Connelly crowns the true CFB champion from 16 split or
It’s one of the silliest features of maybe the silliest sport on the planet: If you were to add up all of the national championships claimed in top-level college football, you would think the sport dated back to the 1600s. Princeton claims 28 of them, Yale 27. Alabama claims 23 — including one from a 9-2 campaign in 1941! — and Notre Dame claims 22. That’s 100 right there! And 25 other schools claim at least five!
On one hand, so be it. Fielding a football team is hard, and fielding an elite team is even harder, and if you want to hang a banner for doing that (or some approximation of it), hang the damn banner.
On the other hand, this is kind of a mess. The BCS and College Football Playoff eras have cleaned things up a bit — we have had only one official split national title since the BCS began in 1998 — but the sport’s history is littered with unsettled arguments. So let’s settle some of them.
Below are 16 seasons featuring some of the sport’s biggest disagreements. They include all 11 of the split national titles of the poll era — when the AP selected one champion and the UPI/coaches poll selected another — plus five other particularly interesting arguments. To decide these titles, I will use key results and résumés, key averages, poll ratings and my historical SP+ ratings.
The banners can stay up, but let’s talk about who really deserved some rings.
Note: Scoring averages below do not take games against non-Division I (before the 1980s) or FCS opponents into account.
1947: Notre Dame (9-0) vs. Michigan (10-0)
AP poll rankings: Notre Dame first, Michigan second
SP+ rankings: Michigan first (31.8 rating), Notre Dame second (29.9)
Avg. points scored: Michigan 39.4, Notre Dame 32.3
Avg. points allowed: Michigan 5.3, Notre Dame 5.8
Best wins: Notre Dame def. Army (fourth in SP+) 27-7, def. USC (14th) 38-7; Michigan def. USC (14th) 49-0, def. Illinois (19th) 14-7.
Verdict: Michigan. Notre Dame and Michigan became fierce rivals late in the 20th century, but they didn’t play each other between 1943 and ’78, and depending on the apocryphal story you choose to believe, it’s possible that’s because Michigan’s Fritz Crisler haaaaaaated the Fighting Irish. It’s a shame, because if they’d played in 1947, it would have answered a lot of questions.
These two teams were easily the best in the nation that fall. Michigan manhandled a slightly weaker schedule by a larger margin, but as the late Beano Cook was happy to point out, the 1947 Irish might have been the most talented team in the sport’s history to date. Forty-one future pros suited up for head coach Frank Leahy, who rotated them in waves throughout a given game. This sometimes messed up the team’s rhythm, but it still never trailed and won nine games by an average of almost four touchdowns.
I’m giving the nod to the Wolverines, however. They defeated three common opponents (USC, Stanford and Northwestern) by an average score of 49-11, while Notre Dame averaged a 26-9 win. Talent or no, Notre Dame was dominant but not emphatic. Sorry, Beano.
1954: Ohio State (10-0) vs. UCLA (9-0) vs. Oklahoma (10-0)
Poll rankings: Ohio State first (AP) and second (coaches), UCLA first (coaches) and second (AP), Oklahoma third (AP and coaches)
SP+ rankings: Oklahoma second (27.4 rating), Ohio State third (23.1), UCLA 11th (19.2)
Avg. points scored: UCLA 37.5, Oklahoma 30.4, Ohio State 24.9
Avg. points allowed: UCLA 5.0, Oklahoma 6.2, Ohio State 7.5
Best wins: Ohio State def. Wisconsin (12th in SP+) 31-14, def. Iowa (13th) 20-14, def. California (18th) 21-13; UCLA def. Maryland (first) 12-7, def. USC (23rd) 34-0; Oklahoma def. Colorado (16th) 13-6, def. California (18th) 27-13
Verdict: Oklahoma. The early 1950s were a time of shifting power in college football. Both Notre Dame and Alabama were losing their way, and Oklahoma was only beginning its dominance. Teams like Maryland, Georgia Tech and UCLA briefly surged to the top of the totem pole, and with both travel and segregation limiting nonconference opportunities and the final polls being taken before bowls, quite a few teams reached the finish line unbeaten.
In 1954, Woody Hayes’ Ohio State and Red Sanders’ UCLA split shares of the title, while Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma, now 19 games into its famous 47-game winning streak, finished third in both polls. Because bowls didn’t take repeats in those days, neither UCLA (which had played in the Rose Bowl in 1953) nor OU (same with the Orange Bowl) got chances to bolster their résumés in the postseason, and between these three teams, only UCLA scored a win over an SP+ top-10 team. The Bruins otherwise trounced an extremely weak Pacific Coast Conference, however, and while Oklahoma had little competition in the Big 7, the Sooners graded out the best of the three in my opponent-adjusted SP+. So we’ll give them an ever-so-slight nod here.
1957: Auburn (10-0) vs. Ohio State (9-1)
Poll rankings: Auburn first (AP) and second (coaches), Ohio State first (coaches) and second (AP)
SP+ rankings: Ohio State fourth (23.0 rating), Auburn sixth (21.4)
Avg. points scored: Ohio State 26.7, Auburn 18.6
Avg. points allowed: Auburn 2.3, Ohio State 9.2
Best wins: Auburn def. Tennessee (10th in SP+) 7-0, def. Florida (15th) 13-0; Ohio State def. Wisconsin (eighth) 16-13, def. Iowa (ninth) 17-13
Losses: Ohio State def. by TCU (42nd) 18-14
Verdict: Auburn. Indeed, segregation limited both rosters and nonconference opportunities in the late 1950s. SEC teams primarily played only Southwest Conference teams and local independents and midmajors, while integrated Big Ten teams had a bit more of a selection to choose from. They might as well have been playing for different national titles.
In 1957, Auburn played Chattanooga and middling Houston and Florida State teams in nonconference play; the Tigers were banned from the postseason for paying a couple of recruits, too, and head coach Shug Jordan had kicked likely starting quarterback Jimmy Cooke off the team before the season began. But they gave up only four touchdowns all season (one to Chattanooga!) and finished the season with a 40-0 pasting of Alabama. (The loss was humiliating enough for Bama to fire Jennings “Ears” Whitworth and pursue a replacement named Bear Bryant.)
Ohio State took on a more impressive schedule — Wisconsin and Iowa were both excellent, and the Buckeyes beat a decent Oregon in the Rose Bowl — but we’re going to give Auburn the ring here because the Buckeyes began the season with a stinker: TCU won 18-14 in Columbus in September, then proceeded to go just 4-4-1 the rest of the way.
1965: Alabama (9-1-1) vs. Michigan State (10-1)
Poll rankings: Alabama first (AP) and fourth (coaches), Michigan State first (coaches*) and second (AP)
SP+ rankings: Michigan State second (23.7 rating), Alabama fifth (20.1)
Avg. points scored: Michigan State 23.9, Alabama 23.3
Avg. points allowed: Michigan State 6.9, Alabama 9.7
Best wins: Alabama def. Nebraska (sixth in SP+) 39-28, def. LSU (14th) 31-7, def. Ole Miss (20th) 17-16; Michigan State def. Notre Dame (first) 12-3, def. UCLA (seventh) 13-3.
Losses/ties: Alabama tied Tennessee (eighth) 7-7 and def. by Georgia (26th) 18-17; Michigan State def. by UCLA (seventh) 14-12.
Verdict: Michigan State. Duffy Daugherty’s mid-1960s Spartan teams were absolutely loaded. In 1965, Michigan State boasted consensus All-Americans Bubba Smith and George Webster on a defense that never allowed more than 14 points, while the offense featured quarterback Steve Juday and a skill corps with two star backs (Clinton Jones and big Bob Apisa) and deep-threat receiver Gene Washington. The Spartans shut down an otherwise dominant Notre Dame team, and their only loss came in a dramatic last-second finish in the Rose Bowl against a UCLA team they had beaten to start the season.
Alabama was awesome, too. Quarterback Steve Sloan was prolific for his day, the defense held seven of 11 opponents to seven or fewer points, and the Tide outfought an excellent Nebraska in an Orange Bowl track meet. But they had two blemishes, and they lost to a pretty pedestrian Georgia. They sneaked from fourth to first in the AP poll at the end of the season thanks to bowl losses for both Michigan State and No. 2 Arkansas, but Michigan State still finished the season with the best résumé, and I don’t think it was particularly close.
* The final AP poll was administered after bowls for the first time, but the final coaches poll was still taken before them for a few more seasons. That produced some funky results.
1966: Notre Dame (9-0-1) vs. Michigan State (9-0-1) vs. Alabama (11-0)
Poll rankings: Notre Dame first (AP and coaches), Michigan State second (AP and coaches), Alabama third (AP and coaches)
SP+ rankings: Notre Dame first (29.2 rating), Michigan State second (24.7), Alabama third (24.5)
Avg. points scored: Notre Dame 36.2, Michigan State 29.3, Alabama 26.7
Avg. points allowed: Notre Dame 3.8, Alabama 4.4, Michigan State 9.9
Best wins: Notre Dame def. Purdue (sixth in SP+) 26-14, def. USC (10th) 51-0; Michigan State def. Purdue (sixth) 41-20, def. Michigan (35th) 20-7; Alabama def. Ole Miss (fifth) 17-7, def. Tennessee (13th) 11-10
Ties: Notre Dame tied Michigan State 10-10
Verdict: Notre Dame. It remains one of the most controversial end-of-season developments of all time. In one of the game’s great Games of the Century, top-ranked Notre Dame, playing a backup quarterback and looking at a long field ahead, kneeled out the final seconds of a 10-10 tie with No. 2 Michigan State, earning the ire of both the Spartans and famed Sports Illustrated columnist Dan Jenkins.
Head coach Ara Parseghian wagered that his Irish would keep their No. 1 ranking with a tie against such an awesome team, and he was right. They didn’t even have to split the title with the Spartans or unbeaten Alabama. Books have been written about this. Alabama fans of the day have never quite gotten over it. With overtime periods and better bowl pairings (and, yes, integration), something like this could never happen today. But it happened then.
Notre Dame was easily the best team of 1966, however. By far. It tied Michigan State in East Lansing with its backup quarterback, after all! Alabama was much improved over the team that sneaked away with the 1965 title, but the Tide would have been at least slight underdogs against either of the nation’s Midwest behemoths, and the Irish still stood out from the pack.
1969: Texas (11-0) vs. Penn State (11-0)
Poll rankings: Texas first (AP and coaches), Penn State second (AP and coaches)
SP+ rankings: Texas first (29.0 rating), Penn State third (24.5)
Avg. points scored: Texas 39.5, Penn State 29.3
Avg. points allowed: Penn State 8.2, Texas 10.8
Best wins: Texas def. Notre Dame (fourth in SP+) 21-17, def. Arkansas (ninth) 15-14; Penn State def. Missouri (12th) 10-3, def. West Virginia (29th) 20-0
Verdict: Texas. Almost nothing could have been as controversial as 1966, but “President puts thumb on national title scales” certainly competes. Both Texas and Arkansas were unbeaten in 1969 when Richard Nixon came to Fayetteville on Dec. 6 for a huge rivalry battle, another Game of the Century candidate that the Longhorns won with fourth-quarter heroics. In the locker room after the game, Nixon presented Texas with a national championship plaque, which was interesting considering (A) the Longhorns still had to face No. 9 Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl and (B) Penn State was also unbeaten and dominant. PSU head coach Joe Paterno was not particularly impressed by the development.
The Horns indeed beat the Fighting Irish to secure No. 1 in both polls, and in retrospect it’s justified. Texas had played a tougher schedule and dominated it more than the Nittany Lions. After unveiling the Wishbone early in 1968, the Longhorns destroyed all comers with it that fall, extending their winning streak to 20 games and eventually inspiring both Alabama and Oklahoma, among others, to adopt it as well. They were the best team of 1969, even if Nixon’s appearance made things weirder than they needed to be.
1970: Nebraska (11-0-1) vs. Texas (10-1)
Poll rankings: Nebraska first (AP) and third (coaches), Texas first (coaches) and third (AP)
SP+ rankings: Texas first (25.2 rating), Nebraska sixth (21.3)
Avg. points scored: Texas 38.5, Nebraska 35.5
Avg. points allowed: Texas 13.5, Nebraska 15.8
Best wins: Nebraska def. LSU (seventh in SP+) 17-12, def. Colorado (21st in SP+) 29-13; Texas def. Arkansas (fourth) 42-7, def. UCLA (20th) 20-17
Losses/ties: Nebraska tied USC (13th) 21-21; Texas lost to Notre Dame (fifth) 24-11
Verdict: Notre Dame! Surprise! The Fighting Irish finished 10-1, lost only to USC late in the season and handled Texas pretty easily in the Cotton Bowl. They finished second in the AP poll behind Nebraska, which did tie the USC team that beat Notre Dame. But the Irish can match Nebraska’s best win thanks to a 3-0 win over LSU in November — Notre Dame playing LSU in November! Let’s bring that back! — and they ended Texas’ 30-game winning streak pretty easily in Dallas.
If we stick to choosing between only Nebraska and Texas, it’s tempting to still give the Longhorns the nod. They were by far the best team of the regular season (as evidenced by their absolute stomping of an otherwise awesome Arkansas), and because neither the Big 8 nor the SWC were particularly great that season, their résumés are pretty equal. But luckily we don’t have to choose between them — we’re going with that plucky upstart from South Bend instead.
Notre Dame’s win over Alabama helps it secure the nod in the 1973 title race. AP Photo
1973: Notre Dame (11-0) vs. Alabama (11-1)
Poll rankings: Notre Dame first (AP) and fourth (coaches), Alabama first (coaches) and fourth (AP)
SP+ rankings: Alabama second (27.6 rating), Notre Dame sixth (21.4)
Avg. points scored: Alabama 39.8, Notre Dame 34.7
Avg. points allowed: Notre Dame 8.1, Alabama 9.4
Best wins: Alabama def. LSU (15th in SP+) 21-7, def. Georgia (22nd) 28-14; Notre Dame def. Alabama (second) 24-23, def. USC (17th) 23-14
Losses: Alabama def. by Notre Dame 24-23
Verdict: Notre Dame. I almost threw another curveball here by choosing 10-0-1 Oklahoma instead. The Sooners tied with top-ranked USC in Los Angeles early, then torched six ranked opponents on the way to an easy Big 8 title. They were first in SP+, and they finished the regular season second in the AP poll, ahead of No. 3 Notre Dame; if they hadn’t been banned from the postseason, they might have scored an easy enough Orange Bowl victory to finish No. 1 even though the Irish beat top-ranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
They were banned from the postseason, however, and Notre Dame did upset Bama in the Sugar Bowl to finish unbeaten. It beat USC, too. Even with an otherwise unspectacular résumé, that’s enough to get the job done.
That was an epic Sugar Bowl, by the way the Fighting Irish and Crimson Tide met for the first time ever, and Bama was a solid favorite to secure the title and get belated revenge for the 1966 title controversy. Instead, Notre Dame matched it score for score, took a 24-23 lead on a late field goal and secured the upset when Tom Clements completed a huge third-down pass out of his end zone to backup tight end Robin Weber.
1974: Oklahoma (11-0) vs. USC (10-1-1)
Poll rankings: Oklahoma first (AP) and unranked (coaches), USC first (coaches) and second (AP)
SP+ rankings: Oklahoma first (32.4 rating), USC 13th (14.7)
Avg. points scored: Oklahoma 43.0, USC 30.3
Avg. points allowed: Oklahoma 8.4, USC 11.8
Best wins: Oklahoma def. Nebraska (third in SP+) 28-14, def. Texas (11th) 16-13; USC def. Ohio State (fourth) 18-17, def. Notre Dame (10th) 55-24
Losses/ties: USC def. by Arkansas (26th) 22-7 and tied California (52nd) 15-15
Verdict: Oklahoma. This one was split only because, beginning in 1974, the coaches’ poll both (A) began ranking teams after bowls and (B) stopped ranking teams on NCAA probation. Oklahoma, still under sanctions for what we’ll call persistently aggressive recruiting practices (and, in this case, the potential alteration of high school transcripts), was therefore not included, allowing a late-peaking USC team to snare the UPI title.
There should be no mistaking the fact that OU was the best team in the country, however. Only Texas stayed within 14 points of the Sooners, who rolled through seven Big 8 games by an average score of 42-9. With running back Joe Washington thriving in the Wishbone behind a line with multiple All-Americans, and with the Selmon brothers wrecking shop on defense, this was one of the greatest Sooner teams ever.
Meanwhile, USC fielded one of its weakest teams of the era. The Trojans might have been dangerous in a playoff scenario, though — they surged late in the season with a blowout of No. 5 Notre Dame and a Rose Bowl win over Ohio State. They peaked at the right time, but OU was still the best.
1978: Alabama (11-1) vs. USC (12-1)
Poll rankings: Alabama first (AP) and second (coaches), USC first (coaches) and second (Alabama)
SP+ rankings: Alabama second (20.0 rating), USC fourth (18.3)
Avg. points scored: Alabama 28.8, USC 24.5
Avg. points allowed: USC 11.8, Alabama 14.0
Best wins: Alabama def. Nebraska (third in SP+) 20-3, def. Penn State (fifth) 14-7, def. Missouri (14th) 38-20, def. Washington (15th) 20-17; USC def. Alabama (second) 24-14, def. Michigan (seventh) 17-10, def. Michigan State (10th) 30-9, def. Notre Dame (11th) 27-25, def. Washington (15th) 28-10
Losses: Alabama def. by USC 24-14; USC def. by Arizona State (21st) 20-7
Verdict: USC. The late 1970s were the peak of nonconference scheduling. Alabama played four SP+ top-15 teams in its non-con slate — including USC — and then played a fifth in a classic Sugar Bowl against Penn State. USC, meanwhile, played Alabama, Notre Dame and Michigan State and finished with a win over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Neither team was incredibly dominant from a scoring-margins perspective, but how could you be against these schedules?
I’ve never been a huge “head-to-head matters above all else” guy — yes, USC beat Bama, but you could easily make a counterpoint that Bama had by far a better loss than USC’s to Arizona State — but with these teams both taking on brutal schedules and barely separating themselves in SP+, it’s pretty easy to use USC’s 24-14 victory in Tuscaloosa as a tiebreaker. That the win was pretty emphatic certainly helped. Bama’s Bear Bryant told the media, “It could have been worse,” afterward. USC broke Bama’s 12-game win streak by hanging 417 yards on the Tide (199 from star back Charles White) and dominating the line of scrimmage, and we’ll say that earned them the official national title here.
1990: Georgia Tech (11-0-1) vs. Colorado (11-1-1)
Poll rankings: Colorado first (AP) and second (coaches), Georgia Tech first (coaches) and second (AP)
SP+ rankings: Georgia Tech fourth (19.1 rating), Colorado seventh (17.6)
Avg. points scored: Georgia Tech 31.6, Colorado 30.7
Avg. points allowed: Georgia Tech 15.5, Colorado 17.6
Best wins: Colorado def. Oklahoma (sixth) 32-23, def. Notre Dame (eighth) 10-9, def. Nebraska (ninth) 27-12, def. Washington (11th) 20-14, Georgia Tech def. Clemson (third) 21-19, def. Virginia (fifth) 41-38, def. Nebraska (ninth) 45-21
Losses/ties: Colorado tied Tennessee (16th) 31-31 and lost to Illinois (31st) 23-22; Georgia Tech tied North Carolina (32nd) 13-13
Verdict: Georgia Tech. We got through the 1980s without any split titles, though you certainly could have made the case for Auburn or even Nebraska in 1983 (when Miami came out of nowhere to upset the Huskers and win the crown), and it seems some people will never quite get over BYU winning in 1984. Either way, the 1990s made up for lost time in the controversies department. We began the decade with back-to-back split titles, the first of which was shared by a pair of nontraditional powers.
On average, Miami and Florida State were almost certainly the two best teams in the country in 1990, but both suffered a pair of losses — Miami to BYU and Notre Dame, Florida State to Miami and Auburn — that eliminated them from contention. That left pollsters to decide between a Georgia Tech team with three excellent wins and a half-blemish and a Colorado team with four great wins and 1.5 blemishes.
There are no split titles here, however, and we’re going with Bobby Ross’ Yellow Jackets. The ACC was dynamite in 1990, and not only did Colorado suffer both a tie and a loss (neither to top-15 teams), but the Buffaloes also needed a fifth down to beat Missouri. (And even if their résumés were tied after that, this Mizzou guy is here to remind you that Charles Johnson didn’t score on fifth down, either. Sorry, Buffs. The Ramblin’ Wreck gets the ring.)
1991: Washington (12-0) vs. Miami (12-0)
Poll rankings: Miami first (AP) and second (coaches), Washington first (coaches) and second (AP)
SP+ rankings: Miami first (24.7 rating), Washington second (24.2)
Avg. points scored: Washington 41.3, Miami 32.2
Avg. points allowed: Miami 8.3, Washington 9.6
Best wins: Miami def. Florida State (third in SP+) 17-16, def. Penn State (fourth) 26-20, def. Nebraska (10th) 22-0; Washington def. Nebraska (10th) 36-21, def. California (13th) 24-17, def. Michigan (14th) 34-14
Verdict: Miami. Honestly? This might be the most difficult decision on this list. Both Don James’ Huskies and Dennis Erickson’s Hurricanes were nearly perfect, and it’s a damn shame that these two couldn’t meet in a bowl game.
Washington was perfectly suited to hold up against one of the best Miami teams of the era. The Huskies were explosive on the edge and beyond sturdy in the trenches. Mario Bailey (17 touchdowns, 16.7 yards per catch) was one of the scariest receivers of the 1990s, and the defense was keyed by All-American Steve Emtman up front and ball hawk Walter Bailey (seven INTs, two touchdowns) in the back. The Huskies began the season by handling Nebraska in Lincoln and ended it by pummeling Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Only an excellent Cal could stay particularly close in between.
Since I’m forcing myself to choose, however, I’m going with The U, if only because of the résumé. Miami beat both the third- and fourth-best teams in the country and finished the season by pummeling Nebraska by a slightly larger margin. This would have been an absolute coin-flip matchup on the field, but Miami’s schedule gives it the slightest of nods.
Who ends up on top in the 1993 title chase between Florida State and Notre Dame? AP Photo/Doug Mills, File
1993: Florida State (12-1) vs. Notre Dame (11-1)
Poll rankings: Florida State first (AP and coaches), Notre Dame second (AP and coaches)
SP+ rankings: Florida State first (24.0), Notre Dame second (23.3)
Avg. points scored: Florida State 41.2, Notre Dame 35.6
Avg. points allowed: Florida State 9.9, Notre Dame 17.9
Best wins: Florida State def. Nebraska (fourth in SP+) 18-16, def. Florida (fifth) 33-21; Notre Dame def. Florida State (first) 31-24, def. Michigan (ninth) 27-23, def. Texas A&M (12th) 24-21
Losses: Florida State def. by Notre Dame (second) 31-24, Notre Dame def. by Boston College (28th) 41-39
Verdict: Florida State. Going by the standards set in the 1978 discussion, Notre Dame should have the edge here: The Irish were nearly as good as FSU overall and scored the key head-to-head win in the teams’ epic mid-November battle.
This was an even more complete Notre Dame team than the one that won the 1988 national title, and while the Irish didn’t manhandle FSU by any means (yards per play: ND 5.2, FSU 5.0), they made an early 24-0 run hold up with a late defensive stand. These two teams were gearing up for a rematch in the Fiesta Bowl … until the Irish fell to Boston College in another classic the next week. This was a pretty solid BC team, but that loss, combined with FSU’s otherwise superior résumé — the Noles finished the season by beating excellent Florida and Nebraska teams — gives FSU the slightest of edges.
1994: Nebraska (13-0) vs. Penn State (12-0)
Poll rankings: Nebraska first (AP and coaches), Penn State second (AP and coaches)
SP+ rankings: Penn State first (23.6 rating), Nebraska third (21.3)
Avg. points scored: Penn State 47.0, Nebraska 35.3
Avg. points allowed: Nebraska 12.5, Penn State 21.0
Best wins: Nebraska def. Colorado (sixth in SP+) 24-7, def. Kansas State (13th) 17-6; Penn State def. Ohio State (ninth) 63-14, def. Michigan (10th) 31-24, def. Illinois (11th) 35-31
Verdict: Penn State. How do we gauge injuries here? Because although Brook Berringer became a legend by filling in at quarterback while star Tommie Frazier was dealing with blood clots, there’s no question that the Huskers were a less dominant team without No. 15. They manhandled Colorado in an enormous No. 2 vs. No. 3 game, but they were less than incredible against teams like Wyoming, Iowa State and a mediocre Oklahoma.
Penn State, on the other hand? Absurdly dominant. Even with a defense that had a propensity for leaking points in garbage time, the quartet of quarterback Kerry Collins, running back Ki-Jana Carter, receiver Bobby Engram and tight end Kyle Brady remains one of the best of all time. That Nebraska survived without Frazier and outlasted Miami in the Orange Bowl after Frazier’s return is obviously impressive. This team sealed the deal on an unbeaten season the way other awesome Tom Osborne teams could not. But Penn State humiliated Ohio State and averaged 47 points per game, and if you ask me who I think would have won head-to-head, I’m going with the Nittany Lions. (If Frazier were in 100% form, as he was in 1995, it’s a different story.)
1997: Nebraska (13-0) vs. Michigan (12-0)
Poll rankings: Michigan first (AP) and second (coaches), Nebraska first (coaches) and second (AP)
SP+ rankings: Nebraska second (22.9 rating), Michigan sixth (18.1)
Avg. points scored: Nebraska 46.7, Michigan 26.8
Avg. points allowed: Michigan 9.5, Nebraska 16.5
Best wins: Nebraska def. Washington (fifth in SP+) 27-14, def. Tennessee (eighth) 42-17, def. Kansas State (10th) 56-26; Michigan def. Ohio State (seventh) 20-14, def. Washington State (14th) 21-16
Verdict: Nebraska. We went against the Huskers in both 1990 and 1993, but they get the nod here, primarily because of offensive upside. Led by Heisman winner Charles Woodson, Michigan boasted the best defense in the country, and while Nebraska’s Blackshirts certainly had their moments (they held three Big 12 opponents to seven combined points and limited Peyton Manning’s Tennessee to 17 in the Orange Bowl), it still wasn’t quite up to the standard set by the 1994 and 1995 units.
Offensively, though? A major, major advantage to Nebraska. The Huskers topped 35 points 10 times in Osborne’s final season in charge. Quarterback Scott Frost made some huge passes, particularly in NU’s narrow Flea Kicker win over Missouri, and the option trio of Frost, I-back Ahman Green and fullback Joel Makovicka was as devastating as ever. Nebraska beat an excellent Washington in Seattle early in the season, beat ranked Kansas State and Texas A&M teams by a combined 110-41 and waylaid Manning and the Vols in the Orange Bowl. Michigan was definitively awesome, too, but left itself with less margin for error on offense. Nebraska would be favored in a hypothetical head-to-head and gets the ring.
2003: LSU (12-1) vs. USC (12-1)
Poll rankings: USC first (AP) and second (coaches), LSU first (coaches) and second (AP)
SP+ rankings: LSU second (23.4 rating), USC fourth (20.1)
Avg. points scored: USC 41.1, LSU 33.9
Avg. points allowed: LSU 11.0, USC 18.4
Best wins: LSU def. Oklahoma (first in SP+) 21-14, def. Georgia (sixth) 34-13, def. Arkansas (11th) 55-24; USC def. Michigan (ninth) 28-14, def. Auburn (20th) 23-0
Losses: LSU def. by Florida (21st) 19-7, USC def. by Cal (37th) 34-31
Verdict: LSU. Even in the BCS era, which promised us a No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle at the end of the season — a massive development in this sport — we ended up with title controversy at times. The BCS’ biggest issue wasn’t the formula; it was its inability to fit three deserving teams onto one title-game field. Having to stop at two teams was particularly controversial in 2000, 2003, 2004, 2008 and 2011, and it led to the creation of the CFP.
In 2003, Oklahoma was easily the best team of the regular season but hit the skids late in the season as quarterback Jason White’s injuries added up. The Sooners were pummeled by Kansas State in the Big 12 championship but still made the BCS Championship Game over USC. Nick Saban’s best LSU team handled the Sooners in New Orleans, while the Trojans were left to thump Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
It was obligatory that the BCS championship winner take the coaches’ poll crown, but defiant writers gave USC the nod in the AP poll. In the end, the Tigers were slightly more deserving. They had three wins over SP+ top-11 teams (USC had one), their scoring margin was slightly better against a better schedule, and their loss to Florida, though unimpressive, still looked better than USC falling to a Cal team that was still a year from an elite breakthrough.