The Top 65 College Football Teams of All Time — Part 3
For part 1, an explanation of the rankings, and teams 65–60, please click here!
For part 2, and teams 59–50, please click here!
#49 — North Carolina State Wildcats (5.412)
If only any of the underdog magic from the 1983 national champion basketball team rubbed off on the football squad. Maybe they would be higher than #49 on this list? Then again, 49 might be pretty good for a team that started off as the “Farmers” and lost their first two games to rival UNC by a combined score of 60–0. It is also worth noting that NC state did not offer football scholarships until 1933, a fact that might have played a role in their 128–0 drubbing at the hands of Georgia Tech in 1918 (an NC State team, to be fair, that had also recently been ravaged by the flu epidemic). That this same team managed a record above 500 (.506) and improved their standing in the modern era (.542) is a testament to their growth as a program.
While player development has been just OK (157 draft picks — 16 in the first round, 7 consensus all americans, 0 NFL Hall of Famers and a healthy 6 in the College HoF), the program’s 29 bowl games and 15 victories set them apart from a good many of the teams surrounding them on the list. Additionally and more important are the 11 conference titles achieved by the program and specifically the 7 ACC titles won between 1957 and 1979, a stretch the program has 4-time ACC Coach of the Year Earle Edwards to thank for. Again, and as with many programs at this tier, they are lacking a Heisman or national championship. Also, as you may have noticed, their last conference title was in 1979! That includes no division wins in the ACC’s new format, for the curious. Impressively, there have been 20 bowl appearances since that season, but the program has been lacking a breakthrough that it needs to compete with the top teams in the conference.
#48 — Purdue University Boilermakers (5.514)
For a school whose current coach is 6–30 and has 47 other teams ahead of them, they claim three impressive titles to their name that are worth exploring further: “Spoilermakers,” “Den of Defensive Ends,” and “Cradle of QBs.”
“Spoilermakers”: Purdue managed to knock off the #1 team in the country 7 times from 1950 to 1976, a feat only exceeded in a program’s history by Oklahoma and Notre Dame. Four of those victories have come over top-ranked Irish squads (thank you, Purdue), with the 1950 win ending a 39 game unbeaten streak for Notre Dame. The nickname does imply that Purdue has been in the underdog position frequently, and these wins are not factored into the rankings, but it’s a nice feather in the cap for any program.
“Den of Defensive Ends”: Though Purdue coined this term internally in 2004, it does not appear any other programs are fighting for the moniker, and the evidence in favor of the Boilermakers is strong. This tradition stretches back as far as 1948, but the bulk of the lineage has come in more recent years: Since 1999, 8 Purdue defensive ends have been drafted to the NFL, including two first rounders. Overall, 4 Purdue DE’s have taken home Super Bowl rings. The biggest names? Ryan Kerrigan, Cliff Avril, and Rob Ninkovich.
“Cradle of Quarterbacks”: This is a related argument to the “Quarterback U” title that is consistently debated. Part of the difficulty lies in determining the appropriate metrics to be used: Super Bowl rings? NFL starts? Total NFL starters? If you’re Purdue, you might prefer to use total NFL starts. Measured post-merger, Purdue quarterbacks have tallied an impressive 724 starts, which places them in first by a wide margin (University of Washington, surprisingly, is in second with 623). The Wall Street Journal, back in 2012, concluded that “Purdue may be the ultimate Quarterback U” based partly on this fact. Additionally, the Boilermakers are tied with Alabama for the most Super Bowl wins at QB, and according to ESPN, Purdue QBs have won more NFL games, thrown for more yards and touchdowns than all other college football programs, and won the most league titles.
Not half bad.
To build on the individual accomplishments above, there are some other illuminating stats to share: 278 draft picks and 21 first rounders, 20 consensus all americans and 2 NFL Hall of Famers. How has the team fared? Overall, not bad. Although the modern era has been a less successful one (.489), Purdue claims 12 conference titles, has won nearly 60% of their bowl games, and spent 237 weeks ranked in the AP poll.
Given the above, why isn’t Purdue higher? That’s easy to answer: no national titles, no Heisman Trophy winners, and no members of the College Football Hall of Fame. The NFL accomplishments are admirable, but for our purposes do not carry as much weight.
#47 — Brigham Young University Cougars (5.514)
The term “BCS Buster” was still a generation away (and, ironically made possible by a bitter BYU rival), but the 1984 BYU team would’ve certainly fit the mold en route to its first and only national title. The knock against this team was, of course, their schedule. Though they began the season with a 6 point win over #3 Pitt, that same Pitt team would finish 3–7–1 and far from the rankings. The other signature win? A one score victory over a 6–6 Michigan squad in the Holiday Bowl — the first and last time a national champion competed in a bowl before New Year’s Day. Homecoming? A 3 point win over a .500 Wyoming squad. Though far from impressive, the 1984 season was part of a longer 24 game unbeaten streak, which few programs can lay claim to.
One thing holding BYU back historically is the relative lack of seasons played. At 892 games, that figure stands second in the top 65 behind Florida State’s 792 (and they did a WHOLE lot more with those games). This is partly the result of a ban on football at all LDS-related schools which lasted 20 years following a football-related death in Utah in 1900. From that perspective, having the third worst wins total is a bit more forgivable. They’ve won roughly 57% of their total ballgames and a healthy .643 win percentage since 1960 (17th on the list!). What’s less forgiving? Winning 13 of your 34 bowl appearances. Makes those wins agains the Mountain West and the WAC a little less valuable and reinforces why these conference titles count for less in the overall ranking. The proof is also in the amount of NFL draft picks (140 — middling to poor) and the 11 first rounders (bottom third). Still, credit the Cougar program, despite the low game total, for spending 242 weeks in the poll, producing 2 NFL and 4 College Football Hall of Famers, and participating in 34 bowl games (A number taken with a grain of salt given their annually weak schedule BUT it also ties them with Notre Dame, who didn’t accept bowl invitations until 1969, and ahead of schools like Pittsburgh, Michigan State, and Iowa).
BYU plays in one of the more interesting rivalries in college football, referred to as the “Holy War” with Utah. The secular Utah, run by the state, and the religious institution, Brigham Young, vie for fan support, recruits and LDS students in Utah on a daily basis. Though many students attending Utah are LDS themselves, the game has come to be known along the institutional lines of the two universities, and passions run deep. The 1999 edition featured an altercation between a BYU fan and a Utah cheerleader (the cheerleader seems to have won the skirmish) during a Utah victory in Provo. Years later, in Urban Meyer’s first campaign, the Utes had the pleasure of ending BYU’s near record for consecutive games scoring of 361, a record held by Michigan at 365. Meyer also added another interesting institution for the rivalry. Borrowing from an early coaching influence, Woody Hayes, BYU was only to be referred to as Team Down South or TDS. Despite BYU holding a 10 spot advantage on this list, Utah has thoroughly dominated the series by a significant margin, although that margin differs depending on the school you ask: The Utah Athletics website shows a series lead of 58–34–4, while BYU maintains the series stands at 55–31–4. The difference? The 6 games (split 3–3) between Utah and Brigham Young Academy are not counted by BYU.
#46 — University of Kentucky Wildcats (5.923)
#45 — University of North Carolina Tar Heels (5.944)
How did two of the all time great basketball programs wind up next to each other in a football ranking? I don’t recall Adolph Rupp or Dean Smith donning a houndstooth hat for a halftime speech. Nor did we get the pleasure of Michael Jordan or Anthony Davis pulling down lobs in the end zone. Recent history and a short memory point to UNC being the clearly superior program, but it has not always been that way. First, to the numbers:
Not looking so hot for the Wildcats. There are glaring disparities in the number of wins (+102 for UNC), the winning percentages, bowl wins, weeks in the poll (3x times as often for UNC) and conference titles. And before SEC fans start an S-E-C chant at their desk, historical conference strength has not always been this lopsided (granted, their is a gap in conference prestige over time between ACC and SEC, but UNC played in the Southern conference for quite some time and the last titles for each team were 1980 for UNC and 1977 for Kentucky). S0 how does Kentucky even keep it close? The glamour stat. Having a national championship in your name is a huge feather in the cap in this case (the biggest feather). Also important is the ability to win bowl games and the small individual achievement boost that comes from having an extra college football hall of famer). Overall, these achievements are not enough to tip the scales in Kentucky’s favor, but it does allow for a more even debate!
Let’s dive in a bit further on Kentucky, a team that has played in a rather impressive volume of games (1,242) but only managed to win less than half (.494) of them and a Mendoza-esque .409 since 1960. More cause for concern is the paltry 78 weeks spent as a ranked team (4th worst overall) and 2 conference titles (I’m actually surprised it’s that high, but keep in mind that Paul “Bear” Bryant was the coach). What else did Bryant contribute? A national title! Now, this isn’t exactly a “clean” national title, as Oklahoma claimed the AP and UPI titles that year (remember, awarded pre- bowl games). Kentucky went on to beat Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and claims the title based partly on a #7 AP poll, 2 other generous smaller polls, and on Jeff Sagarin’s modeling, which put them ahead of other poll winners Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Princeton (Ironically, Bryant ended up at Alabama, the king of questionable titles!). Bryant’s 8 year tenure provided a 60–23–5 record, multiple top 15 finishes, 3 big bowl berths, and the aforementioned titles.
Bryant’s departure was followed with the hire of a Cleveland Browns assistant by the name of Blanton Collier, who won SEC coach of the year in his first season and staffed soon-to-be famous coaches Chuck Knox, Don Shula, and Howard Schnellenberger. After his firing in 1961, Blanton would count as the last coach to leave the team with a winning record, which leads to the numbers we saw above. Promising stretches under coaches Fran Curci (73–81) and Hal Munne (97–01, #airraid) were both cut short due to sanctions, providing an interesting “what if?” during both periods. Overall though, only brief periods of positive momentum once Bryant departed.
Kentucky football tidbits:
- The 1898 squad is referred to as “The Immortals”, and despite only averaging 147 pounds across the roster, did not yield a single point over an unbeaten 7 game season
- Under Charlie Bradshaw, the “Thin Thirty” squad started the season with 88 games and finished with only 30 at season’s end
- In 1967, Nate Northington became the first African American player in college football in the SEC (USC would later accelerate this process by dressing down Alabama in 1970).
North Carolina has never been an annual football powerhouse, but as we can see from the numbers above, their relative performance against Kentucky is enough to give them the advantage in this battle of basketball superpowers (a sport I have no business writing about). Outside of their largely vanilla history, some sources (though not most) credit UNC with the first forward pass in 1896, and we that university to thank for Lawrence Taylor, who changed the way both defenses and offenses played in the 1980s. Unfortunately, those stories don’t necessarily show up in a stat sheet, but there are other ones that do.
North Carolina has played roughly two seasons more football games than Kentucky (1,267) and won them at a far higher clip. That is in part thanks to quality coaches and periods of sustained success: Carl “the Grey Fox” Snavely helmed the Tar Heels in the 30s and 40s and is now in the CFB HoF, Bill Dooley ran up several winning seasons and top 15 rankings from 1967 to 1977, Dick Crum’s teams made 6 bowl appearances and 4 top 20 finishes, and name brands Mack Brown and Butch Davis round out the list (Davis supplied wins, but also brought the program under fire for alleged offenses under his watch). Currently, Larry Fedora heads a program headed in the right direction in a vulnerable ACC Coastal division. Expect this gap with Kentucky to widen in the coming years.
#44 — Naval Academy Midshipmen (5.962)
I find myself rooting, often hopelessly, for the Midshipmen on one Saturday a year. With unrivaled futility, Navy goes up against Notre Dame in an unbroken series stretching back to 1927. Overall, their record stands at 12–76–1, with an eye-popping 43 game losing streak stretching from World War II to the 21st century. This apparent lack of respect on the field is actually framed by an impressively long connection rooted in history and mutual commitment. During WWII, while Notre Dame suffered from financial hardship as an all-male university, the U.S. Navy used their facilities as a training center and paid enough in rent to keep the university afloat. As a result, Notre Dame now considers the annual game somewhat of a debt of honor.
While Navy does share a similar historical arc to its service academy rivals from dry land (early power program followed by relative modern era decline), their success has appeared more “even” over the years, especially considering the recent rivalry games between the two (14 in a row for Navy dating back to 2002). Since 1972, these two teams, along with Air Force (who didn’t make the rankings), have played for the Commander in Chief’s Trophy - an award given to the winner of their annual round robin champion (for a smaller-scale, yet fierce rivalry along these lines, check out the Secretaries Cup! This contest pits Division III programs from the Merchant Marine and the Coast Guard against each other each year). Air Force leads the way in this quest for bragging rights, with 19 trophies and a 57–31 (.648) record against. Navy is second (48–39–1 .551), and Army, who’s last trophy was awarded in 1996 by Bill Clinton, trails both (26–61–1 .301). When you leave out Air Force, Navy’s bragging rights only grow over Army. They lead the all-time series 60–49–7. Fun fact regarding the Navy-Army rivalry: Instant replay made its debut in this contest in 1963!
Specific to the Naval Academy, we can see their program’s historical arc in examining their records and stats. Their .556 overall winning pct comes down to .473 in the modern era (right in line with their .476 success rate in bowl games). The lone national title came in 1926, which ended as a share with Alabama and Stanford. In all likelihood, their tie with Army in the last game of the season prevented them from claiming an undisputed crown (Opportunities to play “spoiler” in a rivalry game are one of the sweetest events in college football). Navy impressively has fielded two Heisman trophy winners, which came in 1960 and 1963. That impressive stretch of individual accomplishment coincides with their 4 Maxwell winners from 1954 to 1963 (Army fans: “Big deal! We had two Heisman winners in the same backfield! One little known fact about Army’s famous Heisman duo: Mr. Inside, Doc Blanchard, was actually rejected for the Navy officer program and headed to West Point as a result. Oops!)
#43 — University of Maryland Terrapins (6.035)
In thinking of the Terrapins, two things come to mind: Al Davis drafting Darius Heyward-Bey based on his 40 yard dash, and Under Armour. Not that either is particularly relevant to what we are doing here, but just checking to see if I am on the same page as the rest of you. Although the numbers say #43, their fans seem to have a higher opinion of the program. For reference, one bold writer on Wikipedia wrote that the Terps “share a storied rivalry with Virginia” (#50 on our list). Yankees — Red Sox is a storied rivalry. Celtics-Lakers is a storied rivalry. Maryland-Virginia? Two teams that have combined for one national title and both have a losing record in bowl games? Let’s dial it back a bit, Terps fans.
What the Terps do have is their won what if? coaching story. In 1945, Paul “Bear” Bryant (might’ve heard of him) came on as head coach. The tenure only lasted one season due to a conflict with the school’s president, who reinstated a player the coach had dismissed while Bryant was on vacation. In light of that dispute he took his coaching talents to Kentucky (another stop before his famous tenure at Alabama). Hard to say how long Bryant would have stayed without this development, but it is fair to assume that there would’ve been more than one season. If he stays 3–5 seasons and gains moderate success, that sets up the program on a completely different (and assuredly more positive) track. If he stays 15+ season, we are probably rewriting college football history.
Overall, the Terrapins have won .523 of their games but just .495 of them since 1960. A high point for the program came from ’47 to ’55. That string of success post WWII (even missing Bear Bryant) includes their lone national title in 1953. Now, the 1951 Maryland squad was undefeated and beat #1 Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl, but the AP Poll awarded titles before bowl games took place (a practice continued until 1964), so Maryland does not claim a national title. Don’t feel too bad for them, however, since the 1953 squad, fresh off winning a post-regular season AP national title, lost to Oklahoma in a 7–0 snoozer of a bowl game (The AP poll took a long time to get its act together). Following a series of down years, a brief resurgence in the 70s under Jerry Caliborne saw an impressive string of 5 straight bowl berths and 3 consecutive ACC titles (I use the term “impressive” loosely here, but compared to their performances in the 60s, its warranted).
The rest of the numbers are respectable: Although no Heisman trophy winners have attended Maryland, there have been 12 consensus All Americans, 2 NFL Hall of Famers, and 6 College Football Hall of Famers. Throw in 11 conference titles (their 9 ACC titles are third all time behind the 15 apiece from Clemson and Florida State) and 6 weeks atop the polls, and you being to realize that Maryland hasn’t suffered quite as much as the preceding teams on the list.
#42 — Virginia Tech Hokies (6.052)
Based purely on wins at prominent programs, Frank Beamer now sits on Mount Rushmore with Bobby Bowden, Pop Warner, and Bear Bryant (absolutely no room for Paterno on this mountain). Extremely impressive company, and I tip my cap to the guy for staying with one school for so long in amassing those wins. The lack of national titles and bowl performance are cause for a raised eyebrow in this case, but nothing more. One of his lasting contributions to the college football lexicon, “Beamerball”, stems from his total team focus on scoring. Since Beamer took over in 1987, every defensive position as well as 35 different special teams players have scored touchdowns for the Hokies.
Virginia Tech’s .607 win pct is 20th on this list — a figure that improves to .622 in the modern era - and has the current record for bowl appearances which stretches back to 1993. When looking at the last 20 seasons in particular, the list of winning records is impressive for most any program. That includes 7 conference titles (2 shared), 7 top ten finishes, 8 top-four bowl appearances and 10 bowl wins. Despite all that success, the program finds itself ranked #48 on this list. How did that happen? Well, plenty of reasons, as it turns out: only 143 draft picks (worse than Northwestern, Indiana, and Oregon State), a 12–17 mark in bowl games (Miami OH doubles that win rate), only 8 consensus all americans (less than Kansas State, Northwestern, and Kentucky), and no national titles or Heisman Trophy winners.
The true high point for Virginia Tech came during a period that put Virginia Tech on the map for most of us: the Mike Vick era. Before the ups and downs of the NFL, Vick was a trail blazing athlete with a cannon for an arm who bridged the gap between option-athlete quarterbacks such as Eric Crouch and later RPO and mobile pocket passers like Vince Young. the Vick-led Hokies completed an undefeated regular season in 1999 (outscoring opponents by 31.0 PPG) and briefly led in the 4th quarter of the BCS national championship (Sugar Bowl) against Florida State before falling 46–28. Vick led the country in passer rating that year and finished third in the Heisman race. The 2000 campaign started off promisingly, with 8 straight wins and a #2 national ranking. Crucially, a Vick injury midway through the season left him unable to start the contest with #3 Miami, which ended up being the lone blemish for the Hokies that year.
The last 4 years prior to 2016, including the departure of Frank Beamer and arrival of Justin Fuente, have seen a team scraping by just above .500. For the Hokies to climb on this list, the steps taken in 2016 (9–3, Coastal Division champs) are encouraging. A national title in Blacksburg would be the biggest boost to get the Hokies to the next tier of teams.
#41 — Boston College Eagles (6.099)
Start thinking about Boston College and one of the more famous college football plays, Flutie’s hail mary, most-assuredly comes to mind. Think harder, and you may remember Matt Ryan and Luke Kuechly used to call the campus home. That might be all that comes to mind, and that’s fine. For a team ranked #41, there aren’t exactly hall of fame moments littering their history, especially when you go scoreless in your second ever game against mighty MIT!
BC football history stretches back to 1891 (1,165 total games played), when 2 undergraduates received permission to organize a varsity football team for the 1892 season (funding would not come until 1894, the same year the school adopted today’s colors). In 1900, the school president refused to allow the team to compete under the Boston College name, resulting in an independent team named the “Boston Combination.” Collegiate football was restored in 1901, though it was also disbanded from 1903–07 in response to growing public concern over player safety. Led by returning World War 1 hero Frank “The Iron Major” Cavanaugh, Boston College would gain a certain level of national notoriety while putting together 3 undefeated seasons (2 under Cavanaugh). In 1939, Frank Leahy took the reigns and guided the team for two glorious seasons (20–2 record) that included the lone national title for the Eagles. Their win over Georgetown (unbeaten for three seasons) in the Sugar Bowl is described by Grantland Rice as “the greatest game of football ever played.” Several successful seasons followed, but this was arguably the peak of college football prominence for BC. In yet another “what if?” scenario, Frank Leahy left for the undeniably more prestigious Notre Dame program and followed with a sparking career.
The longevity and success of this post-Leahy period is a bit of a mixed bag. Boston College has historically won their games at a .577 clip (.552 in the modern era), have posted a 13–11 bowl record, have 200 NFL draft picks, and can claim a national title and a Heisman winner (Flutie). On the other side of the coin, BC has only 1 conference title to their name (they were independent until 1990 but STILL!), has only spent 140 weeks as a ranked team (32 less than mighty Northwestern), and only have 13 consensus all americans (tied with BYU and Northwestern). Not exactly world beating numbers, and while I wish I could award extra credit points for BC’s win over #1 Notre Dame in 1993, that just counts as another regular season W for the Eagles (Curiously, Notre Dame only leads the all-time series 13–9. This is also referred to commonly as the “Holy War” as the two participants are the only D1 catholic football schools, although I believe Utah and BYU play the true Holy War in college football).
One moniker, potentially self-applied, is that of “O-Line U”. BC’s notable draft picks and NFL talent stretches back to 1980 and includes a healthy list of recognized names. But is the title deserved? CBS’s examination of the last decade has them third, 24/7Sports looked at the last decade and placed them in a tie for 4th, and ESPN’s look back at the 200’s places BC in the honorable mention category. Looking at just offensive tackles in the 2000’s, NFL.com puts BC at a lofty second position. Though a more historical analysis would be instructive, it seems that this claim is at least partly justified.
#40 — West Virginia University Mountaineers (6.372)
West Virginia fans might look at the above picture of Pat White and Steve Slaton longingly, considering these two helped build the best three year stretch in school history from 2005–2007 (though the best individual season should be regarded as their 1993 campaign, which ended in a national championship berth against Notre Dame). Rich Rodriguez might also look back at this photo with a bit of longing. When he left (understandably) to take the Michigan job, his coaching star was bright and several programs courted his services. If he could have seen the failed tenure at Ann Arbor ahead, would he have stayed in Morgantown? And would the fans want him there? Current HC Dana Holgerson is winning at a .600 clip, which is nearly exactly the historical success rate for the Mountaineers (.598 historically, .601 in the modern era), so while he isn’t at RichRod’s level, he isn’t exactly failing by WVU standards.
Probably the most important thing you need to know about West Virginia is that they are the winningest college football team without a national title (14th in wins overall). The closest they came was in 1993 against Notre Dame, a game in which in which future College Football Hall of Fame inductee Major Harris separated his shoulder 3 plays in. An otherwise impressive 727 wins (though not all in major conference play) and 34 bowl appearances (tied with BYU for second on this list so far behind Virginia’s 37) are dampened somewhat by the lack of titles and only being able to win 44% of their bowl appearances. Similarly, you’ll find only 186 draft picks and 12 first rounders (same as Indiana), no Heisman Trophy winners, and only 11 consensus All Americans (tied with Kansas State). The other bright spots would be their 272 weeks as a ranked team (second so far on this list behind Virginia Tech) as well as 15 conference titles. Yes, 8 of those titles came playing in the Southern Conference, where WVU overlapped with some weak competition, but WVU was also independent for much of their history as well.
West Virginia also plays in, from a west coast perspective and not having lived near either school, an underrated bowl game referred to as the Backyard Brawl. Fittingly, this is the 14th oldest rivalry in college football (matching WVU’s wins rank), and has a reputation for high emotions given the paltry 70 miles separating the campuses. Though historically dominated by Pitt (a much higher ranked team here), WVU has kept the recent series close and even has the edge in the modern era. Despite this recent success, WVU’s potentially most heart-breaking sports moment (would be for me) occurred in the 100th edition of the Backyard Brawl back in 2007. Unranked and 4–7 Pitt upset the #2 Mountaineers 13–9 to derail the Mountaineer’s hopes for a BCS title appearance. Not that this was particularly shocking for a #2 team that year (7 of the last 9 weeks, #2 lost to an unranked team, helping to provide a path for a two loss champion in LSU), but the moment was hardly bigger, the opponent was overmatched, and a rival got to revel in the defeat. The college football gods giveth, and they taketh away.