Penn State has seven perfect seasons in their program history but only one of those times were they rewarded for their efforts with a national championship. The 1986 Nittany Lions were one of the best teams in Joe Paterno’s career but they had to prove to doubters and an over-confident Miami Hurricanes team, that they were the best team in college football.
It may be a fact that Paterno’s top offensive team in his career is part of the reason the BCS exists today. The 1994 team torched their way through the Big Ten and avoided a couple scares along the way to Pasadena, where the second ranked Nittany Lions would be forced to do their best against an over-powered Oregon team while top-ranked Nebraska defeated Miami to be crowned national champions. Just a few years later Nebraska and Michigan, under similar circumstances as Penn State’s ’94 team, split a national championship.
Is it fair to say the 1994 team was better than the 1986 team? You could make that argument but the fact remains that the 1986 team has a national championship ring and the 1994 team does not.
Below is my ranking of Penn State’s perfect teams from top to bottom.
1. 1986, 12-0
1987 Fiesta Bowl victory over top ranked Miami to clinch national title, Paterno’s second of his career
Among Penn State fans, what can be said about this team that has not already been said? A top ten team from start to finish in 1986 Penn State won each of their first four games by double digits. After avoiding a scare from Cincinnati at home the Nittany Lions went on to hold their next three opponents to a combined six points. No opponent scored more than 19 points against Penn State that season (Notre Dame scored a season high 19 points while Penn State allowed 17 points against East Carolina and Cincinnati).
When matched up with Miami in the Fiesta Bowl to determine the national championship it was the defense that once again got the job done for Paterno, intercepting Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde.
2. 1994, 12-0
Big Ten champions, Rose Bowl champions
The 1986 team may have excelled on defense but it would be fun to see them try to shut down the 1994 team. With three top ten NFL picks leading the offense the 1994 Penn State team could probably score on anybody and to this day is still recognized as one of the best college offenses in college football history.
Penn State’s season low for points scored in a game came against Michigan (31) and they scored over 50 points five times. Against Iowa Penn State scored 35 first quarter points and against Ohio State the Nittany Lions put up 63 points.
Of course this Penn State team was one of the undefeated teams to not be rewarded with at least a share of the national championship before the BCS formula was put in to place. Nebraska may have been able to score points against this Penn State defense, but it would have been awfully tough to beat Penn State in a shoot out.
3. 1969, 11-0
Orange Bowl champions
The 1969 team may have been one of Paterno’s finest, but a decision to go to the Orange Bowl instead of the Cotton Bowl would leave his team without a national championship, with no help from President Richard Nixon of course.
Penn State led the nation in scoring defense by allowing just 8.2 points per game. If not for Navy scoring 22 points in the season opener the average would have been considerably lower. Penn State held the rest of their opponents to under 20 points per game and kept their opponents under seven points five times, including an Orange Bowl victory over Missouri.
If Penn State had not won a tight game against Syracuse (15-14) the Nittany Lions may not have slipped in the AP poll and may have been in a better position to stake a claim at a national championship. It was the only week after September Penn State took a dip in the polls (from fifth to eighth) but Penn State stayed in the top eight all season.
4. 1968, 11-0
Orange Bowl champions
It was the success of the 1968 season that would lead to a costly decision in 1969. Because the Nittany Lions enjoyed their trip to the Orange Bowl in the 1968 season the team decided to return there the next year. Ranked fourth at the time of the decision who knew that Penn State would be in the running for a national championship at the end of the season?
With no ranked opponents on the schedule in 1968 it was hard to consider Penn State a legitimate national championship contender in the eyes of the voters. Penn State held six opponents under ten points and blew out rival Pittsburgh 65-9 in the process.
4. 1973, 12-0
Orange Bowl champions
How does a team go 12-0 with an Orange Bowl victory over LSU and finish the season being ranked fifth? Notre Dame finished the season 11-0 and with the top ranking. Ohio State was 10-0-1 and finished second. Oklahoma finished third with the same record as the Buckeyes and Alabama, despite losing to Notre Dame as the top team in college football in the Sugar Bowl, finished one spot ahead of Penn State. Just one of those years?
Sure, John Cappelletti won the Heisman Trophy that season but there was more to this team than Cappy. Only two teams managed to score more than 20 points against Penn State (Maryland and NC State in consecutive weeks), who averaged 10.75 points per game against (only Oklahoma allowed more points per game of teams ranked ahead of Penn State). this team went on the road to win games at Stanford, Navy, Syracuse and Maryland, but the only ranked team they beat that season was 20th ranked Pittsburgh in the season finale.
6. 1912, 8-0
Still in the early ages of the program, and well before even Joe Paterno’s coaching tenure started, Bill Hollenback was establishing a football power in Pennsylvania. The 1912 team was the first team to complete a true season with a perfect record.
They did so by defeating in-state rivals Carnegie Mellon, Washington & Jefferson, Gettysburg, Penn, Villanova and Pittsburgh. Also on the schedule were Cornell and pre-Big Ten Ohio State, who was fielding a non-major program at the time.
Even in a previous era of college football Penn State demonstrated the strong defensive foundation that would become iconic with the program. Penn State allowed just six points to be scored against them in 1912, with Cornell recording all six points by way of an interception returned for a touchdown. The defense must have been heart broken.
7. 1887, 2-0
Without a head coach Penn State’s first official football team, then known as State College and nicknamed the “Nittanymen”, played a pair of games against Bucknell. The first game was played in Lewsiburg in cold and rainy conditions with a possible mixture of sleet with Penn State winning by a score of 9-0. The second game was played in front of Old Main, with State College winning 24-0 in a rematch requested by Bucknell’s team two weeks later.