Nick Saban’s run at Alabama is quickly becoming one of the greatest runs of any college football team ever. Very recently, Miami’s program from 1986-1992 was considered unequivocally the greatest 7-year period in college football history – 3 national championships, two 2nd place finishes in the AP/coaches poll, and two 3rd place finishes in the AP/Coaches poll. Alabama now has 4 national championships and a 4th, 7th, and 10th place finish. But if you broaden the horizon a little bit, Alabama went 53-46 the eight years preceding their run, with three losing seasons during that time. Miami has gone 71-56 the last decade with a miserable 0-6 bowl record since Larry Coker was fired.
How do these teams stack up on a broader timeline? How do they compare against a Florida state team that hasn’t had a losing season in 39 years? A Florida squad whose success seems to oscillate wildly with every coaching hire? The rapidly fading glory of Big 10 teams like Nebraska or Penn State?
I came up with a scoring system (below) and ranked the 10 most successful football programs of the last 30 years – a time frame that conveniently starts at the beginning of Miami’s great run and ends in the present day with the college football world being subjected to Alabama’s.
Honorable mentions: Teams we evaluated that didn’t make the top-10
Auburn: 506.4 points
Texas: 494.4 points
Penn State: 478.8 points
Notre Dame: 470.4 points
Tennessee: 459.8 points
Oregon: 459 points
#10 LSU: 517.4 points
The two national championships really help LSU here, as they came in with the lowest win total of any team on the list, also with eight losing seasons between 1989 and 1999 it’s safe to say that there has been a dramatic uptick in the quality of LSU football since Nick Saban came to town in 2000.
#9 Michigan: 644 points
The tail end of Schembechler’s career, the brief but reasonably successful stint of Gary Moeller, and a national championship under Lloyd Carr had Michigan cruising along until the Rich Rod hire.
#8 Oklahoma: 694.4 points
Except for the last couple years of Barry Switzer (86-88), Oklahoma’s point total is almost entirely attributable to Bob Stoops. Nine very good or great seasons, finish ranked in 14 of his 16 total seasons, and a national championship to boot is not a bad legacy to leave behind as a head coach.
#7 Nebraska: 719.4 points
You could call them the anti-LSU, where 90’s Nebraska (three championships, five major bowl wins) had the Huskers as easily one of the top-3 schools from 1986 to 1999. Since that time the Bill Callahan, Bo Pelini, and Mike Riley years have not been as kind of this school’s status as an elite-tier football program.
#6 USC: 766.4 points
Thank goodness for Pete Carroll, all seven of Southern Cal’s top-5 finishes and 6 of their 8 major bowl wins came during an amazing streak from 2002-2008 with two national championships peppered in the middle.
#5 Florida: 814 points
Florida’s history as a major football power roughly starts with the hiring of Steve Spurrier in 1990. They’ve had the benefit of two future all-time great coaches build their college football legacy at Florida, but the misfortune of having both tenures end prematurely. Still, 3 national championships, 2 Heismans, and 14 top-10 finishes later, the Gators have done alright building themselves up the last couple of decades.
#4 Ohio State: 864.6 points
Ohio State might have the best argument for divine institutional oversight of any football team in the nation. They have arguably not made a bad coaching hire since 1947 (Wes Fesler, the man who preceded Woody Hayes). In the last 30 years the continuity between John Cooper, Jim Tressel, and the ridiculous 50-win 4-loss tenure of Urban Meyer has gone far in helping tOSU consistently rack up points. They have the 2nd most conference championships, 2nd most major bowl appearances, 2nd most top-5 AP finishes, and the 3rd most ranked season (22 of the last 30).
#3 Alabama: 893.2 points
It’s amazing what a good coaching hire can do. Starting with the departure of Gene Stallings in 1997 Alabama had an 11 year run of mediocrity, going 74-61 with just one conference title, one major bowl appearance (a loss to Michigan), and four losing seasons. Four national championships the last 7 years will turn your ranking around pretty quickly. It’s not just the national championships though; the last 8 years have also given Alabama two Heisman winners, 8 consecutive top-10 AP finishes, 25 consensus All-Americans, 17 first-round draft picks, and a 105-18 combined record that rockets them all the way up to #3.
#2 Miami: 904.8 points
If this list were done on a yearly basis, Miami would start dropping precipitously. Their god-level run from 1986-1992 which gave them 7 consecutive top-3 finishes, three national championships, five major bowl wins, two Heisman winners, and 15 first-team all-Americans is going to be a difficult task for Mark Richt to keep pace with. The U-part-2 revival under Butch Davis/Larry Coker grabbed them another three major bowl wins, a fourth national title the last 30 years, and four more AP-top 5 finishes. What ultimately gives them the edge over Alabama? Draft picks. The hurricanes have accumulated an extraordinary number of 1st round draft picks – beating the Tide 47 to 29, and leaving a tied 2nd place Ohio State/FSU in the dust with 36 – they’ve accumulated by locking down the South Florida hotbed during their periods of greatness.
#1 Florida State: 1140.4 points
Much like Florida, just about all of Florida State’s history as a major power exists in the last 30 years, the Seminoles have just done it better. Kicking off with the Nole’s first-ever top-5 AP finish in 1987, they have been easily the best team in college football thanks to probably the greatest 14-year run in history under Bobby Bowden and the recent resurgence of national accomplishment under Jimbo Fisher. Over this time frame the Noles lead the nation in conference championships (15, 2nd place Ohio State, Oklahoma, Michigan have 11), Major bowl wins (12, 2nd place Ohio State has 10), major bowl appearances (20, 2nd place Ohio State has 14), total bowl wins (21, 2nd place Alabama has 15), top-5 AP finishes (16, 2nd place Ohio State has 12), top-10 AP finishes (17, 2nd place Ohio State has 13), ranked seasons (26, 2nd place Michigan has 24), losing seasons (0, 2nd place Florida has 1), Total wins (301, 2nd place Ohio State has 289), Heisman winners (3, tied with Southern Cal), Consensus All-Americans (37, 2nd place Alabama has 36). When you throw in trailing only Alabama and Miami in national championships, and only Miami in 1st round draft picks, you get the best football team of the last 30 years.
National Championship: 50 points. Defined as an AP, Coaches, BCS or CFP championship
Conference championship: 10 points
Major Bowl appearance: 5 points (thus teams who win major bowls get a total of 12)
Other Bowl win: 3 points
Great season: 20 points. Defined as a top-5 AP poll ranked finish
Very Good season: 10 points. Defined as a 6-10 AP poll ranked finish and no more than 2 losses
Good season: 5 points. Finish ranked and not in either of the two above categories
Losing season: -5 points
Each individual win over the last 30 years: .4 points
Heisman Winner: 8 points
Consensus All-American: 2 points
1st round Draft pick: 1 point