Before the BCS and the College Football Playoff, being the preseason No. 1 team was a big deal. During the era where rankings were a war of attrition and the best college football teams rarely played each other outside of their conference, a preseason No. 1 ranking gave a team a head start on its foes.
Today — especially this season — the ranking is mainly a point of pride as teams try to live up to the expectations that the college football world has set for them. Most finish respectably. Others fully live up to expectations. Here are the five that did it most beautifully.
5. 1966 Alabama Crimson Tide
Finished: 11-0, beating Nebraska 34-7 in the Sugar Bowl
Final Ranking: 3
Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide had a chance to three-peat as national champions and started the season atop the polls. However, Michigan State was moved to the top spot before Alabama even played its season opener against Louisiana Tech and that was that. The Tide remained perfect for the season, but all eyes were focused on Michigan State, Notre Dame and the two teams’ epic tie. Opinions vary on why Alabama was barely considered for the title, but all can agree that the ’66 squad was one of the best teams Bryant ever fielded.
4. 1974 Oklahoma Sooners
Finished: 11-0, banned from postseason play
Final Ranking: 1
There was a time when a program on NCAA probation was barred from appearing on television, regardless of how good they were. The best example of this is the 1974 Oklahoma Sooners. Only fans and reporters in the stadium were able to see Oklahoma and its eight All-Americans average 43 points a game and beat all but one of its opponents by at least 14 points. At the end of the season, the Sooners were the only undefeated team in the country and the sportswriters and coaches had no choice but to award them the national title.
3. 2004 USC Trojans
Finished: 13-0, beating Oklahoma 55-19 in the Orange Bowl
Final Ranking: 1, national title vacated following NCAA investigation.
Pete Carroll's defending national champion Trojans started the season No. 1 and became the second team in college football history to hold the top ranking for the entire season. This season was, of course, part of its 34-game winning streak from 2003-05. If USC had not had to vacate this championship because of NCAA violations, this Trojans team probably would be higher on this list.
2. 1999 Florida State Seminoles
Finished: 12-0, beating Virginia Tech 46-29 in the Sugar Bowl
Final Ranking: 1
Bobby Bowden’s best team was the first in history to go “wire-to-wire” in the modern era, meaning it started the preseason at No. 1 and held the ranking throughout the entire season. The Seminoles knocked off five ranked opponents, including an undefeated Virginia Tech team led by Michael Vick, to win Bowden’s second national championship.
1. 1956 Oklahoma Sooners
Finished: 10-0, not able to play in Orange Bowl because of rule prohibiting consecutive appearances
Final Ranking: 1
To channel Eminem in the final rap battle in “8 Mile,” the ’56 Sooners would likely lose to any of the other four teams on this list and they only played one team with a winning record. But Oklahoma tops this list because it entered the 1956 season as defending national champion having won 30 games in a row. The victories kept coming, as the ’56 team contributed to what eventually ended up being a 47-game winning streak, the greatest in college football history. The Sooners’ level of focus and success makes them the greatest preseason No. 1 of all time.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.