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

Posted by Neil Paine on August 30, 2010

Today, it’s time to finish our list of the top 20 college football programs of the modern era. As a quick refresher, I defined the “modern era” as 1946-present, because 1946 was the first true postwar season and the year before (1945) was the final time a service academy would win a National Championship. Also, the rankings are determined by the Simple Rating System (SRS), which measures team points per game differential relative to the NCAA average, adjusted for strength of schedule. Here’s a recap of the rankings so far:

20. Georgia Tech (+7.70)
19. Michigan State (+8.69)
18. Arkansas (+8.95)
17. Auburn (+9.59)
16. Miami (+10.00)
15. UCLA (+10.04)
14. Georgia (+10.42)
13. LSU (+10.52
12. Florida State (+10.97)
11. Tennessee (+11.89)

With that in mind, let’s move on to the Top 10, which (just as alert reader JW Lewis predicted) features “three teams from the current Big 10, two from the SEC, three from the current Big 12 (with one of those being from the old SWC and two from the old Big 8), one from the Pac-10, and one independent”:

The Top 20 College Football Programs of the Modern Era: Schools #1-10


10. Penn State Nittany Lions (+11.91)
Record: 525-184-9 (.737)
Top Coach: Joe Paterno (1966-2009)
Best AP Finish: #1 (1982, 1986)

Best Season: 1994 (+25.33 – 1st). PSU (12-0) has best team in NCAA and runs roughshod over Big 10, but voters hold weaker Rose Bowl opp. Oregon (9-4) against them and give title to 13-0 Nebraska (#3 in SRS), who beat 10-1 Miami in Orange.
Median Season: 1959 (+11.31 – 19th, 9-2)


9. Nebraska Cornhuskers (+11.92)
Record: 517-214-10 (.704)
Top Coach: Tom Osborne (1973-1997)
Best AP Finish: #1 (1970, 1971, 1994, 1995)

Best Season: 1971 (+29.46 – 1st). One of the most dominant teams of the modern era, #1 Huskers (13-0) beat final AP #2 (Oklahoma), #3 (Colorado), and #4 (Alabama) in same season en route to perfection & National Title.
Median Season: 1985 (+14.00 – 14th, 9-3)


8. Florida Gators (+11.92)
Record: 472-240-19 (.659)
Top Coach: Steve Spurrier (1990-2001)
Best AP Finish: #1 (1996, 2006, 2008)

Best Season: 2008 (+26.89 – 1st). 13-1 Gators’ lone blemish a 1-point September loss vs. Ole Miss; UF goes on to win 10 straight, vanquishing nation’s best by topping then-#1 Alabama and then-#2 Oklahoma in consecutive games to end season.
Median Season: 1982 (+11.55 – 22nd, 8-4)


7. Alabama Crimson Tide (+13.26)
Record: 525-206-20 (.712)
Top Coach: Bear Bryant (1958-1982)
Best AP Finish: #1 (1961, 1964, 1965, 1978, 1979, 1992, 2009)

Best Season: 1971 (+26.23 – 3rd). Legitimately great Tide team goes 11-1, but has the misfortune of running into all-time dominant Nebraska (13-0) who whips ‘Bama 38-6 in Orange.
Median Season: 1994 (+13.18 – 12th, 12-1).


6. Texas Longhorns (+13.27)
Record: 526-198-11 (.723)
Top Coach: Darrell Royal (1957-1976)
Best AP Finish: #1 (1963, 1969, 2005)

Best Season: 1947 (+27.77 – 1st). Longhorns go 10-1 and run up big margins of victory, including dominating wins over Oklahoma & Alabama, but are undone by 14-13 loss at SMU (9-0-2), leaving them 5th in the AP poll at season’s end.
Median Season: 1966 (+13.55 – 16th, 7-4).


5. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (+13.82)
Record: 483-213-14 (0.690)
Top Coach: Lou Holtz (1986-1996)
Best AP Finish: #1 (1946, 1947, 1949, 1966, 1973, 1977, 1988)

Best Season: 1946 (+33.69 – 1st). Irish (9-0-1) have very best team of modern era according to SRS, allowing a microscopic 2.7 PPG. After famous 0-0 tie with Army, Irish win final 3 games and secure #1 after Black Knights (9-0-1) barely beat unranked Navy in finale.
Median Season: 1958 (+14.52 – 12th, 6-4).


4. Southern California Trojans (+13.95)
Record: 501-207-23 (.701)
Top Coach: John McKay (1960-1975)
Best AP Finish: #1 (1962, 1967, 1972, 2003, 2004)

Best Season: 1972 (+29.16 – 1st). McKay’s Trojans (12-0) reign over all comers, dominating Pac-8 and capping undefeated campaign by walloping Ohio St. (9-1) in Rose. Fun fact: USC doesn’t trail for even a second in final 7 games of season.
Median Season: 1963 (+13.65 – 12th, 7-3).


3. Michigan Wolverines (+14.43)
Record: 498-194-15 (.715)
Top Coach: Bo Schembechler (1969-1989)
Best AP Finish: #1 (1948, 1997)

Best Season: 1947 (+27.69 – 2nd). Wolverines (10-0) boast outstanding offense, running up 39.4 PPG on beleaguered Western foes. However, despite unbeaten record, Rose Bowl W, & superior SRS, Michigan finishes behind Notre Dame (9-0) in final AP poll.
Median Season: 1995 (+15.46 – 10th, 9-4).


2. Oklahoma Sooners (+14.65)
Record: 555-170-13 (.761)
Top Coach: Barry Switzer (1973-1988)
Best AP Finish: #1 (1950, 1955, 1956, 1974, 1975, 1985, 2000)

Best Season: 1973 (+31.05 – 1st). Oklahoma (10-0-1) is on NCAA probation for academic violation, but that doesn’t stop them from routing opposition en route to nation’s best SRS since ND in 1949. Sooners tie USC 7-7 in 2nd game, then win 9 straight (6 over teams ranked at the time).
Median Season: 1967 (+15.48 – 5th, 10-1).


1. Ohio State Buckeyes (+14.66)
Record: 516-167-20 (.748)
Top Coach: Woody Hayes (1951-1978)
Best AP Finish: #1 (1954, 1968, 2002)

Best Season: 1973 (+27.74 – 2nd). After 9 straight wins to start season, Bucks (10-0-1) tie Michigan in annual rivalry game and get Rose nod via Big 10 ADs’ vote. There they crush USC 42-21, but can’t ultimately get a piece of N.C. (which is controversially split between 11-0 ND and 11-1 Bama).
Median Season: 1994 (+14.90 – 9th, 9-4).


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

  1. Zac Says:

    USC should be #1… Most dominating team I can think of (especially in the last 10 years), even more so than “the” Ohio State.

  2. DSMok1 Says:

    Interesting work, Neil! OU and Ohio State are basically even!

    I wanted to point out something that can be an issue with the SRS: because margin of victory is capped at 21 points, a team (like Boise St. recently) that has a SOS of 0 or lower cannot get above 21 pts better than that SOS, and will most certainly be lower (if the margin is ever less than 21 against any team). I ran SRS on some recent seasons, adjusting the SRS cap/slope/minimum to maximize predictive power for the last few games of the season. I found using 5.5 as the minimum and margin of 2+0.75*(actual margin) maximized the predictive power of the ratings. The result moved some of the non-BCS teams much higher in the my SRS ratings: for instance, 14-0 Boise St. of last year leaped from 13th to 6th. TCU also moved up a spot. Boise had a SOS of -5.22, which limited them from showing in the SRS as above their +12.5 (I have them at +16).

  3. JW Lewis Says:

    Thank you for the kudos, Neil.

    I would have had them in a different order, but that is only a personal opinion. Take notice of some of the close numbers of the SRS…OSU and Okie are only .01 apart, SC and ND are relatively close, Bama and Texas yet another .01 gap, and of course that three way knot with Fla, Nebraska, and PSU. Indicates to me, a minor difference in opinion is no big deal.

    Congrats and thanks to all at SR for this terrific site by the way!

  4. NewsToTom Says:

    All your individual team-season links are broken; they’re missing the /cfb/.

  5. jiffy Says:

    Re #1, USC was a non-entity for pretty much the entirety 1990s, if I remember correctly. Ohio State hasn’t had a drought that substantial, unfortunately.

  6. Jason Says:

    I know they are ranked by the formula’s final tally, but it looks a little silly when Ohio State is ranked No.1 over Oklahoma by .01 when Oklahoma has over twice as many national titles during the same time period.

  7. Matt Says:

    This list shows how dominant Florida has been over the last 20 years. I thought for sure after not seeing them in 11-20 that they wouldn’t be in the top 20, but the 2 SEC teams comment gave it away. Every other team in the top 10 has a better win % as well as 3 of the next 10.

    By the way, why was the cutoff decided at 24? There’s not much of a difference between the minimum win score and that.

  8. Scott Says:

    I am so tired of the bs going on. What I mean is, make these match ups more meaningful. Have the really good schools play one another, but don’t make it redundant, because there’s too many good teams out there that need to play one another.

    I don’t want to keep seeing Texas play Ohio State. Ohio State should play teams like Virginia, Oregon State, Mississipi State, and Arkansas.

    These conferences must be better assembled. It would make more sense if the Big 10 got rid of Northwestern and Purdue. West Virginia should be in the Big 10.
    The SEC should get rid of Auburn and Vanderbilt. Florida State and Virginia should be in the SEC.

    College sports are about real state universities, not some knock off school that not too many can recognize like a Northwest Montana State, if it even exists. I can say the same for college basketball as well.