College football’s more than 150-year history has produced its share of dominance, with some schools immediately standing out from the crowd.
And while it’s difficult to stay on track for so long, some schools have almost come the way, with most dynasties beginning in the last century.
College football began as an all-Northeast affair centered primarily on the Ivy League, but the sport spread like wildfire, first in the Midwest, then in the South, and finally in the West.
How can you calculate which are the most successful programs?
To answer this question, Winsipedia produced an “unweighted average ranking” of all 131 schools, taking into account the following performances.
- profit percentage
- National Championships
- conference championships
- bowl games
- Overall wins
- bowl record
- Heisman Trophy Winner
- NFL draft picks
- First round draft picks
- weeks at #1 in the AP poll
- Overall AP Top 25 appearances
Which college football programs are the most successful of all time?
Let’s find out by taking the average of the top 10 when looking at these categories.
Ranking of the 10 most successful college football programs of all time
Winning national championships may not be something Georgia always does — it won the college football playoffs in 2021 for the first time since 1980 — but it’s been one of the country’s most consistent winners for generations.
Especially over the quarter century that Vince Dooley coached the Bulldogs. Dooley finished in the AP Top 10 seven times and coached to a national title with the great Herschel Walker on the UGA field in the early ’80s. Mark Richt followed with a 15-year campaign that included a nearly 70 percent win mark in the SEC.
But no Georgia coach has accomplished as much as quickly as Kirby Smart, who has produced five straight top-10 teams since 2016 and the school’s first national title in ages.
LSU ranks 11th all-time with a .655 win percentage, along with 39 All-American selections, 16 conference championships, and four claimed national championships, including three in the 21st Century.
Nick Saban won a BCS national title and Les Miles another before the Tigers rewrote the record books in 2019 and went undefeated behind a historically great offense led by Heisman quarterback Joe Burrow en route to a College Football Playoff title stayed.
Nebraska brought together two of the sport’s most dominant dynasties, first in the early 1970s and again in the 1990s before the introduction of the BCS system.
Bob Devaney helped build the Huskers into a national dynasty in the early ’70s, winning national championships in the 1970 and 1971 seasons against SEC powers LSU and then Alabama. But Devaney’s offensive coordinator took the program even further.
Tom Osborne has won at least nine games each season as Nebraska coach and has won ten games in 15 different years. Each of his teams finished in the AP Top 25 rankings and 18 of them made the top 10. Osborne’s teams in 1994 and 1995 are among the most dominant in college football history.
No school has won more games than Michigan, the first non-Ivy League program to make a national mark in the early 20th century and spread the game across the country.
Fielding Yost helped build UM into a superpower during those years, including winning the first-ever Rose Bowl.
Harry Kipke built on that legacy, winning two titles in the ’30s, and Fritz Crisler and Bennie Oosterbaan followed with two national championships in the 1940s. Bo Schembechler won 13 Big Ten crowns from 1969 to 1989, and Lloyd Carr brought the Wolverines their last title in 1997.
Michigan claims 11 national championships, is involved in 43 conference titles and has 39 finishes in the AP Top 10 rankings. The school, which was a picture of stability for so many years, had just nine coaches in a nearly 90-year span from 1900 to 1989.
Two legendary coaches have upheld the Texas standard for the last half century. Darrell K Royal brought the Longhorns their first three national championships and Mack Brown the youngest in the school.
Royal won 77 percent of its games in 20 seasons, 167-47-5, and Brown finished 158-48 with a .767 mark from 1998 to 2013.
Two former Texas players, Earl Campbell (1977) and Ricky Williams (1998), have won the Heisman Trophy, the school has produced 24 members of the College Football Hall of Fame, and the Longhorns have won 32 conference championships.
5. Notre Dame
Notre Dame has been a cornerstone of the sport for a century and has produced a litany of legendary coaches and players over the decades.
Knute Rockne helped make the school a football powerhouse, winning its first national championship in 1924.
Frank Leahy built a football dynasty in the 1940s that spanned four trophies and was only interrupted by World War II. Ara Parseghian rose to prominence in the 1960s, winning two more national titles, and Brian Kelly helped bring ND back into the national picture in recent years, including two berths in the college football playoffs.
ND has participated in many of the most celebrated games in college football history, including many dubbed the “Game of the Century.” Matchups against Army, Michigan and USC are among the finest and most influential in the annals of the sport.
4. State of Ohio
Ohio State is the best college football program by winning the most games. Playing since 1890, it grew into a power in the 1910s and hasn’t looked back, boasting the highest win ratio in the sport to date (0.73150).
Woody Hayes won four national championships over the course of a generation, and Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer brought the Buckeyes program into the 21st century, each winning a national championship, including its first-ever college football playoff title, and a few more were .
Ohio State is the first ever with seven Heisman Trophy winners, including the sport’s only two-time winner, running back Archie Griffin.
Oklahoma is the only school with four 100-win coaches, owns a college football record of 47 wins in the 1950s, and has led the sport since 1945 with 606 wins and a .762 win ratio.
OU also has a tie for most Heisman Trophy winners (7), has 50 conference championships to its name, and 23 members inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. The Sooners’ longstanding rivalries against Texas and Nebraska have produced some of the most memorable games in the history of the sport.
Howard Jones and John McKay helped make USC a college football powerhouse. Jones is credited with winning four national championships in the 1920s and 30s. McKay helped revive the Trojan horse program in the 1960s, and his 1972 team is considered one of the greatest in history – of any school.
Pete Carroll shaped Southern Cal into a dominant force to enter the 21st century, finishing with a 109-19 record if he discounted the vacant wins. He won two more titles, with AP voters breaking with the BCS in favor of the Trojans in 2003.
USC also has the best all-time bowl game winning percentage in college football history (0.63636) among schools with 50 bowl appearances. It’s 35-20 to date, including a record 25 Rose Bowl wins.
It would be difficult to imagine a school that surpasses the legacy of Bear Bryant, who built a national championship legacy in Alabama over 24 legendary years.
But Nick Saban has done just that and more — no one has won more championships in college football history than Saban, whose seven titles broke Bryant’s previous record (6).
Saban’s dominance — both in the SEC and nationally — is hard to beat. Numerous first-round NFL draft picks and All-Americans, a record number of finishes and wins in the college football playoffs, and an array of talent and strategic brilliance that the game might see once or twice in a century.
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