Four of the top 14 don’t even play FBS football anymore – of course, those are Ivy League schools Yale, Harvard, Penn and Princeton.
Even after that, the rest of the list is leaking oil.
In first place, of course, is Michigan, with all of 915 wins. But only 46 of those have come over the past seven years, less than seven per season, as the Wolverines have dealt with all sorts of off-the-field drama and two disastrous coaching hires.
Notre Dame is at No. 3, and we all know some of the issues the Fighting Irish have had since the retirement of Lou Holtz. The Irish won 10-plus games every year in a three-year span from 1991-93 under Holtz; since then, they have posted just three 10-win seasons in 21 years.
In the No. 4 spot is Texas, and what looked like an indestructible power in the 2000s has fallen on hard times. Mack Brown resurrected the proud Longhorns program, which had a decade and a half span of mediocrity in the late 1980s and entire 1990s, into a perennial power that won 101 games from 2001-09 as well as the 2005 national championship. Since '09, the Longhorns are just 36-28.
The team in fifth place is Nebraska, a program whose battle to stay in the national spotlight is clearer than ever to Big Ten fans. The Huskers didn't lose more than three games in a season any time from 1969-1997; now, Nebraska hasn't lost less than four games in a season since Frank Solich was fired in 2003.
I could keep going – eighth-place Penn State has had its ups and downs and isn't quite viewed as elite anymore, while 11th-place Tennessee hasn’t been a national championship-caliber program in almost two decades – but the message is clear.
Tradition means a lot in college football – Otterbein suddenly isn’t going to become Ohio State, after all, nor is Indiana for that matter – but at the end of the day, it’s a lot easier to become an afterthought than you might think.
Which brings us to Ohio State.
The Buckeyes have won 10-plus games 16 times in the last 22 years. They have had exactly one losing season in that span, a 6-7 campaign in the strained transition year between Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer. They’ve won two national championships in that time, played for it two others, and had a case as being as good as anyone in the nation six or seven other seasons.
In other words, it’s good to be a Buckeye.
It’s funny because when you look at Ohio’s professional football teams, you don’t see the game success. The Cleveland Browns have tried to restart the process numerous times since coming back in 1999, hiring a stunning seven full-time head coaches since their return. The Cincinnati Bengals had a similar revolving door throughout the 1990s and early 2000s before settling on Marvin Lewis, who has brought stability but not playoff success.
Then there are the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have had just three coaches since 1969, each of whom has won a Super Bowl in his tenure and had a playoff record of above .500.
In many ways, Ohio State – which checks in sixth all-time with 863 wins – is the Pittsburgh Steelers of college football. The Buckeyes have had just five full-time coaches since 1950. In that time, there have been just four losing seasons. Over the past two decades while every other school near the top of the list has seemingly had an extended down period, the Buckeyes’ worst span – a 21-15 mark from 1999-2001 – was preceded by a Sugar Bowl win and followed by a national championship.
Why’s the run of success? The coaches. The last four full-time mentors – Woody Hayes, Earle Bruce, John Cooper and Tressel – are in the College Football Hall of Fame; Urban Meyer will assuredly join them once his tenure comes to a close.
Contrast that with a school like Michigan, which has suffered through the disastrous Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke eras. Notre Dame has turned to Bob Davie, Charlie Weis, Tyrone Willingham and Brian Kelly with varying levels of success (or lack thereof). Nebraska’s issues with Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini were well documented.
The list can go on and on. Tied for seventh all-time are Oklahoma and Alabama, two programs that are in good shape right now but aren’t that far removed from the forgettable tenures of John Blake and Mike Shula, respectively. Recent powers like Miami (Fla.), USC and Florida have looked unbeatable at times and been nonentities at others.
A look at the winningest programs in college football shows success certainly isn’t guaranteed – basically, unless you’re Ohio State.