Four Horsemen, wishbone Texas and warship Bama: Stacking college football’s 30 influential teams

Sports

We all have our own opinions regarding the best college football teams of all time. Maybe you’re a 2001 Miami person. Maybe you prefer 2005 Texas or 1995 Nebraska, or maybe you’d rather go with another Nebraska vintage, the 1971 version. Maybe you’re like Beano Cook, forever spreading the gospel of 1947 Notre Dame. Maybe you were hypnotized by the coolness of Joe Burreaux and 2019 LSU. Maybe you think the best of the Nick Saban Alabama teams — 2011? 2012? 2020? — deserves the honors. Maybe you’re like me, a 1945 Army hipster.

The greatest teams don’t always make the greatest impact on the sport, however. For more than a century, college football’s evolution has been driven by teams both big and small and by coaches both massively and only moderately successful.

This list is an attempt to celebrate the influencers — both the Nick Sabans and the Mouse Davises, both the LSUs and the Gramblings. It is a list of the 30 most influential teams in college football history. (We’ll talk about the first 15 today and the next 15 tomorrow.) You can make this list in a lot of different ways. Maybe you spurred major innovation. Maybe your team came to define the peak of a certain era. Maybe you made an impact both through greatness and cultural or social impact. Maybe you were just cool as hell. Regardless, here are 30 teams that made a particularly indelible mark on the sport.

Head coach: Billy Suter

Record: 12-0

I can’t tell you what kind of tactical brilliance Billy Suter unfurled, and I can’t tell you what made captain and future College Football Hall of Famer Ditty Seibels so special. But I (and a million other college football fans) can tell you this: Over the course of six days and 2,500 miles of train rides in November, Suter’s iron men played Texas, Texas A&M, Tulane, LSU and Ole Miss. They won those five games by a combined 91-0. A few days after returning home, they crushed Cumberland 71-0.

If we are still talking about your feat 125 years later, you probably did something special.


29. 2010 TCU

Head coach: Gary Patterson

Record: 13-0

As you’ll see, this list is full of teams with dynamic, innovative and ahead-of-their-time offenses. But TCU made the list with a dynamic, innovative and ahead-of-its-time defense. Gary Patterson brought the Horned Frogs back to prominence in the 2000s thanks primarily to his devastating 4-2-5 D. They led the nation in scoring defense in 2000 with Patterson as defensive coordinator, then he succeeded Alabama-bound head coach Dennis Franchione, and after a run of sustained success, TCU went a combined 23-3 in 2008-09, with back-to-back top-10 finishes. In 2010, the Horned Frogs again led the nation in scoring defense, but they also boasted a top-five offense thanks in part to quarterback Andy Dalton. After beating No. 24 Oregon State in the season opener, the Frogs won their next nine games by an average of 43-8 and crushed No. 6 Utah 47-7. As Mountain West champs, they scored a rare Rose Bowl opportunity and won 21-19 in a thriller over No. 4 Wisconsin. If a four-team College Football Playoff had existed, they damn well might have won it.

In the 2000s, both Patterson’s 4-2-5 and New Mexico head coach Rocky Long’s 3-3-5 were spoken of with reverent tones. They were speedy and modern defenses designed to slow the dominant spread offense of the time. By the 2020s, no matter what formation might be listed on the official depth chart, almost every school defended from either a 4-2-5 or 3-3-5 a majority of the time.


Head coach: Amos Alonzo Stagg

Record: 4-1

College football was becoming an increasingly popular and increasingly violent sport by the early 1900s, and after a run of fatalities in 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt, who loved the game and whose son was on the Harvard team, called for changes to make the sport a bit safer. Representatives from a number of schools came together to institute vital rule changes to stretch the game out a bit and create fewer 22-body pileups. First downs would require 10 yards instead of 5. The neutral zone was created to separate the offense and defense at the start of a play. The “flying wedge” formation was banned. The forward pass was legalized and the organization that would eventually become the NCAA was created to oversee enforcement of these new rules.

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the sport’s greatest tinkerers found immediate success. While Walter Camp created a lot of the sport’s early rules — and hated basically any and every change — Amos Alonzo Stagg was its first real innovator. Along with coaches such as Pop Warner and Saint Louis University’s Eddie Cochems, he embraced newfound passing concepts. With the Big Ten dramatically cutting down schedule sizes (and a driving rainstorm turning Chicago’s big game with Minnesota into an old-school slopfest that Minnesota won 4-2), Stagg had only so many chances to show off his new ideas in 1906. But in four other games, his Maroons beat Purdue, Indiana, Illinois and Nebraska by a combined 173-13. Poor Illinois was the victim of a 63-0 blowout. Chicago would lose only twice over the next three seasons, too.


Head coach: Tommy Bowden

Record: 11-0

In 1993, behind a young head coach named Rich Rodriguez, Glenville State reached the NAIA national title game with a funky and nightmarish offense. The Pioneers operated with extreme tempo because Rodriguez, a former West Virginia defensive back, hated defending the two-minute drill as a player. They operated from the shotgun because, as Rodriguez once put it to me, “We had a shorter quarterback, and I thought I could get five dumpy linemen who could get run over slowly.” And they used what became the zone read, one of college football’s ubiquitous plays in the 2000s, because one day, after a bobbled exchange with the running back, quarterback Jed Drenning kept the ball and ran for a nice gain after seeing the defensive end squeeze in toward the running back.

It was the ultimate “That’s an interesting idea — let’s do that all the time!” offense. It featured a lot of what would become the modern-day spread offense, and it got Rodriguez hired as Tommy Bowden’s offensive coordinator at Tulane in 1997. The Green Wave surged from 2-9 to 7-4, and from 85th to eighth in scoring, that fall. And in 1998, they went 11-0, averaging 52.3 points over their final seven games. Quarterback Shaun King both threw for 3,232 yards and 36 touchdowns and rushed for 532 yards and 10 more scores. Three years later, after Bowden had been hired as Clemson’s head coach (bringing Rodriguez with him once again), the Tigers’ Woody Dantzler became the first QB to both throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in a single season. A few years after that, with Rodriguez now head coach at alma mater WVU, the incredible backfield combo of Pat White and Steve Slaton nearly won a national title behind these same concepts, and a huge percentage of elite offenses in the 2000s and early 2010s looked like Tulane’s 1998 scheme.


Head coach: Don Faurot

Record: 8-2

The greatest innovations are often born of necessity. Missouri had just lost its greatest player to date, quarterback Pitchin’ Paul Christman — a second-round NFL pick and two time top-five Heisman finisher — and was getting ready to take on tougher nonconference matchups against teams like Ohio State. While Christman mostly operated out of the single wing, Don Faurot decided to widen the offensive line’s splits to create more gaps for a speedy but undersized roster to exploit in what he was calling the “Split-T.” And as a former Mizzou basketball player who thrived on two-on-one fast breaks, he decided to give his quarterback options based on the decisions of an unblocked defender. He became potentially the first coach to lean on option football as a result.

With film study still in its nascent stages, these tweaks wreaked sustained havoc. Faurot introduced the new offense in the second half against Ohio State, after the Tigers had fallen behind, and after a promising few series against the Buckeyes, he leaned on it the rest of the year. Mizzou won eight games in a row by a combined 219-25. When World War II took Faurot into the military, he landed a gig as head coach of the Iowa Pre-Flight team in 1943. He nearly led the Seahawks to a national title that year, and more importantly, he taught his exciting offense to Pre-Flight assistants Jim Tatum and Bud Wilkinson. Tatum would go on to lead Maryland to three top-five finishes in a five-year span in the 1950s, and Wilkinson would use the offense to rule college football for most of the 1950s as Oklahoma head coach.


Head coach: Bud Wilkinson

Record: 10-0

Step 1: A coach at a middleweight (or lower) school crafts a game-changing innovation.

Step 2: A few years later, a coach with greater recruiting prowess and a better roster adopts the innovation and destroys the innovator with his own invention.

It’s a story that has played out many times in college football’s history, and this was a pretty clear case of it. Taught all the ins and outs of Faurot’s Split-T, Wilkinson used it with increasingly dominant effect. Oklahoma went 31-2 from 1948 to 1950, winning its first national title in 1950. And starting with a 19-14 win over Texas in 1953 — and perhaps with a bit of help from a player-payment slush fund that would earn NCAA punishment on a couple of occasions — the Sooners ripped off a record-setting 47-game winning streak.

They just kept getting better every year. In 1954, they outscored opponents by 24.2 points per game and beat Faurot’s Missouri 34-13. In 1955: plus-29.5 per game with a 20-0 win over Mizzou. The peak came in 1956, when they outscored opponents by 41.5 points per game, beating Kansas State 66-0, Texas 45-0, Notre Dame 40-0, Iowa State 44-0, Nebraska 54-6, Oklahoma State 53-0 and, yes, Missouri 67-14. This was one of the sport’s most dominant teams, deployed by both the coach and school that defined the 1950s.


Head coach: Gus Malzahn

Record: 12-2

Gus Malzahn’s Tigers are on this list for two reasons:

1. Malzahn was an early adopter of the spread’s wide-open potential in the 2000s. He was the offensive coordinator when Auburn won the national title behind Cam Newton’s brilliance in 2010, and when he returned to town as head coach in 2013, he led the Tigers to the BCS Championship Game despite a merely decent defense and a converted defensive back, Nick Marshall, at quarterback. Auburn was dynamic and fast and thrilling, and Malzahn had a lot of success in forcing the conservative, defense-first SEC to open itself up to modern offense.

2. This:


Head coach: Mouse Davis

Record: 8-3

An early devotee of Tiger Ellison’s primarily run-oriented run-and-shoot offense, Mouse Davis found loads of success as an Oregon high school coach before landing the Portland State offensive coordinator job in 1974 and the head-coaching job a year later. He turned the run-and-shoot into an almost entirely pass-oriented attack, with new and innovative concepts such as option routes. From play to play, he gave freedom to both his QB and his receivers to find solutions, something nearly unheard of at the time. His first quarterback was June Jones, who would later coach Hawai’i to the Sugar Bowl with his own run-and-shoot. Davis’ next QB, Neil Lomax, threw for a combined 11,550 yards and 89 touchdowns over his final three seasons, peaking with 4,094 and 37, respectively, in 1980. He finished his career holding 90 NCAA records.

After a 2-2 start in 1980, Lomax and the Vikings found a level of scoring no one had ever seen. They averaged 62 points over their final seven games. Lomax threw seven touchdowns in one quarter of a 105-0 win over Delaware State. The Vikings also scored 93 against Cal Poly Pomona and finished the year with a 75-0 win over Weber State.

Davis’ offensive ideas led him to offensive coordinator jobs in the CFL, USFL and, with the Detroit Lions from 1988 to 1990, the NFL. It inspired future coaches such as Jones and, perhaps more importantly, a guy in Texas named Hal Mumme. We’ll come back to him.


Head coach: Chris Petersen

Record: 13-0

A quarter century after Portland State made a huge splash on a smaller level, another smaller school from the Pacific Northwest did the same, but on a much, much larger scale. Just a decade after making the jump from FCS, Boise State found itself playing Oklahoma in a major bowl game. The Broncos had gone a combined 36-3 from 2002 to 2004, playing a beautiful brand of innovative and just plain old fun football under Dan Hawkins. In 2006, Hawkins left for Colorado and Chris Petersen took over. With Jared Zabransky throwing for 2,587 yards and Ian Johnson rushing for 1,713, BSU ranked second in the nation in scoring. And it finished the season by winning one of the most incredibly fun games of all time against one of the sport’s bluest blue bloods.

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On this date: Boise State uses trickeration to shock Oklahoma

On Jan. 1, 2007, Boise State head coach Chris Petersen pulled out all the stops to lead the Broncos past the Sooners in OT at the Fiesta Bowl.

Boise State taught us that almost any school could build a winner and that you could have a whole hell of a lot of fun winning games. We forget the latter from time to time, and college football has tried its hardest to tamp down the former’s potential in the years since.


21. 1958 LSU

Head coach: Paul Dietzel

Record: 11-0

In 1964, one-platoon football, with its limited substitutions that required players to play offense, defense and special teams, was removed from the college football rulebook. It opened the sport up for specialization in lots of aesthetically appealing ways, and it also allowed some of the sport’s most dominant powers to dominate even further with sheer, overwhelming depth. With platoons, depth mattered only so much.

Paul Dietzel, however, figured out a way to dominate with depth in the platoon era. Using three full teams of 11 — the White Team (his starters), the Go Team (primarily offensive specialists) and a set of young, fast and ruthless defenders. He would sub in either the Go Team or the defenders (or both) late in a given quarter depending on the game state.

Dietzel mastered the art of the substitution as LSU won 21 of 22 games from 1957 to 1959. The Tigers won the national title in 1958 behind a defense that allowed more than seven points just once all season and shut out Clemson 7-0 in the Sugar Bowl. The next year, they expanded their winning streak to 19 — including a 7-3 win over the best Ole Miss team of all time thanks to Billy Cannon’s brilliance — before finally falling 14-13 to Tennessee.


Head coach: Frank Beamer

Record: 11-1

Sometimes a team reaches cultural transcendence through a particularly transcendent athlete, be it Auburn’s Bo Jackson or Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders. Consider 1999 Virginia Tech as this list’s representative for that type of team.

Blessed with impossible speed and impeccable arm strength, Michael Vick was basically a video game character brought to life. Virginia Tech had already risen to relevance under Frank Beamer, and the Hokies would maintain that after Vick left — they enjoyed seven top-10 finishes between 1995 and 2009, after all. But their two best finishes came with Vick behind center, and they reached the BCS Championship in 1999. Vick’s career was worthy of an oral history. His Hokies had to be on this list.

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Michael Vick had two incredible years at Virginia Tech

Michael Vick made a name for himself with two strong seasons at Virginia Tech, including leading the Hokies to a trip to the 2000 BCS National Championship game.

(There’s no Florida State team on this list, by the way, which seemed a bit odd. The Seminoles crafted a particularly devastating no-huddle attack for Heisman winner Charlie Ward in the early-1990s, and with stars such as Deion Sanders certainly made a lasting impact on college football culture. Alas, I had only 30 spots to work with, and FSU’s role on this list ended up being the team that beats the influential team. The Noles took down both 1999 Virginia Tech and 2013 Auburn to win national titles. They walloped Woody Dantzler, Rich Rodriguez and company a few times, too, for that matter.)


19. 1984 BYU

Head coach: LaVell Edwards

Record: 13-0

Author S.C. Gwynne put it this way in “The Perfect Pass,” a book on the development and rise of Hal Mumme’s Air Raid offense: “BYU was the very definition of an odd duck, a Mormon school in the Utah desert with a team populated by ultra-clean 24-year-olds who had done two-year mission trips abroad. They were coached by a man seemingly just this side of crazy named LaVell Edwards, whose quarterbacks threw the football more than anyone else in major college football and routinely gained vast yardage through the air. […] The football establishment persisted in viewing BYU the way Yale and Army had looked at the Carlisle … 70 years earlier: as purveyors of cheapjack novelty items that nobody else was interested in and that would soon disappear. It didn’t help that BYU played in the Podunk-friendly WAC, with such middle-of-nowhere football schools as Hawai’i, Utah, and Wyoming, that seemed to score a lot of points on one another but did less well against national opponents. It was another reason to ignore the Mormons and keep them off the airwaves. That didn’t alter the fact that BYU scared the hell out of everybody.”

That team won a national title in 1984. The Cougars benefited from a particularly chaotic national landscape, with every top team losing at the worst possible time. But they still did it. It might forever be the most establishment-unfriendly result that this establishment-dominated sport will produce. That gets you on this list.


Head coach: John Merritt

Record: 10-0

Ed “Too Tall” Jones was selected first in the 1974 draft. Linebacker Waymond Bryant went fourth. Receiver John Holland, linebacker Greg Kindle and defensive tackle Carl Wafer went in the second. Big John Merritt might have been the single greatest recruiter in the HBCU universe, and even as SEC schools were finally integrating — something that would eventually drain the HBCU talent pool significantly — Merritt painted his masterpiece in the early 1970s, overwhelming opponents and going a combined 40-2 from 1970 to 1973.

With Jones, Bryant & Co. absolutely wrecking shop, the TSU defense hit its stride after surviving tight early tests against Texas Southern and Grambling. In their last six games, the Tigers outscored opponents by an average of 36-6 and finished with their second perfect season in four years. Merritt would continue to win big even in a changing landscape. The Tigers joined Division I in 1977, went a combined 33-8-1 in their first four years and then made the FCS (then 1-AA) playoffs in both 1981 and 1982 before Merritt died from heart disease at age 57 in late 1983.


Head coach: Bear Bryant

Record: 11-1

Five picks after TSU’s Waymond Bryant went fourth to Chicago in 1974, the San Francisco 49ers selected Alabama running back Wilbur Jackson. He would start for five years in the NFL, but his legacy was already set before he turned pro: In 1970, he became the first Black athlete to accept a scholarship from Bear Bryant and Alabama, and in 1971 he first saw the field.

Granted, Jackson played only a minor role for the Crimson Tide in 1971, rushing for 211 yards and one touchdown. But he was a symbol of much-needed reinvention in Tuscaloosa. In 1970, Bryant’s Tide had gotten blown out by John McKay’s integrated USC team, losing 42-21 in Birmingham, to start a second straight six-win season. After nine straight AP top-10 finishes and three national titles from 1959 to 1967, Bryant’s program had gone a bit stale. But in 1971, with his roster overhaul taking root, Bryant also adopted Texas’ newfangled Wishbone formation. It was the start of a total rebirth. Bama finished 11th or better in the AP poll for each of the next 11 seasons, peaking with back-to-back national titles in 1978 and 1979.


Head coach: Clark Shaughnessy

Record: 10-0

A year before Faurot’s Missouri Tigers split the T, Clark Shaugnessy brought the T back. The single wing was the dominant formation of the day, but Shaugnessy found immediate success out west by crafting his own version of the T with motion and eye candy and deception. Pop Warner himself heard about Shaughnessy’s plans and said, “If Stanford wins a single game with that crazy formation, you can throw all the football I ever knew into the Pacific Ocean.”

Stanford didn’t just win a single game, it won all their games, scoring 20 or more points — the equivalent of about 40-plus today — seven times. And before the team went out to Pasadena to play Nebraska in the Rose Bowl, Shaughnessy paused to help an old friend, Chicago Bears head coach George Halas, tweak his NFL championship game game plan to include a few extra wrinkles. Stanford beat Nebraska 21-13, and Chicago utterly humiliated Washington 73-0. That will cause a ripple in a hurry.

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