Lots of college football teams have gone undefeated, but the NCAA retroactively considers 1894 Yale and 1897 Penn the only FBS-level teams to have ever finished with 15-0 or 16-0 records.
At Division I’s FCS level, only 1989 Georgia Southern, 1996 Marshall, and 2013 North Dakota State have ever won 15 games and lost none.
And that’s the entire pre-2018 history of Division I-equivalent teams going undefeated against 15- or 16-game schedules.
For decades, almost any team winning that many games in a season was going to be impossible to begin with. There wasn’t even an FCS playoff until 1978, and FBS didn’t have a multi-game championship tournament until 2014. With the NCAA long capping regular-season schedules, most teams in college football history simply didn’t play anywhere near 15 games.
In the ancient days, though, there were no scheduling rules. For example, Walter Camp’s 1889 Yale played 17 games in two months, including 12 straight away from home, coming 11 points in the final game away from undefeated. That is … excessive.
In the mid-2000s, the NCAA started allowing all teams to schedule 12 regular-season games. Add in the playoff tournaments in the lower levels (or the conference title game/eventual College Football Playoff combo in FBS), and national championship contenders now regularly play 15 games (and yeah, that’s probably too many for student-athletes).
It’s really, really, really hard to win all 15 games in a single year, obviously.
Every College Football Playoff champ so far has lost one game along the way, and we’ve only had one undefeated FBS title game winner after 2010 (the 14-0 Florida State).
2016 Alabama came a play away from being the first team in well over a century to go 15-0 at the top level, but lost to Clemson in the final seconds.
Now in 2018, those same two teams share a chance to make history.
Alabama and Clemson entered the Playoff at 13-0 each, then destroyed Oklahoma and Notre Dame, respectively. We’re now guaranteed to get the first 15-0 FBS national champ since the 1897 Penn Quakers humbled Cornell, 4-0, as a furious UCF watched from the sideline (I’ve written a joke just now).
That could enter 2018’s national champ into the Best Team Ever debate, which is already far more sprawling than most fans of such a regional sport realize. The Tide have already been doing things that haven’t been done since Camp’s days …
… and, with a national championship, would have added wins over three potential final top five teams (Georgia, Oklahoma, and Clemson) to that stat.
Clemson wouldn’t have quite the same season-long dominance or schedule strength argument — it’s not all your fault, Pitt — but being the first team to beat 2018 Notre Dame, beating this Bama team, and becoming the first top-level 15-0 team in forever would at least merit inclusion in the debate.
Getting a title game that loaded with history is at least a fitting capper to a season in which the sport’s powers truly towered over everyone else.