Who was the greatest team in the history of college football?

It’s Wednesday and that means that it’s time for another edition of The Student Section’s college football roundtable. TSS Associate Editors Bart Doan and Terry Johnson join Kevin Causey and a rotating special guest in our weekly roundtables discussing all things college football.

Last week we dove into the history of college football by discussing our favorite college football moments and historic games of the past. Today we continue down a similar path as we discuss the the history of college football. Joining us for this discussion is Kevin McGuire, who writes for NBC’s College Football Talk as well as the Nittany Lions Den, which is Bloguin’s Penn State site.

Question: The Kentucky Wildcats are on a historic run and when all is said and done could be the best team ever assembled in college basketball. What is the greatest team in the history of college football?

Kevin McGuire:

On Twitter @KevinonCFB

For my money, if I needed to bet on one specific team to win one specific game, I would have a difficult time choosing any team ahead of the 2001 Miami Hurricanes.

That may have been the most punishing team over the last thirty years and would have given even 1995 Nebraska a hard time. Just take a look at that roster and you will find elite college talent left and right. Six first-team All-Americans, a total of 38 players that went on to be drafted by an NFL team (and only a fraction of those guys played a significant role on the 2001 team’s success).

It is hard assembling that kind of talented depth, and it can be even more challenging to keep that kind of talent poised for a full season. Say what you will about Larry Coker, but the guy let the team’s ego carry itself to a championship. The Big East at the time may not have been a gauntlet, but Miami was so overpowering opponents by an average of 32.9 points per victory (including close calls against Boston College and Virginia Tech), that it would not have mattered if Miami were in the ACC or the SEC. They were going to win, and they were going to do so in convincing fashion.

I have seen some very good teams over my years of watching college football (1994 Penn State, 1995 Nebraska for example), but I have not seen a team more dominant on both sides of the football than that 2001 Miami team.

Bart Doan:

On Twitter @TheCoachBart

I always have a tough time with these, because if you really break it down, everyone in every era is playing by the same rules as their competitors. So it’s too easy to say, “yuck, yuck, they played with leather helmets back then. Yuck, yuck, these teams today would destroy them.” But what the hell is this argument? Is it “best team of all time relative to their era” or is it “if Team A and Team B lined up against one another today, who would win?”

If it’s the latter, don’t be stupid. Obviously today’s athletes would run roughshod over those from 50, 70, 90 years ago. But the rules and playing field was different then. You can only play the hand you’re dealt, right?

If you’re looking all time, regardless of era, how can you go against the 1901 Michigan Wolverines, the famed “Point a Minute” squad that hung up an 11-0 record while outscoring opponents 550-0 over the course of the season. Granted, they couldn’t come within 70 of Louisiana Monroe today, but that wasn’t the lot they were cast against.

If you’re looking to go a little more conversational and modern, it’s the 2001 Miami Hurricanes. I know everyone else will take something mid-90’s Nebraska Cornhuskers, but how do you settle these arguments? These are games played in different systems, eras sometimes, and even with different rules. How do you compare greatness by decade or generation? The only thing that really maintains the same would probably be the players and how the move on to success after their college careers.

Folks chide the, “what they did in the NFL argument,” but absent teams being able to play one another in their eras, how the hell else do you compare clubs? On that Miami team that went undefeated was a staggering 38 NFL draft picks and a ridiculous 17 first round picks. Folks can say, “but Nebraska blew folks out left and right.” Who cares. Maybe it was a down year for college football.

The stuff is impossible to really know. The only real entertainment entity that stands the test of time and can be compared is music. What was great in the 60’s and 70’s very well may be better than what is now (hint: it was). Technology hasn’t changed much in that realm. But in sports, it has. So all time, give me 550-0 and in the modern era, give me a team stacked with NFL superstars in Miami.

Kevin Causey:
On Twitter @CFBZ

The Miami Hurricanes team that has been mentioned is likely the most talented team to ever put on cleats but I’m going with a different team that has already been mentioned.

The 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers.

This team started off their season with two road games, one at Oklahoma State and then one at Michigan State. They won the first 64-21 and then won the second 50-10. After that they put up 77 on Arizona State! They ran roughshot over their entire schedule with a 35-21 game against Washington State being their closest contest of the season. When all was said and done they beat four top ten teams over the course of the 1995/1996 season.

This Huskers team scored 53.2 points per game and allowed just 14.5. After shutting out Oklahoma 37-0 in their final regular season game of the year, they went into the National Championship Game and completely blew out Florida 62-24, giving Steve Spurrier’s Gators their only loss of the season.

The biggest thing I remember about this era of Nebraska football was Tommie Frazier. His stats don’t jump off the page at you (56% completions, 17 passing TD vs 4 interceptions, 1362 yards passing, 604 yards rushing and 14 rushing TD) but he was the general that led the Huskers army to battle each and every week. Frazier was the type of quarterback that I would take to lead my team, the 1995 Huskers, against any other team from any era of college football.

Terry Johnson:
On Twitter @SectionTPJ

At the risk of sounding like a politician that’s trying to attract members from both sides of the aisle, I’ll say that this is an incredibly difficult question to answer. After all, how do you compare teams from different eras? What’s the appropriate metric for comparing 1938 TCU and 2014 Florida State? Or 1945 Army (which did not lose from 1944-46) against a 1956 Oklahoma Sooner team that was riding a 39-game winning streak (last non-victory was Oct. 3, 1953)? Or the 1995 Nebraska Cornhusker team with Tom Osborne as the head coach versus the 1971 edition where Osborne was the offensive coordinator?

Simply put: there’s no way to know which team is the best because they can’t settle the issue on the gridiron. Regardless of who we dub the “Greatest of All-Time”, there will always be valid arguments for other teams to lay claim that coveted title.

With that said, I’d choose 1971 Nebraska if I had to pick just one team as the best in college football history.

So, why the Cornhuskers?

For starters, Bob Devaney’s squad got the job done against top-quality competition. That season, Nebraska beat No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 3 Colorado, and No. 4 Alabama. Aside from a close call against the Sooners in what was dubbed “The Game of the Century” at the time, no one really challenged the 71 ‘Huskers, which won every other game by at least 24 points (next closest game was Colorado a 31-7 laugher).

What made that year’s team so special was that it excelled in all areas of the game. The Husker D was one of the top units in the country, ranking second nationally in rushing defense, third in scoring defense, and fifth in total defense. Similarly, the offense put up some impressive stats, finishing third nationally in scoring (39.1 ppg).

And let’s not forget that the return game was led by Johnny Rodgers, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1972. After watching the highlight-reel run below I can’t understand why coaches wouldn’t just kick the ball out-of-bounds every time.

As the last three paragraphs demonstrate, 1971 Nebraska has to be in the “Greatest of All-Time” discussion. The Huskers were among the nation’s best in all facets of the game and beat the top teams in the land convincingly.

It’s tough to argue with those results.


Previous Roundtables

Which returning starter at QB will show the most improvement in 2015?

Which first year starter at QB is poised to have a breakout season?

Which non-Power 5 QB do you want as the face of your franchise?

Which Power 5 quarterback do you want as the face of your franchise?

If you could have attended any game in the history of college football what would it be?

Reliving our favorite college football memories