You know how a lot of basketball fans won’t even entertain the idea of there ever being a better player than Michael Jordan? I don’t mean people who make a civil argument that MJ’s still better than LeBron -- I mean the people who treat the suggestion that anyone could ever theoretically eclipse Jordan as a heresy.
College football has some of those player and team arguments, too. The biggest one I can think of: the ocean of howling that’ll descend on you if you suggest there’s ever been a college football team better than 2001 Miami.
The Canes were incredible and in the debate for best team ever. They might be the right choice. But they aren’t the only choice.
ESPN ranked every national champ of the BCS/Playoff era, based on a statistical model and slotting Miami behind Vince Young’s Longhorns and Tim Tebow’s Gators. And lo, the howling began.
The first argument for 2001 Miami: the astounding load of NFL talent on the roster.
It’s true. There were 38 future draftees in the team photo, including NFL stars like Ed Reed, Andre Johnson, and on and on.
But this leads to a question of how we define “greatest college football team.”
Do we only mean the unbeaten national champ with the most talent that would later make it in the NFL? So are we basing this largely on hindsight at a different level of the sport? And why should a team’s backups who never played -- future legend Sean Taylor was just a freshman, for example -- factor into arguments about on-field greatness?
I think it’s much easier to argue the Canes were an all-time great and the most talented team ever than to argue they’re the only candidate to be called the all-time best.
Also, they didn’t lose at home to Houston Nutt, like 2008 Florida did. That’s another point for the Canes.
Other teams have also had incredible NFL output.
Using a numerical model to assign a points value to each draft slot, the Canes’ 11-man 2002 draft wasn’t one of the 10 best ever. It was No. 11.
That Miami roster put players into the league for years ... but so did the nucleus of unbeaten national champ 2013 Florida State, which holds the record for most draft picks in a three-year span.
2014 Ohio State’s core dominated the 2016 NFL draft like no school ever had before. The 2013 Noles had 22 NFL players in the 24-man lineup, and 2012 Alabama came pretty close as well. The 2005 Horns had a couple dozen future NFLers, including one of the greatest college QBs ever.
We don’t know if any players from squads like those will wind up legends like Reed, but the points stand: other college champs have been composed of top-to-bottom NFL talent, and it’s tricky to judge the greatest season based on what players did after that season.
An interesting side note I’m not sure what to do with: the 2001 Canes only had two consensus All-Americans, Reed and OT Bryant McKinnie, basically the same or fewer than national champs from other years. Obviously, the NFL proved the insane level of talent on this team, so ... moving on!
It’s not just ESPN’s numbers that DISRESPECT the Canes.
Other opponent-adjusted advanced stats -- which look at only the games played, and not at what players would do years later for totally different teams -- also fail to put the 2001 Canes on a pedestal all their own.
S&P+, which has been proven to outperform the Vegas spread on a yearly basis, sees six greater undefeated national champs since World War II, including 2005 Texas.
SRS ranks these Canes as the 23rd greatest unbeaten team of all time, based only on what happened on the field. It does have Miami as the best team of the 2000s, but would only favor it by a point or so over 2004 USC, 2008 Florida, 2005 Texas, or 2008 Oklahoma.
Disagree with that if you like (I agree 23rd is REALLY low), but that’s largely based on schedule strength.
The Canes played six teams that finished ranked, a strong number, but only one from the final top 10. The Big East was not an especially strong conference, ranking No. 4 in SRS even with Miami in it.
The 2005 Longhorns, whether they’re the correct pick or not, beat two final top-four teams and otherwise blew up a schedule of depth pretty comparable to Miami’s. 2004 USC beat three final top-10s. The 2013 Noles destroyed lots of average teams (with a better overall margin of victory than the Canes) and beat two final top-10 teams, including a superior bowl opponent to Miami’s.
The Canes couldn’t control how good their opponents were, of course, and they handled their schedule as well as an all-time great contender should’ve.
(But so have other teams.)
It all comes down to the definition of “greatest.”
- If we mean the team that accomplished the most over the course of a season, dozens of teams are in the running. Go look at how 1971 Nebraska humbled a schedule that included all three other final top-four teams, for example.
- If we mean the team with the most pure talent, as proved years later by the NFL, the Canes just about stand alone.
- If we mean the team with the most college talent relative to its era, no one is topping 1945 Army’s nearly literal All-America team.
- If we mean the team that’d win on the field in a time-traveling tournament, you could feel fairly confident in a Miami pick, though you might prefer a team with a game-breaking QB, with all respect to Ken Dorsey.
We all have our own lists, and 2001 Miami belongs way up high on everyone’s.
I’m just saying it’s OK to consider other teams as well.