Perhaps no sport has given fans as many heated debates as college football. This is the game that tried to quantify abstract metrics like strength of schedule in order to explain the jockeying that happens in the various weekly polls. In fact, until it adopted a playoff system in 2014, even the team that was considered the national champion was a matter of opinion that often varied among several different sources every season.
And let’s not even bring up the BCS era.
But in the 150-plus years that college football has been played, some programs have singled themselves out as the elites. Here’s our ranking of the top programs in history, including Division I Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision teams, based on factors including overall excellence and the impact they’ve left on the game.
30. Princeton Tigers
Princeton’s history in college football dates back longer than the school’s current name. When the Tigers took the field in November 1869 against Rutgers in the first college football game ever played, the university was known as the College of New Jersey. Today, Princeton claims a record 28 national championships in football — 15 of which are officially recognized by the NCAA — all but one of which came before the so-called poll era, which began in 1936.
The program has also delivered a remarkable 21 players to the College Football Hall of Fame, including halfback Dick Kazmaier, who became the only Tiger to win the Heisman Trophy in 1951.
29. Boise State Broncos
While Princeton has one of the deepest histories in the sport, Boise State is still building its own impressive legacy as one of the great programs. The team has only been in Division I since 1978 and didn’t become an FBS squad until 1996 but the Broncos have already accomplished more in that time than most ever have. The program’s .732 winning percentage since 1968, when Boise State became a four-year university, is the best mark in the entire sport.
On top of that, they’ve won 12 FBS bowl games, including two Bowl Championship Series games and a New Year’s Six contest, and the blue turf at their home stadium has become one of college football’s most iconic sights.
28. Illinois Fighting Illini
When the Big Ten was founded in 1896 as the nation’s first collegiate athletic conference, Illinois was one of the original seven institutions in its membership. The Fighting Illini were a football powerhouse in the pre-poll era, winning five national championships from 1914-1951, including three between 1919 and 1927.
All-time football legends like “Red” Grange and Dick Butkus are included among the program’s 12 College Football Hall of Famers and six Pro Football Hall of Famers, the latter of which ranks them in the top 10 for that institution.
27. Oregon Ducks
Programs on the West Coast haven’t typically earned the same kind of acclaim as the ones on the other end of the country, but Oregon has been an exception. The Ducks — also known as the Webfoots in the old days — have consistently been one of the best programs in the Pac-12 during the current era. They’ve won 12 conference titles overall, seven of which have come since 2000, and have won 15 FBS bowl games. The team was also part of the first-ever College Football Playoff in 2015, when they made it to the championship game.
26. Navy Midshipmen
The United States Naval Academy has a long tradition of excellence on dry land, at least on the gridiron. For one, the program has produced an impressive 22 players who landed in the College Football Hall of Fame, including Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach, both of whom won the Heisman in the early 1960s. They have a claimed national title from 1926 and have won 12 FBS bowl games in total, including five since 2013, renewing their standing in the sport for a new generation of fans.
25. Syracuse Orange
There are only eight college football programs that have sent at least eight players to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Syracuse is one of them. Since their first season in 1889, the Orange have given us iconic stars like Larry Csonka, Marvin Harrison, Donovan McNabb and arguably the greatest football player in history, Jim Brown. That’s not even to mention the school’s only Heisman winner, Ernie Davis, who was the first Black player to ever win that coveted award in 1961.
Throw in the undefeated 1959 national championship team and 16 FBS bowl wins and you’ve got one of the sport’s richest legacies.
24. Michigan State Spartans
In the 1950s and ’60s, Michigan State was about as dominant a program as you’d find in college football. The school claims six national championships from 1951-1966, based on them topping season-ending polls from major sources. The end of that run coincided with the team’s legendary “Game of the Century” with Notre Dame in 1966, which ended in a tie and remains one of the sport’s most memorable championship games. The Spartans have also had 10 unanimous All-American selections, which makes them one of just 21 programs to have produced at least that many, as well as nine College Football Hall of Famers.
23. Wisconsin Badgers
In the Big Ten’s long history, only Michigan and Ohio State have won more outright conference championships than Wisconsin. The Badgers also count themselves among that elite group of programs to have produced multiple Heisman winners, with rushers Alan Ameche and Ron Dayne each taking the honor. The school has also had a stellar 12 unanimous All-American selections and won the national championship in 1942.
In the past couple decades, Wisconsin has reclaimed its status as one of the nation’s premiere football schools, winning 10 of its 16 total FBS bowls since 2000 alone.
22. Washington Huskies
The only team in the Pac-12 to have won more conference titles than Washington’s 17 is USC and this West Coast powerhouse is also one of the winningest programs nationwide. In addition to having won nearly 750 total games since 1889, the Huskies have four claimed national championships and another unclaimed one, including three from 1984-1991. That period of dominance saw College Football Hall of Famers Steve Emtman and Lincoln Kennedy play starring roles as just two of Washington’s 12 former players to be enshrined by that institution.
They also count 18 FBS bowl wins and an appearance in the 2016 College Football Playoff among their milestones.
21. Texas A&M Aggies
There are only 17 programs in college football history that have won at least 750 games and Texas A&M is one of them. The Aggies are also one of those precious few to have had multiple Heisman winners, with John David Crow in 1957 and Johnny Manziel in 2012. In recent years, the program has cranked out NFL stars at a steady pace, including Ryan Tannehill, Von Miller, Mike Evans and Myles Garrett. During the existence of the Southwest Conference, Texas A&M was second only to Texas in conference championships, winning 17 of them and tacking on another when they moved to the Big 12.
The Aggies also claim three national titles, one of which has come in the poll era.
20. Army Black Knights
America’s three top service academies — Air Force, Army and Navy — all have great traditions in college football, but it’s the Black Knights who win the war, based on a number of factors. Perhaps the most notable is that they’ve won five national championships, including three consecutive titles from 1944-1946. Army is also one of just 10 programs in college football history to have produced at least three Heisman winners and their 24 College Football Hall of Famers are also impressive.
Two of the greatest football coaches in history also trace their early careers back to Army, with Vince Lombardi and Bill Parcells each working as assistant there before going on to NFL dominance.
19. Yale Bulldogs
They’re now an FCS program, but Yale remains one of the mightiest names in college football because of their remarkable legacy for winning. They are one of just nine programs to have won at least 900 games and their winning percentage of .697 in more than 1,300 total contests is tough to top. The Bulldogs football team was established in 1872 and produced some of the sport’s founding fathers, including Walter Camp, Amos Alonzo Stagg and Pudge Heffelfinger.
Two of the first three winners of the Heisman Trophy came from Yale and if you need more evidence of their dominance in the old days, the Bulldogs claim 27 national championships, all of which came before 1928.
18. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Another charter member of the Big Ten, only Ohio State and Michigan have earned more of that conference’s football championships than Minnesota. The Golden Gophers also have nine national championships in their long history, including seven that are claimed by the school and four awarded by the Associated Press Poll voters. Five of those came in the period from 1934-1941 when the program was at its most dominant. The school’s seven inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame are the ninth-most by any program and include Tony Dungy and Bronko Nagurski.
17. Florida State Seminoles
During the BCS era, which ran from 1998-2013, Florida State was as strong as any program in the nation. The Seminoles played in eight BCS bowl games during that span and were in the BCS National Championship Game a record four times, winning it in 1999 and 2013. Those are two of the program’s three claimed national titles, also of which have come since 1993. Legendary coach Bobby Bowden presided over the team for more than 30 years, helping build them into a powerhouse that has produced 15 unanimous All-Americans and three Heisman winners.
16. Auburn Tigers
John Heisman, the football pioneer for whom the prestigious trophy that honors the nation’s best player is named, was Auburn’s head coach at the end of the 19th century and that’s just one of the program’s close ties to the sport’s history. The Tigers have also produced three winners of that honor, including two of college football’s all-time most dominant players in Bo Jackson and Cam Newton. Auburn has won five national championships, all coming in different decades, including two that are claimed by the program.
From 2000-2019, the Tigers played in 18 FBS bowl games and their 24 total wins in that type of game ranks them among the elites.
15. Pittsburgh Panthers
Few schools in the country — in fact, only five — have produced more inductees of the Pro Football Hall of Fame than Pitt. The program’s nine members include Dan Marino, Mike Ditka and Heisman winner Tony Dorsett, all of whom make strong cases as the best to ever play their respective positions. They’ve also had 12 unanimous All-Americans and 26 former players inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. The team also claims nine national championships, including two that have come during the poll era, giving them a pedigree that’s hard to match.
14. Florida Gators
From The Swamp to the Gator Chomp, the University of Florida has given college football some of its most iconic symbols. The program is also one of the winningest and most successful in the sport’s history. It’s one of 10 teams to have contributed three Heisman winners, all quarterbacks and all in different decades, including Tim Tebow, who was as popular as any player ever. Florida has also won three AP national championships, each since 1996, and introduced much of the world to the coaching brilliance of Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer.
13. Georgia Bulldogs
In the rich history of the Southeastern Conference, only Alabama has won more conference titles than Georgia. The Bulldogs are one of the true marquee programs in the sport, thanks to a history that includes more than 800 wins and appearances in 56 FBS bowls, which is tied for the second most. The school’s 14 College Football Hall of Famers include two Heisman winners in Frank Sinkwich and the legendary Herschel Walker, who has been named the best player in SEC history. Walker was a star on Georgia’s undefeated national championship team in 1980, one of two titles claimed by the program.
12. Tennessee Volunteers
Tennessee’s 13 SEC championships are tied with Georgia for second place in that conference’s history but the Vols get the edge in some other categories. For one thing, they’ve won a few more games overall and have a slightly better overall win percentage. The program also has won 29 FBS bowl games in 53 total appearances, including 11 from 1981-1997. Tennessee also claims six national championships, including two AP titles.
They’ve somehow never had a Heisman Trophy winner, but have produced 24 College Football Hall of Famers, including all-time greats like Peyton Manning and Reggie White.
11. Clemson Tigers
In the current era of college football, Clemson is as dominant as any program in the country and no team in the ACC has won as many conference titles. They’ve won three national titles since 1982 and have played in the national championship game four times since 2016. The program has won a remarkable nine FBS bowl games since 2012 alone, contributing to their overall total of 25 bowl wins.
In the era of the College Football Playoff, which began in 2014, the Tigers have been arguably the most consistent team in the nation, making five appearances in the four-team bracket through the 2019-2020 season.
10. LSU Tigers
LSU claims four national championships in its long history, including three since 2003. The program’s 2019 season is arguably the greatest single year by a college football team in history, as they finished at 15-0 with a dominant win in the national championship game. Quarterback Joe Burrow, who led that remarkable run, became LSU’s second Heisman Trophy winner, 60 years after Billy Cannon earned that honor.
The Tigers are one of very few teams to have won at least 800 games, and their 51 appearances in FBS bowl games are tied as the fourth most.
9. Miami Hurricanes
Miami’s football program has only been around since 1926 — making them seem brand-new compared to others on this list — but they’ve accomplished a ton in less than 100 years. The team has won nine national titles, five of which they claim, all of which came during a period of utter dominance that lasted from the early 1980s to the early 2000s.
The program is known for producing elite NFL talent, with nine Pro Football Hall of Famers and a remarkable 65 first-round picks in the NFL Draft coming from the Hurricanes so far. “The U” has also introduced one of college football’s greatest recent traditions with its turnover chain, which many other programs have unsuccessfully tried to copy.
8. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Nebraska is one of just seven programs in FBS history that has won at least 900 games, putting them in rarefied air. The Cornhuskers were at their mightiest from the 1970s through the 1990s, winning five national championships that they claim, along with another seven that are unclaimed from that era. Nebraska has produced 22 unanimous All-Americans and three Heisman winners, and both of these accomplishments put them among the elites.
The program’s incredible 46 conference titles are the second-most in history, just behind their longtime rivals at Oklahoma.
7. Texas Longhorns
If you think of an impressive milestone in college football, the Texas Longhorns have accomplished it. Just to name a few, there have been more than 920 wins as a program, multiple national titles and a pair of Heisman winners. They also enjoy some of the longest-lasting rivalries in the sport, as they’ve been facing opponents like Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma for well over a century — and Texas has the overall series lead against all three.
Among their impressive 56 FBS bowl games was the 2006 BCS National Championship Game with USC that many people consider to be the best college football game ever played.
6. USC Trojans
Speaking of that incredible 2006 title game, it marked the end of the most recent USC dynasty that saw them as college football’s most dominant team of the early 2000s. They were in seven BCS bowl games during that era, winning a record six, including two of their 11 total national championships. Some of the wins from that era were stripped because of recruiting violations related to star rusher Reggie Bush but the Trojans still have one of the best pedigrees of any team in the sport.
5. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan is one of those programs that has been so dominant for so long that anything less than championship contention makes for a disappointing season. Their 49-0 win over Stanford at the 1902 Rose Bowl, the first ever played, was so lopsided that the game wasn’t held again for another 14 years. No team in college football has won more games than they have, and their .727 winning percentage also ranks among the all-time best.
Throw in 11 claimed national championships, which have spanned from 1901-1997, 23 undefeated seasons and three Heisman winners and you’ve got a legacy that’s easily as rich as any in the sport.
4. Oklahoma Sooners
In an era where nearly all the elite college football programs have had wins vacated due to various violations, the Sooners have had their overall record untouched, which is impressive enough. From the Sooner Schooner to the Red River Showdown to producing countless beloved players, OU has left an imprint on college football that is difficult to top. They claim seven national championships — all in the poll era — and have won an unmatched 49 conference titles, including 13 since 2000 alone.
They are also tied at the top of the sport for producing seven Heisman winners, 35 unanimous All-American selections and five No. 1 overall NFL Draft picks.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes
While Ohio State doesn’t have as many total wins or national titles as their arch-rivals at Michigan, the Buckeyes recently passed the Wolverines in an impressive mark of excellence. In 2019, Ohio State reached an overall win percentage of .730 as a program, which is tied for the best mark among those that have won at least 900 games. The program is also closing the gap in terms of total wins, a category in which they rank second all-time, aided by the 10 Big Ten titles they’ve won since 2000 alone.
The Buckeyes have eight claimed national championships and have produced seven Heisman winners and 35 unanimous All-American selections, both of which are records.
2. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The mark of a truly great team is often in how many haters they have and that’s a category that Notre Dame likely owns across college football. Love them or hate them, the Irish are unquestionably tied to the roots of the sport as closely as any program in the nation, giving us icons like Knute Rockne, George Gipp and Paul Hornung, just to name a few. They’ve also had seven Heisman winners, 13 players inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and an astounding 46 players inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, all of which are records.
From Touchdown Jesus to the Golden Dome and “Play Like a Champion Today,” Notre Dame’s 11 national championships and overall win percentage of .730 almost take a backseat to their cultural significance.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Fans who just came to college football in the past couple decades know Alabama’s program is as dominant as it gets, but their legacy of greatness goes back roughly a century. They claim 17 national championships, the first of which goes back to 1925, including a record 11 titles in the poll era. They’ve won five since 2009 alone, under head coach Nick Saban, which still isn’t as many as the six they won from 1961-1979 under legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.