Ranking The Greats

Despite the youth and relative inexperience of WVU's 2005 football team (two freshman offensive starters at QB and RB, many underclassmen in the starting 22, and only 18 graduating seniors), the Mountaineers' exciting 38-35 Sugar Bowl triumph, the university's first ever win in one of the Big Four BCS bowls, dictates that we consider how this team stacks up against the all-time greatest Mountaineer gridiron teams.

To begin with, the tremendous victory by Coach Rod's team over the eighth ranked Georgia Bulldogs will, no doubt, go down in Blue and Gold history as one of greatest single game victories ever. It certainly surpassed the WVU win over Louisville due to the sheer national prominence and importance of the game (and of course by the huge monetary payout provided by the Sugar Bowl as well as the national spotlight shone on our school as the only team playing that night on network television).

But, reasonable people may differ on this point. After all, a loss to the Cardinals in what became the second greatest comeback victory (second to WVU's 34-33 win over Maryland in 1992 after trailing by 19 points) in Mountaineer history (overcoming a 24-7 deficit with around eleven minutes left in the game) would have doomed any chance for a WVU BCS bowl bid in 2005.

At the very least, WVU's Sugar Bowl win should be included in this short list of all-time greatest victories in the last thirty years. Here they are arranged chronologically:

1975- 17-14 win vs. Pitt
1981- 26-6 bowl win over Florida
1982- 41-27 win at Oklahoma
1983- 24-21 win vs. Pitt
1984- 21-20 win vs. Boston College (after trailing by 20-6 deficit)
1984- 17-14 win vs. Penn State breaking a 28-game losing streak
1988- 51-30 win vs. Penn State including a 41-8 first half blowout
1993- 17-14 win vs. Miami
1993- 17-14 win at Boston College (after trailing 14-3)
2000- 49-38 Music City bowl win over Eli Manning's Ole Miss
2002- 21-18 win at Virginia Tech
2003- 28-7 win vs. Virginia Tech
2005- 46-44 3OT win vs. Louisville
2006- 38-35 Sugar Bowl win vs. Georgia

One can now seriously argue that WVU's 2005 team is the best ever! There have only been five double-digit winning teams in WVU football history:

1922- 10-0-1 record with 267 points scored and 34 points allowed [not ranked as AP Poll wasn't established until 1936]

1969- 10-1 (302-113 PS-PA and final ranking of 17th AP)

1988- 11-1 (493-208 PS-PA and final ranking of fifth AP)

1993- 11-1 (408-212 PS-PA and final ranking of seventh AP)

2005- 11-1 (385-214 PS-PA and final ranking of fifth AP).

So, this year's team tied with the 1988 team finishing the season with the highest Top 25 ranking of any Mountaineer squad (although the 1988 team was ranked third in the AP before the Fiesta Bowl).

A list of honorable mention teams would also include the 1937 Sun Bowl championship team (8-1-1) which only lost to national champ Pitt, outscoring opponents 183 to 39; the 1953 team (8-2, 309-154 PS-PA) which defeated both Pitt and Penn State and finished the year ranked 10th in the AP Poll despite a 42-19 Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia Tech; the 1954 team (8-1, 209-74 PS-PA) which finished the year ranked 12th; any of the 1981-1983 Don Nehlen coached teams (1981: 9-3, 284-155 PS-PA, ranked 17th; 1982: 9-3, 272-151 PS-PA, ranked 19th; and 1983: 9-3, 322-189 PS-PA, ranked 16th); and the 1996 team (8-4, 271-156 PS-PA) which finished the season as the number one ranked defensive team in the entire nation.

But, I believe that the top all-time WVU football squads are the five double-digit winning teams mentioned earlier.

I would rank the 1969 team fifth all-time. They were the Peach Bowl Champions (defeating South Carolina 14-3) with QB Mike Sherwood, RB Bob Gresham, 1155 yards, and future NFL star Jim Braxton (who scored 113 points that season). But, a 20-0 loss to Penn State drops them to the number five position.

The 1922 team, I would rank fourth all-time. They finished the season undefeated with only one tie (Washington and Lee) and seven shutouts beating national power Pitt, 9-6. They won their bowl game (21-13 over Gonzaga) but were not ranked since the Associated Press poll was not established until 1936. I acknowledge that it is tough to include teams from over eighty years ago in this list. Comparing these teams to squads from the modern era sometimes seems ridiculous, but certainly sports historians have to give some "props" to these important legacy gridiron teams.

Third, in my all-time ranking, is the 1993 Mountaineer football team. With tough victories over Miami and at Boston College (by the identical scores of 17-14) and a most satisfying 43-0 blitz of the Orangemen at Syracuse (avenging a controversial 20-17 loss the year before), this squad became Don Nehlen's second undefeated, untied regular season team in a six-year period. The blowout Sugar Bowl (41-7) loss to the 'Ol Ball Coach," Steve Spurrier, at Florida really hurt this team's final placement.

That leaves the first ever undefeated, untied regular season team in Mountaineer history, the 1988 squad and this year's Sugar Bowl title team. I flipped a silver dollar to break the tie between these two squads and the coin landed on its edge! Okay, not really. But, I'm in a real quandry here.

With sophomore quarterback Major Harris (610 rushing yards and 1,915 passing yards) under center, running back A.B. Brown (962 yards) and Undra Johnson (709) and receiver Calvin Phillips (611 yards) lighting up the scoreboard, the 1988 team was the first Division I-A team in fifteen years to win every game by double digit margins. Numerous records were set as the Major finished fifth in Heisman balloting and WVU enjoyed its largest ever season scoring margin (+ 285 points or 493 points scored minus 208 points allowed, which surpassed the previous record holder, the 1919 team, +279 [326-47 PS-PA]). The amazing blowouts of Penn State, 51-30, Pitt, 31-10 (in Pittsburgh), Maryland, 55-24 (after WVU trailed 14-0) and the victory over 10-win Syracuse, 31-9, were incredible.

The 1988 Mountaineers finished fifth in the nation in total offense (487.2 yards-per-game), second in scoring (42.8 ppg), sixth in rushing offense (293.5 ypg), 17th in total defense (286.4 ypg) and 13th in pass defense (147.5 ypg). WVU's disappointing 34-21 loss to Lou Holtz's Notre Dame gridders in the national championship Fiesta Bowl, while devastating, was not the decisive win many Irish fans seem to remember. Major Harris played with a shoulder injury inflicted early in the game and a goal line stop and another WVU score would have resulted in a 28-27 WVU victory. As the late comedian Don Adams used to say, "Missed it by that much."

While some would argue that the 2005 team doesn't really rate with the superb 1988 team (and perhaps even the 1993 WVU squad), because of the simple fact that this year's team did not win all of its regular season games, I would argue that the Mountaineers' first-ever BCS bowl win, in one of the top four bowls in college football history, almost trumps the fact that the 1988 and 1993 teams went 11-0. While Rich Rodriguez's 2005 team scored far fewer points (and had a smaller season scoring margin over opponents) than Nehlen's 1988 team, its national rankings were comparable.

This season's rankings reveal that WVU had the fifth best rushing offense (262.45 ypg) in the nation, the eighth best overall defense (293.45 ypg), the tenth best scoring defense (16.3 ppg), and the 13th best rushing defense (99.3 ypg). Also, the 2005 team tied for eleventh nationally in turnover margin (+11). And, during WVU's last four games, the Mountaineers did outscore UConn, Cincy, Pitt, and USF by a combined margin of 156 to 39. There is one statistic that the seniors on this year's team can point to as evidence of their squad's high standing in this All-Time Greatest WVU Team debate. No other senior class has ever finished their career at WVU with 36 wins (over the last four years West Virginia is 36-14).

In the final analysis, I decided to call it a draw. The record setting national championship challenging 1988 squad--in many ways, the most legendary of all its predecessors and subsequent teams to ever wear the Blue and Gold--finishes tied for first place with an obviously less impressive, but nevertheless equally dominant (both share 11-1 records) 2005 WVU squad. The Sugar Bowl Championship (even if by the narrowest of margins) won over one of the legendary powers of the Southeastern Conference, the Georgia Bulldogs, in my mind, catapults this gritty, determined, and nationally disrespected "team" to the heights of Mountaineer glory--on par with the amazing accomplishments of one of the all-time great squads in college football history, the 1988 team.


1 (Tie)1988
1 (Tie) 2005
3 1993

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