Lacking a bona fide playoff system, college football fans are left to wonder each year which team is the best. But there’s no doubt about this list—the SportsLifer’s top 10 college football teams of all time.
We used several simple criteria in the selection process. Teams had to finish undefeated, untied and undisputed national champions to quality for the SLTop10. And the quota is one champion per school.
Herewith, the 10 best college football teams ever:
No. 1—1995 Nebraska, 12-0
Quite simply, the most dominant team in college football history. The 1995 Cornhuskers, coming off an unbeaten 1994 campaign, averaged 50 plus points a game and defeated four teams ranked in the Top 10. The Tom Osborne-coached Huskers won every one of those games by no less than 23 points. Big Red averaged 53 points a game, and gave up 14 per game.
Do the math, that’s a margin of victory of 39 points a game.
Nebraska trailed for one quarter all season, and handed Florida its only loss of the season, 62-24, in the Fiesta Bowl for the National Championship. Talented? A total of 27 future pros played for Nebraska in 1995.
Some Big Red fans and experts might argue the 1971 team was better, but for sheer gridiron dominance, the 1995 squad stands peerless in the history of college football. The 1994 Nebraska team was pretty good too. Both the ’71 and ’94 squads finished 13-0 and capped off championship seasons with Orange Bowl victories.
No. 2—1972 Southern California, 12-0
The USC team of 1972 is generally considered the best football team in Trojan history. They went undefeated and beat Ohio State, 42-17, in the Rose Bowl. Led by Coach John McKay and Fullback Sam “Bam” Cunningham, USC plowed through the competition in 1972 with ease, defeating six ranked teams. Only Stanford came within 10 points of the Trojans all year. USC’s offense averaged 39 points a game, and their opponents averaged 10.
How good was Southern Cal in 1972?
They were the first team to ever receive every single first place vote in every single poll.
The 2004 Trojans, who went 13-0 and won the BCS with a 55-19 thrashing of Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, also deserve mention.
No. 3—1945 Army, 9-0
Army absolutely dominated the college football season in 1945. They averaged 48 points a game, while giving up only five and recording five shutouts. None of their games were closer than 19 points. The Black Knights of the Hudson had back-to-back Heisman winners in 1945 (Doc Blanchard) and 1946 (Glenn Davis), and each ran for more than 1,000 yards in the 1945 season. Army beat rivals Notre Dame and Navy by scores of 48-0 and 32-13, respectively.
West Point bookended the 1945 team with two other pretty good clubs. The Cadets went undefeated and won the national championship in 1944, and played eventual champion Notre Dame to a scoreless tie in the 1946 “Game of the Century.”
No. 4—2001 Miami, 12-0
Miami was dominant on both sides of the ball in 2001, scoring 512 points and surrendering only 117 during the year. The Hurricanes capped off a perfect season by beating Nebraska, 37-14, in the Rose Bowl for the BCS championship.
Miami’s margin of victory was greater against ranked teams than against unranked opponents. The Miami defense allowed 13 touchdowns and Miami also scored 11 non-offensive touchdowns.
And the Hurricanes may have been the most talented college football team ever—at least six players on the 2001 roster went on to play in the NFL Pro Bowl.
No. 5—1924 Notre Dame, 10-0
The most celebrated team in Notre Dame’s glorious history, the Irish finished 10-0—and eight of those opponents had winning records. Notre Dame beat Stanford, 27-10, in the Rose Bowl, the school’s only bowl appearance until the 1970 Cotton Bowl.
The hero of the 1925 Rose Bowl was fullback Elmer Layden who scored the first touchdown of the game and later returned passes of Stanford All-American back Ernie Nevers 78 and 70 yards for scores.
Coach Knute Rockne’s 1924 Irish were led by the heralded Four Horsemen—quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, halfback Don Miller, halfback Jim Crowley and Layden—and anchored by the Seven Mules on the line. The 1949 Notre Dame team, which finished 10-0 and won the national championship under coach Frank Leahy, was also considered.
No. 6—1956 Oklahoma, 10-0
This Oklahoma team was in the midst of their still-standing NCAA record 47-game win streak, and though conference rules in that time prohibited teams from participating in Bowl games in back to back seasons, OU did not need a bowl game to be crowned NCAA champion.
The 1956 Sooners averaged 46 points a game and held their opponents to 51 points on the season. The Sooners were coming off an 11-0 season in 1955, when they were crowned national champions. This was legendary coach Bud Wilkinson at his best. The Sooners were led by halfback Tommy McDonald, who ran for 14 TDs, caught four and even passed for three in 1956.
No. 7—2005 Texas, 13-0
The 2005 Texas Longhorns scored 652 points in 13 games while holding their opponents to 213 points. With Vince Young at quarterback, they beat previously unbeaten and defending champion Southern California, 41-38, in a thrilling BCS title game in the Rose Bowl to finish with a perfect season and a national title.
In 1969 Texas finished 11-0 and beat #2 Arkansasa, 15-14, and then Notre Dame, 21-17, in the Cotton Bowl.
No. 8—1968 Ohio State, 10-0
The 1968 Ohio State team produced 11 All-Americans and six first round draft picks. The Buckeyes won the Big Ten title and then topped unbeaten and once-tied USC, 27-16, in the Rose Bowl.
Afterwards, USC All-America running back OJ Simpson told the Buckeyes: “You’re the greatest team in the country and don’t let anybody tell you what you aren’t.”
In 1968, Ohio State began a string of three straight seasons and nine in 10 in which it won or shared the Big 10 title.
No. 9—1979 Alabama, 12-0
One of Bear Bryant’s last teams, the Crimson Tide finished 12-0 and beat Arkansas 24-9 in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama posted five shutouts, and won seven of 12 games by three touchdowns or more. The Tide ranked first in scoring defense, second in total and passing defense and fifth in rushing defense.
No. 10—1902 Michigan, 11-0
The Wolverines, in their second year under head coach Fielding H. Yost, finished the season 11-0 and outscored the opposition 644 to 12, averaging 58.6 points per game.
The 1901 Michigan squad was unbeaten, untied and unscored upon (555 to 0), but shared the national championship with Harvard. In 1948, the Wolverines finished 9-0 and was voted No. 1 in the nation.
With apologies to:
1913 Harvard, 9-0, no bowl game
1940, Minnesota, 8-0, no bowl game
1976, Pittsburgh, 12-0, beat Georgia, 27-3, in Sugar Bowl
1986, Penn State, 12-0, upset unbeaten Miami, 14-10, in Fiesta Bowl
1999 Florida State, 12-0, defeated #2 Virginia Tech, 46-29, in Sugar Bowl