Revisiting college football of the 1970s (and early 1980s) with 21st-century statistics

Just a quick, somewhat nerdy post to pass the time before the opening kickoff…

One great thing about college football is its long and often well-documented history. There are a lot of stories, and a lot of ways to tell those stories — including using statistics to drive the narrative.

I’ve enjoyed reading Bill Connelly’s series of posts at SBNation that look back at college football over the past 40+ years, including his ranking of teams based on their estimated S&P ratings in each given season (dating back to 1970). I know a fair bit about the history of the sport, but I’ve learned more than a few new things perusing these articles.

If you want to get up to speed on what major college football was like in the latter part of the 20th century, you could do a lot worse than to read these yearly summaries. That includes The Citadel’s history in I-A.

Because the Southern Conference did not move to I-AA until 1982, The Citadel is included in the ratings from 1970 (the earliest year Connelly has written about so far) until 1981. So are the other SoCon teams of that era, along with the Ivy League squads and several other schools that are currently members of what is now known as the FCS. There is also a smattering of schools that no longer play football (Cal State-Los Angeles, Wichita State, and Tampa, just to name three of them).

Comparing the smaller schools to major-conference squads is not an easy exercise, and I’m not saying any ratings system can capture the similarities (or the differences). I think it’s worthwhile to take a look at the numbers, though.

Below is a summary of each year from 1970 to 1981, including the rankings (not ratings) for The Citadel and a selection of other schools for each season.

– 1970 (123 Division I schools)

  • The Citadel (ranking of 106)
  • Dartmouth 5
  • Toledo 12
  • Air Force 21
  • South Carolina 37
  • Army 85
  • Clemson 86
  • Navy 96
  • Maryland 105
  • Furman 109
  • Rutgers 114
  • Davidson 116
  • VMI 122
  • Holy Cross 123

Yes, Dartmouth is fifth in the estimated S&P+ rankings for 1970. That is almost certainly too high (as Connelly notes, schedule connectivity is an issue when it comes to these types of ratings), but the Big Green did finish the regular season ranked 14th in the AP poll (and also won the Lambert Trophy).

Nebraska (AP) and Texas (UPI) split the mythical national championship. It was also a great year for Toledo (12-0). For VMI (1-10) and Holy Cross (0-10-1), not so much.

– 1971 (128 Division I schools)

  • The Citadel (ranking of 100)
  • Villanova 25
  • Cornell 26
  • South Carolina 49
  • Clemson 80
  • Navy 95
  • Army 98
  • SMU 99
  • Maryland 101
  • East Carolina 106
  • North Carolina State 116
  • Furman 118
  • VMI 122
  • Baylor 123
  • Davidson 125

It is a bit jarring to see Baylor rated below VMI and just ahead of Davidson, but the Bears (1-9) were at rock-bottom in 1971. (At least, rock-bottom in terms of on-the-field results.)

Nebraska, with one of the all-time great teams, finished #1 in both major polls. Colorado finished third in the Big 8…and third in the AP poll.

– 1972 (127 Division I schools)

  • The Citadel (ranking of 105)
  • Dartmouth 20
  • Yale 25
  • Tampa 26
  • Baylor 35
  • South Carolina 84
  • Clemson 87
  • Wisconsin 103
  • Northwestern 106
  • VMI 115
  • Wake Forest 116
  • Davidson 120
  • Cincinnati 122
  • Furman 125
  • Appalachian State 127

It was another banner year for Dartmouth and Yale. Were they top-25 good? Probably not, but they were very solid programs.

Tampa was no joke, either, winning ten games and the Tangerine Bowl, beating Kent State. Among the players in that bowl game, by the way: John Matuszak, Freddie Solomon, and Paul (Mr. Wonderful) Orndorff, who all suited up for the Spartans; and Jack Lambert, Gerald Tinker, Gary Pinkel, and Nick Saban, all of whom played for the Golden Flashes.

That group includes three extremely notable NFL players with a combined eight Super Bowl titles between them; a well-known professional wrestler; an Olympic gold medalist; the all-time winningest coach at two different D-1 schools; and a former head coach of the Miami Dolphins.

You may have noticed Baylor leaped in the rankings from 123rd to 35th in one season. The 1972 campaign was Grant Teaff’s first season on the Brazos; in 1974, Baylor would win the Southwest Conference for the first time in 50 years. Not a bad coach, that fellow.

In 1972, Southern California went wire-to-wire to claim the top spot in the AP poll (and every other poll that mattered that year).

– 1973 (129 Division I schools)

  • The Citadel (ranking of 115)
  • Kent State 9
  • North Carolina State 15
  • Miami (OH) 17
  • East Carolina 20
  • Richmond 25
  • South Carolina 42
  • Navy 58
  • Furman 80
  • Clemson 87
  • Washington 114
  • Fresno State 116
  • Wake Forest 117
  • VMI 119
  • Army 124

A very weird year, 1973. Notre Dame wound up winning the AP title; Alabama won the UPI crown, but this was the last year UPI voted before the bowls — and Notre Dame beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl following the regular season. Oklahoma is ranked first in the estimated S&P ratings, but the Sooners were on probation.

Then you had the Michigan-Ohio State tie and the infamous Big 10 vote that sent the Buckeyes to the Rose Bowl…

Miami of Ohio was unbeaten in 1973, while Kent State was a very impressive 9-2. It was a nice year for the MAC.

– 1974 (129 Division I schools)

  • The Citadel (ranking of 104)
  • Miami (OH) 4
  • Yale 29
  • Vanderbilt 32
  • Clemson 42
  • Navy 78
  • Florida State 85
  • VMI 86
  • South Carolina 94
  • Army 109
  • Furman 113
  • TCU 118
  • Northwestern 120
  • Oregon 123
  • Utah 127

Miami of Ohio was 10-0-1, tying Purdue in its second game of the season, then reeling off nine straight wins, including a Tangerine Bowl victory over Georgia.

Vanderbilt was 7-3-2, with wins over Florida and Mississippi. The second of its two ties came in the Peach Bowl against Texas Tech. Vandy’s coach was Steve Sloan, who left after the season to take the head coaching position at…Texas Tech.

Sloan took several of his assistants with him, one of whom was Bill Parcells. The coach Sloan succeeded at Texas Tech? Jim Carlen, who took the South Carolina job.

Oklahoma, despite being bowl-ineligible, won the AP national title. The UPI poll, which did not include teams on probation, gave the nod to 10-1-1 Southern California.

– 1975 (137 Division I schools)

  • The Citadel (rank of 116)
  • Arkansas State 7
  • Miami of Ohio 19
  • Arizona State 20
  • Rutgers 38
  • Brown 43
  • Navy 48
  • South Carolina 60
  • Air Force 102
  • Furman 105
  • Clemson 114
  • Cornell 117
  • VMI 130
  • Army 131
  • Louisville 136

This was Arkansas State’s first season as a member of Division I, and it basically destroyed the Southland Conference (and a few independents) en route to an 11-0 season. I don’t think it was a top-10 outfit, but Arkansas State did all it could do on the field.

Arizona State finished 12-0 with a Fiesta Bowl win over Nebraska, and #2 in both polls (Oklahoma grabbing the top spot in each). At the time, ASU was in the WAC, not the Pac-10; the modern-day equivalent would probably be a team like Houston finishing second. Would the Sun Devils had made a hypothetical four-team playoff?

Cornell finished 117th in the S&P+ rankings, one spot ahead of The Citadel. In 1976, the Big Red would finish 91st in the rankings. Cornell’s overall record during that two-year stretch was just 3-15, and as a result the school’s AD (future NCAA chief Dick Schultz) fired its head coach, George Seifert.

Seifert’s next head coaching gig was slightly more successful.

Just ahead of The Citadel in the ’75 rankings was Indiana, helmed by Lee Corso. So from 115 to 117 you had a grouping of Corso, Bobby Ross, and Seifert.

– 1976 (137 Division I schools)

  • The Citadel (rank of 68)
  • East Carolina 14
  • Iowa State 19
  • Yale 23
  • William & Mary 26
  • Furman 36
  • South Carolina 38
  • Navy 62
  • Clemson 77
  • Florida State 85
  • Cornell 91
  • VMI 93
  • Army 114
  • Air Force 115
  • Northern Illinois 137

Pittsburgh (12-0) finished second in the estimated S&P+ ratings but #1 in both polls, and the Tony Dorsett-led Panthers deserved the national honors.

1976 was a fine year for the Southern Conference. Among other things, this was one of two years in the 12-year period I’m reviewing that both The Citadel and VMI finished in the top 100 of the S&P+ ratings, with the Bulldogs’ season featuring a victory over Air Force.

In its final year in the league, William & Mary had a solid campaign. The Tribe finished 7-4, including a road sweep of Virginia and Virginia Tech.

East Carolina won the SoCon and ranked 14th in these ratings. The Pirates were 9-2, losing to North Carolina and a resurgent Furman.

– 1977 (145 Division I schools)

  • The Citadel (ranking of 105)
  • Tennessee State 7
  • Grambling State 19
  • Clemson 20
  • Yale 35
  • Navy 45
  • South Carolina 56
  • Army 66
  • VMI 78
  • Tulane 106
  • Virginia 118
  • Air Force 126
  • Furman 129
  • Wake Forest 132
  • Oregon 133

1977 was the first (and only) year the highest-level HBCU programs competed as Division I members in football; the following season, those schools moved to the newly created I-AA level. The lack of schedule connectivity between the HBCUs and the other D-1 schools was even more pronounced than for the Ivy League teams, which tends to be reflected in the ratings.

Having said that, Tennessee State and Grambling State were both tough Tigers to tame. Grambling was led by quarterback Doug Williams, who finished 4th in the Heisman Trophy voting that season (and who would later be a #1 NFL draft pick and Super Bowl MVP). GSU only lost one game in 1977 — to Tennessee State, 26-8. The following spring, TSU had seven players chosen in the first six rounds of the NFL draft.

Notre Dame won the national title, led by a quarterback named Joe Montana. He was something of a clutch performer.

– 1978 (138 Division I schools)

  • The Citadel (ranking of 109)
  • Clemson 14
  • South Carolina 48
  • Navy 52
  • Furman 78
  • Iowa 115
  • Minnesota 117
  • West Virginia 118
  • Illinois 121
  • VMI 124
  • Army 125
  • Boston College 132
  • Vanderbilt 135
  • Air Force 137
  • Northwestern 138

Alabama and Southern California split the title, despite the Trojans beating the Crimson Tide early in the season (at Legion Field!) and finishing with the same number of losses (one).

There were a lot of terrible major-conference teams in 1978, so many that 1-10 Wake Forest didn’t even make my “selected others” listing. The bottom of the Big 10 was particularly bad.

– 1979 (140 Division I schools)

  • The Citadel (ranking of 116)
  • Temple 5
  • Clemson 17
  • North Carolina State 18
  • South Carolina 23
  • McNeese State 34
  • Wake Forest 35
  • Virginia 41
  • Navy 88
  • Furman 107
  • VMI 122
  • Army 126
  • Vanderbilt 128
  • Northwestern 133
  • Air Force 140

The Citadel beat an SEC team in 1979 by two touchdowns but still didn’t get an upward bump in the ratings, because the victim in question was 1-10 Vanderbilt. While Vandy was struggling, though, some other long-suffering programs had some fun this season, led by an ACC school.

Wake Forest won eight games and played in the Tangerine Bowl. Eight of the Demon Deacons’ eleven regular season matchups came against teams that finished with at least seven victories; Wake Forest won five of those eight contests, and also beat 6-5 Georgia in Athens.

Temple went 10-2, losing only to Pittsburgh and Penn State, and won the Garden State Bowl. The Owls weren’t the fifth-best team in the country, but they were a tough out.

Alabama finished #1 in both polls in 1979 with a 12-0 record. The Crimson Tide allowed just 67 points in 12 games, including five shutouts.

– 1980 (138 Division I schools)

  • The Citadel (ranking of 48)
  • McNeese State 31
  • Furman 34
  • Navy 37
  • Clemson 49
  • Villanova 52
  • Yale 57
  • Army 93
  • Georgia Tech 101
  • Air Force 110
  • VMI 111
  • Colorado 123
  • Cincinnati 125
  • Oregon State 132
  • Northwestern 134

Georgia won the national title in 1980, thanks in large part to the phenomenon that was Herschel Walker, freshman running back.

This was The Citadel’s top ranking in the S&P+ ratings during the 1970-1981 time frame. The Bulldogs were 7-4 in 1980, going undefeated at home, with two of the four losses coming to Wake Forest and South Carolina.

It was a good year in general for a lot of smaller programs, including McNeese State. During the 1979 and 1980 seasons, the Cowboys had a combined record of 21-3, losing twice in bowl games…and once to a I-AA school. That second loss (to Northwestern State) doesn’t count against McNeese State in the ratings system (which only accounts for I-A opponents).

– 1981 (137 Division I schools)

  • The Citadel 83
  • Clemson 3
  • Yale 30
  • Navy 36
  • South Carolina 39
  • Furman 90
  • Army 95
  • VMI 97
  • Colorado 101
  • Air Force 107
  • Virginia 111
  • Oregon 114
  • Indiana 122
  • Oregon State 134
  • Northwestern 136

I didn’t realize until recently that Joe Avezzano was the head coach of Oregon State during the early 1980s. Avezzano later became a well-respected special teams coach for the Dallas Cowboys, but his career record in Corvallis was 6-47-2. His 1981 team lost ten straight games after beating Fresno State in the season opener.

Northwestern’s head coach in 1981 was future NFL boss Dennis Green; it was his first year in Evanston. The Wildcats finished 0-11. The next season, Northwestern won three games, and Green was named Big 10 coach of the year.

Oregon State and Northwestern were not easy places to coach in this era.

Clemson won the national title in 1981. While the Tigers were third in the estimated S&P+ ratings, the two teams ahead of it were Penn State (which lost two games) and Pittsburgh (which lost at home to Penn State by 34 points). Clemson beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to cement its spot at the top of the AP and UPI polls.

That wraps up this abbreviated review of the 1970-1981 seasons. However, just for fun, here are the final estimated S&P rankings for the seven I-A/FBS schools that The Citadel has beaten since 1982.

  • 1988 Navy: 79th out of 105 I-A schools
  • 1989 Navy: 83rd out of 106 I-A schools
  • 1990 South Carolina: 20th out of 107 I-A schools
  • 1991 Army: 96th out of 107 I-A schools
  • 1992 Army: 95th out of 107 I-A schools
  • 1992 Arkansas: 35th out of 107 I-A schools
  • 2015 South Carolina: 88th out of 128 FBS schools

I was surprised at the ratings for 1990 South Carolina (which finished 6-5) and 1992 Arkansas (3-7-1). That Razorbacks squad did beat Tennessee (which was ranked #4 at the time) in Knoxville later in the season.

Football season is not just getting closer…it’s almost here!

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