As we continue Sports on Earth's countdown of the top 100 teams in college football history, according to Sports-Reference Simple Rating System data, we pause to identify various bests and worsts from nearly 150 years of the sport. A refresher on SRS and the methodology for the series:
It is very difficult to compare teams from 1915 to teams of 2015, but one way to do it is through the Simple Rating System metrics that Sports-Reference.com has compiled. For a complete explanation, go here to Pro Football Reference, but SRS is rather simple to follow. It combines average point differential and strength of schedule, providing a fairly accurate gauge of how strong teams have been throughout history. Obviously, any team of today -- with its size and athleticism -- would dominate a team from 100 years ago if they met on the same field. The goal here, however, is to find which teams were the most dominant. Understanding SRS numbers is simple: A team that has an SRS rating of 20 would be expected to beat a team with an SRS of 10 by 10 points. Zero is average. Margin of victory is capped, which adjusts for some of the absurd scores of the early days of the sport (hello, Georgia Tech beating Cumberland 222-0 in 1916), and it's important to note that SRS does not care about wins and losses. Its results generally match up with how often a team wins, but in general it gauges how a team is performing, in a very simple way.
I have gathered all of Sports-Reference's SRS data -- including offense/defense splits and strength of schedule -- into one spreadsheet, resulting in a sortable list of nearly 13,000 major teams throughout history. (The word "major" can be ambiguous the deeper you go into college football history, but we'll go by Sports-Reference's judgments and explanation).
So, what we have here are 100 percent objective ratings of the 100 best college football teams ever. They are hardly perfect -- I would debate plenty of the results -- but they provide a statistical snapshot of the best teams that produced the most impressive results against the best opponents, regardless of the whims of voters, the timing of losses or whatever else may have impacted national championship decisions. We'll reveal the SRS top 100 over four installments, telling the story of college football through four groups of 25.
The top 100 series continues on Monday with teams 50-26 and finishes on Tuesday with the top 25. For now, let's take a weekend diversion into some other facts from the collection of SRS data on nearly 13,000 teams.
Oklahoma 1971 (SRS: 22.6). A year after taking a page from rival Texas and switching to the wishbone, Oklahoma shattered records with it. The Sooners, who finished 11-1 and second in the AP poll upon losing to Nebraska in one of the greatest games ever, averaged 472.4 rushing yards per game and 6.8 yards per carry. They also averaged 566.5 yards of total offense and 44.9 points per game, rushing for 56 touchdowns. Greg Pruitt ran for 1,760 yards and finished third in the Heisman race. Quarterback Jack Mildren ran for 1,279 yards and finished sixth. Leon Crosswhite ran for 744. Roy Bell ran for 625. The Sooners still hold the record for rushing yards per game in a season. Offensive coordinator Barry Switzer became head coach of the Sooners two years later, replacing Chuck Fairbanks.
2. Louisiana Tech 2012
3. Oklahoma State 1988
4. Penn State 1994
5. Notre Dame 1953
6. Baylor 2011
7. Oklahoma 1952
8. Oklahoma 2008
9. Army 1945
10. Purdue 1969
USC 1952 (SRS: 18.61). The Trojans went 9-1 and finished fifth in the AP poll under coach Jess Hill, their one loss being a 9-0 defeat at Notre Dame. They gave up only 47 points all season, with five shutouts -- including a 7-0 win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl -- and more than nine points allowed only once, in a 14-12 win over UCLA. Guard Elmer Willhoite and back Jim Sears earned consensus All-American honors. With a mediocre offense, the Trojans still check in as the 107th best team ever, according to SRS.
2. Michigan 1985
3. Notre Dame 1946
4. Oklahoma 1972
5. Alabama 2012
6. Ohio State 1973
7. Alabama 2011
8. Miami 1991
9. Florida State 2000
10. Notre Dame 1949
Biggest Difference: Better Offense Than Defense
Louisiana Tech 2012. We really don't recognize this like we should as one of the wildest seasons ever. While no one would actually argue that they deserve this status, the Bulldogs own the No. 2 offense in history, according to SRS, with a rating of 20.9. However, they finished 9-3 and 37th in SRS that season because they had a historically awful defense: a rating of -14.57, which checks in at No. 12,897 all-time. Louisiana Tech scored 51.5 points per game in Sonny Dykes' Air Raid offense, but it allowed 38.5 points per game. The scores that season are amazing: a 56-49 win over Houston, a 56-37 win over Rice, a 52-24 win over Illinois, a 44-38 win over Virginia, a 55-31 win over UNLV, a 59-57 loss to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, a 70-28 win over Idaho, a 28-14 win over New Mexico State, a 51-27 win over UTSA, a 62-55 win over Texas State, a 48-41 loss to Utah State and a 52-43 loss to San Jose State. Colby Cameron threw for 4,147 yards, while Kenneth Dixon rushed for 27 touchdowns as a freshman. Dykes parlayed the season into the Cal job, where the Golden Bears are dealing with a similar offense/defense imbalance.
2. Navy 2007
3. Oklahoma State 1988 (Barry Sanders!)
4. San Diego State 1990
5. East Carolina 2010
6. Western Kentucky 2014
7. Baylor 2011 (Robert Griffin III!)
8. Marshall 2012
9. Baylor 2012
10. Arizona State 1972
Biggest Difference: Better Defense Than Offense
Citadel 1918. This is what happens when you play only three games in a short season during World War I, with the final score being 13-0: a 7-0 loss to Clemson, a 6-0 loss to Charleston Navy and a 0-0 tie with South Carolina, all games within the state. There are more interesting teams below, including the 2009 Nebraska team that Ndamukong Suh almost single-handedly pushed to the Big 12 title, as well as last season's Stanford team that was brilliant on defense in a season in which its offensive shortcomings stole the conversation. These teams don't necessarily have historically bad offenses, but their defenses were just that much better.
2. Ohio 1994 (owner of the worst offense of all-time)
3. Nebraska 2009
4. Vanderbilt 1997
5. Stanford 2014
6. Arizona 1992
7. Clemson 1994
8. Washington State 1994
9. Purdue 1941
10. Iowa 2007
Worst National Champions
There are two ways of looking at this, sticking only to modern post-World War II teams.
BYU 1984 (SRS: 14.68). This isn't actually the worst, as there are many from 1926 and earlier -- most of the 1800s mythical champions, in fact -- that rank lower. But in the last 80 years, BYU rates as the worst national champion, according to SRS, and it's not even close. The Cougars went 13-0, but they played only ranked team, beating then-No. 3 Pitt in the season opener 20-14. Pitt didn't finish in the AP pol. In fact, none of BYU's opponents finished ranked, and the Panthers went on to finish 3-7-1. The only power conference teams of the era that the Cougars played were Pitt, Baylor and Michigan, who they beat 24-17 in the Holiday Bowl. Michigan finished with a 6-6 record, so it was not an impressive victory either. BYU took advantage of a bad, upset-filled year in college football. Nobody else finished unbeaten, and only Washington (11-1) and Florida (9-1-1) finished with one loss. SRS places BYU fourth that season, with the 7,826th toughest schedule ever -- and the 82nd toughest schedule that season.
Georgia 1980 (SRS: 19.48). Georgia wasn't a terrible national champion. The Bulldogs are No. 462 in history, and there are several modern national champions that SRS rates lower. But the other way to look at this is who was the worst team within a season to win a national title. Georgia was the nation's only unbeaten in 1980, led by a stud freshman named Herschel Walker. While the Bulldogs went 12-0, won the SEC and beat Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl -- making them a clear national champion -- they finished ninth in SRS that season. They played the 51st toughest schedule of the year, beating two teams (Notre Dame and Florida) that finished ranked in the AP poll. Georgia was a deserving national champion, based on the system in place, but the numbers just don't like the '80s Bulldogs and would have picked them to lose in a playoff. In fact, the top 100 doesn't much like the 1980s in general.
Best Team To Not Win A National Title
Oklahoma 1973 (SRS: 32.87). More on the '73 Sooners is coming on Tuesday in Part IV of the top 100, but they were the only team in the top seven all-time overall to not win a national championship. With the No. 15 offense, No. 79 defense and No. 73 schedule in history, Oklahoma went 10-0-1 in its first season under Barry Switzer, who had been promoted from offensive coordinator to replace Chuck Fairbanks. The Sooners tied preseason No. 1 USC 7-7 in September, but they dominated just about everyone else behind the three Selmon brothers on defense and two 1,000-yard rushers on offense in Waymon Clark and Joe Washington. The Sooners were banned from the postseason that season and finished third in the AP poll behind Notre Dame and Ohio State.
Worst Team With A Heisman Winner
Notre Dame 1956 (SRS: -1.25). Anyone with a knowledge of Heisman Trophy history would have known this, because it is the obvious answer. Paul Hornung took home the 1956 Heisman by edging Tennessee's Johnny Majors and Oklahoma's Tommy McDonald (who received the most first-place votes but finished third). McDonald and teammate Jerry Tubbs, who finished fourth, split votes, opening the door for Hornung to take the trophy in a season in which he threw three touchdowns and 13 interceptions and ran for 420 yards. Notre Dame went 2-8 that year, finishing 63rd in SRS. The trophy really should have gone to Jim Brown, who finished fifth. But Notre Dame had gone 8-2 the previous year, and Hornung was a nationally known star. Creativity wasn't always the strong suit of voting sports writers, especially when Notre Dame was involved.
Navy 1946. SRS believes that Navy, who finished the season 1-8, played the hardest schedule in college football history. After going 7-1-1 a year earlier, Navy plummeted in 1946 after World War II ended. It faced five of the top 13 teams in the final AP poll, including No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Navy. Why is this schedule extraordinary? Notre Dame and Army in 1946 are two of the 10 best teams ever, according to SRS. North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Pennsylvania also had strong seasons. Despite its struggles, Navy nearly took down Army in what would have been a colossal upset at the end of the season. The Midshipmen were 30-point underdogs, and they lost 21-18 after a chaotic ending featuring illegal substitutions and the clock running out, with Navy coming as close as three yards from upending the Army dynasty.
Worst Bowl Team
William & Mary 1970 (SRS: -17.33). William & Mary's 1970 team rates as the 12,436th best team ever, according to SRS. It went 5-7 that season, in the second of the years under its soon-to-be famous coach … Lou Holtz. The Tribe's wins that year came against Ohio Wesleyan, VMI, Connecticut, Davidson and Richmond, and yet somehow it was enough to send them to the Tangerine Bowl as Southern Conference champions with a 3-1 league record. They were destroyed 40-12 by MAC champion No. 15 Toledo in Orlando. Two years later, Holtz was coaching North Carolina State.
Worst Team Ever
Lehigh 1884 (SRS: -36.08). Of the nearly 13,000 teams classified as major teams by Sports-Reference, from 1869 to now, nobody had a worse season than Lehigh in 1884, according to SRS. Lehigh played only four games that season: It lost to Lafayette 50-0, Rutgers 61-0, Lafayette again 34-4 and Haverford 36-12. The next two worst teams? New Mexico State in 1951 and Akron in 1994, both of whom actually won one game.
Check back at SoE on Monday for Part III of the top 100 countdown, featuring teams ranked 50-26.