They’ve been to 23 combined Final Fours, including seven in the past 15 seasons. The last time they both missed the same NCAA tournament was back in 1967, and they enter the new year in the top six for all-time wins among Division I college basketball programs. But on the football field, they’re an afterthought—at least, they usually are.
Kentucky and Syracuse are no strangers to success on the hardwood, and their fans are no strangers to spending each fall eagerly anticipating another season of hoops. But this year, you’ll have to forgive Wildcats and Orange fans if they’ve been a bit distracted. In the latest College Football Playoff rankings, Kentucky and Syracuse sit at No. 17 and 12, respectively, sporting a combined 15–5 record.
The 7–3 Wildcats, powered by running back Benny Snell Jr. and edge rusher Josh Allen, boast the 11th-best scoring defense in America. Despite a punchless loss to Tennessee in Week 11, they are still on track for one of their best seasons ever with two winnable games ahead against Middle Tennessee and Louisville.
Meanwhile, prolific passer Eric Dungey has Syracuse at 8–2. The Orange rank seventh in the nation in scoring offense, with at least 40 points in every game of their current four-game winning streak. A Saturday showdown with No. 3 Notre Dame in the Bronx looms large.
Kentucky and Syracuse, two college basketball bluebloods, are having banner years on the gridiron. So as college basketball enters the second week of what has already been an eventful season, let’s travel back in time to the best football teams in modern times (since 1985) produced by traditional hoops powers.
6. 2007 Kentucky Wildcats
Coach: Rich Brooks
Quarterback: Andre Woodson
Future Notable NFL Players: Stevie Johnson, John Conner, Jacob Tamme
Record: 8–5 (3–5 SEC)
Bowl Result: Won Music City Bowl (35–28 over Florida State)
You’ll notice this season isn’t all that special. That’s because the program is currently enjoying its best season since 1977. But the 2007 Wildcats came out on a roll, with five straight wins (scoring 40-plus points in each game) to rocket to the No. 8 ranking. Kentucky limped to the finish line, but not before some fun shootouts. Most notably, the Wildcats dropped a 52–50 four-overtime barnburner to Arian Foster’s Tennessee squad, one of the classic games of the mid-2000s. Kentucky trailed 31–14 late in the third quarter before rallying back to send the game to OT. In the end, the difference was a failed Kentucky two-point conversion in the fourth overtime as Tennessee barely squeezed by. Amid a run of four consecutive bowl trips under Brooks, this team delivered basketball-crazed Lexington a healthy dose of football optimism by flirting with the top 10.
5. 2013 Duke Blue Devils
Coach: David Cutcliffe
Quarterbacks: Anthony Boone, Brandon Connette
Notable NFL Players: Jamison Crowder
Record: 10–4 (6–2 ACC)
Bowl Result: Lost Chick-fil-A (52–48 to Texas A&M)
Duke reached the 10-win mark for the first time ever in Cutcliffe’s sixth season building the Blue Devils up from irrelevance. Big-time victories over Virginia Tech and Miami paved Duke’s path to the ACC title game, where it was thrashed by Jameis Winston’s Florida State team that would go on to win the national title. But these Blue Devils might be best-remembered for drawing the best out of Johnny Manziel in a roller-coaster Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Blue Devils led by as much as 21 before the Aggies stormed back for an exhilarating shootout win. It’s still the best football team in Duke history.
4. 1997 UCLA Bruins
Coach: Bob Toledo
Quarterback: Cade McNown
Notable NFL Players: Cade McNown, Freddie Mitchell, Shaun Williams
Record: 10–2 (7–1 Pac 12)
Bowl Result: Won Cotton Bowl (29–23 over Texas A&M)
Of these basketball schools, UCLA has been the most successful in football since 1985, with seven 10-win seasons in that span. The Bruins, whose basketball success under John Wooden is unparalleled, peaked on the gridiron in 1997 with a solid 10–2 year. QB Cade McNown threw for 3,116 yards and 24 touchdowns, while workhorse running back Skip Hicks scored 26 touchdowns. The Bruins actually dropped their first two contests, to Washington State and Tennessee. Sitting at 0–2 and heading to Austin to take on No. 11 Texas in Week 3, the season seemed lost. By the end of the first quarter, UCLA was up 28–0. The final: 66–3. UCLA won its next nine games to finish 10–2, sneaking by Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
3. 1997 North Carolina Tar Heels
Coach: Mack Brown
Quarterbacks: Oscar Davenport, Chris Keldorf
Notable NFL Players: Alge Crumpler, Dré Bly, Russell Davis, Greg Ellis
Record: 11–1 (7–1 ACC)
Bowl Result: Won Gator Bowl (42–3, over Virginia Tech)
With six national titles, North Carolina has firmly etched itself as a college basketball elite, but football success has been mostly elusive. One of the bright spots was the Mack Brown era. Brown took the program from a 1–10 laughingstock in 1988 and ’89 and delivered double-digit wins to Chapel Hill a few years later. But the pinnacle came in ’97. This North Carolina team was powered by defense—the Tar Heels surrendered just 12.2 points per game, second fewest in the country—and only dropped one game, to No. 3 Florida State. After achieving the most gridiron success North Carolina has ever seen, Brown was poached by Texas before the Gator Bowl and ditched his Heels prior to their 42–3 throttling of Virginia Tech.
2. 2007 Kansas Jayhawks
Coach: Mark Mangino
Quarterback: Todd Reesing
Notable NFL Players: Aqib Talib, Darrell Stuckey
Record: 12–1 (7–1 Big 12)
Bowl Result: Won Orange Bowl (24–21, over Virginia Tech)
Kansas is looking to win its 15th consecutive Big 12 title in basketball, but in football the Jayhawks entered 2018 having won just 15 games this decade. It’s been a trainwreck, but the 2007 squad trucked through opponents on its way to a record-breaking season. Highlighted by 5'11" QB Todd Reesing, the Jayhawks won their first 11 games of the season and were ranked as high as second in the AP poll. Then, they ran into Chase Daniel and third-ranked Missouri in a Big 12 Game of the Century, falling by eight. Kansas still earned a berth in the Orange Bowl, where Reesing & Co. edged Virginia Tech by a field goal for only the fifth bowl win in program history. Reesing and 1,000-yard rusher Brandon McAnderson fueled a prolific offense that scored 42.8 points per game.
1. 1987 Syracuse Orangemen
Coach: Dick MacPherson
Quarterback: Don McPherson
Notable NFL Players: Daryl Johnston, Terry Wooden, Rob Moore
Record: 11-0-1 (Independent)
Bowl Result: Tied Sugar Bowl (16–16, with Auburn)
Under Jim Boeheim, few basketball programs have been as consistent as Syracuse. On the football side, Syracuse is currently enjoying its highest AP ranking since 1998, when Donovan McNabb ruled the Carrier Dome. But no team was better than the unbeaten unit of 1987. It was the year of the two Mac/McPhersons in Syracuse: Coach Dick MacPherson and QB Don McPherson, the 1987 Maxwell Award winner. Much like ’07 Kansas, the Orange opened the season on an 11-game win streak. Unfortunately, the season ended with a tie in the Sugar Bowl. MacPherson was so irate that Auburn had settled for a tie (kicking a late game-tying field goal instead of shooting for the end zone), he reportedly left the field with the trophy and kept it with him during his presser. This 1987 team set off a decade-plus run of football relevance in upstate New York that may only just now be returning.