The Top Ten College Football Teams I’ve Seen

College football is about as great as American sports get to me, even when the season opener is a comedy of errors. As Miami vs. Florida was last weekend. There is so much passion for the sport in most of our land that it extends to arguments way off the field and long after the fact. The most fun to me are not the “Who gets to play in the playoff?” in-season arguments. Instead, I like the legacy ones. Would Auburn in 2004 have beaten Southern Cal? Who were the top five quarterbacks of all-time? Or coaches? Or who are the ten greatest college football teams?

Today the last one is the one I want to tackle. Yet before we get to the list, there are a few things that are important to know before you lambast me in the comment section (which has happened quite a few times in my sports articles, to the surprise of no one who has read them).

The List Criteria

A. I am only considering teams I have personally witnessed. The first college football game I remember watching was the 1987 Fiesta Bowl when Penn St. intercepted Vinny Testaverde something like 32 times and won the 1986 title, 14-101. It simply is not fair for me to try to compare teams I did not watch. Because that, in my opinion, makes the process too mechanical and even presumptuous to me. Also, this eliminates significantly era differences. Since comparing any player or team from 50 years ago to today is like tangerines to oranges. So, if you are looking for 1971 Nebraska or 1901 Michigan (who outscored its opponents 550-0 on the season), you’ll have to go elsewhere.

B. Only undefeated teams were considered. As great as 2008 Florida was after that Tebow speech, they still lost to a 9-4 Ole Miss team at home. And that is too big a stain to overcome when comparing to teams who did not suffer a loss.

C. Due to the unfair nature of how College Football crowned champions before 2014 and especially before 1998, undefeated teams that did not win the National Championship (i.e., 1994 Penn St. and 2004 Auburn) were considered. And this includes 2017 Central Florida but I had zero doubt they wouldn’t make it.

The Greatness Criteria

Here is what I heavily considered as I ranked these teams, in reverse order of importance.

A. The number of ranked teams defeated. Because going through a gauntlet of good to great teams matters more than beating a couple of good teams and a bunch of average to bad ones.

B. Whether the wins vs. ranked teams were at home, on the road or at a neutral site. Because winning away from home in sports should be a big deal.

C. Where the defeated ranked teams were ranked. Because beating #7 is more impressive than beating #18.

D. How badly the team beat the best teams they played. Because when the #1 team is significantly better than #2 and #3 on the field, that matters.

Sometimes even with that detailed criteria, I still made tough calls. Is beating four Top 15 teams or beating two Top 5 teams more impressive? This kind of thing came up several times.

The Data on Ranked Teams Defeated

The rankings given below for defeated ranked teams are from the Final AP Poll that year. Beating #10 in the first game of the year is not impressive if they go on to finish 4-8, which happens often.

So, with that in mind, here is the list. But before I give the Top 10, I feel I must deal with a major omission that may cause vitriol in protest. So at least our readers are aware that I realize it is a huge omission and so if you disagree, you at least know my reasoning for leaving them out.

Biggest Omission: Miami 2001

The long-term reputation: Back in 2005 when Southern Cal was supposed to be the best team of all-time (yet weren’t even the best team that year), ESPN had fans vote for 2005 SC vs. historically great teams. And the only team that beat them in the voting was 2001 Miami. They are regularly listed as either the #1 team of all time or easily in the Top 2-3. People revere this team the way NFL fans revere the 1985 Bears.

Why they were not higher: They defeated six ranked teams, which is high, but only one in the top ten that year. And that was the #8 team. Their championship game opponent was one of the weakest of the BCS era, a Nebraska team that had just gotten throttled by Colorado and didn’t even make their conference championship. They struggled on the road, coming very close to losing at Boston College and at Virignia Tech. When you compare the quality of the teams they beat vs. my list below, they come up lacking.

This team basically earned its reputation by beating Top 15 teams Washington and Syracuse at home late in the season by 58 and 59 points, respectfully. And by opening up a 34-0 halftime lead in the BCS Championship, before cruising to a 37-14 win. Those were all impressive wins, but none of those teams were highly enough ranked for that to move them ahead of the teams below.

Now, the list:

10. Miami 1987

Number of ranked teams defeated: Four

#2 Florida State by 1 (road)
#3 Oklahoma by 6 (championship, “neutral site”)
#15 USC2 by 4
#17 Notre Dame by 24

The Impressive: One of only two teams on this list to beat the #2 and #3 teams in the Final AP Poll. And four Top 17 wins, all in major hype games vs. traditionally good programs.

Why they aren’t higher: Only four ranked teams defeated, with two outside the Top 10.

Other commentary: I also was very surprised at this team’s resume and inclusion. Actually, I thought this team had lost a game. But that was true of Miami’s championship teams in 1983 and 1989. Also, they won the championship by playing in the Orange Bowl, their home stadium. Hence the quotation marks around “neutral site” above.

9. Alabama 1992

George Teague strips ball from Miami’s Lamar Thomas during the 1993 Sugar Bowl

Number of Ranked Teams Defeated: Five

#2 Miami by 21 (championship, neutral site)
#10 Florida by 7 (conference championship, neutral site)
#12 Tennessee by 7 (road)
#16 Ole Miss by 21
#23 Mississippi State by 9 (road)

The Impressive: Four of Five ranked wins away from home, including three vs. the Top 12. One of the most impressive championship victories of any team on this list, beating unbeatable, cocky and undefeated Miami like a drum, in a game that felt more lopsided than 34-13.

Why they aren’t higher: After the Miami win, the drop off in quality of ranked wins is bigger than many other teams ahead of them in this list.

Further Commentary: Alabama stunned the world this season and notably in the Sugar Bowl, with two epic defensive ends (Curry and Copeland) leading the charge. The same team that struggled to put away La. Tech and Southern Miss at home in September trampled Miami in Louisiana in January.

8. Southern Cal 2004

Number of Ranked Teams Defeated: Four

#2 Oklahoma by 36 (championship, neutral site)
#9 California by 6
#10 Virginia Tech by 11 (“neutral site”)
#19 Arizona State by 38

The impressive: Three Top 10 wins, including about as thorough dismantling of another undefeated team in the championship as you’ll see (rivaled by the #1 team below). Southern Cal beat OU 55-19 but those in the game will tell you that the Trojans could have won by 50 had they wanted to. A 38-10 halftime score testifies to that.

Why they aren’t higher: Only four ranked wins and another big drop-off after the championship. No true road wins vs. ranked teams.

Further Commentary: I really thought this team would be in the Top 3-4 because that is where the eye test has them and where I’ve always considered them. To be noted as well as that their “Neutral” game vs. Va. Tech was in Maryland. So almost a road win there.

7. Texas 2005

Number of Ranked Teams Defeated: Four

#2 Southern Cal by 3 (Championship, “Neutral Site”)
#4 Ohio St. by 3 (road)
#20 Texas Tech by 35
#22 Oklahoma by 33 (neutral site)

The Impressive: Beating 2005 Southern Cal, who ESPN wanted to be the greatest team ever, for starters. Up there with 1992 Miami, 1995 Florida and 2018 Alabama as the most invincible teams to lose in the championship, few expected Southern Cal to do anything other than walk all over Texas. Also, Texas’s true road win over the #4 Buckeyes is the second-highest ranked road win of any team on this list, after 1987 Miami beating #2 Fla St. in Tallahassee.

Why they aren’t higher: Four ranked teams are few and two of them are lowly ranked.

Further Commentary: They beat Southern Cal in Pasadena, which makes them the only team I can think of that won a #1 vs. #2 championship game in this era in what was basically a road game3.

6. Auburn 2010

Number of Ranked Teams Defeated: Seven

#2 Oregon by 3 (Championship, Neutral Site)
#8 LSU by 7
#10 Alabama by 1 (road)
#12 Arkansas by 22
#15 Mississippi St. by 3 (road)
#22 USC by 8
#22 USC by 39 (Conference Championship, Neutral Site)

The Impressive: Oregon 2010 wasn’t quite as good as Florida 1996 or Alabama 2018 but this was still an A-level championship win. Also, seven ranked teams (five in the Top 15) is the most any team has defeated on their way to a championship in this era. So to go 14-0 vs. that schedule is alone worth a place on this list.

Why they aren’t higher: After Oregon, there is a drop in quality of the ranked teams they defeated. The four teams I have ahead of them all dealt with multiple teams in the Top 5. Also, they played a lot of close games and did not manhandle any of the Top 10 teams they played.

Further commentary: I still do not think Cam Newton should have played the end of that season. But I’ll take my frustrations with the NCAA out elsewhere.

5. Notre Dame 1988

The film “Rudy” says no Notre Dame player has been carried off the field since he was in 1977. But one coach has…

Number of ranked teams defeated: Four

#2 Miami by 1
#4 Michigan by 2
#5 West Virginia by 13 (championship, neutral site)
#7 Southern Cal by 17 (road)

The Impressive: This is the only team of any considered with three wins vs. the top five. And one of only two teams with four top ten wins.

Why they aren’t higher: Only four ranked wins and two were very close calls at home.

Further Commentary: It is unjust that this is Lou Holtz’s only actual championship. Not even considering that 1993 should have been one, he just took a lot of terrible teams and made them great. But they don’t give championships for turning 0-11 teams into 9-3 teams.

4. Alabama 2009

Number of Ranked Teams Defeated: Five

#2 Texas by 17 (championship, neutral site)
#3 Florida by 19 (conference championship, neutral site)
#10 Virginia Tech by 10 (neutral site)
#17 LSU by 9
#20 Ole Miss by 19 (road)

The Impressive: They are the only team considered to defeat the #2 and #3 teams in the Final AP Poll by double digits. Florida and Texas were a combined 26-0 vs. teams other than Alabama that year. And Alabama defeated both handily. And even made Tim Tebow openly weep into his John 3:16 eye black. Also, all three of their Top 10 wins were at neutral sites.

Why They Aren’t Ranked Higher: As great as they were vs. the great teams, two teams were greater.

Further Commentary: The Texas game is hard to judge in posterity because Colt McCoy got hurt. Therefore, there is no way to know if Bama would have won, much less by how many.

3. Clemson 2018

Number of Ranked Teams Defeated: Four

#2 Alabama by 28
#5 Notre Dame by 27
#15 Syracuse by 4
#16 Texas A&M by 2 (road)

The Impressive: The two college playoff wins say it all, really. Because both previously undefeated teams (I was even ready to consider 2018 Alabama as one of the two greatest teams I’d seen had they won) were roundhouse kicked to the face, Rex Kwan Do style. (The 55 point total margin of the two games is still a record.) Furthermore, 15-0 also had never been done before. At least not since the Wright Brothers invented the internet, I mean air travel.

Why They Aren’t Higher: You mean, other than how insanely dominant the Top 2 are? At this high a level any criticism is nitpicking but they did have a close game vs. aTm, albeit with the two QB system they quickly resolved. And while Syracuse was a down-to-the-wire affair, that was the game Lawrence got hurt. And that has to be factored in.

Further Commentary: The fact Trevor Lawrence was a freshman makes their early games harder to evaluate. Because December and January Lawrence over a whole season might make Clemson #1 of all the #1s. We will never know.

2. LSU 2019

Ranked Teams Defeated: Seven

#2 Clemson by 17 (Championship, Neutral Site)
#4 Georgia by 27 (Neutral Site)
#6 Florida by 14
#7 Oklahoma by 42 (Neutral Site)
#8 Alabama by 5 (Road)
#14 Auburn by 3
#25 Texas by 7 (Road)

The Impressive: An unprecedented Five Top 10 teams defeated, four of them away from home. All four wins vs. the Top 7 were by at least two TDs. Won their two playoff games by 52 cumulative points. Tied a record with 7 total Top 25 teams defeated.

Why They Aren’t Higher: Their close calls vs. Auburn at home and at Texas were not the kinds of games I can see #1 struggling with.

Further Commentary: The resume is by far the most impressive of any team, top to bottom. But one team was just more head and shoulders above the rest of college football in their day.

1. Nebraska 1995

Ranked Teams Defeated: Four

#2 Florida by 38 (championship, neutral site)
#5 Colorado by 23 (road)
#7 Kansas St. by 24
#9 Kansas by 38 (road)

The Impressive: The four game results above speak volumes. And the championship result vs. Florida is the most epic beatdown in a college football championship I’ve witnessed. Because Clemson didn’t beat Alabama quite that soundly. And Oklahoma in 2004 was not quite as good as 1995 Florida. Overall, Four Top 10 wins, all by 23 points or more, three away from home and two true road games. No one could touch this team. They were men among boys every time they took the field. The average final of their games was 53-14. And that was with 11 of the 12 being vs. major conference foes (49-18 was the average score vs. Top 10 teams). They were not running it up vs. directional schools. As a result, they land #1 on my list.

Further commentary: The following opponents were not ranked, and hence were just mediocre teams. But look at these scores vs. other major conference schools: 64-21 over Oklahoma St. (road), 50-10 over Michigan St. (road) and 77-28 over Arizona St. Perhaps the biggest ‘upset’ of the entire decade of the ’90s in college football was that 95 Nebraska’s closest game was a 14-point win at home versus a terrible Washington St. team. That says it all about how good these Cornhuskers were.

So, there is my list of the 10 greatest college football teams of my lifetime. Was it as bad as my article on Tom Brady? What do you agree with or disagree with? Comment below!

  1. They actually intercepted him five times and Miami had seven total turnovers, which is a big reason Penn St. won despite getting out-gained 445 yards to 162.
  2. This is the University of South Carolina. That other school is ‘Southern Cal’. You will never change my mind!
  3. 1994 Nebraska beat Miami in the Orange Bowl for the championship but Miami was #3 at the time and would not have won the championship even had they won the game. Since Penn St. finished undefeated as the #2 team.

Gowdy Cannon

I am currently the pastor of Bear Point FWB Church in Sesser, IL. I previously served for 17 years as the associate bilingual pastor at Northwest Community Church in Chicago. My wife, Kayla, and I have been married nearly seven years and have a 3-year-old son, Liam Erasmus. I have been a student at Welch College in Nashville and at Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago. I love The USC (the real one in SC, not the other one in CA), Seinfeld, John 3:30, Chic-Fil-A, Dumb and Dumber, the book of Job, preaching and teaching, and arguing about sports.

13 thoughts on “The Top Ten College Football Teams I’ve Seen

  • August 29, 2019 at 11:32 am

    If anyone is interested, other than Miami 2001 being the last team left out, the next few after them (in no particular order) were 2002 Ohio St., 2000 Oklahoma, 1991 Miami and 2004 Auburn.

  • August 29, 2019 at 12:00 pm

    You definitely know your sports, Gowdy Cannon, and what your incredible memory doesn’t recall, you research extremely. I agree with your number one – that 1995 Nebraska team. Not sure I’d agree with all the rest, or in that order. The 1971 Cornhuskers, the 1972 USC team, and the Bama team that beat Penn State in 1979 were powerhouses as well, just to mention a few.

    • August 29, 2019 at 12:22 pm

      It’s mostly research these days. I want to blame my memory failures on age but I know I have memories as a teen that end up being wrong. Mostly minor details but in articles like this, I want it all to be right.

      I also excluded every team before 1986 because I had not seen them play. As I get older the more I have decided that my personal rankings of anything in sports would not be fair i included players and teams that I hadn’t seen. People could tell me about Wilt Chamberlain all day but not getting to see him hurts my perception. At least that is how I think now.

      You would be a much more qualified person to make this list having seen those 70s powerhouses actually take the field. I have heard about Nebraska 71 and 72 Southern Cal over and over in my life.

  • August 29, 2019 at 2:08 pm

    You got #1 right, that’s for sure. That Nebraska team was the most dominant I’ve seen.

    I would’ve put another Bama team or Miami in the place of the 98 Vols.

    You’re still wrong about Brady, though.

    • August 29, 2019 at 3:30 pm

      Fun fact: By my criteria no other Bama team since 1986 could have made it. Yes, that’s right, Nick Saban for all of his accomplishments, has only one undefeated season at Alabama and it was 10 years ago. It’s fascinating – he’s had two teams that rivaled Nebraska 95 through the regular season, SEC Championship and 1st Round Playoffs (2016 and 2018). And Clemson beat him both times. Then, he’s had teams that had ugly losses (to Ole Miss in 2015 and Auburn in 2017) and then won the championship.

      Now, of course a 1-loss team could be better than any undefeated team. But these teams get 12-15 chances and if you blow one of them losing to Ole Miss then for my money you’re done as far as legacy at this level.

      I wouldn’t include the Vols if I didn’t have the data, but two Top 5 wins + four Top 16 wins are good. You can argue against my criteria but by it the Vols were tough to leave out.

      I can’t wait for the 2025 Super Bowl when Brady is out there with a walker throwing 2 yard screen passes and wins the game 3-0 and everyone goes nuts for how great he is.

      • August 30, 2019 at 10:50 am

        My case against the Vols would be on the eye test and the fact that they simply caught all of the breaks that year. First game, they should’ve lost to Syracuse, but a borderline pass interference call kept them alive. The FL game was a complete mess, but they were at home, which probably made the difference. And, of course, there is the infamous Clint Stoerner fumble which gifted TN a game which Arkansas should’ve won.

        The Vols really, imo, show how much of football can come down to a few breaks here or there. I would venture to say that this team, which won it all, was not one of the 2 best Fulmer coached teams. But the ball bounced their way and the quality of their competition was a notch lower than in other years. I’ve always thought it a little unfair that TN wins a title the year after Manning graduates.

        • August 30, 2019 at 12:11 pm

          As you can read above, I agree. The eye test stinks for them and I heartily agree they got a ton of breaks for sure. I guess at the end I just went on results as much as I could and they beat a lot of great teams that year. Sports are definitely that way. I mean no doubt the Patriots are the best team this century in the NFL but how many breaks have they gotten? They’re like a 50/50 (Or 20/80 against them) play in nearly every Super Bowl or AFC Champ away from having like 1 Super Bowl. Or having 9.

          I just tried to make it less subjective than normal. However, that does make it a tad more boring. Lol.

  • August 29, 2019 at 3:36 pm

    I can’t stomach notre dame. And I have a really strong stomach.

    • August 29, 2019 at 3:43 pm

      LOL. Such a mixed bag for me. I wouldn’t care if the modern version folded tent and we never had to watch them play another down. But the 80s teams with Holtz endear me because he ended up coaching us. I think I liked them even back then because Lou is so easily likable. To me at least.

  • September 2, 2019 at 7:53 pm

    Your criteria notwithstanding, the ‘97 Michigan defense would wreck most teams on that list

    • September 2, 2019 at 10:08 pm

      That unit was savage. If the teams they’d beaten had stayed ranked where they were ranked when UM beat them, they would have been an easy pick for this list.

  • October 28, 2019 at 6:52 pm

    1. Those teams that 1995 Nebraska beat weren’t really that good. Colorado lost a lot of NFL talent (Kordell Stewart, Christian Fauria, Ted Johnson, Rashaan Salaam, etc…), Kansas didn’t really have any, and K-State wasn’t nearly as good as the 1998 team that would have smashed Tennessee in the National Title Game if they didn’t choke against A&M.

    2. I would have 2000 or 01 Miami as my best teams on this list. Maybe they didn’t have the best resume, but they had the most talent (Reggie Wayne, Santana Moss, Dan Morgan, Sean Taylor, Vince Wilfork, Mount McKinnie, Frank Gore, Clinton Portis, etc…).

    3. Two other teams that I would have on here: 2008 Florida (the best team in UF history) and 1991 Washington (their defense was killer).

    4. I don’t think I would have any of the Saban Bama teams, or any teams over the last several years. It seems like the NCAA is really trying to rig it so only a few schools make the playoffs, and I believe that Bama is cheating really bad.

  • January 14, 2020 at 11:16 am

    I can see including this year’s champion LSU. Almost like a junior pro team. Clemson is fast. LSU is big and fast, especially the receivers.


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