There are many great college football teams that have played over the course of history. Army's 1945 team with the Heisman Trophy backfield of Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, 2001 Miami Hurricane's club and take your pick of Nebraska years of '71 or '95 - they each have arguments as for being #1 all-time.
But 40 years ago, the University of Southern California Trojans (USC) assembled a team for the ages.
The legendary head coach John McKay was going into his 13th season at the helm of USC but the men of Troy were coming off a pair of subpar years; 6-4-1 both seasons to be exact. The Stanford Indians won a couple Rose Bowl's during those same years (including being led by Heisman Trophy winnner Jim Plunkett).
'71 was an injury-plagued year that saw the Trojans end the season with a distasteful 7-7 tie to their crosstown rivals UCLA Bruins, who did not play very well their first season under Pepper Rodgers.
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The preseason polls in '72 had the defending national champion Nebraska Cornhuskers ranked #1 while USC was #8. That didn't last long. By the end of the first week, the Trojans were #1 after dominating a #4 Arkansas team in Little Rock, 31-10. Afterwards, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, USC had two devastatingly easy wins by an identical 51-6 score over Oregon State and Michigan State - while sandwiching between those home wins with an effortless road victory over Illinois 55-20. In a three game span, the Trojans had scored 157 points.
A trip to Palo Alto was next where they played the defending league champ and #15 Stanford - a battle which proved to be the only game that USC didn't win by double-digits the entire year (30-21). The Trojans then had a couple of home games in conference; first easily disposing of California 42-14 before #18 Washington came to town. But the Huskies had no chance, especially, without their star quarterback Sonny Sixkiller who was out injured - and so, USC breezed to a 34-7 victory.
The Trojans went back on the road, this time to Eugene to play against the Dan Fouts led Ducks - that game resulted in USC's only shutout of the year: a wet 18-0 victory over Oregon. The next trip was to Seattle against a good Washington State team that finished the season in the Top 20 - but the Trojans squashed the Cougars 44-3.
Now USC had to play a couple of rivalry games in the Coliseum and first up was #14 UCLA. A trip to the Rose Bowl was on the line and the Bruins were led by quarterback Mark Harmon who helped the fast and athletic UCLA upset preseason #1 Cornhuskers to start the year. But the Trojans were ready for UCLA and shut them down, winning comfortably 24-7.
Then the season-ending big game against Orange Bowl bound #10 Notre Dame was next. Ara Parseghian's Fighting Irish's only loss was by four points to Missouri. But sophomore sensation Anthony 'AD' Davis exploded onto the scene scoring six touchdowns including two on kickoff returns, leading USC to a 45-23 victory (source - L.A. Times).
It was on to the '73 Rose Bowl where the Trojans would play #3 Ohio State Buckeyes coached by another legend, Woody Hayes. Before a record Rose Bowl crowd of 106,869 (record that still stands today), the game crept along tied 7-7 at halftime. Then Sam 'Bam' Cunningham took over, scoring four touchdowns and helping USC dismantle Ohio State, crushing the Buckeyes 42-17.
The undefeated team was led by a two-headed quarterback duo of senior Mike Rae (who took most of the snaps) and sophomore Pat Haden. Their backfield was also a senior sophomore combination of Cunningham and Davis. The receivers included football great Lynn Swann who was an All-American in '72 along with tight end Charles Young (he led the team in receptions). They had an All-American lineman in Marvin Powell and All-American linebacker in Richard 'Batman' Wood. In all, 13 All-Americans played on the '72 team and 33 players would be drafted into the NFL.
Washington State head coach Jim Sweeney famously said that the Trojans are "not the #1 team in the country, the Miami Dolphins are better." (Source - Sports Illustrated) Longtime sports announcer Keith Jackson called them the greatest team he ever saw - he saw a lot of games in college football having announced for six decades.
From the first week all the way to the end saw USC #1 while becoming the first school to be a writer and coaches consensus national champion (source - ESPN). Certainly others will argue but when you measure and evaluate the talent and on field play plus who they played, no other team can quite compare to the 12-0 1972 USC Trojans as the greatest football team ever.
Sources - University of Southern California, Sports Illustrated
Daryle W. Hier lived in Los Angeles Ca. most of his life and has been a longtime fan of USC, having followed the Trojans since he was just a youngster. Fight On!