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.
For the third time in six years, though, the Seminoles’ lone blemish came against The U, and for the second year in a row, it came via a field goal missed wide right. Dan Mowrey’s 39-yarder at the buzzer failed, and once again Miami took FSU’s spot in the national title hierarchy, at least until the Canes lost to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
The Noles would finally break through and win a title the next season.
20. 1958 Oklahoma (10-1)
OU’s famed 47-game winning streak finally came to an end late in the 1957 season, but Bud Wilkinson’s team kept playing at an absurd level for another year. The ’58 Sooners outscored six Big 7 opponents (Oklahoma State would join to make it the Big 8 two years later) by an average score of 34-3 and, in the Orange Bowl, manhandled a Syracuse team on the doorstep of greatness. The 1959 Syracuse team is one of the best ever.
Unbeaten LSU won the national title that year, however, because of another key rivalry upset: Texas knocked off the Sooners 15-14 in Dallas in early October. The Longhorns stopped four OU drives inside their 25-yard line, and a Bobby Lackey-to-Bob Bryant jump pass provided the game-winning points. It was OU’s first loss in the series in seven years; the Sooners wouldn’t win another one until 1966.
19. 1945 Navy (7-1-1)
The 1945 season, which began as World War II was coming to a close, was dominated by an Army team that has a strong claim to Greatest Team Ever status. That’s unfortunate for a Navy team that was excellent in its own right. The Midshipmen tied Notre Dame 6-6 in Cleveland; gave Army a better fight than anyone else on the schedule, losing 32-13; and laid waste to the rest of their schedule, beating everyone else by an average of 48-4.
Cmdr. Oscar Hagberg’s second and final Navy squad was led by College Football Hall of Famers Dick Duden and Clyde Scott and plowed through a tough slate. Michigan finished the year ranked sixth, Penn eighth and Duke 13th; Navy beat them by a combined 68-14. This was a tremendous team overshadowed by an all-time great.
18. 1976 Michigan (10-2)
In 1976, Bo Schembechler’s Wolverines found an overall level of domination you rarely see. They ranked second in scoring defense (7.9 points per game), which wasn’t particularly abnormal, but they also ranked first in scoring offense (36.0).
Rob Lytle and Harlan Huckleby combined to rush for 2,381 yards, often behind All-American guards Mark Donahue and Bill Dufek. The Wolverines spent most of the season at No. 1 and embarrassed Ohio State 22-0 in Columbus. But they suffered a shocking 16-14 loss to Purdue in early November, and, with unbeaten Pitt having locked up the national title with a win early on New Year’s Day, they gave up a late Charles White touchdown and fell to USC in the Rose Bowl. (For all of his incredible accomplishments at UM — 194 wins, shares of 13 Big Ten titles — Schembechler was just 2-8 in the Rose Bowl.)
17. 1940 Tennessee (10-1)
Gen. Robert Neyland’s Volunteers claimed a share of the 1938 national title (the AP gave it to TCU), then famously pitched a shutout for the entire 1939 regular season. The 1940 team was slightly more mortal defensively (it allowed 45 points for the season … the shame) but made up for that with offensive firepower.
Powered by an absurd line — college football Hall of Famers Bob Suffridge and Ed Molinski lined up at guard, All-American Abe Shires at tackle — Tennessee ranked third in the nation in scoring offense and second in scoring defense, outscoring opponents 319-26 in a third consecutive 10-0 regular season. The Vols won every game by at least 13 points before slipping up in a bowl for the second straight year: Boston College, coached by Frank Leahy (who would soon leave for Notre Dame), scored late to defeat them 19-13 in the Sugar Bowl.
16. 1972 Oklahoma (11-1)
After pairing an all-time offense with a good defense in 1971, Chuck Fairbanks’ 1972 Sooners flipped that around: Their offense remained at a top-10 level, but the defense, led by All-American linemen Lucious Selmon and Derland Moore, allowed just 6.2 points per game. They not only held Nebraska to 14 points in a Game of the Century rematch, but also shut out 10-win Texas and Penn State squads. The offense dealt with the loss of all-world quarterback Jack Mildren with even ball distribution and solid ball control.
They missed Mildren only once. OU beat six ranked teams by an average of 15 points but fell to a seventh in Boulder. A second-half charge gave host Colorado a 20-7 lead in the fourth quarter, and while the Sooners scored and recovered a late onside kick, they couldn’t punch the ball in.
15. 2005 USC (12-1)
After winning or sharing the past two national titles, the 2005 USC team looked like Pete Carroll’s best team yet. The Trojans were a bit looser than normal on defense, but with quarterback Matt Leinart, RBs Reggie Bush and LenDale White and receivers Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, the offense averaged 50 points per game during the regular season. If the team got the upper hand on the defense, the offense picked up slack.
The offense needed about one more yard, though. With a chance to move the chains and run out the clock in a classic BCS Championship against Texas, USC failed on a fourth-and-2 attempt near midfield — White came up short with Bush on the bench — and then got Vince Young’d. The Texas star scored with 19 seconds left, the Longhorns won 41-38 and USC was relegated to this list instead of a Best Teams Ever compilation.
14. 2008 USC (12-1)
Carroll’s last title came in 2004, but don’t mistake that for a downward slide. USC’s 2007 and 2008 teams ended up first in SP+, but each team suffered a crippling upset loss — a 24-23 stunner against Stanford in 2007 and a classic Thursday night loss to Oregon State in Corvallis early in 2008. If a CFP had existed at the time, the Trojans might have benefited more than anyone.
This legitimately might have been the best team of the Carroll era. USC beat Notre Dame by 35, UCLA by 21 and Cal by 14. Taylor Mays, Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing led a nearly perfect defense: USC allowed more than 10 points just three times. The Trojans played three teams that finished with nine-plus wins and beat them by a combined 117-37. All of this made the Oregon State loss memorable, but don’t forget how absurd this team was.
13. 2008 Texas (12-1)
The 2008 season produced one of the most perfectly framed arguments of the BCS era. Texas beat Oklahoma 45-35, beat an excellent Oklahoma State team and won nine other games by an average of 47-14. But they lost an all-time thriller to Mike Leach’s Texas Tech, and when OU obliterated that Tech team a few weeks later, it gave the Sooners the smallest of BCS formula edges. The two teams were almost perfect equals that year — a best-of-seven series between them would seemingly go the distance every time — but only one could advance, and it wasn’t the Horns.
So be it. But this team was dynamite. Colt McCoy completed 77% of his passes, Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley combined for 2,183 receiving yards and Brian Orakpo spearheaded an opportunistic defense. The Horns would make the national title game the next year, but this was the better team.
12. 2016 Alabama (14-1)
In 2016, Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide nearly went wire-to-wire for the national title despite 10 ranked opponents and a true freshman quarterback. With Jalen Hurts behind center, Bama beat eventual Rose Bowl champion USC by 46, beat ranked Ole Miss and Arkansas on the road, then pummeled top-10-at-the-time Tennessee and Texas A&M by a combined 82-24. The Tide hung 54 points on Florida in the SEC title game, too. Two years earlier, Saban had hired Lane Kiffin to modernize his offense; this was the realized vision.
Unfortunately, the Tide peaked early and still had to deal with the best Clemson team of all time. Bama eased by Washington 26-7 in the Peach Bowl CFP semifinal, but Clemson corralled Hurts, played keep-away, wore the Bama defense out and prevented the Tide from winning their fifth title in seven years with a Deshaun Watson-to-Hunter Renfrow touchdown in the dying seconds.
11. 1966 Alabama (11-0)
Books have been written about why voters chose a blemished Notre Dame team — one that famously tied fellow unbeaten Michigan State 10-10 — over an unbeaten Alabama. It is something older Bama fans will never totally get over.
What’s sometimes lost in the discussion is how good that Bama team was. The Tide scored their most points in 14 years and allowed their fewest in four. They beat John Vaught’s still-formidable Ole Miss by 10 in Jackson, survived a brutal trip to Tennessee and manhandled three other opponents that finished with winning records by a combined 81-0. Tackle Cecil Dowdy and end Ray Perkins were consensus All-Americans, and future NFL Hall of Famer Ken Stabler was at quarterback (though he wasn’t asked to do much). On paper, this team was better than both the 1964 and 1965 teams that the AP voted No. 1.
10. 1986 Miami (11-1)
Miami came out of nowhere to win the 1983 national title, but this was the Hurricanes’ first truly great team. The offense featured Heisman winner Vinny Testaverde throwing to Michael Irvin, Brett Perriman and Brian Blades. The defense boasted Bennie Blades and Bubba McDowell in the secondary and dual All-Americans Jerome Brown and Dan Sileo at tackle.
Miami moved to No. 1 after a startlingly easy 28-16 win over top-ranked Oklahoma and dominated teams such as Florida State and West Virginia. This wasn’t the most challenging schedule, but they rolled. Until the Fiesta Bowl. In that famous 1987 Fiesta Bowl, the Hurricanes outgained No. 2 Penn State by a ridiculous 445-162 margin, but they somehow turned the ball over seven times when six would have probably provided a victory. Instead of going down as one of the greatest teams ever, they became vanquished villains, instead.
9. 1994 Penn State (12-0)
Before the days of the BCS and, eventually, CFP, pollsters often had a way ensuring split national titles occurred when multiple teams were equally deserving. If the AP voted one way, the coaches’ poll often went the other. It never quite worked out for Penn State, though. In 1969 and 1994, they went a combined 23-0 and got no ring.
The 1994 team was better than either of Joe Paterno’s national champs (1982, 1986). With All-Americans at quarterback (Kerry Collins), running back (Ki-Jana Carter), receiver (Bobby Engram), tight end (Kyle Brady) and on the line (Jeff Hartings), this was easily the best offense in school history. PSU beat a top-15 USC team by 24 points in a nonconference contest, survived a 31-24 classic at Michigan and beat two other ranked teams (Ohio State and Oregon) by a combined 101-34. But Nebraska stayed ahead in both polls.
8. 2018 Alabama (14-1)
Nick Saban has won five national titles at Alabama, but you could make the case that his two best teams (2016 and 2018) didn’t. With 2017 national title game hero Tua Tagovailoa at QB, the Tide outscored their first eight opponents by an average of 54-16, then shut out two great defensive teams (LSU and Mississippi State). They rolled to a nearly unchallenged 12-0 season.
Tagovailoa got hurt against Georgia in the SEC title game, but 2016-17 starter Jalen Hurts led an unlikely comeback for a 35-28 win. The Tide rolled through Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and headed to the third Bama-Clemson national title game in four years as a solid favorite. Then they blew an abundance of scoring chances, attempted the worst fake field goal of all time, threw a pick-six and got their doors blown off 44-16. That’ll knock you down the list a bit.
7. 1973 Ohio State (10-0-1)
Here’s what we remember about the 1973 Buckeyes: the tie. Woody Hayes’ squad drew 10-10 with Bo Schembechler’s Michigan, and because both teams finished with the same conference record, Big Ten ADs voted on who to send to the Rose Bowl. Because of some combination of injury (Wolverines QB Dennis Franklin broke his collarbone in the final minutes) and Michigan resentment (a theory forever espoused by Schembechler), they chose the Buckeyes.
Here’s what we sometimes forget: This might have been Hayes’ best team. Archie Griffin rushed for 1,577 yards, and a defense driven by linebacker Randy Gradishar and end Van DeCree held opponents under six points per game. The Buckeyes pummeled USC 42-21 in the Rose Bowl, too. The tie in Ann Arbor dropped Ohio State from the No. 1 spot in the AP poll, however, and assured them a spot on this list instead.
6. 1971 Oklahoma (11-1)
Chuck Fairbanks had gone just 20-12-1 over the previous seasons at Oklahoma, and under the assumption that he was in a bit of a win-now situation in Norman, he sent offensive coordinator Barry Switzer to Austin to learn the Bone from rival Texas. UT head coach Darrell K Royal, far too nice a guy, obliged. Fairbanks showed his appreciation by hanging 48 on the Horns that fall.
The 1971 Sooners will forever be known as the vanquished team in 1971’s Game of the Century against Nebraska. But in their other 11 games, the Sooners outscored opponents by an average of 46-17. They beat top-10 Colorado, Auburn and Texas teams by a combined 67. Jack Mildren set a QB rushing record, and Greg Pruitt romped to nearly 1,800 yards. The only team in the country capable of taking the Sooners down happened to be their chief rival.
5. 2019 Ohio State (13-1)
Ryan Day’s first Ohio State squad is remembered mostly for its final game, a brilliant, somewhat controversial 29-23 loss to Clemson in the CFP semifinals. Between that and LSU’s late-season brilliance, that could lead us to forget how incredible this team was.
In a 13-0 regular season, Ohio State played eight teams that would finish with eight-plus wins but averaged a 49-13 win. Only two opponents stayed within 24 points, none within single digits. J.K. Dobbins rushed for 2,000 yards; Justin Fields threw 41 touchdown passes (with only three INTs); guard Wyatt Davis was a consensus All-American; and a Buckeyes defense with three 2020 first-round picks was first in the nation in sacks, tackles for loss and passer rating allowed. Day’s Ohio State tenure started by fielding maybe the best ever Ohio State team. The only way to top that is by winning the title.
4. 1983 Nebraska (12-1)
After coming tantalizingly close to national titles in 1978, 1979, 1980 and 1982, Tom Osborne’s 1983 team was fully weaponized. The Huskers destroyed No. 4 Penn State in the Kickoff Classic and didn’t ever let off the throttle. Minnesota fell 84-13. Syracuse, 63-7. Colorado, 69-19. Iowa State, 72-29. Kansas, 67-13. Mike Rozier won the Heisman with 2,148 rushing yards, Turner Gill (fourth in Heisman voting) piloted the option perfectly and the offense also fielded the top two players in the 1984 NFL draft (receiver Irving Fryar and Outland and Lombardi award winner Dean Steinkuhler).
Nebraska just had to beat upstart Miami in the Orange Bowl to secure Osborne’s elusive first title. It would remain elusive for another 11 years. Miami famously kick-started a sudden dynasty by surging to a 31-17 lead in the second half, watching it fritter away and stopping a last-minute two-point conversion to win 31-30.
3. 1987 Oklahoma (11-1)
2. 1986 Oklahoma (11-1)
There are quite a few “would’ve been champs if not for Miami” teams on this list. Here are two more. After attempting to implement more of a pro-style attack for local hero and star recruit Troy Aikman — in the mid-1980s, an I-formation run game was at least reasonably considered pro-style — Barry Switzer remarried the wishbone when Aikman broke his ankle and was replaced by freshman option whiz Jamelle Holieway. It worked pretty well.
Over the 1985, 1986 and 1987 seasons, Oklahoma went 33-3. The Sooners beat Texas three times by an average of 35-9 and won 21 straight Big 8 games by an average of 40-6. They beat Penn State to win the 1985 national title and came awfully close to titles in 1986 and 1987. These three teams produced eight consensus All-Americans, and 11 others won All-American honors. And for all the attention the offense got, the defenses were maybe the best of the 1980s. With as many good teams as OU has had, SP+ ranks the 1986 and 1987 versions third and fourth, behind only the 1956 and 1974 title teams.
The three teams they lost to, however: Miami, Miami and Miami. The Hurricanes contained the option with relentless speed, and their pro-style offense scored at least 20 points in all three matchups. (None of the other 33 opponents topped 17.) This should have been Switzer’s second dynasty, but one team — led by a former Oklahoma State head coach (Jimmy Johnson), no less — derailed it. And by 1988, the NCAA was closing in. Facing sanctions, Switzer resigned before the 1989 season. And because everything ties together somehow, he eventually succeeded Johnson as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys … and won a Super Bowl with Aikman.
1. 1959 Ole Miss (10-1)
When Ole Miss lost to LSU by a 10-7 score in 1961, the Shreveport Times headline read, “Tigers Upset Ole Miss To Maintain Four-Year Jinx.” Ole Miss went 38-5-1 from 1958 to 1961 — 0-3-1 against LSU and 38-2 against everyone else. This list is full of teams that lost the one game they couldn’t, often to the team they hated losing to the most. It’s fitting, then, that a “jinxed” team leads the way.
How good was this Ole Miss team? The Rebels gave up 21 points all year — three touchdowns off of either special teams or a turnover. No one scored on a drive of double-digit plays all season. The Rebels also averaged 31.8 points per game, third in the country. My historical SP+ ratings rank this team the third best of the 20th century. LSU needed multiple red zone stands and maybe the greatest punt return of all time to win 7-3 in Baton Rouge. Ole Miss got its revenge with a 21-0 win in the Sugar Bowl, but the damage was done. Syracuse won the national title, and Johnny Vaught’s Rebels were left to secure the Best Team Not To Win It All crown.
(This being college football, however, they still claim the title because the Sagarin and Dunkel computers retrospectively ranked them No. 1. AP and UPI voters disagreed.)