Most dominant national champions in modern college football history
The beginning of each college football season marks the starting point of a journey to reach the pinnacle of the sport. This year, 133 NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision programs competed to finish an arduous season with a national championship by winning the four-team College Football Playoff. It’s a relatively new twist, with a selection committee determining the squads that play in the invite-only single-elimination tournament, which will expand to 12 teams in 2024.
The playoff gives squads the opportunity to directly vie for a national title, something the sport lacked from its first days until the Bowl Championship Series’ inauguration in 1998, when human poll averages, computer poll averages, and strength of schedule decided which two teams would clash for a national championship. Before that, champions were symbolically crowned by various groups, most prominently the Associated Press, which chose Minnesota as its first titlist in 1936.
As this year proved, perhaps better than any other, the landscape changes continuously. The selection committee caused an uproar by tabbing Alabama to compete with Michigan, Washington, and Texas instead of Florida State, which completed an unblemished season despite a season-ending injury to star quarterback Jordan Travis.
ATS.io compiled a ranking of the teams with the best championship seasons in the modern era—or since 1978, when the NCAA split Division I football into what is now the FBS and Football Championship Subdivision—using data from Sports Reference. Programs were positioned according to Sports Reference’s simple rating system, which considers the average point differential and schedule strength. For seasons before 2014, any club that finished at the top of a national poll was considered.
#5. Miami Hurricanes, 2001
– Record: 12-0 (7-0 in Big East)
– Rating: 26.17
Led by first-year head coach Larry Coker, the 2001 Hurricanes are considered one of the most talented teams ever and fielded an astonishing 38 NFL draft picks. They featured NFL legends such as defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, running back Frank Gore, and Pro Football Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed.
The Hurricanes secured the BCS National Championship with a 37-14 win over Nebraska in the Rose Bowl. Their campaign included a 61-0 victory over Rutgers, one of three games in which Miami held its opponent scoreless. The Canes avoided a blemish on their record with a nail-biting 26-24 win at Virginia Tech to conclude the regular season.
#4. Washington Huskies, 1991
– Record: 12-0 (8-0 in Pac-10)
– Rating: 26.22
The 1991 Huskies, led by legendary head coach Don James, had the nation’s second-most potent offense, averaging 38.4 points per game with star split end Mario Bailey. Washington was stout on defense, too, holding opponents to 8.4 points per game, also second in the country, behind a group that featured Dave Hoffman and the late Jaime Fields at linebacker, cornerback Dana Hall, and future NFL defensive lineman Steve Emtman, who was the No. 1 pick in the 1992 NFL draft.
The Huskies started the regular season with a 42-7 win at Stanford and ended it with a 56-21 victory against rival Washington State. They earned the right to call themselves national champions with a 34-14 win over Big Ten foe Michigan in the Rose Bowl—though Washington shared the title with Miami, which also finished 12-0.
#3. Clemson Tigers, 2018
– Record: 15-0 (8-0 in ACC)
– Rating: 26.45
The 2018 Tigers became the first major-college team in 121 years to finish 15-0. Head coach Dabo Swinney guided a prolific offense that scored more than 40 points nine times, including a 77-16 win over Louisville. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence finished the season with 3,280 passing yards and 30 touchdowns against four interceptions.
The 2021 NFL draft’s No. 1 pick leaned on wide receivers Tee Higgins and Hunter Renfrow, among others, and running back Travis Etienne Jr.—a group that has also been successful in the NFL. The Tigers’ defense gave opponents fits thanks to stars A.J. Terrell and Isaiah Simmons in the secondary. That unit also featured talent in the trenches, including linemen Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence.
#2. Nebraska Cornhuskers, 1995
– Record: 12-0 (7-0 in Big 8)
– Rating: 26.86
The 1995 Cornhuskers entered the season with high expectations following a ’94 national championship and just one loss in the two years prior. Nebraska built on that success under the tutelage of longtime head coach Tom Osborne. The Cornhuskers had a well-rounded team led by an offense that scored 49 or more points in eight games.
Quarterback Tommie Frazier threw for 1,362 yards and 17 touchdowns with just four interceptions and ran for 604 yards and another 14 scores. Running back Ahman Green rushed for 1,086 yards and 13 touchdowns, and Nebraska showcased an elite defense by holding Missouri and Oklahoma scoreless.
That unit featured outside linebacker Jared Tomich, a young Grant Wistrom, and cornerbacks Tyrone Williams and Michael Booker, the No. 11 pick in the 1997 NFL draft. Nebraska capped the season with a spectacular 62-24 win over the Florida Gators in the Fiesta Bowl to claim the national title.
#1. Alabama Crimson Tide, 2020
– Record: 13-0 (10-0 in SEC)
– Rating: 30.26
Led by head coach Nick Saban, the 2020 Crimson Tide had one of the most talented rosters of all time. The offense was sparked by quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris, and wide receiver DeVonta Smith—winner of the Heisman Trophy. Alabama also sported a star-studded defense featuring lineman Christian Barmore, linebacker Dylan Moses, and cornerback Patrick Surtain II.
The Crimson Tide dominated the Southeastern Conference, including a 52-24 win over Texas A&M, a 41-24 triumph against Georgia, and a 42-13 victory versus rival Auburn. Alabama beat Florida 52-46 in the league championship game before dispatching Notre Dame 31-14 in the Rose Bowl, a CFP semifinal. The Crimson Tide then routed Ohio State 52-24 in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
Story editing by Mike Taylor. Copy editing by Robert Wickwire. Photo selection by Clarese Moller.
This story originally appeared on ATS.io and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.