The 25 greatest Ohio State football seasons of all time

  • Photo illustration by Will Shilling
By
From the August 29, 2013 edition

Get ready to argue.

Football is already the province of much impassioned debate without making lists to quantify greatness. You can argue for hours about the accuracy of a spot, the wisdom of a play call or the legitimacy of a penalty.

But one of the great delights of sports fandom is making lists to quantify greatness, and we can’t imagine a better time to engage in such an exercise regarding Ohio State football than coming off an undefeated season.

So let’s do it. Here’s Alive’s (indisputable, completely perfect) list of the 25 greatest Ohio State football seasons of all time.

Oh, and shout out to Wikipedia, ESPN.com, fanbase.com and Jack Park’s 2003 book “The Official Ohio State Football Encyclopedia,” all of which proved invaluable in compiling this info.

25 (tie). 1995

Coach: John Cooper

Record: 11-2

Postseason: Lost to Tennessee 20-14 in the Citrus Bowl

Star players: Eddie George, Terry Glenn, Orlando Pace, Bobby Hoying

Awards: George (Heisman, Maxwell, Walter Camp, Doak Walker), Glenn (Biletnikoff), Pace (Lombardi), Hoying (Campbell)

Most memorable game: George rushed for three touchdowns and a school record 314 yards as OSU crushed Illinois 41-3.

Fun fact: The '95 Buckeyes faced eight ranked teams, beating six of them.

Case for: These guys barely squeak into this countdown on sheer strength of talent. Can you believe how many awards they racked up? Watching this team was a constant thrill. B.B. (Before Biakabutuka), these guys were legendary.

Case against: Losing the Michigan game and the bowl game is pretty damning, no matter how high these Buckeyes soared before that.

25. (tie) 1949

Coach: Wes Fesler

Record: 7-1-2, Big Ten champions

Postseason: Defeated California 17-14 in the Rose Bowl

Star players: Vic Janowicz, Henry Bill Trautwein

Awards: N/A

Most memorable game: The smell of roses is extra sweet when you take out No. 2 California in the process.

Fun fact: Before his coaching days, Fesler was a three-sport athlete at Ohio State, accumulating nine varsity letters total in football, basketball and baseball.

Case for: Winning the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl can’t be dismissed.

Case against: Two ties? Excuse the non-era-appropriate reference, but: how bizarre! Also, these guys are lucky they did so well in the Rose Bowl because otherwise a team with three non-winning games is not cracking this list.

24. 1906

Coach: Albert E. Herrnstein

Record: 8-1, Ohio Athletic Conference champions

Postseason: N/A

Star players: Not sure which players were stars on this squad; there’s not a lot of info out there. But we hope Walter O. Sanzenbacher is related to latter-day Buckeyes great Dane Sanzenbacher.

Awards: N/A

Most memorable game: The 11-8 victory over Ohio Medical must have been a nail-biter.

Fun fact: Despite being a Chillicothe native, Herrnstein played his college ball at Michigan. Gross.

Case for: This was Ohio State’s first conference champion, undefeated in Ohio Athletic Conference play.

Case against: As all early Buckeye teams did, they lost to Michigan. Gross.

23. 1919

Coach: John Wilce

Record: 6-1

Postseason: N/A

Star players: Chic Harley, Gaylord “Pete” Stinchcomb, Iolas Huffman

Awards: N/A

Most memorable game: After 15 futile attempts, Ohio State finally beat Michigan — at Michigan, no less — with a 13-3 triumph.

Fun fact: Did we mention they were the first OSU team to beat Michigan?

Case for: The first team to beat Michigan (yeah, that was these guys) deserves a spot on this list, and any one-loss season is impressive.

Case against: A two-point loss to Illinois undercut an otherwise perfect season.

22. 1998

Coach: John Cooper

Record: 11-1, Big Ten champions

Postseason: Defeated Texas A&M 20-14 in the Sugar Bowl

Star players: Joe Germaine, Antoine Winfield, David Boston, Andy Katzenmoyer

Awards: Katzenmoyer (Butkus, Lambert)

Most memorable game: A 31-16 slaughter of Michigan finally snapped Cooper’s Wolverine jinx.

Fun fact: Katzenmoyer was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s college football preview, which named Ohio State the preseason No. 1 “if Andy Katzenmoyer makes the grade.” The star’s well-documented academic struggles nearly rendered him ineligible.

Case for: Beating Michigan and winning a bowl game was a rarity among Cooper seasons, and any one-loss, conference championship season deserves some props.

Case against: That glaring loss against Michigan State — in which the Buckeyes gave up a 15-point lead, at home — sabotaged an otherwise incredible season.

21. 1920

Coach: John Wilce

Record: 7-1, Big Ten champions

Postseason: Lost to California 28-0 in the Rose Bowl

Star players: Gaylord “Pete” Stinchcomb, Wilmer Isabel

Awards: N/A

Most memorable game: A 14-7 win over Michigan sealed a two-year winning streak against the Wolverines after 14 losses and one tie in the first 15 encounters.

Fun fact: Stinchcomb now has a street named after him just off Olentangy River Road on the northwest side of OSU campus.

Case for: An undefeated regular season earned the Buckeyes a Big Ten title and their first Rose Bowl trip.

Case against: Cal put a serious whupping on OSU at the Rose Bowl.

20. 1935

Coach: Francis Schmidt

Record: 7-1, Big Ten champions

Postseason: N/A

Star players: William H.H. “Tippy” Dye, Gomer Jones

Awards: N/A

Most memorable game: Beating Michigan 38-0 in Ann Arbor is something you don’t forget.

Fun fact: Schmidt is perhaps best known for initiating the tradition of miniature gold pants given to coaches and players following a victory over Michigan, beginning in 1934.

Case for: The Bucks’ first Big Ten title in 15 years + a one-loss season + a shutout win over the Wolverines = one great season.

Case against: The lone loss to Notre Dame, in front of by far the largest crowd of the season at 81,018, cost the Buckeyes a perfect season.

19. 1969

Coach: Woody Hayes

Record: 8-1, Big Ten champions

Postseason: N/A

Star players: Rex Kern, Jim Otis, Bruce Jankowski, Jack Tatum, Jim Stillwagon

Awards: N/A

Most memorable game: After almost going wall-to-wall No. 1, a loss at No. 12 Michigan disemboweled Ohio State’s perfect season.

Fun fact: The Buckeyes beat TCU 62-0 on opening day, avenging the 7-7 opening day tie against the Horned Frogs that started off the 1961 season on the wrong foot.

Case for: As noted further down this countdown, this group of players was remarkably talented — arguably the greatest dynasty in Buckeye history. They deserved to be ranked No. 1 for most of 1969.

Case against: To be No. 1 all season then lose to Michigan and miss out on the Rose Bowl? Ouch.

18. 2010

Coach: Jim Tressel

Record: 13-1, Big Ten champions

Postseason: Defeated Arkansas 31-26 in the Sugar Bowl

Star players: Terrelle Pryor, Dan Herron, Ross Homan

Awards: N/A

Most memorable game: Beating an SEC team in a bowl game was a nice change of pace.

Fun fact: You can erase history from the page, but not from our hearts. <3

Case for: We’re well aware that this season is wiped from the record books due to NCAA sanctions. But what a season it was! Conference champs, a BCS bowl win over an SEC power, a win over Michigan… great year for the Buckeyes, on the field at least.

Case against: Aside from the loss at Wisconsin, there was that tattoo scandal that cost Tressel his job and resulted in all wins being vacated…

17. 1975

Coach: Woody Hayes

Record: 10-1, Big Ten champions

Postseason: Lost to UCLA 23-10 in the Rose Bowl

Star players: Archie Griffin, Cornelius Greene

Awards: Griffin (Heisman, Maxwell, Walter Camp)

Most memorable game(s): Griffin broke the NCAA career rushing record during a 35-6 win over Purdue.

Fun fact: Although Ohio State lost to UCLA in the Rose Bowl, they beat the Bruins 41-20 in LA earlier in the season.

Case for: A Big Ten championship is nothing to sniff at, nor is a Rose Bowl trip, win or lose. Griffin won his second Heisman Trophy, the first and only player to do so.

Case against: The Buckeyes had already beaten UCLA once in California; why couldn’t they do it again?

16. 1996

Coach: John Cooper

Record: 11-1, Big Ten champions

Postseason: Defeated Arizona State 20-17 in the Rose Bowl

Star players: Joe Germaine, Orlando Pace, David Boston, Andy Katzenmoyer

Awards: Pace (Outland Trophy, Lombardi Award)

Most memorable game: The comeback in Pasadena to crush the head of Jake “the Snake” Plummer is a cherished childhood memory for most Alive readers.

Fun fact: The Buckeyes used the two-headed quarterback model throughout the season, starting Stanley Jackson then bringing in Germaine for most of the game.

Case for: Rose Bowl wins mean a lot. Also, the team’s lone loss was only by four points.

Case against: Like most Cooper teams, the ’96 squad faltered at Michigan, an unforgivable sin in these parts.

15. 2006

Coach: Jim Tressel

Record: 12-1, Big Ten champions

Postseason: Lost to Urban Meyer’s Florida 41-14 in the BCS National Championship

Biggest stars: Troy Smith, James Laurinaitis, Ted Ginn

Awards: Smith (Heisman Trophy, Walter Camp Award, Davey O’Brien Award), Laurinaitis (Nagurski Award)

Most memorable game: Hard to top a down-to-the-wire three-point win over an undefeated Michigan to seal entry into the national championship game. The press was calling this No. 1-vs.-No. 2 showdown “The Game of the Century” well before the first snap, but it lived up to the hype.

Case for: Everything before the national title game was glorious.

Case against: Ugh, that national title game.

14. 1899

Coach: John Eckstorm

Record: 9-0-1

Postseason: N/A

Star players: Not sure which players were stars, but going to assume Cyrus E. Scott, Dudley Scott and Walter S. Scott were brothers, as were Charles F. Segrist and John L. Segrist.

Awards: N/A

Most memorable game: A 41-0 win over OU must have been especially satisfying.

Fun fact: The 1899 Buckeyes finished with 5 points twice: a 5-5 tie with Case and a 5-0 victory over Kenyon. It was a different game back then.

Not-so-fun fact: Two years later, center John L. Segrist was fatally injured in a game, calling into question the future of the program. (Obviously, the Buckeyes carried on.)

Case for: The first undefeated team in Buckeyes history, and it came just a year after finishing 3-5.

Case against: They played all their games at home against smaller Ohio schools, so the undefeated record isn’t nearly as impressive as it could be.

13. 1970

Coach: Woody Hayes

Record: 9-1, Big Ten champions, NFF national champions

Postseason: Lost to Stanford 21-17 in the Rose Bowl

Star players: Rex Kern, Jim Stillwagon, Jack Tatum, Bruce Jankowski

Awards: Stillwagon (Outland Trophy, Lombardi Award)

Most memorable game: A 20-9 win over No. 4 Michigan restored Ohio State’s faltering reputation, if only temporarily.

Fun fact: Despite not losing or tying until the Rose Bowl, Ohio State started the season at No. 1 and gradually declined to No. 5 throughout the season before leaping back to No. 2 after Michgan.

Case for: (Arguably) Ohio State’s most talented senior class ever went out with another conference title and an NFF national championship. 

Case against: National champions, national schmampions. You lose your bowl game, your championship status is sketchy at best, especially when you lose to No. 12 Stanford. (Yeah, yeah, Pac-10 home-field advantage, whatever.)

12. 1979

Coach: Earle Bruce

Record: 11-1, Big Ten champions

Postseason: Lost to USC 17-16 in the Rose Bowl

Star players: Art Schlichter, Jim Laughlin, Ken Fritz

Awards: N/A

Most memorable game: An 18-15 win over No. 13 Michigan at Ann Arbor sent the No. 2 Buckeyes to the Rose Bowl. Before that, Ohio State hadn’t beaten the Wolverines (or even scored a touchdown on them!) since 1975.

Fun fact: Future USC coach (and future OSU nemesis) Pete Carroll was a first-year defensive backs coach for this team.

Case for: Bruce’s first team fell one point short of an undefeated national championship season, which is more than Tressel’s 2006 team can say.

Case against: That one point was the difference between a contender for the greatest season of all time and exclusion from the top 10.

11. 1942

Coach: Paul Brown

Record: 9-1, Big Ten champions, AP national champions

Postseason: N/A

Star players: Les Horvath, George Lynn, Charles Csuri, Gene Fekete

Awards: N/A

Most memorable game: The No. 5 Buckeyes’ double-digit decapitation of No. 4 Michigan had to feel good just weeks after getting knocked off by No. 6 Wisconsin.

Fun fact: Brown went on to coach the Browns, who were named after him, and the Bengals, whom he helped found.

Case for: This was the Buckeyes’ first national championship team, an undeniably talented and successful bunch featuring a future Heisman winner and coached by the most influential figure in Ohio football history.

Case against: Considering how many Buckeyes squads went undefeated, that lingering defeat to Wisconsin (after starting the season ranked No. 1) means these guys can’t quite crack the Top 10. After all, they only won the title because No. 1 Boston College lost its bowl game.

10. 1957

Coach: Woody Hayes

Record: 9-1, Big Ten champions, FWAA/UPI national champions

Postseason: Defeated the Oregon Webfoots(!) 10-7 in the Rose Bowl.

Star players: Galen Cisco, Leo Brown, Bill Jobko, Aurelius Thomas

Awards: N/A

Most memorable game: Beating Michigan and winning the Rose Bowl are the crown jewels of any Buckeyes season, but taking out No. 5 Iowa was actually the most impressive win of the year.

Fun fact: Cisco was a two-way player, lining up at fullback and linebacker. More importantly, he was a two-sport player who went on to a nine-year major-league pitching career with the Red Sox, Mets and Royals.

Case for: A Rose Bowl win, a national title and victory over the Wolverines — dream season, right?

Case against: National champions or not, one loss knocks you down this list a bit. And the fact that Oregon QB Jack Crabtree was named Rose Bowl Player of the Game stings a little.

9. 1917

Coach: John Wilce

Record: 8-0-1, Big Ten champions

Postseason: N/A

Star players: Chic Harley, Charles Bolen

Awards: N/A

Most memorable game: For a team that ranked up 292 points in its other eight games, a 0-0 tie at Auburn stands out in a big way, though not in a good way.

Fun fact: Back then, the team played at 14,000-capacity Ohio Field, located on North High Street between Woodruff and 17th avenues. So many fans turned out to see Harley that the university built Ohio Stadium, a.k.a. “The House that Harley Built.”

Case for: Eight wins, all of them by double-digits, and the only tie was on the road at Auburn. The Buckeyes outscored their opponents 292-6. 292-6!

Case against: Undefeated is undefeated, and that margin of victory is ridiculous, but that one tie really mars this otherwise triumphant season.

8. 1973

Coach: Woody Hayes

Record: 10-0-1, Big Ten champions

Postseason: Defeated USC 42-21 in the Rose Bowl

Biggest stars: Archie Griffin, Randy Gradishar, John Hicks, Cornelius Greene

Awards: Hicks (Outland Trophy, Lombardi Award)

Most memorable game: With an undefeated season on the line, the No. 1 Buckeyes rolled into Ann Arbor and… tied?

Fun fact: Greene was the first black player to start at QB for Ohio State.

Case for: Went undefeated, won the Big Ten and avenged the previous year’s Rose Bowl loss to USC (resoundingly!), shutting up doubters who thought Michigan deserved the trip to Pasadena. (After the 10-10 tie, athletic directors voted 6-4 to send the Buckeyes.)

Case against: A wise man once said tying is like kissing your sister — especially against That Team Up North.

7. 1961

Coach: Woody Hayes

Record: 8-0-1, Big Ten champions, FWAA national champions

Postseason: N/A

Star players: Bob Ferguson, Chuck Bryant, Sam Tidmore, John Havlicek

Awards: Ferguson (Maxwell)

Most memorable game: Decimated Michigan 50-20 in Ann Arbor.

Fun fact: Havlicek, best known for his championship basketball exploits for the Buckeyes and the Boston Celtics, was such a good end for the football Buckeyes that the Cleveland Browns (then a powerhouse, not a laughingstock) drafted him in the seventh round.

Case for: Any national championship season deserves props, especially an undefeated national championship season. These Buckeyes were dominant, too, winning almost every game by double digits.

Case against: A 7-7 tie at home against unranked TCU to start the season? Tsk, tsk.

6. 2012

Coach: Urban Meyer

Record: 12-0

Postseason: Disqualified due to NCAA sanctions

Awards: N/A

Star players: Braxton Miller, John Simon, Carlos Hyde, Zach Boren

Most memorable game: You might have noticed a trend of Michigan games being the most memorable, and last year’s was great — sealing the perfect season, celebrating Jim Tressel’s 2002 squad at halftime — but how about that overtime win at Wisconsin the previous week?! Nails bitten, hairs raised, breath held and, at long last, fists raised.

Case for: The record speaks for itself, especially considering it was Meyer’s first season in charge, especially coming off a 6-7 record in 2011. You can’t mess with perfection.

Case against: Like the 2002 national championship team, Meyer’s guys never made it look easy, and there’s no telling how these Buckeyes would have handled the postseason heat.

5. 1944

Coach: Carroll Widdoes

Record: 9-0, Big Ten champions

Postseason: N/A

Star players: Les Horvath, Gene Fekete, Jack Dugger, Gordon Appleby

Awards: Horvath (Heisman Trophy)

Most memorable game: No. 3 Ohio State defeated No. 6 Michigan 18-14 at home, the only single-digit margin of the season.

Fun fact: Horvath thought his college career was over upon graduating after the 1942 season, but he was able to play as a dental student in 1944 due to a rule that allowed grad students to play if they hadn’t used up all four years of eligibility. Good choice; he won the Heisman and led the Buckeyes to their second perfect season.

Case for: Went undefeated, outscoring opponents by a whopping 287-79.

Case against: As fans today know all too well, no bowl game means lingering questions about a team’s legacy. To be fair, there were a lot less bowls back then, and skipping the postseason was a lot more common.

4. 1916

Coach: John Wilce

Record: 7-0, Western Conference champions

Postseason: N/A

Star players: Chic Harley, Bob Karch

Awards: N/A

Most memorable game: Defeated Oberlin 128-0, OSU’s largest-ever margin of victory.

Fun fact: The 1916 team was the first in school history to win the Western Conference, which was renamed the Big Ten one year later.

Case for: Went undefeated and outscored opponents 258-29(!), shutting out three of them.

Case against: Scraped by Illinois 7-6 and Wisconsin 14-13 in consecutive games, a sign of inconsistency coming from the same bunch that demolished Oberlin by triple digits.

3. 1954

Coach: Woody Hayes

Record: 10-0, Big Ten champions, AP national champions

Postseason: Defeated USC 20-7 in the Rose Bowl

Star players: Howard “Hopalong” Cassady, Dean Dugger, Jim Reichenbach, Dave Leggett, Dick Brubaker

Awards: N/A

Most memorable game: Throttled No. 2 Wisconsin and eventual Heisman winner Alan Ameche 31-14 at the ’Shoe, highlighted by an 88-yard pick-six by Cassady, leaping from No. 4 to No. 1 in the process.

Fun fact: The Rose Bowl was played in a rainstorm.

Case for: Went undefeated, won the Rose Bowl by double digits, forced 35 turnovers, produced three All-Americans and eight draft picks.

Case against: Because of a “no repeat” rule, undefeated UCLA was locked out of the Rose Bowl, so Ohio State had to settle for Pac-10 runner-up USC. Although the AP listed OSU at No. 1, the coaches ranked the Buckeyes No. 2 behind UCLA.

2. 2002

Coach: Jim Tressel

Record: 14-0, Big Ten champions, BCS/ AP/USA Today/ESPN/NFF/FWAA national champions

Postseason: Defeated Miami 31-24 in the Fiesta Bowl

Star players: Maurice Clarett, Mike Doss, Michael Jenkins, Craig Krenzel, Mike Nugent

Awards: N/A

Most memorable game: OK, obviously the double-overtime Fiesta Bowl was the most memorable game, but shout-out to the 10-6 win over Purdue when Krenzel went long to Jenkins on fourth-and-one. Greatest Buckeye football play of all time? (Look it up on YouTube by searching the phrase “Holy Buckeye.”)

Fun fact: The 14-0 carryout on Hudson Street is named to honor this team.

Case for: Most wins ever! Most dramatic Buckeyes bowl game ever! Plucky underdogs overachieving! Sweater vests!

Case against: Almost every game was so close it had fans hyperventilating. And some people dispute the, um, veracity of the pass interference call that kept Ohio State alive in the national title game.

1. 1968

Coach: Woody Hayes

Record: 10-0, Big Ten champions, AP/FWAA/NFF/UPI national champions

Postseason: Defeated USC 27-16 in the Rose Bowl

Awards: N/A

Star players: Rex Kern, Jack Tatum, Jim Otis, Bruce Jankowski, Rufus Mayes, Dave Foley

Most memorable game: Taking out No. 1 Purdue while ranked No. 4 was something special, but taking a 50-14 dump all over No. 4 Michigan was extra special.

Fun fact: This was the first year players were awarded buckeye helmet stickers for making a good play.

Case for: The most talented, physically imposing, all-around dominant Buckeyes team of all time — and most of the best players weren’t even seniors!

Case against: There is no case against. If you make a case against the 1968 team, Jack Tatum will come back from the grave to paralyze you. (As he should.) Cheers, ’68 Buckeyes! You’re the best.