ESPN is both a reliable source of information, while also being kind of a joke, journalism wise. You pretty much have to sift through the garbage to find some quality content. In this vein, we saw this piece making the rounds last month, touting the 2001 Miami (FL) Hurricanes as the best team in college football history.
Is it true? Well, those Hurricanes did win our MNC for that season, but how does that stack up historically? We went back to 1936, since that is the demarcation line for the “modern” era of college football, and this is what we came up with, decade by decade, as the “best” teams, sabermetrically speaking:
- 1936-1939: Minnesota Golden Gophers (1936)
- 1940-1949: Notre Dame Fighting Irish (1943)
- 1950-1959: Ohio State Buckeyes (1954)
- 1960-1969: Notre Dame Fighting Irish (1964)
- 1970-1979: Oklahoma Sooners (1973)
- 1980-1989: Nebraska Cornhuskers (1980)
- 1990-1999: Nebraska Cornhuskers (1995)
- 2000-2009: Miami Hurricanes (2001)
- 2010-2019: Ohio State Buckeyes (2019)
We do not count 2020, of course, and this season is still incomplete. ESPN clearly just wanted to pimp the 20-year “anniversary” of that Hurricanes squad, coming up with the label to justify it. We’re not into pandering like that, of course. We’re just honest, and we source everything.
But what makes a team the best? Mere sabermetrics? Or did a team have to win the MNC in order to be the “best”? We all know the best team does not always win the mythical national championship, so it comes down to what we want to call “the best” … how many of these teams above, sabermetrically the best of their respective decade(s), also won the MNC in our eyes? Hmmm.
We did not choose Minnesota for the MNC in 1936, and we did not choose Notre Dame in 1943, either. We did confirm Ohio State in 1954, however, while we again did not pick the Fighting Irish in 1964. See a pattern? The MNC is circumstantial; we’ve established that … hence its “mythical” status. Oklahoma did not win our MNC in 1973, and the Cornhuskers definitely did not win it, either, in 1980.
Yet, Nebraska did take the MNC in 1995, and the Hurricanes did the same in 2001. Finally, we know Ohio State was screwed by the CFP in 2019, too, as previously demonstrated. So, that only leaves us with a handful of title teams from the best teams from each decade in the modern era. But here is the order of those teams above, with their sabermetric SRS marks:
- 1943 Notre Dame: 34.77
- 1973 Oklahoma: 32.87
- 2019 Ohio State: 27.39
- 1964 Notre Dame: 27.32
- 1954 Ohio State: 27.08
- 1995 Nebraska: 26.86
- 2001 Miami: 26.17
- 1980 Nebraska: 25.74
- 1936 Minnesota: 24.61
You can see the 2001 Hurricanes are not the best college team ever, and they’re not even the best MNC team on this list, sabermetrically, falling lower than even the 1954 Buckeyes (the highest MNC winner here) and the 1995 Huskers. And there are also all the other MNC winners that might not have been the highest-rated sabermetrically of their respective decade(s). So, we can arbitrarily say no to ESPN.
In the end, objectively speaking, we do see that the 1943 Fighting Irish—despite not winning our MNC, they did claim the AP crown at the time—is the best college football team ever. The fact that Notre Dame lost its final game of that season to a military-base team doesn’t mean anything to us, because those military squads were all-star teams during World War II.
This is a topical analysis to readily disprove ESPN’s absurdity, and maybe in the offseason, we will do a more in-depth analysis here, but for now, this is where we’re at in this discussion.