ESPN has released its list of the top 150 teams in college football history in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the sport. The usual suspects (1995 Nebraska, 2001 Miami, the old Oklahoma dynasty, etc.) are often discussed when people talk about the best college football teams of all time. All of those units are in ESPN’s top ten, but they aren’t number one. The fact that 2001 Miami, widely known as the gold standard among college football teams, is only No. 7 is perhaps the most notable aspect of this ranking. Again, that’s a lot of praise for Clemson’s unbeaten team from last year, which ESPN ranks as one of the top five ever.
Here are ESPN’s best college football teams of all time. You are bound to find a team that you loved, or you might just be surprised with a ranking that is not your favorite. Read on to know more!
Many people believe the 1971 Nebraska Cornhuskers to be the greatest college football team ever, even the ESPN team can’t disagree. On offense, the team scored more than 39 points per game while allowing just 8.2 points per game. On Thanksgiving Day, the top-ranked Cornhuskers beat No. 2 Oklahoma 35-31 in what others have dubbed the “Game of the Century,” led by kick and punt returner par excellence Johnny Rodgers (who won the 1972 Heisman). In the Orange Bowl, they completed their 13-0 season with a 38-6 thrashing of Alabama.
If there’s one takeaway from these rankings, it’s that acing the season’s final challenge can be extremely beneficial to a team. And USC did just that, coming away with a 55-19 victory in the BCS Championship Game over an unbeaten Oklahoma team led by Jason White, the Heisman Trophy winner the year before, and Adrian Peterson at running back. Of note, USC has its own collection of honorees. Reggie Bush, who was the team’s second-leading rusher behind LenDale White and third-leading receiver behind Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, would win the Heisman Trophy the next season after acting as a running and receiving threat in 2004.
If coffee is for closers in college football, USC deserves extra praise for the way it started and finished the 1972 season. The Trojans began the season ranked No. 8, defeated No. 4 Arkansas 31-10 in Little Rock to claim the top spot, and never looked back, winning three consecutive games against ranked opponents, including a 42-17 thrashing of No. 3 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. Six of USC’s 12 victories came over ranked opponents, with the nearest of those games ending in a nine-point road win. “It was a team of future stars — only tight end Charles Young made All-American — and yet names are recognizable to anyone who paid attention to the NFL of the mid-to-late 1970s,” ESPN said. Anthony Davis, a sophomore running back, and Lynn Swann, a junior wide receiver, are among them.
Another favorite pick for “best of all time” is 1995 Nebraska, which has about 20 numbers that prove how unbeatable it was. Nebraska was never kept below 35 points, thanks to a healthy Tommie Frazier, who finished runner-up for the Heisman Trophy despite not playing much late in games. “The Huskers became the first national champion since 1950 to win each game by at least 14 points,” ESPN said. As a team, Nebraska set an NCAA record with an average of 7.0 yards per carrying. Nebraska had 11 of the 22 offensive and defensive first-team All-Big Eight selections in a year where half of the Big Eight finished in the top 10. And the Cornhuskers won by an average of 30.8 points over four teams that finished in the AP Poll’s top 10 — the three Big Eight teams, including No. 2 Florida in the Fiesta Bowl — including a resounding 62-24 victory against the Gators. Nebraska scored 53.2 points per game while surrendering 14.5 points per game.
This is alluded to as recency bias by some. Clemson, on the other hand, was never put to the test until Trevor Lawrence took over as the starter. Lawrence was kicked out of the Syracuse game in the second quarter after being named the winner in Clemson’s quarterback derby. Clemson won the game 27-23 thanks to a last-minute touchdown. Lawrence returned the next week and led his team to a 63-3 victory over Wake Forest, completing 20 of 25 passes for two touchdowns. And Clemson didn’t let anybody come closer than 20 points the rest of the way, including wins in the College Football Playoff of 27 (against Notre Dame in the semifinals) and 28 (against Alabama in the title game). Another argument in Clemson’s favor: Alabama was 14-0 entering the championship game, with just one game determined by less than 11 points (the seven-point victory over Georgia) and just two games decided by less than 22 points. So the Crimson Tide were on the verge of being historically dominant before colliding with the Clemson buzzsaw.
People remember the 2005 Texas team for Vince Young, who passed for over 3,000 yards and 1,000 yards on the ground while leading Texas to a 41-38 win over a USC team that ESPN hailed as the best team ever before the BCS Championship Game was ever played. Still, as good as Young was — historically brilliant and one of the greatest passers in college football history — treating this as a one-man display will be blatantly disrespectful to a stacked Texas team. Both offensive and defensive lines were outstanding, with All-American Jonathan Scott leading the offense and All-American Rodrique Wright leading the defense. Young also had plenty of arms surrounding him, including freshman Jamaal Charles. The Thorpe Award went to safety Michael Huff. Texas, which scored 50.2 points per game on average, beat Oklahoma 45-12 in a convincing win. Only No. 4 Ohio State, whose defense is loaded with NFL talent, held Texas under 40 points.
Many current college football fans will refer to the 2001 Hurricanes as the best team of all time, with perhaps the finest group of human (and professional) talent ever assembled. What else would you think for a team that had Willis McGahee as the third-best running back in the league behind Clinton Portis and Frank Gore? Although holding his jersey clean behind offensive tackles Bryant McKinnie and Joaquin Gonzalez, Ken Dorsey could spread the ball to players including Andre Johnson and Jeremy Shockey. Vince Wilfork, Jerome McDougle, Jonathan Vilma, Phillip Buchanan, and Ed Reed were among the defensive players who shut down Nebraska in the BCS title game, winning 37-14. The Hurricanes’ lack of ranking may be because they only had one top 10 opponent — a Nebraska team that many thought didn’t fit in the title game following a blowout defeat to Colorado — and had close calls against an unranked Boston College team and Virginia Tech.
Alabama rushed for 344 yards per game, led by quarterback Steadman Shealy’s 791 yards while shutting out five opponents and limiting five others to under 10 points, according to ESPN. Don’t go looking for specific sports stars: Just offensive lineman Jim Bunch was named All-American, but this team went all-out and ran over almost everyone, including Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, 24-9.
Recruiting rankings didn’t exist in 1953, so suffice it to claim that the 1953 Sooner freshmen class is among the finest in college football history. Jerry Tubbs was a devastating lineman who finished in the top five in Heisman Trophy voting, preventing teammate Tommy McDonald from receiving the award (McDonald did win the Maxwell). Jimmy Harris is regarded as one of the best all-time choice quarterbacks, and fullback Billy Pricer is widely regarded as the most difficult backfield player to avoid. Both linemen Ed Gray and John Bell were named to the All-America team. And all of those players were part of the stacked ’53 class, who were able to reach their full capacity on a team that allowed 5.1 points per game. And after seeing the field as sophomores, they never missed a game, going 31-0 in three years.
Nick Saban’s first national championship team in Tuscaloosa was led to victory by Heisman Trophy recipient Mark Ingram — Alabama’s first-ever winner — and a defense that included Terrence Cody, Rolando McClain, and Javier Arenas. Alabama won close calls against Tennessee and Auburn, and the Crimson Tide clinched the SEC title by thrashing Tim Tebow and Florida 32-13 in the SEC Championship Game. With Texas’ Colt McCoy hurt early in the BCS national championship game, Alabama claimed 37-21, kicking off the Crimson Tide’s reign as the best and most reliable team in the country.