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 TOP SINGLE-SEASON TEAMS

 

1.1972 Southern California

2.1995 Nebraska

3.2004 Southern California

4.2005 Texas

5.1947 Notre Dame

6.1971 Nebraska

7.2001 Miami 

8.1945 Army 

9.1979 Alabama 

10.1956 Oklahoma

11.1999 Florida State 

12.1987 Miami

13.1968 Ohio State

14.1986 Penn State

15.1988 Notre Dame

16.1969 Texas

17.1932 Southern California

18.1920 California

19.1948 Michigan

20.1973 Notre Dame

21.1991 Washington

22.1928 Southern California

23.1924 Notre Dame Fighting

24.1962 Southern California

25.1992?Alabama Crimson

26.2000 Oklahoma

27.1966 Notre Dame

28.1976 Pittsburgh

29.1934 Alabama

30. 1901Michigan

31.1917 Georgia Tech

32.1929 Notre Dame

33.1930 Alabama

34.1936 Minnesota

35.1944 Army

36.1946 Notre Dame

37.1985 Oklahoma

38.1997 Michigan

39.1997 Nebraska

40.1998 Tennessee

41.2002 Ohio State

42.2003 Southern California

 

Charles “Tree” Young was an All-American tight end at the University of Southern California in 1972. He is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, and played on the 1979 Los Angeles Rams Super Bowl team. He caught Joe Montana’s passes as a member of the 1981 world champion San Francisco 49ers. A respected Christian pastor in the Seattle area, he was asked in October 2005 who was better, the 1972 Trojans or the 2005 Trojans, who at that time were being spoken of as the greatest college team ever.

            “This team <2005> isn’t as good as last year’s team,” said Young, “and they wouldn’t score on the 1972 team until late in the third quarter.”

            At the time, Young’s comments appeared incredulous; the over-hyped memory of a proud ex-jock. USC pounded through the rest of the regular season schedule. They appeared poised to make all kinds of history as they prepared for Texas in the BCS championship game at the Rose Bowl: fifty points a game, best team ever, first three-straight AP national champions, twelfth school title, thirty-four weeks in a row ranked number one on the way to 40, and a direct assault on Oklahoma’s 47-game winning streak.

            But when the Trojans were unable to stop Vince Young in Pasadena, Charles Young’s words had extra resonance. While the 2005 Trojans may have been the finest offensive team ever, it was their 1972 defense which separates that team from all others.

 

Who is the greatest single-season college team of all time?

 

1972 Southern California Trojans

Keith Jackson, longtime network college broadcaster, considered “the voice of college football.”

USC  was “a remarkable group of athletes. They were never threatened in an unbeaten national championship season.”

 

Dan Jenkins, longtime Sports Illustrated college football writer (author of Semi-Tough and Saturday’s America)

            “John McKay’s 12-0 Trojans destroyed every opponent, and why? They had Anthony Davis, Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham, Lynn Swann, Mike Rae, Charles Young and Richard ‘Batman’ Wood, plus a couple of subs named Pat Haden and J. K. McKay. They scored than forty points against seven teams, including humiliations of Notre Dame (45-23) and Ohio State (42-17 in the Rose Bowl).”   

 

Michael MacCambridge, editor, ESPN Encyclopedia of College Football: The Complete History of the Game

            “Southern California, 1972. Every year, someone gripes that they were robbed, or deserved a shot at number one. But after USC tore through its schedule and dismantled Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, no one complained. The Trojans were that good.”

 

Blackie Sherrod, longtime sports columnist, Dallas Times-Herald and Dallas Morning News

            “Southern California, 1972.” Period!

 

2005 Southern California Trojans

Kirk Herbstreit, former player; ESPN GameDay analyst

            “. . . one of the most prolific offenses we’ve seen. Combine that with <Pete Carroll’s> defensive scheme . . . one of the best teams ever to play college football.”

 

2004 Southern California Trojans

Lee Corso, former player, coach; ESPN GameDay analyst

“In a big time game, the Trojans destroyed an excellent Oklahoma team 55-19. They could have scored seventy points that day.”

 

2001 Miami Hurricanes

Edwin Pope, longtime sports columnist, Miami Herald

            “This team had everything: great quarterback with Ken Dorsey, a great defense led by Ed Reed. No wonder the ‘Canes routed Nebraska in the Rose Bowl to win the national title.”

 

1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers

Chris Fowler, ESPN announcer

            “Unbeaten champs who grew more comfortable as the season progressed, destroying Florida 62-24 in the Fiesta Bowl. Scary to watch.”

 

1961 Alabama Crimson Tide

Bill Curry, former player, Alabama coach and ESPN college football analyst

            “They refused to lose. Gritty, lightning quick, near perfect in their fundamentals.”

 

1947 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Beano Cook, ESPN college football analyst

“As the 1946 Notre Dame team did, the 1947 Fighting Irish won the national title. And as the 1946 team did, they never trailed once.”

 

1938 Duke Blue Devils

Furman Bisher, longtime sports columnist, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Duke “ripped through the season unscored on until the final minute of the Rose Bowl.”In that final minute in Pasadena, they were scored on and beaten . . . by USC.

 

            Determining who actually was the best team in a single season is subjective at best. Many college football experts have other choices. Old-timers like the 1947 Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Statistically, Michigan’s “point-a-minute” team was unparalleled, scoring 128 against Buffalo, eighty-nine versus Beloit, forty-nine against Stanford in the first Rose Bowl, all while allowing zero points all season.

            Hey, how about Brick Muller and California’s 1920 “Wonder Team,” Knute Rockne’s 1924 “Four Horsemen of Notre Dame,” Howard Jones’s 1932 “Thundering Herd” Trojans, Red Blaik’s 1944 Army team (which averaged almost sixty points a game), or Bud Wilkinson’s 1956 national champions, in the latter stages of a 47-game winning streak?

            Too old, you say? Prefer the modern era? Well then, let us consider Bob Devaney’s 1971 Nebraska Cornhuskers, Bear Bryant’s greatest team at Alabama (1979), Jimmy Johnson’s Miami juggernaut (1987), or the unbelievable powerhouses at Nebraska in 1995 and Florida State in 1999.

            The New Millennium, the BCS era? The 2001 Miami Hurricanes were nothing less than awesome. Charle’ <ED: CHARLE’ IS PROPER STYLE/SPELLING> Young himself seemed to prefer the 2004 Trojans, at least over the 2005 Trojans, and if the 2005 team was almost the best ever, what does that say about the team that beat them, Vince Young and Texas?

            In the end, a majority of those who know enough to have an expert opinion pick the 1972 Trojans. They trailed 3-0 for a couple minutes in the season opener at Arkansas, a 31-10 USC blowout. Troy briefly trailed in the first half of the fifth game of the season at Stanford before winning handily. That was it.

            “We were never pushed,” said backup quarterback Pat Haden.

            They scored around forty points a game, threw one shutout, and beat UCLA (24-7), Notre Dame (45-23) and Ohio State (42-17, Rose Bowl) in easy manner to close out the season. They were ranked first in every poll. Statistically, other teams have looked better. The 1932 Trojans were more impressive on defense. Army (1945), Nebraska (1971 and 1995), Texas and even USC (2005) scored more points.

            The 2004 Trojans won the Orange Bowl by more (thirty-six compared to the twenty-five-point-point margin over Ohio State). The 1995 Cornhuskers’ 62-24 victory over Florida looked as awesome as either of the others. In 1971 Nebraska throttled unbeaten Alabama, 38-6. Was it the schedule perhaps?

            In 1972, the Pacific 8-Conference was the best in the nation, but it was probably not as powerful top-to-bottom as the Southeastern Conference has been in the 1990s and 2000s. The Pac-8 of the 1960s and 1970s might even have been underrated at the time. Its victories in ten of eleven Rose Bowls between January 1970 and January 1980, often against unbeaten Ohio State and Michigan teams hungry for national titles (that would have come with victories in several of those games), provides a retrospective analysis favoring a conference that got better every year.

            Nebraska was the pre-season number one in 1972, but UCLA upset them in the opener in Los Angeles. Arkansas was also a pre-season national championship contender, supposedly the best team since the 1969 Razorbacks came within a whisker of going all the way. USC dominated them in their home stadium.

            Troy beat Illinois on the road, 51-6. Duffy Daugherty claimed that his Michigan State team was the best since his 1966 “Game of the Century” Spartans, and linebacker Brad Van Pelt was touted as “the best player in college football.” USC dismantled them, 51-6. The conference offered no challengers.

            Many believe the 1995 Cornhuskers might have been better. USC’s traditional rivals – UCLA, Notre Dame and, for that matter, Woody Hayes’s Buckeyes – were all powerhouses at the time. The Bruins were an excellent team over a period of years; the kind of team that occasionally challenged for the national championship, could beat anybody, won Rose Bowls. They ended Nebraska’s 32-game unbeaten streak and were considered an offensive juggernaut on the ground, but against USC it looked like boys playing against men.

            Notre Dame was similarly a power in the “Era of Ara.” Had the Fighting Irish not subjected themselves to their annual game with USC every year, they very well might have won several more national championships than the three they did come away with between 1966 and 1988.

            The same thing can be said of Ohio State. Buckeye fans must have questioned the wisdom of the Rose Bowl arrangement when year after year their “invincible” teams came out west only to get their clocks cleaned in the California sunshine, often accompanied by Woody Hayes punching an L.A. Times photographer, cursing out  reporters, or finding general immorality and conspiracy in the liberal “Hollywood atmosphere.”

            In the final 1972 Associated Press poll, Ohio State finished ninth, Notre Dame fourteenth, and UCLA fifteenth. In the final 1995 AP poll, Nebraska’s opponents were Florida (second), Colorado (fifth), Kansas State (seventh), and Kansas (ninth). Because their traditional rival, Oklahoma was down in that period, many forget that the Big 8 (soon to become the Big 12 when the Southwest Conference joined the league) was as strong as they were. Colorado was still in a strong period and Kansas State was on the rise. All things considered, Nebraska has the edge in terms of  strength of schedule component.

            Sophomore Anthony Davis scored six touchdowns in USC’s 45-23 win over Notre Dame at the Coliseum. This included two kickoff returns for TDs. Statistically, other players have done more. Illinois’ Red Grange’s 402 total yards against Michigan in 1924 had long been considered a benchmark of single-game greatness, but all things considered – the setting, the opponents, the stakes – A. D.’s 1972 game probably should be looked upon as the most spectacular day any college football player has ever enjoyed.

            Nebraska opened the 1995 season with a 64-21 throttling of Oklahoma State in Stillwater. They beat Michigan State 50-10 on the road, Arizona State 77-28, Missouri 57-0, Iowa State 73-14, Oklahoma 37-0 in Lincoln, and Florida 62-24 at the Fiesta Bowl. Like the 1972 Trojans they were never “pushed.” Their 35-21 win over Washington State (unranked in the final polls) at home was the nearest thing to a close game, similar to USC’s 30-21 game with defending Rose Bowl winner Stanford (which was 30-13 until Stanford scored and converted a two-point conversion late in the game). The Cornhuskers took slight criticism for scheduling UOP, but eased up on the little central California school, 49-7. 

            Nebraska’s victory over Florida was the most impressive bowl performance ever up until that time, an absolute blowout against a 12-0 team. It had more of a “track meet” effect than USC’s 42-17 triumph over Ohio State in the 1973 Rose Bowl. The difference between the two games represents a difference in football in that twenty-three-year period. In 1972 the players lifted weights, but it was not nearly the science it had become by 1995. Steroid use may have been around, at least among linemen, as early as 1972 (although this is a bit of a question), but football players trained in the off-season mainly playing basketball; often other sports (the 1972 Trojans had a number of unique talents in baseball, track and basketball), and of course in the weight room, where they used antiquated equipment. Diet was not nearly as understood, either. Big men just packed on the calories with little regard for health.

            Nebraska built their program in the 1980s and 1990s on the “strength” of the best weight training facilities in the country; a cutting edge approach  to power lifting and, of course, the unspoken secret that everybody knows but few really like to say out loud: steroids.

            Nebraska and a few other programs were ahead of the curve when it came to strength training, and probably were able to stay that way for the better part of a decade, with direct results manifesting itself in the form of football victories. By 1995, however, whatever they were doing, the rest of the country was copying. If Nebraska was “juiced,” so was everybody else to one extent or another. Despite the revelations of the 2000s, everybody still is, despite lip service about testing. The ability to mask its use, or manipulate the system, makes it possible for anybody with a little brains to do just that.

            There was a different element to the 1995 Cornhuskers; a new look that for lack of a better demarcation point seems to have first really shown itself at Miami in the 1980s. College football was 100 percent integrated by this point in the South as well as everywhere else. This factor and more sophisticated training methods; a combination of size, speed and the explosive power of a new breed of remarkable black athletes, created for visual spectacles like never before.

            Nebraska was a fully modernized team. A decade later, there was no particular sense that the game was much different. They were part of a new optimum in terms of  level of play that had seemingly showed human development at its maximum. For this reason it seems reasonable to conclude that, absent enormous breakthroughs in medical science, the game will not see major changes in its “appearance,” for lack of a better word, for many years to come.

            Nebraska’s 1995 opponents were part of a level playing field. USC’s in 1972 probably were less so. John McKay built his program out of a series of enormous advantages. An eighteen-year “down period” (by USC’s standards) between 1983 and 2001, can best be explained by stating that in four or five key areas, society changed and allowed other colleges, particularly in the South (and most particularly in Florida) to “catch up.” USC failed to recognize what was going on. They took for granted the natural advantages McKay benefited from, not understanding that these factors no longer were as prevalent.

            In 1972, however, USC’s dominance was a combination of these factors, all in their favor. They had unlimited scholarships, stocking their roster three- and four-deep with prep All-Americans just to keep them away from Stanford, UCLA and Notre Dame. They were well ahead of the national trend in terms of black recruitment and had been for over a decade. A pipeline of African-American talent flowed like a river into the Coliseum. They had so much more speed, quickness, athleticism and strength than the rest of college football as to be scary. Perhaps it is slightly “politically incorrect” to state this, but the fact is their black athletes, most sporting Afro hairstyles of the day, were so big, so fast as to be absolutely intimidating in terms of attitude and physical impact. Ironically, among all these “scary guys” would emerge at least two Christian ministers, two corporate attorneys, a network broadcaster, entrepreneurs, schoolteachers and the 2006 Republican gubernatorial candidate of Pennsylvania!  

            Metropolitan Los Angeles had reached epic population growth. The schools increased funding after the launch of the “space race” with the U.S.S.R. in the late 1950s. The result was a plethora of high school stars coming out of sophisticated programs in the Southland.

            “USC’s unlike any other program,” legendary Trojan assistant coach Marv Goux once stated. “Because of the location of the school in the middle of the city, with the surrounding population, all those high schools pouring players into us, with the good weather, the media, and the tradition we have, we hardly had to work for players. They just came.”

            The Trojans also benefited from social unrest on other campuses. USC is a conservative, traditional university that maintained its commitment to sports throughout the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s, as opposed to a place like California, where athletes were viewed as second-class citizens. Stanford’s student newspaper wrote scathing editorials, accusing USC of not being able to put football in perspective.

            “The Trojans aren’t the best team in the country,” Washington State coach Jim Sweeney said at the time. “The Miami Dolphin are.” In 1972, the Dolphins put together the only unbeaten season in the Super Bowl era.

            The 1995 Cornhuskers were far more than just a bunch of strong linemen. It was their athleticism and speed that made them so spectacular. Punter Darren Erstad was one of their best athletes. He later became a baseball star with the Anaheim Angels. Running back Lawrence Phillips was troubled yet explosive. Quarterback Tommie Frazier was perfect to run coach Tom Osborne’s option-style offense. However, it was a team, not just a group of All-Americans. Frazier, who finished second to Ohio State’s Eddie George in the Heisman Trophy balloting, was their only consensus All-American. Amid much consternation, Phillips was their only first round draft choice (St. Louis Rams).

            The 1972 Trojans were a virtual spawning ground of NFL talent. Wide receiver Lynn Swann would be a Pro Football Hall of Famer and Super Bowl MVP with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tight end Charle’ Young was a pivotal member of the first 49ers Super Bowl winners. Quarterback Mike Rae was Ken Stabler’s able back up on the 1976 Raiders Super Bowl champions. Fullback Sam “Bam” Cunningham was a star with the New England Patriots for a decade. Linebacker Richard “Batman” Wood started in Tampa Bay.

            Young was a first round selection of the Eagles, Cunningham of the Patriots, and tackle Pete Adams of the Cleveland Browns. Ten Trojans were drafted overall, but underclassmen from that team made up the 1973 (nine players drafted, two in the first round; Swann and Steve Riley) and 1975 Trojan drafts (fourteen players including Anthony Davis). The 1977 Super Bowl between Oakland and Minnesota was a Trojan party held at their old “stomping grounds,” the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Seven Trojans and two Vikings were USC alums, many from the 1972 team.

            John McKay was the 1972 American Football Coaches Association Coach of the Year. Young made consensus All-American, but like the Cornhuskers, despite all the star power and future pro greatness, he was the only one on a group emphasizing teamwork. No Trojans won major awards.

            The 1972 USC Trojans played several “cautious first half” games, including the opener at Arkansas (3-3 at the half) and the Rose Bowl against Ohio State (7-7 at the half).

            “McKay got a little scared of Woody Hayes,” recalled offensive lineman Allan Graf. “He changed things around, and at the half we weren’t doing all that well so he just said, ‘Ah, what the heck, let’s just go back to what were doing,’ and we blew ‘em out.”

            In assessing which of these two teams is the greatest, there are many strong arguments favoring either one. Nebraska fans, jealous of their school’s legacy, argue strenuously on behalf of the 1995 team as the best of them all. USC fans are more laid-back and less concerned with this kind of thing. Either way, the choice is a difficult one to make, but in the end USC gets the nod based on intangibles. While there are some pure statistics favoring Nebraska (scoring average, strength of schedule), the fact that USC beat three storied traditions (UCLA, Notre Dame and Ohio State), all at or near the height of their . . . storied tradition, and in the case of Notre Dame and Ohio State, coached by legends (Ara Parseghian and Woody Hayes), places greater imprimatur with Southern Cal.

            USC produced more professional stars, and while separation of the professional from the college game is important, nobody  really can deny the best players usually go pro, making for the best professionals. Furthermore, USC played a strict pro-style offense. Tommie Frazier was a fabulous collegian, but was never viewed as a legitimate professional quarterback prospect. Despite his athleticism, he was not. Mike Rae did not star in the NFL, but perhaps had he not been benched behind Stabler he would have had more success. Second-stringer Haden led the 1976 Rams to the NFC championship game.

USC produced one Pro Hall of Famer  (Swann) and four College Hall of Famers (Swann, Young, Wood and Coach McKay), with future inductees to Sam Cunningham and possibly Pat Haden.

            The 1972 Trojans and 1995 Cornhuskers are not the only teams that make a strong statement when it comes to judging history’s greatest squads. Third on the list is another Trojan juggernaut, their 2004 repeat national champions. When it comes to “bells and whistles,” Hollywood glamour, and overall star power, no other team comes close. If one believes that “the more modern the better,” they fit that bill. As mentioned, though, there does not seem to be a vast difference, if any, when one considers what the game was like in 1995 versus 2004. The only discernible difference seems to be the size of quarterbacks. By the mid-2000s, a new breed of signal-caller, likely to stand six-foot five and weigh 240 or even 250 pounds (Vince Young, Brady Quinn, JaMarcus Russell) had hit the scene.

Other eras undoubtedly looked different. 1905 was a different ball game from 1895. 1915 was substantially changed from 1905. 1925 was a whole new ball game from 1915, and 1935 the same in comparison with 1925. 1945 was the beginning of a modern game, but the post-war era saw vast changes so that in 1955 it was much more modern. Then came the 1960s, when it all changed irrevocably. Still, 1975 was a different era from 1965. Finally, in the 1980s the game began to find its highest plateau. The 1995 season was different from 1985 in small increments, and by 2004-2005 there was little comparative change.

            As great as the 2004 Trojans were, they were really only seen as preparation for the “all-time-champions-in-waiting” 2005 USC juggernaut. The 2004 team only had five players drafted. One (Mike Patterson) went in the first round, with a second first rounder (Mike Williams) who sat out the season after declaring himself the previous year but was denied by the courts. The old days in which a college team might have fifteen or sixteen players drafted, with five or six in the first round, was now most likely over. Juniors could declare early, meaning there would be fewer senior-heavy teams with superstars who had not yet been gobbled up by the pros. For a program that recruits the best football players, this new reality hurts elites such as USC, but Pete Carroll’s program has not been set back by it. Instead, they have thrived.

            The 2004 Trojans were a young squad. Had Williams played he would have been a junior. Quarterback Matt Leinart won the Heisman Trophy and made All-American for the second straight year. He was only a junior. All-American running back Reggie Bush, a New York finalist for the Heisman Trophy, was just a sophomore. Two Trojans made consensus All-American on the defensive side; lineman Shaun Cody and linebacker Matt Grootegoed.

            With the NFL having left Los Angeles after the 1994 season, Southern California filled the vacuum and was being referred to as “L.A.’s pro football team.” Many people said their were several professional clubs they could beat, and they were not kidding. As great as USC’s tradition was prior to Pete Carroll’s arrival in the 2001 season, the atmosphere, enthusiasm and fever pitch excitement of USC football in this new era eclipsed anything in its past.

            The 2004 team seems to have run the table in the most “perfect” manner ever; they were only the tenth club ever to repeat as AP champions. They also carried the number one ranking all the way from the final regular season poll of 2003, the pre-season, each regular season poll,  and the final vote after their Orange Bowl blowout of Oklahoma. They held the number position in each of the BCS rankings when they came out after the seventh week. They featured the Heisman Trophy winner and a finalist. Finally, the 2005 BCS Orange Bowl probably was the most hyped college game ever played up until that time.

            The Sooners were also unbeaten and had been second in each poll since the pre-season. They had the reigning 2003 Heisman winner, quarterback Jason White. He and running back Adrian Peterson were also Heisman finalists, so there four players on the New York stage who would face each other a month later.

            The Trojans, wearing their home jerseys in that Orange Bowl (as the 1972 USC team had done in their Rose Bowl win over Ohio State), put a 55-19 drubbing on OU. It is considered the greatest single-game performance of all times. The only other game that really compares would be Nebraska’s insane pounding of Florida in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl. Again however, considering the build-up, the BCS component, and the stakes, USC’s 2005 Orange Bowl win is, as ESPN’s Lee Corso stated, the best game “any team ever played!”

            Carroll had such a powerful program that expectations were off the charts in 2004. The 2002 Trojans were the Pacific-10 champions, featuring Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer and a 38-17 triumph over Iowa in the Orange Bowl. The 2003 Trojans won the school’s first national championship since 1978, annihilating poor old Michigan in the Rose Bowl. They entered the following season ranked number one in every single poll, a very rare consensus. Leinart was the overwhelming Heisman pick from the get-go. With all  of this going on, there was considerable talk prior to the season that this Trojan team might just be the best of all time.

            The reason they are not is that, unlike the 1972 Trojans and 1995 Cornhuskers, they played several tough games on the road to their ultimate destiny. The opener was a donnybrook, played in 90-degree heat against a de facto “home team,” Virginia Tech at FedEx Field (the home of the Washington Redskins) in Landover, Maryland. Of the 91,665 fans in attendance, most were Hokie supporters from nearby Blacksburg, Virginia. Troy did not put the 24-13 win away until the fourth quarter. On September 25 they had to pull out all the stops to beat Stanford, 31-28 on the road. Two weeks later they were forced to defend their goal line against four pass attempts by California’s Aaron Rodgers in the last minute of a 23-17 victory. At Oregon State the fog was thick as soup in a hard-fought 28-20 win. Their 29-24 triumph over UCLA was too close for comfort. Southern California averaged thirty-six points a game and played stifling defense (two shutouts), but others have been statistically better on both sides of the ball.

            The 2004 team dealt with Hollywood hype like none before, but in 2005 the attention paid to them eclipsed all previous sports teams in L.A., including great Lakers and Dodgers champions. Pete Carroll was called the “prince of the city” by local sportstalk host Petros Papadakis. Matt Leinart achieved celebrity status above and beyond the town’s actor class. From a recruiting standpoint, it was a “perfect storm.” No teenage human being could easily resist the chance to be part of it. By virtue of Texas beating them in the Rose Bowl, two things. happened First, they exposed USC’s “secret” Achilles heel; an injured, faulty defense that had lost several seniors to the NFL Draft. Linebacker Lofa Tatupu was helping the Seattle Seahawks to the Super Bowl instead of stopping Vince Young with a minute left in Pasadena as a 2005 senior. Cornerback Eric Wright was not around to break up any of Young’s passes or runs, either. Kicked off the team for various acts of misconduct, he became a high draft pick out of UNLV in 2007. Had the Trojans held Texas, history most likely would have overlooked their defensive lapses and accorded them the “all-time best” title, on the strength of their Heisman combination (Leinart and the 2005 winner, Reggie Bush), their “Thunder and Lighting” running back tandem (Bush and LenDale White), an unprecedented third straight title, plus what would have been ongoing streaks of thirty-five straight wins and thirty-four straight number one rankings.

            Alas, the loss to Texas put USC in that “close but no cigar” category occupied by the 1969 Ohio State Buckeyes, the 1983 Nebraska Cornhuskers, and other teams that came within a  game or close to attaining the elusive “best ever” title. With this came the second factor at play, which is the realization that if USC was the greatest team ever, then the team that beat them might just be.

            The unbeaten Longhorns, like Troy, entered the Rose Bowl scoring more than fifty points a game. USC’s star power was so bright that Longhorn greatness was diminished, but they were so powerful that even the most hubristic Trojan fan was filled with unease in the days leading up to the game. Under coach Mack Brown, Texas compiled fabulous records every year, but the “brass ring” eluded the program since Darrell Royal’s 1969 champions. In 2004, sophomore quarterback Vince Young led them to an 11-1 record, featuring an incredible comeback to beat Michigan (who must have been wondering why the Big 10 ever signed that pact with the Tournament of Roses back in 1946) in the Rose Bowl, 38-37. The win gave Texas a huge burst of momentum heading into 2005.

            Texas was second in every poll beginning in the pre-season. It was USC one, Texas two every week from beginning to end, just as had been the case with USC and Oklahoma the previous season. As impressive as the Trojans were, Texas continually tried, and often succeeded, in looking better. The media largely missed it. When USC dismantled UCLA in the last regular season game, 66-19, Texas's 70-3 drubbing of Colorado in the Big 12 title game was even gaudier.

            Just like 2004, the Heisman award was a Trojan show featuring their latest winner, Reggie Bush with Matt Leinart on the podium to offer congratulations. Vince Young, the Longhorns’ nominee, was not particularly gracious in defeat. He was viewed as a sore loser by some, but in retrospect it seems he knew something nobody else did.

Whether there were more USC fans in the Rose Bowl stands is debatable. Texas traveled well and was louder. When Young crossed the goal line to win it, 41-38, it sounded like the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. Young’s performance equaled previous legendary games played by Red Grange versus Michigan (1924) and Anthony Davis versus Notre Dame (1972). He was matched by Leinart, who was everything he had been billed to be in three All-American seasons that may be the best collegiate football career in history.

            But Bush, while spectacular at times, was not as good as he had been in the regular season. His key fumble killed his team. The disquieting fact is that, had the Heisman Trophy been voted on after the game, Young would have received it, hands down.

            Old timers like Beano Cook still point to the 1947 Notre Dame Fighting Irish as the best team ever. In comparing them to their opponents at the time, they might very well be. They never trailed in a game and threw four shutouts. Army fell, 27-7 and they beat USC at the Coliseum, 38-7. They did not play in a bowl game, and at the time Michigan – unbeaten and a 49-0 winner over those same Trojans in the Rose Bowl – argued that they were worthy. Fritz Crisler’s Wolverines went through their schedule by more impressive scores, and a BCS-style national title game between the two schools would have been a donnybrook.

            Notre Dame was a repeat national champion. It was their third in four years. They would barely miss in 1948 and then win it again in 1949. Quarterback Johnny Lujack was their second Heisman Trophy winner in 1947. Tackle George Connor was their other consensus All-American.  An unbelievable eight members of that team are in the College Football Hall of Fame (Lujack,  Connor, Leon Hart, Ziggy Czaraboski, Moose Fischer, Red Sitko, Jim Martin and coach Frank Leahy).

            A core of old-time Nebraska fans, insisting with much merit that the 1971 Cornhuskers were the best of all time, dismisses all arguments favoring other teams. This was legendary coach Bob Devaney’s marquee group. Unlike many Nebraska squads that emphasize the team concept, they were filled with star power. This was another repeat champion. In 1970, only a 21-21 tie with USC marred Nebraska’s record. They “snuck in” when they beat LSU, 17-12 in the Orange Bowl. Texas, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan had been ranked ahead of them all year, but one by one they fell. Michigan lost to Ohio State and Notre Dame lost to USC. Then unbeaten Texas lost to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl while Ohio State fell to Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

In 1971 Nebraska was ranked number one in every poll from the first regular season ranking until after the bowls. They tossed three shutouts and demolished Big 12 competition. Then, on Thanksgiving day, they faced unbeaten Oklahoma at Norman in that year’s “Game of the Century.” Nebraska dominated early but OU pulled back into the game using trick plays. Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers returned a punt for a touchdown. The Sooners, led by running back Greg Pruitt and quarterback Jack Mildren, moved into a 31-28 lead. Nebraska quarterback Jerry Tagge pulled out all the stops, engineering a game-winning touchdown drive. Running back Jeff Kinney and Rodgers made key plays as Nebraska scored to win it, 35-31.

            Unbeaten Alabama faced them in the Orange Bowl. It was Bear Bryant’s first integrated team, but the Tide was no match in a 38-6 blowout that could have been worse. Rodgers, defensive end Willie Harper and tackle Larry Jacobson (the Outland winner) made consensus All-American. Rodgers, a junior, won the Heisman in 1972. Kinney was a first round selection of the Chiefs. Rich Glover won the Outland Trophy the next year. In judging the difference between the 1971 Cornhuskers and the 1972 Trojans, any edge USC gains is marginal. They played a pro style offense. In terms of speed, power and athleticism, there is no real differential.   

            Lost in the glare of Pete Carroll’s great run at USC, not to mention the great teams that have contended and beaten him,  are the 2001 Miami  Hurricanes. Under three coaches (Howard Schellenberger, Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson), Miami utterly dominated the 1980s and early 1990s. It was a remarkable run and unique in that it was achieved under different coaches. Few programs have been able to transition between two coaches (Nebraska: Bob Devaney/Tom Osborne; Oklahoma: Chuck Fairbanks/Barry Switzer; USC: John McKay/John Robinson). Miami did it under three with less downside than any of the others. The Hurricane program has always had a professional element to it. They play in a pro city in an iconic NFL stadium (the Orange Bowl). Their speed, size and attitude has always more resembled the mercenaries of the pro game, and their coaches reflect this.

            Butch Davis took over in 1995. For a few years the program declined. But there is too much talent in Florida to lose for long. The allure of south Florida is often a winning edge in recruiting battles between Miami, Florida and Florida State. In 1998, the Hurricanes announced their presence back on the national scene when they knocked off unbeaten UCLA at the Orange Bowl in the last game of the year.

            Davis had the program back at the top with an 11-1 campaign in 2000 but he, like his predecessors, went for the pot at the end of the rainbow, leaving perhaps the fullest cupboard of all time for Larry Coker in 2001. Lineman Bryant McKinnie and defensive back Ed Reed were consensus All-Americans. Quarterback Ken Dorsey finished third in the Heisman balloting. He won the Maxwell award, with McKinnie taking the Outland. First round draft picks included Reed, McKinnie, tight end Jeremy Shockey, defensive back Phillip Buchanon, and defensive back Michael Rumph.

            Mostly unchallenged, they survived a scare before beating Virginia Tech, 26-24 at Blacksburg. They dismantled a Nebraska squad that had no business being at the Rose Bowl, 37-14.

            Had the Hurricanes succeeded in winning in 2002, when they (like the 2005 Trojans) were even better than the previous year’s team, they may well have gone down as the best of the best. Injuries curtailed them in a double-overtime loss Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. They were thus denied back-to-back national championships (not to mention consecutive BCS titles). Their 34-game winning string was broken up.

            In 1945, Army beat Notre Dame, 48-0 at Yankee Stadium. This was the second straight national champion of coach Earl “Red” Blaik. They featured the famed “Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside” running combination of Heisman winners Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis (a teammate duo unrivaled until the Leinart-Bush run). History oddly connotes Army’s greatest teams while America was waging its most desperate battles. While some might question the validity of the cadets playing a game while their Army brethren fought and died, two things dissuade this notion. First, many a football cadet of this era did ship off to war, and some died (many fought in Korea, too). Second, the 1945 team at least played their season after the war had ceased.

            The 1944 team, which beat Notre Dame 59-0, might have been better. They averaged fifty-six points a game and allowed just thirty-five all year. The next year Army only allowed forty-five total points. The 1945 Black Knights, however, are given the greater position in the pantheon because to win it a second straight season, with all the added pressure, is very difficult.

            Army was so deep they actually used two offensive units. The “Lombardo team,” led by quarterback Tom Lombardo and consisting mostly of freshmen, would come in to relieve the first team. That was the experienced “Kenna team,” led by senior quarterback Doug Kenna. When asked what the best game he ever saw his team play was, Blaik stated, “That’s easy. It was a Wednesday afternoon in October when they scrimmaged each other.”

            In 1944, Army beat Navy, 23-7 to clinch the national championship.

            “Seldom in a lifetime’s experience is one permitted the complete satisfaction of being part of a perfect performance,” Blaik told his team.

Furthermore, the greatness of Army football was a source of national pride, and played no small role in demoralizing an enemy confronted by the fact that they were opposed by a power so massive and unbeatable that we could chop them up piecemeal on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific while producing sports champions on the home front.

 

Greatest single-season teams - chronological order

 

1901 Michigan

1913 Washington

1920 California

1924 Notre Dame

1928 Southern California

1929 Notre Dame

1930 Alabama

1932 Southern California

1934 Alabama

1936 Minnesota

1944 Army

1945 Army

1946 Notre Dame

1947 Notre Dame

1948 Michigan

1956 Oklahoma

1962 Southern California

1966 Notre Dame

1968 Ohio State

1969 Texas

1971 Nebraska

1972 Southern California

1973 Notre Dame

1976 Pittsburgh

1979 Alabama

1985 Oklahoma

1986 Penn State

1987 Miami

1988 Notre Dame

1991 Washington

1992 Alabama

1994 Nebraska

1997Michigan

1998Tennessee

1999 Florida State

2000 Oklahoma

2001 Miami

2002 Ohio State

2003 Southern California

2004 Southern California

2005 Texas

 

            When the 1945 season end, Army was accorded the status of “greatest team ever.” In the early 1970s The Sporting News ran a retrospective on them that certainly did not argue against this notion. They were denied a third straight title when Notre Dame’s Johnny Lujack stopped Blanchard in the open field during the famed 0-0 tie of 1946. Blaik’s teams were a national powerbolt for the remainder of the decade. A cheating scandal ended Army as a true contender in the increasingly competitive college football field of the 1950s. Pete Dawkins did capture the 1958 Heisman Trophy.

            Bear Bryant’s best team ever was his unbeaten 1979 national champions. Featuring center Dwight Stephenson, considered by many to be the best ever play that position, they ran the table, capturing a repeat title. Like all of Bryant’s teams, they lacked major star power, winning it with discipline and togetherness on both sides of the ball. Unlike the first eight teams - the 1972 Trojans, 1995 Cornhuskers, 2004 Trojans, 2005 Longhorns, 1947 Fighting Irish, 1971 Cornhuskers, 2001 Hurricanes and 1945 Black  Knights – the 1979 Crimson Tide are virtually never mentioned among a discussion of the greatest teams ever, but they should be.

Next on the list, the 1956 Oklahoma Sooners, are a strange story. Bud Wilkinson’s team was not really the best in OU history. His 1955 squad, which had powered past Maryland, 20-6 in the Orange Bowl, might have been better with five shutouts. In 1956 the Sooners featured halfback Tommy McDonald and center Jerry Tubbs. They were prevented from going to another bowl by Big 8 policy. The biggest reason they rate where they do is because this was the team that cemented Wilkinson’s record 47-game winning streak and it was their second straight title. They finished the season at forty straight.

Within the OU hierarchy, the 1971, 1973-1975, 1978, 1985 and 1986 teams probably were better. These were modern, fully integrated teams. The 1956 team was still, sadly, all white, but Coach Wilkinson bravely brought black players into his program shortly thereafter. Oklahoma, while not in the Deep South, is still in the Southwest, so it was no easy move. Wilkinson could do it based in great part on the success he achieved before that.

In observing that while the 1956 Sooners are highly ranked by history, yet in actuality are not the best Oklahoma team by a longshot, one arrives at one of the seminal points of the historical rankings process, which is that the older teams cannot really be compared to the newer ones.

The relative greatness of the 1924 Fighting Irish or 1932 USC Trojans is given its due merit, but in truth the game – and society - changed too much in succeeding years to rate the teams of that era with the later ones. Even the segregated 1969 Texas Longhorns must be judged by different criteria than Bobby Bowden’s 1999 Florida State Seminoles. California (1920) and Georgia Tech (1917) put up astonishing numbers, but common sense and logic tell us that Notre Dame (1988) or Ohio State (1968) were better.

 

TOP SINGLE-SEASON TEAMS OF THE DECADES

 

19th Century: 1893 Princeton

1900s:                         1901 Michigan

1910s:                         1913 Washington 

1920s:                         1924 Notre Dame

1930s:                         1932 Southern California

1940s:                         1947 Notre Dame

1950s:                         1956 Oklahoma

1960s:                         1968 Ohio State

1970s:                         1972 Southern California

1980s:                         1987 Miami

1990s:                         1995 Nebraska

2000s:                         2004 Southern California

 

Princeton’s best team in the nineteenth century was their famed 1893 squad, although great teams at Penn a few years later helped shape the game, spreading its popularity. Once the twentieth century began, however, all bets were off. While the predecessors of the Ivy League – Princeton, Yale and Harvard - continued strong runs in the 1900s, it was coach Fielding “Hurry Up” Yost’s “point-a-minute” 1901 Michigan Wolverines, winners of consecutive national championships accorded by historical ratings services, that make the Wolverines the choice for this decade. The single decisive factor in favor of Michigan is their famed 49-0 pounding of Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

            The 1917 national champion Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets under legendary coach John Heisman put the South on the map before Alabama came along. They shut out seven opponents, but oddly are not the best team Georgia Tech had. The once-tied 1916 team, which is not considered a consensus national champion, beat Cumberland by the largest score ever (222-0). In 1918 the ‘Jackets won games by scores of 118-0 and 123-0 over military teams. They defeated North Carolina State 128-0. But that 1918 season hardly counts because of World War and its effect on college rosters. Michigan has been accorded historical national championship status for the truncated 1918 campaign.

            The 1913 Washington Huskies are the choice for best single-season team of the 1910s. It is hard not to pick them, even though their schedule was not as strong as Eastern and Midwestern teams. Auburn (8-0) was felt to be their equal that year. So too was Notre Dame, upset winners of Army and suddenly a major powerhouse on the national scene. Harvard (1912) was another contender.

            The 1920s offer one of the most competitive fields ever when it comes to choosing the best single-season team of the decade. Whether the 1924 Notre Dame Fighting Irish really were or not takes a back seat to the fact they were the most heralded, famed Irish team perhaps of all time; made the school’s and coach Knute Rockne’s legend; and created much of the inspiration that changed collegiate football from “boola-boola” and fur coats into Saturday madness.

            This was the Irish of “Four Horsemen” fame (Harry Stuhldreyer, Don Miller, Jim Crowley and Elmer Layden). They beat Army at the Polo Grounds and, in a game that separates them from most pre-1969 Irish teams, went to a bowl. The Irish beat Ernie Nevers and Stanford, 27-10 in the Rose Bowl. This game was a major contest pitting powerhouses from the West and Midwest. Of just as much interest, it matched the great Glenn “Pop” Warner against the new superstar of the coaching ranks, Rockne.

            The next best team of the decade was Howard Jones’s 1928 national champions, but two factors work against the Trojans. First, some systems rated Georgia Tech number one (not unusual; the Davis ratings saw Penn as the 1924 champs, and there was virtual no such thing as consensus in any single season). The second factor hurting USC was that, after the regular season ended, their natural path to the Rose Bowl was blocked by their own decision not to play in Pasadena. The facts are murky to this day, but a dispute arose and, for the first and last time in their history, Southern California did not accept a challenge. California went in their stead and, after “Wrong Way” Roy Riegels ran . . . the wrong way, they fell to Georgia Tech, 8-7.

            Cal’s 1920 “Wonder Team” may well have beaten the 1924 Irish. Coach Andy Smith’s Golden Bears, led by superb end Brick Muller, was almost unbeatable; in fact they were unbeatable, for fifty games. Perhaps it is political, but Notre Dame’s historical reputation compared to Cal’s less-than-stellar one, on and off the field, gives the edge to Notre Dame.

            In the 1930s, co-national champions Notre Dame and Alabama (1930) or Alabama and Minnesota (1934) all have good arguments to make. The 1930 Irish are considered one of Rockne’s greatest teams (not to mention his last; he died in a plane crash after the season). They featured the great quarterback Marchy Schwartz. In 1934, Don Hutson, one of the finest receivers ever, lined up opposite Bear Bryant.

            Bernie Bierman’s Minnesota Golden Gophers were champions from 1934-1936. In the late 1930s great Southern teams competed with varying degrees of success and disappointment when national championships, or chances at them, were denied to Duke, Alabama and Tennessee by the polls, the California Golden Bears and the USC Trojans.

            Bob Neyland’s Volunteers were powerhouses, as were the Alabama teams that transitioned from the era of Wallace Wade to that of Frank Thomas. Wade went on to coach the unbeaten, untied, unscored-on 1938 Duke Blue Devils who finally were scored on with a minute to go in their Rose Bowl loss to Southern California.

            But Howard Jones’s’ 1932 “Thundering Herd” Trojans stand far above all other teams in this decade. They won eight games by shutout, beat Pittsburgh in the Rose Bowl, 35-0, and featured three All-Americans (Tay Brown, Aaron Rosenberg, Ernie Smith). All three are in the College Football Hall of Fame, as is teammate Cotton Warburton.

            The 1940s were a replay of the 1930s, with numerous contenders. Again, reputation helps Notre Dame, but of course their reputation was built on solid achievement. That said, picking the 1947 Irish over the 1945 Army Black Knights or the 1948 Michigan Wolverines is not an easy sell. The Irish played in no bowl game, just as Army did not. In 1948 Michigan beat USC, 49-0 in the Rose Bowl. USC had tied undefeated Notre Dame, 14-14. Offensively both the 1948 Michigan and 1944-1945 Army juggernauts were more impressive than Notre Dame.

But in 1947, Notre Dame featured an incredible eight Hall of Famers. Quarterback Johnny Lujack won the Heisman Trophy and tackle George Connor was a consensus All-American selection. Lujack,  Connor, Leon Hart, Ziggy Czaraboski, Moose Fischer, Red Sitko, Jim Martin and coach Frank Leahy are all in the College Football Hall of Fame. A record sixteen Notre Dame players were drafted. 

            In the 1950s, the choices come down to 1956 Oklahoma, 1955 Oklahoma and Oklahoma. Due to pre-bowl voting, only Michigan State (1952) can claim a worthy national championship between the 1950 and 1953 seasons. After Notre Dame finally ended the Sooners’ winning streak at forty-seven games in 1957, there were solid teams (Woody Hayes’s Ohio State Buckeyes in 1957, the famed LSU Tigers of the legendary Billy Cannon in 1958, and Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder’s 1959 national champs). But in the 1950s, it was all Bud Wilkinson and OU. His 1956 team, by virtue of winning the title for the second year in row while running their winning streak to forty, is the pick.

            The 1960s offer a more disparate set of choices. Four teams competed for domination: USC, Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State. Who was the best? At first glance, and certainly in the minds of Alabamians, it was Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide. In 1961 they featured quarterback Pat Trammell (who later became a doctor before dying of cancer) and the legendary lineman Lee Roy Jordan. Bill Curry, who later coached the Tide, said this was the best team he ever saw. Their 1966 team, starring quarterback Kenny Stabler and receiver Ray Perkins, was probably Bear’s best in the 1960s, but for reasons gone over ad infinitum, they were not the national champions.

USC and Notre Dame battled each other, both rising after down periods. The best teams of the decade were the 1966 Irish and the 1968 Trojans. Neither is the “Team of the Decade” because, as Willie Mays once said when asked “whose gonna win the pennant this year?”, well, “Hey man, that’s why’s we’se plays the games.”

Notre Dame beat USC, 51-0 in 1966. They featured quarterback Terry Hanratty, end Jim Seymour, center George Goeddeke, tackle Bob Kuchenberg, running back Rocky Bleier, defensive lineman Alan Page, and linebacker Jim Lynch. An insane total of twelve Irish players earned some All-American recognition. “Team of the Decade” status is denied them, however, not just because they tied Michigan State, 10-10, but because Ara Parseghian played for the tie!

Great teams do not play for the tie!

            In 1968, USC was looking to repeat their 1967 national championship with Heisman winner O. J. Simpson, wide receiver Bob Chandler, tackle Sid Smith, tight end Bob Klein, linemen Al Cowlings and Jimmy Gunn, and defensive back Mike Battle. Just as in 2005, when Troy arrived at the Rose Bowl knocking on history’s door, their most-publicized glamour team was upset by a team that may have been more of a team: Woody Hayes’s sophomore-laden Ohio State Buckeyes.

            The 1969 Buckeyes were supposed to be better. After they beat TCU 62-0, Sports Illustrated touted them as the best team ever, but Bo Schembechler and Michigan ended that dream. In later years, Pasadena, would more often than not be a graveyard for Ohio State, but on January 1, 1969 Woody was singing “California Dreamin’.” Led by quarterback Rex Kern, end Jan White, fullback Jim Otis, defensive lineman Jim Stillwagon, and all-everything defensive back Jack Tatum, the Bucks beat Troy, 27-16.

            It looked like a Southern Cal day when O. J. ripped off an eighty-yard touchdown run. USC led, 10-0 before Ohio State took over. Trojan turnovers in the second half did them in, and history shall record that the 1968 Buckeyes were the best of this turbulent decade.

            The 1970s offer two of the all-time best: the 1972 Trojans over the 1971 Nebraska Cornhuskers. Four other “close but no cigar” teams will not go down in history as national champions, but were better than many that did finish number one: the 1971 Oklahoma Sooners (who lost to Nebraska), the 1973 Alabama Crimson Tide (beaten in the Sugar Bowl by Notre Dame), the 1979 Trojans (tied by Stanford) and the 1979 Buckeyes (whose hearts were broken in the last minute by USC in the Rose Bowl).

            Oklahoma (1974) was a flawed probationary juggernaut. Notre Dame (1977) plus 1978 co-national champions USC and Alabama each had losses. What about Notre Dame (1973), Pittsburgh (1976) and Alabama (1979)? Great teams, not as good as the 1972 Trojans or the 1971 Cornhuskers. In 1973 Notre Dame fielded one of their best teams. In 1976 Tony Dorsett had one of the most incredible seasons any player ever had. In 1979 ‘Bama was the best of all Bear Bryant teams. As AC/DC once famously stated, “It’s a long way to the top, if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll.” It was that kind of decade.

            The first five years of the 1980s did not produce a great champion. Georgia, led by freshman running back sensation Herschel Walker, played slightly above their level in winning it all. Clemson was a  survivor in 1981. Penn State finally delivered a title for Joe Paterno, but he probably had three or four better teams in the preceding fifteen years. Nebraska was a team for the ages until Miami created a demarcation point in the game’s history in 1983, knocking them off in the Orange Bowl. BYU, God bless ‘em, won it in 1984, but outside of Utah they are not much remembered.

            The decade’s second half saw greatness. Of all those teams, Jimmy Johnson’s 1987 Miami Hurricanes were the best of the bunch. Quarterback Steve Walsh and wide receiver Michael Irvin were unstoppable. Defensive back Bennie Blades personified the newer, fast DBs of the era. They were the new faces of college football; renegades, attitude, “hip hop” warriors.                    

The 1988 Notre Dame Fighting Irish were the second best team of the decade. Three years after losing to Miami 58-7, they held off the Hurricanes by the barest of margins, 31-30 in a classic Notre Dame Stadium confrontation. That game was called the “Catholics vs. the convicts” because the Hurricanes featured, uh, a criminal element.

Linebackers Frank Stams and Mike Stonebreaker, and defensive back Todd Lyght, represented a return to old school Irish football: hard-nosed defense. Quarterback Tony Rice and receiver Raghib “Rocket” Ismail represented the new: fast, explosive. After derailing Southern California at the Coliseum 27-10, coach Lou Holtz’s team toppled unlikely Fiesta Bowl opponent West Virginia, 34-21 for the national championship.

Brian Bosworth’s 1985 Oklahoma Sooners, Paterno’s better 1980s Penn State team (1986) and the 1989 Hurricanes round out the other contenders. The best team looked to be Miami in 1986 behind Heisman quarterback Vinny Testaverde, but their 14-10 loss to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl did to them what Alabama’s loss to Texas in the 1965 Orange Bowl, or Texas’s 1971 Cotton Bowl defeat at the hands of Notre Dame, should have done to them: eliminate the very possibility of  thinking they were national champions. Instead of sulking over it, Miami (like ‘Bama in 1965) just went out there and earned it the next year.

Coming up with the best single-season team of the 1990s is a difficult exercise. Washington (1991) and Florida State (1999) are among the greatest teams of all times. Miami (1991), Penn State (1994), Florida (1996), Michigan (1997), Nebraska (1997) and Tennessee (1998) were all unbeaten champions that could make legitimate arguments they are among the best teams ever. When discussing such a thing, it is unfortunately inevitable such great teams as these do not get the recognition they deserve, but in a way this is what makes college football so wonderful. It is a game of fabulous teams, outstanding coaches, legendary players. The greatest of the 1990s are the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers. They may have been the finest team ever assembled.

The 2000s, at least after a couple seasons, started to look different from the previous decade. Nebraska, Penn State, Miami and Florida State, sooner or later, experienced a drop from the incredibly high standards they had risen to. Oklahoma, Ohio State, USC and Texas  all made dramatic comebacks to restore their good names in the hierarchy of college football. Virginia Tech and Kansas State, both teams that had knocked on the door, were not able to make it to the next level. Florida, the “third wheel” in the Sunshine State after coach Steve Spurrier’s departure to the NFL, climbed back to the top of the mountain.

The best team? Again, it was a team that lost in the end, the 2005 USC Trojans. But losing is not rewarded in this game, so they must step down and give it to somebody else. Their predecessors, the 2004 Trojans, rate as the best team of the 2000s. This is a decade that in its first five years produced three of the best five single-season teams in history. Texas (2005) and Miami (2001) are ranked close behind the 2004 Trojans. Such great teams in such a short time; the combination of traditional powers making comebacks; of USC dominating Notre Dame again after many years of suffering; of the Irish threatening in the years ahead to right those “wrongs,” as they see it; as new shifts take place and perhaps some new programs rise to the highest level; all of this makes this decade a new “golden age” of college football. The 2000s have proven to be the best, most competitive decade yet.