Last Sunday marked the 6-month anniversary of the Tigers' historic 44-16 trouncing of Alabama, and tonight that 2018 Clemson team is up for the Best Team ESPY against several of the past year's other champions in major sports. In my opinion, the Tigers are a slam dunk for this ESPY, and there hasn't been nearly enough discussion about whether that 2018 Clemson team is the greatest college football team of all time. There was certainly plenty of chatter and pontification about whether Alabama had the greatest team of all time at 14-0 and heading into the championship. Yet everyone in the national media seemed oblivious to the fact that Clemson was also 14-0 and even more dominant than Alabama had been. After all, the Tigers' differential in yards gained was higher, and the Tigers--not the Tide--were the only team ranked in the top 10 for both offense and defense. So after the Tigers trampled the would-be greatest team in history by 28 points--the largest margin of defeat ever for a Saban-coached Alabama team--one would expect the attention to shift to Clemson as the presumptive greatest team ever. However, outside of the Clemson community that didn't seem to happen. So let's take a deeper look into the record-setting 2018 Clemson team and some of the great teams of the past.
The Tigers finished the season like Secretariat coming down the stretch at the Belmont, leaving the competition further and further in their dust. They beat undefeated Notre Dame by 27 points and the aforementioned undefeated Alabama by 28 points. The fact that these are the two most storied programs in college football history just adds more luster and intrigue to the magnificence of the 2018 Clemson team. Those two teams scored just 19 points combined against the Tigers and were outscored 74-19. But that level of domination was nothing new for the Tigers, who won 13 of their 15 games by 20 points or more. Of the two they didn't, one was the second game of the season, on the road, at night, in the rain, in front of 100,000 College GameDay fans when the Tigers were still splitting time between quarterbacks. And the Tigers had a couple opportunities to break that game open and win by 3 scores but made some mistakes, like a fumbled snap on the goal line and a few dropped interceptions. The other game, of course, was when Trevor Lawrence went down in the first half and they had to play with 3rd string QB Chase Brice. So they were remarkably close to winning all 15 games by 20 points or more. Both of those opponents, incidentally, finished the season ranked in the top 16. For all intents and purposes, 2018 Clemson is the only team ever to go 15-0. Let's face it: 1897 University of Pennsylvania just doesn't count. The Tigers finished the season ranked #1 in scoring defense, #4 in scoring offense, #3 in total offense and #5 in total defense. Rarely, if ever, will you find a team that dominant on both sides of the ball. By comparison, the Alabama team about which many were speculating as the greatest team ever finished #16 in total defense and #12 in scoring defense.
We know that none of the other great teams in history went 15-0, but let's look at some of the possible contenders for "Greatest Team Ever." Most of the teams I will examine are from the recent past because if you go too far, it really becomes an apples-to-oranges comparison. For example, the 1901 Michigan team outscored opponents 555-0, but I put them in the same category as the 1897 Penn team that went 15-0. It simply wasn't the same sport back then, and "competition" was a loose term. There was also Bear Bryant's 1961 Alabama team that finished 11-0, holding opponents to just 25 combined points all season, but I'm quite certain that if you put them on the field with 2018 Clemson, the Tigers would annihilate them--even more so than 44-16. That Alabama team also played 4 less games and only had to beat No.9 Arkansas in its bowl game to win the national title. Here are some of the greatest teams over the last 30 years. Incidentally, you could easily count the 1981 Clemson National Championship team among them. That team, after all, went a perfect 12-0 and beat three top-10 teams, including No.4 Georgia and No.4 Nebraska.
The 1986 Miami team lost a national championship with a stunning Orange Bowl loss to Penn State the prior year, but in what would be Jimmy Johnson's final season as the Canes' head coach, Michael Irvin, Randy Shannon, Russell Maryland and the Blades brothers went 12-0, capped by a 20-14 win over No.1 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. The Canes beat 5 top-10 teams and a 20th-ranked Florida team that season. 7 of their wins were by 20 points or more, but average margin of victory was 24 points. Steve Walsh was a very good college quarterback, but certainly not one of the all-time greats.
Dabo Swinney was a senior walk-on WR on Gene Stallings's team that won the inaugural SEC Championship Game and went a perfect 13-0. The Tide beat 4 ranked teams but just one in the top 10, and that was No.1 Miami in the Sugar Bowl. Incidentally, if Dabo can take Clemson back to the National Championship Game, he will have a chance to win another title in the Super Dome in New Orleans. Alabama had a stellar defense, pitching 3 shutouts and allowing under 10 points per game, but they only won by an average of 19 points per game with 5 wins by 20 points or more.
After going 11-1 in 1993, losing only to Heisman Charlie Ward and National Champion Florida State, Tom Osborne's 1994 Nebraska team went 13-0 with QB Tommie Frazier running its patented option offense. The Huskers beat 5 ranked teams, including No.2 Colorado and No.3 Miami in the Orange Bowl, 24-17. Nebraska won 7 of its games by 20 or more points with a 23-point average margin of victory.
Tommie Frazier and Lawrence Phillips were back for a repeat national title, this time with freshman Ahman Green to help them run the I-formation and option offense. The Huskers were even more dominant than the year before, and this might have been the team most widely regarded as the best all time before last season. The Huskers went 12-0, winning 11 games by 20 points or more with 2 shutouts. They beat 4 ranked teams--all in the top 10--including a 62-24 blowout over No.2 Florida in the Fiesta Bowl, the year before the Gators would win Steve Spurrier's only national title. The Huskers' average margin of victory was 39 points.
1999 Florida State
Heisman winner Chris Weinke, Peter Warrick, Travis Minor, Anquan Boldin and company went 12-0, beating Michael Vick and No.2 Virginia Tech 46-29 in the BCS National Championship. Ironically, the Noles' closest game of the season was the first-ever Bowden Bowl at ACC rival Clemson. It was Tommy Bowden's first year as Clemson Head Coach and the first-ever meeting between father an son as opposing FBS head coaches. The Tigers missed a field goal at the end of the game, and FSU escaped Death Valley with a 17-14 win. The Seminoles beat 5 top-20 teams, including 3 in the top 10. Their average margin of victory was 21 points, and 7 of their 12 wins were by 20 points or more.
The 2000 Hurricanes felt like they were robbed of their shot at a national title after finishing the regular season 10-1, losing only the opener at No.15 Washington. They beat FSU head-to-head and were ranked No.2 in both human polls, but the BCS computers ranked FSU No.2 at the end of the regular season, and the Seminoles went on to lose badly to Oklahoma in the National Championship. Meanwhile, Miami throttled Steve Spurrier and No.7 Florida 37-20 in the Sugar Bowl. With that chip on their shoulder, the talent-laden 2001 Canes went 12-0 led by QB Ken Dorsey, Willis McGahee, Ed Reed, Jeremy Shockey, Andre Johnson and Jonathan Vilma. They beat 5 ranked teams--4 consecutive to finish the season--including a 34-17 win over No.2 Nebraska in the National Championship. This was one of the most dominant teams of all time, winning by an average of 33 points with 3 shutouts and allowing just 9.75 points per game. 10 of their 12 wins were by 20 points or more, but they only won 18-7 over an unranked BC team and 26-24 at No.14 Virginia Tech in their final regular season game.
This team will forever have the blemish of vacated wins due to the Reggie Bush scandal, but on the field it was one of the most formidable of all time. The Trojans, led by two Heisman winners, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, along with LenDale White, Steve Smith, Dwayne Jarrett and Fred Davis, went 13-0. They started the season with a 24-13 win over Virginia Tech and only beat 3 ranked teams, but their emphatic 55-17 win over No.2 Oklahoma was the biggest blowout in National Championship Game history. The Trojans' average margin of victory was 25 points, and 8 of their 13 wins were by 20 points or more. They had close wins over 4 unranked teams, including 29-24 at UCLA, 28-20 at Oregon State and 31-28 at Stanford.
Vince Young and company, of course, beat Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and No.1 USC 41-38 in arguably the greatest college football game of all time at the Rose Bowl for the National Championship. Young was runner-up to Bush in the Heisman voting, and Matt Leinart had won the Heisman the year before, but Young would have the last laugh. Texas beat 3 top-10 teams along the way and a No.24 Colorado team 42-17. The Longhorns beat No.10 Texas Tech 52-17 in the middle of the season but barely escaped Columbus early in the season with a 25-22 win at Ohio State. Texas had one of the most prolific offenses of all time, averaging over 50 points per game. The Longhorns' defense wasn't shabby either, allowing just over 16.4 points per game. By comparison, 2018 Clemson scored 44.3 points per game and allowed 13 points per game. The Longhorns won 11 of their 13 games by 20 points or more. Aside from the 25-22 road win at No.4 Ohio State, their only close game was a 40-29 win at rival Texas A&M.
This was Nick Saban's first national championship team at Alabama, led by QB Greg McElroy, Julio Jones, Terrence Cody and RB Mark Ingram, who stole the Heisman from C.J. Spiller that year. Amazingly, it was Saban's only undefeated team at Alabama, which shows how difficult that is historically to go 12, 13 or 14-0, let alone 15-0. The Tide opened the season by beating No.7 Virginia Tech 34-24 in Atlanta. In all, the Tide beat 6 ranked teams, including 4 in the top 10, capped with a 37-21 win over No.2 Texas in the Rose Bowl for the BCS National Championship.However, if Texas QB Colt McCoy hadn't been knocked out of the game early, it likely would have been much closer and perhaps Texas would have won.
2013 Florida State
Led by redshirt freshman Heisman winner Jameis Winston, the Noles went 14-0 en route to their third National Championship, and this might be the closest challenger to 2018 Clemson in terms of dominant wins. Ironically, this FSU team handed Dabo Swinney the worst loss in his career, a 51-14 beat down in Death Valley at night against his No.3 ranked Clemson team that had beaten a top-10 Georgia team earlier in the season. The Seminoles beat 6 ranked teams in all--3 in the top 10--but had to come from behind to beat No.2 Auburn 34-31 in the last BCS National Championship Game, scoring the game-winning touchdown with 13 seconds left. This might have been the most prolific offense in history, scoring 51.6 points per game. The Seminoles' average margin of victory was an astounding 39.5 points, and they won 12 of their 14 games by 20 points or more.
After conducting this analysis, it is very difficult to dispute that 2018 Clemson was the greatest college football team of all time. The closest teams in terms of dominance, wins over ranked teams and balance on both sides of the ball are probably 2013 FSU and 2005 Texas and 1995 Nebraska, but even their records are not as impressive as the Tigers' in my opinion. Again, the Tigers won 13 games by 20 points or more in their record-setting 15-0 season, and there were extenuating circumstances for both close games. What is more impressive than the Tigers' 31-point average margin of victory is the way they finished, winning the ACC Championship, CFP Semifinal and National Championship by a combined score of 116-29, including 4-touchdown wins over No.3 Notre Dame and No.1 Alabama. And let's not forget that NFL first-rounder Dexter Lawrence didn't even play in the College Football Playoff wins over Notre Dame and Alabama. Furthermore, Trevor Lawrence was just the second true freshman quarterback in history to lead his team to a national title, and it makes sense that he would be stronger at the end of the season. If the Tigers played those games against Syracuse and Texas A&M over again at the end of the season? I think you could expect two more blowouts.
The Tigers finished the 2018 season with 10 straight wins by 20 points or more, which is tied with 2002 Boise State for the second-longest streak in FBS history. Ironically, the longest streak is 12 games, held by the 2018 Alabama team that Clemson beat by 28 points. If the Tigers can win their first two games of 2019 against Georgia Tech and Texas A&M--both in Death Valley--by 20 points or more, they will have a chance to set a new record at Syracuse in the third week of the season.
Football season officially kicks off with Clemson Media Day on Tuesday, followed by ACC Media Day on Wednesday, so stay tuned!