College football was considered to be birthed on November 6, 1869—back in the wee early days of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency and when the University of California wasn’t even two years old. This year, the world is celebrating 150 years of college football this year, hence the “150” patches on every college uniform this year.
One of the ways that ESPN is commemorating the big anniversary is by looking at the 150 best teams in these 150 years. The top team is the 1971 Nebraska Cornhuskers, followed by the 2004 USC Trojans—with no mention that wins were vacated that year due to sanctions. Regardless, this list shows the dominance of these two teams as they made up the top four teams. Ugh.
Briefly, I’ll take a look at how Pac-12 teams fared. I wanted to compile it in a table, but it all just became a USC love-fest. Double ugh. The California Golden Bears, Colorado Buffaloes (1990), Arizona State Sun Devils (1975), Stanford Cardinal (1940), UCLA Bruins (1954), and Washington Huskies (1991) all earned recognition for just one team; for Washington, the writers noted that their toughest challenge that year was seventh-ranked Cal. USC had 10 freakin’ teams make the list, including 2003–05 despite Reggie Bush being ruled ineligible. That stretch of greatness helps highlight just how unfortunate Jeff Tedford’s timing was as arguably some of his best teams had to go up against some of history’s greatest teams.
But according to those polled for this piece, the greatest Cal team of all time—and the 139th-greatest team in the history of this game—was the 1920 Wonder Team, which went 9–0 and was named national champions (by CFRA, HAF, Houlgate, NCF, Sagarin).
Led by: E Brick Mueller, QB Charley Erb
What to know: The greatest of the Bears’ “Wonder Teams” of the [post–World] War I era shut out seven opponents, averaged 56 point[s], gave up only 14 points all season, and blanked Ohio State [28–0] in the Rose Bowl. That season launched a five-season unbeaten streak in which Cal won 44 games and tied four.
The Wonder Teams were led by Cal legend Andy Smith—immortalized by Andy Smith’s Bench, a fixture of Memorial Stadium. In his ten years as our head coach, Smith’s record is 74–16–7 for a winning percentage of 79.9%, he held the school record for most games won until Tedford broke the record, his teams earned five Pacific Coast Conference titles and four national titles, and he was inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951. To take things one step further, the Helms Athletic Foundation actually considered the 1920 Bears to be the one and only, singular greatest team in the history of the sport.
Not a single team included from 1869 to 1955? Hmm. In 1960, the Helms Athletic Foundation named the 1920 California Golden Bears "the greatest college football team of all time." Just saying. https://t.co/s2Mr5EdhPU— Cal Bears History (@CalBearsHistory) September 10, 2019
Coincidentally, Smith’s birthday would have been yesterday—when the ESPN ranking was released. The Pac-12 Network also chose to highlight Smith as part of their festivities this year; I’m reluctant to share this video because they incorrectly used the name “Al”, but it was corrected in the versions that are broadcast on TVs and devices.
For more on Andy Smith and the Wonder Teams, read this excellent biography by CalBear81. There may be some squabbles about how exactly this team should be ranked, but this is a great reminder to fans that Cal was once a national powerhouse and a prompt for fans to read up on the Wonder Teams.