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How 2019 LSU fits into 11 different Best Team Ever debates

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“Best college football team ever” can mean so many different things.

Joe Burrow Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

College football has had so many Great Teams, we can’t agree on which 150 have been the best teams in each season, let alone which of those 150 is the best ever. I’m sure an obvious GOAT team’s name is jumping to your mind but right now, but rest assured: a different obvious GOAT is jumping to someone else’s. Therefore, we have a debate.

Immediately after the 2019 season’s title game, LSU threw its own name in the pile:

Since LSU went 15-0 against a rough schedule, blew away lots of people, and beat almost all the teams on its level, it’s fair to wonder how the Tigers fit into the GOAT conversations.

Well, conversations. Plural. Because not only will we never agree on which team was the best, we’ll never agree on what we mean by “best.” How college football is that?

Here are a few things people might mean when they call one team the greatest, along with how 2019 LSU compares in each conversation.

(And yes, this is an updated version of the 2018 Clemson GOAT arguments post.)

1. The 2001 Miami “wait a decade and then count the Pro Bowlers” argument

Some base their assessment of a college team on what its members do years later in the NFL. These Canes were one of several recent champs to be loaded with pro talent, leading to them being named the OPEN-AND-SHUT, UNDISPUTED GREATEST, per the internet.

But if we go by only what the 2001 Canes did as a college team, they’re hardly the only GOAT option. Most talented doesn’t necessarily mean greatest.

Their schedule strength was far from astounding. They had a couple close calls in Big East games. Relative to season peers, both SP+ and Sports-Reference.com’s SRS rate them below dozens of older teams and below or alongside several other 2000s teams.

And ... is Ken Dorsey definitely the QB of the best team ever?

How does 2019 LSU stack up? Probably decently, even if it doesn’t produce a couple Pro Football Hall of Famers. It’s too early to guess about future careers. We do know the Tigers have a load of pros, as always.

And if we wanna talk NFL, then 2019 LSU has something the 2001 Canes didn’t: a quarterback likely to start more than 13 games as a pro. Heisman winner and probable #1 pick Joe Burrow gives the Tigers a gigantic advantage over the ‘01 Canes at the most important position.

Burrow had probably the best passing season in college history, unless you wanna adjust hard for era. Miami’s Dorsey finished #17 in 2001 passer rating. These are not the same.

If only due to Burrow, I hope the internet’s “Canes, best team, hands down, not a question, anything else is heretical” arguers are feeling a tiny bit of doubt right now, even if they won’t admit it.

2. The 1995 Nebraska “scoreboard” argument

The internet’s other hurried response to the Best Team Ever question. As with ‘01 Miami, you’ll hear people say, “it’s ‘95 Nebraska, and there is no argument.” Well, you Miami people and you Nebraska people disagree with each other, and other people disagree with both of you, so there is an argument.

The ‘95 Huskers would be a fine choice! Their case is sheer, hilarious dominance. Joyful wind sprints up and down the field as opponents cry themselves to sleep.

(We could call this the 1902 Michigan argument, but running up a margin of 550-0 is out of the question, so let’s stick to modernity.)

These Huskers finished with an average score of 53-15. They aren’t the only champ to post a margin that stupid, but their 62-24 humiliation of #2 Florida in the championship made them synonymous with the concept.

A couple similar, recent champs:

  • 2013 Florida State posted a 52-12 average score, squeaking past Auburn at the end.
  • 2005 Texas hit you with a 50-16 average, beating #2 USC by a nose.

How does 2019 LSU stack up? LSU’s average differential is 48-22 ... against a clearly tougher schedule than the other teams in this group. We’ll get to that.

3. The 1999 Florida State “wire-to-wire” argument

The first to rank as AP #1 from preseason all the way to the post-bowls poll (with asterisks, because some others probably would’ve done it if such polls had existed at the time). 2004 USC would do it as well.

How does 2019 LSU stack up? LSU started #6 and was #1 in one ranking or another by November. Doubt the Tigers care about this much right now.

4. The 1897 Penn “15-0” argument

That was the last FBS-level team to go 15-0 before 2018 Clemson and 2019 LSU.

How does 2019 LSU stack up? Per my calculations, 1897 Penn didn’t beat Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, or Clemson, so I’m going to say this is a strong point on LSU’s resume. 1897 Penn also didn’t play Yale, Princeton, or Army. 1897 Penn ain’t played nobody.

(Also, it would be perfectly reasonable to only consider teams from after college football fully integrated. If you’d like to do that, strike every pre-1970s team from this post.)

5. The 1945 Army “loaded roster, for the time period” argument

Simply put: how much does your team look like a contemporary all-star team? A mid-World War II Army got to stack its roster to a degree not possible at any other point in history.

How does 2019 LSU stack up? Nobody can ever top Army at this.

But having arguably the all-time most dominant Heisman winner gives the Tigers a leg up on most other champions in this argument (plus there’s Biletnikoff winner Ja’Marr Chase, consensus All-American DBs Grant Delpit and Derek Stingley, the usual champions’ load of all-conference guys, and coach-award winners Ed Orgeron and Joe Brady).

6. The 1971 Nebraska 2019 LSU “beating lots of good teams” argument

Which champ slapped aside the most pretenders to its throne?

1971’s Huskers pummeled almost everyone, including wins over final #2 Oklahoma, #3 Colorado, and #4 Alabama, plus #17 Iowa State.

A team in the Playoff era beating the entire rest of the final top four would be one thing (nobody’s done it yet), but imagine pulling that off in the pre-BCS era.

How does 2019 LSU stack up? This is the case for LSU. In this regard, ‘71 Nebraska has been topped, and I can’t believe it happened. LSU beat:

  • Final #2 Clemson by 17
  • #4 Georgia by 27
  • #6 Florida by 14
  • #7 Oklahoma by 35
  • #8 Alabama by 5 in Tuscaloosa
  • #14 Auburn by 3
  • #25 Texas by 7 in Austin
  • And #26 (also receiving votes) Texas A&M by 43

There’s more to life than just schedule strength, but it adds so much to the story here. TeamRankings grades LSU’s schedule the second-hardest of any 2019 team.

You can even note Clemson beat #3 Ohio State and Auburn beat #5 Oregon, giving LSU at least a transitive win over the entire rest of the top eight.

There are plenty of valid national champs who had fewer top-25 wins than 2019 LSU has top-10 wins. The Playoff makes this kind of achievement more likely, but also means teams must risk their records more frequently. Even within the Playoff era, I bet this will stand out as special forever.

7. The 1971 Nebraska “advanced stats” argument

If the former is now the 2019 LSU argument, then this is now the 1971 Nebraska argument.

The ‘71 Huskers are SP+’s highest-rated undefeated/untied team since World War II and SRS’ highest-rated unblemished team outside of the wildly skewed 1940s.

How does 2019 LSU stack up? SRS isn’t blown away by these Tigers, grading them as a pretty standard undefeated national champ. I’ll update this once SP+ ratings are out, but I’d expect something similar there.

And since 2019 was unusually loaded at the top, several computer ratings finished with Clemson or Ohio State #1 instead of LSU, fwiw. The computers will always disagree with each other a little bit in every year.

8. The 2005 Texas “great champ beat another worthy team in a classic game” argument

If you win the BEST GAME EVER, that makes you the BEST TEAM EVER, right?

How does 2019 LSU stack up? LSU made Clemson look roughly as good as 2019 Texas, so this game was light on fourth-quarter drama. That’s obviously to LSU’s credit, but will hurt their “I just watched that old game yet again on ESPN Classic” Nostalgia Score.

9. The “pretend these two former champs are gonna play an actual time-warp game against each other, so just pick the most recent champ” argument

Forget era-adjusting. Which undefeated champ would win if you time-traveled all of them into a tournament and let them play on January 14, 2020?

How does 2019 LSU stack up? This is the most entertaining argument because it’s the hardest to prove one way or the other. But considering how quickly the athletic ceiling seems to advance from era to era, the temptation is to just pick the most recent champ as the team that would win a real game.

2019 LSU beat 2019 Clemson by 17. Would 2019 LSU beat 2018 Clemson, which was basically the same team, but with a whole NFL defensive line?

Sounds fun! I don’t know.

10. A little bit of everything!

There are so many valid contenders not mentioned in this post. Listing all of them wasn’t the intent of this blog, though. I’m just laying out what the arguments are, not every team that could possibly belong in them.

Since it’s impossible to even agree on how to judge such a thing, let’s pull each into one MECHA ARGUMENT.

How does 2019 LSU stack up? The Tigers’ GOAT case is imposing, thanks to that schedule and Burrow’s almost literally unbelievable season. And you’d pick LSU to dominate a modern game against any team outside of the 2010s, at very least.

Making era-to-era translations is always the fun/hard part of the puzzle, but if I want to stump for the 2019 Tigers (imo, it’s either them or ‘71 Nebraska), I’ll just keep listing the rankings of the teams they beat.

11. Your favorite team’s most favorable argument

This is the most crucial of all.

How does 2019 LSU stack up? Terribly, unless LSU is your favorite team.