The 50 best college football programs over 150 years

ByESPN Stats & Information ESPN logo
Thursday, August 15, 2019

Several months ago, our Stats & Information Group was presented with a huge challenge: to rank the top programs in college football history.

Our goal: Honor the accomplishments of teams across 150 seasons and all divisions, while rewarding successful programs at the highest level in the sport's most competitive era.

Teams should be judged by winning games and winning championships, since those records exist all the way back to the early years. While some early game outcomes are even disputed between teams, national titles are subject to far greater debate. Fortunately, the NCAA decided that issue for us with its official list of major-college champions.

In our judgment, integration and scholarship limitations have made the past 50 years the most competitive the game has seen. The previous 50 years (the middle 50) were less so due to segregation and some regionalized scheduling that still allowed for occasional games against non-college teams. And the first 50 years, for all they gave us, were just a shadow of today's sport due to large-scale scheduling inequities and rules and a scoring system that were still in flux.

With all of these considerations, we created a formula (noted at the bottom of the page) to rank college football's greatest programs across all divisions using one metric. Let the debate begin.

1. Alabama

Rating: 74.9 | 15 national titles

The Crimson Tide's history is a panorama of strength and longevity: From Wallace Wade in 1925 to Nick Saban five times in the past decade, four coaches have won a national championship. Seven have won an SEC title. Twelve have at least one 10-win season. Everyone wins there -- except Ears Whitworth (4-24-2, 1955-57). But Bama fans even love him. Without Ears, Bear Bryant wouldn't have heard Mama call.

2. Notre Dame

72.9 | 13 national titles

If you took a snapshot of the middle of college football's life -- from its 50th anniversary in 1919 through its 125th birthday in 1994 -- the Fighting Irish would be an easy No. 1. The genius of Knute Rockne made the Irish a national team in a regional sport. The Hall of Fame coaches who carried the burden of working in his shadow -- Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz -- maintained Notre Dame's dominance. The past 25 years? Not so much. But Brian Kelly has the Irish knocking at the door again.

3. Ohio State

69.6 | 8 national titles

Buckeyes fans are known to be demanding, but that's because they've grown accustomed to excellence. It will come as news in Tuscaloosa that Ohio State finished first in our rating since 1969. That's because five of the Buckeyes' six coaches since 1951, from Woody Hayes to Urban Meyer, are either in the College Football Hall of Fame or waiting for the call (Meyer will be eligible in 2021). No pressure, Ryan Day.

4. Oklahoma

68.5 | 7 national titles

Oklahoma has rarely taken a year off from the top since Bud Wilkinson took over in 1947. From Wilkinson to Barry Switzer to Bob Stoops to the current head coach, Lincoln Riley of Muleshoe, Texas, the Sooners have done of a great job of bringing talent north from the rich soil of the Lone Star State. That's how the state university of the state that ranks 28th in population has maintained its status among the sport's elite for three-quarters of a century.

5. USC

67.25 | 9 national titles

College football royalty on the West Coast arrives on a white horse named Traveler. The Trojans rank in the top 10 of three of our five categories. Since Howard Jones established USC as a dominant program before World War II, USC's power has flowed way more than it has ebbed. John McKay and Pete Carroll both won a lot and escaped to the NFL, and the NCAA cleaned up after. History tells us that the Trojans' current sabbatical from the top of the game won't last long.

6. Michigan

67.20 | 9 national titles

The first great "Western" power dominated what we now know as the Big Ten through the 1920s, winning seven of its nine national titles from 1901 to 1933. The Wolverines didn't fare as well in the middle 50 years of college football, but with the arrival of Bo Schembechler in Ann Arbor for the centennial season in 1969, Michigan reestablished itself as one of the sport's marquee programs. And if the Wolverines can figure out how to beat their archrivals in Columbus, Michigan will continue its climb back up this ranking.

7. Yale

66.7 | 18 national titles

Yeah, Yale. Park your recency bias at the curb for just a moment and consider that for the first 50 years of college football, the sport's dominant power resided in New Haven. No wonder Yale is in the top 10: Walter Camp, the Father of American Football, played here (and yes, he made up the rules as he went along). Once the Ivies took a look at scholarship football after World War II and said no thanks, Yale ranked as first among equals in that league through the 1970s. Of late, Yale has ceded Ivy League power to Harvard. A bitter pill indeed.

8. Nebraska

64.2 | 5 national titles

The Huskers roared into the top 10 overall on the basis of their success in the past 50 years. Nebraska won the first of its five national titles in 1970 and spent the next three decades on the short list of No. 1 candidates. The past two decades have more in common with the Huskers' standing in the first 100 years. Nebraskans firmly believe that second-year coach Scott Frost will bring their Huskers back to the elite. And what's taking him so long?

9. Texas

64.0 | 4 national titles

If you don't believe the Longhorns belong among the sport's elite, just ask one. Texas has reached the elite in fits and starts: Just when you think the Longhorns start to fit at the top, they disappear again. But the good times have been very good: the 1940s under Dana X. Bible; the 1960s under Darrell K Royal; the 2000s under Mack Brown. Not to mention that if there were a category for mascot and fight song, the Horns would get points for those too.

10. North Dakota State

63.6 | 15 national titles

Talk about higher education: Where else would Saturday's America have learned there's a "z" in Bison. The dominance that North Dakota State has exerted over the FCS (née I-AA) in the past decade is rivaled only by the program's dominance over Division II for a quarter of a century beginning in 1965. And as we saw when College GameDay visited Fargo in 2013, Bison fans have got some juice.

11. Princeton

62.8 | 15 national titles

The Tigers rebounded from their Opening Day loss to Rutgers -- the real Opening Day, Nov. 6, 1869 -- to take their place among the sport's original Big Three for the first half-century of the sport. In 1877, a sophomore named Woodrow Wilson coached the team. The Tigers found greater success without Wilson running the team, although things worked out for him too. Princeton also had the most recent Heisman Trophy winner among the Ivies: Dick Kazmaier, who led the Tigers to a 9-0 record and a No. 6 ranking in 1951.

12. Penn State

61.6 | 4 national titles

The story of Penn State's football success is the story of the past half-century. Joe Paterno created a national power at the base of Mount Nittany. Penn State finished in the AP top 10 twice prior to Paterno becoming head coach in 1966. The consistent excellence of his 47 seasons is historical record; so too is the awfulness of the scandal that engulfed him and his legacy. That Bill O'Brien and James Franklin so easily rebuilt the program is testament to the foundation that Paterno laid.

13. Harvard

60.8 | 8 national titles

Fans of the FBS powers ranked in the next 10 powers may need smelling salts, but all that's really needed is a tip of the hat toward Harvard Stadium, the oldest stadium in the sport. Without the backing of Harvard and one of its graduates, President Theodore Roosevelt, college football may not have turned 50, much less 150. After serving as one of the Big Three for the first 50 years of the sport, the Crimson of late have taken a long-term lease atop the Ivy League. You know what they say about old habits.

14. Tennessee

59.2 | 2 national titles

The Volunteers ruled the Southeastern Conference for the second 50 years of college football, mainly because Gen. Robert Neyland knew how to beat Frank Thomas at Alabama and Bear Bryant at Kentucky. Neyland coached from 1926 through 1952, taking a year or two off here and there to serve in the Army. Since Neyland, the Volunteers have spent considerable time as a second fiddle behind Bryant at Alabama and Steve Spurrier at Florida, with the glorious exception of 1998.

15. LSU

59.0 | 4 national titles

The Tigers have the good fortune to be the lone big public university in a football-mad state. How mad? Huey P. Long, the governor and U.S. senator during the Depression, enlarged the band, co-wrote songs and forced out a Hall of Fame coach (Biff Jones) because he wouldn't let Long speak to the team. Not to mention the grand traditions of tailgating and treating visitors nice right up until the visiting team starts winning. There are no more passionate fans on God's green bayou.

16. Mount Union

58.7 | 13 national titles

It's hard to argue with this level of success, even at Division III. The coach with the highest winning percentage in the history of the game, Larry Kehres, coached at Mount Union. Under Kehres, the Purple Raiders won 54 straight games, an NCAA record, lost one, then won 55 straight. Kehres retired in 2012, but the Purple Raiders extended their string of Ohio Athletic Conference titles to 24 before falling short in 2016.

17. Miami

58.4 | 5 national titles

The Hurricanes gave the rest of college football a head start of 67 seasons and still reached the top 20, thanks to that incredible two-decade run from the early 1980s into the 2000s. During that time, The U won five national championships under four head coaches, a feat no other program would be foolish enough to undertake, much less talented enough to achieve. The swagger has diminished; Miami now lives among the swells of the ACC. Wearing a turnover chain, of course.

18. St. John's (Minn.)

58.3 | 4 national titles

It is not true that the Johnnies' late head coach, John Gagliardi, coached against Frank Leahy. But it is true that Gagliardi became head coach at St. John's in 1953, the last season that Leahy coached at Notre Dame, and didn't retire until 2012, after 60 seasons and 465 victories. St. John's, according to our metrics, had one of the 10 most successful programs of the past 100 years. That's another way of saying Gagliardi won 27 conference titles and four national championships.

19. Florida State

57.4 | 3 national titles

Florida State didn't start accepting men until all those GIs came home from World War II. Florida refused to play the Seminoles until the legislature forced the rivalry down the Gators' gullet. And once Bobby Bowden arrived as head coach in Tallahassee in 1976, we learned why. Under Bowden, Florida State finished in the top five for 14 consecutive seasons, winning two national championships and playing for three others. Jimbo Fisher picked up where Bowden left off. The Noles have the good fortune to be a public university in a talent-rich state. But no one took advantage of that talent quite like Bowden.

20. Auburn

56.82 | 2 national titles

What's it like to live in the shadow of the most successful program in the history of college football? Why, it's pretty successful, thanks for asking, and War Eagle. The Tigers won national titles in 1957 and 2010, and stopped Alabama from playing for national titles with momentous upsets in 1972, 1989 and 2013 -- and a true Tiger fan would have a hard time telling you which was more enjoyable. Auburn became a more successful program in the last generation, when the Tigers began playing home games on campus instead of in Birmingham, two hours away. The Tigers waited more than a century for a true home-field advantage.

21. Florida

56.81 | 3 national titles

Like Miami, Florida parlayed an incredible two-decade run into its high finish in this metric. Before 1990, before Steve Spurrier returned to coach at his alma mater, the Gators joined Vanderbilt and Sewanee as the only SEC schools that had failed to win a title since the league's inception in 1933. Sewanee, by the way, bailed out of the conference in 1940. Spurrier won six SEC titles and one national championship; Urban Meyer won two of each. The Gators always expected to win. Now the rest of us expect them to win too.

22. Georgia

56.6 | 1 national title

Football has been a way of life in Athens since the 1890s. Bulldog fans have enjoyed consistent success; they would like to be great more than occasionally. Wally Butts took Georgia to national prominence in the 1940s; Vince Dooley did so during his 25-year tenure from the 1960s through the 1980s; and Mark Richt and Kirby Smart have done the same since the turn of the century. When the Dawgs don't win, they always have the top Dawg. Who doesn't love Uga?

23. Boise State

56.3 | 1 national title

The Broncos are latecomers to national prominence. But give them credit. As a junior college, as a small college, as a I-AA school (including a national title in 1980) and in the Group of 5, all the Broncos do is win. They own one of the great upsets of this or any generation, the 43-42 overtime defeat of Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, and a true Bronco bristles at calling that victory an upset. Some very good coaches (Houston Nutt, Dirk Koetter, Chris Petersen) have come out of Boise. But none of them win as much off the blue turf as they did on it.

24. Clemson

56.0 | 3 national titles

Tigers fans might feel as if this race is being decided just as their program is warming up. The last decade under Dabo Swinney has far surpassed any sustained success that came before it. Clemson long toiled as the "football school" within the hoops-mad ACC. But as the power in intercollegiate athletics swung toward the best football programs, the ACC began to tilt toward Clemson, South Carolina. Swinney has taken the Tigers to heights of which John Heisman, Frank Howard, Jess Neely and Danny Ford -- to name four former Clemson coaches in the College Football Hall of Fame -- wouldn't even dream.

25. Grambling

55.8 | 0 national titles

Grambling's success in the postwar era is a tribute to the coaching acumen and sheer willpower of Eddie Robinson, who served the school as football coach and pretty much every other administrative job needed to field a football team. Under Robinson, Grambling became the most celebrated HBCU in the segregated era of the 1940s through the 1960s. Once the SEC schools began recruiting African American talent, Grambling's days as a feeder to the NFL quickly came to an end. Progress has its victims too.

26. Pennsylvania

55.5 | 4 national titles

As with its Ivy brethren, Penn reached this ranking on the strength of its teams in the first 50 years of the sport. Poetry could have been written about the Quakers team that went 15-0 in 1897, a feat that no FBS team matched until Clemson last season. The 12-0 team in 1904 wowed 'em too. That said, the Quakers were one of the last Ivies to maintain their stature as a national power into the postwar era. Under head coach George Munger, Penn finished in the top 20 six times during the 1940s and had such appeal that it signed one of two national TV contracts in the early 1950s. In the Ivy League, Penn has won or shared 17 titles since 1982, more than any other school.

27. Wittenberg

55.3 | 5 national titles

The Tigers are the traditional Division III power in Ohio not located in Mount Union. There aren't many Division III schools that can boast of a former NFL coach leading their program. Bill Edwards, who coached the Detroit Lions in 1941 and 1942, won two national titles at Wittenberg from 1955 to 1968. Nor are there many Division III schools that have sent three head coaches to the College Football Hall of Fame (Edwards, Ernie Godfrey, Dave Maurer). The current coach, Joe Fincham, has done everything but win it all (210-45, .823, since 1996). It can be tough living in Mount Union's world -- and its state.

28. Michigan State

55.2 | 3 national titles

When the Spartans emerged on the national stage after World War II, they made their presence known in a hurry. Under head coach Biggie Munn, the Spartans won the national title in 1952, the year before the Big Ten let them in. Under head coach Duffy Daugherty, they finished No. 1 again in 1965 and 1966, thanks to Daugherty's enlightened views toward integration. In recent years, under coach Mark Dantonio, Michigan State has reestablished itself as a force within the Big Ten.

29. Minnesota

54.9 | 6 national titles

To be rated this high when it has been 52 years since you shared a Big Ten title, let alone a national championship, tells you how good the Golden Gophers once were. In the 1920s, Minnesota unleashed an in-state freak of nature named Bronko Nagurski on an unsuspecting sport. In the decade before World War II, under taciturn head coach Bernie Bierman, Minnesota used a brutish style of play to win three of the first six Associated Press national championships.

30. Washington

54.8 | 1 national title

The Huskies first attracted attention under legendary coach Gloomy Gil Dobie, who coached at Washington for nine seasons and never lost a game (58-0-3) from 1908 to 1916. No wonder Husky fans are demanding. Washington didn't have another period of sustained success until Don James arrived in 1975. James won six conference titles and a share of the 1991 national title. The Huskies won 22 consecutive games under James over three seasons. He retired after the 1992 season. Washington has yet to reach those heights again, but under Chris Petersen, they've come closer.

31. Wisconsin-Whitewater

54.7 | 6 national titles

They have made a habit of winning at Whitewater from the beginning. The Warhawks won or shared the first two titles (1913 and 1914) in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and they have won 34 more ever since. Over the past half-century, Whitewater has continued to set the bar higher and continues to leap over it. Since 2007, the Warhawks have won six Division III championships and nine conference titles. Coach Lance Leipold parlayed his success at Whitewater (accounting for five of those national titles) into a jump all the way to the FBS (Buffalo).

32. Texas A&M

54.2 | 2 national titles

The Aggies had a long history of playing second fiddle to Texas in the Southwest Conference and the Big 12 South, so they up and made the leap to the Southeastern Conference in 2012, much as Arkansas had done two decades earlier. And that made a difference. In the SEC West, the Aggies play second fiddle to Alabama. And LSU. And Auburn. Texas A&M has been cursed with a long history of goodness in a sport where only greatness is revered. Aside from R.C. Slocum's run in the 1990s, Bear Bryant's in the 1950s and Homer Norton's just before World War II, Texas A&M has lived a life of above average. Jimbo Fisher, over to you.

33. Pittsburgh

53.9 | 5 national titles

From 1915 through 1938, under the legendary Pop Warner and under Jock Sutherland -- a coach Gen. Robert Neyland thought to be the best ever -- the Panthers walked among the college football elite. In 1937, they won the second AP title despite a tie with Fordham; they might have won the first, in 1936, if not for a tie with Fordham. (The teams tied in 1935 too, but there was no AP poll.) But Sutherland resigned in a dispute with the university after the 1938 season. And save for a decade under Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, the Panthers have been just another program. It's hard to win in the shadow of an NFL team; Pitt is a tenant at the Steelers' Heinz Field.

34. Appalachian State

53.8 | 3 national titles

You wouldn't blame a Mountaineers fan for being frustrated that the college football public believes App State football began in 2007 with that jaw-dropping upset at Michigan. The Mountaineers have won pretty much since they took the field in 1928. (If you check their record, just skip over the 1970s.) Their greatest run came during nearly a quarter-century under Jerry Moore, a coach who had previously washed out in five seasons at Texas Tech. Moore arrived in 1989 and did so well, leading App State to 10 Southern Conference and three I-AA/FCS titles, that the Mountaineers made the leap to the FBS. Some fans still argue whether that was a good idea. But App State just kept winning.

35. Linfield

53.4 | 4 national titles

Attention, data geeks. Linfield made this list for the simple reason that the Wildcats last year extended their streak of winning seasons to 63. They last had a losing campaign in 1955, when Dwight Eisenhower was president and no one had heard of Elvis Presley. Hall of Fame head coach Ad Rutschman won three NAIA Division II titles from 1982 to 1986, but only after he led the baseball Wildcats to a national title in 1971. Dude could coach. Under Jay Locey, Linfield added an NCAA Division III title in 2004. You should take in a game at Linfield where, on game days, they rename the two blocks leading to Memorial Stadium "Streak Street."

36. Georgia Tech

53.1 | 3 national titles

From 1904 through 1966, Georgia Tech employed only three coaches, each of whom won at least 100 games and ended up in the College Football Hall of Fame. After John Heisman, Bill Alexander and Bobby Dodd, which is also after Tech left the SEC in 1964, the Ramblin' Wreck's fortunes have been more wreck than ramblin'. Bobby Ross won a share of the 1990 national title, and under George O'Leary, Georgia Tech made Florida State sweat to win the ACC in the late 1990s. Now it's Geoff Collins' turn to live up to a storied legacy.

37. Dartmouth

52.24 | 0 national titles

The Big Green (but not the NCAA) claims the 1925 national championship, which are fightin' words in Tuscaloosa, but Dartmouth also can make other historical claims for what it didn't do. Dartmouth didn't beat Yale until 1935; in 1937, it didn't accept an invitation to the Rose Bowl; and in 1940, it didn't score more points than Cornell but won the game anyway -- the famous "Fifth Down Game," which Cornell forfeited after learning its 7-3 victory hinged on a touchdown scored on fifth down. All that happened under the watch of Red Blaik, who left for Army after the 1940 season. Since becoming a charter member of the Ivy League in 1956, Dartmouth has won or shared 18 conference titles under five different coaches. No Ivy team has won more.

38. Virginia Tech

52.20 | 0 national titles

The Hokies, née the Gobblers, might be known for the roasted turkey legs that they sell at Lane Stadium, but the food that best describes their history is a doughnut. Virginia Tech played 18 seasons before it had a losing record (1920), then played 10 more seasons before it had another. The less said about the next 60 years, the better. But the arrival of former Hokies defensive back Frank Beamer as head coach meant the arrival of Virginia Tech as a national force. Beamer led the Hokies to seven conference titles (four ACC, three Big East) and unleashed the electrifying Michael Vick on an unsuspecting nation. That alone is some kind of legacy.

39. Army

52.19 | 3 national titles

Few programs have enjoyed higher highs or endured lower lows than these brave old Army teams. The Black Knights might have had an unfair advantage at times; in their early years, the generals in charge rarely allowed Army to play a game away from West Point, and during World War II, Army had, um, a sizable recruiting advantage. But during the 1940s and 1950s, Army also had the sizable advantage of Red Blaik as head coach. He fashioned disciplined, winning teams even as the generals chipped away at his ability to field a competitive team. The six decades since Blaik retired have been by and large bleak. Current head coach Jeff Monken has restored the Black Knights to their winning ways, however.

40. Miami (Ohio)

52.1 | 0 national titles

The program is known as the Cradle of Coaches because such luminaries as Red Blaik, Paul Brown, Carm Cozza, Paul Dietzel, Weeb Ewbank, Woody Hayes, Sid Gillman, Ara Parseghian and Bo Schembechler played or coached there. You might notice that among those legends, Schembechler, the most recent, coached his last season at Miami in 1968. That's about when the fortunes of the RedHawks turned, give or take a Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. But Miami won or shared 11 of the first 30 Mid-American Conference championships, a good indication of what the program was -- and could be again.

41. Central Michigan

52.0 | 1 national title

From the end of World War II to the early 1990s, you could count on the Chippewas as a tough out. It might have had something to do with their coaches. Wild Bill Kelly led Central Michigan to seven conference titles. Roy Kramer replaced him and led Central Michigan to an NCAA Division II title in 1974, before deciding he would rather be a world-class athletic director and SEC commissioner. Herb Deromedi replaced Kramer and won three MAC titles and 110 games in 16 years on his way to the College Football Hall of Fame. In recent years, Brian Kelly and Butch Jones have used the Chippewas to climb to marquee jobs. At some schools, it's easier to win.

42. Colorado

51.74 | 1 national title

The Buffaloes have had their moments, just not enough of them. Fred Folsom won so much a century ago (21 straight from 1908 to 1912) that they named the field after him. From the end of World War II into the 21st century, Colorado mostly had the misfortune to play in the same conference as Oklahoma and Nebraska. Take 1971, when they finished third in the nation -- behind the Huskers and the Sooners. Bill McCartney led the Buffs to a share of the 1990 national championship, a feat few have matched anywhere; and Rick Neuheisel and Gary Barnett continued to win at a high level through 2005. Since then, it has been a struggle, one that joining the Pac-12 failed to alleviate.

43. Stanford

51.72 | 1 national title

Any school that counts among its head coaches Pop Warner, Clark Shaughnessy, John Ralston, Bill Walsh, Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw has done its share of winning. But living with high academic standards has meant that Stanford has done its share of losing too. It's a dilemma that Stanford has embraced, from the glories of the two decades prior to World War II (seven Rose Bowls in 17 seasons) to the nadir of the early 21st century (when the university considered dropping out of the Pacific-10 Conference) to the excellence of the past decade (when the Cardinal won three league titles and finished in the top 12 in six out of seven seasons from 2010 to 2016).

44. Arkansas

51.71 | 1 national title

Who? Pig Sooie? During the Razorbacks' nearly eight decades in the Southwest Conference, they battled with Texas A&M to be the biggest pain in Texas' side. Arkansas won 14 SWC titles -- seven in Frank Broyles' 19 seasons (1958 to 1976) -- before abandoning the listing SWC ship for the Southeastern Conference in 1992. By doing so, Arkansas surrendered competitive equality for financial security. The Hogs enter their 28th season in the SEC still looking for their first championship.

45. Pittsburg State

51.6 | 4 national titles

There's no "h" in Pittsburg, Kansas, but there is one in champion. The Gorillas have won four national championships (two NAIA, two NCAA Division II), 31 total conference championships and 12 Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association titles. Most of those (nine) came in the 20 seasons coached by Chuck Broyles (1990 to 2009). Pittsburg State's best-known football alumnus, Dennis Franchione, coached his alma mater to a 53-6 record from 1985 to 1989, before moving on, eventually to TCU, Alabama and Texas A&M.

46. Arizona State

51.54 | 0 national titles

The Sun Devils landed on the national college football map thanks to the work of two Hall of Fame coaches. Dan Devine made Arizona State a power in the old Border Conference, but he left the desert after three seasons (1955 to 1957, with a 27-3-1 record) to climb the career ladder. His successor, Frank Kush, stuck around for 22 seasons (1958 to 1979), won 176 games and methodically built the Sun Devils into a national power. By the time Arizona State fired him in 1979 for physically mishandling a player, Kush had shepherded the Sun Devils into the security of the Pac-10 Conference.

47. West Virginia

51.47 | 0 national titles

The Mountaineers have been consistently good and rarely great for most of their existence, as good an explanation of this ranking as any. The past 50 years have been the best, starting with the arrival of a young Bobby Bowden in his first FBS head-coaching gig. Don Nehlen took West Virginia to the brink of national titles in 1988 and 1993. After Nehlen retired in 2000, Rich Rodriguez positioned the Mountaineers on the cutting edge of the up-tempo spread revolution and took them to the brink of a title again, in 2006. They haven't crossed that last frontier just yet.

48. Georgia Southern

51.40 | 6 national titles

The Eagles suspended play at the onset of World War II and didn't resume operations until 1981. Legendary Georgia assistant Erk Russell moved over to Statesboro to restart the program. By 1984, the Eagles had climbed to Division I-AA; the next season, they won the national title. They won again in 1986 and in 1989 and became the first team in the 20th century to go 15-0. The Eagles won consecutive national championships in 1999 and 2000 under Paul Johnson. Georgia Southern has such a strong reputation that it has become a feeder to the FBS: In the past two decades alone, Johnson, Jeff Monken and Willie Fritz all have parlayed winning at Georgia Southern into bigger jobs.

49. Utah

51.1 | 0 national titles

The Utes won consistently in their neck of the woods in the first half of the 20th century. They spent the next 40 years wondering how to rise above mediocrity. With the arrival of Ron McBride in 1990, Urban Meyer (!) in 2003 and Kyle Whittingham in 2005, the Utes have been a consistent winner again. Of the schools that changed leagues in the second wave of realignments (2011 to 2012), Utah made the smoothest transition. The Utes won the Pac-12 South last season, and Whittingham has quietly established himself as one of the top coaches in the nation.

50. Wisconsin

51.0 | 0 national titles

If you are in your 20s or younger, you've never known the Badgers not to contend for the Big Ten championship. Since the arrival of Barry Alvarez in 1990 and through the tenures of Bret Bielema and current coach Paul Chryst, Wisconsin has been a winner. It is a story made even more astounding if you are old enough to remember the previous iterations of Badgers football, which had signed a long-term lease in the bottom half of the Big Ten. Wisconsin did enjoy some success after World War II, going to three Rose Bowls in 11 seasons from 1952 to 1962; but from 1993 forward, only USC (seven) has celebrated more New Year's Days in Pasadena than Wisconsin (six).

The formula

Basic model

Dominance, 20% -- number of national championships

Peak strength, 20% -- winning percentage for best 50 seasons in program history

Since integration, 30% -- winning percentage over the past 50 seasons (1969-2018)

Early modern, 20% -- winning percentage over the middle 50 seasons (1919-1968). Mostly pre-integration and included some games against non-college teams

Pre-modern, 10% -- winning percentage over the first 50 seasons (1869-1918) *mostly pre-standardization of current rules and many games against non-college teams


National championships below the FBS level count at 50%

National championships before the poll era (1936) count at 50%

Winning percentages when a team was not in Division I are reduced by 10%

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