We often remember the great teams who do not win titles more than the ones who do. The NFL has a series devoted to great teams that come close, but don't quite get the missing ring. Our memory of the great Cinderella basketball champions of the 1980s is dictated by the great teams NC State and Villanova defeated.
College football has famous near-miss teams that would have gone down in history as all-time teams if not for one or two plays: '83 Nebraska, '86 Miami, '87 Florida State, '93 Notre Dame, '98 Ohio State, '02 Miami, '05 USC, and '10 Oregon come to mind. Each missed out on a national title because of one narrow loss.
Stepping outside the realm of memory and into numbers, specifically SRS via Sports-Reference, what are the best teams to not win national titles since 1980? For some reference, the last five actual champions have averaged an SRS of 22.62, so the numbers certainly consider all the following teams legit contenders.
|1||1994 Penn State (Champion: Nebraska)||26.02|
|2||1980 Nebraska (Georgia)||25.74|
|3||1981 Penn State (Clemson)||25.02|
|4||2008 Oklahoma (Florida)||24.79|
|5||2005 USC (Texas)||24.57|
|6||1980 Pitt (Georgia)||24.46|
|7||2011 LSU (Alabama)||24.27|
|8||2002 USC (Ohio State)||24.19|
|9||2011 Oklahoma State (Alabama)||24.14|
|10||1988 Miami (Notre Dame)||24.08|
|11||2008 Texas (Florida)||23.98|
|12||1990 Miami (Colorado/Georgia Tech)||23.9|
|13||1985 Michigan (Oklahoma)||23.81|
|14||1980 Alabama (Georgia)||23.8|
|15||1980 Florida State (Georgia)||23.78|
|16||1995 Ohio State (Nebraska)||23.75|
|17||1987 Florida State (Miami)||23.5|
|18||2012 Oregon (Alabama)||23.43|
|19||1983 Auburn (Miami)||23.43|
|20||2001 Florida (Miami)||23.38|
|21||1997 Florida State (Michigan/Nebraska)||23.38|
|22||1986 Oklahoma (Penn State)||23.38|
|23||2000 Miami (Oklahoma)||23.22|
|24||2000 Florida State (Oklahoma)||23.13|
|25||1998 Ohio State (Tennessee)||23.02|
Why is 1980 the starting point? Well, it gives us a big sample size (at least by college football standards). It divides nicely in that it has 18 years pre-BCS and 17 years of the BCS or Playoff. We'll also see that 1980 was a unique year that illustrates how college football is now different. And selfishly, 1980 was when I started watching college football, so I have memories of all of these teams.
The big takeaway is the difference between the BCS/Playoff structure and the pre-BCS system. If we care at all about the importance of crowning the best team, then we should see the BCS as a significant improvement over what preceded it.
Look at the top. The top five from the BCS era -- '02 USC, '05 USC, '08 Oklahoma, '11 Oklahoma State, and '11 LSU -- either played in a title game or likely would have made a four-team playoff. The BCS was better than the traditional bowl system; the Playoff is better than the BCS.
Penn State in 1994, arguably the best runner-up of the past 34 years, went unbeaten in a good Big Ten and was rewarded with a Rose Bowl against 9-3 Oregon. Penn State in 1981 got sent to play USC in the Fiesta Bowl while eventual national champion Clemson drew Nebraska. Miami got sent to 1988's Orange Bowl to play Nebraska while eventual national champion Notre Dame played unbeaten West Virginia. (Miami can have no complaints because, unlike the other teams in this paragraph, they did get a shot at the eventual national champion. OK, the Canes had one complaint.)
And 1980 was bizarre. That season produced four of the 25, but none got a crack at unbeaten Georgia. The two best, Pitt and Nebraska, played in the Gator and Sun against three-loss teams. Imagine the outcry today if a team like Pitt -- one loaded with talent and quarterbacked by Dan Marino -- had only loss, on the road against an excellent Florida State team, and got a trip to El Paso for its troubles.
That unique year also produced the lowest-ranked champion in recent decades. From 1981 to 2014, the lowest-ranked title winners were No. 5 in SRS in their seasons: '02 Ohio State, '97 Michigan, and '81 Clemson. The 1980 Georgia Bulldogs were (according to SRS) the ninth-best team.
One of the great things about college football's structure is that a "season-long playoff" is supposed to prevent an underqualified team from claiming No. 1. It might've failed in 1980, as it crowned a Georgia team that didn't play a ranked opponent until November, missed playing the other best team in the SEC (Alabama) and then drew final AP No. 9 Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl instead of more challenging opponents. Dawg fans should be grateful that they drew the Irish instead of a more talented version of the Pitt team that would beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl one year later.
We should not get too caught up in viewing national titles (or advanced stats) as be-all, end-all measures of quality. Our views of a number of different coaches and programs can change when we think about great teams that did not win titles: