In college football, dominance is not an accident, it’s expected. Regional and national powerhouses rise and fall all the time in the sport, but what remains is the mystique and prestige of success from years gone by. Every recruiter from Alabama to Southwest Missouri State uses the same formula to sway prospective blue chippers towards their institution: be the next legend to bring glory to our already storied history. The fact of the matter is that the premier programs win and have always won based on recruiting powers. Snag a future Gator out of Seminole country and you ensure that he will be leading the home crowd in the chomp and not the chop for the next four years.
The ten teams on this list have all achieved greatness at one point in time during the long history of college football. Some have sustained their presence on the national stage, while others have remained high in the wins category without the same status they once attained during their heyday. What all of these teams have in common are the accumulation of victories, trophies, and prestige. No matter their current status, these universities have earned the right to be among the elite. These are the winningest programs in college football history.
10. Penn Quakers – 828 Wins
The University of Pennsylvania has claimed the title of college football’s most historic program for itself. Being able to claim John Heisman as an alumnus is a good start to backing up this claim. Sixty-three first team All-Americans is nothing to sneeze at either. 824 wins ranks the Quakers tenth all-time in college football history. Chief among those wins are seven national championships.
The Quakers are no longer a national power because they participate in Division I Football Championship Subdivision. However, Penn is one of the perennial powers of the Ivy League, claiming sixteen conference titles since joining the league in 1956. Thirteen of those titles are outright wins, the most in conference history.
The Quakers are especially dominant at their home, Franklin Field, which is the oldest stadium in college football. At home, the Quakers have claimed 23 unbeaten seasons in their friendly confines. From 1896 through 1899, Penn was undefeated for 35 straight home games, the fifteenth longest streak in history.
9. Harvard Crimson – 838 Wins
At the beginning of college football’s history, Harvard, much like Penn, was one of the first football superpowers. From 1890 until 1919, the Crimson claimed nine national championships. The peak of this 29-year run came in 1918 and 1919. Along the way, Harvard went undefeated in 1919, crushing the competition by a margin of 229-19 and winning the 1920 Rose Bowl, the only bowl game appearance in school history.
No summary of Harvard’s football history would be complete without “The Game,” the rivalry between Harvard and Yale. Not only is the Harvard-Yale game a rivalry, it is the basis for everything the modern game of football is known for: rules, ceremonies, and equipment among other factors. Harvard has won the last seven meetings, closing the gap between them and Yale to 65-60-8.
8. Alabama Crimson Tide – 845 Wins
The Crimson Tide claims fifteen national championships belong to their credit. However, their first five titles (1925, 1926, 1930, 1934, 1961) were only first recognized by the university in the 1980s. In those years, Alabama was selected as national champions by numerous publications along with other universities also being selected as champion. It was not until 1961 when the Crimson Tide claimed its first title under coach Bear Bryant that the school claimed its first unanimous national championship.
Bryant won six national titles while patrolling the sidelines in Tuscaloosa. However, current coach Nick Saban is halfway to that total, winning BCS championships in 2009, 2011, and 2012. Currently, the Crimson Tide seem poised to contend for a fourth championship in six years in the new college football playoff format, further cementing the Saban era as one of the greatest dynasties in college football history.
7. Oklahoma Sooners – 848 Wins
The Sooners own many esteemed records that, in turn, set Oklahoma apart as one of the most successful programs in college football. Among them, Oklahoma has won 598 games since the end of World War II, the most by any team in the last 69 years. To further solidify their consistent resume of winning, Oklahoma is the only university that can claim four head coaches with 100 or more victories at the same school: Bob Stoops, Barry Switzer, Wilkerson, and Owen.
Since 1936, Oklahoma lays claim to sixteen national championships, the most by any team in that span. Seven of those titles are outright victories. Not very surprising when you consider that Oklahoma has been ranked number one in the nation by the Associated Press for 101 weeks in their history. National dominance by the Sooners has only been exceeded by their conference control in the form of 44 conference championships.
6. Ohio State Buckeyes – 856 Wins
Unofficially, the Buckeyes are fifteen-time national champions. However, the crowns recognized by the NCAA and Ohio State total up to seven. Starting with Paul Brown at the helm of the 1942 champs, then Woody Hayes’ collection of five titles from 1954 through 1970, and ending with Jim Tressel’s BCS championship victory in 2002, Ohio State has enjoyed long-term success.
In the Big Ten conference, of which Ohio State has been a member since 1912, the Buckeyes have won 34 conference titles. Only their chief rival, the Michigan Wolverines have won more Big Ten championships. However, the famous ‘Ten Year War’ in the 1970s between Hayes and Michigan head coach Bo Schembechler ignited the rivalry that still rages on to this very day. The Buckeyes got the best of the Wolverines from 1972-75, winning four straight Big Ten titles. However, Michigan beat Ohio State the final three years of Hayes’ tenure in 1976-78.
5. Nebraska Cornhuskers – 873 Wins
Over the course of the last half century, no football program in the nation can match the Cornhuskers in total victories or winning percentage. The peak of Nebraska’s fifty-year run came in the mid-‘90s, claiming back-to-back national champions in 1994-95 and another in 1997. These title-winning teams marked the first time a team won three out of four titles since the 1946-49 Notre Dame squads did so. The Cornhuskers’ back-to-back titles are only one of three instances of consensus repeat champions in college football history. The 1997 championship was shared with Michigan as was their 1970 title, which was also claimed by Texas.
4. Yale Bulldogs – 876
The Bulldogs, the winningest non-bowl eligible program on the list, are one of the pioneering schools in the sport of college football. Since their inception in 1872, the Bulldogs have tallied 865 victories for third on the all-time list.
27 national championship trophies on the mantle make Yale the most successful program from a title perspective. Not only does Yale have team success to boast, but also the two out of the first three Heisman Trophy winners, Larry Kelley and Clint Frank, belong to the Bulldogs. Among their other impressive individual numbers include 100 consensus All-Americans. Yale’s notable alumnus include Walter Camp, who invented the modern game of American football, legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, and the first professional football player, Pudge Heffelfinger.
3. Texas Longhorns – 879 Wins
When it comes to the postseason, the Longhorns are the picture of consistency. Texas’s 52 bowl game appearances are the second most all-time with the Longhorns coming away victorious in 27 of them. In the final Associated Press poll of the season, the Longhorns have been ranked in the top 25 in the nation 66 out of 76 seasons from 1936 until 2012.
All in total, five national titles have been credited to Texas. The larger story of Texas’s storied history are the 107 winning seasons of the 119 total years football has been played by the university. The Longhorns have eclipsed the ten win mark in 23 seasons and have finished undefeated nine times. All of which are NCAA records.
2. Notre Dame Fighting Irish – 881
Although the Fighting Irish still compete as an independent, Notre Dame is still a national power as far as the bowl subdivision is concerned. Considering that the school owns the record for winning percentage (.734) and total national championships (13) since 1900, it is no wonder that they are one of the premier programs in the history of the game.
Iconic golden domed helmets aside, the presence of Notre Dame reaches beyond autumn Saturdays in South Bend, Indiana. No other university has had more players drafted by the NFL and produced professional players in general than Notre Dame. As of 2014, 486 players have been drafted into the pros. Odds are, if you watch Notre Dame on NBC, which is the unabashed, official network for Fighting Irish football, you will witness a future professional.
1. Michigan Wolverines – 914
Leading the all-time wins list with over 900 victories, the Wolverines have been one of the upper echelon programs since their creation in 1879. A founding member of the Big Ten in 1896, Michigan has at least a stake in 42 conference championship crowds. Oklahoma (44) and Nebraska (46) are the only two universities with more conference titles to their respective credits. Michigan has eleven national titles that the Wolverines can claim as their own.
To put into perspective how ingrained Michigan is into the fabric of college football, consider that they played in the 1902 Rose Bowl, the first college bowl game ever played. History is in the Wolverines’ blood. Right down to the winged helmets Fritz Crisler brought over from Princeton or their heated rivalry with Ohio State, Michigan checks all the boxes for what you look for in a program rich in history, excellence, and tradition.