Who has the Most College Football Championships?

February 22, 2024

who has the most college football championships

College football means a lot to a lot of people. I get it—college is a big part of American culture. For those of us who went to college, it can play a formative role in our identities. College can be an expression of one’s hometown, home state, or family legacy. College grads are proud of their alma maters and their histories, alumni, colors, and traditions. And sports are wrapped up in all of that. College sports may even be a little more romanticized in our collective imagination, given that college athletes still count as “amateurs” are therefore aren’t compensated (unlike the coaches, for instance) for their on-the-field performance. College athletes, we tell ourselves, compete “for the love of the game.” So determining who has the most college football championships is a delicate issue.

For students, alumni, and supporters of these schools, bragging rights aren’t the only thing at stake. Who has the most college football championships is a matter of personal identity, pride—and yes, bragging rights.

But the question of who has the most college football championships isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Because of the sport’s long history and development over the years, college football is typically broken down into two eras: the pre-AP Poll era, spanning from 1869 to 1936, the year the first AP Poll was issued, and the AP Poll or “modern” era, which spans from 1936 to the present day.

Who has the Most College Football Championships (Continued)

Why would fans and historians of the sport bother splitting the sport into two time periods? In almost every dimension, the level of competition has increased exponentially over the years. To give you an idea, the first college football season consisted of just two teams and two games—Princeton at Rutgers, and Rutgers at Princeton. It’s a little bit like comparing baseball in the Babe Ruth era to the brand of baseball played today, with pitchers throwing 100-mile-an-hour fastballs and batters using advanced analytics to maximize the efficiency of their swings.

On to the question of who has the most college football championships. For this list, I’ll be considering just those teams who’ve amassed national titles in the AP Poll era. But so as not to anger the college football gods too much, I’ll include some of the Ivy League powerhouses from those storied days of early football up front.

Who has the Most College Football Championships?—honorable mentions

Harvard – 7

According to Harvard’s recordkeepers, the Crimson won the national football championship seven times—in the years 1890, 1898, 1899, 1910, 1912, 1913, and 1919. The history books also show that the Crimson “won” in 1874, 1875, 1901, 1908, and 1920, but the Crimson don’t claim these titles. I put “won” in quotation marks because I’m using the term loosely. In the year 1874, for example, Harvard’s record was a resounding 1-1, and the Crimson were named national co-champion after the season.

Princeton – 15

The early days of college football are a study in revisionist history. Unlike the modest Crimson, who only claim 7 titles though they can be said to have earned more, Princeton claims a whopping 28 national championships—but only 15 of them are recognized by the NCAA. The Tigers’ 15 legitimate titles all came between the years of 1869 and 1922. And despite the score-keeping discrepancy, Princeton does have the distinction of having played what is widely regarded as the first-ever college football game.

Who has the Most College Football Championships (Continued)

Yale – 18

Going by the raw numbers, Yale is the most dominant force in the history of college sports. The only problem is that all their championships came in the pre-AP Poll era, when the competition—to put it lightly—was far from stiff. Yale’s first national championship came in the year 1874. But notice that Harvard also “won” the national championship in 1874 (even though they don’t claim it), and Princeton claims 1874 as a title year, too. What gives? That year, Princeton, Harvard, and Yale were all named co-champions. Which should, I hope, give a little insight into why it’s difficult to put a team like the 1907 Yale Bulldogs—dominant as they may have been—alongside, say, the 2020 Alabama Crimson Tide.

Who has the Most College Football Championships (in the AP Poll era)?

Two-time winners in the AP Poll Era

A number of schools with rich football traditions have won national championships twice. Pitt won in 1936 and 1976; Penn State in 1982 and 1986; Army in 1944 and 1945; Tennessee in 1951 and 1998; Auburn in 1957 and 2010; and Michigan State in 1952 and 1965.

Michigan – 3 (1948, 1997, 2023)

Along with the powerhouse Ivies, looking exclusively to the AP Poll era hurts rather than helps Michigan’s legacy. The Michigan Wolverines claim twelve national titles, nine of which came in the pre-AP Poll era. But Michigan is far from insignificant in the modern landscape of college football. They hold the record for the most wins in college football history, have three AP-Poll era championship titles under their belt, and won it all in 2023.

Clemson – 3 (1981, 2016, 2018)

The Clemson Tigers have surged in recent years. They were finalists in the College Football Playoffs in 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2019, and won it all in 2016 and 2018—defeating Alabama both times.

Florida – 3 (1996, 2006, 2008)

Although the Gators are 11-14 in their past two seasons under Billy Napier, they’ve been one of the powers of college football since 1990, when Steve Spurrier returned to his alma mater as head coach. In 1996, Spurrier led the Gators to a national title. In the 2000s, Urban Meyer and the Gators went on a dominant run, winning national championships in 2006 and 2008.

Who has the Most College Football Championships (Continued)

Florida State – 3 (1993, 1999, 2013)

While Steve Spurrier’s Gators were making Gainesville a major site of college football in the 1990s, Bobby Bowden was doing the same thing for the Seminoles about two hours northwest, in Tallahassee. Bowden’s Seminoles took home national titles in 1993 and 1999. They won it all again under Jimbo Fisher in 2013.

Georgia – 3 (1980, 2021, 2022)

Head coach Kirby Smart’s run with the Georgia Bulldogs has been nothing short of spectacular. Smart’s teams boast an overall record of 94-16, and the Bulldogs won back-to-back national championships in 2021 and 2022.

Texas – 4 (1963, 1969, 1970, 2005)

The Texas Longhorns were somewhat of a dynasty in the ’60s under head coach Darrell K Royal, winning the national championship in the years 1963, 1969, and 1970. The Longhorns didn’t win it all again until 2005, when they bested No. 1 USC in what is considered by many to be the greatest game in college football history.

Who has the Most College Football Championships (Continued)

Minnesota – 4 (1936, 1940, 1941, 1960)

Minnesota was a powerhouse in the early days of the AP Poll era, winning three national championships in the six-year window after the AP Poll debuted. For what it’s worth, the Golden Gophers also won the national championship in both years—1934 and 1935—leading up to the advent of the AP Poll era.

LSU – 4 (1958, 2003, 2007, 2019)

The Louisiana State Tigers have had a remarkably successful run from the early 2000s onwards. While the Tigers share their 2003 national championship title with USC, their 2007 and 2019 championships are no-doubters. In fact, many consider the 2019 Tigers—led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson—to be one of the greatest teams in college football history.

Nebraska – 5 (1970, 1971, 1994, 1995, 1997)

The Nebraska Cornhuskers have one of the richest histories in college football. They won back-to-back national championships in 1970 and 1971. Then they established themselves as a true dynasty in the 1990s under head coach Tom Osborne. Every one of Osborne’s teams—he served as Nebraska’s head coach from 1973 to 1997—finished in the top 25 poll. Further, 16 of his teams were ranked within in the top 10.

Who has the Most College Football Championships (Continued)

Miami – 5 (1983, 1987, 1989, 1991, 2001)

Miami was a football town in the 1980s. They had the accumulated capital of the magical Super Bowl runs of the early 70s, and were rediscovering greatness with nascent quarterback Dan Marino. At the same time, the University of Miami was establishing itself as a college football dynasty, with four national championship wins—83, 87, 89, and 91—in the span of nine years.

Ohio State – 6 (1942, 1954, 1957, 1968, 2002, 2014)

At the end of the 2023 season, the Ohio State Buckeyes were ranked 10th by the Associated Press poll. That marked the lowest end-of-season ranking for the Buckeyes in a decade, which should give you an idea of how consistently good they’ve been. The Woody Hayes era probably counts as the Buckeyes’ true glory days, but they won a national championship as recently as 2014, under head coach Urban Meyer.

USC – 7 (1962, 1967, 1972, 1974, 1978, 2003, 2004)

Consistent greatness is what makes USC one of the most dominant college football programs of all time. They were at their most dominant under the leadership of John McKay in the 1960s and 70s, and they won back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2004. Most recently they’ve been inconsistent—in 2022, the first year under head coach Lincoln Riley, the Trojans finished the season ranked 4th in the AP Poll. In 2023 they dropped out of the Top 25 for the first time in Riley’s tenure.

Who has the Most College Football Championships (Continued)

Oklahoma – 7 (1950, 1955, 1956, 1974, 1975, 1985, 2000)

Since 1945, Oklahoma is the winningest team in all of college football, boasting 606 wins and a .762 win percentage. Accolades abound with the Sooners. Oklahoma has had four 100-win coaches in its history and is the owner of the longest winning streak—47 consecutive wins in the 50s—in college football history.

Notre Dame – 8 (1943, 1946, 1947, 1949, 1966, 1973, 1977, 1988)

Is there a more quintessential college football team than the Notre Dame Fighting Irish? On the gridiron, they’ve sustained success for decades. Their first string of claimed national championships dates to the pre-AP Poll years of 1924, 1929, and 1930, and in the AP Poll era they’ve racked up eight national championships, the most recent coming in 1988. The Fighting Irish are the pro- or antagonist (depending on where your college football allegiances lie) in a number of the most storied rivalries in the sport.

The USC-Notre Dame rivalry is a national fixture, but the Fighting Irish are also sworn enemies of a number of college football legacies, like Army, Navy, Pittsburgh, and Michigan. For almost a century, the Fighting Irish have played their home games at the iconic Notre Dame Stadium. This stadium has a capacity of over 80,000 and is lovingly referred to as “The House that Rockne Built.”

Speaking of old Knute, Notre Dame has a history of superlative head coaches. Godfather Knute Rockne brought the Fighting Irish their first national championship and became the school’s first 100-win head coach. Head coach Frank Leahy established Notre Dame as a cornerstone of the sport in the 1940s. He lead the Fighting Irish to national championships in 1943, 1946, 1947, and 1949. About a half-century later, Lou Holtz became the second 100-win coach in Notre Dame’s history. It was under Holtz that the Fighting Irish last won a national championship, in 1988.

Alabama – 14 (1941, 1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, 1979, 1992, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017, 2020)

When it comes to considering the legacy of the Alabama football program, the Crimson Tide almost suffer from a bit of recency bias. Head coach Nick Saban put together perhaps the greatest span of dominance the sport has ever seen. He led the Crimson Tide to a mind-boggling 6 national championships during his tenure, which began in 2007 and ended in 2023.

But Alabama first emerged as a national power in the 1920s. And Nick Saban isn’t even the only coach in Alabama’s history to have won 6 national titles. Bear Bryant, who served as head coach of the Crimson Tide from 1958 to 1982, also brought 6 national championships to the University of Alabama. With 14 overall titles in the AP Poll era—6 more than their nearest challenger, Notre Dame—it’s clear that the Crimson Tide are the most dominant college football team of all time.

Most College Football Championships – Additional Resources

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