vs. teams other than Alabama that year. And Alabama defeated both handily. And even made Tim Tebow openly weep into his John 3:16 eye black. Also, all three of their Top 10 wins were at neutral sites.
Why They Aren’t Ranked Higher: As great as they were vs. the great teams, two teams were greater.
Further Commentary: The Texas game is hard to judge in posterity because Colt McCoy got hurt. Therefore, there is no way to know if Bama would have won, much less by how many.
3. Clemson 2018
Number of Ranked Teams Defeated: Four
#2 Alabama by 28
#5 Notre Dame by 27
#15 Syracuse by 4
#16 Texas A&M by 2 (road)
The Impressive: The two college playoff wins say it all, really. Because both previously undefeated teams (I was even ready to consider 2018 Alabama as one of the two greatest teams I’d seen had they won) were roundhouse kicked to the face, Rex Kwan Do style. (The 55 point total margin of the two games is still a record.) Furthermore, 15-0 also had never been done before. At least not since the Wright Brothers invented the internet, I mean air travel.
Why They Aren’t Higher: You mean, other than how insanely dominant the Top 2 are? At this high a level any criticism is nitpicking but they did have a close game vs. aTm, albeit with the two QB system they quickly resolved. And while Syracuse was a down-to-the-wire affair, that was the game Lawrence got hurt. And that has to be factored in.
Further Commentary: The fact Trevor Lawrence was a freshman makes their early games harder to evaluate. Because December and January Lawrence over a whole season might make Clemson #1 of all the #1s. We will never know.
2. LSU 2019
Ranked Teams Defeated: Seven
#2 Clemson by 17 (Championship, Neutral Site)
#4 Georgia by 27 (Neutral Site)
#6 Florida by 14
#7 Oklahoma by 42 (Neutral Site)
#8 Alabama by 5 (Road)
#14 Auburn by 3
#25 Texas by 7 (Road)
The Impressive: An unprecedented Five Top 10 teams defeated, four of them away from home. All four wins vs. the Top 7 were by at least two TDs. Won their two playoff games by 52 cumulative points. Tied a record with 7 total Top 25 teams defeated.
Why They Aren’t Higher: Their close calls vs. Auburn at home and at Texas were not the kinds of games I can see #1 struggling with.
Further Commentary: The resume is by far the most impressive of any team, top to bottom. But one team was just more head and shoulders above the rest of college football in their day.
1. Nebraska 1995
Ranked Teams Defeated: Four
#2 Florida by 38 (championship, neutral site)
#5 Colorado by 23 (road)
#7 Kansas St. by 24
#9 Kansas by 38 (road)
The Impressive: The four game results above speak volumes. And the championship result vs. Florida is the most epic beatdown in a college football championship I’ve witnessed. Because Clemson didn’t beat Alabama quite that soundly. And Oklahoma in 2004 was not quite as good as 1995 Florida. Overall, Four Top 10 wins, all by 23 points or more, three away from home and two true road games. No one could touch this team. They were men among boys every time they took the field. The average final of their games was 53-14. And that was with 11 of the 12 being vs. major conference foes (49-18 was the average score vs. Top 10 teams). They were not running it up vs. directional schools. As a result, they land #1 on my list.
Further commentary: The following opponents were not ranked, and hence were just mediocre teams. But look at these scores vs. other major conference schools: 64-21 over Oklahoma St. (road), 50-10 over Michigan St. (road) and 77-28 over Arizona St. Perhaps the biggest ‘upset’ of the entire decade of the ’90s in college football was that 95 Nebraska’s closest game was a 14-point win at home versus a terrible Washington St. team. That says it all about how good these Cornhuskers were.
So, there is my list of the 10 greatest college football teams of my lifetime. Was it as bad as my article on Tom Brady? What do you agree with or disagree with? Comment below!
- They actually intercepted him five times and Miami had seven total turnovers, which is a big reason Penn St. won despite getting out-gained 445 yards to 162. ↩
- This is the University of South Carolina. That other school is ‘Southern Cal’. You will never change my mind! ↩
- 1994 Nebraska beat Miami in the Orange Bowl for the championship but Miami was #3 at the time and would not have won the championship even had they won the game. Since Penn St. finished undefeated as the #2 team. ↩
Latest posts by Gowdy Cannon (see all)
- December 16, 1994: “Dumb and Dumber” and a perfect night at the movies - December 16, 2019
- Examining the Names of God found in “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” - December 5, 2019
- “Shocking, Repulsive and Inexcusable”: Myles Garrett Has Nothing on the Malice in the Palace - November 19, 2019