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Is Going Undefeated in College Football the Hardest in All of Sports?

ANN ARBOR, MI - NOVEMBER 30:  Quarterback Braxton Miller #5 of the Ohio State Buckeyes celebrates on the field with quarterback Kenny Guiton #13 and quarterback Cardale Jones #12 after defeating the Michigan Wolverines 42-41 in a game at Michigan Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Michael FelderNational CFB Lead WriterJanuary 10, 2017

There is a lot of talk revolving around the undefeated seasons that Ohio State, Florida State and Northern Illinois are putting together. With Alabama falling to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, the fourth remaining undefeated squad was no more. The Tide fell to the Tigers, ending the dreams of a BCS Championship, and again proving the point that going undefeated is hard work.

However, in the grand scheme of the American sporting experience, going undefeated through the ranks of college football falls into the world of possible. Actually, considering the relative improbability of going undefeated in other sports, finishing unblemished in college football would be considered easy, comparatively speaking.

For the Buckeyes, the Seminoles, Huskies and every team pushing to go undefeated before them, the season was a tough one. There have been ups and downs. Spots where things did not go as planned. Moments where injuries forced the squad to alter plans and find another way to get wins. It's certainly not easy.

Coaches have to game plan. More importantly, coaches have to find a way to get 100-plus 17-23-year-old kids operating at an optimum level every single week. That's twelve weeks in the regular season. Thirteen weeks if the league has a conference title game. Eighteen weeks when it gets down to the bowl prep. And that does not even include spring ball, fall camp or the bye weeks built into a season.

It is a hard thing to do. Especially, in an era where there is such great distribution of talent across the landscape. Throw in offenses designed to exploit defenses with teams giving the top teams their best shot, and losing a time or two is a lot easier than winning them all.

Yet, on the sports landscape, winning 13 or 14 in a row in college football is a lot easier than what athletes in other sports are asked to do. First, let's just throw out sports like the NHL, MLB and NBA where undefeated is not even a possible outcome that people dream about beyond jokes in the first few weeks of the season.

On the big scale, that leaves college basketball and the NFL. These are the two other major American sports where not only can it happen, but it has happened before. Both sports have "finishing undefeated" as a goal that is an impossible unicorn to chase down.

The 1972 Dolphins are the only undefeated team of the modern NFL
The 1972 Dolphins are the only undefeated team of the modern NFLAlex Wong/Getty Images

 

In the case of basketball, the history of NCAA champions shows seven total undefeated teams. Since the introduction of the tournament in 1939. For the modern era of the NFL only one team, the 1972 Miami Dolphins, has finished the season unblemished. Throw in the entire history of pro football and, as Football Geography lays out, you can add five more undefeated seasons to the mix, giving pro football six total undefeated records.

Of course, when you add in the 1948 Browns, you also get the 1929 Packers, the 1923 Canton Bulldogs, the 1922 Canton Bulldogs and the 1920 Akron Pros. The latter four all of course come undefeated but with ties on the record.

Seven in college basketball, none of which have come in the last 37 seasons. One in the unified NFL, 39 seasons ago. Six if you count the split pro champions, four of whom have ties on the record.

Meanwhile, in college football, there have been nine undefeated champions in the current BCS era of the college game. Nine undefeated teams over the last fifteen champions. More than half of the champions in the BCS era were perfect teams.

Undefeated BCS Champions
YearTeamRecord
1998Tennessee13-0
1999Florida State12-0
2000Oklahoma13-0
2001Miami12-0
2002Ohio State14-0
2004USC13-0
2005Texas13-0
2009Alabama14-0
2010Auburn14-0
Sports-Reference

Keep in mind, that list does not even include the eight other teams that finished unbeaten during the BCS era, but were not BCS Championship teams.

Undefeated Non-BCS Champions of BCS Era
YearTeamRecord
1998Tulane12-0
1999Marshall13-0
2004Auburn13-0
2004Utah12-0
2006Boise State13-0
2008Utah13-0
2009Boise State14-0
2010TCU13-0
2012Ohio State12-0 (Postseason Ineligible)
Sports-Reference

17 teams in 15 years. If ever there was a sport that was built for teams to have a shot at finishing unblemished, it is college football. Not basketball where champions are crowned with multiple losses on a year in and year out basis. Not the NFL where, outside of the 2007 Patriots, there is little motivation, or benefit, to wrapping up the season undefeated.

Finishing the college football season undefeated takes a hero's effort. It takes dominoes falling into the right place and good breaks on, and off, the field. Yet, as the numbers show, going undefeated on the collegiate gridiron is still worlds easier than finishing unblemished in the NFL or on the hardwood of college basketball.

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