The Most Successful College Football Programs

graph of most successful successful college football programs over time, historically

Is Alabama, Oklahoma, or Notre Dame the most successful college football program? A rubric was developed to determine which team has been the most historically successful. The points rubric awards progressively more points based on their ranking in the final AP poll or playoff position. The results suggest that Alabama has become the most successful in recent years. Keep in mind this does not account for years before 1936, since the polls were not taken before then.


16 pts. – AP Ranked #1 / Championship Game Winner
8 pts. – AP Ranked #2 / Reached Championship Game
4 pts. – AP Ranked #3-4 / Reached Semi-Final Game
2 pts. – AP Ranked #5-8
1 pts. – AP Ranked #9-16


1. Alabama – 317 pts.

Alabama has finished #1 in the AP poll 12 times. The team has had especially good success recently under coach Nick Saban, winning 6 national championships since 2009. The SEC team also went the the championship game on 3 other occasions. The Crimson Tide were also strong in the 1960’s and 1970’s under coach Bear Bryant, finishing number 1 in the AP poll 5 times.

2. Oklahoma – 263 pts.

Oklahoma has won 7 national championships, with three coming under coach Bud Wilkinson and three coming under coach Barry Switzer. In the 2000’s, Oklahoma passed Notre Dame to become the most historically successful college football program. However, this was short lived as Alabama won 5 championships in the 2010’s, while Oklahoma has not won one since 2000.

3. Notre Dame – 242 pts.

For much of college football history, Notre Dame was easily the most successful program. However, the team has not won a national championship since the 1988 season, after topping the final AP poll 8 times previously. The closest it has come is 2013, when Alabama defeated the Fighting Irish in the championship game.

4. Ohio State – 238 pts.

Ohio State has been the most successful college football program in the Big Ten. The team has topped the final AP poll 5 times. The team has also made it to the national championship game on 5 occasions, but has only won twice. Except for the 1980’s and the early 1990’s, the Buckeyes have been highly ranked more often than not.

5. Southern California – 170 pts.

USC’s football program really took off in the 1960’s and 1970’s under coach John McKay. The Trojans have topped the final AP poll on 5 occasions, with the most recent coming in 2004. However, this championship was vacated due to NCAA violations. Since the sanctions, the Pac-10 school has not found its previous success.

This only takes into account actual results and does take points away from teams for vacated wins.

graph of best ncaa football programs of all-time ranked

Source: Sports Reference

For the full table of NCAA college football programs ranked and a breakdown of success decade by decade please see:

Historic Ranking Table of All College Football Programs

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