The unbeaten regular season is the holy grail for football teams of all kinds — even European football.
Yes, I know we are talking about American football here, but just for kicks, it is worth noting that the Arsenal football club once showed that an unbeaten season was possible in the English Premier League. The Gunners won 26, tied 12, and lost zero matches in a 38-game slate 14 years ago.
NBA teams will never go unbeaten. The Golden State Warriors pulled off an unfathomably great regular season in 2016… and lost nine times (73-9). Football offers at least the possibility of pulling off a perfecto, and in recent years, the heavyweights such as Alabama and Clemson have been able to run the table.
Perfect regular seasons in football are sacred and special in the state of Florida. The Miami Dolphins — like the 2007 New England Patriots — authored an unblemished regular season. Unlike the Patriots, the Dolphins finished the job in the Super Bowl against an NFC East team, the Redskins. Their place in NFL history remains secure — and enormous. The clink of champagne glasses since 1973 has never been prevented.
In college football, Miami delivered perfect regular seasons in 2001 and 2002. The Hurricanes felt — for a brief moment in Tempe, Arizona — that they had defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes for a repeat title, but a late flag in the end zone dashed that dream in the desert. Nevertheless, running the table in two straight regular seasons is something no one can take from those Hurricanes. The 2003 Fiesta Bowl stung, but it didn’t wipe away The U’s back-to-back brilliance.
How hard is it to go unbeaten in back-to-back regular seasons?
Though Jimbo Fisher managed to turn the trick in 2013 and 2014 at Florida State, part of a 29-game winning streak, Bobby Bowden never did the same in his much longer tenure in Tallahassee.
Bowden was perfect in only three regular seasons over 34 years, beginning with the 1979 campaign and then following up in 1996 and 1999. He won 11 games in a season many times — nine, to be exact — but going 11-0 often eluded him. The normal formula was a 10-1 regular season followed by win No. 11 in a bowl game. (Remember, through 2005, seasons were 11 games and not 12, and the ACC title game didn’t begin until that 2005 season. FSU won, Bowden’s only victory in that contest)
Bowden was a legendary 21-9-1 in bowl games at Florida State. From 1982 through 1995, he went 13-0-1 in 14 bowl appearances.
Yet, in the regular season, Miami usually stood in his way. So did his own field goal kickers.
For Steve Spurrier at Florida, Bowden was the man who stood in the way of the Head Ball Coach as he tried to forge perfect regular seasons. Spurrier broke through in 1995… and that was it. Florida State usually denied him a perfecto during his reign of SEC dominance. Spurrier never did go back-to-back with perfect regular seasons
Neither did the other great Gator coach in college football history. Urban Meyer went 13-1 three times in Gainesville… but always with a bowl win, similar to Bowden, after having lost once in the regular season.
Miami sets the gold standard in the state of Florida for consecutive unbeaten seasons. The modern-day Hurricanes pulled off the double in three separate instances — 2001 and 2002 as already mentioned, but also 1986-87 and 1991-92.
The 1986 season ended with the crushing loss in the Fiesta Bowl against Penn State, but the Canes then rolled through the 1987 season to win a national title with a 12-0 record under Jimmy Johnson. The 1991 national championship team was also a perfect 12-0 under Dennis Erickson. Similar to the 2002 team under Larry Coker, the 1992 Canes went perfect in the regular season and were one win from consecutive national titles, but a strong defensive opponent knocked them off in the bowl game. Alabama stopped Miami cold in the 1993 Sugar Bowl.
This brings us to UCF, and a date with history on Saturday against Memphis in the AAC Championship Game. The Knights are playing for a 25-game winning streak which would put them in Jimbo Fisher’s 29-game neighborhood. Yet, while approaching that 29-game mark is soaked with historical resonance, the more immediate goal is to forge consecutive perfect regular seasons.
UCF can do what Bowden, Spurrier and Meyer could not do when they coached Florida-based superpowers. UCF can do what iconically great teams — 1991 and 2001 Miami, and 2013 Florida State — were part of in a two-year run. UCF can do something which doesn’t just ripple through the pages of time in the state of Florida; UCF can do something which the people of Toledo, Ohio, would instantly recognize as highly important.
If you want a precise historical comparison with what UCF is one game away from achieving, look at the 1970 and 1971 Toledo Rockets.
The 1970 Toledo team was coached by Frank Lauterbur. The 1971 team was coached by Jack Murphy. Both went unbeaten in the regular season.
The Associated Press poll rankings for those two Toledo teams, which also won their bowl games to go 12-0 each year: 12th in 1970 and 14th in 1971. UCF can relate to the lack of respect.
UCF is trying to do exactly what Toledo did in 1970 and 1971: Notch consecutive perfect regular seasons under separate head coaches, playing in the shadows of the giants in the power conferences on Championship Weekend.
College football came alive in the state of Florida in the late 1970s, when Bobby Bowden began to awaken the sleeping giant at Florida State. Howard Schnellenberger then awakened Miami from its slumber in the early 1980s. In 1990, Steve Spurrier came home to deliver to Florida what people knew was always possible… but had never come to fruition. These last 40 years of college football in the Sunshine State have been the most magical 40 years Florida football has ever seen.
UCF, in a powerful and real way, can insert itself into the center of that story with one more win on Saturday.
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