There is no perfect way to try to evaluate nearly 13,000 major teams over nearly 150 years of college football. A starting point is to try to do it using simple statistics. Over the last week, Sports on Earth has rolled out rankings of the top 100 teams in the history of college football. Once again, the rankings here are 100 percent objective, using the Simple Rating System, with subjective opinions about underrated and overrated teams included in the analysis. The methodology:
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.
Special acknowledgements go to the indispensable Sports-Reference sites, the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia, James Vautravers' TipTop25.com and cfbstats.com, among numerous other sources. References to national championships are generally taken from the list on the NCAA's official website, although no list of claimed mythical national champions is perfect.
Below, there are links to all four parts of the top 100 (click the images), plus an article compiling various bests and worsts from the collection of data. At the bottom, there are a few more general conclusions and numbers from the project.
These are not definitive rankings, because there is no way to do definitive rankings. The ratings are neither complex nor comprehensive -- it says so right in the "Simple Rating System" name. But they should hopefully serve as a launching point into historical analysis of how college football has evolved, various championship debates over the years and who might actually be the most dominant team ever.
The series opens with a wide-range of teams, many of them from more recent years, from both participants in the memorably dreadful 2011-12 BCS Championship Game to Northwestern teams of the 1940s to the last Notre Dame national champion to Bobby Bowden's greatest Florida State team.
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The second part of the series covers both new and old: Powerhouse Yale teams of the 1800s, although the way up through Vince Young at Texas and Tim Tebow at Florida. In between, we start delving into the Golden Age of College Football: the 1970s.
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The countdown moves into the top 50, where the best teams of the modern era show up a little lower than expected, in a system that favors the elite teams of the 1940s and '70s. Yes, 1995 Nebraska and 2001 Miami are here. Yes, I personally agree that SRS numbers undervalue how great those teams are.
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The countdown of the best 100 teams in college football history concludes with the top 25. Nobody proved to be deeper and more powerful against strong opponents -- which, essentially, is what SRS measures -- than the best teams of the 1940s and '70s, led by Notre Dame and Army.
There's a lot of fun to be had when sorting through data for nearly 13,000 major teams from all of college football history. From the best offenses and defenses to the worst teams, we take a look at some of the extremes from the data.
- While the SEC is largely ignored in the top 50, Bear Bryant leads all coaches in appearances in the top 100, with six of his Alabama teams making the cut. Others with multiple appearances include many coaches who you would expect, plus a few surprises: Frank Leahy (5), Bernie Bierman (5), Fritz Crisler (5), Ara Parseghian (4), Red Blaik (3), Bob Devaney (3), Tom Osborne (3), Darrell Royal (3), Barry Switzer (3), Pappy Waldorf (3), Pete Carroll (2), Forest Evashevski (2), Chuck Fairbanks (2), Woody Hayes (2), Howard Jones (2), Joe Paterno (2), Nick Saban (2), Bo Schembechler (2), Bud Wilkinson (2).
- Just like Bear Bryant having the most appearances as a coach, the team leader is no surprise either: Notre Dame dominates the top 100 with 13 teams. Others teams with multiple appearances: Michigan (10), Alabama (9), Oklahoma (8), Minnesota (6), Nebraska (6), USC (6), Ohio State (4), Yale (4), Army (3), Northwestern (3), Iowa (2), Michigan State (2), Penn State (2).
- The teams that just missed the top 100 cut, in order from 101-125: 2002 USC, 1975 Oklahoma, 2011 Oklahoma State, 1959 Ole Miss, 1951 Illinois, 1988 Miami, 1952 USC, 1970 Ohio State, 1961 Alabama, 1955 Michigan State, 1914 Illinois, 2008 Texas, 1979 USC, 1990 Miami, 1948 Notre Dame, 1952 UCLA, 1965 Notre Dame, 1912 Wisconsin, 1985 Michigan, 1956 Georgia Tech, 1980 Alabama, 1957 Michigan State, 1980 Florida State, 1991 Miami, 1995 Ohio State.
- It is safe to stay that if I were to compile a subjective top 100 list based on my opinion, the top 100 would look much different. Modern teams such as 1995 Nebraska and 2001 Miami would be in the top 10, and I might pick a different 1940s Notre Dame team as No. 1. While SRS does favor teams from the 1940s and '70s too heavily, there is also plenty of truth to the numbers' love of the dominant teams of those times. Consider the circumstances: Notre Dame and Army had a massive influx of top talent during the World War II era, while other colleges struggled to field teams. There was less parity.
- There was also less parity in the early 1970s: Rosters expanded in the two-platoon era, and scholarship limitations had not yet taken effect. Historic powerhouses -- Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Alabama, Nebraska, USC -- led by renowned coaches stockpiled talent on impossibly deep rosters, and they also played tougher schedules. In 1973, Oklahoma played 11 games, all against power conference opponents. In 1972, national champion USC went 12-0, against all power conference opponents.
- So while it is understandable to find fault with the final rankings and how heavily they lean on the '40s and '70s, it's also not hard to see why they ended up that way: Power was consolidated among a select group of top teams who played some of the toughest schedules ever. And that's what SRS rewards.
- Again, this is not a definitive list. There is no perfect way to do this. But SRS is a good launching point into a study of the most dominant teams in the history of college football, how the sport has evolved and which programs have been the strongest over time. If you want to quibble with the rankings and methodology, that's fine. I have my own disagreements with the rankings, many of which are addressed throughout the text in the series. But like the history of college football, a messy sport that has forever relied on the opinions of outsiders to determine champions, debate and disagreement are part of the fun.