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The Top 20 College Football Programs of the Modern Era (Part I)

Posted by Neil Paine on August 12, 2010

To kick off our College Football Blog coverage here at Sports-Reference.com/CFB, I thought I’d jump right in with a countdown of the twenty best programs of the modern era. Of course, in order to do that, I first need to define “best” and “modern era”.

For “best”, I’m going to go with the tried-and-true Simple Rating System (SRS), a staple of the Sports-Reference sites ever since Doug posted about it on May 8, 2006. It’s certainly not the final word in team ratings, but it does a good job of balancing simplicity with predictive accuracy — and when all you have going back to the 1940s is game scores, it’s hard to find a better way to rank schools.

By the way, a few notes about the SRS you see here… Because college football features teams of widely varying skill levels and schedule strengths, we had to find a way to avoid rewarding teams for running up the score on an overmatched opponent, which is why wins of more than twenty-four points count as +24. Also, we needed to make sure wins (even close ones) were properly weighted relative to losses, which is why wins of fewer than seven points still count as +7.

As for defining the “modern era” of college football, that’s a more subjective exercise. Some say it began in 1906, when the forward pass was legalized; others contend it was in the 1920s and 30s, with the rise of Notre Dame as the country’s premier team, and the expansion of the game from a provincial diversion to a national pastime. However, I think the best working definition for the end of the classical era is 1945.

World War II wrapped up in ’45, and — not coincidentally — it was also the final season in which a service academy (Army) won the national championship, in no small part because the top players of the early 1940s enlisted in the military for the war. After WWII ended, the G.I. Bill led to an explosion in college enrollment and fan interest that allowed college football to become the countrywide obsession you see today. For these reasons, I’m going to set 1946 as the first season of results that count toward our classification.

Finally, for each team, I’ll list their cumulative W-L-T record since 1946, their winningest coach, their best AP poll finish, and their best SRS season, as well as their median SRS season (to show what a typical year in the program is like).

The Top 20 College Football Programs of the Modern Era: Schools #11-20


Just Missed the Cut: Iowa (+5.85), Purdue (+5.89), Texas A&M (+6.89), Washington (+7.33), Ole Miss (+7.61)


20. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (+7.70)
Record: 424-287-16 (.594)
Top Coach: Bobby Dodd (1946-1966)
Best AP Finish: #2 (1952, 1990)

Best Season: 1952 (+24.08 – 3rd). Tech (12-0) caps 31-game win streak with 24-7 Sugar Bowl victory over Ole Miss; finishes 2nd behind Michigan State (9-0) in major polls.
Median Season: 1958 (+7.66 – 23rd, 5-4-1)


19. Michigan State Spartans (+8.69)
Record: 389-285-15 (.575)
Top Coach: Duffy Daugherty (1954-72)
Best AP Finish: #1 (1952)

Best Season: 1965 (24.85 – 1st). Spartans (10-1) field strongest squad, start 10-0, but lose heartbreaking Rose Bowl 14-12 to UCLA. MSU is #2 in final AP vote behind 9-1-1 Alabama; still split crown with UPI #1 honors.
Median Season: 1996 (+7.78 – 30th, 6-6)


18. Arkansas Razorbacks (+8.95)
Record: 443-269-14 (.620)
Top Coach: Frank Broyles (1958-76)
Best AP Finish: #2 (1964)

Best Season: 1977 (+20.61 – 6th). Unheralded Hogs’ only blemish is 13-9 midseason L vs. Texas; team finishes season 11-1 (#3 AP) after 31-6 Orange Bowl drubbing of #2 Oklahoma.
Median Season: 2002 (+9.00 – 24th, 9-5)


17. Auburn Tigers (+9.59)
Record: 452-249-17 (.641)
Top Coach: Ralph Jordan (1951-75)
Best AP Finish: #1 (1957)

Best Season: 1983 (+22.09 – 1st). Setback vs. Texas in 2nd game costs talented Tigers (11-1), who close season with 10 straight Ws but can’t overtake consensus champ Miami (11-1) or #2 Nebraska (12-1) in final polls.
Median Season: 1995 (+10.75 – 16th, 8-4)


16. Miami Hurricanes (+10.00)
Record: 461-247-7 (.650)
Top Coach: Andy Gustafson (1948-63)
Best AP Finish: #1 (1983, 1987, 1989, 1991, 2001)

Best Season: 2001 (+25.49 – 1st). Avenging 2000 BCS snub, megatalented Canes (12-0) rip through early opponents with ferocity. Surviving late-season scares vs. BC & VT, Miami crushes #4 Nebraska in Rose Bowl to cap one of the great team seasons ever.
Median Season: 1984 (+10.03 – 18th, 8-5)


15. UCLA Bruins (+10.04)
Record: 438-250-19 (0.633)
Top Coach: Terry Donahue (1976-95)
Best AP Finish: #2 (1954)

Best Season: 1952 (+22.35 – 5th). Opening year with 7-pt W over Ore., UCLA (8-1) gets stronger as season goes on, with 57-0 W over Ore. St. in penultimate game. But instead of undefeated RS, Bruins lose tough finale 14-12 vs. archrival USC, costing Rose Bowl bid.
Median Season: 2001 (+11.17 – 18th, 7-4)


14. Georgia Bulldogs (+10.42)
Record: 475-238-22 (.661)
Top Coach: Vince Dooley (1964-88)
Best AP Finish: #1 (1980)

Best Season: 1946 (+21.97 – 5th). Undefeated Dawgs (11-0) use dominant offense (35.6 PPG, 2nd in NCAA) to blast through RS by avg. 27-pt mgn./game. In Sugar Bowl, UGA bests UNC 20-10, though AP still ranks them behind ND (8-0-1) & Army (9-0-1).
Median Season: 1984 (+10.28 – 16th, 7-4-1)


13. LSU Tigers (+10.52)
Record: 453-253-24 (.637)
Top Coach: Charles McClendon (1962-79)
Best AP Finish: #1 (1958, 2007)

Best Season: 1958 (+21.35 – 2nd). Innovating a 3-platoon substitution system, Tigers (11-0) and “Chinese Bandits” D (4.8 PA/G!) only allow 1 opp. (Duke) to score more than 7 pts. After 62-0 demolition of Tulane in RS finale, LSU shuts down #12 Clemson for 7-0 Sugar Bowl W & nat’l title.
Median Season: 1955 (+10.12 – 21st, 3-5-2)


12. Florida State Seminoles (+10.97)
Record: 429-206-16 (.671)
Top Coach: Bobby Bowden (1976-2009)
Best AP Finish: #1 (1993, 1999)

Best Season: 1987 (+24.99 – 1st). One of Bowden’s most talented squads ever would win NC if not for Oct. slip-up vs. Miami; Noles (11-1) blow 4Q lead when Michael Irvin takes 73-yard pass to paydirt. Despite slipping past Nebraska in Orange Fiesta, FSU can only watch as Canes beat #1 OU for undisputed title.
Median Season: 1968 (+11.76 – 19th, 8-3)


11. Tennessee Volunteers (+11.89)
Record: 497-218-24 (.689)
Top Coach: Phillip Fulmer (1992-2008)
Best AP Finish: #1 (1951, 1998)

Best Season: 1956 (+24.72 – 1st). Outscoring foes by 19 PPG, Vols (10-1) rattle off 10 straight Ws, including 3 shutouts & an upset of #2 GT in Atlanta. An impressive W over Baylor in Sugar could propel UT to title, but instead Vols deliver ugly 13-7 loss most notable for mid-game brawl.
Median Season: 1992 (+11.21 – 14th, 9-3)


7 Responses to “The Top 20 College Football Programs of the Modern Era (Part I)”

  1. JW Lewis Says:

    I think I can figure out the Top Ten…

    Without ruining it for anyone, three teams from current Big 10, two from SEC, three from current Big 12 (with one of those being from old SWC and two from old Big 8), one from Pac-10 and one independent.

    Anyone I’m missing?

  2. Neil Paine Says:

    Very impressive, I think you nailed it.

  3. Peter Strnad Says:

    Florida State beat Nebraska in the 1988 Fiesta Bowl, after the 1987 season (not the Orange).

  4. Peter Strnad Says:

    I’m not necessarily opposed to your 1945 starting point, as the modern era, but I think it has been more than widely accepted, for at least the past 3 decades, that the “modern” era of college football began in 1936. This was the inception of the AP Poll.

  5. Peter Strnad Says:

    Not to be a curmudgeon all of the time. This has been a much anticipated website and I know many people are looking forward to this becoming the definitive source for consolidated college football history.

    Surprisingly, it is very hard to track down basic data such as top 10 Rushers in 1988, etc… even with Google. There just isn’t that much out there in terms of consolidated info on college football. This is amazing to me since college football (if not Baseball) is possibly the most historic of sports in America and certainly the one that inspires the most passion.

  6. Bill Says:

    How is Miami Hurricanes #16 below UCLA??? Miami should be in the top 5/10??? 5 national championships??

  7. Andrew Says:

    The Canes certain enjoy a high peak, but suffer for their mediocre results from the late 50s until Schnellenberger arrived. 12 losing seasons from ’57-’79 and one eight win season.