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The 1995 college football season was all about Nebraska and Northwestern

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By college football standards, 1995 was downright orderly, from both a results and numbers perspective.

Granted, Nebraska, far and away the best team in the country per both stats and eyeballs, had to wait until midseason to move to No. 1 in the AP poll -- Florida State was the preseason No. 1 and stayed there until a famous upset loss at Virginia -- but it eventually happened. And of the year-end AP top five (NU, Florida, Tennessee, FSU, Colorado), three were in the preseason top 5 and nobody was lower than 13th.

(If you're looking for chaos, you have to look a little lower: teams No. 7-9 in the year-end AP poll were Kansas State, Northwestern, and Kansas.)

Meanwhile, the numbers pretty much agree with the pollsters. At eighth in Est. S&P+, Tennessee lagged a smidge from a numbers standpoint (the SEC was not particularly impressive this year) but was fine. Meanwhile, Notre Dame, with losses only to Northwestern, Ohio State, and Florida State (two of them very close), finished 11th in the poll but fifth in the numbers.

This year solidified Florida-Florida State as the best rivalry of the 1990s, but it was really about two teams: Nebraska and Northwestern. For the Huskiers, this was the culmination of 23 years of Tom Osborne's work. They had finally broken through and won a title with a flawed team the year before (Tommie Frazier was out for much of the year, and *SPOILER ALERT* Nebraska didn't rank No. 1 in Est. S&P+), and the follow-up team was flawless.

Northwestern, meanwhile, really was an amazing story. This was Gary Barnett's fourth year on the job in Evanston, and while the improvement had been steady, it had also been super slow. Using Est. S&P+ rankings that you haven't actually seen yet (but will!), he inherited a team that ranked 89th, then improved it to 80th, 74th, and 65th in the first three years. At that rate, a top-50 performance and a bowl run weren't out of the question. But then they went and landed in the top 10, winning the Big Ten in the process. (Yes, they avoided Ohio State on the schedule. But they still beat Notre Dame, Michigan, and Penn State.)

Until the Rose Bowl loss to USC, Northwestern had allowed more than 20 points in a game just once all year, and it was to Miami (Ohio) in a Week 3 upset loss. (That loss, by the way, wasn't as confusing as it might sound -- Miami-OH ranks 27th below.)

S&P+ Rk Team Record* Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
1 Nebraska 12-0 27.7 99.48% 47.8 1 20.1 28
2 Florida 12-1 23.1 98.39% 43.2 3 20.1 27
3 Florida State 10-2 21.8 97.84% 45.1 2 23.3 57
4 Ohio State 11-2 20.8 97.29% 37.1 6 16.4 7
5 Notre Dame 9-3 18.3 95.47% 35.8 9 17.5 9
6 Colorado 10-2 18.1 95.31% 37.6 5 19.5 26
7 Northwestern 10-2 17.6 94.87% 29.2 25 11.6 1
8 Tennessee 11-1 17.5 94.71% 36.2 7 18.8 20
9 Kansas State 10-2 15.8 92.89% 33.8 12 18.0 13
10 Penn State 9-3 14.1 90.35% 34.5 10 20.4 32
11 Michigan 9-4 13.6 89.67% 28.3 32 14.7 3
12 Virginia Tech 10-2 12.0 86.78% 27.4 37 15.3 5
13 Toledo 11-0 11.5 85.70% 33.7 13 22.2 48
14 Texas A&M 9-3 11.3 85.24% 24.9 55 13.6 2
15 Virginia 9-4 11.0 84.51% 30.1 19 19.2 22
16 Syracuse 9-3 10.8 84.03% 29.9 22 19.1 21
17 USC 9-2 10.5 83.48% 28.9 27 18.3 17
18 Auburn 8-4 10.3 82.90% 34.0 11 23.8 59
19 Cincinnati 6-5 9.8 81.68% 25.2 51 15.5 6
20 LSU 7-4 9.5 81.18% 26.0 46 16.4 8
21 Kansas 10-2 9.4 80.77% 29.9 21 20.6 35
22 Texas 10-2 8.8 79.19% 29.2 26 20.4 31
23 Iowa 8-4 8.7 78.99% 30.7 15 22.0 46
24 Texas Tech 9-3 8.3 77.95% 30.5 16 22.2 49
25 Washington 7-4 8.3 77.89% 28.8 29 20.5 34
S&P+ Rk Team Record* Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
26 Miami-FL 8-3 8.1 77.44% 26.2 45 18.0 14
27 Miami-OH 8-2 8.0 77.07% 26.3 43 18.3 15
28 Purdue 4-6 7.3 75.16% 28.7 30 21.4 38
29 UCLA 7-5 7.3 74.96% 30.2 18 23.0 54
30 Colorado State 8-4 6.7 73.39% 28.5 31 21.7 45
31 East Carolina 9-3 6.3 72.07% 23.9 58 17.6 10
32 Clemson 8-4 6.0 70.94% 23.7 60 17.8 11
33 Wisconsin 4-5 5.6 69.71% 24.9 53 19.4 25
34 Illinois 5-5 5.5 69.62% 20.4 82 14.9 4
35 Alabama 8-3 5.0 67.69% 22.8 66 17.8 12
36 Air Force 8-5 4.9 67.67% 31.7 14 26.8 71
37 Oregon 9-3 4.8 67.04% 27.3 39 22.5 50
38 Utah 7-4 4.6 66.58% 26.2 44 21.6 42
39 Stanford 7-4 4.4 65.86% 29.4 23 24.9 64
40 Georgia 6-6 4.4 65.77% 24.7 56 20.3 30
41 North Carolina 7-5 3.4 62.44% 22.7 67 19.2 23
42 Nevada 9-3 3.4 62.34% 39.2 4 35.8 95
43 Southern Miss 6-5 3.4 62.23% 25.5 48 22.2 47
44 Michigan State 6-5 3.3 62.08% 27.7 35 24.4 62
45 Baylor 7-4 3.1 61.41% 21.4 76 18.3 16
46 BYU 7-4 3.0 60.77% 27.6 36 24.7 63
47 San Diego State 8-4 2.8 60.34% 30.0 20 27.1 73
48 Arizona State 6-5 2.6 59.67% 30.4 17 27.7 76
49 Arkansas 8-5 2.5 59.25% 23.0 64 20.5 33
50 Kentucky 4-7 1.9 56.95% 23.3 62 21.4 39
S&P+ Rk Team Record* Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
51 Wyoming 6-5 0.9 53.32% 27.1 40 26.2 69
52 West Virginia 5-6 0.5 51.74% 21.2 78 20.8 36
53 Louisville 7-4 0.2 50.74% 20.4 83 20.2 29
54 Army 5-5 -0.2 49.44% 23.1 63 23.3 58
55 Oklahoma 5-5 -0.2 49.43% 23.0 65 23.1 55
56 Minnesota 3-8 -0.6 47.68% 28.8 28 29.5 83
57 Washington State 3-8 -0.6 47.63% 22.2 69 22.8 53
58 Arizona 6-5 -0.7 47.45% 18.0 94 18.7 18
59 Georgia Tech 6-5 -0.9 46.84% 21.8 72 22.6 51
60 South Carolina 4-6 -0.9 46.64% 35.8 8 36.7 100
61 Boston College 4-8 -1.5 44.46% 21.2 77 22.7 52
62 Maryland 6-5 -1.6 44.21% 20.1 84 21.7 44
63 Oklahoma State 4-8 -1.9 42.85% 24.2 57 26.1 68
64 Ball State 7-4 -2.3 41.57% 17.0 98 19.2 24
65 Ole Miss 6-5 -2.5 40.69% 16.2 100 18.7 19
66 Western Michigan 7-4 -3.6 36.99% 17.8 96 21.4 40
67 TCU 6-5 -4.5 33.84% 18.7 90 23.2 56
68 California 3-8 -4.6 33.41% 21.7 73 26.3 70
69 Indiana 2-9 -4.7 33.15% 19.6 85 24.4 61
70 Pittsburgh 2-9 -5.0 32.04% 22.3 68 27.3 75
71 Eastern Michigan 6-5 -5.1 32.00% 29.3 24 34.3 90
72 UL-Lafayette 6-5 -5.2 31.66% 24.9 54 30.1 84
73 Navy 5-6 -5.3 31.18% 16.1 101 21.4 41
74 NC State 3-8 -5.4 30.94% 25.6 47 31.0 86
75 Mississippi State 3-8 -5.6 30.25% 25.3 49 30.9 85
S&P+ Rk Team Record* Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
76 Missouri 3-8 -6.0 28.92% 19.6 87 25.6 67
77 Utah State 4-7 -6.0 28.87% 23.4 61 29.4 81
78 Vanderbilt 2-9 -6.8 26.53% 14.8 104 21.6 43
79 Houston 2-9 -6.9 26.23% 21.5 74 28.3 77
80 Memphis 3-8 -7.2 25.25% 14.0 106 21.2 37
81 Fresno State 5-7 -7.2 25.10% 28.1 34 35.3 94
82 Central Michigan 4-7 -7.3 24.87% 18.0 95 25.3 66
83 Tulsa 4-7 -7.6 24.05% 19.6 86 27.2 74
84 Temple 1-10 -7.8 23.51% 20.9 80 28.7 79
85 Iowa State 3-8 -7.9 23.34% 26.7 41 34.6 92
86 New Mexico 4-7 -7.9 23.33% 20.7 81 28.6 78
87 Duke 3-8 -7.9 23.19% 26.5 42 34.4 91
88 Rice 2-8 -8.4 21.76% 18.4 91 26.9 72
89 Rutgers 4-7 -8.7 21.00% 28.3 33 37.0 101
90 Bowling Green 5-6 -8.8 20.78% 16.2 99 25.0 65
91 UL-Monroe 2-9 -11.4 14.49% 25.2 50 36.7 99
92 Wake Forest 1-10 -12.4 12.58% 19.0 88 31.4 88
93 New Mexico State 4-7 -12.6 12.08% 27.3 38 40.0 106
94 Louisiana Tech 5-6 -12.7 11.93% 25.1 52 37.9 103
95 Oregon State 1-10 -12.9 11.66% 11.1 108 23.9 60
96 Pacific 3-8 -14.3 9.24% 23.8 59 38.1 104
97 Northern Illinois 3-8 -14.4 9.13% 22.0 71 36.3 98
98 Tulane 2-9 -14.4 9.06% 15.0 102 29.4 82
99 SMU 1-10 -14.5 8.93% 14.7 105 29.2 80
100 Hawaii 4-8 -14.9 8.40% 21.1 79 36.0 97
S&P+ Rk Team Record* Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
101 San Jose State 3-8 -15.2 7.97% 22.0 70 37.2 102
102 Akron 2-9 -15.7 7.28% 18.9 89 34.6 93
103 Ohio 2-8 -16.3 6.58% 14.9 103 31.2 87
104 Arkansas State 6-5 -16.9 5.83% 17.2 97 34.2 89
105 UTEP 2-10 -20.1 3.15% 21.5 75 41.5 107
106 North Texas 2-9 -20.2 3.04% 18.4 92 38.6 105
107 Kent 1-9 -23.3 1.55% 12.7 107 36.0 96
108 UNLV 2-9 -31.0 0.20% 18.3 93 49.4 108

* I just realized that I forgot to add ties to my CONCATENATE formula that pulled the records above -- counting backwards through the years like this, I hadn't had to worry about ties because overtime rules began in 1996. Will try to update this table at some point, but for now, if a team only has 10 results or something, it's probably because they had a tie. Sorry about that.

The Hypothetical Playoff Race

At first glance, this seems like it would have been a terrible year for a Playoff because the best team was so obvious -- no need to make Nebraska play another game to prove itself.

But think about where things were before the postseason. With hindsight and a still-clear memory of the Nebraska-Florida game, we know who the obvious No. 1 was. At the time of kickoff, however, it was in no way certain. That Florida team was incredible. In fact, if you remove bowls from the equation, the Gators are actually slightly ahead of Nebraska in Est. S&P+:

1. Florida (25.0)
2. Nebraska (24.8)
3. Florida State (22.2)
4. Ohio State (21.3)
5. Northwestern (18.7)

A single blowout flipped the ratings from +0.2 in Florida's favor to +4.6 in Nebraska's. But what was clear in the past tense wasn't in the present.

A Playoff, then, would have seemed like a great idea. You had 11-0 Nebraska and 12-0 Florida as shoo-ins for the top two spots (in some order), and you had a one-loss Northwestern team (No. 3 in the polls pre-bowl) that would have almost certainly grabbed the third spot. The fourth, however, would have been interesting. Ohio State and Tennessee were tied for fourth in the AP poll -- the Buckeyes were 11-1 with six wins over ranked (AP) teams and only an eight-point loss at Michigan, and the Vols were 10-1 with only a loss to Florida ... by 25 points. Neither would have gotten a conference title bump, and this would have resulted in a hardcore shouting match about quality wins and whatnot.

I'm thinking Ohio State gets the nod here because, even with an out-of-nowhere, non-blueblood conference champion, the Big Ten was perceived as better than the SEC in 1995. (And with four teams in the Est. S&P+ top 11, it's hard to argue with that.)

So you end up with something like 1 Florida vs. 4 Ohio State and 2 Nebraska vs. 3 Northwestern. Obviously 1-2 would have been a coin toss. Regardless, this Playoff almost certainly ends with a) Nebraska winning the whole thing and b) Northwestern, unfortunately, getting blown out by one of the two teams capable of blowing the Wildcats out.

Other thoughts

  • Kansas picked the wrong year to be suddenly awesome, as Northwestern stole all the headlines. Granted, the Jayhawks weren't quite as much of an out-of-nowhere story -- they had already shown promise under Glen Mason, with three winning seasons and one bowl appearance in four years -- and they weren't top-10 good, only top-25 good. Still, they went 10-2 with wins over Colorado and Oklahoma and a blowout of UCLA in the Aloha Bowl. A good year, drastically overshadowed by Northwestern (and the fact that their losses to KSU and Nebraska came by a combined 82-10).
  • #MACtion, 1995 edition: Gary Pinkel's first awesome Toledo team went 11-0-1, and 8-2-1 Miami (Ohio) also finished in the top 30.
  • The biggest WTF?! team in the top 25 has to be Cincinnati. Rick Minter's Bearcats went just 6-5 and weren't considered a power-conference team, but here they were. How does that happen? First, four of their losses were to top-30 teams: Kansas (by five on the road), Kansas State (by two), Miami-OH (by seven on the road) and Toledo (by 14). They also shut out a top-15 Virginia Tech team (16-0) and beat No. 31 ECU and No. 43 Southern Miss and handled lesser Memphis, NIU, and Tulsa teams with ease. A 33-14 loss to Kentucky was the only truly iffy result. So uh, 19 seems a little high, but I can justify it (mostly).

Next up: 1994, in which (*SPOILERS*) Penn State got screwed.