Crafting a list of the most powerful programs in college football is no easy task.
The debate stands front and center as the sport celebrates its 150th anniversary. Since Rutgers and Princeton met in 1869, schools from the Ivy League to the Southeastern Conference have staked claim to the title of college football’s top program.
From a historical perspective, Ivy League programs such as Princeton, Harvard and Yale dominated the first 50 years of college football. Across the past century, however, the center of power has shifted to leagues outside the Northeast such as the SEC and the Big Ten Conference.
Notre Dame running back C’Bo Flemister (20) and running back Tony Jones Jr. leave the field after the Irish defeated New Mexico. (Photo: Matt Cashore, USA TODAY Sports)
By narrowing the criteria to focus on recent success to go with historical impact, USA TODAY Sports has trimmed a long list of contenders to the very best of the best.
Here are the 10 most powerful programs in college football:
Few teams in the history of the sport have put together a run to match Alabama’s dominance under coach Nick Saban, who since 2008 has lost more than two games in a season just once to go with five national championships. The Crimson Tide are a combined 58-4 since the start of the 2015 season, with two of those losses coming against Clemson to decide the national title.
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With two of the past three championships and a current No. 1 ranking in the Amway Coaches Poll, the Tigers are the face of college football in 2019. It hasn’t always been that way: Clemson went more than 20 years without a top-10 finish before breaking through under coach Dabo Swinney in 2012. Now, the Tigers are the envy of the sport.
The Buckeyes have won two national championships since 2000, one under Jim Tressel in 2002 and the second under Urban Meyer in 2014. Ohio State has finished in the top nine of the Amway Coaches Poll in every season but four since 2002. Overall, the Buckeyes have won 83.2% of their games since 2000 to lead all Power Five programs.
Oklahoma hasn’t won a title since 2000 but has finished in the top 15 of the Amway Coaches Poll in all but three seasons this century. During their title drought, they’ve played for the title in the Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl and BCS championship game and also made three College Football Playoff appearances. In terms of individual success, four OU standouts have claimed the Heisman Trophy since 2003, including the past two winners in quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.
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Like Ohio State, LSU has won two national titles since 2000 under two coaches: Saban in 2003 and Les Miles in 2007. While the Tigers have ceded ownership of the SEC to Alabama, the program has 189 wins since 2000 to rank fourth among the Power Five.
The Trojans may have fallen on hard times in the past decade, including a rare losing season in 2018, but the program’s run of dominance from 2002-08 will stand the test of time. Under former coach Pete Carroll, USC posted seven seasons in a row with 11 or more wins and won back-to-back championships in 2003 and 2004, though the latter BCS crown was forfeited due to an NCAA investigation.
The Gators join Ohio State, USC, LSU, Alabama and Clemson as the only programs with multiple national titles since 2000. Both championships, in 2006 and 2008, came with Meyer as coach and Tim Tebow at quarterback. While results outside of Meyer’s tenure have been less impressive, the Gators are still nearly 100 games over .500 since 2000 at 173-74.
Texas seems close to reclaiming a spot among college football’s elite under third-year coach Tom Herman. Last season saw the Longhorns finish in the top 10 of the Amway Coaches Poll for the first time since 2009. From 2001-09, however, UT went 101-16 with one national title and five top-five finishes.
While a long-awaited national title has proven elusive, Georgia has been a model of consistency since 2001 under coaches Mark Richt and Kirby Smart. Only once during this span have the Bulldogs won fewer than eight games to go with five seasons of 11 or more wins. Georgia has won 27 games since the start of the 2016 season and seem on a collision course for that national championship.
It hasn’t always been pretty. From 2000-09, Notre Dame cycled through three coaches — Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis — and went a pedestrian 70-57. Since hiring Brian Kelly in 2010, the Irish have gone 62-35 with an appearance in the BCS national championship game in 2012 and a trip to the College Football Playoff last season.