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Top 25 Teams of 2004-2009

Mr Pac Ten
Posted Jul 24, 2010


The 2010 Compu-Picks Model Lists and Explains the Top 25 College Football teams of 2004 - 2009.

As explained in part one ( link here ), what I am doing is using the Compu-Picks system to list out the best teams of the last six years. In the first part, I explained a bit about the system and showed a large table that compared the Compu-Picks list to various other sources. In this part, I’ll go into more detail about why each of the top 25 teams fit into its place on the list, as well as highlight why a few other teams that were highly regarded in some circles didn’t make the top 25.

To start with, I want to talk about some of the things that the top teams generally have in common:

Tough Schedules: This is a no-brainer. Your record and your margin of victory can be as gaudy as you want, but if there isn’t a lot of schedule heft to go with them, you can’t be the best of the best. To be considered the best, you have to play a challenging schedule, not once or twice a year, but consistently, over the long haul of a full season. Of the top eight teams on the list, SIX of them were rated as having the #1 or #2 schedule that year. Of the top fourteen teams on the list, just one had a schedule rated outside the top 10. Compu-picks seriously values schedule strength, and the top of the list powerfully reflects this.

Consistent Dominance: This is a no-brainer. If you’re kicking ass and taking names week after week, the system will reward you. If you’re winning nail-biters week after week, the system will ding you. And this also applies to any losses you may have. If your loss was a nail-biter to an excellent team, it won’t necessarily punish you that much. But if you got your ass kicked, then you’ve got a lot of ground to make up if you want to consider yourself an elite.

Excellent Win-Loss Records: Everyone knows this one. There’s no such thing as an elite five-loss team in college football. The correlation between winning percentage and a team’s place on this list is looser than in other sources, but it’s still strong, especially at the extreme ends.

Signature Performances: This an observation rather than a model input or factor. Nevertheless, at some point, every truly elite football team has a “Wow”-level performance. Sometimes it’s taking a merely good to very good team behind the woodshed by 30+ points (for instance, 2009 TCU visiting BYU and blowing them out by 31). Sometimes it’s taking a top five team and beating them by a couple touchdowns (for instance, 2009 Alabama beating Florida 32-13). But you know it when you see it. Every year has a few of them, but generally only a few. And if a team doesn’t have at least one that makes the list of truly top-shelf performances, you can forget about them being called the best of the best. And if a team has a couple such masterpieces, or if they’ve got one that really hits the top of the stratosphere, well, now you’re talking a real, honest to goodness juggernaut.

Few Red Flags: This is the flip side of the signature performances (again, an observation, not a model input or factor). Obviously losses hurt, but so do close escapes against mediocre or lousy teams. If you’re a heavy favorite and you barely escape, it hurts your rating, though if the rest of your resume is sparkling it’s not much of an issue. If the rest of your resume isn’t sparkling, or if it happens repeatedly, though, it can be much more of an issue. Remember, this is supposed to be a list of very good to historically great teams. Warts matter.

Strong Late-season Performances: This is more of a minor point compared to the four above, but it can be an important factor in a few teams’ ratings. Compu-Picks gives late season games more weight than early season games, which means that teams that do especially well late in the year get a bump and teams that struggle late get a demerit. Truly great teams tend to be great all year long, making this a non-factor for them, but as you move down the list, you start to occasionally see teams that get affected by this factor, for better or worse.

First, let’s look at a few teams that didn’t make the cut, and why they didn’t make the cut:

#58 – 2009 Cincy
Why They’re Noteworthy:

They were undefeated in the regular season, and only lost to a very good Florida team in the Sugar Bowl. Billingsley had them 16th-best of the last six years, and Colley had them 22nd-best (Sagarin only had them 57th though).

Why They’re Not Top Twenty-Five:
The 22nd-ranked schedule didn’t help, but what really killed them was the 51-24 ass-kicking Florida gave them to end the year. And in general, the second half of the season was a struggle for them, which hurts their ranking because the model cares more about late-season games. Their last five games were: a 2-point home win over UConn, a 3-point home win over West Virginia, a 13-point home win over a sub-par Illinois team, a 1-point road win at Pitt, and the 27-point ass-kicking by Florida. Adding to that issue was the fact that their best game of the season, a road blowout of Rutgers, was all the way back in week one. The fact that they had some other questionable performances (only beating a mediocre Fresno team by 8 at home, and only winning by 24 at a really bad MiamiOH team), didn’t help their resume either.

#47 – 2008 Utah
Why They’re Noteworthy:

They went undefeated, and had a nice 31-17 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Billingsley had them 10th-best of the last six years, Colley had them 14th-best, and Sagarin had them 26th best.

Why They’re Not Top Twenty-Five:
Only having the 53rd ranked schedule was the first negative, but wasn’t the only one. What also kept them well off of the top 25 was the lack of dominance. Even their best win, by 14 against Alabama, wasn’t exactly an ass-kicking, and wasn’t against a true national elite (Bama ended 2008 rated 10th by the model). In two other chances for impressive wins, they beat Oregon St and TCU by only 3 points each (both at home). Throw in major struggles at a sub-par Michigan team (only won by 2) and a mediocre New Mexico team (only won by 3), and it’s easy to see why they didn’t really register as a great team in this model. Throw out margin entirely, and they could move a bit up on this list, but the schedule was poor enough to even then make them questionable for the top 25 of the last six years.

#38 – 2009 Boise St
Why They’re Noteworthy:

They went undefeated, they beat TCU in a BCS bowl, and they beat Pac-10 champ Oregon in an early season matchup. Billinglsey had them as the 7th best team of the last six years.

Why They’re Not Top Twenty-Five:
Having the 71st ranked schedule is the biggest thing, especially since that’s probably a more generous rating than most systems had their schedule. They also lacked a true signature win; beating TCU by 7 on a neutral field and Oregon by 11 at home were both good wins, but neither is anything close to a historically great win. They also struggled more often against mediocre to bad opposition than you’d want to see from a great team, only winning by 7 at a sub-par Tulsa team, only beating a mediocre Nevada team by 11 at home, and only winning by 10 at a mediocre Louisiana Tech team. In general, they blew teams out, and overall margin helped them a lot (which is why I really don’t get Billinglsey being so high on them), but there were overall enough warts on their resume to keep them off the top 25.

#34 – 2004 Texas
Why They’re Noteworthy:

They had a nice Rose Bowl win over Michigan, they had an extremely impressive 51-21 road thrashing of Texas Tech, they only lost once (to a very good Oklahoma team), and were highly ranked by most human pollsters that year. Billingsley had them 19th-best of the last six years, and Colley had them 10th-best (Sagarin only had them 43rd though).

Why They’re Not Top Twenty-Five:
They were certainly a quality team, but there really wasn’t very much especially outstanding about their resume, compared to the teams on the top 25 list. 13th-ranked schedule was good but not great, they had some dominant wins (and 51-21 at Tech was an extremely impressive win), but also had a number of close wins, such as 22-20 at Arkansas, 28-20 at home against Mizzou, 27-23 at Kansas, and it’s worth remembering that the Rose Bowl win over Michigan was a squeaker, 38-37. If they’d turned one or two of their close wins against good teams into really convincing ones, or if they’d added more heft to the non-conference slate (at Arkansas was fine, but North Texas and Rice were obvious layups), they’d have rated better, but as it was, overall their resume was pretty clearly good but nowhere near great.

#29 – 2005 Penn St
Why They’re Noteworthy:

They were a one-loss team that played against a very tough slate (rated 4th that year). Their only loss was a nail-biter against Michigan, and had two noteworthy wins against Ohio St and Florida St. They won a few very convincing games, four times by 20+ points and three times by 30+. Most of the computers really liked this team; Colley had them as the 12th best team of the last six years, and just about everyone other than Billingsley was very high on this group.

Why They’re Not Top Twenty-Five:
The big downside for them is that they lacked a real signature win, as their win over Ohio St was only by 7, their Orange Bowl win against Florida St was by 3 in overtime, and neither Minnesota nor Wisconsin were good enough for the convincing wins against them to really impress. Overall it was a very solid resume, as shown by their 4th overall rank for 2005, but it lacked anything that would really put them over the top, whether it be a truly brutal schedule (Cincy and CMU were layups and USF wasn’t exactly a major challenge), a single truly signature win, or more consistent dominance (they had the three-point OT win, the 7-pont win, plus a 9-point win over Michigan St, a 5-point win over Northwestern, and a 10-point win over USF)

#25 – 2006 Florida
Why They’re Top Twenty-Five:

They were the national champion, for starters. They also had the 2nd rated schedule in 2006, playing in the #1-rated league that year and adding Florida St and the national title game tilt against Ohio St to the resume as well. Most computers loved them; Colley rated them the 4th best team of the last six years, Billingsley rated them 15th, Sagarin rated them 6th, and most other systems liked them quite a bit as well. The only one I saw which didn’t was Congrove (it had them 21st), which makes some sense since that system was also designed as a predictive power ranking.

Why They’re Not Top Twenty:
Because they were arguably the weakest national champion of the last six years; the only other reasonable possibility was two-loss 2007 LSU (and even they were well ahead in this model). They were the very definition of a “not dominant” (and you can argue lucky if you want) team, aside from the Ohio St win. They beat Tennessee by 1, Kentucky by 19, Alabama by 15, LSU by 13, Georgia by 7, Vandy (yes, Vandy) by 6, South Carolina by 1, Florida St by 7, and Arkansas by 10. They also lost to Auburn by 10. Basically, they were the Bizzarro version of 2008 Florida. That team consistently kicked ass and had a surprisingly bad game against Ole Miss; this team consistently squeaked by (and didn’t always win), and had a surprisingly good game against Ohio St.

#24 – 2006 Louisville
Why They’re Top Twenty-Five:

This is an interesting contrast to 2006 Florida. Louisville was a team with a substantially weaker schedule, but they were dominant on a far more consistent basis than Florida (and their loss was only by 3 points compared to Florida’s 10-point loss), with only one of their wins by single digits, and seven by 20+. They also basically destroyed the Miami franchise, humiliating them 31-7 and sending them down into a long-term slump that they have yet to fully bounce back from (this wasn’t a model consideration, but was, I think, a historically interesting point).

Why They’re Not Top Twenty:
They were a quality team, but they did have a loss, and their schedule (24th ranked) was decent but not great. Their biggest problem, though, was that they didn’t have anything close to a signature win, losing their biggest such opportunity (a road game at Rutgers). 44-34 at home to West Virginina, 48-24 at Pitt and 24-13 in the Orange Bowl over Wake were nice wins, but when those are the big resume-boosters, we’re pretty clearly not looking at an elite team.

#23 – 2009 TCU
Why They’re Top Twenty-Five:

Everyone remembers Boise’s win over TCU last year, but you can easily argue that TCU was the better team who simply happened to lose that game. They certainly had a tougher schedule (ranked 36th in 2009), and they were pretty consistently dominant against their slate. They also had an enormously impressive 38-7 ass-kicking at a good BYU team, as well as a number of other good showings throughout the year.

Why They’re Not Top Twenty:
They lost to Boise. Their schedule wasn’t great enough to really propel them to the levels of the really good to great teams given that loss, especially since it happened late.

#22 – 2007 USC
Why They’re Top Twenty-Five:

The Pac-10 was pretty good in 2007, which helped USC’s resume a lot. So did a late-season surge that saw them beat ASU by 20, UCLA by 17, and Illinois by 32 in the Rose Bowl. One of the most amazing things about USC’s run from 2002 – 2008 (and you’ll be seeing plenty more of them on this list) is that even in a down year, they were still a very good team.

Why They’re Not Top Twenty:
Other than 2009, this was the weakest USC team of the last six years. They lost twice, and their schedule strength was sapped by playing an awful Idaho team, and down versions of Nebraska and especially Notre Dame. They really didn’t dominate their slate (though they came on strong late), beating Washington by 3, Arizona by 7, and Cal by 7 to go along with their pair of losses.
Standard 2007 Disclaimer:

Looking back at the past six seasons, the 2010 model would have overall done extremely well in every year but 2007, which was wacky and unpredictable enough that it would have actually had a losing record ATS. Feel free to disbelieve all of the 2007 ratings if this bothers you.

#21 – 2004 Louisville
Why They’re Top Twenty-Five:

It’s a crime that this team has basically been forgotten about. For three years Louisville was great, and this was the greatest among them. They were basically Utah with a close loss at Miami (themselves a very good team that year). They utterly humiliated a good UNC team 34-0 on the road. Other than that loss mentioned above, a 7-point win against Memphis and 4-point bowl win against Boise, no one else came closer than 27 points; nine times they won by 20+, and three times they won by 40+.

Why They’re Not Top Twenty:
They had the very definition of a mediocre schedule, ranked only 61st on this list. They had some tough opponents, but they also had a bunch of weak victims (which happens when you’re a very good non-AQ team – see Boise in the WAC). And when your schedule is that mediocre, even one loss hurts the resume a lot.

#20 – 2006 Ohio St
Why They’re Top Twenty:

This was a dominant team in 2006; people forget that they were solid favorites over Florida for good reason. They won at a good Texas team 24-7, they won by 20+ points nine times, and by 40+ points three times. They also played a very tough schedule, rated 4th in 2006.

Why They’re Not Top Fifteen:
They got thumped pretty badly by Florida in the title game, which counts extra since late season games get more weight in the system. There isn’t anything else particularly negative compared to their neighbors.

#19 – 2008 Penn St
Why They’re Top Twenty:

They were generally dominant against a good slate (15th ranked in 2008). They were considered a serious national title contender for a while (until they lost at Iowa), with good reason.

Why They’re Not Top Fifteen:
Two losses takes the wind out of the sails of their resume. Clearly a solid team, but not a great one.

#18 – 2007 West Virginia
Why They’re Top Twenty:

Their 31-3 beating at Rutgers was very impressive, as was their 48-28 bowl win over Oklahoma. The Big East was pretty decent in 2007, helping their resume. They had a bunch of convincing wins throughout the season.

Why They’re Not Top Fifteen:
They lost not just once but twice, including a late-season home game against a very mediocre Pitt team, and they definitely didn’t have the schedule (20th in 2007) to put them in elite company given two losses.
Standard 2007 Disclaimer:

Looking back at the past six seasons, the 2010 model would have overall done extremely well in every year but 2007, which was wacky and unpredictable enough that it would have actually had a losing record ATS. Feel free to disbelieve all of the 2007 ratings if this bothers you.

#17 – 2004 Auburn
Why They’re Top Twenty:

They ran the table, and were quite dominant against it. They had an impressive road beat-down at Tennessee (34-10), and even though the SEC was clearly in a down year in 2004, they still ran the table in a quality league, and added to their resume by beating Virginia Tech in a BCS bowl.

Why They’re Not Top Fifteen:
The schedule was only ranked 27th, far worse than almost everyone rated above them on this list (and that’s not counting their AA opponent); the SEC was definitely not good enough that year (4-4 regular season vs BCS leagues/ND, plus losses to Navy, Memphis, UAB, and Ohio, among others; and those last four losses were each by a different SEC team) to make a schedule that contained ULM and Louisiana Tech seem imposing. Their last three games were pretty meh for a supposedly legitimate national title contender; 21-13 against Bama, 38-28 against Tennessee, and 16-13 against Virginia Tech aren’t the sorts of games that make you think “awesome team”. Billingsley and Colley seem to love this team (4th and 5th respectively on the “last six years” list), as do most other computers (though Sagarin had them just 18th), but I just can’t see it.
The schedule was nowhere near quality enough to rate really highly on this list, which makes me think they (and many people looking back and forgetting the cupcakes and way too close games late in the year) are probably wrong in how they rate this team. It’s reasonable to look at them and think that they might possibly have been great, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to look at them and think that they were definitely great. Too many warts in my opinion to reach that exalted status.

#16 – 2005 Ohio St
Why They’re Top Twenty:

They had a very challenging schedule, rated 4th overall for 2005, substantially better than everyone preceding them except 2006 Florida. They were one of the best teams in 2005, and had a nice BCS bowl win against Notre Dame. Their only losses came to top teams that year, so there was little to be ashamed of in either one.

Why They’re Not Top Fifteen:
They lost twice, and lacked a truly signature win (Notre Dame was a good team but definitely not anywhere near great). They were pretty dominant but not really dominant week in and week out.

#15 – 2004 Utah
Why They’re Top Fifteen:

The highest-rated non-AQ on this list, 2004 Utah was a really good team, a fact that sometimes gets lost in the historical shuffle. Their schedule (ranked 53rd) was nothing special, but they dominated it like few others, never winning by single digits, winning nine times by 20+ points, and five times by 30+ points.

Why They’re Not Top Ten:
The schedule. They did about as well as humanly possible against their schedule, but there’s a ceiling to how impressive any achievements can be against a schedule that didn’t even sniff the top 25, much less the top 10 of difficulty.

#14 – 2007 LSU
Why They’re Top Fifteen:

They won the national title game, for starters. They also had some very impressive wins, led by their crushing of Virginia Tech (#1 rated win that year), and a 45-0 road beat-down of a Miss St team that was decent that year.

Why They’re Not Top Ten:
When you’re a two-loss team, and one of those losses is a late-season home loss to a mediocre Arkansas team that got annihilated by Mizzou in their bowl game, it’s hard to say you’re a real elite. They also had three massive cakewalks against MTSU, Tulane and Louisiana Tech. And they had a number of close to very close wins (4 points against Florida, 6 against Auburn, 7 against Bama, and 7 against Tennessee).
Standard 2007 Disclaimer:

Looking back at the past six seasons, the 2010 model would have overall done extremely well in every year but 2007, which was wacky and unpredictable enough that it would have actually had a losing record ATS. Feel free to disbelieve all of the 2007 ratings if this bothers you.

#13 – 2006 USC
Why They’re Top Fifteen:

Definitely not the greatest USC team of the past decade, but still very strong, with a top-rated schedule (rated #1 for 2006), and the blowout at Arkansas and the 32-18 Rose Bowl win over Michigan were both extremely impressive wins.

Why They’re Not Top Ten:
They lost twice, including the late-season loss at UCLA which knocked them out of the title game. No truly elite team would have two losses to decent but clearly not great opponents. They also had a number of games much closer than you’d want to see from an elite team, especially the three game Wazzu-Washington-ASU stretch.

#12 – 2004 Cal
Why They’re Top Fifteen:

They were generally dominant against a pretty tough schedule (ranked 9th), played in the top-rated league in 2004, and one of their losses was a nail-biter on the road against a fantastic USC team. They had a fantastic game at Corvallis, totally destroying a legitimately good Oregon St, on the road no less. They were underrated at the time (they were more dominant against a tougher slate in the regular season than Texas, who was voted above them), and appear to be extremely underrated in retrospect (Colley had them 9th in 2004 and 46th out of all teams in the last six years, and Sagarin had them 38th, both of which were just silly; they didn’t make Billingsley’s top 100 all-time [perfectly reasonable omission, even if this model disagrees], so it’s unclear where they rate with him).

Why They’re Not Top Ten:
They lost twice, including a Holiday Bowl embarrassment against Texas Tech. A nail-biter home win against Oregon, and surprisingly close win at USM didn’t help their case for a Rose Bowl at-large berth, and they didn’t help their rating on this list either.

#11 – 2009 Texas
Why They’re Top Fifteen:

They were generally dominant against a pretty tough schedule (ranked 9th), and their only loss came in the title game against a great Alabama team. I would call this the first team on this list that you can seriously argue was legitimately great. There are reasonable counter-arguments but they definitely have a case.

Why They’re Not Top Ten:
Their non-conference was ULM, Wyoming, UTEP and UCF. The Big 12 was fine in 2009, but not nearly strong enough to make a schedule with zero challenge non-conference look like a real national title schedule. They lacked a real signature win; consecutive dominant wins over Mizzou and Oklahoma St were nice, but neither is the sort of game an all-time team would hang its hat on.

#10 – 2008 Texas
Why They’re Top Ten:

They played in the Big 12, which was very good in 2008 (arguably the #1 league that year). They played a tough schedule, ranked 6th overall. They were pretty dominant against their slate

Why They’re Not Top Five:
Their schedule, while good, isn’t at the same level as most of the teams rated better than them. The non-conference was way too easy, with none of FAU, UTEP, Rice and Arkansas posing a legitimate challenge for a top team. Losing to Tech definitely hurt, though many at this level had a loss along the way.
Their really big problem against their neighbors on this list was that they lacked a real signature win. 45-35 over Oklahoma was an impressive win, but most teams in the stratosphere dominated really good opponents instead of just beating them. 35-7 on the road against Kansas was dominant, but a five-loss Jayhawk team is nowhere near what anyone would call a really good team; the same thing applies to their 56-31 home win over four-loss Missouri.

#9 – 2004 Oklahoma
Why They’re Top Ten:

Before the Orange Bowl loss to USC, many people were calling this potentially the greatest team ever, and with very good reason. They had the #3-rated schedule, and were dominant throughout the regular season, with a few close games and a bunch of blowouts (31-7 over Oregon, 41-10 over Kansas, 30-3 over Nebraska, 35-0 over Baylor, 42-3 over Colorado). They also pitched a shutout against Texas, whose next lowest point total for the year was 22 against Arkansas (and they also scored 65, 56, 51, and 44 points in other games, which is crazy-high offensive numbers to get shut out by anyone).

Why They’re Not Top Five:
55-19. As great as the regular season resume was, you’re not in truly elite territory if you get beaten that badly, and it’s even worse when it comes in the title game (late-season games count more in the model, which jives with most peoples’ thinking).

#8 – 2008 Oklahoma
Why They’re Top Ten:

This team played the #1-rated schedule in 2008, and was pretty dominant against it (the 65-21 annihilation of Texas Tech, 62-21 annihilation of Mizzou, 62-28 annihilation of Nebraska and 35-10 beating of TCU were extremely impressive by any standard; throwing in 52-26 against Cincy, 61-41 against OK St and others only makes the list of victims bigger and better). The Big 12 was probably the best league in 2008, and the Sooners also played Cincy and TCU.
They also played a truly exceptional Florida team in the title game and came closer than any team not named Ole Miss; considering Florida’s long string of hideous beat-downs against many quality opponents, that’s a much better result than it would look at first glance.

Why They’re Not Top Five:
They lost not just once but twice. They’re the highest-rated two-loss team in the system, but there’s a definite limit to how good you can look with two losses. TCU was an impressive addition to the resume, and Cincy helped too, but Washington was a big drag on the schedule strength. This was a very underrated team (Colley having them 19th is ridiculous), but two losses is still two losses.

#7 – 2009 Florida
Why They’re Top Ten:

It’s the schedule. The SEC was just completely insane in 2009; the league sent TEN teams to bowl games and STILL had a winning bowl record. The SEC lost only SIX TIMES in regular season non-conference play; take away Vandy and Miss St, and the league only lost TWICE in the regular season, compared to TEN regular season wins against BCS-league teams (VA Tech, FSU, GA Tech, Clemson, NC St, Tx A&M, ASU, Washington, Louisville, West VA). Georgia and South Carolina combined to go 7-9 in league play and swept the two ACC division champs in the regular season finales. I could go on, but the sheer volume of evidence was truly striking. Even with layups against Troy and FIU, it’s no surprise that Florida had a top-shelf schedule (#2), despite not even playing in the national title game.
It’s also worth noting that they were a generally dominant team, though not as dominant as they were in 2008. And that’s even counting their 19-point loss to Bama. They had a 24-point win over Georgia, a 27-point win over Florida St, and a 27-point win over Cincy.

Why They’re Not Top Five:
Because they got their butts kicked by Bama in the SEC title game. It’s an overall great resume, but when you’re on the bad end of a 19-point beating, it’s almost impossible to compare to the teams below (especially the one that administered said beating).

#6 – 2005 USC
Why They’re Top Ten:

As usual, USC’s schedule (rated #1 overall for 2005) was their biggest asset. The Pac-10 was good in 2005, and the Trojans padded their schedule resume with a road win over a very good Notre Dame team, a home win over a good Fresno team, and of course the title game tilt with Texas. And, of course, they were generally dominant in 2005, winning nine times by 20+ points, and four times by 40+ points. In many years, they’d have been #1, and were in fact rated substantially better than anyone from 2006 or 2007. I would call them the first clearly great team on this list; everyone beforehand has enough warts that you can seriously argue against them being put on a pedestal, but you’d have a much tougher time arguing against these six.

Why They’re Not Top Five:
Because they lost to Texas. This especially hurt them because the system weights later games more than it weights earlier games. Nevertheless, it’s telling that the system has them neck and neck in rankings with the Longhorns, mirroring their title game showdown (and in fact, the system rates the two as a virtual tie).

#5 – 2005 Texas
Why They’re Top Five:

2005 USC was supposed to be an all-time great… until Texas beat them. Texas also dominated their slate, including a 33-point slaughter of Oklahoma and blowouts over almost all of the Big 12 (the only team to come within 14 points was Texas A&M… and the Longhorns followed that one up with a 70-3 annihilation of Colorado in the league title game). Even though their schedule was only ranked 12th, it was still a good enough slate to make their season-long dominance an extremely impressive achievement.

Why They’re Not #1:
It’s the schedule. They were one of only two teams in Compu-Picks’ top 10 of the last six years without a top ten schedule, and the only member of the top nine without a top four schedule. The Big 12 wasn’t great in 2005; other than Texas’ win at Ohio St, there really weren’t any other really impressive regular season wins for the league (when you’re talking about 5-loss Iowa as your other scalp, you have a problem), which was exacerbated by Oklahoma’s loss to TCU and Missouri’s loss to New Mexico. And, of course, UL-Lafayette and Rice didn’t help the resume either. They’re an obviously great team, but there are still some warts, and they don’t quite measure up to the next four (especially the top three).

#4 – 2008 USC
Why They’re Top Five:

It’s a combination of a dominant season and a really tough schedule (ranked #2 that year). Their 35-3 ass-kicking of Ohio St was extremely impressive, as was their romp over Oregon and two-touchdown Rose Bowl win over a very good Penn St team. Other than their close call at Arizona and loss at Oregon St, this team consistently kicked ass and took names.

Why They’re Not #1:
Losing at Oregon St was clearly the big drain on their resume, but they also weren’t helped by the Pac-10 being pretty mediocre that season, and neither Virginia not Notre Dame were good enough opponents to add enough heft to the resume to overcome the loss. They were obviously an outstanding football team, but they were equally obviously not the best of the last six years, or even of 2008.

#3 – 2009 Alabama
Why They’re Top Five:

It’s the schedule. The SEC was just completely insane in 2009; the league sent TEN teams to bowl games and STILL had a winning bowl record. The SEC lost only SIX TIMES in regular season non-conference play; take away Vandy and Miss St, and the league only lost TWICE in the regular season, compared to TEN regular season wins against BCS-league teams (VA Tech, FSU, GA Tech, Clemson, NC St, Tx A&M, ASU, Washington, Louisville, West VA). Georgia and South Carolina combined to go 7-9 in league play and swept the two ACC division champs in the regular season finales. I could go on, but the sheer volume of evidence was truly striking. Even with a pair of massive layups against FIU and North Texas, Alabama still had the #1-rated schedule that year.
They also had a few really nice performances. Their 19-point beat-down of Florida ranked as the #1 single game performance of the year, and they had a bunch of other very impressive showings as well, such as the title game win, the season-opening 10-point win over Virginia Tech, the 19-point win at Ole Miss, and the 28-point win over Arkansas.
I would say that 2009 Alabama and the next two teams weren’t just great, but were truly special. If you’re any kind of college football fan, you WILL remember these three teams for a very long time.

Why They’re Not #1:
They were a dominant team, but not at the same level as some others on the list, especially #’s 2 and 1. They only beat Virginia Tech by 10, South Carolina by 14, Tennessee by 2 (and they were lucky to win that one), LSU by 9, and Auburn by 5. They had some blowout wins against good teams, but even those blowouts (other than Arkansas) were on the order of around 20 points rather than around 40 (see below). And, of course, they had those two big non-conference layups. Make no mistake, this was a ridiculously good team, but when you’re comparing to the best of the best, every flaw, every wart, every single thing that could have been better but wasn’t, they all matter.

#2 – 2008 Florida
Why They’re Top Five:

This was almost the perfect resume. They had the #2 rated schedule that year (the SEC was really good in 2008, plus they had Florida St in the opener, Alabama in the SEC title game, a quite decent Miami team, and of course Oklahoma in the title game), and they blew through their schedule, with their closest two wins by 10 and 11 points against Oklahoma and Alabama. Just so we’re all clear: they beat Tennessee by 24, Arkansas by 31, LSU by 30, Kentucky by 58, Georgia by 39, South Carolina by 50, and Florida St by 30. If you’re not blown away by that list, then you’re nuts. There’s really nothing more to say.

Why They’re Not #1:
They lost to Ole Miss. If they’d rolled Ole Miss like they did pretty much everyone else, they’d be the #1 team and no one would question it. If they beat Ole Miss in a fairly close game (which would have probably happened had they not been stopped on 4th and short), it’d be a really interesting comparison between them and the #1 team on the list (I’m sure you can guess at this point). But neither of those things happened, so they’re not (and if you weigh win%/schedule a bit more and margin a bit less, you can easily flip-flop them with #3 on this list).

#1 – 2004 USC
Why They’re #1:

This was the closest thing to a perfect resume we’ve seen since at least 2001 Miami. They had the #1 rated schedule that year (the Pac-10 was really good in 2004, plus they had Virginia Tech in the opener, a couple of quite decent opponents in BYU and Notre Dame, and of course Oklahoma in the title game), and they blew through their schedule, dominating the majority of their games. And they put a big cherry on the top of their resume in the title game, just destroying a really good Oklahoma team, which the model rates as the #1 single game performance by any team over the past six seasons .

Why They’re Not Unanimous:
Honestly? I’m really not sure. Clearly ignoring margin has something to do with it, since too many close games docked some of the earlier teams on this list, but USC still tore through a really tough schedule; few consensus national champions have to deal with a slate as brutal as the one they dealt with that year. Of course, there were a couple off games, most notably the near-miss at Stanford, but even so there were fewer of those than you’d see pretty much anywhere else.
Ignoring margin, you can make a case for 2009 Alabama (Billingsley’s #1 all-time), but even so I’d have a tough time bumping this team off the top slot, and there’s simply no way any other resume stacks up.
I should also note another issue: in 2004 there were only 119 1-A teams, while by 2009 there were 120 (WKU got added to the list in 2008). Since WKU slotted at or near the bottom of 1-A, that had the inevitable effect of raising everyone’s averages in subsequent seasons. The effect wasn’t huge, but it wasn’t completely trivial either, and that’s worth noting when comparing 2004 USC to the best of the teams that came later, since their rating didn’t get that bump.

At some point, I’ll expand the model back before 2004, and will be able to compare this juggernaut to the insanely good 2001 Miami team. As of right now, I suspect Miami wins that comparison, but I could easily be wrong. At the least, I think it’s pretty safe to say those were the two best teams of the 2000’s, and very few others were even in their league.

Questions, comments or suggestions? Email me at cfn_ms@hotmail.com

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