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1971 Nebraska was every bit as good as your father says

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Numbers can kind of be jerks sometimes, especially from a historical perspective. You: "Man, Team A from Year B sure was amazing." Numbers: "Well actually, they were only decent."

Numbers can't touch the 1971 Nebraska-Oklahoma game, however. It was as great as everyone says it was. In terms of combined percentile ratings, it was one of the five most high-quality games ever. And unlike the other massively-high-quality game from this season -- the Orange Bowl between Nebraska and Alabama -- it was actually close.

Nebraska beat OU, 35-31, and beat its other 12 opponents by a combined 472-87. That list of victims includes Alabama (No. 2 in Est. S&P+, lost 38-6) and Colorado (No. 4, lost 31-7). This was an amazing team, the best of the 1970s. It's almost a shame that our collective memory of the '71 Huskers is either one game (OU) or one play (Johnny Rodgers' amazing punt return).

Meanwhile ... a moment of silence for the 1971 Colorado team, which, per the numbers, would have been the second-best non-Big 8 team in the country that year but decided to be really good at the wrong damn time. Eddie Crowder's Buffs won at LSU (Est. S&P+ No. 6) by 10, won at Ohio State (No. 21) by 6, won at Iowa State (No. 14) by 10, and beat Houston (No. 5) by 12 in the Bluebonnet Bowl.

But they were in the Bluebonnet Bowl because they lost to Oklahoma and Nebraska by a combined 76-24. Outscored everybody else, 346-144.

That was the peak of a nice run under Crowder -- the Buffaloes bowled five times in six years between 1967-72 -- but they would have been far better off peaking in, say, 1968.

This, by the way, was the year that Alabama and Oklahoma adopted the wishbone. Oklahoma went from averaging 25.4 points per game to 44.5, and while Alabama merely improved from 27.8 to 30.7, that was despite a brutal schedule that included six teams that won at least nine games. That the Crimson Tide outscored regular-season opponents by a 362-84 margin proved how incredible that team was, even despite an outright dud in the Orange Bowl.

S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
1 Nebraska 13-0 28.4 99.69% 37.7 2 9.4 3
2 Alabama 11-1 28.0 99.65% 34.4 5 6.4 1
3 Oklahoma 11-1 26.8 99.50% 44.8 1 18.0 47
4 Colorado 10-2 21.6 98.13% 35.4 4 13.8 19
5 Houston 9-3 19.3 96.83% 32.1 8 12.8 13
6 LSU 9-3 17.3 95.23% 29.7 12 12.4 9
7 Arizona State 11-1 17.3 95.19% 36.4 3 19.1 58
8 Georgia 11-1 16.7 94.59% 28.1 15 11.4 7
9 Auburn 9-2 16.6 94.46% 31.8 9 15.3 26
10 Ole Miss 10-2 16.0 93.85% 32.4 7 16.4 33
11 Penn State 11-1 15.8 93.57% 33.8 6 18.1 49
12 Michigan 11-1 14.8 92.35% 28.4 14 13.6 16
13 Toledo 12-0 14.6 91.98% 27.2 17 12.7 11
14 Iowa State 8-4 13.7 90.63% 31.4 10 17.7 44
15 USC 6-4-1 13.6 90.52% 24.6 27 11.0 6
16 Notre Dame 8-2 13.0 89.51% 22.0 45 9.0 2
17 Tennessee 10-2 11.8 87.28% 22.2 43 10.3 4
18 Stanford 9-3 10.9 85.39% 21.9 46 11.0 5
19 Texas 8-3 10.7 84.85% 25.8 22 15.1 24
20 Florida State 8-4 9.5 81.99% 24.9 26 15.4 27
21 Ohio State 6-4 9.2 81.29% 21.8 47 12.5 10
22 Washington 8-3 8.9 80.36% 29.3 13 20.4 67
23 Boston College 9-2 8.4 79.10% 21.2 56 12.8 12
24 North Carolina 9-3 8.4 78.96% 22.5 39 14.1 20
25 Villanova 6-4-1 7.6 76.82% 19.8 69 12.2 8
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
26 Cornell 8-1 7.3 75.89% 24.5 28 17.2 42
27 Dartmouth 8-1 7.0 74.95% 20.6 59 13.7 17
28 Michigan State 6-5 6.9 74.68% 21.3 53 14.4 23
29 Arkansas 8-3-1 6.6 73.81% 25.2 24 18.6 56
30 Western Michigan 7-3 6.5 73.51% 22.1 44 15.5 28
31 Tampa 6-5 6.5 73.33% 23.5 34 17.0 40
32 Miami-OH 7-3 6.2 72.38% 19.2 74 13.1 15
33 Georgia Tech 6-6 6.0 71.96% 20.2 62 14.2 21
34 West Virginia 7-4 5.6 70.40% 25.5 23 20.0 65
35 Utah State 8-3 5.5 70.34% 22.4 40 16.8 37
36 Memphis 5-6 5.2 69.08% 23.4 35 18.2 53
37 Ohio 5-5 5.2 69.06% 23.2 37 18.1 50
38 Kansas State 5-6 4.7 67.62% 25.8 21 21.1 73
39 Southern Miss 6-5 4.4 66.54% 19.7 70 15.2 25
40 Temple 6-2-1 4.4 66.43% 21.2 58 16.8 35
41 Northwestern 7-4 4.3 66.14% 20.0 67 15.7 29
42 Oregon 5-6 4.3 66.13% 25.9 19 21.6 80
43 New Mexico 6-3-2 4.0 65.03% 30.9 11 26.9 115
44 Columbia 6-3 3.3 62.39% 20.3 60 17.0 41
45 San Jose State 5-6-1 3.3 62.38% 24.5 29 21.2 74
46 Oregon State 5-6 1.7 56.63% 27.5 16 25.8 108
47 California 6-5 1.7 56.58% 21.2 55 19.5 61
48 Air Force 6-4 1.7 56.52% 19.5 71 17.8 45
49 South Carolina 6-5 1.5 55.82% 18.3 80 16.8 36
50 Duke 6-5 1.3 55.12% 15.1 97 13.8 18
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
51 Tulane 3-8 1.1 54.13% 17.2 88 16.1 30
52 Bowling Green 6-4 0.9 53.35% 24.0 31 23.1 87
53 Syracuse 5-5-1 0.8 53.00% 17.4 85 16.7 34
54 Cincinnati 7-4 0.8 52.89% 19.1 75 18.4 54
55 Princeton 4-5 0.7 52.78% 20.1 66 19.4 60
56 Purdue 3-7 0.6 52.27% 22.2 42 21.6 82
57 Louisville 6-3-1 0.5 51.94% 14.8 101 14.3 22
58 Illinois 5-6 0.3 51.20% 18.4 79 18.0 48
59 Florida 4-7 0.1 50.31% 21.5 50 21.4 76
60 Kansas 4-7 0.0 50.18% 21.5 49 21.5 79
61 Oklahoma State 4-6-1 -0.1 49.64% 23.0 38 23.1 86
62 UCLA 2-7-1 -0.3 48.76% 20.3 61 20.6 69
63 San Diego State 6-5 -0.5 48.24% 21.4 52 21.8 83
64 Harvard 5-4 -0.6 47.87% 19.9 68 20.5 68
65 William & Mary 5-6 -0.6 47.53% 23.3 36 24.0 91
66 Vanderbilt 4-6-1 -1.1 45.92% 15.0 99 16.1 31
67 Washington State 4-7 -1.1 45.74% 23.7 33 24.8 99
68 Dayton 5-6 -1.2 45.49% 15.8 94 17.0 38
69 BYU 5-6 -1.2 45.24% 18.7 78 20.0 64
70 Rutgers 4-7 -1.3 45.17% 20.2 63 21.5 78
71 Long Beach State 8-4 -1.3 44.94% 24.3 30 25.6 106
72 Texas Tech 4-7 -1.6 43.71% 11.3 119 12.9 14
73 Mississippi State 2-9 -2.0 42.19% 19.0 77 21.0 72
74 Minnesota 4-7 -2.1 42.13% 21.3 54 23.3 88
75 Holy Cross 4-6 -2.2 41.79% 20.2 64 22.3 84
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
76 Pittsburgh 3-8 -2.6 40.27% 26.3 18 28.8 118
77 Wake Forest 6-5 -2.6 40.15% 16.7 90 19.3 59
78 Wyoming 5-6 -2.8 39.41% 21.7 48 24.5 97
79 Wisconsin 4-6-1 -2.9 38.87% 21.2 57 24.1 92
80 Clemson 5-6 -3.0 38.78% 14.7 102 17.7 43
81 Rice 3-7-1 -3.1 38.37% 15.1 98 18.1 51
82 Miami-FL 4-7 -3.2 37.71% 16.3 92 19.5 63
83 Utah 3-8 -3.3 37.69% 23.8 32 27.1 116
84 Arizona 5-6 -3.3 37.66% 17.6 84 20.8 71
85 Texas A&M 5-6 -3.6 36.58% 14.3 105 17.9 46
86 Richmond 5-6 -3.6 36.30% 12.6 116 16.2 32
87 Yale 4-5 -3.7 36.04% 15.8 95 19.5 62
88 Fresno State 6-5 -3.9 35.27% 14.6 103 18.5 55
89 Kentucky 3-8 -4.0 34.92% 17.4 86 21.5 77
90 Idaho 8-3 -4.1 34.50% 12.9 115 17.0 39
91 TCU 6-4-1 -4.2 34.15% 20.1 65 24.4 94
92 Missouri 1-10 -4.3 34.05% 13.9 109 18.1 52
93 Virginia Tech 4-7 -4.5 33.12% 21.5 51 26.0 110
94 Pacific 3-8 -4.7 32.53% 14.1 106 18.8 57
95 Navy 3-8 -5.3 30.35% 19.0 76 24.4 93
96 Northern Illinois 5-5-1 -5.6 29.51% 17.9 83 23.5 89
97 UT-Chattanooga 1-5 -6.1 27.99% 25.1 25 31.1 123
98 Army 6-4 -6.2 27.45% 14.5 104 20.7 70
99 SMU 4-7 -6.5 26.63% 13.9 108 20.4 66
100 The Citadel 8-3 -7.0 25.14% 25.8 20 32.8 127
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
101 Maryland 2-9 -7.1 24.66% 19.5 72 26.6 114
102 UTEP 5-6 -7.7 22.91% 13.5 111 21.2 75
103 Colgate 6-4 -7.8 22.52% 22.3 41 30.2 122
104 Hawaii 7-4 -8.4 20.82% 18.0 82 26.5 113
105 Kent 3-8 -8.5 20.54% 17.2 87 25.8 107
106 East Carolina 4-6 -9.4 18.30% 19.4 73 28.8 117
107 Pennsylvania 2-7 -9.7 17.38% 13.2 112 22.9 85
108 Tulsa 4-7 -9.9 17.05% 16.4 91 26.3 112
109 Brown 0-9 -10.0 16.70% 15.1 96 25.1 103
110 New Mexico State 5-5-1 -11.0 14.38% 13.9 107 25.0 101
111 Xavier 1-9 -11.2 14.03% 13.6 110 24.8 100
112 North Texas 3-8 -11.3 13.85% 18.3 81 29.6 120
113 Colorado State 3-8 -11.3 13.78% 14.9 100 26.3 111
114 Indiana 3-8 -11.4 13.63% 13.0 114 24.4 95
115 Drake 7-4 -11.7 12.98% 9.9 121 21.6 81
116 NC State 3-8 -12.0 12.48% 13.1 113 25.1 102
117 Virginia 3-8 -12.3 11.88% 12.3 118 24.6 98
118 Furman 5-5-1 -12.9 10.77% 12.3 117 25.2 104
119 Santa Barbara 3-8 -13.2 10.22% 16.8 89 29.9 121
120 Iowa 1-10 -13.5 9.63% 16.0 93 29.5 119
121 Marshall 2-8 -15.3 7.09% 10.2 120 25.4 105
122 VMI 1-10 -16.8 5.30% 6.8 126 23.6 90
123 Baylor 1-9 -18.1 4.10% 6.4 127 24.5 96
124 UT-Arlington 2-9 -18.4 3.85% 7.6 125 26.0 109
125 Davidson 1-9 -23.0 1.35% 9.5 122 32.4 126
126 West Texas A&M 2-9 -23.5 1.17% 8.4 123 32.0 125
127 Wichita State 3-8 -24.0 1.03% 7.8 124 31.8 124
128 Los Angeles State 2-8 -29.2 0.25% 4.0 128 33.2 128

Your hypothetical Playoff race

1. Nebraska (12-0)
2. Alabama (11-0)
3. Oklahoma (10-1 with a 4-point loss to NU)
4. Michigan (11-0)
5. Auburn (10-1 with a 24-point loss to Bama)
6. Georgia (10-1 with a 15-point loss to Auburn)
7. Colorado (9-2 with the aforementioned Ls to OU and NU)
8. Arizona State (10-1 with a 6-point loss to Oregon State)
10. Penn State (10-1 with a 20-point loss to Tennessee)
14. Toledo (11-0)

I think this one ends up really easy. NU, Bama, and Michigan are clearly still in, and since Auburn lost to Alabama and Georgia lost to Auburn, I think that probably assures Oklahoma of the fourth spot. The only question would be whether the committee chooses an NU-OU rematch. I say they don't, and they end up seeding teams like the AP did. We get 1 Nebraska vs. 4 Michigan (NU by 14, per Est. S&P+) and 2 Alabama vs. 3 Oklahoma (Bama by 1.2). And we either get the NU-Bama game that we got anyway, or we get Game of the Century II. Going by Ali-Frazier standards (or 2011 Bama-LSU standards), however, the second fight wouldn't have been nearly as good as the first.

Other thoughts

  • Here's your regular reminder that the Big Ten was dreadful in the early-1970s. Michigan was fourth in the AP poll behind one-loss Oklahoma, in part because it was obvious how good Oklahoma was, and in part because Northwestern was the only AP-ranked team Michigan had played all year -- the Wolverines won at No. 20 NU in the season opener ... and Northwestern finished a mediocre 7-4 and 41st in S&P+. A champions league of mid-majors would have dwarved the Big Ten that year.
  • Actually...

    MAC top 5: No. 13 Toledo, No. 30 WMU, No. 32 Miami (Ohio), No. 37 Ohio, No. 52 BGSU.

    Big Ten top 5: No. 12 Michigan, No. 21 Ohio State, No. 28 Michigan State, No. 41 Northwestern, No. 56 Purdue

    Good lord, that's nearly identical.
  • Once again, I wonder what might have happened had the Ivy League decided to either award scholarships or give out some sort of financial aid to help with recruiting. Even with other schools giving out tons of scholarships, the Ivy was a pretty competitive league at this point. In 1971, it featured the No. 26, 27, 44, and 55 teams. That ain't bad.
  • Your regular reminder that just about every non-blueblood was very good and terrible at least once in the 1970s: No. 14 Iowa State, No. 23 Boston College, No. 25 Villanova ... No. 123 Baylor, No. 120 Iowa, No. 116 NC State, No. 92 Missouri.
  • That's right, NC State. The Wolfpack were 3-7-1 and 101st in 1970 and 3-8 and 116th in 1971, then immediately jumped to 8-3-1 and 14th in 1972, 9-3 and 15th in 1973, and 9-2-1 and 24th in 1974. What happened? They hired Lou Holtz in 1972. Holtz restored Arkansas' momentum in 1977, turned Notre Dame around in the 1980s, and turned South Carolina around in the early-2000s, but this might have been his most impressive performance. That is a staggering, speedy rebuild.

Next up: 1970, in which Dartmouth might have made the Playoff. Well, a six-team Playoff, anyway.