The nadir of the “greatest college football team of all time” discussion may have been reached on a cold December day in the ESPN studios back in 2006. Nebraska fans remember this well.
The 1971 Huskers and the 1995 Huskers met in the “championship game” of the 32-team bracket, much to the chagrin of Kirk Herbstreit, with the ’95 team winning the title of the greatest team of all time. Here’s the clip:
Now, judging from the username of the person who uploaded that video and its title, there’s clearly some Nebraska bias here but even with that in mind, it’s still easy to see some of the limits of the “greatest of all time discussion.” Two of the biggest:
1. It’s hard to compare eras. Mark May wonders how 1971 Nebraska would compare athletically to 2005 Texas — for Herbstreit it’s 2001 Miami — which is a ridiculous question to ask. What matters is how athletic Texas was relative to the rest of college football in 2005, not how much more athletic they were than a team that played three decades earlier. This is like naming Verizon the best internet service provider of all time because you can download music faster than you could on AOL in 1996. Does not compute.
2. It’s hard to have the proper context for a wide range of years. Nebraska in 1971 wasn’t the “option team” Lou Holtz thinks it was. Actually, the ’71 Huskers won with defense, allowing 8.0 points, 97.3 rushing yards, and 209.5 total yards per game. Herbstreit has concerns over ’95 Nebraska’s strength of schedule. That team played four teams (Kansas, Kansas State, Colorado, Florida) that were both ranked in the AP Top 10 at the time of the game and finished the season in the AP Top 10. The point here is not to single out the shortcomings of the arguments presented, but rather to acknowledge that it’s extremely difficult to know everything about every champion of the past 70-plus years, much less what sort of system it ran and what type of schedule it faced.
But what if there was a way to measure a team’s dominance relative to the rest of college football in any given year?
Enter The Power Rank.
I’ve linked to that site fairly frequently on Hail Varsity and if you read Sports Illustrated during the 2012 college football season you likely saw the work of Power Rank founder Ed Feng in those pages.
I won’t describe what they do there any more succinctly then they already have, so here you go:
Based on a decade of academic research, we developed a ranking algorithm for college football teams. In essence, it takes margin of victory and adjusts for strength of schedule.
The result of that calculation is a nice and neat “projected margin of victory against average team.” For example, 2012 Alabama was 27.45 points better than the average team last year. Nebraska was about a touchdown better than the average team. Massachusetts, the worst team last year according to The Power Rank, was 26.66 points worse than the average team.
This addresses the two major issues from above in that it compares teams relative to the rest of college football that year and it’s inclusive of all teams. Once you do that, it becomes easier to start comparing across eras because you have a measure of dominance over the field that’s constant across the span.
Feng was kind enough to share with me his rankings for Nebraska from 1983 to 2012. Eventually, The Power Rank will post the data you see below for all of college football on the site, but for now I’m excited to share this with you as it provides a quick and easy visual for the ups and downs of Nebraska football over the past 30 seasons (click to enlarge):
There’s plenty to digest there, but the one thing that jumps out immediately is that 1995 team. It was, according to The Power Rank’s algorithm, 40.9 points better than the average team that season when adjusted for strength of schedule. Nearly six touchdowns.
I asked Feng for some context and he emailed back a pretty startling reply:
The 1995 Nebraska team was so good that it essentially sets the range for the ratings of these images. No other team can touch the 40.9 rating of that team. Not Alabama 2011. Not the Texas, Vince Young, national championship team.
It’s plain to see via the graph how it compares to the best Nebraska team of the past 30 years, but to break it out further here’s the top 10 Husker teams with the expected margin of victory:
There are some interesting results there that merit further discussion, but the big takeaway is putting a number on that ’95 team’s dominance. Ten points better than the next closest Nebraska team? Pretty impressive.
You also might be noticing the nosedive Nebraska took after the 1999/2000 seasons. The 2004 team, not surprisingly, was the first Nebraska team to actually be an underdog (-1.4) to the average team in college football and the 2007 team essentially was average (0.1). Bo Pelini got Nebraska back to a pre-Bill Callahan level relatively quickly thanks to the dynamite defenses of 2009 and 2010, but the Huskers have fallen back to levels similar to that of the end of the Frank Solich era (and the best of the Callahan era) since joining the Big Ten.
That’s a lot to absorb and discuss so feel free to continue the conversation in the comments section below.
But before you do, Feng has a special offer for readers of HailVarsity.com. If you sign up for his free email newsletter — and if you like this sort of analysis I enthusiastically encourage you to do so — he’ll send a postcard of the “30 Years of Nebraska Football” visual you see above to you and the next biggest Husker fan you know.
(Photo Credit: NU Sports Information)