Rating College Football’s Bests: Which school has the richest tradition?

If you want to spark a debate among friends, or really piss off a sensitive message board poster, talking about a program’s tradition, or lack thereof, is one of the best ways to do it.

With that in mind, what better way to kick off our ‘bests’ series than by taking a look at who the most storied programs are. And when we think of ‘storied,’ we (most of us, at least) think of sustained success, championships, and how recognizable the program is, from iconic coaches and players to the stadium.

In the ‘what have you done for me lately?’ world that we live in, the accomplishments of some certainly carry more weight than others with many fans, so as tempted as I was to include Yale, Princeton, Harvard, or even Army, Minnesota, or Michigan State, those missed the cut.


The program that the Bear built has fallen out of the national spotlight over the last several years thanks to a few questionable coaching hires and the SEC being a lot deeper than it was back when the man in the houndstooth hat roamed the sidelines in Tuscaloosa. But, the Tide have enough success to last a few lifetimes, with their 12 national championships, 25 outright or shared conference titles (21 in the current SEC), 56 bowl appearances (most all-time), 32 bowl wins (most all-time), and 92 First-Team All-Americans. The only thing that Alabama is lacking is a Heisman Trophy winner, but that’s a minute blemish on a laundry list of accomplishments before and after Bear Bryant.


Nearly all of Florida’s success has happened over the last 50 years, or more notably, the last few decades, but they’ve built up a nice resume over that time period. The Gators have won two national championships, produced three Heisman Trophy winners, and made 35 postseason appearances. We think the most about what they’ve done since the start of the Steve Spurrier era, but they had a lot of success before that, back to when the Ol’ Ball Coach was a Heisman Trophy-winning QB in the 60s.

Florida State

FSU got a little later jump on their history than most of the rest of the programs on this list, seeing as how they were a women’s college until 1947, and though there were some good years pre-1976, the Seminoles weren’t really on the map until Bobby Bowden arrived to save the day. The current decade has seen a lot of frustration of FSU fans, but two national championships, two Heisman Trophy winners, a run of 14 straight 10-win seasons and top-five finishes from 1987-2000, and 26 straight bowl appearances (18-7-1 record) is a nice resume for a late starter.


A commenter brought it to my attention that I’d left out the Georgia Bulldogs, which given my SEC roots, I feel pretty bad about. Georgia has bagged a couple of consensus national titles (1942 and 1980), produced two Heisman Trophy winners in Frank Sinkwich and Herschel Walker, won 12 SEC championships, played in 43 bowl games (won 24), and has produced quite a few All-Americans and College Football Hall of Fame inductees. So, they definitely have a place in this list, without a doubt. Apologies to Bulldog fans for the oversight the first time around!


The defending national champions have really made the jump back into the nation’s elite in the last several seasons, winning two national titles in five seasons, which gives the Tigers three, along with the title that they won in 1958. LSU has also won 10 SEC titles and has 20 bowl wins in 39 appearances. Since Nick Saban took over from Gerry DiNardo, LSU has been geauxing, geauxing, geauxing all the way back to the prominence that they held off and on from Bernie Moore in the 30s and 40s to Bill Arnsparger in the 80s. Provided Les Miles doesn’t get fidgety anytime soon, expect sustained success for the near future.


Like their in-state and conference rival Florida State, Miami got a late jump, as ‘Da U’ was anything but a standard bearer until Howard Schnellenberger arrived in 1979 and started getting the talent, wins, and championships flowing to the OB in short order. Sure, a lot of people can’t stand the swagger, and sure, we can point and laugh at their struggles right now, and sure, the Orange Bowl may have needed to be put out of its misery, but five national championships, a couple of Heismans, and a ton of NFL stars can shut a lot of people up.


From Fielding Yost to Bo Schembechler to Lloyd Carr, Michigan football has a tradition of success. Sure, all but three of their national championships are from before World War II, but they’ve bagged Big Ten titles in every decade since the 1890s to now. There’s also the distinction of being on top of the all-time win charts (869 wins as of the end of the 2007 season), playing in the first Rose Bowl, three Heisman Trophy winners, the Big House, and the maize and blue you can see from a mile away.


It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that Nebraska hasn’t been the same since Tom Osborne hung it up following the 1997 season. But, that period that Nebraska reigned supreme from 1994-97 was no doubt sweet for Husker fans, especially since it’s worth noting that their three titles in four seasons were won while the option was becoming increasingly less popular.

But before and after those glory years, from Osborne predecessor Bob Devaney (national titles in 1970 and 1971) to successor Frank Solich, Nebraska set a standard with 33 straight seasons with at least nine wins. All told, the Huskers sport five national titles, three national championships, and 21 10-plus win seasons over the last 38 years. Not bad, not bad at all.

Notre Dame

There isn’t anything that can be said about the current state of Notre Dame football that hasn’t been said already (they haven’t won [x] since [y], or the ever-biting ‘they suck’), but I suppose that’s just the standard that they’ve set for themselves since the Knute Rockne days. 13 national championships, seven Heisman winners, 48 players and coaches in the College Football Hall of Fame, the second most wins among I-A schools (824), and the undying hatred of many a college football fan. Even though the Irish aren’t in their most fruitful period, South Bend is still a dream destination for quite a few young Catholic boys. Then again, it may be all about Rudy.

Ohio State

Sure, it seems like they’re allergic to championships, or at least SEC teams, right now, but when it comes to the championships category, The Ohio State University certainly isn’t lacking in that category. The Buckeyes won six national championships from 1942 to 1970, the first coming under Paul Brown and the next five coming under Woody Hayes, and broke a 32-year drought in 2002 when they shocked the Miami juggernaut for lucky #7. Speaking of that lucky number, Ohio State has seven Heisman winners, tied for most all-time with Notre Dame and USC. But, if you want to be Mr. Technical, it’s only six, as Archie Griffin remains the only player to win the Heisman twice.


Many records are made to be broken, but with the parity in college football today, there’s a good chance Oklahoma’s record of 47 straight wins from 1953-57 will stand for a long time, thanks in part to the team above them and their Red River rivals, who I’ll get to before long.

The program really came to prominence under Bud Wilkinson, who led the team to 145 victories, 14 conference titles, and three national titles from 1947-63, and though there’ve been some forgettable years (‘cough’ John Blake ‘cough’), the Sooners have tasted mostly success up to the current Bob Stoops era. Seven national championships, four Heisman winners, 41 conference titles, and multiple NCAA records, including the aforementioned win streak, are the highlights of the Sooners’ proud history.

Penn State

Penn State has had some pretty bad years in this decade (by their standards), which has fueled a lot of ‘Joe should go’ talk. But, when you’ve established a standard for success like the Nittany Lions have, then it’s somewhat understandable. From being one of the several schools to have a claim at being ‘Linebacker U,’ to national championships in 1982 and 1986 (and having an argument for a couple more), to 21 top-10 finishes under Joe Paterno, to a 27-11-2 record in bowls, and 790 total wins in their history, it’s been happy in Happy Valley for a long while. While dozens of coaches have come and gone at many, many other schools, PSU has had only four coaches in 90 seasons. You’ve got to respect that.


The Panthers haven’t been in the national spotlight much for the last 25-odd years, though they may be primed for a return over the next couple of years. But, Pitt (or should I say Pittsburgh) has a pretty glittering history, well, up until the early 80s. They’ve been home to coaches like Pop Warner, Johnny Majors, and Jackie Sherrill, and they’re the alma mater of Hall of Famers Dan Marino, Tony Dorsett, Mike Ditka, and Joe Schmidt. Oh, and the nine national championships (the school’s claimed total) don’t hurt either.


Though Tennessee has had some ups and downs over recent years, things have rarely been really rocky on Rocky Top through the school’s history. Since the Southern Conference days in the 1920s and early 30s (or what it is now the SEC, in its more present form), Tennessee has had only 11 losing seasons in 87 years. The Volunteers have bagged a few (as many as six, as few as two, depending on who you ask) national championships, 13 SEC championships, 48 bowl appearances, and well over 700 wins.


The David McWilliams and John Mackovic eras saw just as many downs as ups for the Longhorns, but under Mack Brown, Texas has returned to being a perennial power, winning the school’s fourth national title in that epic 2006 Rose Bowl against USC and posting seven straight 10-win seasons. Brown has the program at (or close to, at least) the heights that it was during the Darrell Royal days, when the Longhorns won national championships in 1963, 1969, and 1970. All told, Texas has 29 conference championships and 820 wins (third all-time). Don’t mess with Texas, or the Horns (of Bevo) may literally hook you.


While Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Florida are all strong contenders, USC currently holds the mantle as the team that everyone loves to hate, but it’s not a bad thing, because it shows how successful the Trojans have been under Pete Carroll. In the last seven seasons, USC has two (complain all you want, but the AP one does count for something) national titles, three Heisman winners, and five straight Pac-10 titles, giving USC nine national championships, seven Heisman winners, and 37 conference titles dating back to the Pacific Coast Conference days. There’s also the ability to stake a claim as ‘Heisman U,’ ‘Tailback U,’ ‘Linebacker U,’ and you can’t forget about the hallowed #55.

So, which school has the richest tradition? I’ll leave it up to the fans to decide before weighing in with my personal opinion, so try to be as unbiased as possible.

  • http://uscfootball.com david

    I must take great exception with a few of your choices of programs as being listed, much less being among the “richest” in tradition.

    Florida? Excuuuuuse me??? Pittsburgh??????? Florida State??? Miami? Eh, I don’t think so.

    When one speaks of a program’s tradition, the whole is naturally considered and included. Quite definitely, the program that stands out by far the most as being left off your list (and replacing any of the above aforementioned programs) is the University of Georgia Bulldogs. They have won or shared in five national titles, two of which are consensus national titles (1942 and 1980). They rank as the 11th winningest program in Division 1-A of all time (ahead of all aforementioned programs), rank #6 in bowl games of all time (above all the same programs), have won 12 conference titles (more than any of the same programs have won in their respective conferences), and have been to more different bowl games than ANY school in NCAA history.

    You need to seriously re-work your list to include Georgia as among the richest in tradition. They’re definitely ahead of Florida, FSU, Miami, and Pitt.

    Fight On!

  • Eddie Griffin

    You’re quite right – I don’t know how I left them out, actually!

    I’ll have to go back and add them, certainly.

  • Corey

    Having Florida on the list makes me scratch my head a little. I’d say put Minnesota on there ahead of them. Sure they’ve had a lot of recent success, and most of us alive list them as one of the top programs TODAY…but the truth is, they really weren’t winning anything…even back when Steve won the Heisman in the 60s.

    In 1990, the only two teams that had NEVER won an SEC title were Florida and Vanderbilt. And the SEC was smaller for most of its history, and not as stacked as it is now. They have been playing football for as long as anyone and should have had at least a couple titles by then if they were worth a grain, right?

    Maybe the same with FSU.

  • Eddie Griffin

    I’d have to agree with you there. Give it another 50 years, and there won’t be much debate, but at this point, they lag behind a lot of the other schools that have a longer standard of success.

  • Rich Kay

    I see the midwest is well covered, however how can you deny USC and Notre Dame? They are the number one and two all time teams in the nation. They are the only programs which have been not only consistent but have developed the most Heisman winners and National Championships. The SEC is an upstart in the history of college football.

  • Tom

    When it comes to tradition I don’t think there is any College program that can touch the history of Notre Dame. To have accomplished what this school has done and still maintain its very high academic standards for its athletes is unparalled. Love them or hate them they are the most followed and watched Football program in the country. None of the other schools mentioned could even come close to getting there own national TV contract.I live in So.Calif and have traveled all over this country and I’m still amazed at the huge #’s of ND fans I find where ever I go its incredible. I know that no other school can make that statement.Notre Dame for all of its accomplishments,Rich History and Traditions and yet still never compromises its Values & Academic Standards and treats its Athletes as students first stands alone.