About College Football & The NCAA
College football as we know it began in the fall of 1869, less than five years after the end of the Civil War. In a sense, the story and traditions of college football are as old as modern America. Having begun on a hard-scrabble field in the difficult years after America's first crisis, college football is now a multi-billion-dollar business that attracts millions of fans each year to college campuses from British Columbia to Puerto Rico.
Though today the NFL is the big brother in the family, with vast revenues and coverage across the world, NCAA football is a close second. Now that college football has instituted a traditional playoff system, and is considering compensating student-athletes for their participation, it's difficult to think of college football as anything but professional sport. It was, after all, responsible for the spread of professional football in the first place.
For the moment, the NFL dominates college football in terms of TV viewership, though live college games tend to draw larger crowds to stadiums than their NFL counterparts. Going to college football games is a tradition in many households. Most of us have allegiance to one or a few different colleges and universities, even if we never matriculated beyond high school. If you're looking for the definition of American sport, look to NCAA football competition. The plots are thick, the cast lists epic, and competition as fierce as in any major American sport.
This page will introduce you to college football, a sport with a long and interesting history, a galaxy of unique traditions, and more than 1,000 teams vying each year for a national title. Here's a list of all the sections included, and you can just click a button if you'd like to jump straight to a specific one.
The History of College Football
If we were putting together a documentary on the history of college football, we'd start with an imagined scene from that very first game, played between Rutgers and Princeton. We imagine a shot of a crisp November morning, trees yellowing in the background, and there in the background a field of gentlemen tossing a modified soccer ball back and forth between them. A small crowd of onlookers talks quietly amongst themselves. A man puffs on a pipe and laughs at the antics on the field.
We'd contrast that shot with footage from the modern game. Backbreaking hits, the crunch of Teflon and plastic, the slap of flesh and turf during a hard sliding grab. We'd show close-ups of crazed fans with faces painted so deeply their pores show, and wide-angle shots of The Big House and its 100,000+ fans. We'd show photos of athletes from the 19th century, either anemic-looking or on the obese side of fat, next to the chiseled, perfected, mulled-over bodies of modern athletes.
We'd do that to show the contrast between the origins of collegiate-level football and the modern game. Sure, it's a cheap trick. But it would do very quickly what we would struggle to do with 500 or 600 words.
College football is said to have started on that field in 1869, though the game played at that time resembles today's game very little. In fact, some historians of the game consider the true birth of college football to be in 1874, with the dawn of Harvard's "gridiron" rules and style of play. Still, it can't be argued that two colleges fielded teams and played a game called "football" in November of 1869.
The First College Football Season
We know that Rutgers and Princeton played two games against one another in the span of two weeks that November. This is traditionally called the "first college football season," though the teams each won their home contest and both had a legitimate claim to the title of "National Champion." In fact, historians consider both teams the legitimate champion that year – to the extent that historians concern themselves with this detail at all.
What did the two games played between Rutgers and Princeton look like? It's hard to say, for two reasons. First of all, the rules of football hadn't been codified, and depended mainly on word-of-mouth and local tradition. In fact, the two games played that year used two different sets of rules, established beforehand by the home team.
Historian Park H. Davis records that this early version of football banned running while holding the ball, required that each team field 25 players at a time, and was played on a field with dimensions similar to a modern soccer field, using a spherical ball of the type used by soccer teams. It sounds more like rugby than modern football, and that's because it was little more than a modified version of rugby that was intended to be more civilized. Imagine that – football, a civilized sport.
Princeton wanted a rematch, on their home turf, played by their rules. The main difference, according to David, was that players who caught a pass were given a free kick, and a chance at scoring 2 points. The rule was designed to cut into Rutgers' speed advantage, and it worked. Princeton won the game by kicking four field goals and holding Princeton scoreless, for a final score of 8 to 0.
Ironically, a third game planned to break the tie was never played, because school administrators were concerned that the game was becoming more important than academics in the minds of the student bodies. This charge would continue throughout the life of college football.
The game spread to other nearby universities. By 1875, the league swelled to include four new teams - Columbia, Yale, Harvard, and Stevens Tech. Commonly-used house rules were standardized league-wide in 1876 – a crossbar was added to the goal posts to make kicks more difficult, modern field dimensions were put in place, and team size was reduced from 25 players per side to 15.
Walter Camp and the 1882 Rule Changes
Walter Camp was the head of the committee chosen to standardize rules in 1880, and he pushed hard to turn the game of brute force into more of a finesse sport. He recommended limiting each team to 11 players per side, set up the line of scrimmage system to replace the rugby-like scrum system then in place, and created a system of downs for advancing the ball, all of which we still use (in modified form) today.
Camp's rule changes in 1882 also included the marking of yard lines on the field. Because of the way the field looked after the marks were lain down, the field started to be called the "gridiron." After all of Camp's suggestions were implemented, the game was found to be better-paced, easier to follow, and very popular among college students. By the year 1900, Camp's game had spread to more than 250 colleges across the country. Camp had succeeded in his mission to turn the violent and somewhat dull game he played at Yale into something that audiences clamored for.
But there's another reason for Camp's constant attempts to change the game – it wasn't just violent, it was downright dangerous. Between 1890 and 1905, as Camp and his cohorts attempted to form a more perfect game from the early rules of football, 330 college athletes died from injuries they got on the field. Remember – these were the days before helmets, the days of massive formations of two dozen players, and legal gang tackling without pads, all of which could be life-threatening.
The Early Years, 1900 – 1936
We start our coverage of the history of college football in 1900 because that's the first year that participation in collegiate football was truly coast-to-coast, and also the first year that the game resembled modern football contests, thanks to constant rule changing in the two decades leading up to the start of the 20th century.
At this point in football's history, most teams played no more than nine games per season, some played fewer. It was during this period that post-season "bowl games" were first played, named after the Rose Bowl, where the first such game was held to raise money for charitable causes. Bowl games became opportunities for bragging rights, and opportunities to establish regional and national champions.
Goal posts were at the front of the end zone (until 1927, when they were moved to their current location), and scoring rules changed rapidly. In 1909, field goals were reduced to three points, and in 1912, the value of touchdowns was increased by rewarding six points. The forward pass was legalized in 1906, but rule changes making it a viable offensive weapon weren't instituted until 1912.
Though the game had been cleaned up considerably, it was still considered too violent by some schools. New rules were needed if football was going to catch on at more schools and continue a nearly fifty-year-old tradition. So more rule changes occurred.
President Theodore Roosevelt called for reforms to the game of football in 1905, and just five years later, the group put together to reform the game became the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Born in 1910, the NCAA is still the major force for the regulation, provision, and operation of college athletics.
The Golden Age, 1937 – 1969
In 1937, the NCAA started keeping official performance statistics. Before that year, we don't have many specifics about player or team performances, except in old school news items or the journals of players, coaches, or fans. And though the statistics-keeping system in place between 1937 and 1969 was flawed, it does allow us to research historical performance in the NCAA, to some degree. Most NCAA records from this time are based on player totals over the course of a season, rather than per-game performance or the per-game average used in the NCAA since 1970.
This Golden Age of college football was marked not with the kind of sport-defining rule changes seen in the first part of the 20th century, but by formalizations to the game that make it easier to watch as a fan or coach. For example, the use of numerals on uniforms as a way to identify players wasn't formalized until 1939. After 1939, every college that participated in the NCAA had to use a numeral system. In 1967, this system was further formalized so that each position is given a specific range of acceptable numbers.
The system put in place in 1967 is basically still in place today.
- 1-9: QBs, Kickers, and Punters
- 10-19: QBs, Wide Receivers, Kickers, and Punters
- 20-49: Running Backs, Corner Backs, Safeties
- 50-79: Offensive Linemen, Defensive Linemen, Line Backer
- 80-89: Wide Receiver, Tight End
- 90-99: Defensive Linemen, Line Backer
One major innovation that came from this period – the two-point conversion. In 1959, the NCAA ruled that teams could elect to run or pass the ball over the goal-line for two points OR kick for one extra point. This rule took a long time, but eventually proved influential, as the NFL would add two-point conversions some four decades later.
The Modern Game, 1970 – Present
We consider the birth of the modern game to be 1970. That was the first year that most NCAA college football teams had distinct offensive and defensive squads, rather than fielding all eleven players on both sides of the ball. It was also the year that the league started keeping modern statistics, based on a per-game average rather than season totals, imitating the new stat systems in use in professional sports.
The goal post was widened, to make kicks a bit easier, then narrowed when kicks became too easy. The NCAA first banned the use of tees on field goal and extra point attempts in 1988.
Major rule changes during the modern era focus mainly on postseason play. NCAA Division-IA and I-AA seasons now end with a traditional playoff system supported by bowl games, though the modern era was a time of great upheaval in regards to the postseason. Tie games were totally eliminated from Division I-A during the 1996 regular season, paving the way for overtime in college football, and the creation of a game that's more like the NFL. The 1990s was a time of extreme growth for the NCAA at all division levels, as the league swelled to more than 650 members by 1999.
NCAA Football Divisions
The National Collegiate Athletic Association is massive. 1,115 schools are participating in some form of NCAA athletics this year, which represents a new record for participation. With that many schools spread across four countries and a total of eight time zones, the NCAA breaks up participating schools into four divisions. The divisions are generally broken up by school size, though some small schools participate in the league's top division, and at least one large school plays D-III sports.
Below is a guide to each of the four NCAA divisions.
Division I-A – The Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS)
The NCAA's top division is where the schools with the largest budgets and most high-profile staff and athletes compete. The Football Bowl Subdivision is what most people think of when they think of the phrase "college football." The schools that play in this division are the major athletic powers of the American college system. They have huge football budgets, long lists of full athletic scholarships to entice recruits with, elaborate facilities on par with pro-level clubs, and nationwide coverage by major sports networks.
Division I used to include schools now considered Division I-AA; in 1978, these schools were divided into two groups – principal and non-principal. This arbitrary division has resulted in lots of switching around over the years, as teams drop out of FBS, play into FBS, or change conferences. 128 schools currently participate in FBS competition, making it by far the most exclusive division in NCAA football. Those schools are broken up further into eleven conferences, based mainly on geographic location.
A two-time All-American, Heisman trophy-winner OJ Simpson led the NCAA in rushing for two years in a row while starting as defensive back on the other side of the ball.
The NCAA's award for the top running back in the league is named after Walker, who won two Cotton Bowl trophies and a Heisman during his storied college career.
Still the only player in NCAA history to finish in the top 3 in Heisman voting in each of his years playing varsity football.
Recorded what is considered to be the greatest season of college football in 1988, scoring at least two touchdowns in eleven consecutive games, and rushing for more than 300 yards four times.
Division I-AA – The Football Championship Subdivision (FCS)
In 1978, the NCAA divided their top division into two groups – principals and non-principals. Teams that were not considered "principal" to college football were relegated to Division I-AA, now called the Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS.
The main difference between I-A and I-AA is the number of scholarships and amount of money the schools can give to athletes. While D-I programs can give out the equivalent of 85 full-ride scholarships, D-II schools are limited to the equivalent of 63 such offers. FCS teams are allowed to add five more new players than FBS teams each year, to encourage development of younger players at the intermediate level. But teams in I-AA are limited to 95 players per team, compared to 105 for I-A teams.
FCS operates what might be the most perfect football playoff in the world – a 24-team, single-elimination tournament that routinely produces a universally-recognized national champion. Each of the eleven conferences declare a champion, and that team earns an automatic bid. The other thirteen slots are given to "at-large" teams, and teams are seeded based on final position. Only teams with seven or more wins are eligible for any at-large spot.
This year, 125 teams are competing at the FCS level. That number is a bit lower than in recent years, thanks to a trend at smaller schools towards participation at the FBS level.
North Dakota State
Nicknamed "World" by players at MVSU, because there wasn't a ball in the world he couldn't catch. Caught 27 touchdown passes in 1984, an NCAA record that stands today across all divisions.
McNair turned down an offer to play backup at Florida in favor of a spotlight role at Alcorn State. In his senior year, he racked up exactly 6,000 yards of total offense and 53 total touchdowns.
Romo won the Walter Payton Award as a senior, throwing for more than 3,400 yards and 34 touchdowns.
Rushed for 65 touchdowns during his college career, averaging 6.1 yards per carry.
Think of Division II as the intermediate level of college athletics. D-II is a decent alternative to the highly-competitive Division I sports programs that D-II athletes couldn't or didn't want to attend. Athletic scholarships are available to D-II students, unlike at the D-III programs discussed below.
Originally, D-II and D-III programs were lumped together as the NCAA College Division, to differentiate it from the NCAA University Division where the titans of sports competed. No teams in the College Division were giving scholarships as recently as four decades ago, before the formalization of traditions that separated schools by size and ability to support an athletic program.
Division II is a big enough draw that the football championship game gets the full ESPN treatment. CBS has a long-term contract to broadcast the D-II men's basketball tournament, with the women's roundball tournament aired on ESPN2. You'll even see some D-II football and basketball games on the air during the week, mostly on Thursday nights. But D-II (and D-III) games don't count towards bowl eligibility – so few high-profile D-I teams will allow a D-II or D-III team to take a shot at them.
320 schools are currently part of NCAA's Division II. Generally, these are a mix of small public schools and medium-sized to large private and religious schools. Half of Division-II schools are home to fewer than 2,500 students. In fact, just six D-II schools are home to more than 15,000 students. D-II is also home to the only non-US school in all of NCAA sports - Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.
NW Missouri State
Named an Offensive All-American for his senior year, as a return specialist and defensive back.
Won back-to-back D-II national championships, and was named Defensive Back of the Year in his senior season.
Gave up a D-I track scholarship to play wide receiver and return punts at tiny Lane College. Named three-time All-Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference player.
Won two NCAA Division II titles at South Dakota after giving up on an appointment to West Point. Still stands as SDSU's all-time leading scorer, with 185 total career points.
Awarded All-Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference honors in each of his three varsity seasons, while earning Division II "Little All-American" selections in his junior and senior seasons.
Division III is the lowest of the NCAA's football divisions. This group of colleges and universities either cannot afford to or choose not to offer scholarships to student-athletes. More schools participate in Division III athletics than any other division. This year, for example, the NCAA announced its largest participation in D-III athletics ever, with 450 member schools. D-III football teams are broken up into forty- three conferences – a massive number, compared to the eleven at the D-I FBS level. The vast majority of these are tiny private schools – just fifteen percent of the schools in D-III are considered state schools.
It's tougher than you might think to participate in athletics at this level – to earn D-III designation, schools have to sponsor five sports for both men and women, and two of those sports must be team sports. Each team has to participate in a minimum number of tournaments. Athletes may not redshirt as freshmen, and above all, students can receive no compensation whatsoever in exchange for their play.
The NCAA runs a tight ship in regards to the ban on money in D-III - in 2005, MacMurray College was stripped of all rights to participate in NCAA sports (the dreaded NCAA "death penalty") after it was proven that their men's tennis program gave education grants to players solely in exchange for participation in NCAA D-III events.
UW Stevens Point
Led Mount Union to two consecutive D-III National Championships, barely losing out on a three-peat.
Became the first D-III player to ever appear in the Senior Bowl.
D-III Offensive Player of the Year two years in a row; played QB, WR, and punt-returner his sophomore season.
College Football Rankings
College football rankings have been in use since 1934, when the AP Poll was founded to establish a national hierarchy of football talent. After the AP Poll, regional and national polls started popping up, ranking college football teams throughout the season based on factors like strength of schedule and strength of conference.
These ranking systems are necessary for two reasons – first, D-IA college football is played across eleven conferences in all fifty states. The field of teams in FBS is so large, it's difficult for fans to compare and contrast them all. These polls also served to compare the talent level and the difficulty of schedule for every college football team.
These days, dozens of such rankings exist, thousands more if you count amateur ranking systems. But for the most part, college football fans (and the NCAA itself) have been concerned only with three polls. Below is a brief description of each of the major college football polls in use today.
AP Top 25
Today's Associated Press Top 25 poll is made up of a list of the top 25 NCAA Division I programs in football and men's and women's basketball. These rankings are a compilation of the rankings provided to AP by 65 sportswriters and sports broadcasters from all over the country. Teams are granted points – each first place vote earns a team 25 points, while second-place votes count for 24 points, and so on down to a single point handed out for each twenty-fifth place vote. These ballots are made public.
The AP Poll is no longer a significant part of the postseason process, having been abandoned by the BCS in the 2000s. The new College Football Playoff doesn't consider the AP Poll (or any other poll) when making postseason selections.
Known these days as the Amway Coaches Poll, this ranking system was developed for the 1950-1951 season. The poll is put together today the same way it has been for nearly seven decades. 62 head coaches make up the Amway Coaches Poll panel, and their rankings are compiled to create a weekly top-25 ranking of FBS football programs.
The Coaches Poll has been controversial – charges made over the years include that coaches are biased toward their own programs and conferences, that coaches do not fill out the ballots themselves, and other exchanges typical of this kind of arrangement.
College Football Playoff Committee Rankings
Not so much a poll, the CFP committee rankings determine which four teams get into college football's annual postseason. Technically, this is the only ranking that matters – the AP and Coaches polls are no longer part of any consideration for postseason appearance.
Before the end of the season, the CFP meets (beginning at week 8) to rank the nation's top-25 teams. At season's end, they'll pick four teams for the playoff, seed the teams, and select the matchups for the other four (non-playoff) bowl games.
How do committee members make their decision? A team's record relative to its strength of schedule is "the most pertinent consideration," according to interviews with committee members. Other factors that improve a team's chances of appearing in the playoff – winning a conference title, being undefeated, and having good head-to-head results against other teams in the playoff. Polls have no formal role in the decision-making, nor do individual or team statistics.
Major College Football Bowl Games
Here's information on the six bowl games currently part of the College Football Playoff system. Thirty-four other bowl games are played each postseason, and they're an important part of the heritage of NCAA football as well. But these six games represent the history of college football itself, dating back more than a century, featuring some of the all-time classic NCAA football contests ever played.
- Located: Pasadena, CA
- Established: 1902, every year since 1916
The Rose Bowl is "The Granddaddy of Them All," the oldest bowl game and the one with the most storied tradition. This game was twice the host of the BCS National Championship game, and is now a respected part of the six-game cycle of College Football Playoff bowl games.
- Located: Miami Gardens, FL
- Established: 1935
The 2000 and 2004 BCS National Championship Games were hosted by the Orange Bowl, and Florida's oldest bowl game is slated to host title games as part of the CFP system for years to come. The Orange Bowl tends to involve the #1 ACC team, unless that team is involved in the National Championship game.
- Located: New Orleans, LA
- Established: 1935
For fifty years straight, at least one SEC team competed in the Sugar Bowl. Thanks to conference re-alignments and changes to the college football postseason, this is no longer the case. One of the oldest bowl games in the country, the Sugar Bowl's value to NCAA football history was recognized when the game became part of the CFP system from its announcement.
- Located: Dallas, TX
- Established: 1937
Ironically, the Cotton Bowl is no longer played in its namesake building. It is, however, still a huge part of the college football postseason, hosting future CFP championship games and considered a top-tier bowl game. Once a heralded matchup between the best of the Big 12 and the SEC, the Cotton Bowl is just as likely to involve a bowl-buster team these days as a stalwart SEC powerhouse, thanks to conference re-alignments and changes to the postseason.
- Located: Atlanta, GA
- Established: 1968
The brand-new Mercedes-Benz stadium will play host to the Peach Bowl starting in the 2016 postseason, and the Peach Bowl will host semifinal games in 2016, 2019, 2022, and 2025. Atlanta's sports fans are clearly hungry for live football in January – the Peach Bowl has been completely sold out since 1999, a record for NCAA bowl games.
- Located: Glendale, AZ
- Established: 1971
Originally founded to give the lowly Western Athletic Conference a decent bowl game to compete in each year, the Fiesta Bowl is a typical American success story. The game began to regularly feature high-quality matchups in the 70s and 80s. Eventually, league organizers were forced to move the game to New Year's Day, with the other major bowls, simply because the teams involved were both popular and hugely-successful.
The College Football Playoff
By many measures (and in the opinion of many pundits), the Bowl Championship Series was a failure. Put in place in 1998, the BCS was supposed to end all controversies and establish a Division I champion that everyone would recognize. Its blend of algorithms, computer rankings, and polls was a very late-90s approach to the problem, substituting technology where human input would have been just as good.
How did the BCS fail? Here's a list of teams who finished the season undefeated but were left out of any chance at a national championship:
The Green Wave turned in a flawless 12-0 performance in 1998, but were completely left out of the BCS picture because of strength of schedule issues. Tulane didn't play a single ranked team all year; in contrast, the other undefeated team from 1998, Tennessee, played six teams ranked in the top 20.
Led by future NFL QB Chad Pennington, the Thundering Herd turned in a perfect 13-0 record in 1999, but were only ever ranked as high as #10. A signature win against BYU in the Motor City Bowl was the most the BCS granted Marshall. Due to conference rules and restrictions, Marshall would have been left out of the bowl season entirely had they not won their conference championship, despite their #11 ranking.
Utah's 2004 campaign marked the first time a non-BCS conference school was invited to play in a BCS bowl game. The Utes were coached by future national champion Urban Meyer, who was in just his second year as a head coach. Utah's perfect season was enough to earn them a spot in the Fiesta Bowl, but not a shot at the national championship. The 2008 edition of the Utes beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and ended the season as the league's only undefeated team. Florida finished ahead of Utah in the BCS rankings, so Utah was denied even a share of the national title.
Boise State has been burned by the BCS too many times to recount here. Between 2004 and 2010, Boise State turned in four undefeated seasons, but was not once given a shot at a national title. The 2009 season was particularly egregious, since they became just the second team in FBS history to finish a season 14-0, after Ohio State in 2002, but weren't considered even shareholders of the national title.
Hawai'i's first undefeated season in school history ended not with a trip to the National Championship but an offer to play in the Sugar Bowl. While the Warriors were blown out in the Sugar Bowl by Georgia, some thought they should have had a shot at playing on a larger stage. The fact that two of their wins came against FCS teams probably had something to do with their not being selected for a more prestigious BCS bowl game.
TCU was burned twice by the BCS, but turned in a perfect 2010 season with two major statement wins and still wasn't granted a shot at the national championship. The Horned Frogs would finish the year winning the Rose Bowl, turning in a 13-0 record, and ranked #2. The selection of UT over TCU was a clear case of BCS big-conference bias. TCU's statement wins were far more impressive than Texas', and Texas' overall strength of schedule was just a touch lower overall. This one really mystified fans, and probably led in some small way to big changes in the college playoff system.
The BCS' inability to deal with successful teams outside of the automatic-qualifying conferences was just the tip of the iceberg. Complaints about bowl eligibility rules were at times more common than traditional coverage, as the press caught on to growing fan tensions.
Because the BCS failed to pit the nation's two best teams against one another to produce a universal champion, it was finally replaced in 2014 with the College Football Playoff, also known as the CFP.
The main purpose of the CFP is to create a system in which the country's two top teams compete in a final title game. That title game's champion would thus be universally-recognized as the best team in the land. A secondary purpose, one that's just as important in the eyes of many fans and pundits, is to give non-major conference teams a better shot at playing in a valuable postseason game.
The 2014 NCAA football season was the first to use a traditional playoff system. By "traditional playoff system" we mean a series of games involving the seeding of teams and single-elimination results. So how does it work?
The CFP bases its rankings on the opinions of a selection committee. This committee ranks teams throughout the season, starting after Week 8. Based on these rankings, the nation's top four teams, as selected by that committee, compete in two semifinal games. The winners of those two games compete against one another for the title of D-I NCAA football champion.
The sports' traditional bowl games will continue; in fact, six existing bowl games will act as hosts on a rotating basis for the new CFP end-of-season contests. The games will be divided up among the Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Cotton Bowl, and Peach Bowl contests. As for the annual championship game, its location is chosen after a bidding system. The first site for the NCAA College Football Playoff is AT&T Stadium in Dallas, home of the Cowboys.
The CFP may be in the middle of its first go-round, but bettors and fans of college football should get used to it. NCAA football's champion will be determined by the playoff until at least the 2025 season, thanks to existing bylaws and broadcast contracts. Understanding how the CFP works and how to bet on it is important, especially at the beginning of its existence.
List of NCAA Football Champions
This list dates back to 1950 – not because college football wasn't played before then, but because no multiple-poll system existed before that year. The Coaches Poll (United Press International, or UPI Poll) premiered in 1950, and by comparing the AP UPI Polls, a national champion could be named. In many of these years, a consensus pick is used, since multiple polls existed that declared multiple national champions. In other years, you'll find multiple teams listed. Because of a lack of national coherence around polling systems in the early decades of D-I competition, it was impossible to establish a single champion.
NCAA Power 5 Conference Team Guide
We've restricted the guide to college football teams below to only those teams in one of the so-called Power 5 conferences. We don't do this arbitrarily. The Power 5 is a relatively-new phenomenon, replacing the old "automatic qualifying conferences" system used during the BCS era that led to so much controversy. The new College Football Playoff actually makes it easier for teams outside the Power 5 to get a crack at a playoff appearance. Under the current rules, both TCU and Boise State would have been playoff contenders in the years they were overlooked by BCS computers.
In our defense, no team outside the Power 5 finished the 2014 season ranked higher than twentieth in any national ranking, and that team (Boise State) is currently being courted by two Power 5 conferences. We think focusing on teams in the Power 5 makes sense for people not very familiar with the entire pool of 125 teams playing D1 NCAA football.
The 63 teams listed below represent the best of the best in modern college football.
ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference)
The Atlantic Coast Conference sponsors athletic competition in twenty-five different sports. Founded in 1953, the ACC has changed its makeup by adding new schools six times, most recently in 2013. Sixteen ACC teams have won whole or partial football championships over the course of the conference's lifespan. Here is a quick look at every team currently playing football in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Boston College claims one national title, for the 1940 season. Boston College has produced one Heisman winner, Doug Flutie in 1984. They also claim a single conference championship in 2004 in the Big East the year before moving to the ACC. New coach Steve Addazio has led the Eagles to back-to-back postseason appearances.
Clemson has one national title to its name, for the 1981 season. Though John Heisman himself coached at Clemson in the early 20th century, no Tigers player has yet to win the award. Clemson has won the ACC championship 14 times, the most of any school in the conference. The Clemson Tigers have recorded four straight ten-win seasons, and are enjoying a renaissance thanks to the leadership of new head coach Dabo Swinney.
Duke is best-known as a basketball school, thanks to the school's many national titles and postseason appearances on the basketball court. Before the 1960s, Duke was one of the powerhouse football teams in the country, winning ten conference titles and an unofficial national championship in football in 1938. New head coach David Cutcliffe has the Blue Devils in the news again in football, with two postseason appearances in his first three seasons.
Florida State is the dominant football program in the ACC. Florida State can claim three legitimate outright national championships, along with a record eighteen conference titles and six additional divisional titles. Florida State competed in the first-ever College Football Playoff in 2014. Since the start of the program in 1947, the 'Noles have recorded three undefeated seasons. The school ended the season ranked in the top 5 of the AP Poll for a dizzying 14 straight seasons, between 1987 and 2000.
The Georgia Tech Ramblin' Wreck has fielded a football team every year since 1892, winning four national titles and sixteen conference championships along the way. Though no Yellow Jackets player has ever won the Heisman trophy, Georgia Tech has been home to 21 All-Americans, more than any other ACC school besides Florida State.
The most recent addition to the ACC, having joined in 2014, Louisville is another Atlantic Coast-area school with a rich basketball tradition that mostly overshadows the school's football program. The modern team's high point was the 2013 Sugar Bowl, when then-#22 Louisville shocked the world and beat a much-lauded Florida team by ten points.
Miami's football program struggled for the first five decades of its life, before finally finding a rhythm in the 80s and 90s. The Hurricanes have won five national championships since 1983, most recently in 2001. The most famous Miami Hurricanes players are the team's two Heisman winners – Gino Torretta and Vinny Testaverde.
The ACC is full of teams that have shown much more promise in basketball. NC State is one of those teams. Still, since joining the ACC in the 50s, the Wolfpack has won seven conference championships and compiled a 15-12 record in bowl games.
After joining the ACC in 1953, North Carolina enjoyed a couple of decades of football prosperity, winning five conference titles, the most recent in 1980. However, since 1980, the team has struggled, winning just fifty games in the first decade of the 2000s.
One of the original powerhouses of college football, Pittsburgh has been fielding a football team since 1890. Pitt won or shared seventeen national titles in its first nine decades, but a twenty year drought in the 80s and 90s all but shut down the program. A BCS bowl bid in 2004 is the high water mark of Pitt football over the past 34-plus years.
Syracuse has only played in the ACC since 2013, having spent five decades as part of the Big East conference. Though Syracuse was dominant in the Big East, even claiming a national championship in the 1950s, they have yet to finish better than third in the ACC. The Syracuse Orange have no Heisman Trophy winners in their history.
The oldest football team in the ACC, Virginia has participated in men's football since 1888, in the days before pads, helmets, uniforms, or an oval-shaped ball. For all of Virginia's hype, the school has seen limited success in NCAA football. They've never had a national title or a claim to one, and they've only been ACC champions twice, most recently in 1995. The Cavaliers haven't won a bowl game in eleven years.
Virginia Tech moved to the ACC in 2004, after decades of traditional dominance in the Big East. Virginia Tech played for a national title just once, in 1999, losing to Florida State. The Hokies are in the middle of a 21-year bowl game streak, going 9-12 during that time. Virginia Tech has no Heisman Trophy winners, though several players have been promising candidates for the award in recent years.
Little Wake Forest is the smallest school in the Power 5 conferences, and the sixth-smallest in all of the FBS. The school struggled for most of the 20th century in football, with a winning percentage of just about 40% all time. However, they've been competitive since the year 2000, winning the ACC outright in the year 2006 and playing in its first BCS bowl game. The Demon Deacons have been to more bowl games since the year 2000 than they had been to in the first six decades of their existence.
Big Ten Conference
Founded in 1895, the Big Ten conference is the oldest in all of NCAA sports. You'll notice that the Big Ten is actually home to thirteen schools – that's what happens when conferences constantly realign. Made up mainly of state schools from New Jersey to Nebraska, the B1G (as the conference styles itself now) is both a traditional and contemporary football powerhouse. Below is a guide to each of the schools that are currently members of the B1G conference – mainly large public research universities in the American heartland.
Illinois has a rich tradition in college football, fielding a team every year since 1900, even during World War II, when many traditional football powerhouses suspended play. Illinois claims five national titles, all of which came before 1951. In the years since, the Illini have faded considerably. They've won the B1G title just four times since the 50s, winning the accompanying post-season bowl game just once during that time.
Indiana is the least-respected football program in the B1G. The Hoosiers have the worst overall winning percentage in the conference, hovering around 42% for the past couple of decades. Though Indiana did win the B1G title twice, in 1945 and 1967, they've never been a contender for a national title, and have only played in one bowl game over the past twenty-two years. The Hoosiers haven't won a bowl game since the 1991 Copper Bowl, which is the longest win drought for any program in the Power 5.
Iowa is an original member of the Big Ten, participating in football every year since 1900 except for during war time. Iowa claims part of the National Championship of 1958, and they had an outright Heisman winner in 1938 in star halfback Nile Kinnick. Iowa won two back-to-back shared conference titles in the 2000s under Coach Kirk Ferentz, one of the longest-tenured coaches in the Power 5. Iowa hasn't won a bowl game since the 2010 Insight Bowl.
Maryland was a founding member of the ACC, a stalwart giant of ACC athletics for five decades. They joined the B1G in 2014 after a protracted legal battle with ACC officials. The Terrapins have never been a football powerhouse, claiming a share of a disputed 1953 title. Maryland's most-recent successful team was the 2002 edition, which made it to the Orange Bowl only to lose to an underrated Florida squad.
The premier team of the B1G conference, Michigan can claim all or a share of eleven national titles and forty-two conference championships. The Wolverines' 72.9% winning percentage is also the best in the conference, slightly better than chief rival Ohio State. Three Michigan players have won the Heisman Trophy, including a rare defensive Heisman win for FS Charles Woodson. Michigan's rivalry with Ohio State is one of the most celebrated in American sports.
After joining the B1G in 1950, Michigan State started a healthy rivalry with conference-dominator Michigan. It's an in-state rivalry that's anything but typical. Six-time national champion Michigan State would be the best team in most other conferences, but not in the B1G, where the top two teams have twenty between them. Though Michigan leads the head-to-head series 68-35, it's the Spartans who've had the upper hand lately, winning three straight contests going back to 2013.
The Golden Gophers are the third most successful team in the B1G, after Michigan and Ohio State. They can boast total or partial ownership of seven national titles and eighteen Big Ten championships. Unfortunately, all that success occurred in the years before 1970, in the pre-statistics era of the NCAA. Minnesota has improved their program since the 80s, when the team missed the postseason for twenty straight seasons.
Nebraska is a classic football powerhouse – successful in the sport's early days and successful in the modern era as well. No other Power 5 team has as many wins against P5 opponents as Nebraska, and has the fourth most outright victories of all time. Nebraska won all or part of fourteen national titles, including three in the 1990s. Nebraska's three Heisman Trophy winners have all been QBs, earning the school the nickname "QB University."
Ask anyone who the best team in the B1G is and you're likely to hear either "Michigan" or "Ohio State." Though Michigan has a slightly better winning percentage and more national accolades, Ohio State has been the more successful team in recent years, winning seven conference championships and a national title over the past thirteen years.
With seven national titles and three Big Ten championships to their credit, Penn State is one of the most storied and consistently successful teams in NCAA football. Coached for forty-five years by Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lions have produced seven undefeated "perfect" seasons since their inception in 1887.
Purdue's eight B1G conference championships puts the school in the same company as Michigan State. Though Purdue has not been a modern force in college football, the team was a traditional giant. Purdue has been to (and won) more bowl games in the 2000s than the team played in for the previous thirty years.
One of just two Big Ten teams that's never won a conference title, Rutgers is a perennial also-ran in college football. Rutgers joined the Big Ten in 2014, on the strength of a 2012 campaign that ended in a Big East conference championship, the team's high-water mark in the past five decades of competition. It's a shame that Rutgers is struggling so hard, considering the campus is the birthplace of college football.
Wisconsin has had little success outside their conference, though fourteen B1G conference titles is nothing to sneer at. The Badgers have no national titles, and struggle historically in postseason play, with a 12-14 overall bowl game record. Wisconsin is streaking in recent years, having claimed the Big Ten title for three seasons in a row between 2010 and 2012.
Big 12 Conference
The Big 12 is by far the youngest major sports conference. Notice that the Big 12 is actually only home to 10 teams – the kind of thing that happens often in modern college football, thanks to constant conference shuffling. The ten teams that currently make up the Big 12 are all located in Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, or West Virginia. The Big 12, similar to the B1G, is home mainly to flagship state public schools, though two private religious schools are also currently members. Though the Big 12 has only been around for twenty years, the conference is already home to three national champions. The Big 12 is unique in the modern game, because all but two of the teams are original members. Recent reshuffling removed a couple of teams and added two new faces. Below is a guide to each of the conference's ten teams.
Baylor football has gone through three distinct eras. Early on, the Bears were a dominant force, winning four conference titles between the years 1915 and 1924. Then, a long period of failure. Baylor's football team wouldn't win another Big 12 title until 1974, a half-century drought that is one of the longest in FBS history. Back-to-back conference championships in 2013 and 2014, and the awarding of a Heisman Trophy to Robert Griffin III, announced the resurgence of Baylor football.
Iowa State is the least-successful team in the Big 12, never even competing for a share of the conference title, and posting a postseason record of 3-9. Iowa State didn't participate in a bowl game between 1978 and 2000, and didn't win a single postseason game in its first 100 or so years of participation in NCAA football.
The Jayhawks won five conference titles in the first half-century of NCAA D-I football play. The team hasn't claimed a championship since 1968. Kansas and their in-state rival Kansas State form one of the most intense rivalries in the Big 12 Conference. The Jayhawks have had little long-term success of late, finishing the season ranked in the top ten just once in the past two decades.
The Wildcats have won the conference title six times, including twice since the year 2000. Kansas State was traditionally the whipping boy of in-state rival Kansas, though the Wildcats have won the rivalry game for six years running.
Oklahoma is one of the most successful football programs since World War II, winning more games since 1945 than any other FBS team, with a higher winning percentage than any NCAA football team in any division. OU's seventeen national titles, forty-four conference championships, and half-dozen Heisman Trophy winners are a ridiculous testimony to the Sooners' dominance. Oklahoma's chief rival is in-state in-conference opponent Oklahoma State. As a further testament of OU's dominance, they lead their in-state rivalry series 84-18.
Speaking of the Cowboys, let's not overlook the performance of the little team from Stillwater. Their 2011 campaign ended in a Big 12 conference title, and a big overtime win against Stanford in the BCS Orange Bowl. OSU is in the middle of a gentle renaissance – the Cowboys have ended the season ranked in the top 25 every year since 2008.
TCU and West Virginia joined the Big 12 in 2012, after the exodus of Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri, and Texas A&M. The Horned Frogs own two national titles from the 1930s, and won their conference championship 18 times while playing in the non-Power 5 MWAC, C-USA, WAC, and SWC conferences. TCU was named co-champion of their first season in the Big 12, which is a remarkable feat considering it was also their first year in a power conference.
Texas football is legendary. Nearly 200 All-American players. Three national championships between 1957 and 1976. Valued at more than $80 million, the most lucrative team in all of college sports. The Longhorns have the second-most wins in NCAA Division I FBS history. They've played in 53 bowl games, recorded 23 seasons with 10 or more wins, turned in nine perfect seasons overall, and they've been ranked in the top twenty-five at the end of 66 out of the last 76 seasons. Their dominance in the Big 12 can't be overrated.
The Red Raiders are Texas "other-other" team. Overshadowed by powerhouse teams like Texas A&M and the University of Texas, Tech has long gotten the short end of the recruiting stick. Even so, the team has claimed eleven conference titles, most recently in 1994. Texas Tech is the only Big 12 team to qualify for the postseason every year since the conference's inception.
West Virginia joined the Big 12 in 2012, along with TCU. WVU is the winningest team to have never claimed a national title, though they won the Big East conference seven times between 1993 and 2001. The Mountaineers have struggled to compete at the Big 12 level since joining, turning in their first losing season in decades, and losing five of their final six games in 2014, missing out on bowl eligibility entirely.
Currently the only conference whose name matches its number of members, the Pac-12 is made up of twelve schools from Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. Called "the conference of champions," the Pac-12 has more national championships to its credit than any other conference. Nine national champion football teams have come out of the Pac-12. Here's a quick rundown on each of the conference's dozen teams. Kudos to the Pac-12 for actually being home to 12 teams.
Arizona is not primarily a football school, performing better in national basketball and baseball competitions than on the gridiron. That said, the Wildcats have won six conference titles, including a 1993 campaign that saw the Wildcats end the season ranked in the top ten for the first and last time (so far) in history.
Arizona State is a rarity – the smaller and less-experienced but more successful cousin of a state school. In most states, the major university is also the dominant football team. Not so in Arizona, where the Sun Devils can lay claim to an unofficial national title and eighteen conference championships.
Once a dominant force in college football, the Cal Golden Bears haven't had much success in the modern era. California won five titles between 1920 and 1937, but didn't win a postseason game again until 1990, a drought of more than fifty years. With just two conference titles to their credit since 1970, the Golden Bears are a shell of their former powerhouse status.
Little-known Colorado is in the top 25 of total wins for all FBS teams. Colorado won a national title in 1990, and has the odd distinction of being the team with the most successful fourth-down conversions. The school's success dropped off entirely after the 1990 title, winning the Big 12 just once more before leaving that conference for the Pac-12.
Oregon can claim twelve conference titles and national runner-up status for two different seasons. The Ducks have yet to win the national championship, though both the 2010 and 2014 edition of the team earned second-place status. Oregon's mascot was the Webfoots for the first seventy years of the program's existence – the switch to Ducks was only made in the 1960s.
The Beavers are winners of five conference titles, most recently in the year 2000. Oregon State won their only shot at a BCS bowl game, in the 2000 Fiesta Bowl, and finished ranked third in the nation. Oregon State hasn't had the attention or the national success that their in-state rival Oregon has had in recent years, though they've won seven of their last ten postseason games.
Winner of two disputed national titles, Stanford is a long-time participant in college football that's had trouble in modern times. The 1980s were particularly tough on Stanford, when NCAA sanctions meant the team played in just one bowl game between 1978 and 1990.
UCLA football has gone through several successful periods. The Bruins are the only team to have been ranked in the AP's top ten at least once in every decade since the poll started in the 1930s. In the 1950s, the team won their only national title in 1954, along with three conference titles and an overall record of 66–19. Recently, UCLA is experiencing limited success on a regular basis again – winning the Pacific-12 South two years in a row, competing for the conference title in both 2011 and 2012.
The Trojans are the definition of the phrase "football powerhouse," claiming eleven legitimate national championships since the team's founding in 1898. More Trojans have been drafted than from any other team - 493 as of the 2015 season. More players in the Hall of Fame graduated from USC than any other school. USC has won their conference championship 38 times, producing five Heisman Trophy winners along the way.
Utah is a conference-hopping team, having played in five different conferences in the last century. The Utes have put together 28 conference titles during that time, so it's clear that they're dominant no matter what conference they're in. Utah has an amazing record in the postseason, winning fourteen of their eighteen bowl games.
Five national titles and fifteen conference titles gives Washington serious bragging rights among their Pac-12 competitors. The Huskies were particularly dangerous during the 1990s, claiming two national titles and six conference championships.
The Cougars have won the Pac-12 conference just twice in the modern era, most recently in 2002, when the team finished in the top 10 of the AP Poll for the first time in fifty years. The Cougars' in-state rival, Washington, owns their season series 69-32, though Washington State won the game six years in a row in the early 2000s.
Fourteen schools are currently members of the Southeastern Conference. Considered the premier football conference in modern times, the SEC has won eight of the last twelve National Championships. Below you'll find a quick guide to each of the SEC's fourteen member schools, which are concentrated in ten states in the American southeast.
The winningest team in SEC history is in the middle of a streak of seven double-digit win seasons under Coach Nick Saban. During that time, they've won three national titles, three conference titles, and produced two Heisman Trophy winners. Let's not even talk about 'Bama's historical dominance – they've won the SEC title more than twice as much as second-place Tennessee.
The Razorbacks have never won the SEC (or any other conference) title, though they lay claim to a national title in 1964. The team's 0-3 performance in SEC championship games is the worst in the conference and a black eye on an otherwise respectable college football program.
Auburn is the other school in Alabama, winners of two national titles (most recently in 2010), and eight SEC championships. Auburn has produced twelve perfect seasons, three Heisman Trophy winners, and (recently) a perennial playoff contender team with lightning-fast offense.
Home to eight SEC titles, three national championships (including two in the 2000s), and three Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks, Florida is a powerhouse in the SEC, with 700 wins and an overall winning percentage in the 95th percentile of all FBS teams. The team's rivalry with Florida State represents one of the most heated and powerful rivalries in college sports with a dozen official and unofficial national titles between the two teams.
The Bulldogs are a perennial playoff contender, a force in the football-rich SEC, and holders of six claimed and unclaimed national titles. The Bulldogs have put up twelve SEC titles to go with those national championship runs, including two perfect seasons. Two Heisman Trophy winners played at Georgia. The Bulldogs are struggling in the postseason of late, winning just two of their last five bowl games.
Kentucky is consistently one of the least-successful football programs in the SEC, being a basketball-centric school with a history of success in the NCAA basketball tournament. Kentucky is one of just two teams in the SEC with an overall losing record, and the Wildcats have laid claim to the SEC title just twice, once under the tutelage of the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant.
LSU is a triple National Championship winner, bringing home the title in 1958, 2003, and 2007. The Tigers were the first team in the BCS era to win multiple national titles, though they've not been invited to the College Football Playoff since its inception a couple of seasons ago. LSU is one of the most-televised college football teams, with multiple prime time appearances every year for the past decade.
Mississippi State is widely-acknowledged as the chief resident of the SEC doghouse. The Bulldogs won the SEC title in 1941, and have yet to even return to the championship game. Mississippi State has benefited from increased competition in the SEC in recent years, winning every bowl game they've been invited to since 1999.
Missouri moved to the SEC from the Big 12, after a dispute over proposed TV deals on the part of UT and Texas A&M. Missouri won fifteen conference titles in the Big 12, but has yet to do much damage in the SEC. An unclaimed national title from 2007 was the result of a surprising bowl game blowout of a solid Arkansas team, and a year in which the BCS failed to produce a universal champion.
Though the Rebels were very successful in the mid-20th century, they haven't won an SEC title or competed for a national championship since 1963. Ole Miss performs well under postseason pressure, winning ten of their last twelve bowl games.
South Carolina joined the SEC in 1991 after a very successful decade as an FBS independent team. Since joining a major conference, South Carolina has struggled to make noise on the national stage. They won a divisional title in 2010, but failed to convert that into larger-scale success.
Tennessee is not a school you think of when the word "powerhouse" comes up in conversation, unless you're talking about women's basketball. Still, Tennessee is the second-most successful team in the SEC, winning six official national championships and thirteen SEC titles. The Volunteers are struggling – they haven't competed for a conference title since 1998.
A recent convert to the SEC faith, the Aggies bailed on the Big 12 as part of a large legal dispute over television rights. The Aggies are three-time national champions, and claimed the Big SWC title a record seventeen times. Time will tell if the Aggies can turn around their not-so-great luck in the SEC and win a title.
Though Vanderbilt's record is a bit better than Mississippi State, they have fewer accolades to claim than even that also-ran program. The Commodores have never won or even competed for a conference championship. Between 1983 and 2008, Vanderbilt never won more than five games and didn't appear in a single bowl game.
Classic College Football Games
What makes a college football game a classic? The same thing that elevates any sports contest – dramatic tension, super-human performances, and memorable moments. The four games below are our collective choice for the greatest college football games ever played. We wanted to represent every major age of college football with our selections, but we weren't able to. Remember, legitimate statistics weren't kept in the NCAA until 1970. So here are the four greatest games from college football's modern era.
One of the great rivalries in sports history was the one between Texas and Arkansas when they played together in the Southwest Conference. This game is one of many "Game of the Century" nominees involving Texas, a powerful force through the history of college football. In this game, Arkansas had a commanding 14-0 lead going into the fourth quarter. After a late Texas TD and two-point conversion, the score was 14-8 with Arkansas on top. On fourth down, with fewer than five minutes remaining, Texas' Darrel K. Royal went for it, throwing a long bomb of a pass that set up the game-winning score on the ground.
Known as Flutie's miracle, a single play elevated this game from good to great. In fact this 80s classic led to the invention of the term "Heisman moment." Boston College's stellar quarterback Doug Flutie, who would go on to win that year's Heisman, threw an improbable Hail Mary against Miami in a last-ditch attempt to win from behind. With just six seconds on the clock, Flutie scrambled deep in the pocket, launched the ball seemingly without looking at his target, and 64 yards later it was in the hands of receiver Gerard Phelan.
This game, the 2005-2006 National Championship, was supposed to end very differently. USC was so dominant at this point in history, it was common for three USC players to be in the running for the Heisman at some point every season. The Trojans were on a 34-game winning streak and poised to take home the first three-peat of college football titles in four decades. Texas' QB Vince Young, miffed about being passed over again for the Heisman, turned in 467 yard of total offense, and ran in the game-winning TD on a long fourth down with nineteen seconds left on the clock. Considered the greatest college football game of all time by plenty of fans and pundits alike.
In the first year of the College Football Playoff, Baylor and TCU both got the short end of the stick from the playoff committee, most likely as a result of this shootout. Down 58-37 with less than twelve minutes to play, Baylor's high-powered offense would score 21 unanswered points in less than seven minutes to tie things up. As time expired, Baylor lined up on and nailed a 28-yard field goal for the come-from-behind win. Baylor and TCU were eventually named co-champions of the Big 12, but because of the high quality of competition in the conference that year, neither team was invited to the playoffs.