Our top college football teams that failed to win the national championship

College football is the ultimate small-sample sport. We determine champions and all-time greats and hirings and firings and massive salaries based on incomplete impressions and only 12 to 15 games.

Combine that with the size of the FBS itself — throughout its history, college football’s top-division roster has typically featured well over 100 teams — and you’re going to end up with one heck of a list of amazing teams that never won the national title. (Of course, schools sometimes solve this issue by claiming national titles that voters didn’t vote for.)

Below are the my top 25 best teams that took the field in the AP-poll era (1935 to present) and didn’t finish a season as national champion per either the AP or coaches’ polls. I used my historical SP+ rankings as a starting point, then took creative control from there.

25. 1947 Michigan (10-0)

The 1947 season produced two unbelievable teams: Frank Leahy’s Notre Dame and Fritz Crisler’s Michigan. They didn’t play each other, however, primarily because by 1947, no one liked Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish were a burgeoning powerhouse, and Leahy didn’t mind running the score up a bit when he had the chance. After a 35-12 Irish win in 1943, Michigan wouldn’t agree to play them again for 35 years.

That’s a shame because Michigan was Notre Dame’s equal in 1947. The Wolverines outscored opponents by an average of 39-5. Future college Hall of Famers Bob Chappuis and Bump Elliott were dominant via both run and pass, while future pro Hall of Famer Len Ford was rampant on the edge. The Irish had already locked up the national title vote before the bowls, so Michigan responded by making an example of USC in the Rose Bowl, winning 49-0.

This entry does come with an asterisk, by the way. After Michigan’s Rose Bowl romp, a Detroit AP voter arranged an unofficial postseason poll, and Michigan won it. It didn’t officially count, but Michigan claimed a title all the same.

24. 2011 LSU (13-1)

In the year-end 2011 top-10 rankings, Alabama finished first, Oregon fourth and Arkansas fifth. LSU beat them all. The Tigers also beat No. 17 West Virginia and No. 19 Georgia by a combined 89-31. Florida, Auburn and Mississippi State all finished with seven-plus wins; LSU beat them by a combined 105-27. LSU was second in scoring defense thanks to one of the most raucous, fun secondaries in the history of the sport; cornerback Morris Claiborne was a unanimous All-American and “Honey Badger” Tyrann Mathieu a Heisman finalist.

In a BCS title game rematch against Alabama, however, the Tigers were utterly hopeless. They lost 21-0, gaining just 92 total yards. (The three-TD loss was generous, too — Bama settled for five field goals.) Still, LSU had maybe the best regular-season résumé to date and an offense that was better than its reputation. It was the most Les Miles team of the Les Miles era.

23. 1980 Florida State (10-2)

It didn’t take long for Bobby Bowden to create something pretty interesting after taking over in Tallahassee in 1976. Inheriting a program that had won just four games in three seasons, Bowden had the Seminoles 10-2 by his second year (1977) and 11-1 by his fourth.

Bowden’s “anyone, anywhere” approach to scheduling gave FSU some marquee opportunities in 1980, and the Seminoles mostly took advantage. They shut out LSU to start the season, then knocked off No. 3 Nebraska (18-14) and No. 4 Pitt (36-22) in back-to-back weekends in October. A defense led by All-Americans Ron Simmons, Reggie Herring and Bobby Butler allowed only 8.6 points per game, and the Noles’ only blemishes were forgivable (18-17 to No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl) and … the beginning of a pattern (10-9 at Miami).

22. 1987 Florida State (11-1)

After a mid-1980s funk, FSU emerged again as a contender in 1987. The Noles ranked second in scoring offense behind running back Sammie Smith, and the defense ranked seventh behind All-American linebacker Paul McGowan and some cornerback named Deion Sanders. FSU beat eventual Rose Bowl winner Michigan State and a nine-win Auburn by 28 points each on the road and took down a top-five Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl.

This was the best FSU team to date, but the Noles once again lost by one point to Miami — blowing an early 19-3 lead, falling behind on a 73-yard Michael Irvin touchdown, scoring to get within a point in the final minute and failing on a 2-point conversion. The Canes would win their second national title a couple of months later.

21. 1992 Florida State (11-1)

This was Year 6 of FSU’s run of 14 straight top-five finishes — honestly, maybe the most impressive sustained accomplishment in history — and the second time in that span that they finished second. Charlie Ward threw for 2,647 yards and rushed for 504, and all-world linebacker Marvin Jones patrolled on D. FSU beat four ranked-at-the-time teams on the road and finished the season with comfortable wins over Steve Spurrier’s Florida (45-24) and Tom Osborne’s Nebraska (27-14) teams.

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