When looking back on the last 30 years of college football champions, there are four separate eras of the sport. Currently, we live in the College Football Playoff era where four teams get the opportunity to battle it out for the championship. From 1998 to 2013, the BCS was designed to pit the perceived top two teams against each other for a national championship game. Before that was the Bowl Alliance, which was designed to get the top teams to play each other in a bowl game. Prior to all of that was the original bowl structure.
Needless to say, how we get our national champions has changed over time. The advent of computer rankings and a playoff has also meant some changes in how regular seasons play out (plus the addition of conference championship games). Seasons are shorter, conferences smaller and there are fewer opportunities. Of course, as you say that, we've recently have seen schools like Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, and Oklahoma routinely playing for the title.
So let's look back at the last 30 years of champions. There have been 30 years of title teams but there are 34 champions due to split national championships in 1990, 1991, 1997, and 2003. All champions are included, so let's see how the rankings stack up.
Not many teams can fall as far as Colorado did in 1990 and still end up winning a share of a national championship. The Buffaloes opened the season 1-1-1 after a loss to Illinois and a tie with Tennessee, and the Associated Press dropped them to No. 20 in the rankings. Colorado also benefited from two of the most debated moments in college football: the Fifth Down Game against Missouri and the Orange Bowl against Notre Dame where a clipping call negated a Raghib Ismail touchdown with 43 seconds left. This wasn't a dominant champion, though the Buffs did beat No. 10 Oklahoma and No. 3 Nebraska in consecutive weeks, the latter on the road.
The 1990 season wasn't one of the banner years of great college football. Georgia Tech was the only team to finish undefeated ... yet did end up with a tie against North Carolina. That tie was during a stretch in the middle of the season where the Yellow Jackets won games by two, seven, three and three points. One of those three point wins was at No. 1 ranked Virginia, which launched a team that wasn't even ranked during the first four weeks of the season into a long shot to win a national title. As teams fell around them, the Jackets chugged along and ended up winning the Coaches Poll national championship by a single point.
LSU won a national championship just four years after Nick Saban left Baton Rouge following its last title. The Tigers are the lone team to win a national championship with two losses since the BCS era began. Both those losses were in triple overtime (43-37 to Kentucky; 50-48 to Arkansas), but despite being ranked No. 7 in the BCS heading into the SEC championship, LSU took advantage of losses by Missouri and West Virginia and its own win over Tennessee to jump to No. 2 in the BCS standings. The Tigers also had the fortunate luck to face Ohio State for the BCS championship in the Sugar Bowl in nearby New Orleans.
The Tim Tebow hype was just beginning, but it was senior Chris Leak who held down the starting job. Tebow played in special packages to give the offense some juice, but it was the defense, led by Reggie Nelson, Ryan Smith and Jarvis Moss, that carried this team. The Gators allowed 20 points or more just three times all season and beat up Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith in the BCS championship to upset Ohio State, 41-14.
Unlike the other Alabama championship teams, this squad didn't come into the championship round as the baddest man on the block. The Tide squeaked into earning a Playoff berth after losing to Auburn in their regular-season finale and not even playing for the SEC championship. Still, Bama blew out defending champion Clemson before beating Georgia in a classic title tilt. Down at halftime, Nick Saban benched Jalen Hurts in favor of freshman Tua Tagovailoa, who led the Tide to an improbable comeback overtime win. What sets this Alabama team back from the others was the lack of offensive explosiveness during the season.
The Crimson Tide were led by a stingy defense that allowed just 9.2 points per game for the season and shut down the defending champion Miami Hurricanes in the Sugar Bowl. Bama also boasted a lethal running attack led by backs David Palmer and Derrick Lassic and a senior receiver named Dabo Swinney. It was the first championship for Alabama since Bear Bryant roamed the sidelines and last until Nick Saban took over.
This was a magical season in Ann Arbor, as the Wolverines boasted the Heisman Trophy winner (Charles Woodson) and a share of the national championship. Michigan's season went like its games: methodical and needing to slowly climb to get the victory. The Wolverines moved to the No. 1 ranking late in the year after a win over No. 2 Penn State, and they would beat ranked Wisconsin, Ohio State and Washington State to claim the Associated Press national championship. The defense was outstanding by not allowing any fourth-quarter points until the Penn State game...its ninth of the season...and allowed more than eight points in only seven of their first nine games. Since the Big Ten champion was bound to the Rose Bowl, we didn't get the Michigan vs. Nebraska game everyone wanted. But both would end up champion.
People tend to forget that during the Nick Saban era the Tide had some tough endings to seasons in the mid-2010s. After getting spanked by Oklahoma in 2013 and upset by Ohio State in 2014, the 2015 team had the feeling of a redemption tour. Despite losing early in the season to Ole Miss, the Crimson Tide battled back with great defense and a stable of great backs and big-play receivers to win another national championship. Alabama allowed more than 16 points in a game just once during its last 11 games, leading to the title game in which the Tide won a shootout over Clemson.
The Hurricanes were an outstanding defensive team with stars Darrin Smith and Darryl Williams, and they shut down David Klingler and Houston's offense early on in the season. This 'Canes team may be best known as the one that toppled top-ranked Florida State in the "Wide Right" game and for having a freshman defensive tackle named Dwayne Johnson —now more commonly known as The Rock. What holds Miami back a bit is that it played in the old bowl structure with predetermined matchups, and that put the Hurricanes against No. 11 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, while co-champion Washington beat No. 4 Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
The Buckeyes were the first team to win the new College Football Playoff, coming from way back in the rankings to make that happen. Ohio State rode Ezekiel Elliott throughout the season and needed him, as starting quarterback J.T. Barrett (who replaced Braxton Miller after a season-ending injury) suffered a season-ending injury of his own during the Michigan game. Sophomore Cardale Jones led OSU through the playoffs by upsetting Alabama and blowing out Oregon to win Urban Meyer's third national championship and first in Columbus. Fun fact: The win over Oregon was the last time a Big Ten team had scored a point in the College Football Playoff until this season when the Buckeyes scored 23 in a loss to Clemson in the semifinals.
This Huskies team was fantastic, entering the season ranked No. 4 in the nation and winding up winning a share of a national title. This team was built with two star lineman — Lincoln Kennedy on offense and Steve Emtman on defense — as well as talent all over the field. The offense was led by quarterback Billy Joe Hobert and running back Beno Bryant (their backups Mark Brunell and Napolean Kaufman would eventually end up being more famous) and were second nationally in points per game. The defense was relentless, giving up more than seven points just five times all year and more than 17 points just twice. Their consistent dominance and pummeling of No. 4 Michigan in the Rose Bowl won them a share of the 1991 national championship.
The Trojans may have been dealt a bad hand when they were ranked No. 1 in both the Associated Press and Coaches Poll but finished third in the BCS rankings, putting LSU and Oklahoma in the BCS championship game. USC would go on to spank Michigan in the Rose Bowl and was voted national champion by the AP. USC would convincingly beat three top-six teams that season and would begin a run of five Rose Bowls in six years, two BCS championship games and two national championships — even if this one was shared.
The Buckeyes did the impossible by beating one of the most talented teams in the last quarter century: the Miami Hurricanes. While its Fiesta Bowl win over Miami was a bit controversial, Ohio State was a deserving champion. Freshman Maurice Clarett was a workhorse back who was crucial in helping the Buckeyes to get through several tight games down the stretch. (Aside from a 34-3 win over Minnesota, the Buckeyes won their final six games by an average of 5.7 points.) The defense also allowed less than 10 points to five of its final eight opponents.
The 1993 Huskers went undefeated before losing to Florida State in the Orange Bowl, so this 1994 team was focused on finishing the deal. The triple-option offense began the season with a bang, but the defense would get more dominant as the season wore on. The Huskers would suffocate No. 2 Colorado midway through the season to jump to the top of the rankings, and they never looked back. Nebraska would get back to the Orange Bowl and hold on to beat Miami, winning the first of three titles over the next four years. Penn State, which was also undefeated, felt jilted by not earning a share of the national championship.
The Cam Newton show gave us one season of breathtaking action, as he dominated college football by winning the Heisman Trophy, performing the "Cam-back" against rival Alabama and then finishing off an undefeated season with a thrilling national title game against Chip Kelly's Oregon Ducks. The Tigers' record-setting offense paired with a talented defense gave us one of the out-of-nowhere championship seasons.
LSU actually shared the national championship. (The BCS pitted LSU and Oklahoma for the championship, while AP No. 1 USC was left out.) Saban's first title team had a talented offense (receivers Michael Clayton, Dwayne Bowe and Devery Henderson; running back Joseph Addai and quarterbacks Matt Mauck, Matt Flynn, JaMarcus Russell and Marcus Randall), but it was the defense that dominated, allowing just 11 points per game.
This was Alabama's second title in a row and third in four years. Bama came off its title season by tearing through its schedule and outscoring its first eight opponents by a total of 325-65. The Tide would get upset by Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M but bounced back with consecutive 49-0 scores against Western Carolina and rival Auburn. After squeezing by Georgia in the SEC title game, the Tide blew out No. 1 Notre Dame for the BCS championship.
The "Fun n' Gun" finally paid off with a championship. The Ol' Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier, watched his Gators lose just one game all year (the season finale against Florida State) but would win the rematch with the top-ranked Seminoles in the Sugar Bowl, 52-20. The Gators offense was tremendous, scoring 47 points per game, going for more than 50 points seven times and winning a Heisman Trophy for quarterback Danny Wuerffel. Florida won five games against ranked teams, including No. 2 Tennessee and No. 1 Florida State.
This was the final year of the Bowl Alliance (and of Tom Osborne's coaching career) and one of the reasons the BCS was formed. Nebraska was actually No. 1 for three weeks before being knocked down in the rankings after needing overtime to win at Missouri (the "Flea Kicker" game). Nebraska would continue its undefeated season by destroying Peyton Manning and No. 3 Tennessee in the Orange Bowl, and the Huskers won the Coaches Poll championship. They ran for 66 touchdowns in their 12 games that season, a college football record.
It takes a lot of determination to lose a national championship one year and come back to avenge the defeat the next. That's exactly what the 2016 Clemson Tigers did. After losing to Alabama for the 2015 title, the Tigers had an up-and-down season by winning a lot of close games, including a 42-36 shootout with Louisville. They would lose to Pitt late in the season but still qualified for a College Football Playoff spot. There they'd shut out Ohio State before getting a rematch against Alabama. In one of the best title games in history, Deshaun Watson threw a touchdown pass with a second remaining to capture Clemson's first title since 1981.
The 1999 'Noles team was the first in NCAA history to go wire-to-wire as the top ranked team. After losing to Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl the previous season, Florida State went on a mission by scoring at least 40 points in each of its first five games before disposing of rival Miami. The Seminoles would take down No. 4 Florida in the Swamp before beating Michael Vick and Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship. The roster had names like Heisman winner Chris Weinke, Peter Warrick, Travis Minor, Anquan Boldin, Laveranues Coles and Sebastian Janikowski.
Saban's second national championship at Alabama came with a bit of controversy. The Tide lost to LSU, 9-6, during the regular season which kept them from winning both the SEC West and SEC championship. Yet they finished No. 2 in the final BCS rankings and earned a rematch with LSU, which they dominated 21-0. The calling card was that stifling defense, which finished as the best in college football in rushing defense, passing defense, scoring defense and yards allowed per game.
After cruising to four home wins to start the season, the Sooners faced a wicked five-game stretch. Oklahoma blew out No. 11 Texas, 63-14, in the Red River Rivalry and then beat No. 2 Kansas State in Manhattan. That set them up for a 31-14 win over No. 1 Nebraska in Norman. After spanking Baylor, Oklahoma won at No. 23 Texas A&M at Kyle Field. Josh Heupel and the Sooners would beat K-State again for the Big 12 title and then shut down Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke and Florida State, 13-2, in the Orange Bowl to win the national championship.
In college basketball, the University of Cincinnati won back-to-back championships right after Oscar Robertson graduated. In college football, Tennessee won a championship the year after Peyton Manning graduated. The first year of the BCS saw the Vols sweep through a grueling schedule. (They beat eight bowl teams, four top-10 teams and three BCS bowl teams.) Tennessee finally beat Florida (Manning never did) and came back from a devastating defeat to Nebraska in the previous Orange Bowl to pull off a championship run. Tee Martin controlled an offense that leaned on receiver Peerless Price, running backs Travis Henry, Travis Stephens and Jamal Lewis and a defense that played solid all year. The Vols would beat Florida State (which would win the title the following year) in the Fiesta Bowl for the first BCS championship.
The name most think of when they look back at this team is Jameis Winston. Winston had an amazing season (4,057 yards, 40 TD passes, four TD runs) that ended with a Heisman Trophy. But 25 players on the roster would go on to the NFL — most notably Jalen Ramsey, Kelvin Benjamin, Devonta Freeman and Telvin Smith. The offense was magical, but the 'Noles defense allowed seven points or fewer in seven games that year. Florida State beat Auburn in the BCS championship, ending the SEC's streak of championships at seven years.
This Gators team rolled through the regular season with a lone blemish: a 31-30 loss to Ole Miss in the fourth game of the season. Florida would win the next eight games by at least 30 points before smashing Alabama in the SEC title game and beating Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford and Oklahoma in the BCS championship game. Tim Tebow and the Gators scored 611 points that season and were loaded with guys like Percy Harvin, Aaron Hernandez, Riley Cooper as well as Mike and Maurkice Pouncey anchoring the offensive line.
Here's an interesting fact: Of Nick Saban's five titles with Alabama, the 2009 team was the only one to do it without a loss during the season. Mark Ingram became the first Alabama player to win the Heisman Trophy, as he led a steady offense with quarterback Greg McElroy and wide receiver Julio Jones. The defense was the star of this team, as defensive coordinator Kirby Smart's unit allowed just 11.7 points per game. It knocked out Texas' Colt McCoy early in the BCS championship game and rolled to a 37-21 win.
The 1993 season was a year of firsts in Tallahassee, as the Seminoles had their first Heisman Trophy winner (Charlie Ward) and won their first national championship. Florida State was simply dominant during its first nine games: The average score of those games was 44.3-6.6 with four shutouts. After losing at Notre Dame in the "Game of the Century," the Noles would get back the top spot after the Irish lost to Boston College the following week. Florida State would go on to narrowly beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to claim the title despite objections from Notre Dame fans.
USC was such a dominant force that people were comparing the Trojans to the greatest teams of all time. And then Texas beat them in one of the best college football games of all time. Vince Young was simply sensational that season. (And it seems like a crime he doesn't get the Heisman Trophy retroactively given to him after Reggie Bush had it taken away.) The Longhorns scored 652 points that season, an NCAA record, and scored at least 50 points in a game seven times. After beating Colorado 70-3 in the Big 12 Championship game, Texas beat USC in a back-and-forth affair with Young scoring the winning touchdown with 19 seconds remaining.
Clemson became the first team to go 15-0 in a season since 1897 after throttling Alabama in the national championship game. The Tigers were led by a dominant defensive front that featured three players who were picked in the first 17 picks of the 2019 NFL Draft. On the offensive side, Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne were the force for an offense that won by an average of 32 points per game and grew more dominant as the season went on.
The 2019 Tigers were an offensive juggernaut. Quarterback Joe Burrow set a record for touchdown passes (60) and quarterback rating en route to winning the Heisman trophy by the largest margin in history. In fact, the Tigers had the Heisman, Biletnikoff and Thorpe award winners, along with Ed Orgeron winning Coach of the Year honors. LSU beat seven teams that were ranked in the top ten (five away from Baton Rouge), including the four teams ranked atop the preseason poll, and spanked defending champion Clemson in the College Football Playoff championship game. Five players were selected in the first round of the 2020 draft (including Burrow going #1 overall) and 10 players in the first three rounds.
OK, this team would later vacate its two final wins and its national championship due to Reggie Bush's ineligibility. (USC also gave up 12 wins and Bush's Heisman Trophy for the following year.) Still, what happened on the field was tough to deny. It was its second straight AP championship and first undisputed title in 32 years. Quarterback Matt Leinart won the Heisman Trophy, and the team put six players on the All-American team. Many feel the 2005 team that lost to Texas in the Rose Bowl was better, but that team wasn't champion.
The defending national champions left no doubt who the best team in the land was this time around. Nebraska averaged 53.2 points per game, beat teams by an average of 38.6 points and blew out Florida (which would go on to win the national championship the following year) 62-24 in the Fiesta Bowl. The 'Huskers scored less than 49 points just four times all year and won nine of their 12 games by at least 30 points. The Cornhuskers had only five punts returned against them all year. All this was despite losing Lawrence Phillips to a two-game suspension during the season. To stress their dominance, the 'Huskers outgained the "Run n' Gun" Gators 183-0 in the second quarter of the Fiesta Bowl.
The Hurricanes went 12-0 and averaged 42.6 points per game while giving up only 9.75 points per game. And here are the names on that roster: Andre Johnson, Sean Taylor, Ed Reed, Clinton Portis, Kellen Winslow II, Jeremy Shockey, Willis McGahee, Frank Gore, Najeh Davenport, Phillip Buchanon, Jonathan Vilma, Vince Wilfork, Antrel Rolle, Bryant McKinnie, Jerome McDougle, Vernon Carey, Rocky McIntosh, Roscoe Parrish and Chris Myers.