On Sunday night, LeBron James sat surrounded by his three children, a victory cigar, and the Larry O'Brien trophy. When asked about the 73-win Warriors, he praised them and dropped a plain fact that still counted as a jab right to the heart, calling them "the greatest regular season team ever."
Something crazy happened in the NBA. When something crazy happens in sports, it's a safe bet that something similar has happened in college football. So let's see if we have anybody in recent memory who can compare.
These aren't the best teams that didn't win titles (here's a list of the best 25 recent teams from that group, according to the numbers), because you can lose in any week of your season and still go on to win the title, though you won't be the best ever.
And these aren't teams that just plain got snubbed, because that happened every few years until the BCS, and even sometimes thereafter.
These are teams that entered the championship (or pre-BCS equivalent) undefeated and prepared to stake claims among the greatest teams ever, then lost. We'll go back to 1980, in part because that's about how far Bill Connelly's gone in his statistical analysis of old seasons and because that covers either recent memory or entire lifetimes for me and probably you.
I think there are only two or three serious recent candidates, but here are 19 teams since 1980 that didn't suffer a loss until the final game. If I missed somebody, I apologize.
|Personal ranking||Team||Record||AP No. 1 since ...||Bowl loss||Post-bowl S&P+ rating|
|1||2011 LSU||13-1||Sept. 25||21-0 in rematch vs. No. 2 Alabama||28.7|
|2||2005 USC||12-1||Preseason||41-38 to Vince Young and friends||29.7|
|3||1983 Nebraska||12-1||Preseason||31-30 to No. 5 Miami after a moment of doomed valor||24.2|
|4||2002 Miami||12-1||Preseason (except one week when Oklahoma jumped up)||A controversial 31-24 in 2OT to No. 2 Ohio State||21.1|
|5||2004 Oklahoma||12-1||Never (No. 2 entire season)||55-19 to No. 1 USC||21.3|
|6||2006 Ohio State||12-1||Preseason||41-14 to No. 2 Florida in the game that gave us "SEC speed"||21.3|
|7||2015 Clemson||14-1||Nov. 1||45-40 to No. 2 Alabama||27.4|
|8||1986 Miami||11-1||Sept. 28||14-10 to No. 2 Penn State after seven turnovers||24|
|9||1987 Oklahoma||11-1||Preseason, basically (Nebraska jumped up for one week, then lost to OU)||20-14 to No. 2 Miami||18.9|
|10||1999 Virginia Tech||11-1||Never (top two since Nov. 7)||46-29 to No. 1 FSU after a comeback and collapse||20.6|
|11||1996 Florida State||11-1||Nov. 31 (top three all season)||52-20 in rematch vs. No. 3 Florida||22.8|
|12||2009 Texas||13-1||Never (top two almost entire season)||37-21 to No. 1 Alabama after losing QB Colt McCoy early||23.2|
|13||1995 Florida||12-1||Never (top three since Sept. 30)||62-24 to Tommie Frazier and friends||23.1|
|14||2010 Oregon||12-1||October 10, until the final BCS||22-19 to No. 1 Auburn, though Michael Dyer was down||14.7|
|15||1993 Nebraska||11-1||Not even top four until Nov. 7||18-16 to No. 1 Florida State||22.3|
|16||1989 Colorado||11-1||Nov. 19||21-6 to No. 4 Notre Dame||21.5|
|17||2012 Notre Dame||12-1||Nov. 18||42-14 to No. 2 Alabama||21.7|
|18||1982 Georgia||11-1||Nov. 7||27-23 to No. 2 Penn State||15.4|
|19||1985 Penn State||11-1||Nov. 10||25-10 to No. 3 Oklahoma||12.3|
The 2011 Tigers later became punchlines for failing to cross midfield against Bama until the game was decided, and their offensive struggles in that game would color how we've talked about Les Miles teams ever since.
But look at the resume. LSU beat eight teams that were ranked at the time (the highest number in at least 39 years). Is that a little dubious, since final rankings are better indicators of team quality? Okay. LSU beat final No. 1 Alabama by three, final No. 4 Oregon by 13, final No. 5 Arkansas by 24, SEC East champion Georgia by 32, and the about-to-drop-70-on-Clemson West Virginia by 26.
Otherwise, they splattered folks. The Tide were the only team to play LSU within a score.
The S&P+ number in that table was lowered by the bowl loss, but even that tells part of the tale. According to S&P+, the 2011 LSU that lost by 21 to Alabama would still be a slight favorite against, say, the 2013 Florida State that broke scoring records and won the national title.
Now imagine how good we perceived LSU as being before that single loss. In November, ESPN's Chris Low said, "LSU has a chance to put a bow on what would be the most impressive season in SEC history."
I don't think we were about to stamp LSU as the greatest team ever, like we were with the Warriors, but college football has a much more crowded conversation than any other major American sport, due to its decades of total disorganization. With a win over Bama or Oklahoma State in the BCS, LSU would've immediately entered the debate.
2005 USC is also easy to argue as a potential all-time team, but those Trojans' top two wins were only ("only") final No. 9 Notre Dame and final No. 10 Oregon. If we include bowl games, the '05 Trojans probably top the '11 Tigers, but this is about who was riding the highest Warriors-style wave before the postseason.