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Top College Football Programs of All Time (1901-Present)

This list of the greatest college football programs of all time is based on total top-25 ranking points from 1901 to the present (25 points for each 1st place finish, 24 for 2nd, etc., down to 1 point for each 25th place finish). For this purpose, of course, I am using my fixed AP polls for the seasons 1936-2016, and I am using my fixed hypothetical AP polls for the seasons 1901-1935. Football existed for many years prior to 1901, but in my opinion the sport was too regional, and too small in competent participants, for national top 25s to hold much meaning prior to 1901.

There are any number of ways to measure the greatest college football programs of all time, including total wins, winning percentage, and national championships. But wins and winning percentage do not take into account strength of opposition faced, and national championships put too much emphasis on too few years, allow for much less differentiation among teams when listing them, and for most of college football history, didn't really exist. Also, teams can be great without winning a national championship, and listing teams by national championships just treats the #2 team in a given season as being the same as the #102 team, and that is just ridiculous.

So here it is, my list of the top college football programs of all time. Teams that currently compete in the top division of college football are in bold.

1 Michigan 1561.5
2Notre Dame1412.5
3Ohio State1281.5
4 Alabama 1173.5
5Southern Cal1147
6Nebraska1058
7 Oklahoma 1035
8 Tennessee 871.5
9 Texas 864.5
10 Penn State 862.5
11Minnesota768.5
12Pittsburgh741
13Army712.5
14 Louisiana State 708.5
15Wisconsin703.5
16Georgia685.5
17 Auburn 680
18 Florida 641.5
19 UCLA 613.5
20 Florida State 603
21Washington575.5
22 Miami (Florida) 566
23Georgia Tech564
24Princeton530
25Stanford516.5
26Yale514.5
27 Michigan State 514
28Navy502
29Illinois497.5
30Iowa490.5
31Pennsylvania464.5
32Harvard456.5
33 Arkansas 444
34Dartmouth442
35Syracuse422
36Purdue421.5
37California412.5
38Texas A&M403
39 Mississippi 381.5
40 Clemson 375
41Northwestern341
42Oregon335.5
43Colorado322
44Texas Christian316.5
45Cornell
311.5
46 Missouri 292
47Chicago282.5
48 North Carolina 264
49 Duke 263
50 West Virginia 234
51Arizona State232.5
52Virginia Tech221
53 Maryland
Oklahoma State
215
55Southern Methodist202
56Colgate196
57Vanderbilt194.5
58Washington & Jefferson193.5
59Brown
Carlisle
190
61Lafayette187.5
62Tulane186
63 Baylor 183
64 Houston 182.5
65Washington State177.5
66Oregon State170
67 Kansas State 168
68 Mississippi State 165
69Boston College153
70Rice147.5
71 Texas Tech 137
72 South Carolina
Kansas
133
74 Kentucky
St. Mary's (California)
132
76Boise State
Fordham
130
78Columbia128
79 Brigham Young 124.5
80Georgetown117
81Santa Clara111
82 North Carolina State 101
83Utah98
84 Tulsa 96
85Virginia89
86 Arizona 88
87Indiana86.5
88Swarthmore85
89Rutgers83.5
90 Louisville 80
91Centre68
92Duquesne60
93 Miami (Ohio) 56
94Carnegie54
95Holy Cross53
96 Wyoming
50
97 Air Force 45
98Amherst42
99 Cincinnati 35
100Lehigh32
101 Pacific 31
102 Toledo 30
103Williams29
104Iowa State26.5
105 Villanova
Detroit
26
107Colorado State
New York
23
109 Memphis 19
110 East Carolina
Wake Forest
18
112 San Diego State
Central Florida
17
114Gettysburg16
115 Hawaii 15
116Sewanee14.5
117 Marshall
Nevada
Bowling Green
Temple
Wesleyan
Washington (Missouri)
14
123Colorado College
Ursinus
12
125 San Francisco
Virginia Military Institute
Haskell
11
128 Southern Mississippi
Louisiana (Lafayette)
Western Michigan
Marquette
10
132 William & Mary
Southwestern (Texas)
9
134 Hardin-Simmons
Arkansas A&M
Centenary
South Dakota
8
138 San Jose State
Knox
7
140 New Mexico State
Delaware
Denver
St. Louis
6
144 UTEP
Massachusetts
Case
5
147Washington & Lee4
148 Fresno State
Geneva
Washburn
3
151Tufts
Trinity (Connecticut)
Colorado Mines
Ohio Medical
Western Reserve
2
156Ohio
South Florida
West Virginia Wesleyan
Vermont
Oberlin
1
  X Utah State
Boston
George Washington
Northern Illinois
Central Michigan
Western Kentucky
0
Michigan sits on the throne because of consistency. They were great right from the beginning, tying Wisconsin for #2 in my 1901 top 25, and their down periods have been few and of short duration since then. Harvard was #1 in 1901, so they took the initial lead in the all-time race. Harvard barely held on to that lead after 1902, when they finished #3 and Michigan #2, leaving Harvard just half a point ahead for both seasons combined.

Yale finished #1 in 1902, and they took the all-time lead away from Harvard in 1903 when they finished #2 and Harvard finished #8. Michigan finished tied with Minnesota for #3 that year, so they passed Harvard up as well, but they were 1 point behind Yale for 1901-1903 combined. Yale was the Team of the Aughts, finishing #2 in 1904, then #1, #1, #1, #3, and #1 over the following 5 seasons. That amazing run enabled Yale to remain the top all-time program through 1913.

Harvard recaptured the throne in 1914. Their comeback began with a #1 finish in 1908, and was followed by finishes of #2, #1, #7 (tied), #1, #1, #3, and #2 over the following 7 seasons. Meanwhile, Princeton passed up Michigan in 1913 for 3rd place over the 1901-1913 period. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were known as the "Big Three" back then, so it is little surprise that they were the top 3 programs in ranking points early in the century. They would remain the top 3 through 1924.

Harvard remained #1 in the all-time race from 1914 to 1925, but Michigan overtook them and captured the throne for the first time in their history in 1926. The old guard Eastern powers had started to fade not long after World War 1. Harvard finished unranked every season 1923-1928, and was basically done as a football power. Meanwhile, Michigan finished #4 in 1923, then #13, #2, and #2 over the next 3 seasons.

Michigan remained the top all-time football program from 1926 to 1936, but in 1937 they were briefly overtaken by Minnesota. Minnesota had also been powerful from the beginning, finishing #8 in 1901, but for decades they lagged behind Michigan and the Big Three Eastern powers. But Minnesota had a tremendous decade in the 1930s, including 3 straight national championships 1934-1936. They passed up both Princeton and Harvard in 1934 to secure 3rd place all-time, and they passed up Yale in 1935 to put them in 2nd behind Michigan.

Michigan, meanwhile, sunk into their worst down period to that point in history, finishing unranked for 4 straight seasons 1934-1937. But Minnesota's stay at the top didn't last long. They were #1 all-time for just 2 seasons, 1937 and 1938. In 1939, Minnesota finished unranked and Michigan finished #2, putting the Wolverines back on the all-time throne. And Michigan held on to the throne a very long time, from 1939 to 1966.

The team that passed them up was, of course, Notre Dame. Another Michigan down period had opened the door for this coup, as the Wolverines finished unranked 3 straight seasons 1965-1967. Notre Dame had been a strong minor and mid-major type team early in the 20th century, but in the 1920s they emerged as a major football powerhouse under legendary coach Knute Rockne. Still, the program had a lot of catching up to do, and it took subsequent eras of greatness under Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian for Notre Dame to finally become the all-time top program.

Notre Dame's stay at the top lasted from 1967 to 1974. After 1974, Ara Parseghian retired, and Notre Dame finished unranked in 1975, Michigan #10, putting the Wolverines back on the throne for good. They have held on to the #1 all-time spot ever since, the longest period of time by far that any team has held the throne. And their lead over most top programs is now so huge, as you can see in the list on the left, that it will likely be decades before anyone overtakes them again, if ever.

NOTES:

Princeton is the top all-time program that is not in the FBS today, and they are still holding on to a spot in the all-time top 25. Yale was knocked out of the all-time top 25 just this year (2016), by Stanford.

The top 6 non-FBS teams of all time are all Ivy League teams. The 7th is the University of Chicago, which was a Big 10 team until they abolished their football program in 1939.


Six teams that I placed at the bottom of the list have zero poll points. These are teams that had been ranked in AP polls, but which I tossed out when fixing those AP polls. These teams are Utah State, Northern Illinois, Central Michigan, Western Kentucky, George Washington, and Boston University.

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