Of all the great athletes in all the college sports in America, there’s no higher pinnacle than winning the college football national championship. Millions of people tune in to watch the two best teams go at it in early January to determine which school has the best gridiron group in the land.
It’s basically the Super Bowl of college sports – with all due respects to March Madness – and it means guaranteed national recognition and stardom for college football players, coaches and their programs.
History of NCAA Football Championships
College football has been recognizing national champions since the very first game – Princeton vs Rutgers in 1869. Prior to the 1936 season, champions were determined by various organizations – the National Championship Foundation, the Helms Athletic Foundation and the College Football Researchers Association. Some of the champions were determined retroactively.
From the 1936 through 1949 seasons, national champions were determined with a vote by the Associated Press, comprised of college football writers and broadcasters. Interestingly, the AP did their final votes after the regular season but before the bowl games until 1969.
Starting in 1950, the Coaches’ Poll began, initially published by United Press International (UPI) and later published by USA Today/CNN, USA Today/ESPN and solely USA Today. National champions were then recognized through the AP and UPI polls.
After several split champions – it happened 14 times from 1954 through 1997 — and controversial UPI votes by coaches, the Bowl Championship Series was instituted in 1998. Through a combination of polls and computer selection methods, the BCS would determine which two teams would play for the national championship, and also would determine 3-4 other BCS bowl games among other top 10 teams.
The BCS system lasted until the 2014 season, when the College Football Playoff format was devised. The CFP committee selects the top four teams to compete in the semifinals, and the winners of those two games then play for the national title.
The CFP will expand from four teams to 12 teams starting in the 2024 season.
But let’s not forget the smaller guys. There are also four other college football champions each year:
- Division I FCS
- Division II
- Division III
For decades, these divisions had their postseason system figured out, way before the FBS big boys did. Each of the smaller divisions uses a single-elimination format to whittle down the field to the championship game.
Teams With the Most College Football Championships
Here are the top 10 NCAA football teams that have won the most championships:
1. Yale – 18
Championships: 1874, 1876, 1877, 1880, 1881, 1882, 1883, 1884, 1886, 1887, 1888, 1891, 1892, 1894, 1900, 1907, 1909, 1927
2. Alabama – 16
Championships: 1925, 1926, 1930, 1961, 1964, 1965, 1978, 1979, 1992, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017, 2020
3. Princeton — 15
Championships: 1869, 1870, 1872, 1873, 1878, 1879, 1880, 1885, 1889, 1893, 1896, 1903, 1906, 1911, 1922
4. Notre Dame — 13
Championships: 1919, 1924, 1929, 1930, 1943, 1946, 1947, 1949, 1964, 1966, 1973, 1977, 1988
T6. Michigan — 9
Championships: 1901, 1902, 1903, 1904, 1918, 1923, 1933, 1948, 1997
T6. Southern California — 9
Championships: 1931, 1932, 1962, 1967, 1972, 1974, 1978, 2003, 2004
T8. Harvard — 8
Championships: 1875, 1890, 1898, 1899, 1910, 1912, 1913, 1919
T8. Ohio State — 8
Championships: 1942, 1954, 1957, 1961, 1968, 1970, 2002, 2014
9. Oklahoma — 7
Championships: 1950, 1955, 1956, 1974, 1975, 1985, 2000
10. Minnesota — 6
Championships: 1934, 1935, 1936, 1940, 1941, 1960
Conferences With the Most National Titles
The conference landscape has changed a lot over the decades and will continue to do so as schools leave their current conferences to join new ones, such as what is happening with the Pac-12 (include link to our conference chaos story).
For instance, the old Southwest Conference (Texas, Arkansas, Baylor, etc) and Big 8 (Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado) haven’t existed for years.
The Southeastern Conference has been around since 1932, and with programs like Alabama, LSU, Florida and Georgia, it’s no surprise that they are the leader in titles among conferences with 30.
(Most sports media use 1936 – when the AP began their rankings – as the starting point to figuring out conference title numbers).
The top six include:
- SEC: 30 championships
- Big Ten: 25 championships
- ACC: 15 championships
- Big 12: 12 championships
- FBS Independent: 12 championships
- Pac-12: 10 championships
Who Has the Most Wins in College Football
Factors Behind College Football Success
Usually, college football championships aren’t one-offs. They are the culmination of excellent recruiting, great coaching and talented and smart players who can execute brilliant offensive and defensive systems and improvise when needed. It also takes a little luck here and there in terms of turnovers, crazy bounces and controversial referee decisions.
Typically, great coaches build great programs that lead to championships. For instance, Alabama has had two of the greatest who ever roamed the sidelines – Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant, who won six titles, and the Tide’s current coach, Nick Saban, who has tallied six with ‘Bama (and one previously with LSU). Those are 12 of the school’s 16 overall championships.
Woody Hayes won five with Ohio State, John McKay four at USC and Barry Switzer three at Oklahoma. And many other coaches have multiple national titles to their credit.
Great coaches know how to build a great coaching staff, develop amazing recruiting systems, install effective game plans and prepare their student-athletes for the demands and pressures of a very long season.
With the earth-shaking changes in the conferences, including the demise of the Pac-12, it will be interesting to see if new powerhouses will emerge to shake up the landscape and perhaps even crack the top 10 of college football teams with the most championships.
There’s no doubt that the college football axis of power is firmly entrenched in the South. Ohio State (2014) is the only non-SEC and -ACC team to win the national title since Texas did it in 2005.
The best high school players want to play for the best and most prominent programs, because that often translates to being highly drafted in the NFL. That means the best players often wind up at Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Ohio State.
Maybe coaches like Deion Sanders at Colorado can crack the southern dominance eventually, we shall see.
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