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College football dream tournament: Let’s pit national champs from every year against each other

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Who would win between 1945 Army and 2008 Florida? Let’s simulate!

Barry Switzer/Tom Osborne

At times, I think I am the absolute perfect age for my nerdery. I was almost exactly one year old when ESPN came into existence, and it has virtually defined my entire sports existence. When I was eight, I stayed up all night watching all the NFL Films Super Bowl Highlights consecutively the day before the Super Bowl. (It was possible to do then, as there had only been 19 Super Bowls.)

I was also the perfect age for Dream Season. In 1989, ESPN did the nerdiest thing it had ever done: It pitted 20 all-time great NFL teams against each other in a "league" with simulated games and used NFL Films to patch together "highlights" of each game. It was amazing and fed my what-if imagination to an incalculable degree.

To those of you too young to remember this (or those of you who were too cool to enjoy such a rambunctiously dorky thing in 1989), here's proof that I'm not making it up:

Naturally, Wikipedia has the results of the experiment. I couldn’t remember who won, but I remember being incredibly pissed that the 1985 Bears didn’t make the playoffs. It almost ruined the entire show for me.

This might be the most me thing ESPN has ever done. And as proof, I’m now going to do it for college football. Sort of.

In just over a month — on March 7, to be exact — I have a book coming out. It’s called The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All Time. Here’s the description on the back cover:

College football's history is rich and regionalized. You know your team's history and maybe your conference's, but our shared knowledge doesn't go too far beyond Heisman winners and recent national champions.

It's time to change that. In The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All Time, Bill Connelly dives into the history and evolution of the sport, telling its story through 50 particularly interesting teams. From 1906 Chicago through 2013 Auburn, Connelly tells the story of innovators, transcendent players, burgeoning dynasties, and greatness denied.

From Joe Guyon and Red Grange to Michael Vick and Tyrann Mathieu, from Amos Alonzo Stagg to Chip Kelly, from the jump shift to the spread offense, from world wars to integration, from the 1925 Rose Bowl to the 2013 Iron Bowl, learn what made college football so unique, maddening, and addictive.

This is not a book about college football's best teams; it's a book about college football at its best.

Indeed, it isn’t a book about the best teams of all time. The title is a bit of misdirection. But ‘best ever’ is still a super-interesting topic. Using Estimated S&P+, I dove into it here and at SB Nation last offseason:

Because I’m super restless waiting for the book to come and for people to read it, I thought we’d undergo a bit of an experiment. To get into the right historical frame of mind, let’s run a dream season of our own. Here’s what we’re going to do:

  1. We’re going to pit national champions from the last 128 years against each other. In the many instances in which more than one team claims a title from a given year, I’ll use Estimated S&P+ to determine the participant — the highest-rated team gets in.
  2. We’ll break them up into four ‘regions’ based on the year. Teams from 1889-1920 go in one region, from 1921-52 in another, from 1953-84 in another, and 1985-2016 in another.
  3. Within each ‘region,’ we’ll seed the teams based on Estimated S&P+.
  4. To simulate each game, we’ll determine win probability based on each team’s Estimated S&P+ rating, then use a random number generator to determine the winner.
  5. We’ll unveil the results over a series of posts in the coming days/weeks.

Sounds fun, right? (Lie to me and say it sounds fun.)

This is not an experiment to determine the best team ever — I can just spit out a list for that (and I have done just that). This is an experiment to combine the a sense of “best ever” with the randomness of a best-of-1 tournament. It’s Dream Season mashed together with March Madness and Excel. It’s not an experiment at all, really, just an exercise in time killing.

So without further adieu, let’s unveil the brackets. Teams included in The 50 Best* are in bold.


1889-1920 Region

1902 Michigan head coach Fielding Yost
Wikimedia Commons
  • (1) 1902 Michigan vs. (32) 1889 Princeton
  • (16) 1905 Yale vs. (17) 1913 Auburn
  • (8) 1891 Yale vs. (25) 1895 Yale
  • (9) 1892 Yale vs. (24) 1901 Michigan
  • (5) 1920 California vs. (28) 1907 Yale
  • (12) 1896 Princeton vs. (21) 1915 Cornell
  • (4) 1900 Yale vs. (29) 1910 Harvard
  • (13) 1917 Georgia Tech vs. (20) 1906 Princeton
  • (6) 1890 Harvard vs. (27) 1894 Yale
  • (11) 1918 Pitt vs. (22) 1904 Michigan
  • (3) 1903 Michigan vs. (30) 1897 Penn
  • (14) 1916 Army vs. (19) 1909 Yale
  • (7) 1914 Texas vs. (26) 1898 Harvard
  • (10) 1912 Harvard vs. (23) 1899 Harvard
  • (2) 1908 LSU vs. (31) 1911 Penn State
  • (15) 1893 Yale vs. (18) 1919 Centre

College football used to be even more homogenous than it is today. Among these 32 teams, there are nine Yales, five Harvards, four Michigans, and three Princetons. But you do still have a smattering of Auburns and Cornells and LSU, as well. And, of course, the 1919 Centre Praying Colonels.

One surprise: John Heisman’s amazing 1917 Georgia Tech team is only the 13 seed. Opponent adjustments aren’t particularly kind to that squad. In 1918, Heisman arranged a battle with mighty Pitt, but unfortunately most of the Tech squad had enlisted to fight in World War I.

1921-52 Region

Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard, stars of 1945 Army
Army athletics
  • (1) 1945 Army vs. (32) 1950 Oklahoma
  • (16) 1937 Pitt vs. (17) 1928 USC
  • (8) 1934 Alabama vs. (25) 1923 Yale
  • (9) 1948 Michigan vs. (24) 1926 Alabama
  • (5) 1946 Notre Dame vs. (28) 1936 Minnesota
  • (12) 1949 Notre Dame vs. (21) 1935 Princeton
  • (4) 1930 Alabama vs. (29) 1938 TCU
  • (13) 1939 Texas A&M vs. (20) 1952 Michigan State
  • (6) 1944 Army vs. (27) 1921 California
  • (11) 1924 Notre Dame vs. (22) 1933 Michigan
  • (3) 1931 USC vs. (30) 1941 Minnesota
  • (14) 1922 California vs. (19) 1951 Tennessee
  • (7) 1943 Notre Dame vs. (26) 1947 Notre Dame
  • (10) 1925 Alabama vs. (23) 1940 Minnesota
  • (2) 1932 USC vs. (31) 1942 Ohio State
  • (15) 1929 USC vs. (18) 1927 Georgia

Estimated S&P+ says 1945 Army is the best team of all time. (You can read the 1945 Army chapter of 50 Best here.) That the Cadets are the No. 1 seed in this region is no surprise. But I was curious how the rest of the seeding would work out.

The 1947 Notre Dame team, for instance, had more future pros on it than potentially any other team that ever existed, but head coach Frank Leahy would basically operate with shift changes, inserting the second string for quarters at a time, and in part because of that, the Irish didn’t really pull away from that many opponents. Plus, by 1947, most teams in the midwest were refusing to play Notre Dame. So schedule adjustments weren’t incredibly kind.

Meanwhile, here’s your reminder that Howard Jones’ USC teams were incredible. The No. 2, 3, 15, and 17 teams in this ‘region.’

1953-84 Region

  • (1) 1971 Nebraska vs. (32) 1980 Georgia
  • (16) 1981 Clemson vs. (17) 1979 Alabama
  • (8) 1972 USC vs. (25) 1962 USC
  • (9) 1982 Penn State vs. (24) 1983 Miami
  • (5) 1977 Notre Dame vs. (28) 1984 BYU
  • (12) 1954 Ohio State vs. (21) 1958 LSU
  • (4) 1974 Oklahoma vs. (29) 1957 Auburn
  • (13) 1953 Maryland vs. (20) 1956 Oklahoma
  • (6) 1978 USC vs. (27) 1963 Texas
  • (11) 1973 Alabama vs. (22) 1955 Oklahoma
  • (3) 1966 Notre Dame vs. (30) 1968 Ohio State
  • (14) 1961 Alabama vs. (19) 1964 Alabama
  • (7) 1965 Michigan State vs. (26) 1969 Texas
  • (10) 1975 Oklahoma vs. (23) 1967 USC
  • (2) 1959 Syracuse vs. (31) 1960 Minnesota
  • (15) 1970 Texas vs. (18) 1976 Pittsburgh

As I’ve written before, the 1980 Georgia team might have been one of the least spectacular teams of all-time ... hell, it might have been the least impressive Herschel Walker team at Georgia. But the Dawgs pulled off dramatic finish after dramatic finish.

By the way, opponent adjustments aren’t that kind to Bud Wilkinson’s mid-1950s Oklahoma teams, either. The Sooners won 47 straight, but very few of them were against good teams. The Big 6/7 barely qualified as a power conference at the time. Hell, it probably didn’t.

1985-2016 Region

FedEx BCS National Championship Game - Oklahoma v Florida
Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow of 2008 Florida
Marc Serota/Getty Images
  • (1) 2008 Florida vs. (32) 2002 Ohio State
  • (16) 1999 Florida State vs. (17) 2009 Alabama
  • (8) 1996 Florida vs. (25) 1992 Alabama
  • (9) 2014 Ohio State vs. (24) 1994 Nebraska
  • (5) 1991 Washington vs. (28) 2010 Auburn
  • (12) 1987 Miami vs. (21) 2000 Oklahoma
  • (4) 1993 Florida State vs. (29) 1989 Miami
  • (13) 2004 USC vs. (20) 2013 Florida State
  • (6) 2012 Alabama vs. (27) 1986 Penn State
  • (11) 2015 Alabama vs. (22) 2007 LSU
  • (3) 1995 Nebraska vs. (30) 1990 Colorado
  • (14) 2016 Clemson vs. (19) 1997 Nebraska
  • (7) 2001 Miami vs. (26) 2006 Florida
  • (10) 2011 Alabama vs. (23) 1985 Oklahoma
  • (2) 2005 Texas vs. (31) 1998 Tennessee
  • (15) 1988 Notre Dame vs. (18) 2003 LSU

If you’ve read any of the history pieces above, you know how much my numbers loved the trio of great 2008 teams — Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas. It regards OU the most highly, actually, despite the neutral-field losses to Florida and Texas. But despite grading out as the No. 2 team of 2008, Florida still grades out No. 1 since 1985.

Another point of contention from readers: S&P+ only likes 2001 Miami — it doesn’t love the Canes. Again, schedule adjustments are an issue. Plus, as with 1947 Notre Dame, it’s all how you do the grading. 2001 Miami had an absurd number of future pros but struggled to get past two decent-not-great 8-4 teams (Boston College, Virginia Tech) and didn’t get to face a great opponent in the BCS title game.

Still, the Canes grade out better than 20 other national champs from the era, though, so we’re picking nits.

Later this week, it’s time to get rolling with the simulations. One final note: Any time we compare teams from era, a lot of people go down the “How in the world would you compare [recent great team] to [super old great team]? Players from [recent great team] are so much more athletic! No way would a team with 200-pound linemen have a chance!” road.

Don’t.

Teams are judged based on how superior they were to their peers. Yes, 1917 Georgia Tech would probably get waxed by 2016 Clemson — among other reasons, all the players from 1917 Georgia Tech are dead.

This is all based on in-season superiority. Open your imaginations a bit.