AP Rankings: Top 20 Football Programs Of All Time

Football | 8/5/19

College football is a little bit different than any other sport. While the NCAA has tried to tighten things up a bit over the years with their college football playoffs, things can still tend to be a bit random. Rankings are always going to play a big part in what teams get opportunities to compete for titles.

The Associated Press has a large responsibility in how those teams are ranked and who plays in the big bowls. They’ve been doing so since 1935. Here are the AP’s top 20 teams since they started the system back in the 1930’s.

Oklahoma Is Consistently Good

Oklahoma Sooners Barry Switzer
George Gojkovich/Getty Images
George Gojkovich/Getty Images

The Sooners don’t have as many National Titles as some of the other teams on this list. They have, however, been more consistently good than any of the others. The team has 7 Championships with their best run coming under Barry Switzer who won 3 rings (’74, ’75 and ’85).

The team, which hasn’t won since 2000, has taken things to a new level under new Coach Lincoln Riley. Not only has Riley gone 24-4 since taking over the team in 2015 he’s also had two Quarterbacks be drafted first overall in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.

Alabama Is In A League Of Its Own

University Of Alabama Crimson Tide Football
University of Alabama/Collegiate Images via Getty Images
University of Alabama/Collegiate Images via Getty Images

Amazingly, the Alabama Crimson Tide, a team that has won 17 National Championships, finishes second in these AP rankings. The history of Alabama is written largely around two coaches, Nick Saban, and Bear Bryant. Those two men have taken the Crimson Tide to never before seen heights.

Saban took over the team in 2007. Since then he has led the team to a record of 146-21. The coach has also led the team to 5 National Championships. After a crushing loss in last year’s title game, the Tide should be ready to go in 2019.

Ohio State And A History Of Legendary Coaches

Ohio State Buckeyes
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Has any team had more legendary coaches than the Ohio State Buckeyes? From Paul Brown to Woody Hayes to Jim Tressell to Urban Meyer, the team is seemingly always in the right hands. And those coaches have stewarded the teams to a total of National Championships.

There have been some great players too like Archie Griffin, Chris Spielman, Eddie George and Orlando Pace. The team was thrown for a loop with Meyer’s sudden departure in 2018. Well regarded Coordinator, Ryan Day, will take over the team in 2019.

Michigan

Michigan v Purdue
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The last two teams have been involved in a death spiral pretty much since the beginning of college football. And both have achieved significant success. The Michigan Wolverines have won 11 National Titles, though 10 occurred before 1948.

The team has featured legendary players like Tom Brady and Charles Woodson, as well as President Gerald Ford. The Wolverines now tap alumnus Jim Harbaugh as Head Coach. While Harbaugh has been successful, including a 10-3 finish in 2018, they haven’t yet made a title game.

Notre Dame Is A Heisman Trophy Machine

Texas v Notre Dame
Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images
Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

Maybe no team is more versed in history and tradition than the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Ever since Knute Rockne made his famous “Gipper” speech, the team has been the epicenter of college football. The Fighting Irish have been successful too, winning 11 National Championships.

The team has featured a staggering 7 Heisman Trophy winners including players like Johnny Lujack, Paul Hornung and Tim Brown. The Irish have been led by Brian Kelly for the last seven seasons and have a record of 81-34 under the coach.

University of Southern California Is A Powerhouse

USC head coach Pete Carroll and qauterback Matt Leinert celebrate their victory over UCLA at the Co
Photo by Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Photo by Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The USC Trojans have long been a dominant football team, capturing 11 National Titles (’28, ’31, ’32, ’39, ’62, ’67, ’72, ’74, ’78, ’03, ’04). Legendary coaches for the program include Howard Jones, John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll.

The team has had a special way with Quarterbacks, sending Rodney Peete, Todd Marinovich, Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez and Sam Darnold on to the pro’s. The team is currently being coached by Clay Helton. The team finished 5-7 in 2018.

Texas Has Been Struggling Lately

Texas Longhorn quarterback Vince Young scores a touch down in the third quarter against USC at the
Photo by Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Photo by Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The Texas Longhorns are a legendary program who have never strayed too far from the top of the standings. The team’s first three National Championships came under the leadership of Coach Darrell Royal in the 1963, 1969 and 1970 seasons.

In 2005, the Longhorns again captured the National Championship with Quarterback Vince Young having maybe the single best game that any player has ever managed. The team has been facing an uphill battle lately. Under Tom Herman, Texas finished 10-4 in 2018.

Nebraska And Its Legendary Coach

Coach Tom Osborne Being Carried by His Team After Football Game Win
Courtesy of Getty Images
Courtesy of Getty Images

Nearly all the major success for the Nebraska Cornhuskers had something to do with Tom Osborne. The team captured their first two National Championships in 1970 and 1971 with Osborne as their innovative Offensive Coordinator. Once he became Head Coach, the Huskers won 3 more times in ’94, ’95 and ’97.

Osborne left the team after 1997 and Nebraska has struggled to recapture the immense success they had during his run. The team is now coached by Scott Frost who was the QB on the ’97 title team. Frost led the Huskers to a 4-8 record in 2018.

Penn State Is Starting To Move In The Right Direction Again

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Citrus Bowl - Kentucky v Penn State
Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Penn State had perhaps the sports most incredible coaching run under Joe Paterno who led the team from 1966-2011. The coach captured titles in 1982 and 1986. His career, however, has been marred by the sexual assault committed by the Paterno’s Defensive Coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, who was with the team for 20 years.

Paterno was replaced by Coach James Franklin who has turned the team back in the right direction. Franklin has run up a record of 45-21 at Penn State including a 9-4 finish in 2018.

Tennessee Recaptured Some Spark AFTER Peyton Manning Left

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 13 Tennessee Orange & White Game
Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A dominant team from the 30’s through the 60’s (5 Titles- 193, 1940, 1950, 1951 and 1967) the Tennessee Volunteers did not completely capture their mojo again until the mid 90’s. That was when a skinny younger Quarterback named Peyton Manning joined the team. While a megastar at Tennessee, Manning never led the Vols to the National Championship.

Interestingly enough, the year after Manning departed, Tennessee captured a Title behind the play of Quarterback, Tee Martin. The team has hit a rough patch recently and finished 5-7 under Jeremy Pruitt in 2018.

LSU Is A Consistent Top 10 Finisher

GettyImages-515342764
Courtesy of Getty Images
Courtesy of Getty Images

The LSU Tigers have had a number of memorable football moments, perhaps none more famous than Billy Cannon’s run through the gallows on Halloween of 1959. The legendary Halfback would later win the Heisman Trophy. The Tigers claimed National Championships in 1960, 2003 and 2007.

The Aughts have been a period of sustained success for LSU. Under coaches Nick Saban, Les Miles and now, Ed Orgeron, the team has consistently finished in the top 10 and competed for SEC titles. The team finished 10-3 in 2018 and hopes for bigger things in 2019.

Georgia And A Fight To Win The SEC

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 20 Georgia Spring Game
Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What is becoming an increasingly common theme in these rankings is the presence of SEC schools. While the teams have the misfortune of having to beat up on each other, they have all had their time at the top of the mountain as well.

Georgia’s time at the top came with National Championships in 1942 and 1980. They also made the Championship game in 2018. The team has featured legendary players like Herschel Walker, Garrison Hearst and Champ Bailey. Things are looking up for the Bulldogs who went 11-3 in 2018.

Auburn, Alabama’s Other Team, Has Had Success Of Its Own

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 Music City Bowl - Purdue v Auburn
Photo by Steve Roberts/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Photo by Steve Roberts/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Auburn Tigers have at times paled in comparison to their in-state blood rival, the Alabama Crimson Tide. The Tigers, though, have had plenty of seasons where they finished on top as well. Auburn captured National Championships in 1957 and 2010.

Auburn also featured one of the single greatest football players of all-time in Bo Jackson who captured the Heisman for the team back in 1985. The team is currently Coached by Gus Malzahn who took them to the 2014 BCS Championship game and led them to an 8-5 record in 2018.

Florida State Has A History Of Famous Players

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 06 Florida State Spring Game
Photo by Logan Stanford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Photo by Logan Stanford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Florida State has not only had some great players in their history, they’ve also had some of the coolest. Actor Burt Reynolds played as a Halfback on the team in the 1950’s and during the late 80’s, NFL Hall of Famer Deion “Prime Time” Sanders was a star Cornerback.

The team was led by legendary Coach Bobby Bowden from 1976-2009. Bowden captured two titles in 1993 and 1999. Jimbo Fisher added another National Championship in 2013. The team finished 5-7 under Coach Willie Taggert in 2018.

Miami Is Struggling To Regain Its Footing

Miami Spring Game
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The Miami Hurricanes were a largely nondescript football program until 1979 when Howard Schnellenberger walked through the door. Schellenberger won a National Championship in 1983 before giving way to Jimmy Johnson who won 2 more titles before departing for the Cowboys. The team also claimed titles in 1991 and 2001.

The Hurricanes have long been looking to capture the same kind of success they experienced in the 80’s and 90’s. Miami finished 7-6 in the 2018 season and have now hired Manny Diaz to move their program forward.

Florida Achieves Winning Seasons But Has Struggled For Titles

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 29 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Florida v Michigan
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Much of the Florida Gators’ big time success revolves around two figures, Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. Spurrier was not only the coach of the 1996 National Championship team, he had also won the Heisman Trophy as a Gator Quarterback during the 1966 season.

Urban Meyer took the reins in 2005 and won National Championships in 2006 and 2008. The Meyer teams featured remarkable college Quarterback, Tim Tebow, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2007. In their most recent season, the Gators finished 10-3 under Coach Dan Mullen.

UCLA Can Win Conference Titles But Struggles In Big Games

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 USC at UCLA
Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The UCLA Bruins football teams have long featured legends going all the way back to 1939 when baseball legend Jackie Robinson played Halfback for the team. Other famous UCLA football players include Troy Aikman, Kenny Easley, Gary Beban and Jonathan Ogden.

The team captured their only National Title in 1954 and has won a total of 17 conference championships. The Bruins are now coached by Chip Kelly, who achieved great success at Oregon. In their most recent season the team finished 3-9.

Michigan State Is In A Conference That Beats Up On Them

Redbox Bowl - Michigan State v Oregon
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Michigan State has had the misfortune of long having to compete against Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. That’s not to say that the team hasn’t had their fair share of success. The glory years came with National Championships in 1951, 1952, 1955, 1957, 1965 and 1966.

The team was coached by a legend in the late 1990’s as Nick Saban compiled a 34-24-1 record and lost all of his bowl games. He would go on to significant success with LSU and Alabama. In the most recent season the Spartans finished 7-6.

Arkansas Has Failed To Recapture Its 1970’s Glory

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 15 North Texas at Arkansas
Photo by Andy Altenburger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Photo by Andy Altenburger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arkansas Razorbacks have run a successful football program, though they’ve fallen under hard times lately. The team’s glory years occurred in the 1960’s and 70’s under coaches Frank Broyles and Lou Holtz. The team won the National Championship in 1964 and have an argument for another one in 1977.

The team’s most recent successful runs came in the late 2000’s under coach Houston Nutt who took advantage of a star studded backfield of Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis. In their most recent season, the Razorbacks finished 2-10 in a tough SEC.

Clemson Is Rising

College Football Playoff National Championship - Alabama versus Clemson
Photo by Nhat V. Meyer/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images
Photo by Nhat V. Meyer/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

One team who is rapidly rocketing up this list is the Clemson Tigers. The team had won the National Championship in 1981, but has also had large gaps where they weren’t a hugely competitive team. That changed in 2008 when the Tigers made Dabo Swinney the Head Coach.

Clemson has become a dynastic team under Dabo. The team is regularly in the top 5 and has played in 3 of the last 4 National Championship games winning the crown in 2016 and 2018. Their ascension figures to continue.