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The best football program of the 1980s won zero national titles in the 1980s

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The 1980s may have been college football's strangest decade. Pick any reason you like.

1. After a run of blue-blood dominance in the 1970s, we had Georgia, Clemson, Penn State, Miami, and BYU winning national titles in consecutive years while Alabama, USC, Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Oklahoma combined for one all decade.

2. A small private school in Coral Gables, which had finished in the AP top 10 just twice in the history of the poll before the 1980s, won three national titles in seven years and did so loudly, just as a usurper should.

3. The most consistently excellent program of the decade (Nebraska) didn't win a single national title, while a team that won two (Penn State), averaged out as the 13th-best team because it was either tremendous or wholly mediocre, with no in-between.

4. Of the 12 best individual teams of the decade (per Est. S&P+), one won the national title.

In the 1980s, we got mostly awful bowl pairings and non-conference schedules that weren't good enough to offset small, 6- or 7-game conference schedules that frequently missed pairing the best teams against each other. In 1980, Georgia beat one top-10 team while awesome Nebraska, Penn State, Florida State, and Pitt teams mauled each other. In 1983, Miami beat one. In 1984, BYU beat one (and that team, Pitt, ended up being incredibly mediocre). For all the glories we pile on the non-conference scheduling of yore, we get so many more top team-vs-top team matchups today, and the sport is better for it. Even if we still had the BCS, we would still be getting more elite-vs-elite games.

This democracy didn't seem to hurt the popularity of the product, however. The 1980s also saw more televised college football than ever before and more personality and controversy than ever before (Brian Bosworth, Miami's fatigues, etc.). It began with a super-human running back (Herschel Walker) and ended with a series of incredible battles between Miami, Notre Dame, and Florida State (plus the temporary death of a previously strong program in SMU).

All of the personality, drama, and general strangeness we associate with college football was of a particularly impressive vintage in the 1980s. That's the good part. The bad part is, a lot of the wrong teams probably claim rings.

50 Best Teams of the 1980s

The 1980s began with the same level of high-level dominance that we were used to seeing in the 1970s. Only, it came mostly from Penn State, Nebraska, and Pitt, and those teams all beat up on each other, opening the door for undefeated champions elsewhere. Then, as the decade progressed, the bar got a little bit lower. Regardless, this was a decade full of excellent teams losing games and very good teams not doing so.

National champions are highlighted below. You'll find only eight of them, as neither 1984 BYU (60th) nor 1980 Georgia (141st!!!) made the top 50.

Decade
Rk
Year Team Offense
Rank
(Year)
Defense
Rank
(Year)
S&P+ Rk Percentile
1 1981 Penn State 35.7 1 8.8 2 26.9 1 99.63%
2 1980 Florida State 33.3 5 6.0 1 27.4 1 99.59%
3 1980 Nebraska 37.6 2 10.8 9 26.9 2 99.53%
4 1987 Florida State 40.3 1 13.8 8 26.5 1 99.45%
5 1980 Pittsburgh 34.2 4 8.3 4 26.0 3 99.40%
6 1983 Nebraska 45.7 1 21.5 61 24.2 1 99.23%
7 1986 Oklahoma 36.7 1 12.5 7 24.2 1 99.08%
8 1987 Miami-FL 34.6 4 10.1 2 24.5 2 99.06%
9 1985 Michigan 30.2 11 6.3 1 23.8 1 99.05%
10 1986 Miami-FL 36.2 2 12.2 5 24.0 2 99.03%
11 1988 Miami-FL 35.1 8 9.4 1 25.7 1 98.97%
12 1981 Pittsburgh 34.2 4 11.2 9 23.0 2 98.90%
13 1988 Notre Dame 35.4 7 10.3 3 25.2 2 98.83%
14 1983 Auburn 32.0 5 9.4 2 22.6 2 98.81%
15 1982 Penn State 35.7 3 13.7 11 22.0 1 98.58%
16 1989 Notre Dame 35.4 6 12.0 3 23.5 1 98.43%
17 1980 Penn State 31.0 7 8.9 6 22.0 4 98.34%
18 1989 Florida State 37.6 4 14.4 9 23.2 2 98.33%
19 1982 Nebraska 36.8 2 15.8 20 21.0 2 98.19%
20 1988 USC 34.6 9 11.5 4 23.1 3 98.12%
21 1987 Nebraska 36.5 2 14.8 15 21.7 3 98.12%
22 1984 Florida 32.8 3 13.7 11 19.2 1 98.08%
23 1981 Clemson 28.0 17 7.2 1 20.8 3 98.07%
24 1981 Nebraska 30.7 5 10.0 5 20.7 4 98.03%
25 1985 Oklahoma 30.1 12 9.3 2 20.8 2 97.99%
Decade
Rk
Year Team Offense
Rank
(Year)
Defense
Rank
(Year)
S&P+ Rk Percentile
26 1980 Alabama 29.3 11 8.2 3 21.1 5 97.95%
27 1986 Penn State 30.1 10 9.3 1 20.8 3 97.87%
28 1983 Florida 29.2 10 9.1 1 20.1 3 97.79%
29 1989 Miami-FL 34.0 8 12.1 5 21.9 3 97.76%
30 1980 BYU 43.0 1 22.6 82 20.4 6 97.56%
31 1989 Colorado 37.0 5 15.5 13 21.5 4 97.56%
32 1988 Florida State 37.7 3 15.9 14 21.9 4 97.56%
33 1981 Georgia 30.4 6 10.8 8 19.5 5 97.41%
34 1987 UCLA 36.0 3 15.8 18 20.2 4 97.37%
35 1982 USC 29.7 12 10.8 3 18.9 3 97.04%
36 1987 South Carolina 30.7 9 11.1 4 19.6 5 97.02%
37 1983 BYU 40.7 2 22.1 64 18.6 4 96.90%
38 1986 Alabama 29.1 16 10.3 2 18.8 4 96.68%
39 1980 USC 27.6 15 8.6 5 19.0 7 96.68%
40 1981 SMU 30.0 8 11.6 10 18.3 6 96.60%
41 1987 Oklahoma 32.7 5 13.8 9 18.9 6 96.52%
42 1988 UCLA 34.3 11 14.2 9 20.1 5 96.52%
43 1985 UCLA 33.2 3 14.9 16 18.3 3 96.41%
44 1982 Florida State 37.1 1 19.2 41 17.8 4 96.25%
45 1983 Miami-FL 27.6 22 9.8 4 17.8 5 96.24%
46 1980 Oklahoma 34.4 3 16.1 28 18.3 8 96.19%
47 1985 Alabama 29.7 13 11.8 6 17.9 4 96.07%
48 1981 Miami-FL 26.5 22 8.9 3 17.6 7 96.03%
49 1988 Michigan 31.7 14 12.3 5 19.4 6 95.95%
50 1986 UCLA 34.3 3 16.4 18 17.8 5 95.93%

The most underrated program of the decade might have been UCLA, which put a top-50 team on the field each year from 1985-88 and, as we see below, ranked eighth overall for the decade. Terry Donahue inherited a healthy program from Dick Vermeil in 1976, but he unleashed a run of consistent success that UCLA has never seen.

The "from the ashes" program of the decade: Colorado. The Buffaloes' average percentile rating from 1980-84 was 20.6, average ranking 96th.

Their average percentile rating from 1985-89: 76.6. Average ranking: 26th. They were 123rd in 1980 and fourth in 1989.

Ranking 1990s FBS programs by average S&P+ percentile rating

Team
Seasons
(1980s)
Avg Percentile Rk
Nebraska 10 96.1% 1
Miami-FL 10 94.3% 2
Florida State 10 92.3% 3
Oklahoma 10 91.1% 4
Michigan 10 90.4% 5
Alabama 10 90.3% 6
Notre Dame 10 88.9% 7
UCLA 10 88.6% 8
Auburn 10 86.7% 9
Georgia 10 86.7% 10
Florida 10 85.7% 11
USC 10 85.6% 12
Penn State 10 85.5% 13
BYU 10 83.1% 14
Clemson 10 82.1% 15
Ohio State 10 79.9% 16
Washington 10 79.7% 17
Arkansas 10 79.0% 18
Arizona State 10 77.8% 19
Pittsburgh 10 77.1% 20
West Virginia 10 74.9% 21
LSU 10 73.3% 22
Maryland 10 72.7% 23
Arizona 10 71.2% 24
Texas 10 71.2% 25
Team
Seasons
(1980s)
Avg Percentile Rk
Tennessee 10 70.8% 26
McNeese State 2 70.6% 27
SMU 8 70.5% 28
Iowa 10 68.2% 29
Yale 2 67.6% 30
Texas A&M 10 67.2% 31
South Carolina 10 65.6% 32
Oklahoma State 10 64.4% 33
Syracuse 10 63.6% 34
Boston College 10 63.0% 35
Michigan State 10 62.7% 36
Villanova 1 61.9% 37
Baylor 10 61.0% 38
Washington State 10 60.4% 39
Stanford 10 60.2% 40
Illinois 10 60.0% 41
Southern Miss 10 57.3% 42
Air Force 10 57.2% 43
North Carolina 10 56.9% 44
Houston 10 56.6% 45
Tulsa 10 55.6% 46
Furman 2 54.0% 47
Wyoming 10 53.8% 48
Virginia Tech 10 53.2% 49
Mississippi State 10 52.6% 50
Team
Seasons
(1980s)
Avg Percentile Rk
Kentucky 10 52.5% 51
Oregon 10 52.2% 52
Missouri 10 52.0% 53
The Citadel 2 51.8% 54
Hawaii 10 51.6% 55
Central Michigan 10 50.8% 56
Ole Miss 10 50.3% 57
Colorado 10 48.6% 58
Utah 10 48.1% 59
San Jose State 10 47.5% 60
Fresno State 10 47.1% 61
Georgia Tech 10 46.5% 62
Temple 10 45.8% 63
Dartmouth 2 45.7% 64
UL-Monroe 2 45.6% 65
Colgate 2 45.5% 66
N.C. State 10 45.4% 67
Texas Tech 10 45.0% 68
Virginia 10 44.7% 69
Bowling Green 10 44.0% 70
San Diego State 10 43.9% 71
Wisconsin 10 43.5% 72
California 10 43.3% 73
Rutgers 10 42.6% 74
Miami-OH 10 41.2% 75
Team
Seasons
(1980s)
Avg Percentile Rk
Holy Cross 2 41.1% 76
Purdue 10 40.0% 77
Indiana State 6 38.8% 78
Toledo 10 38.3% 79
Indiana 10 37.6% 80
Western Michigan 10 37.5% 81
East Carolina 10 37.4% 82
Navy 10 35.7% 83
Minnesota 10 35.4% 84
Wake Forest 10 35.3% 85
North Texas 3 35.0% 86
Duke 10 34.7% 87
Vanderbilt 10 34.6% 88
Iowa State 10 34.5% 89
UNLV 10 33.7% 90
Southern Illinois 6 33.3% 91
Louisiana Tech 4 32.7% 92
Army 10 32.2% 93
Northern Illinois 10 32.2% 94
Kansas 10 32.1% 95
Harvard 2 31.9% 96
UT-Chattanooga 2 31.8% 97
Colorado State 10 31.3% 98
UL-Lafayette 10 31.2% 99
TCU 10 30.5% 100
Team
Seasons
(1980s)
Avg Percentile Rk
Tulane 10 30.3% 101
Fullerton State 10 29.9% 102
Arkansas State 2 29.4% 103
Ball State 10 28.8% 104
Appalachian State 2 28.8% 105
New Mexico 10 28.6% 106
Cincinnati 10 27.8% 107
Brown 2 27.5% 108
UT-Arlington 2 27.0% 109
Long Beach State 10 26.8% 110
Utah State 10 26.0% 111
VMI 2 25.9% 112
Memphis 10 25.8% 113
Princeton 2 25.2% 114
Akron 3 24.9% 115
Louisville 10 24.2% 116
Oregon State 10 23.4% 117
Cornell 2 23.3% 118
West Texas A&M 6 23.3% 119
Illinois State 6 22.4% 120
Wichita State 7 22.0% 121
Eastern Michigan 10 21.7% 122
Drake 6 19.4% 123
UTEP 10 18.2% 124
Kent 10 18.1% 125
Team
Seasons
(1980s)
Avg Percentile Rk
Rice 10 18.0% 126
Lamar 2 17.2% 127
Kansas State 10 17.0% 128
Richmond 4 16.4% 129
Pacific 10 15.6% 130
Ohio 10 15.3% 131
Western Carolina 2 12.3% 132
William & Mary 4 12.3% 133
Northwestern 10 10.3% 134
East Tennessee State 2 7.1% 135
New Mexico State 10 6.4% 136
Pennsylvania 2 5.2% 137
Columbia 2 4.8% 138
Marshall 2 3.4% 139

Since I got yelled at for weeks by Penn State fans on Twitter about the fact that the Nittany Lions were not in the top 10 here, let's walk through their decade, year by year.

1980: 10-2 | 8th in AP | 4th in Est. S&P+ (98.3% percentile)

1981: 10-2 | 3rd in AP | 1st in Est. S&P+ (99.6%)

1982: 11-1 | 1st in AP | 1st in Est. S&P+ (98.6%)

1983: 8-4-1 | unranked in AP | 20th in Est. S&P+ (83.1%)

1984: 6-5 | unranked in AP | 46th in Est. S&P+ (64.7%)

1985: 11-1 | 3rd in AP | 16th in Est. S&P+ (88.7%)

1986: 12-0 | 1st in AP | 3rd in Est. S&P+ (97.9%)

1987: 8-4 | unranked in AP | 27th in Est. S&P+ (71.0%)

1988: 5-6 | unranked in AP | 33rd in Est. S&P+ (68.3%)

1989: 8-3-1 | 15th in AP | 19th in Est. S&P+ (85.2%)

In the half-decade that was 1980-82 and 1985-86, PSU's average percentile rating was 96.6%, which, as you see, would have ranked first in the 1980s. But the other half-decade also counts, and the Nittany Lions' average was only 74.5% in 1983-84 and 1987-89, which would have ranked 22nd. Average all 10 years together, and you end up right in the middle at 13th.

Congrats on your titles, PSU fans. Now stop @ing me.