Numerous sources have tried to pin down the best college football teams of all time. Obviously, almost any method of determining the relative strength of teams over the years entails subjective judgments, since teams can not play each other and because the quality of football changes over time via new strategy and tactics, new systems, new training methods, etc.
However, there is one fairly objective measure available of the relative strength of football teams which is fairly constant each season and which in recent years hovers around a median for all teams of about 5.4 to 5.5 yards per play on offense and the same amount defense, i.e. a net of zero. This statistic is NAYPPA – an acronym coined by Andis Kaulins – for the Net Average Yards Per Play Advantage, or, simply put, how many yards per play MORE did a team gain on offense the entire season than the yards per play which the defense allowed in that same football season. This shows the dominance of any team in a particular season of play.
This simple method, which can be tweaked for even more accuracy by meshing it with the strength of schedule, has over the past several football seasons proven superior to the polls and many other statistical methods used for judging the strength of a team.
When we view past national college football champions, NAYPPA immediately brings to the fore those very teams that others have ranked as great using other methods of comparison (W-L record, margin of victory and other statistical parameters, the number of All-Americans, the number of subsequent first round draft picks, the subsequent number of pro players, etc.)
The team most frequently ranked as the best team of all time is the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers team coached by Tom Osborne, who in the national championship game, held Florida to minus 28 yards rushing, had seven sacks, intercepted three passes and won 62-24, as second and third stringers finished up the game in the fourth quarter, as they did all season long. As noted at Huskerspot.com:
“The team Coach Tom Osborne fielded in 1995 is widely believed to be the best team in the history of college football.“
Take a look at that video above and you will see for yourself a superb brand of 2nd effort option football which you will see rarely today, 15 years later. The game has changed – or has it? Isn’t Florida’s Tim Tebow basically an option-type of run and pass quarterback?
ESPN fans in 2006 rated the 1995 Husker team the best college football team of all time, as Brady Wimer of Omaha wrote:
“People forget that the Big 8 had four teams finish in the final Top 10 (NU, KU, CU and KSU). Nebraska outscored those teams 134-49.
The Fiesta Bowl speaks for itself [Nebraska easily beat 2nd-ranked Florida State 62-24, a Seminole team that the next year won the national championship]…. The offense scored at will and the starting front four on defense were ALL first team All-Americans at one point or another in their careers.
…. It was the only team that Tom Osborne ever had that he said he would feel comfortable taking them anywhere in the country to play.
While national sentiments always seem to lay with the 1971 squad, if you ask around Nebraska, die hard Husker fans will tell you — “1995.”“
That same Number 1 rank was assigned to the unbeaten 1995 Husker team in 2005 by Sports Illustrated viz. CBS and Sagarin and in 2001 to the football program as a whole by scout.com. An amazing thirty-three of the players on the Husker’s 1995 roster went on to play professional or semi-pro football.
As can be seen below, two teams have minimally better NAYPPA stats than the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers team, which had a NAYPPA of 2.7.
Last year’s 2008 USC Trojans had the absolute best comparative yards per play stats with a NAYPPA of 3.0 for the entire season, but Southern Cal unfortunately lost one game, inexplicably, to unranked Oregon State, which takes this team out of the super team rankings.
The 1974 Oklahoma Sooners were marred by probation and were ineligible to play in a bowl game, but were definitely a great team.
Here are the NAYPPA stats and commentary:
- 3.0 NAYPPA – 6.6 yards per play on offense to 3.6 yards per play on defense
= USC Trojans 2008 season
In spite of these top ever NAYPPA stats, the 2008 football team lacked the headline names on offense and managed to lose a game early in the season to unranked Oregon State, which already had two losses. The stats of the 2008 team are substantially better than the undefeated 2004 USC team, which had a NAYPPA of only 2.0, but which will always be the more remembered team, in part because it beat Oklahoma 55-19 in the Orange Bowl. Arguably, the 2005 USC team, which had a NAYPPA of 2.3 (7.5 ypp on offense to 5.2 ypp on defense) was an even better team, but it lost to Texas 41-38 in the Rose Bowl.
- 2.8 NAYPPA – 6.2 yards per play on offense to 3.4 yards per play on defense (stats)
= Oklahoma Sooners 1974 season
Sooner Sports writes: “Only one opponent played the Sooners within 14 points and four failed to score a touchdown. At the same time, OU led the nation in scoring offense with an average of 43 points per game to finish the season as the only undefeated team in the country at 11-0.
Oklahoma was loaded with talent, evidenced by its eight All-Americans, the most of any season to that point. OU’s wishbone offense, triggered by RB Joe Washington, FB Seth Littrell and QB Steve Davis, averaged 73.9 rushing attempts per game, which still stands as an NCAA record.
Combined with a tough defense led by senior All-American Rod Shoate, a swift and punishing linebacker, and a defensive front comprised of Lee Roy and Dewey Selmon, and defensive end Jimbo Elrod, it’s easy to see why the Sooners were so highly regarded. “
- 2.7 NAYPPA– 7.2 yards per play on offense to 4.5 yards per play on defense
= Nebraska Cornhuskers 1995 season
(that stat does not include the 1996 Fiesta Bowl in which the Huskers netted 629 yards on 83 plays = 7.6 yards per play while Florida netted 271 yards on 59 plays = 4.6 yards per play for a NAYPPA of 3.0, that against the Nr. 2 team in the country. The Huskers punted once.)
As written at the Wikipedia:
“Due to their performance against Florida as well as beating 4 teams that finished in the top 10 by an average score of 49-18, their consistent dominance (smallest margin of victory was 14 points), their record setting offensive performance, and their statistically impressive defense throughout the season, the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers are widely considered one of the greatest teams in college football history. The team set Division 1-A records by averaging 7.0 yards per rushing attempt and also by allowing zero quarterback sacks on the season. Noted for its strong special teams play, the team also connected on 13 of 16 field goal attempts, and it also tied an NCAA record by allowing only five punt returns (for a total of 12 yards) all season. The 1995 Huskers also averaged a victory margin of more than 38 points, the largest of any Division 1-A team since World War II, despite regularly resting their starters in the second halves of games. Averaging more than 53 points per game (including the bowl win), the team averaged 29.8 points per first half – a higher number than the per-game scoring average of many national champions, even including such modern champions as the 2006 Florida Gators, the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes, and the 1992 Alabama Crimson Tide. Analysts often make comparisons to other recent highly-regarded champions, such as the 2001 Miami Hurricanes and the 2004 USC Trojans. Such comparisons, as noted by the experts themselves, are nearly impossible to make, as rankings vary from evaluation to evaluation. The 1994 and 1995 Nebraska teams, which went a combined 25-0, remain the only undefeated – as well as the only consensus – back-to-back national champions since Oklahoma in 1955 and 1956.“
- 2.7 NAYPPA – 6.6 yards per play on offense to 3.9 yards per play on defense
= Miami Hurricanes 2001 season (2.8 NAYPPA with the Rose Bowl)
Michael Lemaire at bleacher report calls the 2001 ‘Canes, who beat Nebraska in the BCS title game, 37-14, “the best ever“. That Solich team was 7-7 the next season. Mark Albracht at Associated Content Sports states that “Miami scored 512 total points in 12 games for an average of 42 points per game while they only relinquished 117 for an average of 9 points per game.” The 1995 Huskers averaged 53 points per game. Ed Talerico at SEC Sports Fan writes: “In my opinion, the 2001 Miami Hurricanes were the greatest college football team of all time. One may argue this, of course, but I don’t know if one can argue against them being the most talented squad ever.“
- 2.7 NAYPPA – 7.1 yards per play on offense to 4.4 yards per play on defense
= Tennessee Volunteers 1998 season
- 2.6 NAYPPA – 7.1 yards per play on offense to 4.5 yards per play on defense
= Florida Gators 2008 season
- 2.3 NAYPPA – 7.5 yards per play on offense to 5.2 yards per play on defense
= USC Trojans 2005 season
- 2.3 NAYPPA – 6.4 yards per play on offense to 4.1 yards per play on defense
= Nebraska Cornhuskers 1994 season
Some analysts also tout the undefeated 1994 Penn State Nittany Lions team, which finished second in the polls, but we have been unable to find cumulative season stats with yards per play on offense and defense for that team. The 1994 Nittany Lions team was very strong on offense but gave up 383 yards per game on defense and is unlikely to have better stats than Nebraska, but it would be interesting to compare their NAYPPA. Brian Epstein at the Daily Collegian Online wrote: “In their 45-17 skinning of the Northwestern Wildcats, the Nittany Lions controlled the ball for only 18:23, ran 13 fewer offensive plays and were outgained 475 to 341 in total yardage.“
- 2.3 NAYPPA – 6.6 yards per play on offense to 4.3 yards per play on defense
= Nebraska Cornhuskers 1997 season
(The University of Michigan disputed this national championship of Nebraska, but in spite of a Michigan grad in my family, the stats give a clear decision when we view Michigan’s
1.5 NAYPPA on 5.2 yards per play on offense to 3.7 yards per play on defense
= University of Michigan 1997 season)
- 2.3 NAYPPA – 7.2 yards per play on offense to 4.9 yards per play on defense
= Nebraska Cornhuskers 1983 season
- 2.2 NAYPPA – 5.4 yards per play on offense to 3.2 yards per play on defense
= Nebraska Cornhuskers 1971 season
The amazing thing about the 1971 team was their top-ranking defense with Rich Glover, but the offense is remembered for Johnny Rodgers. The defense was so good that it achieved a school record +26 turnovers. Nebraska beat Oklahoma in the “Game of the Century” on Thanksgiving Day, 35-31. This team also beat Bear Bryant’s undefeated Alabama Crimson Tide team 38-6 in the Orange Bowl. Except for the 4-point win over the Sooners, the next closest game was a 24-point win over Colorado, 31-7. For both Oklahoma and the Buffaloes, those were their only season losses and the three teams ended the season ranked 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the nation.
- 2.0 NAYPPA – 6.3 yards per play on offense to 4.3 yards per play on defense
= Florida Gators 2006 season
- 2.0 NAYPPA – 6.3 yards per play on offense to 4.3 yards per play on defense
= USC Trojans 2004 season
- 1.9 NAYPPA – 5.9 yards per play on offense to 4.0 yards per play on defense
= LSU Tigers 2003 season, champions coached by Nick Saban
- 1.8 NAYPPA – 5.0 yards per play on offense to 3.2 yards per play on defense
= Alabama Crimson Tide 1992 season
- 1.6 NAYPPA – 5.8 yards per play on offense to 4.2 yards per play on defense
= Oklahoma Sooners 2000 season
- 1.4 NAYPPA – 5.8 yards per play on offense to 4.4 yards per play on defense
= LSU Tigers 2007 season
There is no question that the Tigers were a very strong defensive team, but it is safe to say that this national championship was a partial BCS gift by the pollsters. LSU had already lost two games and were elevated into the national championship game above other teams by extremely irregular voting at the ballot box. West Virginia, Oklahoma and USC had legitimate claims to be better teams in 2007, but were eliminated from the championship game by football politics.
- 1.1 NAYPPA – 5.9 yards per play on offense to 4.8 yards per play on defense
= Florida State Seminoles 1999 season
It takes great coaching to lead a team with this kind of limited relative dominance to the national title.
- 0.9 NAYPPA – 5.6 yards per play on offense to 4.7 yards per play on defense
= Ohio State Buckeyes 2002 season
This national championship shows that it is defense and superb coaching that is critical to winning, not necessarily football dominance over the opponent.
Closing Remark on NAYPPA in the 2009 Season
Not yet quite halfway through the 2009 season, based on cfbstats.com, the Florida Gators through four games rank not only first in the nation with 7.7 yards per play gained on offense but also first in the nation with 3.4 yards per play allowed on defense, with the proviso that according to the Massey Ratings they have thus far played the 81st most difficult schedule in the country. That is coaching! Hats off to Urban Meyer and his staff, and of course to the players. It will be interesting to see how Florida fares the rest of the season, especially in view of the Tim Tebow injury.