Tip Top 25 in helmets, smaller

Fixing the Final 1971 AP College Football Poll

1) Nebraska 13-0
2) Oklahoma 11-1
3) Colorado 10-2
4) Alabama 11-1
5) Penn State 11-1
6) Michigan 11-1
7) Georgia 11-1
8) Arizona State 11-1
9) Tennessee 10-2
10) Stanford 9-3
11) Louisiana State 9-3
12) Auburn 9-2
13) Notre Dame 8-2
14) Toledo 12-0
15) Mississippi 10-2
16) Arkansas 8-3-1
17) Houston 9-3
18) Texas 8-3
19) Washington 8-3
20) Southern Cal 6-4-1
To the left is the final 1971 AP college football top 20. The fixed final AP poll, expanded to 25 teams, follows the article below. 

This is the only season that one conference finished #1-2-3 in the final AP poll, and it is highly unlikely to ever happen again. Many people over the years have presumed the Big 8 to be the best conference in 1971 because of this, but they were not. The SEC was even better, going 41-9-1 (.814) against nonconference opponents, the Big 8 just 28-8-1 (.770).

Furthermore, in this same season, the SEC did something just as remarkable as the Big 8's 1-2-3 finish, and perhaps moreso-- they fielded an amazing 6 top 10 teams! That will never happen again, either.

Wait, what's that you say? You only see 3 SEC teams in the top 10? Well, yes, that is by far the biggest problem with the 1971 AP poll. Time to get to work on it.
Johnny Rodgers punt return touchdown in the 1971 Nebraska-Oklahoma game
My painting of the play of the game of the century. Johnny Rodgers' famous punt return touchdown actually came early in Nebraska's see-saw 35-31 win over Oklahoma. His Heisman for it, however, came late, in 1972.

Colorado vs. Alabama

First of all, while there is little doubt that Nebraska and Oklahoma merited #1 and #2, there is considerable doubt about Colorado being legitimately #3. It's not as though they defeated #4 Alabama themselves-- and in fact they did not beat any top 10 teams. Alabama did, and altogether the Tide defeated 6 AP-rated teams, an incredibly rare feat. Colorado defeated just 2. And Alabama was very impressive, beating 10-2 Mississippi 40-6, 10-2 Tennessee 32-15, and 9-2 Auburn 31-7. Colorado posted no win as impressive as any of those 3. In my opinion, Alabama should definitely have been rated #3. The only reason they fell behind Colorado in the final poll is because Nebraska crushed them 38-6 in the Orange Bowl, but Colorado fared little better against the same opponent, losing to Nebraska 31-7 in the regular season.

Having said all that, just because a team plays a tougher schedule does not make them automatically better. Alabama did have 2 close wins, whereas Colorado had just 1. And Alabama won only 14-7 at Louisiana State, where Colorado won 31-21.

The difference in schedule toughness is quite massive, and placing Colorado ahead of Alabama strikes me as a very weak rating, but there is just enough performance leeway to hold my nose and let the AP poll have this one. No fix.


Auburn 1971 is a classic case of a type of AP voter ignorance we still see today. Auburn got rocked by #4 Alabama and #2 Oklahoma in their last 2 games, and fell all the way to #12-- behind 2 teams they had already beaten and who could not themselves defeat the likes of Alabama or Oklahoma. Look at this logically-- Auburn lost to #2 and #4, and they defeated #7 and #9, and no other opponent came within a touchdown of them. Where should they be rated? If you said #5 or #6, congratulations, you have at least a basic grasp of simple logic. If only 1971's sportswriters had been similarly blessed.

Auburn won at 11-1 Georgia 35-20, a decisive outcome, they beat 2 rated teams to Georgia's 1, and they outperformed Georgia too (2 close wins over unrated opponents for UGA, none for Auburn). This is not even a real debate.
Auburn's 10-9 win at 10-2 Tennessee was not as decisive, but it was on the road, and Tennessee performed even worse than Georgia, posting 3 close wins over unrated opponents and a 14-13 bowl win over #16 Arkansas. There is simply no doubt that Auburn should be ranked ahead of both.

#8 Arizona State (11-1) will be dropping anyway (as covered below), so we'll leave #7 Georgia where they are and simply move Auburn up ahead of them. That puts Auburn at #7, dropping Georgia, as well as all the teams that had been ranked between Georgia and Auburn, one spot each.

Tennessee and Penn State

10-2 Tennessee (now #10) defeated 11-1 Penn State (#5) 31-11, a convincing outcome, and there isn't much more to say than that. Penn State performed much better than Tennessee, and in fact they put up very impressive scores this season, but against a very weak schedule. They did beat 1 rated opponent, romping #18 Texas 30-6 in the Cotton Bowl, but none of that makes up for the fact that these 2 teams met on the field of play, and Tennessee whipped them.

Tennessee should be rated ahead of Penn State, and we'll place the 2 teams between Georgia and Arizona State. That makes Michigan #5, Auburn #6, Georgia #7, Tennessee #8, Penn State #9, and Arizona State #10. Michigan is way overrated here, but I need to get all the teams behind them put into their proper places before I can drop them (as covered below).

Mississippi and Louisiana State

The 1971 AP poll has given us a parade of ignored head-to-head results thus far. This time, it's #15 Mississippi's win over now-#12 Louisiana State 24-22. That was at home, and it may look like a close game, but actually the game was not really that close. Ole Miss jumped out 21-0, then put it in cruise control. LSU scored 2 late touchdowns to make the final score look close, but there was not enough time for them to do more than that. The AP poll's #15 ranking for a 10-2 SEC team is kind of baffling, since Ole Miss took both of their losses early, and they finished with a better straight record than LSU did as well (10-2 to 9-3).

LSU cannot drop, since they are already ranked right in front of Notre Dame, whom they beat 28-8, so we'll just move Ole Miss up ahead of LSU, where they belong. That puts Mississippi at #12, dropping Louisiana State, Notre Dame, and Toledo 1 spot each.


9-3 Stanford (now #11) upset 11-1 Michigan (now #5) 13-12 in the Rose Bowl, a terrific result. However, Stanford was also upset by 3, count 'em 3, unrated opponents-- losing 9-3 to 6-5 Duke, 24-23 to 4-7 Washington State, and 13-12 to 5-6-1 San Jose State. And all 3 of those embarrassments were at home! I certainly don't see how 1 big win even comes close to making up for all that, even if it was a bowl win.

The teams now behind Stanford, 10-2 Mississippi and 9-3 Louisiana State, took no upset losses at all, so there is no reasonable case to be made for Stanford being ranked ahead of them. A closer case is 9-3 Stanford vs. 8-2 Notre Dame, who sits behind LSU.

Notre Dame did take an upset, losing to #20 Southern Cal 28-14, a team Stanford beat 33-18 on the road. That plus Stanford's upset win over Michigan give Stanford an effective 2 game lead on Notre Dame. However, in the end, Stanford's 3 upset losses, all to teams that are nowhere near rated, and all at home, give Notre Dame a relevant record that is effectively 1 game better than Stanford's. And those 3 Stanford losses are just far too ugly to forgive.

So we'll drop Stanford behind Notre Dame, putting them at #14 and moving Mississippi, Louisiana State, and Notre Dame up 1 spot each. Stanford can remain ahead of 12-0 Toledo because Toledo played no one of any value at all.

Arizona State

Arizona State, originally ranked #8, was an 11-1 WAC team. They lost to 5-6 Oregon State, and their 1 win over a rated team came 18-17 at home over #17 Houston. Of course, that razor-close outcome itself testifies to the fact that they were not a top 10 team, as does their 45-38 Fiesta Bowl win over unrated Florida State. The teams now behind ASU, Mississippi and Louisiana State, took no upset losses, and both posted better wins than ASU's over Houston.

However, Notre Dame, who sits behind LSU, did take an upset loss, and the Irish did not beat a team as strong as ASU victim Houston. So ASU can remain ahead of Notre Dame.

Drop Arizona State behind Louisiana State, putting them at #12 and moving Mississippi and Louisiana State up 1 spot each.


Now we can deal with 11-1 Michigan, originally ranked #6. Michigan went 11-0 during the regular season, but they did not play a single rated opponent, and struggled down the stretch, beating unrated Purdue 20-17 and unrated Ohio State 10-7 in their last 2 games. Then they met their first rated opponent in the Rose Bowl and were "upset" by Stanford 13-12. Michigan compares very poorly with every one of the 6 SEC teams currently sitting right behind them, all of whom beat a rated opponent and none of whom lost to a lower-rated opponent. Let's cut to the chase and compare Michigan to now-#11 Louisiana State (9-3).

LSU's losses came to #3 Colorado, #4 Alabama, and now-#10 Mississippi. Mississippi's losses came to #4 Alabama and now-#7 Georgia. Georgia's 1 loss came to now-#6 Auburn. Auburn's only losses came to #2 Oklahoma and #4 Alabama. There is not an upset loss anywhere in the chain. Michigan lost to 9-3 Stanford, who lost to 3 unranked opponents-- and Michigan's loss came in their bowl game. Big advantage for LSU. LSU defeated now-#13 Notre Dame (8-2) 28-8, while Michigan defeated no rated opponent. LSU had 1 close win over an unrated opponent, Michigan 2. Game, set, and match.

Michigan was undoubtedly the most overrated team in this AP poll. Drop them behind Louisiana State, to #11, and move LSU, and everyone that had been rated between LSU and Michigan, up 1 spot each.


So there you have it-- an amazing 6 SEC teams in the top 10, and you won't see anything like that again. Sure, the AP poll may not have rated them that way originally, but as I have just demonstrated, they were simply flat-out wrong. These 6 SEC teams lost only to #1 Nebraska, #2 Oklahoma, #3 Colorado, and to each other-- not an upset loss in the bunch. And they played much tougher schedules than did Michigan and Arizona State, and posted better wins. Aside from wins against each other, we have Alabama winning at #20 Southern Cal 17-10, Alabama over #17 Houston 34-20, Georgia over 9-3 North Carolina (rated in fixed and expanded AP poll) 7-3 in the Gator Bowl, Tennessee over now-#8 Penn State (11-1) 31-11, Louisiana State over now-#13 Notre Dame (8-2) 28-8, plus 5 more wins by this group over nonconference teams that will make the fixed and expanded top 25. Simply an amazing year for the SEC.

Houston and Toledo

Houston's 9-3 record may look much worse than Toledo's 12-0, but Houston's losses all came to teams ranked higher than Toledo (Colorado, Alabama, and Arizona State), so there is no real or substantial difference between their records in the loss column. The two teams also performed about the same. The only difference? Houston beat 8-4 Florida State 14-7, and FSU is a nearly rated team, and in fact they'll make the fixed and expanded top 25, as detailed below. Toledo, on the other hand, beat no one of any consequence at all. Not even top 50.

Sitting between Houston and Toledo is 8-3-1 Arkansas, but they'll be dropping anyway (handled next), so let's just jump Houston up ahead of Toledo, to #15. That drops Toledo and Arkansas 1 spot each.

Texas and Arkansas

Here's a strange case. Texas went 6-1 in the SWC, winning the conference title and Cotton Bowl bid. Arkansas beat Texas, but they went 5-1-1 in SWC play, and on top of that, Arkansas also lost a game to 4-7 Tulsa. So naturally, at the end of the regular season, 8-2 Texas was ranked #12 and 8-2-1 Arkansas was ranked well behind them at #18. They both lost their bowl games to better opponents, Texas by 30-6 to Penn State and Arkansas by 14-13 to Tennessee. Result in the final poll? 8-3-1 Arkansas moved up to #16, while 8-3 Texas fell all the way back behind Arkansas, to #18.

That is a huge swing to hand out just because Arkansas lost by less than Texas did! Now, Arkansas also beat Texas by a big score, 31-7, so maybe writers were remembering that. But Arkansas lost 17-9 to Texas A&M, whom Texas beat 34-14, and Arkansas was tied by Rice, whom Texas beat 39-10. That makes them even in terms of performance, and it gives Texas a relevant record that is half a game better. Now add in Arkansas' home loss to 4-7 Tulsa, and Texas wins the performance comparison, and they finish an effective game and a half better as well.

Switch 'em: Texas to #17, Arkansas #18. A far more reasonable reaction to their performances in their bowl games.

Southern Cal

Congratulations to AP voters on ranking Southern Cal at #20 despite their ugly 6-4-1 record. The Trojans were indeed better than their straight record. In fact, AP voters did not go far enough. For example, USC beat 8-3 Washington 13-12 on the road, finishing 3-2-1 (.583) in the PAC 8, while Washington finished 4-3 (.571), yet AP voters ranked Washington just ahead of Southern Cal. USC's nonconference losses to #2 Oklahoma and #4 Alabama should not hurt them in comparison to Washington, especially since they only lost to Alabama by 7 and to Oklahoma by 13-- the closest anyone except #1 Nebraska came to the Sooners this season. Furthermore, USC defeated now-#13 Notre Dame (8-2) 28-14, and Washington did not beat any rated opponents. This is not close.

Southern Cal also had a better relevant record than the team in front of Washington, Arkansas. Arkansas took 2 upset losses to 5-7 Tulsa and 5-6 Texas A&M, and they were tied by 3-7-1 Rice. Southern Cal, however, had 1 upset loss to 5-6 Oregon, and they were tied by 2-7-1 UCLA. Arkansas has 1 upset win, 31-7 over now-#17 Texas, but Southern Cal won at now-#13 Notre Dame 28-14. Southern Cal also notched another win over a rated opponent with their win at Washington, while Arkansas beat no other rated opponent. And finally, USC beat the rest of their unrated opponents by more than a touchdown each, while Arkansas struggled to an 18-13 win at Southern Methodist. Again, this is not close.

USC also has a better relevant record than the team who sits ahead of Arkansas, Texas, and I would rate USC ahead of the Longhorns myself, but the AP voters have a case here. As I have often said, common opponents is a weak way to rate teams, but this case is more compelling than most. Texas beat Oregon 35-7 and UCLA 28-10, and those happen to be the teams that gave USC their upset loss and tie, and both on USC's home field. So let's give the AP voters this one.

Move Southern Cal up to #18, dropping Arkansas and Washington 1 spot each.


8-3 Washington took just 1 upset loss, while 8-3-1 Arkansas took 2 upset losses and 1 tie. Arkansas made up for one of the losses with their 31-7 win over now-#17 Texas, but that still left them effectively a half game back of Washington-- and of course Washington had a better straight record too.

Switch 'em: Washington to #19, Arkansas #20

North Carolina

9-3 North Carolina was left unranked despite a game effort in a 7-3 loss to 11-1 Georgia in the Gator Bowl, and more pertinently, despite a better record, both straight and relevant, than 8-3-1 Arkansas. This is pretty much the same as the Washington vs. Arkansas case above. UNC had 1 upset loss, Arkansas 2 and a tie.

Move North Carolina in at #20, dropping Arkansas to #21. The coaches had UNC at #18, but that poll ended before the Tar Heels' bowl loss.

The Last 4 Slots

We have 4 slots left, and next in line are 8-4 Iowa State (#17 coaches) and 8-4 Florida State (#19 coaches). ISU is fine, but FSU has a problem-- they lost to 6-6 Georgia Tech, and should be rated behind them. That also knocks FSU behind the next team in line, 7-4 Northwestern. So here is what we have for the last 4 slots: #22 Iowa State, #23 Northwestern, #24 Georgia Tech, #25 Florida State.

8-4 Iowa State took all 4 of their losses to rated opponents, but they can remain behind #21 Arkansas because they beat no one of any value at all, and they did not come close in any of those losses.

7-4 Northwestern took 2 upset losses (3-7 Purdue and 5-6 Illinois), but they beat a couple of near-rated teams in their last 2 games (6-4 Ohio State and 6-5 Michigan State).

6-6 Georgia Tech also took a couple of upset losses (6-5 South Carolina and 6-4 Army), and they also beat a couple of good teams (6-5 Michigan State and 8-4 Florida State). GT lost to 10-2 Tennessee and 11-1 Georgia by only 4 points each.

8-4 Florida State took 1 upset loss (4-7 Florida), and they lost at Georgia Tech 12-6. FSU did not beat any rated or near-rated teams.

Fixed AP Top 25

This was a good season to have just a top 20 rather than a top 25, because those last 4 teams we had to add to get this thing to 25 were pretty much garbage compared to the bottom 4 of most years. But for consistency's sake, we'll keep it at 25. The 5 new teams we added to get there had no wins over rated opponents, and they had 6 losses to unrated teams. Ugly.

1) Nebraska 13-0 --
2) Oklahoma 11-1 --
3) Colorado 10-2 --
4) Alabama 11-1 --
5) Auburn 9-2 +7
6) Georgia 11-1 +1
7) Tennessee 10-2 +2
8) Penn State 11-1 -3
9) Mississippi 10-2 +6
10) Louisiana State 9-3 +1
11) Michigan 11-1 -5
12) Arizona State 11-1 -4
13) Notre Dame 8-2 --
14) Stanford 9-3 -4
15) Houston 9-3 +2
16) Toledo 12-0 -2
17) Texas 8-3 +1
18) Southern Cal 6-4-1 +2
19) Washington 8-3 --
20) North Carolina 9-3 IN
21) Arkansas 8-3-1 -5
22) Iowa State 8-4 IN
23) Northwestern 7-4 IN
24) Georgia Tech 6-6 IN
25) Florida State 8-4 IN