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Anti-Parity and the 1971 College Football Season

This post was prompted by the good discussion taking place on Scipio Tex's Oklahoma Preview. The conversation starter was the fact that my ratings had 1971 as Oklahoma's best team despite their loss to Nebraska. While you can read the rest of the discussion there, the short answer is that the 1971 season was full of great teams. Here is the final Top 15 in my 1971 ratings, which includes all the teams that will be discussed below:

1971 Top 15
Rank Team Rating Record PF PA All-Time Rank PATR
1 Nebraska 116.54 13-0 507 104 1 95
2 Oklahoma 106.53 11-1 534 217 5 190
3 Alabama 101.51 11-1 368 122 19 285
4 Colorado 93.14 10-2 370 220 163 380
5 Auburn 91.95 9-2 335 182 221 475
6 Georgia 88.83 11-1 360 115 420 570
7 LSU 86.75 9-3 353 153 604 665
8 Tennessee 86.32 10-2 270 121 654 760
9 Penn St. 85.89 11-1 484 137 717 855
10 Ole Miss 84.46 10-2 363 222 903 950
11 Michigan 83.44 11-1 421 83 1051 1045
12 Arizona St. 83.29 11-1 462 201 1070 1140
13 Houston 82.27 9-3 339 199 1243 1236
14 Iowa St. 81.91 8-4 337 250 1305 1331
15 Toledo 81.46 12-0 383 96 1406 1426

The PATR column stands for the predicted all-time rank based on their season rank. It is simply applying the team's percentile rank from the season to the number of all-time teams, telling us how a team from an average season with each team's rank would have fared in the all-time standings.

What that column shows is that the top of the 1971 season is way ahead of where they would be predicted to be. Only at #10 does it essentially even out with predicted rankings. The question is why? Well, off-the-field factors such as the integration of college football play their part and are fair game for discussion. But what I was interested in looking at, shockingly enough, was the numbers. What happened during that season that caused the top teams to be rated so highly? I started out by looking at the Big 8's teams and went from there. Note that for all games the visiting team is listed first.

1971 Big 8 Non-Conference Games - Top 4 Teams

Colorado 31, LSU 21
Colorado 20, Ohio St. 14
Iowa St. 44, New Mexico 20
Oklahoma 55, Pittsburgh 29
Iowa St. 17, Kent 14
Oklahoma 48, Texas 27 - Texas finished 8-3 and #19 in the ratings.
Iowa St. 48, San Diego St. 31
Nebraska 45, Hawaii 3
Oregon 7, Nebraska 34
Idaho 7, Iowa St. 24
Minnesota 7, Nebraska 35
SMU 0, Oklahoma 30
Wyoming 13, Colorado 56
Texas A&M 7, Nebraska 34
Southern Cal 20, Oklahoma 33 - Southern Cal finished 6-4-1 and #17 in the ratings.
Utah St. 6, Nebraska 42
Air Force 17, Colorado 53

In non-conference regular season play, the powerful trio of Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Colorado went a combined 13-0 and outscored their opponents by an average of 26.5 points per game. And this wasn't a case of just beating up patsies. Against teams that finished in the Top 35 teams that year, the threesome went 7-0 and won those games by an average of over 21 points. Throw in Iowa St. and the Top 4 Big 8 teams went 17-0 in their regular season non-conference games. Overall, even including the terrible Missouri team from that year, the Big 8 went 24-7-1 in their non-conference slate. Meaning that even the dregs of the conference managed a .500 record against outsiders.

1971 Big 8 Bowl Game Results

Iowa St. 15, LSU 33
Colorado 29, Houston 17 - Houston finished 9-3 and #13 in the ratings.
Alabama 6, Nebraska 38
Auburn 22, Oklahoma 40

So adding the bowl games results, the top 3 Big 8 teams went 16-0 against non-conference opponents and won by an average of 25.4 points per game. This included three wins over Top 10 opponents in the ratings and ten wins over Top 35 opponents.

1971 SEC Non-Conference Games - Top 6 Teams

As powerful as the Big 8 was in 1971, the SEC had even more very good teams. Six teams from that conference finished the year in the Top 10 of my ratings.

Alabama 17, Southern Cal 10
Mississippi 49, Memphis 21
Georgia 28, Clemson 0
LSU 38, Wisconsin 28
Auburn 31, Georgia Tech 14 - Georgia Tech finished 6-6 and #24 in the ratings.
Mississippi 28, Tampa 27
Georgia 28, Georgia Tech 24
Colorado 31, LSU 21
Long Beach St. 13, Mississippi St. 29
Oregon St. 25, Georgia 56
Santa Barbara 6, Tennessee 48
Southern Miss 6, Alabama 42
Ten.-Chattanooga 7, Auburn 60
Texas A&M 0, LSU 37
Tulane 7, Georgia 17
Rice 3, LSU 38
Georgia Tech 6, Tennessee 10
Southern Miss 14, Auburn 27
Southern Miss 6, Mississippi 20
Clemson 13, Auburn 35
Houston 20, Alabama 34
Tulsa 3, Tennessee 38
South Carolina 6, Tennessee 35
Miami (FL) 3, Alabama 31
Ten.-Chattanooga 10, Mississippi 49
Notre Dame 8, LSU 28 - Notre Dame finished 8-2 and #16 in the ratings.
Tulane 7, LSU 36
Penn St. 11, Tennessee 31 - Penn St. finished 11-1 and #9 in the ratings.

So, the Top 6 teams in the SEC in 1971 went 27-1 in their regular season non-conference games with a 21.9 average margin. While their slate wasn't as difficult as the Big 8's best teams overall, they did go 9-0 against non-Big 8 Top 35 teams with a 16.2 average margin. The only loss, of course, was to Big 8 team Colorado. This means that taken as a group, the Top 4 Big 8 teams and the Top 6 SEC teams went a combined 42-0 in their regular season non-conference games.

1971 SEC Bowl Game Results

Mississippi 41, Georgia Tech 18
Georgia 7, North Carolina 3 - North Carolina finished 9-3 and #25 in the ratings.
Alabama 6, Nebraska 38
Auburn 22, Oklahoma 40
Iowa St. 15, LSU 33
Arkansas 13, Tennessee 14

Once again, the only losses were to Big 8 schools. Taking the same 10 teams together again and including bowl games, the Big 8's Top 4 and the SEC's Top 6 went a combined 46-0 against non-conference teams.

The Final Ratings and Rankings

The 1971 season, then, appears unparalleled in college football history in terms of a subset of teams clearly and completely differentiating themselves from the pack. I make that claim despite not researching any other particular season. I can do that because I know none of you are going to take the time to do the same analysis on another year. The resulting effect on the ratings reflects this declared fact. In order to convince you, I will now include some more stats.

If we also throw in conference games, the ten teams in our subset concluded the 1971 season with a final record of 84-0 against all other teams. And this is just the teams from two conferences. If we add Penn St., whose only loss was to Tennessee, the record goes to a ridiculous 95-0 against teams outside of those eleven. (Texas could have gotten in on the action but we got whipped by Arkansas. Also, the Houston Cougars lost only by one point to Arizona St., 14 points to Alabama, and 12 points to Colorado. A very strong team that season.)

In the final ratings, 9 of these 10 teams are in the Top 10, with only #14 Iowa State being left out. And, of course, adding Penn St. to the grouping accounts for the entire Top 10. This is partially assisted by the fact that the SEC did not play a complete round robin in 1971, so total losses for several of those teams were kept down. It's not just my ratings, either. Kenneth Massey's 1971 ratings have 8 of the teams in the top ten (9 with the Nittany Lions). 11-1 Michigan replaces 10-2 Tennessee in his set.

So it's pretty clear based on game results why this group dominates the top of that year's ratings. But why do the top 3 teams, and even top 5 teams, get an even bigger boost to the very top of the all-time rankings? The simple answer is that they blew out their competition all year long. Auburn, for example, had outscored their opponents 306-111 going into their final regular season game against Alabama. This included handing previously undefeated Georgia a 35-20 loss in their last game. They also had a win over Tennessee early in the year to their credit. So they went into that game against the Crimson Tide having established themselves as ahead of the rest of the pack. Alabama won that game 31-7, which, combined with their blowout wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee and victory over LSU, certainly made their case for best in the land. Convincing wins over other great teams obviously have a huge effect on not just ratings, but polls as well.

Meanwhile, over in the Big 8, Oklahoma had just hosted Nebraska. Going into the game, Oklahoma was 9-0 and had won their games by an average of 45-16. Nebraska was 10-0 with an average 39-6 win. In one of the greatest games ever, Nebraska prevailed 35-31. Oklahoma rebounded to beat up Oklahoma State in their final regular season game before beating Auburn 40-22 in the Sugar Bowl.

The same day that Oklahoma completed their recovery with their win over Auburn, Nebraska and Alabama faced off for the national championship. The Cornhuskers' dominating 38-6 win sent a clear message that they were far and away the best team in the nation, and Oklahoma's blowout over Auburn combined with being the only team that even got close to Nebraska meant they were a clear #2.

One Final Note on the 1971 Season

While I started looking at the season for this in order to better understand the ratings results, the research obviously revealed a lot more information than that. One thing I noted was how late in the year several teams retained undefeated records and amazing point margins. Here is a table showing a handful of teams and their season-to-date on the morning of November 25, 1971:


Undefeated Teams going into 11/25/1971
Team Record PF PA
Nebraska 10-0 389 64
Oklahoma 9-0 405 146
Alabama 10-0 331 77
Auburn 9-0 306 111
Penn St. 10-0 443 100
Michigan 11-0 409 70
Toledo 11-0 355 93

I can't even imagine the media hype, public interest, politicking, complaining, and general craziness that would be going on if that were to happen heading into Thanksgiving weekend this year. Replace Penn St. with Ohio St. and the situation could happen even with today's scheduling. The only good news would be that the SEC teams and Big 12 teams would eliminate each other. Essentially it would all boil down to another 2004 situation with a Big 8/12 team, an SEC team, a Big 10 team (replacing 2004's Pac-10 team), and an independent. But the larger number of teams heading into Thanksgiving weekend with justifiable arguments for the national championship game would amplify the media hype and BCS bitching by orders of magnitude. We can only hope.