In the 150th anniversary of college football, which national champions were the best of the bunch? Find out in the CFN College Football 150 Greatest National Championship Season rankings.
No, really. How are you supposed to rank close to 150 years of the best of the best college football teams?
Over the course of the CFB150 celebration of the 150th anniversary of college football, many will try selling you on the idea that some Ivy League team from the 1800s was among the greatest of all-time based on an opinion. But that’s not fair.
That old school team would lose to the 2018 Clemson backups by 419 points.
On talent and ability, trying to rank and contrast today’s college football teams to anything from 100ish years ago is like comparing apples to … Neptune. It’s a totally different game now.
And then there’s the problem of just how fatally flawed the system for determining a champion used to be. It’s not like anyone could watch three screens of games in 1869 – or 1969. National champions from back in the day – and even as recently as the mid-1990s – were crowned mostly on a guess.
So with all of that in mind, we’re ranking the 150 greatest national champions of all-time based on how good their seasons were. The CFN Season Formula is about straight numbers, wins, losses, point totals and strengths of schedules to measure just how strong a campaign really was, and isn’t an opinion of how good the teams might have been.
It’s a simple theory. The more wins, and the more big wins, the higher the ranking. The more games a team played, the more chances for losses, wearing down, injuries, or bad days. It’s why some of the highest-ranked teams on this list are from the modern day – the more recent champions played more games.
If you won a national championship playing a schedule of cupcakes and high school teams – looking at you, 1895 Penn – this formula exposed that.
Now for the ground rules.
1. There are more than 150 college football national champions. Over the last 150 years – even though there have only been 148 college football seasons, but whatever – there were plenty of split titles. Because there was no true national championship game up until the BCS was formed in 1998, crowning a champion was often a popularity contest. Only the top 150 according to the CFN Season Formula make the list.
2. Only the main methods for each era are counted. Sorry, 2017 UCF, and sorry to a few of the Alabama “national champions” that the school continues to brag about. These are based off of the top selection organizations in each era …
1869 to 1879: National Championship Foundation (NCF)
1880 to 1935: NCF & Helms Athletic Foundation
1936 to 1949: Associated Press (AP)
1950 to 1981: AP & United Press International (UPI)
1982 to 1997: AP (and 2003) & USA Today (Coaches Poll)
1998 to 2013: Bowl Championship System
2014 to 2018: College Football Playoff
3. These are the CFN rankings, and NOT a part of the CFB150. Please go to cfb150.org for everything they’re doing for the celebration of 150 years of college football.
4. The schedule … Wednesday: Rankings 11-25. Thursday: Top Ten National Championship Seasons. CFN’s 150 greatest players, coaches, and more coming throughout the summer.
Contact CFN @ColFootballNews
150. 1911 Penn State (8-0-1)
All-Time Season Score: 14.0344
Key Season Score Element: 5 Bad Wins (wins over teams with three wins or fewer, or not at the highest level at the time) in 9 games
Best Win: Penn State 5, at Cornell 0
Worst Game: Penn State 0, at Navy 0
1911 was a weird college football season. Navy ended up unbeaten, but it finished with three ties. One was against Penn State, and one was against Princeton – both of the split national champions. Penn State had the better year than Princeton with a few more big wins, and with a defense that allowed just 15 points.
149. 1910 Pitt (9-0)
All-Time Season Score: 14.0700
Key Season Score Element: Outscored teams 282-0
Best Win: Pitt 17, Georgetown 0
Worst Game: Pitt 19, Westminster 0
Seven of the nine wins came against teams that weren’t officially in the college football mix and/or finished with fewer than three wins. It was the year when the forward pass became a bigger part of the game, but it didn’t matter to a Pitt D that didn’t allow a point.
148. 1923 Michigan (8-0)
All-Time Season Score: 14.1300
Key Season Score Element: Outscored teams 150-12
Best Win: Michigan 10, Minnesota 0
Worst Game: Michigan 26, Quantico Marines 6
It’s a soft national championship considering there was only one amazing win – over Minnesota in the regular season finale – and a whole slew of mediocre victories over bad Case, Ohio State, and Michigan State teams. The D pitched a shutout in five of the eight games and allowed more than three points once … against Quantico Marines.
147. 1910 Harvard (8-0-1)
All-Time Season Score: 14.1944
Key Season Score Element: Outscored teams 155-5
Best Win: Harvard 12, Brown 0
Worst Game: Harvard 0, Yale 0
There were a few great wins, but they were offset by a whole lot of teams that fall into the Bad Win category. Five of the eight victories were bad, and there was a tie against Yale on the road in the season finale. The D gave up just five points all year, coming in a 27-5 win over a strong Cornell squad.
146. 1942 Ohio State (9-1)
All-Time Season Score: 14.3800
Key Season Score Element: 114 points allowed the most by anyone in the bottom 25 (but scored 337 points)
Best Win: Ohio State 41, Iowa Pre-Flight 12
Worst Game: Wisconsin 17, Ohio State 7
The Buckeyes suffered a loss to a strong Wisconsin team in Madison, but they still managed to win the national title thanks to three terrific wins over Indiana, Michigan, and Iowa Pre-Flight teams that all finished 7-3.
145. 1923 Illinois (8-0)
All-Time Season Score: 14.4100
Key Season Score Element: Allowed just 20 points
Best Win: Illinois 7, Chicago 0
Worst Game: Illinois 9, at Ohio State 0
There weren’t too many problems, partly because there weren’t too many good teams on the slate. However, there were two big wins to get it done – Illinois handed Chicago its only loss of the season, and the 9-6 win at Iowa was terrific. The offense wasn’t anything special, but it was an unbeaten season with no points allowed in the last five games.
144. 1913 Harvard (9-0)
All-Time Season Score: 14.7900
Key Season Score Element: 5 Bad Wins
Best Win: Harvard 3, at Princeton 0
Worst Game: Harvard 14, Bates 0
Where are the great wins? It was an unbeaten season, but five of the nine victories came against teams with losing records or weren’t at the higher level. Only Princeton provided a problem, and that was the lone road game. Overall, it’s about a weak a national championship resumé as it gets.
143. 1947 Notre Dame (9-0)
All-Time Season Score: 14.8900
Key Season Score Element: 6 Bad Wins in 9 games
Best Win: Notre Dame 38, at USC 7
Worst Game: Notre Dame 26, at Northwestern 19
The Irish won the national title on brand name. Yes, going 9-0 was great, but there weren’t any amazing wins of note other than a decent one over USC on the road and one over an okay Army. The 1947 Irish beat six teams with losing records.
142. 1919 Texas A&M (10-0)
All-Time Season Score: 15.000
Key Season Score Element: 10 wins the most by anyone lower than 137
Best Win: Texas A&M 7, Texas 0
Worst Game: Texas A&M 7, Southwestern 0
A&M managed to take the national championship by outscoring teams 275-0. It helped that the schedule was loaded with layups – seven of the ten victories were Bad Wins – but a 10-0 win over Baylor on the road and 7-0 victory over an okay Texas was enough.
141. 1933 Michigan (7-0-1)
All-Time Season Score: 15.0675
Key Season Score Element: 5 Quality Wins
Best Win: Michigan 13, Ohio State 0
Worst Game: Michigan 0, Minnesota 0
The Wolverine defense was the star, allowing just 18 points on the year, giving up six points in three games. There were a few tight battles against mediocre teams – 10-6 over Iowa and 7-6 over Illinois – and a key tie against a nasty Minnesota squad that finished 4-0-4. It was the end of a terrific four year run – the 1934 team went 1-7.
140. 1954 UCLA (UPI) (9-0)
All-Time Season Score: 15.2700
Key Season Score Element: 327 point differential
Best Win: UCLA 12, Maryland 7
Worst Game: UCLA 21, Washington 20
Ohio State won the AP side of the national championship, and UCLA was named the champion by UPI. The Buckeyes had the much better year and was the more deserving champ over a Bruin team that beat a fat load of no one. The offense cranked up 72 on Stanford and followed it up with a 61-0 win over Oregon State, but the tight 12-7 win over Maryland was the only victory over a team that didn’t finish with four losses or more.
139. 1952 Michigan State (9-0)
All-Time Season Score: 15.2800
Key Season Score Element: 0 Elite Wins
Best Win: Michigan State 21, Notre Dame 3
Worst Game: Michigan State 17, at Oregon State 14
Michigan State had way too tough a time against a miserable Oregon State team, but it also rolled by strong Syracuse, Penn State and Notre Dame squads. The only two close games were on the road – the weird game against the Beavers on the road, and a 14-7 close call at Purdue. The defense was fantastic, allowing 14 points or fewer in every game.
138. 1965 Alabama (AP) (9-1-1)
All-Time Season Score: 15.3536
Key Season Score Element: The lowest ranked team in top 150 with one loss and one tie
Best Win: Alabama 39, Nebraska 28 (Orange Bowl)
Worst Game: at Georgia 18, Alabama 17
Michigan State went 10-1 and won the UPI national championship – and had a better season than the AP champ. Bama tied 7-7 against a fantastic Tennessee team, and opened the season with a loss on the road to Georgia, but closed strong with a blowout win over Auburn and handed Nebraska its only loss in the Orange Bowl.
137. 1956 Oklahoma (10-0)
All-Time Season Score: 15.4000
Key Season Score Element: 7 Bad Wins
Best Win: Oklahoma 27, at Colorado 19
Worst Game: Oklahoma 34, at Kansas 12
The Sooners were deep in the midst of their epic 56-game winning streak under Bud Wilkinson, but … they didn’t beat anyone in 1956. The win at Colorado was fine, but nine of the ten victories came against teams that finished with losing records. To make it worse, OU beat seven teams that won three games or fewer.
136. 1946 Notre Dame (8-0-1)
All-Time Season Score: 15.4144
Key Season Score Element: 24 points allowed
Best Win: Notre Dame 0, Army 0
Worst Game: Notre Dame 28, Navy 0
Of course the 0-0 all-timer against Army wasn’t a win, but it might as well have been one considering the Irish ended up as the national champion. The Elite Win on the road against Illinois to start the season was the biggest key considering the rest of the slate was really, really soft. Shhhhhh … Army played a much, much better schedule. The D came up with six shutouts in nine games.
135. 1915 Cornell (9-0)
All-Time Season Score: 15.6200
Key Season Score Element: 50 points allowed
Best Win: Cornell 10, at Harvard 0
Worst Game: Cornell 13, Gettysburg 0
Cornell played a whole lot of nothing for most of the season – five of the nine wins were against bad teams – but it managed to hand Harvard its only loss in a 10-0 road win, and it came up with a nice 40-21 win over a strong Washington & Lee team. Every game was a blowout – no one came closer than ten points.
134. 1926 Stanford (10-0-1)
All-Time Season Score: 15.9045
Key Season Score Element: 8 Bad Wins
Best Win: Stanford 13, at USC 12
Worst Game: Stanford 7, Olympic Club 3
It was a split national championship season with Stanford winning one part, and Alabama taking another – Bama had the better year. The two teams handed each other their only blemish in a 7-7 Rose Bowl tie, but Stanford was also able to get by a strong USC team on the road and a good Washington squad. The problem? It was cupcake city with six wins over teams that weren’t officially recognized by the higher end of the college football world.
133. 1935 Minnesota (8-0)
All-Time Season Score: 15.9800
Key Season Score Element: 148 point differential
Best Win: Minnesota 12, at Nebraska 7
Worst Game: Minnesota 26, North Dakota State 6
There just aren’t a whole slew of great wins. Only Northwestern scored more than seven points on the Gopher D – a 21-13 Minnesota win – that allowed just 46 total points, but there were only four wins over teams that finished with winning records.
132. 1919 Harvard (9-0-1)
All-Time Season Score: 16.300
Key Season Score Element: 5 Bad Wins
Best Win: Harvard 7, Oregon 6 (Rose Bowl)
Worst Game: Harvard 10, at Princeton 10
Harvard beat a whole slew of bad teams – the high Bad Win score was a problem – but the defense allowed just 19 points, going the first six games without getting scored on. The one road game before the Rose Bowl win over Oregon was at Princeton, and that was the lone blemish in a 10-10 tie.
131. 1922 Princeton (8-0)
All-Time Season Score: 16.4300
Key Season Score Element: 4 Quality Wins
Best Win: Princeton 21, at Chicago 18
Worst Game: Princeton 22, Swarthmore 13
This wasn’t a totally dominant team like a bunch of the monsters of the 1920s, but it still managed to get through a season unbeaten against a decent slate. It handed Chicago its only loss of the season – and on the road – and pushed past good Harvard and Yale squads.
130. 1914 Army (9-0)
All-Time Season Score: 16.6500
Key Season Score Element: 20 points allowed
Best Win: Army 20, Notre Dame 7
Worst Game: Army 13, Springfield 6
Army won the two games it absolutely had to, getting by Notre Dame and closing out with a win over a decent Navy team in Philadelphia. Along the way, Colgate and Rutgers were solid, but there were two seasons. Four of the wins were fantastic, and five of them came against teams that weren’t a part of the official college football world.
129. 1908 LSU (10-0)
All-Time Season Score: 16.8200
Key Season Score Element: 8 Bad Wins
Best Win: LSU 10, at Auburn 2
Worst Game: LSU 41, Young Men’s Gymnastic Club of New Orleans 0
The next time you want to complain about some SEC team scheduling a cupcake, try this for your 1908 national champion. LSU started out the season beating the Young Men’s Gymnastic Club of New Orleans 41-0, and followed it up by whacking around Jackson Barracks of New Orleans 81-5. However, LSU also handed Auburn its only loss of the season, and outscored teams 443-11.
128. 1922 Cal (9-0)
All-Time Season Score: 16.8900
Key Season Score Element: 2.5 Elite Win Score
Best Win: Cal 12, USC 0
Worst Game: Cal 25, Olympic Athletic Club 0
There’s a whole bunch of fluff – whacking around the Mare Island Marines by 80, and beating up the local Olympic Athletic Club by 25. However, when it was time to step up, Cal did, handing USC its only loss of the year in a midseason shutout in LA, and giving Washington its only loss with a 45-7 thumping in Seattle.
127. 1957 Ohio State (UPI) (9-1)
All-Time Season Score: 16.9000
Key Season Score Element: 5 Quality Wins
Best Win: Ohio State 17, Iowa 13
Worst Game: TCU 18, Ohio State 14
Auburn and Ohio State split the national title. Auburn won the AP, Ohio State won the UPI … but Auburn went unbeaten and had the better year. Ohio State lost the season opener to TCU at home. There was a good win over a strong Iowa team – the Hawkeyes’ only loss – and things finished off with a 10-7 win over a mediocre Oregon squad.
126. 1951 Tennessee (10-1)
All-Time Season Score: 17.1091
Key Season Score Element: 0 Elite Wins
Best Win: Tennessee 46, at Ole Miss 21
Worst Game: Maryland 28, Tennessee 13 (Sugar Bowl)
This one stinks. Remember, the national championship used to be decided before the bowl season. Maryland – who got a few historical national title nods, but not from the ones that mattered at the time – beat the Vols in the Sugar Bowl to finish an unbeaten 10-0, but both the AP and UPI named Tennessee the national champ before that happened. Worst of all, there were a whole slew of okay victories over winning teams, but none over anyone who finished with fewer than three losses and a tie.