It’s nearing the official start of fall, and that means college football is finally back.
Every autumn, football fans around the country rejoice as their favorite teams end a long summer of waiting to take the field yet again. Every one of those universities has a fresh start in front of them. With it comes the chance to pick up some season-defining victories on the way to a potential Bowl Championship Series (BCS) game.
But let’s be completely honest. Only the best of the best teams will have a realistic shot to make it to those coveted bowl games late in the winter. Those teams are the true elite of college football. Most of them have been proving their excellence on the collegiate gridiron for years. Before there was the BCS, the best NCAA football programs secured victory after victory for the better part of a century to attain their lofty reputations.
To the victor go the spoils, and these decorated college football programs have certainly earned all of the adulation and respect they have. We ranked the 50 greatest college football programs of all-time based on wins at the outset of the 2019 season (this year not yet included). Check out the full list with stats from 24/7 Sports and Wikipedia starting right here:
50 (tie). Cincinnati Bearcats:
Kicking off our list of the most legendary college football programs are the Bearcats from Cincinnati, Ohio. Although not always mentioned among the greatest college football powerhouses out there, they did bring 614 wins into this year. Their first season dates back to 1885, and they’ve won 14 total conference titles.
Playing in the AAC, they won’t often battle the true juggernauts you’ll see further up on this list. They’ve played in 18 bowl games, splitting them at 9-9.
Next up, Arizona State makes an appearance in a tie with Cincinnati. Both teams had 614 wins heading into this year. They currently compete in the decorated Pac 12 conference.
While not discussed among the true legends of college football, Arizona State does have an underrated history. They’ve won two unclaimed national titles and have appeared in 31 bowl games. The Sun Devils first competed back in 1897.
The Boilermakers are a Big 10 great who rate below the true rulers of the conference like Ohio State and Michigan. They’ve also found themselves in a three-way tie with Arizona State and Cincinnati on this list. Each team had 614 wins before 2019.
Purdue has one unclaimed national title way back in 1921 and has won 12 conference titles. They first played college football in 1887. While they aren’t dominators in the Big 10, they did contribute a true legend to the NFL in all-time great quarterback Drew Brees.
Kentucky rates as the first of many Southeastern Conference (SEC) teams on this list. With the conference being the most decorated in college football right now, the Wildcats aren’t exactly known as the SEC’s best.
But they still have a storied history, bringing 616 wins into this year. The Wildcats began competing in 1881, making them one of the NCAA’s longest-tenured programs. They have one claimed national championship from 1950 on their record and have won two conference titles.
The Bulldogs once competed in Division I-A but now compete in the FBS. While you may believe that puts an asterisk next to their ranking here, they still maintained a culture of success wherever they played.
They brought 617 wins into 2019, with their program dating back to 1901. They also boast three claimed national titles, albeit in Division II. The program has 25 conference titles and has played in 11 bowl games.
Like Louisiana Tech, Appalachian State only recently began competing in the NCAA FBS division. They have a storied history at the lower levels, racking up 617 prior to this year.
Their first season was only in 1928, a testament to how successful they have been, even if it was at lower levels. They won three straight national titles from 2005-2007 at the FCS level, becoming the first Division I team from the modern era to do so. Now, they compete in the FBS and became nationally ranked for the first time in October 2018. The future is looking up for Appalachian State.
Central Michigan isn’t often discussed among the legendary programs of college football, yet they have some impressive accolades to their credit. They’ve won 16 conference titles and have one national title from their Division II days in 1974 on their record.
The Chippewas brought 618 wins into 2019. Their college football history dates back to 1896. While they’re certainly an under-the-radar team, they have competed in bowl games in five of their last seven years.
You may think that a storied college football powerhouse like Miami (Fla.) would be ranked much higher on this list. They would be if we were ranking national titles alone, as they’ve won an incredible five claimed titles and seven unclaimed national championships.
However, since they only began playing football in 1926, many other teams on this list had a head start on them in terms of racking up overall wins. Regardless, what they’ve been able to accomplish in a comparatively short amount of time is absolutely remarkable. Aside from the aforementioned national titles, they’ve won nine conference titles. They also compiled 630 wins heading into 2019, an impressive feat based on their starting point. Perhaps most indicative of their success is their long list of top-flight NFL talent. It includes Michael Irvin, Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Jim Kelly, and Frank Gore.
The Terrapins, who currently compete in the Big 10, secured 649 victories heading into the 2019 season to earn a spot among the all-time greats. They have one claimed national title and one unclaimed national title. They’ve been playing college football since their debut in 1892.
Maryland also has 11 conference titles to their credit. They aren’t necessarily among the true elite, but Maryland has quietly won their way into the top 50 greatest college football programs.
The Hawkeyes are beloved by their many fans and remain a Big 10 conference stalwart. Iowa has been playing on the gridiron since 1889 and had 649 wins prior to the 2019 season. Iowa also has four claimed national titles and one unclaimed national championship. They’ve played in 32 bowl games and have 13 conference titles to their credit.
Overall, the Hawkeyes may not rate clear up there with the true elite of the Big 10, yet they aren’t far behind. They consistently send many of their most talented players to the NFL, a sign of their continued success.
The Rutgers Scarlet Knights are indeed a lesser-known entity in the stacked Big 10 conference. But that doesn’t take away from their overall success as somewhat of a dark horse when it comes to the most legendary college football programs.
Their list of accomplishments isn’t necessarily long, with one national title all the way back in their first year in 1869. Having competed for so long, they were able to win 650 games heading into 2019. While Rutgers lacks the on-paper success in terms of recorded accolades, they still have a spot among the East Coast’s many storied college football programs.
Texas Christian University (TCU) isn’t known as the most legendary college football program, so you may be surprised to see them make the list of the 50 greatest. But it’s true, as they’ve racked up 651 wins since their inaugural season way back in 1896.
Their best-known player of all-time is undoubtedly Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson. He parlayed a wildly successful career at TCU into an even greater NFL career. There are a ton of great college football programs from the State of Texas, and TCU gets the ball rolling for those here.
Moving up the West Coast, Stanford comes in at 39 on the list of winningest college football programs. The Northern California powerhouse is a respected school, with 653 wins since debuting in 1891.
They’ve been atop the Pac-12 conference for many years. They also bring a long tradition of great quarterbacks starting with all-time great John Elway. Jim Plunkett is the only Stanford Cardinal to win the Heisman trophy. Finally, an alum shocked the football world recently when Andrew Luck retired following successful runs at Stanford and with the Indianapolis Colts.
The Pacific Northwest is represented well by the Oregon Ducks, who have racked up 657 wins after debuting in 1894. They’ve become well-known for their uniform partnership with nearby apparel giant Nike, and their uniforms may be the most popular in all of college football these days.
But that’s only a part of their rich history. Oregon has always been known as a school that can light up the scoreboard with their impressive aerial attack. The former ‘Webfoots’ wreak havoc in the Pac-12 conference. Oregon is a revered team both in-state and across America.
We travel across the country all the way to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) next. The Virginia Cavaliers also have 657 total wins since their first season in 1888. Not only that, but they are also half of ‘The South’s Oldest Rivalry’ with another storied university later on this list.
Their former coach George Welsh ranked second all-time in wins in the ACC conference. Virginia may not be among the all-time greats, but they’re knocking on that door.
Back across the country to the East Coast, Boston College is up next. They secured 666 wins heading into 2019, with their first year coming in 1893. Competing in the ACC as well, Boston College is one of only two Catholic Universities in the FBS along with another famous school on this list.
The Eagles have always been a hard-nosed, competitive team. They boast alumni such as NFL star quarterback Matt Ryan, who currently starts for the Atlanta Falcons.
The University of California in Berkeley is up next. The Bears won 668 games heading into the 2019 season. They have a bowl record of 11-11-1 with five claimed national championships and 14 conference championships.
While they aren’t up there amongst the strongest Pac 12 teams these days, they do have a storied history. Perhaps their most prized export is Green Bay Packers Super Bowl hero Aaron Rodgers.
The venerable “Ole Miss” is undoubtedly one of the most famous college football programs in the nation. The team boasts 671 wins in their decorated history dating back to 1893.
Not only that, but Mississippi also has six SEC titles and three National Championships to their credit. While they haven’t quite lived up to that lofty billing compared to other SEC powerhouses of recent years, “Ole Miss has produced quality NFL stars like two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning. Their rivalries throughout college football’s toughest conference will always be some of the most heated, competitive games in college football.
Although a somewhat obscure team compared to others on this list, the Utah Utes are a storied college football program regardless. They have won 677 games before the 2019 season. Utah debuted its football program in 1892.
All told, they’ve won 24 conference championships and have made it 22 total postseason bowl games, winning 17 of them. Perhaps their most famous NFL export is former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith, who most recently played quarterback for the NFL’s Washington Redskins.
Formerly of the Big 12, Missouri now continues its rich tradition of football in the SEC East. They have 677 total wins in their history beginning way back in 1890. The program has 33 bowl games with 10 major bowl appearances. They’ve also won 15 conference titles, 5 division titles, and have 2 national championships.
While these Tigers aren’t currently ranked up with the elite of the SEC right now, they are nonetheless one of college football’s all-time greatest programs.
While you might think it’s the University of Miami (Fla.) that has more wins, it’s actually Miami of Ohio and their 690 victories that rank higher overall. They first debuted in 1888. They have 22 conference titles and 11 bowl appearances.
While their wins earn them a spot among the best of all-time, Miami of Ohio is perhaps known best for producing Super Bowl-winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. “Big Ben” was tossing touchdowns for Miami before carving out a Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, although he hasn’t exactly made a ton of friends along the way.
The North Carolina Tar Heels are mainly known for their all-time great NCAA basketball program. However, their football team also ranks up there among the greatest with 691 total wins heading into 2019. Their football program’s history dates back to 1888.
The Tar Heels have won five ACC conference titles and played in 31 bowl games. They’ve also produced a number of great players who moved on to play the NFL. Those range from legendary defensive end Julius Peppers to current Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. The jury’s obviously still out on Trubisky in the NFL, but that doesn’t change the fact that North Carolina is one of the best college football programs.
While Army doesn’t rank up there with the best college football teams of today, they were once among the truly elite in the sport many years ago. Their rich tradition still ranks them among the best in term of overall wins. They secured 692 victories since first playing in the 1890 season.
They won three national titles in the 1940s and have made eight bowl game appearances. Army has also produced three Heisman Trophy winners. They’re also one of only six schools to claim no allegiance to any FBS conference.
While you may not think the Golden Gophers of the Big 10 conference are one of college football’s greatest programs, they indeed are. They’ve racked up 695 wins heading into this season. They were also members of the Big 10 conference when it was called the Western Conference in its first season of 1896. Their program dates back to 1882.
Minnesota also won seven national championships from 1904-1960. While it’s been quite some time since they’ve reached those lofty heights, Minnesota has maintained a rich, storied tradition with several high-profile rivalries.
The Spartans are another Big 10 powerhouse who can lay claim to a period of unparalleled success. They won six national championships from 1951-1966. They also have nine Big 10 conference championships to their credit. Overall, Michigan State won 701 games before 2019 since their debut in 1896.
Like the University of Minnesota, Michigan State is still trying to reignite that type of success in the current era of college football. That doesn’t mean they’re a bad team, by any means. You need only look at the fact they produced All-Pro NFL running back Le’Veon Bell in recent years as proof. The Spartans uphold the strong traditions of the Big 10 conference and always will.
The storied Buffaloes from Boulder used to compete in the Big 12 conference, but now they’re looking to make noise in the Pac-12. The Buffs boasted 705 wins heading into this season, an impressive number to be certain. Their rich history dates back to 1890.
Interestingly enough, they’ve only won one national championship, and it was in 1990 – 100 years after their debut. They’ve also made 29 bowl games, but have only won 12 of those. Nonetheless, the University of Colorado has produced many NFL-level talents. The Buffs will rate as one of the best and brightest college football programs for many years to come.
Wisconsin adds to the growing number of Big 10 teams among the greatest college football programs. It seems that they’re always in the mix, and that’s resulted in 14 conference championships. However, their only national titles are unclaimed versions way back in 1906, 1928, and 1942. They’ve made it 30 bowl games.
Overall, the Badgers had 705 wins heading into the 2019 season. Their program’s history dates back to 1889. The Seattle Seahawks’ Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson was an integral cog for the Badgers at one point. He’s now the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL.
Similar to rival Army, the Midshipmen aren’t exactly at the pinnacle of college football as of right now. However, they’ve still had a very successful program since their first season in 1879. They’ve won 711 games total. Their only national championship was way back in 1926.
Navy has made it to 23 bowl games, splitting them at 11-11-1 overall. Their most famous football alum is most likely Dallas Cowboys legend Roger Staubach. There’s no doubt the Navy passed is among the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all-time.
Back to the SEC with Arkansas, the Razorbacks have ‘quietly’ racked up 715 wins. Their program’s history dates back to 1894. The Razorbacks have one claimed national championship from 1964 and one unclaimed one from 1977.
They’ve also made 42 bowl games and have won 13 conference titles. When talking about the most elite SEC teams, Arkansas’ name doesn’t often come up. They’re still up amongst the most storied college football programs of all-time.
The Syracuse Orange of the ACC has earned their spot among the greats. They totaled 719 wins heading into this year. They boast one national championship from 1960 since their inaugural year of 1889.
The Orange also has five conference titles and has made it to 26 bowl games, winning 16. Perhaps they aren’t perennial national title contenders, but Syracuse has produced some great talent for the NFL. Their biggest stars are all-time greats Jim Brown, Marvin Harrison, and Larry Csonka.
The Panthers are an under-the-radar powerhouse. They bring quite the record of past success. Pitt brought 724 wins into this year. Pittsburgh also has nine claimed national titles to their credit, but not any from recent years. They won eight titles from 1915 to 1937 and then again in 1976. Pitt has eight unclaimed titles as well, including two from 1980 and 1981.
Their history dates back to 1890. There’s no question that the university has produced some unreal football talent such as Heisman winner Tony Dorsett, legendary Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, and future Hall of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
The highly-touted Gators appear with 725 wins heading into this season, a remarkable feat considering their first season was in 1906. They have three claimed national titles from 1996, 2006, and 2008. The Gators had two unclaimed titles from 1984 and 1985 and also eight conference championships.
Florida has made 44 bowl games. They’ve proved a factory for producing top NFL talent, with legendary running back Emmitt Smith coming out of Florida. The Gators always seem to be at the forefront of NCAA football, and their success is obviously a big reason why.
Longtime Pac-12 members Washington brought 734 wins into 2019 dating back to their first season in 1889. The Huskies have two claimed national championships from 1960 and 1991, while also possessing three unclaimed titles from 1910, 1984, and 1990.
They’ve won an incredible 17 conference titles. More recently, Washington impressed in the newest rankings system for college football by making it to a BCS playoff game in 2016. The university is also known for producing a long string of quarterbacks who played in the NFL.
ACC Coastal member Georgia Tech is one of college football’s all-time greatest programs. They have 735 wins prior to this season, dating back to their first season in 1892. The university also has four claimed national titles from 1917, 1928, 1952, and 1990.
John Heisman, whom the revered Heisman Trophy was named for, was a coach at Georgia Tech. They also boast three unclaimed national titles and 16 conference championships. The Yellow Jackets produced NFL greats like receivers Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas.
Another highly respected team from the SEC, Texas A&M brought 741 wins into 2019 dating back to their first season in 1894. They’ve made it to 40 bowl games, winning 18 of them. Texas A&M has three national titles from 1919, 1927, and 1939.
While it may have been a while since Texas A&M has found truly elite success, they still bring one of the most feverish fanbases in college football. Their nearly 103,000-seat stadium proactively moves along with the throng of humanity there to cheer them on. Current head coach Jimbo Fisher, once the head man at Florida State, is looking to resurrect the Aggies to their long-lost glory in his second season this year. The Aggies are and always will be a legendary college football program.
The Hokies bring a rich tradition of success. They’re currently competing in the Coastal division of the ACC. The program has secured 743 wins before 2019. Virginia Tech first debuted in 1892.
They’ve appeared in 32 bowl games and have won 11 conference titles. Virginia Tech has never won a national championship, however, falling to Florida State in 2000. Back then; quarterback Michael Vick was running wild in college football before he became one of the NFL’s most notorious criminals of all-time.
The Tigers are not only towards the top of college football’s all-time great programs, but they are college football’s best current program as well. The fashion in which they demolished perennial powerhouse Alabama last year was a sight to behold. It could be stated that they have taken over the top spot in terms of feared programs in the sport.
In terms of historical success, they brought 744 wins into the season. Their first season was in 1896, and they’ve won an alarming 24 conference titles. The Tigers have won 24 bowl games overall. They have three national titles, coming in 1981, 2016, and 2018. The University of Clemson has produced a ton of NFL talent in recent years, most notably Houston Texas quarterback Deshaun Watson.
The Mountaineers bring yet another rich tradition of college football thanks to their 750 wins heading into 2019. Competing in the Big 12 conference, West Virginia has been battling on the gridiron since 1891. They have one national championship to speak of, way back in 1922.
They do boast 15 conference titles. Finally, West Virginia produced one of the NFL’s most notorious players ever in Adam “Pacman” Jones. But he’s not indicative of their entire program, which is one of the most successful of all-time.
Once you reach this level in the discussion of great college football programs, the true elite teams of the SEC begin to show their dominance. We begin with the Auburn Tigers, who boast 767 wins prior to 2019 and started playing in 1892.
The Tigers own two claimed national championships and three unclaimed national championships. They’ve won a solid 24 of their 43 overall bowl games. Year in and year out, it seems these Tigers are always in contention for the pinnacle of college football. Needless to say, they produce a ton of NFL-level talent as well. Some of their most famous names are two-sport star Bo Jackson and Super Bowl quarterback Cam Newton, who won a title at Auburn.
Moving on from Auburn takes us to one of their most hated rivals in Louisiana State University (LSU). These Tigers have won three claimed national championships in their storied history dating back to 1893. They have five unclaimed national titles as well. The Tigers brought 797 wins into the 2019 season.
The Tigers also boast five players in the NFL Hall of Fame including Y.A. Tittle and Steve Van Buren. But these days, they’re more known for their superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and his current teammate Jarvis Landry. The Tigers will always be on of college football’s most storied programs – they just need to beat Alabama to get back to the top this year.
The Bulldogs merely add onto the massive pile of SEC teams at the top of college football’s greatest programs. Georgia won two claimed national titles in 1942 and 1980 and also has three unclaimed national titles. They won 819 games heading into this season, proving their rich history that dates back to 1893.
Georgia has also produced NFL greats like Herschel Walker and Garrison Hearst. They have 15 conference titles and nine division titles. The Bulldogs are just like their name suggests – tough, and they keep fighting back to the top of the college football ranks each year. You’d have to in order to reach the level of success they’ve attained.
As illustrious as Georgia is, the Volunteers have them beat ever so slightly. The time-honored team from Knoxville had 838 wins at the start of 2019. Their achievements since their inauguration in 1891 read like a laundry list of all-time great accomplishments. Tennessee has six claimed national titles and eight unclaimed national titles. They’ve made it to 52 bowl games, winning 28 of those.
While they aren’t up at the top level of college football like they once were, Tennessee will always be one of the most storied in NCAA history. It really wouldn’t surprise anyone if they soon rose back up to a prominent position. Like many of their SEC counterparts, they’ve produced a multitude of NFL-caliber talent; most notably all-time great quarterback Peyton Manning.
Taking a break from SEC teams, the time-honored Trojans were certain to show up on the list of college football’s most legendary teams. While their 839 wins heading into 2019 are enough, the list of accolades USC has racked up since their first season in 1888 is truly mind-blowing.
They have won 11 claimed nation titles with six unclaimed national titles. They also have an unreal 39 conference titles to their credit. USC has produced a veritable windfall of NFL talent as well. They have six Heisman Trophy winners, ranging from controversial running back OJ Simpson to another controversial running back in Reggie Bush. USC will always among the most discussed of all college football programs.
Penn State is no doubt one of the most revered college football programs of all-time, but controversy has sullied their name in more recent years. Nevertheless, in terms of on-field success, they’re one of the greats. They brought 887 wins into this season and debuted all the way back in 1887.
Penn State football has won 29 of the 49 bowl games they’ve played, taking home 2 claimed national championships in 1982 and 1986. They also have five unclaimed national championships. They’ve produced a long list of NFL talent, which can be witnessed today in the form of New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley.
It was only a matter of time until the Sooners made an appearance on this historic list. They’re simply too good not to appear, having won 896 games since debuting in 1895. Oklahoma has ruled over the Big 12 for a large portion of the conference’s existence.
They’ve won 29 of the 52 total bowl games they’ve played and have won seven claimed national championships. Added on top of those are a remarkable 10 unclaimed national titles. The Sooners will keep stirring up action in their many rivalries, and they do so in style. Their most recent example of this is Cleveland Browns star quarterback Baker Mayfield, who won the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma.
Like many of the battle-tested programs on this list, Nebraska is an all-time great that has seen much better times on the gridiron. True, they rank among the all-time greats with 897 wins prior to 2019 dating back to their first season in 1890. But the fact is they just haven’t been all that great in recent years.
There was a time, however, when Tom Osborne’s Cornhuskers were by far the most feared team in the land. They have five claimed national titles and nine unclaimed national titles. The school has produced three Heisman Trophy winners. They once ruled over the Big 8, but haven’t seen as much winning since they moved to the Big 10. They’ve now enlisted the quarterback of their 1997 title-winning team, Scott Frost, to hopefully resurrect the program to its long-gone greatness.
Tied with Nebraska in wins at the outset of this season, the beloved Golden Domers of Notre Dame also have 897 wins in their storied history dating back to 1887. They’ve made it to 36 bowl games, winning 17. But their record in terms of national championships is truly staggering.
Notre Dame has won 11 claimed national championships and 11 unclaimed national championships. The many eras of Notre Dame football are rightfully considered among the greatest in college football history. Topping it off, the school has produced seven Heisman winners.
The most dominant team in recent years is also one of the top five greatest of all-time based on wins. All told, Alabama won 905 games prior to the 2019 season. As impressive as Notre Dame’s championships are, Alabama simply takes the cake in that regard. If it were only based on title wins, Alabama would certainly be the greatest team of all-time. They have 17 claimed national championships and four unclaimed national titles.
Alabama has also taken home 31 conference titles. You’d be hard pressed to argue they aren’t the best program ever in an overall sense. Their current head coach Nick Saban could certainly be called the greatest college football head coach ever, but some believe that title is reserved for fellow Alabama legend Bear Bryant. Regardless, Alabama churns out NFL talent like no other college ever has. A formerly unrivaled great who has only met their match in Clemson as of late.
The Longhorns can lay claim to the great college football program in Texas. The team has 908 wins heading into 2019 dating back to their debut season in 1893. They’ve won four claimed national titles and five unclaimed national titles.
The Longhorns have also produced two Heisman Trophy winners. Perhaps their crowning moment was when they won the title over the favored USC Trojans following the 2005 season thanks to the hot hand of quarterback Vince Young. True, not on the level of Alabama in overall titles, but an all-time great program nonetheless.
Despite all of the SEC teams listed among the collegiate football legends, the Big 10 shines through at the end. The Buckeyes brought 911 wins into the 2019 season, with their first year coming in 1890. They have eight national titles to their credit, all of them of the claimed variety. The “Scarlet and Gray” have won a whopping 39 conference titles.
The program is known as a hotbed for college football to this day, and it produces a long list of NFL talent that never seems to slow down for even a year. Their seven Heisman Trophy winners are a testament to that. They did just lose head coach Urban Meyer, but the Buckeyes will reload and keep doing what they do best –winning football games. Their most bitter rival, in fact, is the only program left on this list…
The Michigan Wolverines are simply the top program in college football when it comes to wins. They emerged victoriously in 954 contests before 2019 since their debut in 1879. They also won 11 claimed national titles along the way. Added to that list are five unclaimed national titles.
One of the Big 10’s most honored programs, the Wolverines have secured an unbelievable 42 conference titles. While they’ve slipped below that national title level in recent years, current head coach Jim Harbaugh is attempting to bring Michigan back to its onetime glory. Whether he does or not doesn’t matter in the long run, however, as Michigan is the most legendary team in college football history when it comes to winning games.