The Top 10 College Football Programs Of The Past 50 Years
Let's have an easy question to answer, what is the best football program of all-time?
Princeton? Notre Dame? Southern California? Tennessee? Army? Michigan?
Shall we narrow the corridors of such fleeting fame to the past, say, 50 years?
The truth is while the "All-Time Best" can be debated, we know certain facts steer us in the correct direction.
The following is an example of such specific information :
a) Who won the first football game? Answer- Rutgers in 1869.
b) Who has won the most games? Answer- Michigan, with 877.
c) Who has won the most National Titles? Answer- Princeton, with 26.
This is data encompassing the entire 141-year history of college football.
There is a definite division of three categories to the nearly century and a half of play.
For instance, the 1860s to the early 20th century featured the domination of powers from the eastern section of the nation, where the Ivy League and West Point built empires on the gridiron.
Looking back through time we observe an emphasis on schools elsewhere hiring coaches from the dominant northeast in order to create their own football programs.
This practice led to an expansion of interest and participation through the second of our referenced half-century eras, encompassing the so-called "Golden Years" of college football, circa 1909-1959.
Notre Dame, USC, Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, Alabama, and many others receive much of their acclaim as football powers for the work performed during this period of time.
A testtimony to the excellence of the 1909-1959 era, many of these second generation football programs remain today as the schools most recognizable to the casual fan.
And so we are left with the last of the tri-century eras, 1960 to present day.
We must agree upon one common stream of reckoning, the concept that "the best" is not always determined by simple wins and losses.
There is a more refined and ancient measure, one that spans the history of human endeavor through the ages and determines the perception of excellence.
This characteristic is the dignity the warrior displays in battle, as well as quality of performance. This is the trait which defines the status of legends.
Who will be remembered –and who will not.
It is this philosophy we take into measuring greatness during the examination of the past 50 years.
Let us now determine the best of the best.
Long live The King..................
No. 10: Florida State Seminoles
Coach Bobby Bowden waved farewell at the end of last season. He went out with a victory over West Virginia in the Gator Bowl, his place among the legends assured.
The Seminole record of success from 1987 to 2000 has no equal, and the talent he brought to Tallahassee during four decades may never be seen again.
As incredible as it seems, FSU finished in the final AP Top Five for the 14 consecutive seasons of 1987 thru 2000.
Looking at the talent displayed by the Seminoles in the past 50 years one wonders if it is a casting call for an all-time all star team.
An example of FSU talent includes Fred Biletnikoff, Ron Simmons, Ron Sellers, Marvin Jones, Chris Weinke, Warrick Dunn, Peter Warrick, Rick Stockstill, Jamie Dukes, Clay Shiver, Corey Simon, Sebastian Janikowski, Derrick Brooks, Charlie Ward, and Deion Sanders.
Tallahassee has certainly been the home to stars during the past half century.
Best Team of the Past 50 Years: 1987
A star studded cast including Deion Sanders, these were the mighty Independent 'Noles, in all their pre-ACC glory.
FSU finished 11-1 while losing only to eventual national champion Miami 26-25, in one of the greatest football games of the 20th century.
Along the way Bowden's "Road Warriors" averaged 40 points a game and gave up less than 14 ponts against a difficult and demanding schedule of nationally recognized opponents.
Aside from the one point loss to Miami and a Fiesta Bowl win over Nebraska, Florida's State's closest game was a 14 point victory at Florida.
Most Successful Team: 1993
This outfit won the first National Championship in football at FSU and its quarterback, Charlie Ward, collected the Heisman Trophy.
No. 9: Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The second half of the 20th century at Notre Dame is a period of heroic comebacks, legendary players, four national championships, and three of the most successful coaches in history.
When Ara Parseghian came on the scene in South Bend in 1964 he immediately led the Irish to nine straight wins before losing in the final game of the season.
Parseghian's 1966 and 1973 teams won national championships and along the way stocked the shelves with such well known players as Joe Theismann, Dave Casper, Rocky Bleier, Jim Lynch, Alan Page, Jim Seymour, Terry Hanratty and countless other stars.
Dan Devine's 1977 Irish featured quarterback Joe Montana (see pictured) and was declared national champion that season.
Eleven years later, Lou Holtz went undefeated in South Bend and led Notre Dame to another national title. The array of talent he collected during his tenure is mind-boggling.
During this time frame Parseghian won 85 percent of his games while Holtz and Devine each collected victories at a 77 percent clip.
Only the misery of the past decade prevents America's most well known football school from being placed higher in this evaluation.
Best Team: 1966
The '66 squad averaged 36.2 points a game while surrendering only 3.8 per outing while rolling to an undefeated season and the national championship.
That season Parseghian's Irish shut out six of their 10 opponents, and destroyed Rose Bowl bound USC 51-0 in Los Angeles in the final game of the year.
They don't make 'em like that anymore.
Most Successful Team: 1973
Parsghian led the undefeated Irish to the national title in '73 by defeating Bear Bryant's previously unbeaten Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
The following year Parseghian defeated another unbeaten Bear Bryant led Alabama team, this time in the Orange Bowl. Following that game, Parseghian retired after going 95-17 in 11 seasons at Notre Dame.
No. 8: Miami Hurricanes
The Miami Hurricanes had a solid college football history before the dawning of the 1980s.
The great passer George Mira was a sensation in the early 1960s. The "Mad Stork", Ted Hendricks, was an feared defensive stopper later in that decade.
The 1970s produced some legitimate talent but nothing could have prepared the people in south Florida for what the "Big 80s" had in store for fans of the Hurricanes.
Beginning with the upset of powerful Florida State in 1980 and No. 1 ranked Penn State in 1981, quarterback Jim Kelly led the "little school that could" to national prominance.
This commitment to excellence eventually resulted in four national championships between 1983 and 1991.
Even in the "down years" the Hurricanes were fabulous, losing national title games in the 1986, 92, and '94 seasons while contending to the end with powerhouse units in 1985, '88 and '90 as well.
Even the "disappointing" 1984 squad was ranked No. 1 in the country for part of the season.
These are players who invented the sports term "swagger." No one really knows what it is but, fans know it when they see it.
Following a slight change in direction, the Hurricanes roared back to win the 2001 season BCS Title Game by mauling a solid Nebraska outfit in the Rose Bowl, 37-14.
Stretching their winning streak to 34 games, a shocking 31-24 loss to Ohio State in the National Championship Game the following year seemed to take some of the steam out of the Hurricanes' 20 year run of domination.
Love them or hate them, the Miami Hurricanes were a dynasty. Surely no one could deny they were a sight to behold.
Best Team: 1986
Despite losing the de facto national title game to Penn State, this group is the most powerful and talented of all Hurricane teams.
The 1986 juggernaut was the high water mark for the military-like Black Death image of "The U." (See pictured on page one of the article)
So arrogant, so powerful was this engine of destruction, they laughed at their opponents before and during games. This culminated in the open dismissal of Penn State before the national title clash in Tempe.
Following the stunningly bitter 14-10 loss to the Nittany Lions that fateful evening, Coach Jimmy Johnson reigned in his men, setting the table for three 'Cane national titles over the next five seasons.
Most Successful Team: 2001
The '01 team gets the nod over 1991 and 1987. All three are deserving due to undefeated seasons resulting in national championships.
No. 7: Michigan Wolverines
Here is a group of people who are every bit as tough as they look.
The mighty Wolverines are the winningest program in the history of college football, and for good reason. They have produced some of the most fearsome defenses and ground attacks ever seen on the gridiron.
Truth be told, the first half of the 20th century is a slightly better era for Michigan than the past 50 years. However, when one is dealing with such a level of achievement as the maize and blue accomplished in their storied history, any period is a good one to focus upon.
Best Team: 1973
Went undefeated while averaging 30 points and giving up only 6 per outing. Only three schools scored in double figures against the Wolverines during the entire 11 game season. Perhaps the most under appreciated performance of any team in the past 50 years.
Most Successful Team: 1997
Shared the final national championship before the BCS era and produced the Heisman Trophy winner in Charles Woodson.
No.6: University of Southern California Trojans
About two miles south of downtown Los Angeles lies the beautiful campus of the USC Trojans.
Without a doubt, this is the most tradition rich and successful football program in the western United States.
The names of famous alumni roll off the tongue, matched only by the incredible array of football stars who have called the campus home.
If one focuses on the final 14 seasons of Coach John McKay in the 1960s and early 1970s, the list of talent reads like a who's who, and resulted in Mike Garrett and O. J. Simpson collecting the Heisman Trophy.
During this period USC won 119 games while losing only 29 and was declared national champion in 1962, 1967, and 1972.
The initial John Robinson era of 1976 to 1982 produced another group of Hall of Fame players, winning 76 and losing 14, while sharing the 1978 national title with an Alabama team they beat 24-14 in Birmingham.
1981 produced another Trojan Heisman Trophy winner in running back Marcus Allen.
The dawn of a new century presented USC fans with the success of coach Pete Carroll, who won 90 percent of his games between 2002 and 2008.
Along the way, Carroll added two more National Championships and a string of Heisman Trophy winners.
It remains to be seen whether young Lane Kiffin is ready to fill the void left by the exit of Carroll to the professional football game.
Best Team: 1972
John McKay's juggernaut swept aside all opposition in winning the national championship and finishing 12-0. These Trojans averaged 39 points a game while giving up only 11 for an average winning spread of four touchdowns.
Most Successful: 2004
Pete Carroll's '04 powerhouse rolled through the country destroying everything in its path during a march to the BCS championship.
No.5: Oklahoma Sooners
Can you say frightening?
The Oklahoma Sooners are the collegiate equivalent of John Madden's old school Oakland Raiders of the AFL and NFL in the 1960s and 70s.
Arrogant and powerful, this is the most rogue element of football since the last World War.
They have always been nasty, they have always been vain, and they have always been one of the best teams in the country no matter the era in question.
When your school plays Oklahoma, they are playing somebody.
From Jim Tatum, through Bud Wilkinson, Chuck Fairbanks, and Barry Switzer, to present day headman Bob Stoops this is one school that recognizes the key element in having great teams is superior coaching.
From winners of 47 straight games in the 1950s, to four national championships between 1974 and 2000, and the 2008 Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford, this program knows how to get the best players and what to do with them.
Like the Oakland Raiders of John Madden mentioned above, OU is a dividing line, you either love them or hate them. There is very little room in between.
Best Team: 1974
Although "The Boz" (see pictured) may disagree, the undefeated national champions of 1974 is easily one of the greatest football teams ever assembled.
The monstrously powerful '74 Sooners averaged 43 points a game while giving up only 8 an outing for a cool victory margin of five touchdowns a game. That is total domination.
Most Successful: 2000
13-0 with the school's only BCS Title.
No.4: Alabama Crimson Tide
If this were an article about the first half of the past 50 years the Crimson Tide would be No.1 and there would be little, if any, argument from anyone.
But, the past 25 years have not been nearly as successful for Alabama, and therein lies the rub.
Oh, Alabama is showing signs of returning to dominance. They are the current national champion, produced their first ever Heisman Trophy winner, and have won two national titles in the past 25 years.
Big deal. Bear Bryant used to win two national titles in two years, and that is what all current Crimson Tide teams must compete against.
And Alabama fans are not about to forget the past.
Tide followers respectfully list the number of titles won by prior Red Elephant teams. From 1961 to 1979 alone 'Bama lists six national championship awards.
During that time Alabama won back to back national titles twice, in 1964 and 1965 along with 1978 (see pictured) and 1979.
Any discussion of Bear Bryant being accompanied by anyone but Knute Rockne and Vince Lombardi in speaking of the greatest football minds of alltime is not going to be tolerated.
And it shouldn't be.
So let's draw a happy median and say from 1960-'85 Alabama is No.1 and give them the benefit of the doubt from 1985 to present and rank that Crimson Tide around No.7.
That gives us an overall ranking of No.4.
Sounds about right.
Best Team: 1961
Bear Bryant's first national championship team in '61 is considered the finest defensive team since World War II, Quite possibly, this was the best team of alltime in college football.
The Tide surrendered only 22 points total during the regular season and then stopped the great Hall of Fame member Lance Alworth and Arkansas 10-3 in the Sugar Bowl to win the national title.
While this unbelievably powerful unit was busy scoring 29 points a game during the season, the Crimson Tide shut out six opponents.
The most points scored against '61 Alabama was 7, put up by an N.C. State team quarterbacked by future NFL MVP Roman Gabriel. Unfortunately for the Wolfpack, the Red Elephants scored 26.
How strong was the SEC in 1961? In addition to Alabama, both LSU and Ole Miss finished in the Top Five of the final AP and Coaches polls.
Most Successful: 2009
With an unbeaten season, BCS Title, and Heisman Trophy winner the Crimson Tide of last season was clearly a celebrated champion.
No.3: Penn State Nittany Lions
In looking at the the Penn State football program from 1960 to present day, the man in the middle of it all is Joe Paterno (see pictured with his fullback Franco Harris).
Paterno has been the head coach since 1966 and was the assistant coach for the previous 16 seasons. That is 60 years of coaching at Penn State.
Going by statistics and accomplishments, Joe Paterno is the greatest football coach of all time in college football. Naturally, his school is one of the best of the past 50 years.
Along the way, State College in the Keystone State has been home to an enormous number of special football players.
Among the greats of the Paterno era we find the 1973 Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti, who led the Nittany Lions to their third undefeated season in six years, culminating with an Orange Bowl victory over LSU.
But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Penn State has almost no equal in producing sensational football players who achieve off the field as well as on.
When the phrase "Penn State Nittany Lions" is mentioned, the response is always one of respect and high regard.
Best Team: 1973
Paterno's third undefeated squad outscored the opposition by an average of 37-11. That is kicking the other teams around.
Most Successful: 1986
Joe Paterno's 1986 squad is likely the most respected team in the nation over the past 50 years.
This is the group of men who put a stop to the "unbeatable" Miami Hurricanes of Jimmy Johnson in the national championship game, 14-10.
Along the way, these Nittany Lions crushed a 7-0 undefeated Alabama team by the score of 23-3 in Tuscaloosa.
As one looks through the pages of history many years from now, it would seem the 1986 Penn State team has sealed their place among the all time best in college football.
No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes
Whenever college football is discussed the name Ohio State always comes to the forefront.
In the past 50 years Ohio State has produced two losing seasons. That is called winning consistently.
During those 50 years, Ohio State has won or shared the Big 10 Conference title 23 times. That is another example of excellence.
The Buckeyes have always performed on the big stage, and they live up to their billing as one of America's true football dynasties.
From the days of volatile coach Woody Hayes (see pictured), to the urbane and controlled Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes have been led by tremendous winners who instilled in the players the confidence to defeat any opponent.
Running back Archie Griffin is the only two time winner of the Heisman Trophy, taking the award in 1974 and 1975.
The Buckeye success story is common knowledge to the most casual fan of the sport.
Best Team: 1973
An engine of destruction, that is the best description for this mighty squad.
The undefeated '73 Buckeyes averaged over 34 points a game and gave up 5 an outing while finishing No, 2 in the final AP Poll.
Most Successful: 2002
Unheralded and under appreciated, the hard charging '02 Buckeyes upset yet another legendary Miami Hurricane team for the BCS Title in one of the greatest championship games.
No. 1: Nebraska Cornhuskers
The best team of the past 50 years is the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
The Cornhuskers finished in the top 10 28 times.
Throw in some Heisman Trophy winners along with players so skilled there are trophies named after them.
Five times Nebraska won the National Championship, winning back to back titles in 1970 and '71 as well as 1994 and '95.
The 1971 Nebraska team is considered the greatest college football team of alltime (see pictured).
The 1995 team is discussed in the same company. Before losing to Miami in the Orange Bowl, the 1983 Cornhuskers were considered one of the greatest teams of alltime.
The great coach Bob Devaney led his Cornhuskers to 101 wins against only 20 losses during his 1962-1972 tenure, an 83 percent winning clip. Toss out the two 6-4 squads of 1967 and '68 and Devaney was 89-12 for a Rockne-like 88 winning percent.
After turning over his Nebraska program to assistant Tom Osborne, the Cornhuskers continued to be successful. Dr. Tom won 255 games over his 25 year stay while losing 49. Another 83 percent winning rate.
During Coach Devaney's 11 seasons at the helm he led Nebraska to eight Big 8 Conference Championships, a stunning 72 percent championship rate.
During Tom Osborne's 25 seasons he led Nebraska to 13 Conference Titles, continuing the conference domination at better than a 50 percent rate.
The lists of stars to play for the Cornhuskers is numbing to the senses.
There is no doubt about it, Nebraska is the team of the past half century.
Best Team: 1971
Not only is 1971 the best Nebraska team of the past 50 years, it is the best team in the history of college football.
In addition to winning a second straight national championship, these Cornhuskers won the greatest game ever played, the 1971 Thanksgiving clash between No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Oklahoma, 35-31 in the friendly confines of Norman.
Nebraska won the National Championship in the Orange Bowl over the undefeated Alabama Crimson Tide of Bear Bryant, 38-6. With the win, Nebraska finished 13-0 for 1971, the first team ever to win 13 games in a season.
The '71 Cornhuskers, known as the "Big Red Machine" mowed down their opponents by an average of 39-8 per game. Only three of the 13 teams they faced scored in double figures.
How strong was the Big 8 Conference in 1971? To this day it is the only season to have league teams finish 1,2,3 in the final AP poll and that is where the Cornhuskers, Sooners, and Buffaloes wrapped up the season.
The best team in the best conference season of alltime.
Most Succesful: 1997
Tom Osborne's final game as head coach resulted in winning a share of the National Championship. You can't do any better than that.
In addition, '97 was the last season before the coming of the BCS to determine a champion. This means Nebraska '97 is the final champion of the pre-BCS period.
During the '97 season Osborne was able to exact a measure of satisfaction against his old nemesis Oklahoma. The Cornhuskers annihilated the Sooners 69-7, a fitting tribute to how far Nebraska had moved past the Sooners during the final years of Dr. Tom.
The '97 season Orange Bowl, a 42-17 win over Tennessee, was not only Osborne's last game but it was also the final college game of Volunteer quarterback Peyton Manning.
How good was that Tennessee team? The following season they won every game and captured the first ever BCS title. You would have to say Tom Osborne's men beat some kind of mighty tough team in his final game.
Now that is entertainment!
The Runner Up Category: Hall of Legends
With a wink and a nod to all the fans who failed to find their choice in the previously listed elite, we propose a category where one may place the great schools who certainly are most deserving as well.
No doubt exists regarding the Auburn Tiger program being among the premier football programs of alltime.
The accomplishments of this spectacular football dynasty do not require explanantion, likewise their place in the hall of legends is assured.
To say Texas and Tennessee deserve mention in this category simply emphasizes the outstanding contributions to the sport by these powerhouse programs. They are similar to Auburn in reference to being recognized as a dynasty.
To the west, we find the Arizona State Sun Devils. This desert institution has provided some of the great players of alltime, as well as producing a commanding winning percentage decade after decade.
Ranking slightly below Arizona State we find the Georgia Bulldogs, and perhaps slightly above the Sun Devils sits the Florida Gators.
The Gators, long considered the present day Vanderbilt of the SEC before the coming of former Tennessee lineman Ray Graves as coach in 1960, had only 7 winning seasons in the prior 30 years before Graves.
The Florida resurrection under the Tennessean Graves and his successors, former Tennessee Coach Doug Dickey and Tennessee native son Steve Spurrier, continued into the 21st century.
The Gators' last five seasons have been more successful than the previous 100 years so reasoned thinking prevents Florida from ranking higher in the half century viewpoint.
Georgia, often seen by followers outside the southeast as Florida's sidekick in the war against the Tide, Tigers, and Vols, was able to play the Gators to a draw in the 30 years preceeding Spurrier's arrival in Gainesville as coach in 1990.
The past two decades have not been as kind to the Bulldogs as they have only three wins to go with 17 losses in the annual bloodletting with Florida.
The mountain area of the West has given us a proud program in 1984 national champion Brigham Young, as well as the coming of the school voted most likely to succeed in the next half century– the Boise State Broncos.
We must say that if this review were over the past 10 years alone the Boise State Broncos would be No. 1.
Only time will tell whether Utah can join the above list but, moving to the highly competitive and media friendly PAC 10 is a good way to start.
And finally, what review would be complete without a tip of the hat to LSU, Arkansas, Washington, and Syracuse?
The Bayou Bengals and Razorbacks have both produced titantic teams with world class players in each of the past five decades.
A common thought in eastern newsrooms is LSU and Arkansas are the same people separated by a common language.
Interestingly enough, it was LSU who broke Arkansas' 22 game winning streak in the 1965 season and Arkansas who handed LSU a defeat in their national championship year of 2007.
The UW Husky program was reborn in the late 1950's under a former Bud Wilkinson player at Oklahoma, and long time Bear Bryant assistant coach, named Jim Owens.
The rugged Owens, a key architect in creating the punishing Junction Boys player development system with Bryant at Texas A&M, brought his so-called 'Death March" ways to Seattle and led the Washington to three Rose Bowls in a five year period.
Owens is credited with diversifying the position of quarterback in 1958 when he named as the starter Bob Schloredt, a physically-challenged young man who was blind in his left eye.
Schloredt immediately led Washington to two straight Rose Bowl victories and was named MVP of both games.
In 1970, Owens again put his faith in the unknown when he named Sonny Sixkiller as quarterback. Sixkiller, a native american of the Cherokee Nation, was the NCAA passing leader in 1970 and led UW to a 22-10 record as a three year starter.
For a man who was perceived as being from another generation in terms of what he expected of his players, Jim Owens proved to be quite open-minded when rewarding the deserving players regardless of "accepted notions."
In 1975 former Miami Hurricane quarterback Don James took over as the Husky head coach. In an unusual move at that time, he recruited and installed Warren Moon, an African-American, as the starting quarterback. Moon led UW to a Rose Bowl victory over Michigan in the 1977 season.
In 1991 James led Washington to an undefeated season and a shared national championship with his alma mater.
And Syracuse. home of Jim Brown, Larry Csonka, Donovan McNabb, Floyd Little, Marvin Harrison, and of course– the late Ernie Davis.
One must look back in wonder when considering Ernie Davis. The man known as the "Elmira Express" was the first African-American to ever win the Heisman Trophy in 1961.
Yeah, we've come a long way baby.
Whatever the case, these additional teams should be saluted for the accomplishments of the past 50 years.