Last week in “Point Spread Weekly,” I introduced a series using my Strength Ratings as the basis to determine the top 20 NFL teams of the last 20 years. This week I continue with college football, and, like the NFL, the team that checks in at No. 1 as the most statistically dominant team of the 21st century did not even win a national title.
Before unveiling the list of the top 20 teams from the last 20 years of college football, here’s a quick reminder of how I determine the ratings. Essentially, they are a statistical calculation that quantifies the margin by which a team has outplayed its competition. My Effective Strength Ratings are essentially a power rating that can be used to create a neutral-field point spread between teams, even from different seasons. In fact, using that logic and the top two teams on the list, the 2019 Ohio State team theoretically would have been a 2.6-point favorite over 2013 Florida State. The formula I have used to create these ratings has not changed in the 20 years I have done them, an important factor when comparing teams from different seasons or eras. It could be reasonably argued that because of numerous other factors that go into making lines, Ohio State wouldn’t be that big a favorite — or even a favorite at all — since it’s a statistical rating.
Here are my top 20 college football teams of the last 20 years, according to my Effective Strength Ratings. Remember these are 100% statistically based and are not impacted at all by teams’ eventual accomplishments. Nine of these teams won national championships. As always, your comments and feedback are welcome.
Top 20 college football teams by Effective Strength Ratings since 2000
1. 2019 OHIO STATE: + 43.5
Record: 13-1 SU and 9-5 ATS
Recap: Ohio State’s 2019 season was a benchmark campaign by statistical standards. But the Buckeyes came up short in the College Football Playoff, losing to Clemson 29-23 in the semifinals. They are one of three 2019 teams on this list, as the race for No. 1 was quite entertaining last year among OSU, Clemson and LSU. Quarterback Justin Fields was the big name on offense, end Chase Young led the defense and rookie head coach Ryan Day guided the Buckeyes to their best year ever — at least as far as stats go.
2. 2013 FLORIDA STATE: + 40.9
Record: 14-0 SU and 11-3 ATS (national champion)
Recap: The Seminoles won the national championship by beating Auburn 34-31. To show the level of respect oddsmakers had, FSU was a hefty 11.5-point favorite in the title contest. This was coach Jimbo Fisher’s fourth year atop the Florida State program after taking over for longtime coach Bobby Bowden. The offense, led by QB Jameis Winston, scored 51.6 PPG and topped 50 points seven times.
3. 2005 TEXAS: + 39.7
Record: 13-0 SU and 11-2 ATS (national champion)
Recap: This is the Vince Young team that defeated USC in the Rose Bowl for the national title in a game considered one of the best in college football history. Young threw for more than 3,000 yards and ran for 1,000-plus in winning the Heisman Trophy. Texas outscored opponents by an incredible 50.2-16.4 per game, beat four teams by over 50 points and went 11-2 ATS.
4. 2001 MIAMI: + 36.6
Record: 12-0 SU and 7-5 ATS (national champion)
Recap: After coach Butch Davis guided Miami to an 11-1 season in 2000, he left for the Cleveland Browns of the NFL. His replacement, Larry Coker, took the Hurricanes a step further the next season, going undefeated and winning the national title. Miami was dominant, particularly on defense, holding teams to 9.8 points per game behind players like S Ed Reed and LB Jonathan Vilma. The offense was paced by RB Clinton Portis and WR Andre Johnson. Those four plus many others from that team became NFL starters. The Hurricanes whipped Nebraska 37-14 in the Rose Bowl to culminate the championship season.
5. 2016 ALABAMA: + 36.1
Record: 14-1 SU and 10-5 ATS
Recap: In last week’s look at the NFL, New England took up a lot of space on the top 20 list. Alabama fills a similar role for the colleges, occupying five spots. Interestingly, the Tide team that was best statistically, the 2016 version, was not one of its national championship squads. That team wound up 14-1, losing to Clemson 35-31 in the title contest. The 2016 ’Bama team had the best defensive unit of the last 20 years, according to my per-play numbers. Allowing 13 PPG and 4.0 yards per play, the defense was led by several future NFL stars, including Reuben Foster, Jonathan Allen and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Before the championship game, the closest this team had come to losing was a 10-0 decision at LSU in early November.
6. 2018 CLEMSON: + 36.1
Record: 15-0 SU and 9-6 ATS (national champion)
Recap: The 2018 Tigers became the first team in college football history to win 15 games in a season, and they earned that honor by beating an Alabama team that was seeking the same distinction in the championship game. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence starred for Clemson after taking over for Kelly Bryant about a quarter of the way through the season in a controversial decision by coach Dabo Swinney. The Tigers were 1-4 ATS in their first five games but 8-2 ATS thereafter while outscoring teams by 36.1 PPG. The exclamation point on the incredible run was a 44-16 rout of Alabama in the CFP title game.
7. 2008 FLORIDA: + 35.9
Record: 13-1 SU and 11-2 ATS (national champion)
Recap: The 2008 Gators were the fourth of coach Urban Meyer’s six teams at Florida. They were led by Heisman Trophy-winning QB Tim Tebow, who accounted for 30 TDs passing and 12 rushing. After a one-point Game 4 loss to Ole Miss, Tebow famously proclaimed that no team would work harder the rest of the season to make up for it. The Gators sure did, ripping their next eight opponents by at least 28 points and posting double-digit wins in the SEC and national championship games. Meyer’s team won its final nine games against the spread and had a 25.8-point average victory margin in its four games with single-digit point spreads.
8. 2019 LSU: + 35.4
Record: 15-0 SU and 10-4-1 ATS (national champion)
Recap: You don’t have to think too far back to remember this incredible LSU team. Led by coach Ed Orgeron and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow, the Tigers saved their best football for when it counted most, slicing through their last four highly respected opponents by 30.5 PPG despite being favored by only an average of 11.4. Burrow had what is widely considered the best year ever for a college QB, throwing for 60 touchdowns and 5,671 yards. The list of players from this team who will become household names in the NFL is long.
9. 2019 CLEMSON: + 35.1
Record: 14-1 SU and 11-4 ATS
Recap: It’s fitting that the 2019 Clemson team is a notch below the LSU team from the same year, as that’s how they ended the CFP championship contest. Statistically the teams were pretty even, but LSU was playing better at the time and was made a 4.5-point favorite for the title game. The Tigers flew below the radar for much of 2019 as Ohio State (No. 1 above) and LSU captured the headlines. Coach Dabo Swinney’s team was fantastic on both sides of the ball, however, and rewarded backers with an 11-4 ATS mark, including wins in its final five games before the title-game loss.
10. 2001 FLORIDA: + 35
Record: 10-2 SU and 8-4 ATS
Recap: Florida’s second entry on the top 20 list was coach Steve Spurrier’s final season before leaving for the NFL. But these Gators are the first team on the list with multiple defeats, losing to Auburn and Tennessee as double-digit favorites. Many experts put this team on a short list of best ones never to win a title, with a talented core that included QB Rex Grossman, RB Earnest Graham, LB Alex Brown and CB Lito Sheppard. While Spurrier’s team was only 10-2, the average victory margin was 36.5 PPG.
11. 2011 ALABAMA: + 34.4
Record: 12-1 SU and 9-4 ATS (national champion)
Recap: Coach Nick Saban has won five national titles at Alabama. The second, with the 2011 group, is the first to appear on the list of statistically dominant teams. The Tide were 12-1, with the only loss a 9-6 slugfest at home vs. LSU, which they eventually beat for the national title. The rematch was a much different result, a 21-0 shutout in which the Tigers were held to 92 total yards. That was nothing new for Alabama, as it was defensively smothering, holding teams to a 20-year low of 8.2 PPG. Dont’a Hightower, Mark Barron and Courtney Upshaw are just a few of that unit’s stars who went on to the NFL.
12. 2000 FLORIDA STATE: + 34.3
Record: 11-2 SU and 6-6-1 ATS
Recap: The first season of the 21st century produced the No. 12 team on the list, Florida State, which fell to Oklahoma 13-2 in the BCS title game. These Seminoles were led by QB Chris Weinke, who won the Heisman Trophy at the refined age of 28. They were highly respected by oddsmakers after having won the national championship the previous season, and as a result they wound up just 6-6-1 ATS despite outscoring opponents by an average of 39.3-10.5. Besides the Orange Bowl loss, FSU suffered another defeat, falling to Miami 27-24.
13. 2018 ALABAMA: + 34.1
Record: 14-1 SU and 8-7 ATS
Recap: The 2018 Alabama team was one of the best statistical teams to not only lose in a national title contest but to get walloped in doing so. The Tide were a five-point favorite against Clemson only to get beat 44-16 while yielding a season-high 482 yards. This was another team that faced huge expectations and, while going 8-7 ATS, lost four of its final five games against the Vegas number. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had a huge season, throwing for 43 TDs against just 6 INTs, and the collection of talent across all phases was unreal.
14. 2008 USC: + 33
Record: 12-1 SU and 8-5 ATS
Recap: Surely you figured that one of the Leinart-Bush-White teams would be the best USC team to make this list. We will see them later, but the most statistically dominant Trojans team of the century and of the Pete Carroll era was the 2008 version, led by QB Mark Sanchez and LB Clay Matthews. This team wasn’t in the national title picture after a shocking 27-21 Game 3 loss at Oregon State as a 24-point favorite, but it did win its last 10 games by an average score of 38-8, culminating with a 38-24 win over Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
15. 2017 ALABAMA: + 32.6
Record: 13-1 SU and 6-8 ATS (national champion)
Recap: If you’re getting a bit tired of hearing about Alabama, it’s getting equally tiresome finding something unique to say about Nick Saban’s teams’ dominance. The 2017 Tide were national champions, beating SEC rival Georgia 26-23 in overtime on a walk-off 42-yard bomb from QB Tua Tagovailoa to WR DeVonta Smith. Like most other ’Bama teams, this one played under the scrutiny of intense expectations. With a 6-8 ATS record, this is the first team on our list to finish below .500 at the betting window. Besides Tagovailoa, QB Jalen Hurts, RB Damien Harris, WR Calvin Ridley, DE Raekwon Davis and S Minkah Fitzpatrick were this team’s stars.
16. 2012 ALABAMA: + 32.5
Record: 13-1 SU and 7-7 ATS (national champion)
Recap: Yeah, yeah, yeah … Alabama again. The 2012 version went 13-1 and beat Notre Dame 42-14 for the national championship. Its lone loss was a 29-24 setback at Texas A&M, led by QB Johnny Manziel. The Tide repeated as national champs with QB A.J. McCarron, RB Eddie Lacy and WR Amari Cooper leading the offense and LB C.J. Mosely, S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and others anchoring the defense.
17. 2011 LSU: + 32.4
Record: 13-1 SU and 10-4 ATS
Recap: I discussed earlier the 2011 Alabama team that won the national championship. The team it beat in the title game checks in at No. 17. LSU went 13-1, including a 9-6 regular-season win over the Tide. The Tigers were also the SEC champions after a 42-10 blowout of Georgia in the conference title game. Although not a national title team like the 2007 group, this was coach Les Miles’ best season with LSU. The Tigers were considered better defensively than offensively, and the defense was led by S Tyrann Mathieu.
18. 2002 KANSAS STATE: + 32.3
Record: 11-2 SU and 8-3 ATS
Recap: The true college football aficionado won’t be surprised to see this Kansas State team check in among the top 20. This team was extremely dominant but failed to garner national title consideration thanks to two midseason losses by a combined seven points. If you’re thinking of Michael Bishop as quarterback, this isn’t one of those teams. This one had Ell Roberson as the running quarterback and Darren Sproles as the do-everything offensive threat. Take away those two losses and KSU was 11-0 SU and 8-1 ATS while outscoring teams by a 48.8-9.3 average margin.
19. 2013 BAYLOR: + 32.2
Record: 11-2 SU and 9-4 ATS
Recap: This is another team that could produce some confusion, as readers might assume the 2013 Baylor Bears were led by Robert Griffin III. No, this was a Bryce Petty-led Baylor team that went 11-2 and won the Big 12. He threw 32 TD passes against just three INTs. The Bears were a spread-covering machine in going 8-1 ATS out of the gate before oddsmakers caught up. For the rest of the season, they were 1-3 ATS, including a 52-42 loss to UCF in the Fiesta Bowl. In the last 20 years of college football, no team has averaged more points per game than 2013 Baylor at 52.4.
20. 2005 USC: + 31.7
Record: 12-1 SU and 6-7 ATS
Recap: I mentioned before that the team in the final spot on the top 20 list by Strength Rating is the 2005 USC Trojans, the star-studded group that lost to Texas in a memorable Rose Bowl. This team was 12-1 in a season highlighted by the controversial game at Notre Dame in which QB Matt Leinart was pushed into the end zone on a late sneak by fellow star RB Reggie Bush. The Trojans were the dominant team of the early part of the 2000s, and oddsmakers more than made up for it in setting lines. USC was just 6-7 ATS in what was nearly a third straight national championship year.
I’ll continue this series next week with a look at MLB’s top teams of the 21st century.