While college football is dedicated to trying to find the best team at the end of every season, there’s a fair amount of randomness involved. The vast majority of teams only play a dozen games, schedules are wildly unbalanced, injuries are prevalent, and there are plenty of other factors at play as well.
Some teams are undeniably great. This year’s LSU team dominated all the way to the national championship game. The 2001 Miami Hurricanes are the powerhouse often cited as the greatest of all time; few teams that year could really challenge them.
Other seasons, there are phenomenal teams who slip up once, or never really get a realistic chance to compete for a title. As the College Football Playoff potentially expands, more worthy teams will hopefully get their chances. Throughout the sport’s history though, that hasn’t always been the case.
ESPN‘s Bill Connelly took a look at these best non-champions in college football history. He says he used his SP+ metric, which measures team efficiency, as a starting point, but took creative license from there. His answer for the No. 1 team that didn’t win a title dating back to the start of the AP Poll in 1935: 1959 Ole Miss.
College football is the ultimate small-sample sport. That means 2 things:
1. The best team often doesn't win the title.
2. The Best Non-Title Teams Ever list is awfully impressive.
Let's look at that list, eh?https://t.co/1NFnKdVOex
— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) May 26, 2020
1959 was one of the years where college football had two all-time great teams. Ole Miss is a worthy national championship club, but so is the team that finished atop the polls that year: Syracuse, led by eventual Heisman winner Ernie Davis.
How good was this Ole Miss team? The Rebels gave up 21 points all year — three touchdowns off 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.
As Connelly notes, Ole Miss claims a title as well, as Jeff Sagarin and Dick Dunkel’s computer ranking systems retrospectively have that Rebels team as the best in college football that year.
Unfortunately, because of the stunning loss to LSU recapped above, and because the bowl system did not seek to match up the best two teams back at that point in college football history, we never got to see those legendary teams from North and South clash.
Connelly previously ranked the best college football teams ever based on SP+. 1959 Ole Miss came in at No. 2, despite going 10-1, behind only the legendary 1945 Army team. ’59 Syracuse came in ranked No. 8 all-time. The historic debate between the Rebels and Orangemen is definitely one of the best in college football history.