College football has evolved a whole lot since the first ever game was played on Nov. 6, 1869 – less than five years since the assassination of President Lincoln. This evolution has seen teams like the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Michigan Wolverines become synonymous with excellence in college football history.
That first game matched Rutgers and Princeton and the teams played with a round ball. These days, the sport still has rivalries but also huge crowds, huge TV contracts, NIL, CFP, Power Five and all the rest. Interestingly, teams from NCAA Division II have also shown remarkable talent, though they often don’t get the same level of attention.
In all these 154 years, what also stands out are the best college football teams of all time, thanks to their dominance, the amazing players on their rosters and their historical significance. Teams like the Alabama Crimson Tide and the LSU Tigers have consistently showcased their prowess on the field.
How to Determine the Best Teams
College football players are much bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic – and much more trained – than their brethren from yesteryear. With all due respect to Knute Rockne, the ‘Gipper’ and the ‘Four Horsemen,’ there’s no way even the greatest Notre Dame team from the 1920s would come close to beating even the worst Division I team in 2023. This is especially true when considering the rigorous training and athletic standards of teams in the Big Ten and other major conferences.
So how can one say which college football teams are the “best?” First, you can’t cross-compare teams across different eras, you should look at teams in their respective eras. They must be the national champions and must have clearly dominated the rest of the college football landscape.
The greatest teams also have some of the greatest players ever – such as Heisman Trophy winners — and have produced some of the greatest moments in the game’s history.
And, the great thing is, it’s all subjective. You certainly won’t agree with our list, and we probably would take issue with yours! It makes for great sports arguments, which are the best because (hopefully) they are all in fun!
So, with all that as a backdrop, we present our top 10 best college football teams of all time.
Top 10 College Football Teams of All Time
10. 1956 Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners shut out six of their 10 opponents to win their second straight national championship. The average score of their games was 47-5.
Running backs Tommy McDonald and Clendon Thomas both topped 1,000 yards from scrimmage and combined for 33 touchdowns, and McDonald and offensive lineman Jerry Tubbs finished third and fourth, respectively, in Heisman Trophy voting.
No. 9 — 1979 Alabama Crimson Tide
In Bear Bryant’s fifth and final national title-winning season, the Tide relied on its amazing defense (5.6 ppg) and wishbone rushing attack (316 ypg) to finish 12-0, including a 24-9 win over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl to nail down the No. 1 ranking in the AP and UPI polls.
Quarterback Steadman Shealy ran for 791 yards and running backs Steve Whitman and Major Ogilvie both surpassed 500 yards.
No. 8 — 1972 USC Trojans
The national champions from LA had a roster loaded with future NFL talent, including RB Anthony Davis, WR Lynn Swann, QB Pat Haden, RB Sam ‘The Bam’ Cunningham and TE Charles Young.
Davis scored six touchdowns – two on kickoff returns — in the Trojans’ 45-23 win over Notre Dame in the schools’ annual rivalry game. USC later routed Ohio State in the Rose Bowl to capture the third title for coach John McKay.
No. 7 — 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers
QB Tommy Frazier and RB Ahman Green led a Husker team that averaged 53.2 points per game and outscored every opponent – except one – by at least three touchdowns. Their closest win was a 35-21 victory over Washington State.
Coach Tom Osborne’s team defeated four Top 10 teams by a combined score of 196-73, including a 62-24 win over Florida to finish the season 12-0 and earn No. 1 rankings in the Associated Press and coaches’ polls, which in those days were used to determine national champions.
No. 6 — 2019 LSU Tigers
Future Cincinnati Bengal quarterback Joe Burrow led the Bayou Bengals to the national championship. LSU was 15-0 on the season, scoring an average of 48.4 points per game.
Burrow completed 76.3 percent of his passes for 5,671 yards, 60 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions to run away with the Heisman Trophy. The Tigers walloped Oklahoma 63-28 in the CFP semifinals and Clemson 42-25 in the championship game.
No. 5 – 2020 Alabama Crimson Tide
Coach Nick Saban had a team full of future NFL stars – RB Najee Harris, WR DeVonta Smith, QB Mac Jones, CB Patrick Surtain II and WR Jaylen Waddle.
After squeaking by Florida in the SEC title game, the Crimson Tide brutalized Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff semifinals and Ohio State in the title game.
No. 4 – 2018 Clemson Tigers
Future No. 1 draft pick Trevor Lawrence took over the QB reins from Kelly Bryant in the fifth game and never looked back. The Dabo Swinney-coached Tigers went on to become the first 15-0 team since 1897 and crushed Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide 44-16 in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
Lawrence and the offense averaged 526 yards per game, and the defense gave up only 13 points per game, the best in the nation.
No. 3 – 2005 Texas Longhorns
Had it not been for Vince Young’s touchdown scamper with 19 seconds left to beat USC 41-38 in the national championship game, the ‘Horns might have gone down in history as another great team that couldn’t win the biggest game.
Young led a 12-point fourth-quarter comeback that prevented USC from winning its third straight national title and finished with 267 yards passing and 200 rushing.
Texas, coached by Mack Brown, finished 13-0 and averaged 50.2 points per game. Young, safety Michael Huff, defensive lineman Rodrique Wright and offensive lineman Jonathan Scott were all consensus All-Americans.
No. 2 — 2004 USC Trojans
Quarterback Matt Leinart won the Heisman Trophy, the Walter Camp Award and the Manning Award in leading the Pete Carroll-coached Trojans to their second straight national title.
In the BCS National Championship Game, Leinart threw five touchdown passes and RBs LenDale White and Reggie Bush combined for 193 yards rushing in a 55-19 rout of Oklahoma as SC finished 13-0.
The Trojans won their games by an average score of 38-13 and were one of three undefeated teams that season (Auburn and Utah were the others).
Bush, Leinart, linebacker Matt Grootegoed and defensive lineman Shaun Cody were consensus All-Americans.
No. 1 — 2001 Miami Hurricanes
Quarterback Ken Dorsey was a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist, and he probably wasn’t even the best player on this team, coached by Larry Coker. The running back group included future NFL stars Frank Gore, Willis McGahee and Clinton Portis. There was wide receiver Andre Johnson and tight ends Jeremy Shockey and Kellen Winslow Jr.
Defensive standouts included Vince Wilfork, Jonathan Vilma and Ed Reed.
Basically, it was an NFL team playing in the college ranks, and the season results bore that out. The ‘Canes were 12-0, winning each game by an average of 43-10 and holding eight opponents to seven points or less.
In their final four games of the season, all against top 15 teams, they won by a point differential of 187-45, including a 37-14 win over No. 4 Nebraska team in the Rose Bowl to win the BCS National Championship.
There are probably great arguments for any of these teams being in the top 10:
1971 Nebraska – The Cornhuskers ranked second in scoring defense and third in scoring offense, and defensive lineman Larry Jacobson won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best interior lineman.
2013 Florida State – QB Jameis Winston led an offense that averaged 51.6 ppg, and the defense allowed 12.1 ppg, for an average differential of 39.5 ppg.
1924 Notre Dame – The ‘Four Horsemen’ backfield led Knute Rockne’s Fighting Irish to a 10-0 record and the national title. Their victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl was their final bowl appearance until 1969, as Notre Dame refused to play bowl games for decades after this season.
2008 Florida – Coach Urban Meyer and QB Tim Tebow led the Gators to the national title, a BCS Championship Game victory over Oklahoma.
1976 Pittsburgh – Heisman Trophy winner and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett led the Panthers to a 12-0 record and the national title. Dorsett ran for 1,948 yards and 21 TDs.
2002 Ohio State – The Buckeyes went 14-0 and upset Miami in the Fiesta Bowl to snap the Hurricanes’ 34-game winning streak.
Impact on College Football
The college football head coach, more than any sport or league in the world, is the sole person responsible for creating a powerhouse. With their ability and savvy to build a recruiting machine that draws the best high school players in the country, coaches like Nick Saban, Bear Bryant, Urban Meyer, Dabo Sweeney, Pete Carroll and Bobby Bowden – among many others — put their schools into the national title conversation on a yearly basis. Coaches like Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines and Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide have become almost as legendary as their teams.
They’ve turned their schools into thriving programs and also spotlights to help the best players become household names and future NFL stars.
These coaches are constantly innovating their offensive and defensive schemes to create juggernauts, with systems such as the wishbone, run-pass-option and spread to score points in bunches and turn their teams into scoring machines.
Take a look at the college football landscape. Will one of them, like the Texas Longhorns or the Ohio State Buckeyes, become legendary? One of the greatest teams ever?Undoubtedly there are undefeated teams out there as we speak. Will one of them become legendary? One of the greatest teams ever?
Take action! Check out Tipico’s college football futures offerings and put your money where your predictions are! Who will win the national championship? Who’ll win your conference? Who’ll get the Heisman? It’s all here for you!
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