The Top-100 College Football Teams of All-Time (allegedly)

One of The Beverage’s favorite sites, Football Outsiders, has now finished a month-long series listing the purported Top-100 College Football Teams of All-Time. If you aren’t familiar with Football Outsiders, the site is about math applied to football, and it is always good to provoke a thought or two. This Top-100 list is no exception. In order from 1-100 (installments of 20), you can read the whole list here, here, here, here and here and see what thoughts it provokes for you.

Sadly, Princeton and Rutgers did not make the list.

Here are my four observations:

First, this is obviously arbitrary, as acknowledged in the intro to the first installment with the disclaimer that “with just a tweak of the formula here and there, virtually any team that has finished in the Top 100 could have ended up in the Top 10.” So Vince Young’s 2005 Texas team could easily have been at the top, instead of at No. 92, presumably if the formula were tweaked to give slightly more weight to “Awesomeness.”

In actuality, the Football Outsiders formula uses total points scored for and against (the only quasi-fungible stats available across the decades) and strength of schedule derived from same. There is also apparently some math included to account for standard deviation in different eras, giving teams more credit for being dominant in an era of great parity.

The results are not perfect, but they are interesting. For my money the 2001 Miami team, which appears at No. 6 on this list, is for sure the best I’ve ever seen. This is the legendary squad of Clinton Portis, Frank Gore, Najeh Davenport, Willis McGahee, Andre Johnson, Jeremy Shockey, Bryant McKinnie, Ed Reed, Mike Rumph, Philip Buchanon, D.J. WIlliams, Sean Taylor, Antrel Rolle and Kellen Winslow, many of whom didn’t even play. In back-to-back games in November, the Hurricanes beat No. 14 Syracuse 59-0 and No. 12 Washington 65-7, then went on to beat Michael Vick in Blacksburg and Heisman-winner Eric Crouch in the championship game for good measure. Nothing else compares to that level of talent and domination.

Second, this is not just your typical list, but a mini college football history lesson. The author, Bill Connelly, has really done his work, and the five part series includes multi-paragraph entries for each team, describing forgotten personalities and big games of yore in new and interesting detail. As much as we love college football, its history is not as well known as that of, say, baseball, where the Ken Burns treatment has raised Joe DiMaggio and his ilk to secular gods. Most of us may know the recent past reasonably well (The Beverage’s mental archive begins with Craig James, Eric Dickerson and Doug Flutie) and have some sense of the not-too-distant history of our personal favorite teams, but this feature will offer something fun from the vault for almost anyone interested in college football, even ignoring the all-time ratings hook.

When you view college football from this long-lens perspective, some things really jump out. At the risk of going all-Beano Cook on you, one of the things that jumps out is that the November 1946 game at Yankee Stadium between Notre Dame and Army (Nos. 10 and 11 on the list) is pretty close to obviously the coolest sporting event ever played. This game finished in a 0-0 tie, with the opposing defenses shutting down otherwise potent offenses featuring three eventual Heisman trophy winners (Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside of Army and the Irish’s Johnny Lujack). Remember that they were literally shutting each other down, as guys played both ways back then. Notre Dame quarterback Lujack actually made the tie-saving tackle of Doc Blanchard late in the game. Can you imagine the buzz in Yankee Stadium that day with a New York crowd that had just survived World War II and the Great Depression? This is absolutely my “if-I-could-go-back-in-a-time-machine-for-any-single-game” game. What’s yours?

Speaking of (national treasure) Beano Cook, the piece de resistance appears in the top-100 redux column, which features a 45 min. podcast interview with Beano himself breaking down the best teams of all-time (and becoming outraged when informed of the alleged No. 1 team of all-time). Which brings us to…

Third, in the final tally SEC boosters will be pleased, as the Best Conference in College Football is well represented in the top half of the list, particularly from the late-50s through the 60s and 70s. The purported No. 1 team of all-time is from the SEC, but it was neither undefeated nor a national champion, facts that seemingly caused Beano Cook to have a mild stroke. That 1959 Ole Miss team wasn’t undefeated because it lost on Halloween night to Billy Cannon and No. 28 all-time LSU, on the supposed greatest punt return of all time, which honestly doesn’t look all that great, even after you factor in that the only other touchdowns Ole Miss surrendered that season were in garbage time of blowout wins. Note: If you want to see what these white guys looked like in color, you can watch Everybody’s All-American, even though Frank Deford swears the story has nothing to do with Billy Cannon, despite the fact that it obviously does.

Ole Miss went on to avenge that loss to LSU with a 21-0 triumph two months later in the 1960 Sugar Bowl, and the Syracuse team that won the 1959 national championship is only listed as No. 55 all-time. Which leads me to observe…

Fourth, how different would this list look if there had been a college football playoff? Would Beano Cook become outraged that the 1959 Ole Miss squad appears by some math to have been the best team of all-time if they had beaten LSU and Syracuse in a four-team playoff to win the official NCAA National Championship?

We will inevitably take this up again in November, but, for the record, The Beverage opposes a college football playoff. Why? There are a few reasons, none sufficient on its own, but together enough for me to argue for the status quo.

One, the status quo mostly works. As Football Outsiders notes, after Notre Dame and Army met at Yankee Stadium in 1946, there wouldn’t be another No. 1 vs. No. 2 clash in college football until 1963. The two best teams of the 1990s, according to the list, were the 1991 Miami and Washington powerhouses that both finished undefeated and split the national championship. That doesn’t happen anymore. What happens now is that a third team – which might be as good or better than the other two – doesn’t get to play, which is not ideal, but somehow unavoidable when only two teams can get on the field at once.

Two, having a playoff would trade the possibility of a handful of very-interesting games for the certainty of dozens of often-interesting games. Say what you will, but the Texas-Oklahoma game (or fill-in-the-blank with your favorite perennial regular season clash) would not be as interesting if it didn’t matter so much. These games are great because the loser is often done for the season, in October. You think we get a great Super Bowl every year because of the magic of a single-elimination playoff?

Which brings me to the final reason. Philosophically, I’m against a playoff because it reflects a sort of laziness, a desire to be told in advance when the most important game of the year will take place so that we can be sure not to miss it and can make sufficient guacamole. College football is great partly because it hits the ground running from the very first weekend. Nearly every season features inter-sectional games in September that impact the national championship. You don’t know which one it will be, so you have to watch them all!

For all the talk about the Sisters-of-the-Poor and Directional-U mismatches, there are big games on the schedule almost every week. I wouldn’t trade that for the possibility of two or three more pre-arranged meaningful games in January, especially if they intend to play them on Wednesday nights like the BCS title game (don’t get me started).

This is getting me excited. I need to relax for a bit now. Is the Women’s British Open on yet?

August can’t go by fast enough.

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3 Responses to “The Top-100 College Football Teams of All-Time (allegedly)”


  1. 1 Gary the Bartender August 16, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Thanks for the Nod to the original PU/Rutgers game is appreciated, even if we did lose. We did, however, settle the score in a rematch.

  2. 2 Gary the Bartender August 17, 2010 at 11:05 pm

    Furhter thoughts.

    1- It really is a pretty good punt return by Cannon, better than Johnny Rogers v. Oklahoma, on the basis that Cannon is breaking tackles and outrunning people whereas Rogers is making a few moves and getting good blocking.

    2- Gary feels the beverage’s pain on ’05 UT at 92, but notes that the authors felt compelled to explain, signifying their own mysitification at the ranking, not only in describing the 05 Horns, but also in describing the 04 Sooners.

    3- The presence of several instances where two teams from the same year which played each other are ranked on the list, and the losing team ranks higher, is bothersome.

    4- Gary wishes they could still take their helmets off. I recognize that things had gotten out of hand by 1997, but, it was pretty fun in the early 90’s. Some sort of reasonable rules, properly enforced, could acheive balance.

    5- The “M Club Banner” incident in 73 is telling. On the one hand, OSU would never try that now-a-days. On the other hand, if they did there would be a fight amongst players. Both changes are bad. [in an aside, the incidence of on field violence between fans is, at least accoring to anecdotal evidence, way down, which is too bad.]

    6- General Neyland’s 7 Maxims
    1. The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win.
    2. Play for and make the breaks and when one comes your way – SCORE.
    3. If at first the game – or the breaks – go against you, don’t let up… put on more steam.
    4. Protect our kickers, our QB, our lead and our ball game.
    5. Ball, oskie, cover, block, cut and slice, pursue and gang tackle… for this is the WINNING EDGE.
    6. Press the kicking game. Here is where the breaks are made.
    7. Carry the fight to our opponent and keep it there for 60 minutes.

    7- W&L won eight games in 1950 and only lost to Tennessee by a touchdown???!!! WTF????!!! [Side note, both of Gary’s schools apparently lost games to teams on the list.]

    8- Lee Roy Selmon has a decent BBQ joint in Tampa.

    9- Amos Alanzo Stagg not only coached James Naismith in football, he invinted the huddle.

    10- The spread and, to some extent, the wishbone, are both re-iterations of the single-wing, which Gary hopes will re-emerge as the next “big new thing” in CFB.

    11- Interesting to learn the change in the safety rule resulting from one game.

    12- Derrick Brooks was the highest scoring player in Div. 1-A up through week 3 of that year, if memory serves Gary.

    Fun Stuff.

    RE: Playoff v. BCS, Gary actually takes the beverage to say that pre-BCS/”bowl coalition” dayes of absolute mayehem was better than a playoff. Gary does not disagree. Gary does think that if there is going to be some pretense of picking a winner via actual football games, a playoff would be a good way to do it. Go forward or go back.

    Looking forward to more football fun.

    PS- Gary would like to see the same list for basketball purposes. Gary thinks that the 08-09 Heels would be in the top 3 under any conceivably reasonable formula and that the 83-84 heels could be the highest ranked non-national championship team, under many formulae. What says the better half and half?


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