CFB 150: Top 10 teams in college football history | Sporting News (2024)

Of all the lists Sporting News has compiled to celebrate the 150th anniversary of college football’s birth, there may have been none more difficult than determining which of the game’s great teams were the greatest.

Were we to judge by how much talent was assembled, how difficult their schedules were, how dominant their performances became? All of that had to be considered, no doubt, but which ingredients were most important?

CFB 150: Sporting News celebrates 150 years of college football

One element was a given: Perfection. Because how could a team claim to be the best if it wasn't indisputably better than every team it played?

With so many great undefeated teams in college history, it seemed incongruous to consider even the best of those that slipped up once. Otherwise, this was a chore. But the best of the best are something to behold.

With that: SN's final CFB 150 entry: The top 10 teams in college football history.

(Team rankings reflect postseason AP Top 25).

10. 1971 Nebraska (13-0)

Scoring offense: 39.0 ppg (No. 3)
Scoring defense: 8.0 ppg (No. 2)
Ranked victims: No. 2 Oklahoma (35-31), No. 3 Colorado (31-7), No. 4 Alabama (38-6)
Closest game: Oklahoma (35-31)
Biggest blowout: Kansas (55-0)
Consensus All-Americans: WR Johnny Rodgers, DT Larry Jacobson (Outland), DE Willie Harper

The Huskers almost never broke a sweat during their historic season, the high point of legendary coach Bob Devaney’s career. They were really challenged just once, winning every game — save for the “Game of the Century” against Oklahoma — by at least 24 points. Their Thanksgiving Day matchup overshadowed the NFL games played that day. Rodgers began the scoring by returning a punt 72 yards for a touchdown, one of the most memorable plays in college football history. But Oklahoma still led for a good deal of the game, including in the final minutes until they could not quiet a last Huskers drive that ended with star running back Jeff Kinney’s short touchdown run. Kinney finished with 151 rushing yards in the second half alone. The Huskers had no such difficulties in their final two games, outscoring Hawaii and No. 2 Alabama 83-9 en route to the national title.

9. 1968 Ohio State (10-0)

Scoring offense: 32.3 ppg (No. 9)
Scoring defense: 15.0 ppg (No. 19)
Ranked victims: No. 4 USC (27-16), No. 10 Purdue (13-0), No. 12 Michigan (50-14), No. 14 SMU (35-14)
Closest game: Michigan State (25-20)
Biggest blowout: Michigan (50-14)
Consensus All-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 sophom*ores in an era when freshmen weren’t permitted to play. But they were essential contributors to a team that dominated the Big Ten and rolled rival Michigan in what looked, in advance, to be an enormous showdown between elite teams. As was Woody Hayes’ preference throughout his career, the Buckeyes employed a conservative offense that saw quarterback Rex Kern average just 13 pass attempts per game while rugged back Jim Otis pounded away for 4.5 yards per carry (and 17 touchdowns). Against undefeated USC in the Rose Bowl, the Buckeyes allowed Heisman winner O.J. Simpson an 80-yard touchdown run and an early 10-0 lead to the Trojans lead. But they forced five turnovers (including a key Simpson fumble) and outscored USC 27-6 in the final 2½ quarters.

8. 1972 USC (12-0)

Scoring offense: 38.9 ppg (No. 3)
Scoring defense: 11.2 ppg (No. 8)
Ranked victims: No. 9 Ohio State (42-17), No. 14 Notre Dame (45-23), No. 15 UCLA (24-7), No. 19 Washington (34-7)
Closest game: Stanford (30-21)
Biggest blowout: Oregon State (51-6), Michigan State (51-6)
Consensus All-Americans: TE Charle Young

The most memorable occasion of the Trojans’ dominant season came in the annual rivalry game against Notre Dame, when sophom*ore tailback Anthony Davis returned two kicks for touchdowns and scored four more in a blowout of the then-top-10 Irish. But there also was Sam “Bam” Cunningham’s overpowering effort in the Rose Bowl, when he leaped into the end zone four times against the defenseless Buckeyes. The Trojans blasted top teams from their own league, Pac-8, as well as the Big Ten and Southwest Conference. Coach John McKay’s son, "J.K.," caught 23 passes for four touchdowns in this, his sophom*ore season.

7. 2018 Clemson (15-0)

Scoring offense: 44.3 ppg (No. 4)
Scoring defense: 13.1 ppg (No. 1)
Ranked victims: No. 2 Alabama (44-16), No. 5 Notre Dame (30-3), No. 15 Syracuse (27-23), No. 16 Texas A&M (28-26)
Closest game: Texas A&M (28-26)
Biggest blowout: Wake Forest, 63-3
Consensus All-Americans: T Mitch Hyatt, DE Christian Wilkins (Campbell), DE Clelin Ferrell (Hendricks)

The Tigers entered the College Football Playoff title game against Alabama as a 5-point underdog and proceeded to blow the Crimson Tide out of the building before halftime. Freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence dominated a highly regarded Alabama defense and finished with 347 passing yards and three touchdowns. What was expected to be a classic played out no differently than the ACC Championship game against Pitt, a game that figured to be a rout and certainly was. The Tigers had two narrow wins on the way to their perfect season, both early in the season. The A&M game occurred before Dabo Swinney made the difficult choice to bench veteran QB Kelly Bryant and start Lawrence after he’d alternated the two for the first four games. A close win over Syracuse came in Lawrence’s first start. After that, he and the Tigers were rarely challenged, including the 30-3 rout of the Fighting Irish in the Playoff semifinal. In beating Alabama, Clemson also became the first major team in modern college football — and the first since Penn in 1897 — to go 15-0.

6. 1979 Alabama (12-0)

Scoring offense: 31.9 ppg (No. 7)
Scoring defense: 5.6 ppg (No. 1)
Ranked victims: No. 8 Arkansas (24-9) No. 14 Baylor (45-0), No. 16 Auburn (25-18)
Closest game: LSU (3-0)
Biggest blowout: Vanderbilt (66-3)
Consensus All-Americans: T Jim Bunch

The Crimson Tide did not face the most overwhelming schedule ever, but their defense was among the best the game has ever seen. The Tide pitched five shutouts, allowed just eight touchdowns all season and only twice allowed the opposition into double figures. The defense was so dominant the offense never had to resort to the passing game; starter Steadman Shealy threw only 81 times all year. The Tide just wishboned their way to a perfect season in over a decade, capped by a dominant performance against Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl that seemed more of a formality than anything. That resulted in Bear Bryant's final of six titles in Tuscaloosa.

5. 2005 Texas (13-0)

Scoring offense: 50.2 ppg (No. 1)
Scoring defense: 16.4 ppg (No. 9)
Ranked victims: No. 2 USC (41-38), No. 4 Ohio State (25-22), No. 20 Texas Tech (52-17), No. 22 Colorado (42-17)
Closest game: USC (41-38), Ohio State (25-22)
Biggest blowout: Colorado, 70-3
Consensus All-Americans: QB Vince Young (Maxwell, Davey O'Brien, Manning), T Jonathan Scott, S Michael Huff (Thorpe)

You can try to point out Mack Brown's Longhorns averaged half-a-hundy per game if you like, blaming it on the meager defense that sometimes is played in the Big 12. But these guys played in that same gunslinging league and only allowed three conference teams to breach the 20-point mark. So they could score and stop you. And, when they needed it, they could deliver the big play. The most notable among those was Young’s last-minute 9-yard touchdown scramble against USC in the Rose Bowl. It punctuated what might have been the greatest college game — certainly for the BCS era — and quite likely was the Heisman runner-up's greatest individual performance: 267 passing yards, 200 rushing yards, three touchdowns and a 2-point conversion run.

4. 2004 USC (11-0)

Scoring offense: 38.2 ppg (No. 6)
Scoring defense: 13.0 ppg (No. 3)
Ranked victims: No. 3 Oklahoma (55-19), No. 7 California (23-17), No. 10 Virginia Tech (24-13), No. 19 Arizona State (45-7)
Closest game: Stanford (31-28)
Biggest blowout: Colorado State (49-0)
Consensus All-Americans: QB Matt Leinhart (Heisman, Walter Camp), DT Shaun Cody, LB Matt Grootegoed, ATH Reggie Bush

Obviously, SN’s panel of voters doesn’t believe in vacation. Well, it believes in vacations, but the vacating of victories? Meh. Pete Carroll's 2004 team scored a narrow victory over rival UCLA, and that Orange Bowl BCS title game win over Oklahoma was wiped out by the NCAA infractions committee, but our voters know what they saw. They saw Leinhart complete 65 percent of his passes for 33 touchdowns and just six interceptions. They saw the muscle/hustle team of LenDale White and Reggie Bush rush for a combined 2,011 yards and 21 touchdowns. They saw Dwayne Jarrett catch 13 touchdowns. They saw a defense led by Grootegoed and Lofa Tatupu control the opposition. They saw a team that was overrun with talent overwhelm its opponents.

3. 2019 LSU (15-0)

Scoring offense: 48.4 ppg (No. 1)
Scoring defense: 21.9 ppg (No. 32)
Ranked victims: No. 2 Clemson (42-25), No. 4 Georgia (37-10), No. 6 Florida (42-28), No. 7 Oklahoma (63-28), No. 8 Alabama (46-41), No. 14 Auburn (23-20), No. 25 Texas (45-38)
Closest game: Auburn (23-20)
Biggest blowout: Georgia Southern (55-3)
Consensus All-Americans: QB Joe Burrow (Heisman, SN POY, Maxwell, Walter Camp, AP POY, Johnny Unitas, Davey O'Brien), WR Ja’Marr Chase (Biletnikoff), S Grant Delpit (Thorpe), CB Derek Stingley Jr.

In an era of college football that has emphasized offense and scoring in a way that was unimaginable when the game celebrated its centennial, this was the ultimate offensive machine. When Roger Staubach was named Heisman Trophy winner at Navy in 1963, he passed for 1,702 yards and seven touchdowns. Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow threw for 1,984 yards and 22 touchdowns in just his final five games, contributing to one of the greatest individual seasons in college football history. LSU defeated through the course of the year seven teams ranked inside the top 10, which featured Big 12 champion Oklahoma and winners of the Fiesta, Orange, Sugar, Citrus, Alamo and Texas bowls. The defense could not be described as sensational — only six times in 15 games did it hold the opposition under 20 points — but it was there when it had to be, especially late in the season. Nah, it was there more often than it had to be. Because with that offense, the defense barely was needed at all.

2. 1995 Nebraska (12-0)

Scoring offense: 53.2 ppg (No. 1)
Scoring defense: 14.5 ppg (No. 4)
Ranked victims: No. 2 Florida (62-24), No. 5 Colorado (44-21), No. 7 Kansas State (49-25), No. 9 Kansas (41-3)
Closest game: Washington State (35-21)
Biggest blowout: Iowa State (73-14)
Consensus All-Americans: QB Tommie Frazier

Many people have argued that Nebraska’s 1971 team is the best in Huskers history, but are we to believe the entire college football world simply called in sick in 1995? Because no one — no one — came close to Tom Osborne's second of three national title teams. With Ahman Green and Lawrence Phillips at running back and Frazier in complete command at quarterback, Nebraska averaged more than 50 points per game even though Frazier didn’t even complete 100 passes on the season. With a few more inches gained in any one of their dozen games, they would have averaged 400 rushing yards per game! 400! They wound up at 399.8! They gained 7 yards per attempt! That’s so ridiculous it’s impossible to stop using exclamation points! The closest any team managed to get to the Huskers all season was Washington State, which was still two touchdowns worse than Nebraska's overwhelming onslaught. They beat teams by an average of 38.7 points per game. Frazier's run over Florida in the Fiesta Bowl was the final confirmation to what everyone knew all season: Nebraska was the best team in all of college football, maybe ever. Until, at least, six seasons later.

1. 2001 Miami (12-0)

Scoring offense: 42.7 ppg (No. 3)
Scoring defense: 9.8 ppg (No. 1)
Ranked victims: No. 8 Nebraska (37-14), No. 14 Syracuse (59-0), No. 15 Florida State (49-27), No. 18 Virginia Tech (26-24), No. 19 Washington (65-7), No. 21 Boston College (18-7)
Closest game: Virginia Tech (26-24)
Biggest blowout: Rutgers (61-0)
Consensus All-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, despite not receiving All-American status, won the Maxwell Award. The backfield included Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee and Frank Gore, and Najeh Davenport was waiting for his chance. The receiving crew was led by 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 stars, including Hall of Famer Ed Reed but also Jonathan Vilma, Phillip Buchanon and young backs in Sean Taylor and Antrel Rolle. Half the teams they beat finished ranked in the top 25. Interestingly, this is the only team on the list that wasn’t coached by a legend. This was the first season for Larry co*ker, who took over after Butch Davis left to coach in the NFL. co*ker had been an assistant for over two decades, and he probably wasn’t suited to the head coach role. But he did the job that season — as well as anyone ever has. With a team as talented as his, it would have been impossible to fail.

CFB 150: Top 10 teams in college football history | Sporting News (2024)
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