It’s been over 150 years since the birth of college football. In 1869, Rutgers and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) played in the first college football game ever. Needless to say, the game is profoundly different today than it was back then. However, there’s no denying that college football has become an essential part of the American sports landscape.
During that time, plenty of programs have come to the forefront and established themselves as being better than the rest. It got us thinking about the best college football programs over those 150 years. While it’s not easy taking a full century and a half of history into account, we’ve done just that by ranking the 20 most prestigious college football programs ever.
20. Clemson Tigers
In a few. years, Clemson might be a lot higher on this list, but for now, the Tigers are just barely good enough to crack our top 20. Keep in mind that Clemson was nothing special before Dabo Swinney made them a perennial powerhouse.
To be fair, the Tigers won a national title in 1981 and had a good run in the 1950s and again in the 80s. But until recently, their history just didn’t measure up to some programs that have been dominant for multiple decades.
19. Mount Union Purple Raiders
Yes, it may be at the Division III level, but Mount Union still deserves to be recognized for all they’ve accomplished. The Purple Raiders have won 13 National Championships, all coming since 1993.
Under Larry Kehres, Mount Union had two separate three-peats within a span of seven years. From 1986 to 2012, Kehres was 332-24-3 with Mount Union. That’s almost John Wooden-level dominance. Even if it was just at the Division III level, that kind of greatness warrants recognition.
18. North Dakota State Bison
Speaking of dominating at a lower level, North Dakota State has to be mentioned as one of the best college football programs of all time. The Bison owned the FCS during the 2010s, winning eight titles in nine years. But that’s only what North Dakota State has done recently.
NDSU won three Division II National Championships in the 1960s and five more between 1983 and 1990. Maybe the Bison wouldn’t cut it at the FBS level, but they’ve been an outstanding program at the lower levels for a long time.
17. Auburn Tigers
While they are only the second-best football program in their own state, Auburn still deserves a spot in our top 20. The Tigers have just two National Championships, but they came over 50 years apart, which means they’ve found success across multiple generations.
There are also three unclaimed National Championships in Auburn history and more than half a dozen conference titles in the mighty SEC. Dating back to the 1950s, Auburn has finished the season in the top 25 a lot more frequently than they've missed it. And they’ve rarely missed a bowl game in the 21st century.
16. Florida Gators
Since Steve Spurrier took over in 1990, Florida has consistently been one of the premier college football programs in the country. In those 30 years, the Gators have won three National Championships and eight SEC titles.
Florida has also finished in the top 10 over a dozen times during that span. Granted, there’s not much to get excited about before Spurrier got to Gainesville. But Florida has accomplished more in the past 30 years than most programs have in their entire football history.
15. Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia gets a slight edge over their border rivals mostly because they’ve been a top-flight program a lot longer than Florida. The Bulldogs have two official National Championships and over a dozen SEC titles on their resume.
They were also a force under Vince Dooley throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Despite winning just one National Championship during his tenure with the Bulldogs, Dooley’s success helps to set Georgia apart from rival programs such as Florida and Auburn.
14. Penn State Nittany Lions
Even before Joe Paterno became Penn State’s head coach, the Nittany Lions were a strong independent program. Under Paterno, they became a national power for decades, winning two National Championships and immediately becoming one of the best teams in the Big Ten after joining in 1993.
It’s been over half a century since Paterno took over and Penn State is still a nationally relevant program. James Franklin has made the Nittany Lions a top 10 team, confirming that it was more than Paterno that makes Penn State special.
13. LSU Tigers
LSU’s National Championship in 2019 is a nice reminder that the Bayou Bengals deserve to be in the conversation among the best programs of all time. In the 21st century alone, the Tigers have won three National Championships and five SEC crowns.
LSU also had a lot of good years during the second half of the 20th century, so it’s not like they came out of nowhere when Nick Saban arrived in 2000. In terms of SEC lore, they aren’t on the same level as Alabama, but LSU isn’t as far behind as people think.
12. Florida State Seminoles
In fairness, the Seminoles have had it a little easier being in the ACC rather than the SEC all these years. However, they were dominant in the ACC since Day 1. Keep in mind that Florida State was an independent program from 1951 to 1991, yet they’ve racked up 18 conference championships in their history, most of which came after 1991.
Consider the fact that Florida State finished every season from 1987 to 2000 ranked in the top five at season’s end. That’s over a decade of being a perennial top-tier team with no exceptions.
Florida State also won two National Championships during that span. Even if things were a little up and down before Bobby Bowden arrived in 1976, everything the Seminoles have done since then is incredible.
11. Miami Hurricanes
This will upset some folks in Tallahassee, but the Hurricanes are a notch above Florida State on our all-time list. Granted, Miami loses some points because they haven’t won a conference title since moving from the Big East to the ACC. However, we can all agree that there was nothing like Miami in its heyday, winning five National Championships between 1983 and 2001.
Between all of the star players and the incredible amounts of swagger, it’s impossible to overlook all the Hurricanes have accomplished and the prestigious program coaches like Howard Schnellenberger and Jimmy Johnson built. Ultimately, those five National Championships give them a big leg up over programs with more sustained success.
10. Texas Longhorns
Whether it was in the Southwest Conference or nowadays in the Big 12, the Longhorns are never far from the top. Texas has been a football powerhouse for over a century and was one of the pre-eminent programs in the country throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Even with some down seasons in recent years, the Longhorns are never out of the spotlight for long. They have four National Championships and over 30 conference titles. On top of that, the words Texas football still carry an awful lot of weight.
9. Yale Bulldogs
If you’re puzzled as to why Yale is on this list, it’s time for a history lesson. During the early years of college football, some of the teams that are now in the Ivy League were the dominant programs, most notably Yale.
Dating back to 1872 when they didn’t even have a head coach, Yale claims 27 National Championships. Granted, the last one came in 1927, but they happened and Yale still deserves credit for being an early powerhouse.
Plus, the Bulldogs haven’t stopped being one of the top teams in the Ivy League, winning over a dozen conference titles since the league was formed in 1954.
8. Tennessee Volunteers
For Tennessee, we’ll ignore the phase: “What have you done for me lately?” The proud Volunteers history dates back to the days of Robert Neyland, who was something special.
Not only was Neyland an incredible innovator, but he also helped Tennessee win four National Championships. It’s not like the program collapsed without him either.
The Vols won another title under Bill Dickey in 1967 and were a national power for most of the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s under Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer, with Fulmer winning a sixth national title in 1998.
Even if there have been some struggles recently, Tennessee has been in the spotlight for nearly a century, which is something few programs can claim.
7. Nebraska Cornhuskers
The Cornhuskers have endured some dark days in recent years, but this was one of the proudest programs in college football during the second half of the 20th century.
Nebraska won two National Championships under Bob Devaney in the early 1970s and three more under Tom Osbourne in the 90s. From 1969 to 2001, the Cornhuskers finished every season ranked in the top 25, which seems hard to fathom given the state of the program today. That includes a stretch from 1970 to 1986 when Nebraska was a top-10 team virtually every year.
Even when they stumbled in the early 2000s, the Cornhuskers were still a perennial bowl team. On top of that, Nebraska has won close to 50 conference championships dating back to the 1800s, leaving no doubt this is a prestigious football program.
6. Oklahoma Sooners
Whether it was a member of the Big Six, Big Seven, Big Eight or Big 12, Oklahoma has been the premier program in its conference for nearly a century.
Heading into the 2020 season, the Sooners are approaching their 50th conference championship. Decade after decade, Oklahoma has continued to dominate the teams in its conference without any let off.
Along the way, the Sooners have won seven national titles, including two pairs of back-to-back championships. They’ve also produced as many Heisman winners and All-Americans as any other program, which also counts for something.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State is another one of those programs that seems like they’ve been good forever. It’s probably because the Buckeyes have been good forever. Ohio State won its first conference championship in 1906 and hasn’t looked back. They’ve added 39 conference crowns since then, the most in the Big Ten.
The Buckeyes also claim eight National Championships and have been a virtual lock for a bowl game since the 1970s. It helps that they’ve rarely slipped outside the top 10 over the past 20 years. But the Buckeyes have been the team to beat in the Big Ten for a vast majority of the last 50 years.
Success is nothing new for Ohio State, which is why the Buckeyes are in the conversation for the best program of all time.
4. Michigan Wolverines
The Wolverines were the best program in college football at the start of the 20th century. And 20 years into the 21st century, Michigan remains an elite program. Between 1901 and 1997, Michigan won 11 National Championships. The Wolverines have also captured 42 conference championships along the way.
There have been several periods when Michigan was the “it” team in college football, including a run from 1969 to 1992 when the Wolverines finished in the top 10 in all but a few seasons while capturing 16 Big Ten crowns in 24 years.
In short, Michigan’s sustained excellence is difficult for any program to match. It also doesn’t hurt that the Wolverines play in the largest stadium in the country and have produced three Heisman winners and a future president.
3. USC Trojans
Among West Coast programs, there’s nothing like USC. In fact, most East Coast programs would probably be jealous of the Trojans, too. USC rose to prominence in the late 1920s and has been a fixture on the college football landscape ever since.
The programs have totaled 11 National Championships over five different decades. They’ve also won close to 40 conference titles and produced a parade of All-Americans, including seven Heisman winners.
Even when USC has a down period, you know that they’re only one or two years away from competing for championships, which is the mark of a great program.
2. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
There are reasons why Notre Dame continues to get by without a conference. Part of it is having a devout national fanbase. But it’s also because they are one of the most prestigious programs in college football history.
It all started with the famous Knute Rockne, who was 105-12-5 and won three National Championships in his 13 seasons as coach. But it didn’t stop there. The Fighting Irish continued to find coaches who kept Notre Dame in the national spotlight and led the program to glory.
Sure, The Irish have lost their way a time or two over the years. However, Notre Dame claims 11 National Championships and can go toe-to-toe with just about any program when it comes to Heisman winners, All-Americans and influence in college football history.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
A decade ago, there might have been a good argument among a few schools over the top spot, but the Nick Saban era has left no doubt that Alabama is the greatest college football program of all time. Counting the five titles Saban has won, the Crimson Tide now claim 17 National Championships, which is more than any program outside of Yale and Princeton, who did most of their damage in the 19th century.
Obviously, Saban and Bear Bryant are two of the best college football coaches to ever live and are the two primarily responsible for Alabama’s incredible legacy. But Alabama has been winning National Championships and dominating Southern football since 1925 under Hall of Fame coaches like Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas and Gene Stallings.
For nearly a century, Alabama football has set the bar for success in college football and no program has been able to match the Crimson Tide.
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