I promise I won't just start breaking into "best ever" tidbits every day now, but we're going back to the well we visited yesterday with Illinois. When I unveiled the Top 100 Teams of the Last 100 Years last summer, according to an Est. S&P+ measure, there was a surprise No. 1: 1959 Ole Miss. It tickled me to no end to think of all the dissonance and grey area associated with naming a one-loss team the best ever, even if I couldn't get Beano Cook to agree with me on a podcast. (There's also an interview with the captain of the 1959 squad, Charlie Flowers, in that link. Do check it out -- I was quite happy with it.)
Even if you don't think they were the best team of all-time, that squad was incredible.
While most say that 1961 Alabama had the greatest defense of all-time, giving up just 25 points in a more offensively proficient era, the 1959 Ole Miss Rebels gave up just 21. Seven came in a blowout win over Tulane, seven came in a blowout win over Tennessee, and seven came via the legs of Billy Cannon in one of the greatest punt returns of all-time. It took either a blowout or a superhuman effort for teams to score on 1959 Ole Miss.
Of the teams that make the Top 20 of this list, only two others played another team from the Top 30: 1946 Army and Notre Dame played each other and tied. None had to go on the road to face an all-time great, and needless to say, none lost because of an amazing punt return and a last-second goal-line stand. If any team in the Top 20 had played at LSU that Halloween night, they most likely would have lost too. (Ole Miss got a rematch against the Bayou Bengals in the 1960 Sugar Bowl and won, 21-0.)
Of the teams in the Top 20, only three others managed to finish first in both Offensive and Defensive S&P+: 1944 Army, 1966 Notre Dame and 2001 Miami. None of them had to face even another Top 100 team.
Playing in an SEC that was possibly at its most competitive point (Tennessee and Georgia Tech were still very good, Auburn and LSU were both coming off of national titles, and Alabama was getting its footing again under Bear Bryant), the Rebels dominated. LSU game aside, no team came within 15 points of them. They even slaughtered a nine-win Arkansas team, 28-0, in Memphis in non-conference play.
There's the case. If your response is, "Yeah, but they lost," that's fine. There is no right answer here anyway. But as I said at the top, there is something poetic to the thought that the best team of all-time might not have even won the national title, especially when most of us spend our waking hours yearning for a playoff that would right such wrongs.
And because I can't legally mention the 1959 Ole Miss squad without showing you Billy Cannon's incredible punt return, here you go. It truly was an amazing play. (The saddest part for Ole Miss fans: the punt was intended to go out of bounds and away from Cannon, but it checked up.)
(And yes, I was absolutely going to write a "What I Love" post about this team and/or that punt return. Guess that's probably not going to happen now, eh? Eh, screw it, we'll just stick this in the What I Love section and call it a day.)