College Football: Power Ranking the Top 50 Programs of All Time

Michael PintoSenior Writer INovember 23, 2010

College Football: Power Ranking the Top 50 Programs of All Time

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    In the game of college football, many teams have approached the pinnacle of the sport, but few have climbed it as titans of the game.

    There are great college football programs and then there are legendary college football programs.

    National championships, conference championships, postseason success, Heisman winners, All-Americans and good old-fashioned wins separate the best from the rest.

    Here are the top 50 college football programs of all-time.

50. Navy

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    Navy, along with Stanford and Alabama, lays claim to a third of the 1926 national championship—the Midshipmen's first-and-only national title in school history.

    Though the team has had 16 bowl appearances, it has not had a major bowl win since 1958, and Navy's 10-win season in 2009 was the first in school history. 

49. Purdue

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    Purdue has been in the basement of the Big Ten for years, but the school has eight conference titles and did see a revival under Drew Brees. The Boilermakers won the conference in 2000, the year Brees won the Maxwell Award.

    You have to go back to 1967 to find the last time the Boilermakers won a major bowl game, though.

48. SMU

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    Before SMU received the dreaded "death penalty" from the NCAA in 1987, the Mustangs' Pony Express turned the program into a national powerhouse from 1982 to 1984, with Eric Dickerson leading the way.

    But the course of the team took a turn for the worse after the penalty and it has had just two winning seasons since.

47. Texas Tech

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    Modern fans will remember the days of Michael Crabtree and the Red Raiders' prolific offense that took the Big 12 by storm back in 2007 and 2008. But Texas Tech's best years were actually from 1937 to 1955, when the school claimed nine of its 11 conference championships. 

46. Duke

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    Duke isn't exactly a team you would think much of if you're listing the current successful teams in college football, but the Blue Devils had their day in the 1930s though 1960.

    But with only one winning season since 1990, it's hard to justify placing Duke any higher up the list than this.

45. Utah

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    Though Utah has never played in a major conference, the Utes have dominated their opposition for decades, and the team's 2009 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama was proof of just how good this team can be.

    With three conference titles in the 1920s, '30s, '40s, '50s and 2000s, Utah is a top mid-major. 

44. Illinois

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    The original Linebacker U, Illinois once was the team to beat in the Big Ten, with 15 conference titles and five claims to national championships.

    However, the Illini have only three conference championships in the last 47 years and, of their national titles, the last came in 1951—and none were awarded by the AP.

43. Stanford

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    Stanford's 1926 national championship will go down as one of the oddest in history, as the Cardinal split the crown three ways with three unbeaten teams.

    Since then, the 1970s were the most successful time for the program other than the team's current progress in the last couple of seasons.

42. Oregon

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    Oregon could shoot up the ranks if it continues on it's current path this season and wins the national championship as many predict the Ducks will.

    With three Pac-10 titles since 2000 and another on it's way this year, Oregon has been the best team in the conference in the 21st century outside of USC.

41. California

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    California claims five national championships, though all of them came before 1938. The team hasn't competed in a major bowl since 1959 and hasn't won a major bowl in over 70 years.

    Cal also has just one conference title since 1975 and six since 1940.

40. North Carolina

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    From 1971 to 1980, North Carolina dominated the ACC, winning four conference titles over that time.

    Unfortunately, the Tar Heels haven't won a conference title since and experienced rough-goings this year. Many expected them to be a dark-horse contender before suspensions cut the season short before it began.

39. Boston College

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    Most fans remember the 1984 Doug Flutie-led Eagles as the best team in Boston College history, but the 1940 team that became known simply as "The Team of Destiny" is the true gem of a program that has never won a national title, but arguably deserved one that year. 

38. Missouri

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    Missouri has not won a conference championship since 1969, though the Tigers have two division championships in the last four years to show for themselves.

    Still, through the 1920s and the 1960s, Missouri was consistently strong and is currently in the midst of a revival.

37. Army

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    Army's 1945 team is considered to be one of the finest squads to ever take the field and is the type of team that simply will never be forgotten by history.

    That season came in the midst of a three-year title run from 1944 to 1946, with two Heisman trophies won over that period as well.

36. Virginia Tech

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    Virgina Tech might not have any national championships, but in 22 years under Frank Beamer the Hokies have been one of the most successful teams in the country—especially after joining the ACC back in 2004 and winning three conference titles since then. 

35. Wisconsin

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    Since winning the Rose Bowl in 1999 and 2000, Wisconsin has not been to a major bowl game despite the fact that the Badgers have won at least nine games in six of the last seven seasons.

    With 11 conference titles and two Heisman winners, there's no debating the success of the program.

34. Maryland

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    Maryland's best seasons came in the 1950s—the Terrapins went undefeated in 1953 and 1955 and claimed national championships in 1951 and 1953.

    The school is probably best known for the Boomer Esiasion years of the 1980s, however.

33. West Virginia

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    West Virginia doesn't have any national championships, but the Mountaineers have 12 conference titles—eight in the Southern Conference and five in the Big East.

    With Pat White standing as the only college quarterback to win four bowl games, the school's recent postseason success is obvious as well.

32. Minnesota

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    Minnesota's teams of the 1930s and 1940s are the thing of legend in that part of the country, with the 1941 team generally going down as the best in school history.

    Though the program returned to prominence in 1960, that would be the Golden Gophers' last national championship. 

31. TCU

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    TCU has not claimed a national championship since 1938, back when Davey O'Brein was the quarterback of the Horned Frogs.

    The school was undefeated in the regular season a year ago though, and aims to do so again this year.

    With 15 conference titles, that, too, has to count for something.

30. Syracuse

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    Of course, when you think of Syracuse football you immediately think of Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and the 1959 national championship team—the most successful period in school history.

    But this is a deeply historic program with 42 consensus All-Americans and 684 all-time wins.  

29. Iowa

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    Believe it or not, Iowa's 2009 season was one of the best in school history even though the Hawkeyes didn't win the national championship.

    Though Iowa has won 11 conference titles and one national championship, the Hawkeyes haven't won a major bowl since 1958.

28. Arizona State

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    Arizona State has never won the national championship, but the Sun Devils' 17 conference titles rank amongst the best in the Pac-10. 

    Though Arizona State hasn't been to a major bowl since 1997, the school did win four from 1971 to 1978. 

27. Pittsburgh

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    Pittsburgh had its glory days in the 1910s and 1930s under Pop Warner and Jock Sutherland, but Tony Dorsett's 1976 team is always going to be remembered as the best in the program's history.

    It's also the only unanimous national championship the Panthers claim.

26. Colorado

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    Colorado's 1990 national championship is the only in school history, though the means by which the program obtained it have become highly questionable due to the infamous "fifth-down game" against Missouri.

25. Brigham Young

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    BYU is most famous for having been the last team to win a national championship that is not currently from one of the six major conferences.

    Though the 1984 title was won partly thanks to a money-grabbing move by Washington, BYU has been consistently productive, with only three losing seasons since 1974.

24. Michigan State

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    Though the program has lost some respect in the last few years, Michigan State's production in the 1950s and 1960s is one of the most successful periods in the history of college football. 

    With national championship claims in 1951, 1952, 1955, 1957, 1965 and 1966, few schools have sustained such a level of elite status in their time.

    Though the success of the the 2010 season helps MSU's cause, six losing seasons since 2001 are hard to forget. 

23. Ole Miss

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    Ole Miss has had many years of promise, but the Rebels have not won a major bowl game since 1969 and, of the program's three national championships, only the 1960 squad truly earned the honor.

    In recent history, besides the individual success of Eli Manning, Ole Miss has been a team with a lot of history and not much else—though the years of history count for quite a bit, as do many postseason wins. 

22. Texas A&M

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    Most people wouldn't immediately point toward Texas A&M when thinking of college football's best programs of all-time, but the Aggies have been consistent winners for years, with 667 all-time wins and 19 conference titles.

    With the 1939 national championship and the legendary years of Dana X. Bible, the home of the 12th man is a program long rooted in a winning tradition. 

21. Clemson

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    Clemson can thank Danny Ford for the program's best years of success—1978 to 1989. The Tigers claimed the 1981 national championship with a victory over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. 

    While the school only has one national championship to show for itself, Clemson has been a consistent winner over the last 12 years, posting only one losing record since 1998.

20. Auburn

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    Auburn has been hit with NCAA sanctions five different times, which has hurt the program. But the Tigers have still thrived at times.

    Though the school won the national championship in 1957, the undefeated 2004 team that was denied the chance to play in the 2005 BCS national championship game is regarded as the superior team. Had Auburn been given the chance to play for the national championship after a stellar 2004 season, many believe the Tigers would have proved to be the best team in the nation.

    Still, the 2005 Sugar Bowl was the school's only major bowl win in the past 21 seasons.

19. Georgia Tech

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    Georgia Tech does not have a single AP national championship, though the Yellow Jackets were awarded the 1990 title by the Coaches' Poll in Colorado's controversial championship season. 

    While the team has experienced scarce national attention compared to those ahead of it, having never been ranked No. 1 in the AP poll, Georgia Tech has had periods of prosperity that rival most programs in the country.

18. Arkansas

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    Arkansas has struggled with life in the SEC, with limited success since joining the conference in 1992. Since then, the Razorbacks have not won a single conference title.

    But don't forget that for 21 years between 1968 and 1989, Arkansas didn't suffer a single losing season. Add in the 1964 national championship and you have yourself a winner.

17. Washington

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    Washington lays claim to four national championships, but the 1991 team is the only recognized champion of the bunch—that coming behind the devastating Steve Emtman-led defense. 

    The program could have also competed for the 1984 championship, but Washington turned down an offer to play undefeated BYU for the title and opted for more money at a major bowl.

16. UCLA

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    UCLA claims only one nation championship, that coming back in 1954. But the team has been ranked in the postseason top 25 in 27 different seasons and only USC has won more Pac-10 titles.

    Unfortunately for the Bruins, the lack of postseason success in the BCS era hurts the program, as well as the fact that UCLA has not won a major bowl game since the 1988 season.

15. Florida

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    Florida's recent success has had many jumping on the Gators bandwagon, but the team has only really been a success in the last 20 years. 

    Of course, there are two national championships in the past four years, as well as the 1996 crown. But this has been years in the waiting. Florida struggled throughout its history until the 1990s.

14. Georgia

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    Georgia could have had even more success if the Herschel Walker years had turned into more than one championship, as they probably should have. The 1980 title is the only once recognized by the AP.

    Under Mark Richt, the Bulldogs have had six 10-win seasons in the last nine years, with two major bowl wins to show for it. Surprisingly enough, that ranks Georgia as one of the three most successful programs over that time.

13. LSU

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    LSU has been up and down, but for the majority of the BCS era, the Tigers have been one of the top teams in the nation, with national championships in 2003 and 2007 serving as ample proof.

    Though the program has had its down years, sustained success in the SEC is difficult to come by and LSU's positive record against every annual conference foe besides Alabama and Florida is impressive.

    If not for a near-decade of poor results in the 1990s, the Tigers could be much higher.

12. Tennessee

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    Tennessee claims six national championships, but depending on who you're asking, the Volunteers really have between two and three.

    And even though Tennessee has struggled lately, don't forget that its 1939 team was the last in history to go unscored-upon in the regular season.

    No Volunteer has ever won the Heisman, but with greats such as Peyton Manning and Johnny Majors, at least one was deserved.

11. Penn State

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    Penn State has won two national championships, both under Joe Paterno, but the school has a total of six undefeated teams.

    The Nittany Lions' 27 victories in bowl games are the third-highest total in the nation. With a bowl record of 27-13-2, Penn State also is tied for first for the highest bowl-game winning percentage in history.

10. Florida State

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    The 1990s belonged to FSU. The level of success and consistency of winning was arguably unmatched by any program in history and Seminoles fans can thank Bobby Bowden for that one—before he came along, the program had seen little success. 

    Back to the '90s: From 1990 to 1999, FSU won at least 10 games and finished the year ranked in the top five every single season. The Seminoles won seven major bowls over that span, spent 58 weeks as the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, and, of course, won two national championships.

9. Miami

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    Before the 1980s, the Miami Hurricanes had little to show for themselves, but the 1983 title run began what would later be known as the "Decade of Dominance."

    Miami would win titles in 1983, 1987, 1989 and 1991, ranking No. 2 in 1986 and 1988 and No. 3 in 1990 and 1992.

    The program was revived again in the late '90s, finishing No. 2 in 2000 and 2002 and winning the 2001 national championship. 

    From 1983 to 2003, the Hurricanes finished outside of the top 25 only once. 

8. Texas

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    Texas was about as dominant as they come from 1963 to 1970, fielding some of the best teams to ever take the field and winning three national championships over that span.

    Though the Longhorns have had down years, namely in the 1980s and 1990s, the program returned to prominence in recent years, with nine 10-win seasons in a row from 2001 to 2009.

    And no one will soon forget the 2005 national championship team led by Vince Young. 

7. Michigan

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    Despite all of the success Michigan has had throughout the last 100 years, the Wolverines have only been awarded a national championship twice by the AP and have only won two major bowl games since 1992. 

    Still, with 884 wins, Michigan is the winningest program in all of college football and a storied program that has decades of history at the forefront of the sport.

    Like Notre Dame though, the Wolverines' success in recent years has been quite limited. 

6. Alabama

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    Alabama claims 13 national championships, but most will only credit the Crimson Tide with eight. Still, there are few programs that have had more success, and none have won more postseason games than Alabama.

    With multiple titles in the 1920s, 1960s and 1970s, Alabama has been consistently strong for decades, excluding the 1980s.

    And, of course, the Crimson Tide took home the 2009 national championship, with Mark Ingram claiming the school's first-and-only Heisman Trophy.

5. Nebraska

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    Nebraska lays claim to two of the greatest teams of all-time, the Cornhuskers' 1971 and 1995 squads. Both of those teams won back-to-back national championships, with Nebraska also claiming a piece of the 1997 title.

    The Cornhuskers appeared in the postseason every year from 1969 to 2003, the longest such streak in history. With 30 major bowl appearances, 26 conference titles, 23 10-win seasons and five national championships, Nebraska is just behind the elite of the elite.

4. Ohio State

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    Ohio State has one of the winningest traditions in the country. Since 1936, the Buckeyes have had just five losing seasons, claiming 36 conference titles over that span and seven national championships.

    Of course, the knock on Ohio State is that the Buckeyes struggle in the postseason, with their losses in the BCS national championship game in 2006 and 2007 serving as ample proof.

    If not for a 19-22 postseason record, OSU could compete for the top spot.

3. USC

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    Since the start of the BCS era, USC has been better than any program in the country. While the Trojans have fallen under hard times with recent NCAA sanctions, they're still one of the flagship teams of the sport. 

    With 11 national championships, a 31-16 postseason record and seven Heisman winners, sanctions or no sanctions, there's no arguing USC is right at the top of the mix for the greatest programs of all-time.

2. Notre Dame

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    Notre Dame and college football go hand in hand. In the 1940s, the Irish put possibly the greatest dynasty in history on the field, winning four national championships in in a seven-year period.

    No one has produced more All-Americans than Notre Dame and only USC and Ohio State can match the Irish with seven Heisman winners.

    True, Notre Dame has fallen off lately, but the school's triumphs in the past go a long way. 

1. Oklahoma

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    No team has dominated college football quite like Oklahoma. Since 1945, the Sooners have a .765 winning percentage—best in the nation—have won seven national championships and won their conference a staggering 39 times. 

    Oklahoma's 47-game win streak from 1953 to 1957 is a record that will likely never be touched. Add in the fact that the Sooners have finished the season ranked in the top five 29 times and it's easy to put them in the No. 1 spot.