Ranking the 10 best college football programs of each decade – SB Nation

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I’ve got a Kickstarter going to fund my next book idea. It’s going to be titled The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All-Time. The asterisk is very important, as it’s not actually about the best teams at all. It’s about the teams that were the most interesting, innovative, or impactful. Teams that moved the game forward, or came up just short, or came out of nowhere.

You can find the almost complete list of teams at the link above — they span from 1906 Chicago (the first team to master the forward pass) to 2013 Auburn (the team that mastered both the spread option and heart-stopping finishes). Only a few programs are represented more than once. I’m excited about the list, and I’m excited about the progress. Please donate if the project sounds interesting.

So the book is not about the actual best teams. This week’s posts, however, are. Using some of the methods I use for my S&P+ ratings (only, limited to just points scored and allowed), I have crafted estimated S&P+ ratings for every FBS team going back to 1890. (The short version: For this version, I compare points scored and allowed to a projected output figure based on the opponent at hand, then strap it to a bell curve. I did something similar at Football Outsiders back in 2010, but I have improved my methods since then.)

Over the coming days, we will use these ratings to look at the most dominant offenses and defenses, the “biggest” games in college football history (in terms of pure quality on the field), and, on Friday, the 50 best college football teams since World War II. The book itself won’t further any sort of true “best” argument, but this series of posts can.

We’ll lead off by looking at program rankings. Going by average Estimated S&P+ ratings, we’ll use program averages to look at the top 10 programs from each decade, starting with the 1890s. Before that decade, it was pretty much just a bunch of Ivies.

(NOTE: You had to play for at least five seasons in a decade to get inclusion. Apologies to the wartime Pre-Flight teams. And to the surprisingly awesome 1977 Tennessee State.)


I’m including the average percentile rankings here so you can see how teams were separated. In the 1890s, with only 30 teams playing at least five years at the equivalent of the FBS level, this is really a top four and everybody else. Harvard and Yale were on one plane, Princeton and Penn were on another (4-9 vs. Yale, 228-14-6 against everybody else), and nobody else cleared the 80 percent bar. (For perspective, the 80th percentile barely got got you into the top 25 in 2015.)

This was a Northeastern sport, and in the 1890s, it was beginning to creep into the Midwest. The South would get involved soon enough.


Sewanee’s early dominance brought attention to Southern football. (Wikimedia Commons)

The sport’s second tier got a little bit more fleshed out in the 1900s. Michigan and Minnesota mastered the game, and Amos Alonzo Stagg’s Chicago put up serious points. But even as the rules of the sport changed drastically in 1905, Yale remained the lone powerhouse.

The South discovered the sport during this time. The state of Tennessee did, anyway. Vanderbilt and Sewanee (a.k.a. The University of the South) rolled through local competition, and the 1906 Commodores graded out as the single best team of the decade. The rest of the region would catch up pretty quickly.


For obvious reasons, World War I shook up the sport’s power balance. Michigan and Yale struggled to maintain traction over the latter half of the decade, and only a few programs managed to play consistently.

Those that did represented just about every geographical base east of the Rocky Mountains. Minnesota was strong, and new programs from South Bend and Lincoln figured things out quickly. Georgia Tech, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Georgia gave the South some heft, Texas came out of relative nowhere, and Harvard and Georgetown (with six one-loss seasons) kept some of the power on the East Coast.

When the war ended, college football was emerging throughout the country. As Minnesota faded, there was no true power base.


In 1925, Notre Dame became NOTRE DAME. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1922, USC’s first season at this level, it went 10-1 and beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl. The Trojans wouldn’t lose more than two games in a season until 1934.

With Knute Rockne having taken over in 1918, Notre Dame blazed through the decade, as well. This was the first time since the 1890s that two teams averaged in the 90s, percentile-wise, and it was two schools that’d had little impact on the sport as a whole.

Another power was emerging. Alabama was too inconsistent to make this list — 11-7-3 in 1921-22 and 17-10-1 from 1927-29 — but the Tide went 19-0-1 in 1925-26, serving notice as to what was on the horizon.


USC’s and Notre Dame’s grips on the sport were sudden and fleeting. USC went through a mid-1930s dry spell, Notre Dame took a slight step backwards and two Southern powerhouses emerged. Under Frank Thomas and Bob Neyland, Alabama and Tennessee went, on average, 16-3-1 each year.

Outside of the South, programs kept emerging and fading. Pittsburgh and Fordham fought for Northeastern supremacy, Minnesota surged and slid, and in the sudden USC void, programs like Utah and Santa Clara destroyed local rivals but were too geographically isolated to play many big teams.


Fritz Crisler’s Wolverines were the most consistent power of the 1940s. (Wikimedia Commons)

Again, war shook up the sport in obvious ways. Army, Navy and Notre Dame stocked up on transfer talent and ruled the sport, but these are decade-long averages — Army wasn’t impressive at the beginning of the decade, and Navy bottomed out at the end.

Penn gave the Ivy League one final power run, and Texas’ Hardin-Simmons was pretty awesome. Warren Woodson’s Cowboys went 25-4-2 from 1940-42, then 19-3 in 1946-47. They were briefly the class of the Border Conference.


Notre Dame and Alabama bottomed out in the latter half of the decade, and each year it was basically Oklahoma and someone else at the top. Bud Wilkinson’s Sooners won 47 games in a row and finished in the AP top-10 nine times in the decade, and other programs like John Vaught’s Ole Miss, Biggie Munn’s Michigan State, Red Sanders’ UCLA and Bobby Dodd’s Georgia Tech made runs.

Only three of the top 10 programs of the 1940s (Texas, Navy, Notre Dame) remained in the top 10 in the 1950s.

And then Bear Bryant moved to Tuscaloosa.


Bear Bryant was too busy winning games to enjoy posing for group pictures. (Wikimedia Commons)

Alabama got crushed by eventual national champion Auburn in 1957, fired Jennings Whitworth and gave Bryant a call. By 1959, he had the Tide back in the AP top 10. By 1961, he had won a national title. His program faded a hair near the end of the decade, but with three national titles (and very nearly a fourth), Alabama was the class of football again.

A lot of other programs were getting their respective acts together. Ole Miss was still going strong, but Joe Paterno took over for Rip Engle at Penn State, Darrell Royal got rolling at Texas, Frank Broyles fielded his best Arkansas teams, Duffy Daugherty engineered back-to-back AP runner-up finishes at Michigan State, and under Jack Mollenkopf, Purdue went on a hell of a run in the late-1960s.


Behold, the most power-based, imbalanced decade in college football’s history.

Penn State averaged a 91st-percentile performance, which would have placed in the top three in every previous decade — the Nittany Lions were ninth in the 1970s. Bryant and his integrated, wishbone-based Crimson Tide became even more dominant. Nebraska was consistently incredible, and Barry Switzer got Oklahoma rolling again. USC finished in the AP top two five times, Bo Schembechler’s Wolverines caught Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes, Notre Dame made a national title run with Dan Devine and Texas was consistently awesome.

This was either college football’s best or worst decade. This is when coaches took on infallible personas, when schools began stockpiling talent and playing keepaway, and when true brands took shape. Without the 1970s, the sport doesn’t end up with the television heft it would find in the 1980s.

But at the same time, it was harder than ever for anyone outside of the balance of power to break down these barriers. There weren’t many top-10 spots up for grabs.


The national title was elusive for the consistently dominant Tom Osborne. (Earl Richardson-ALLSPORT)

With three national titles in the 1990s, Tom Osborne eventually found pay dirt. But in the 1980s, Nebraska was a tragic tale.

The Huskers were easily the most consistent power — Miami and Florida State didn’t emerge at a truly dominant level until about 1986 (the Hurricanes were most certainly not the best team in the country when they won the national title in 1983), Oklahoma hit an early-80s funk, Notre Dame hired Gerry Faust, etc. But while Nebraska won at least nine games every single year and went 24-2 in 1982-83, they never won a title.

Still, this decade was known for the emergence of Miami and FSU. The two programs butted into college football’s oligarchy — five of the top seven teams in the 1980s were among the top seven of the 1970s, but there were the Hurricanes and Seminoles, dramatically changing the power base.


Ninety-eight point four percent. Florida State’s percentile average in the 1990s is the highest on record for a full decade. In the 1990s, the Seminoles were more dominant than Alabama in the 1970s, Oklahoma in the 1950s, etc. They finished in the AP top four every year from 1987-99.

Yes, Bobby Bowden stayed in charge too long into the 2000s. Yes, the Seminoles eventually faded. But even though they only scored two national titles, no one has been as consistently dominant as FSU was at this time.


Oklahoma and Texas ruled the early-2000s. (Tom Pennington-Getty Images)

Note: the Estimated S&P+ numbers are replaced by the real S&P+ numbers in 2005.

Perhaps it was because of scholarship limits, and perhaps it was because certain power programs either faded under aging coaches or made bad hires. But the oligarchy lost its grip.

Only four programs averaged in the 90s — down from six in the 1980s and 1990s and nine in the 1970s — and the two best only won two of the decade’s 10 national titles. Florida fell under Ron Zook, then surged under Urban Meyer. USC made a brilliant run under Pete Carroll, but started the decade slowly (11-13 in 2000-01) and got dinged by some iffy schedule strength in the Pac-10.

USC was one of the most surprising teams on this entire list to me. When the Trojans look good, they look amazing, but they have rarely been consistent. They show up only three times in these top 10 lists. They are college football’s supernova; they light up the sky, then they burn out.

The 2000s let us know clearly what the power programs were, but the top two or three changed pretty frequently.

And then Nick Saban moved to Tuscaloosa.

2010s, so far


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Alabama’s surge, which began in 2008, has been as good as anything we’ve ever seen. At 98.4 percent, the Tide’s current percentile average is higher than even Bryant’s best decade (1970s) and ties what FSU did in the 1990s. Now Saban’s squad just has to keep it up. The 2010s still have another four seasons to go.

No. 1 on this list is anything but surprising. No. 2, however? While Urban Meyer’s Ohio State, Bob Stoops’ Oklahoma, Les Miles’ LSU, Chip Kelly’s and Mark Helfrich’s Oregon, and Jimbo Fisher’s FSU have all had elite runs, no team has been as steadily great as Stanford. And that’s even with the Cardinal’s brief step backward in 2014.

By the way, Georgia has appeared in the top 10 in five decades: the 1910s, 1920s, 1980s, 2000s and 2010s. The Dawgs just fired the coach responsible for two of those five runs. Just wanted to point that out.

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