The 25 Best College Football Teams of the 2010s: Nos. 10 to 1

By Nate Wilmot on April 10, 2020 at 8:30 am
Jan 18, 2020; Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA; LSU head coach Ed Oregon is presented the College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy during a celebration at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Russell Costanza-USA TODAY Sports
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Re-Introduction

Last week we started counting down the top 26 teams of the 2010s and ran through #26 - 11 (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). As a reminder, the methodology uses a combination of S&P+ and WAR to generate a quantitative understanding of the FBS college football landscape from 2010-2019. Today, we wrap it up and finish with the top-10 teams and there can be no argument to the accuracy and validity of this method.

Recap

  • 26. 2017 Penn State Nittany Lions
  • 25. 2014 Georgia Bulldogs
  • 24. 2012 Oregon Ducks
  • 23. 2011 LSU Tigers
  • 22. 2010 Oregon Ducks
  • 21. 2010 Alabama Crimson Tide
  • 20. 2013 Oregon Ducks
  • 19. 2010 Boise State Broncos
  • 18. 2011 Oklahoma State Cowboys
  • 17. 2018 Georgia Bulldogs
  • 16. 2014 Alabama Crimson Tide
  • 15. 2010 Ohio State Buckeyes
  • 14. 2019 Clemson Tigers
  • 13. 2012 Texas A&M Aggies
  • 12. 2013 Alabama Crimson Tide
  • 11. 2017 Alabama Crimson Tide

10. 2017 Ohio State Buckeyes (Cotton Bowl Champions)

The 2017 Ohio State team is one of the more memorable non-PSU teams for me in the last decade. If not for their personnel, it was for the moments. It opened the season on a Thursday night at Indiana and for the first half, it looked like the Hoosiers had a chance. That one is memorable because it was the week that we were evacuated from Hurricane Harvey. They followed that tough opener with a 31-16 loss at home to Oklahoma which became famous for the Baker Mayfield flag plant. In late-October, they played host to No. 2 Penn State. They overcame a 21-3 deficit midway through the second quarter to eventually win 39-38 in one of the more exciting college football regular-season games of the past few years. Of course, that win was followed by a 55-24 spanking at the hands of the Iowa Hawkeyes which eventually kept the Buckeyes out of the college football playoff. Wins over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship and USC in the Cotton Bowl closed the year out.

2017 Ohio State

9. 2016 Alabama Crimson Tide (National Runners-up)

Without giving too much away, I will tell you that five out of the top ten teams of the decade are Alabama. This is in addition to the program's other four inclusions between Nos. 25-11. In the 2016 season, they opened at the No. 1 team in the country and immediately destroyed the eventual Rose Bowl champion USC Trojans by 46 points. All totaled, the Tide played seven ranked teams in the regular season and beat them to the tune of 325-131 (with a 27.7 margin of victory per game). This version of Alabama entered the playoff as the No. 1 seed and faced the one-loss PAC 12 champion Washington Huskies. The other side of the bracket matched No. 2 Ohio State, who didn’t win their conference or division, against Clemson. The national championship that pitted Alabama against Clemson was a rematch of the 2015 game, and seemingly a preview of the rest of our college football lives. In 2016, Clemson came out on top by a score of 35-31, ending Alabama's season.

2016 Alabama

8. 2011 Alabama Crimson Tide (National Champions)

See below.

7. 2018 Clemson Tigers (National Champions)

The 2018 Clemson Tigers come in at No. 7 overall and the disparity between SP+ and WAR is notable here as they are ranked as No. 19 and No. 5 respectively. The biggest drama of the regular season was the quarterback battle between incumbent starter Kelly Bryant and true freshman Trevor Lawrence. Over the first four games, the two split time before Coach Swinney gave the starting job to Lawrence outright ahead of the Syracuse game. Bryant left the team and the Tigers never looked back. They were never really tested the whole season and ended up winning the College Football Playoff by defeating Notre Dame and Alabama by a combined 74-19. Interestingly though, the SP+ does not like them as much as WAR (or the general consensus probably). In SP+, they had the No. 60 offense and No. 39 defense of the decade and in WAR they rank No. 23 (offense) and No. 11 (defense). There is very little that separates the teams at the top of these rankings and while they’re 7th here, there’s only one team in America with the 2018-2019 FBS championship trophy.

2018 Clemson

6. 2019 Alabama Crimson Tide (Citrus Bowl Champions)

The 2019 Tide will likely be forgotten to history. They didn’t win their division, conference, or the national title. So how do they end up 6th on this list? Well, they were 12th and 7th by SP+ and WAR offensive metrics respectively and in the top 10% defensively for the decade. From an advanced stats perspective, they were really good and if not for an untimely injury to Tua Tagovailoa they almost certainly would have been in the thick of the playoff race. As it went, while winning handily over Mississippi State, Tua took the field for “one last drive” that ended with him dislocating his hip and effectively spoiling the Tide’s hopes to return to the playoff. They finished the season with a dominating, but notably non-New Year's Six Citrus Bowl win over Michigan.

2019 Alabama

8. 2011 Alabama Crimson Tide (National Champions)

5. 2012 Alabama Crimson Tide (National Champions)

I’m combining the 2011 and 2012 Alabama teams who check-in at Nos. 8 and 5 on the rankings respectively since they’re basically the same teams. Both teams had solid offenses albeit without the same levels of firepower of some of the others near the top of the rankings. But where the '11 and '12 Tide teams shined were on defense. By WAR the 2011 Alabama had the No. 1 defense and 2012 was No. 2 for the decade. By SP+ they were 2nd and 16th and the 2011 team was the only of the decade to allow fewer than 10 PPG for an entire season. They gave up a scant 7.1 PPG (excluding the 21 points to Georgia Southern) which will likely never be matched at the FBS level. Offensively, both teams were quarterbacked by A.J. McCarron and had deep stables of future first-round running backs. Somehow though, both teams lost a game despite the defensive stinginess. In 2011, Alabama lost 9-6 at LSU before defeating them in the BCS National Championship and in 2012, they fell to our No. 13 Texas A&M Aggies. Neither of those losses changed the narrative that the 2011 and 2012 Alabama teams were easily two of the best teams of the decade.

2011 Alabama
2012 Alabama

4. 2019 LSU Tigers (National Champions)

Geaux Tigers. 2019 was a season of destiny for LSU. It’s not that they were underdogs going into the season, as they began with a No. 6 ranking, but it’s doubtful many people expected them to win it all. Their starting quarterback, Joe “did you know he transferred from Ohio State” Burrow, was pedestrian in 2018, completing just 58% of his passes at a 7.6 YPA rate with 16 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. The emerging stars of Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Ja’Marr Chase combined for less than 1,000 yards of offense in 2018 and they had a defense that gave up 74 points to Texas A&M in a single game (though those were, interesting circumstances). In 2019 things were different. With an offense coordinated in part by Joe “he used to be a Penn State GA” Brady, Burrow completed 76% of his passes for 10.8 YPA and 60 touchdowns versus 6 interceptions. Keep in mind that he threw the ball 150 more times in 2019 than 2018 and turned them into 44 more touchdowns and only 1 more pick. Edwards-Helaire and Chase combined for 3,500 yards of offense. The 2019 defense allowed more points than a traditional SEC national champion would typically yield (22 PPG) but when combined with one of the most productive offenses in history, it didn’t matter. LSU passed every test they faced on the road to the title game, defeating four teams that ended the year in the AP top-15 by a combined score of 148-99. They then obliterated Oklahoma 63-28 in the semi-final before smashing Clemson in the final, 42-25. Burrow finished his magical season with 6 more touchdowns.

2019 LSU

3. 2018 Alabama Crimson Tide (National Runners-Up)

Our final installment of Alabama is the 2018 squad. They didn’t win the national title but 2018 was a banner year for the Crimson Tide offense. By the advanced metrics, they had the 2nd (SP+) and 3rd (WAR) best offenses of the decade. Defensively, they were ranked 60 and 63 (again, out of 1263 teams) by SP+ and WAR. This team was one of the more dominant of the decade and had their biggest win of the season at No. 4 LSU where they won 29-0. After being on the good side of the Justin Fields Fake Punt in the SEC Championship Game, they played the Kyler Murray-led Oklahoma in the semi-finals. Alabama led 28-0 before the Sooners came back in the 2nd half to make the final score respectable. This set up Alabama-Clemson V for the national title. The Tide entered the game favored by 5.5 points but lost the turnover battle 2-0 on the back of 2 interceptions from Tagavioloa and ended up getting blown out by the final of 44-16. That loss, at that time, on that stage, certainly took some of the luster off of the 2018 Crimson Tide team but they still go down as a Top 3 squad for the 2010s

2018 Alabama

2. 2019 Ohio State Buckeyes (National Semi-Finalist)

The 2019 Ohio State team didn't make the championship game (don't remind them of that, though), but they do finish No. 2 on our list here. One may have thought that new head coach Ryan Day would need some time to prepare to maintain the levels of success that the Urban Meyer regime had. But, when you are blessed with the level of talent that the Buckeyes had, including former Penn State commit Justin Fields, things just fall into place. Ohio State steamrolled its first ten opponents in 2019 by an average of 51.5-9.8 and didn’t get their first test until the November 23 tilt home against Penn State. The Lions fought valiantly that day, causing opportune turnovers and clawed within four points late into the 3rd quarter. The Buckeyes were too much and secured the 28-17 victory. They went on to beat Michigan for the 75th consecutive time and won the Big Ten Championship Game over Wisconsin. Ultimately, the 2019 OSU season ended on a sour note when the Bucks fell to defending champ Clemson after a late Trevor Lawrence to Travis Etienne touchdown pass and a Fields interception. Legend has it that the officials cost Ohio State that game and the national title but, being a Penn State fan, I think that’s just a fairy tale.  

2019 Ohio State

1. 2013 Florida State Seminoles (National Champions)

We’ve reached the pinnacle. The top team of the decade is the 2013 Florida State Seminoles. And it’s the one place of exact agreement between the ratings systems. FSU, who opened the season ranked 11th started the season with a 41-13 win over an undoubtedly hostile few fans at Pitt and was never challenged until the BCS Championship at the Rose Bowl in early 2014. The Noles didn’t have the toughest slate of games in 2013 with only playing four ranked teams the whole way but they cruised to a 14-0 season and only allowed more than 17 points twice (34 to BC and 31 to Auburn) and didn’t score fewer than 34 points in any of their fourteen games. In their two biggest regular-season contests, against No. 3 Clemson and No. 7 Miami, they won by a combined 92-28. The 2013 FSU team was the single best combination of offense (11th by S&P+, 2nd by WAR) and defense (26th by S&P+, 12th by WAR) that the decade produced and fielded the following players: Jameis Winston (2013 Heisman Winner and No. 1 overall pick in 2015), Jalen Ramsey (5th pick in 2016), Cameron Erving (19th pick in 2015), and Kelvin Benjamin (28th pick in 2014). They were the champs in 2013 and they’re the champs for the decade.

2013 Florida State

Well, there we have it, a fully quantified, definitive ranking of the top-26 teams of the 2010’s. It was a long journey but now that the past is behind us, we’re ready to look to the future with a start on 2020. Are Nebraska and Texas truly back this year? How far can Penn State go with new Offensive Coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca and 2nd-year starter Sean Clifford? We’ll find out soon.

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