Who has won the most college football national championships since the very first program was crowned back in 1869? The answer is as surprising as the process of naming a champion is controversial.
Most College Football National Championships
- Princeton | 28 championships
- Yale | 27 championships
- Alabama | 23 championships
- Notre Dame | 22 championships
- Ohio State | 17 championships
- USC | 17 championships
- Michigan | 16 championships
- Harvard | 12 championships
- Nebraska | 11 championships
- Pittsburgh | 11 championships
The Process of Winning a College Football National Championship
While Alabama is often considered the most successful college football program, the Princeton Tigers have the most college football championships in the history of the sport. The Tigers were credited as the original college football national champions, sharing the 1869 title with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
Between 1869 and 1935, Princeton and Yale were at the pinnacle of college football. As a result, the record books are etched with the names of the two schools. Between them, they are credited with 55 college football national championships. Even when the poll era signaled a change in college football in 1936, Princeton still claimed a title in 1950.
Herein lies the issue with tabulating the number of college football national championships each program has. With multiple polls and selectors, the honor of being named the national champion has become a heavily disputed affair. The most recent example of this is the 2017 UCF Knights, who claimed a national championship following an undefeated season.
With the NCAA not officially crowning a national champion for college football, the BCS (Bowl Championship Series) was created in 1998 to crown a national champion. The mathematical process created a one-off game between the two top-ranked teams, with the winner crowned national champion.
The College Football Playoff Format
However, that format proved unsatisfactory to fans and programs alike. Under the BCS format, it was almost impossible for teams outside of the established elite conferences to compete for a national championship. As a result, the BCS was disbanded and replaced with the College Football Playoff in the 2014 college football season.
Under the format, a committee votes on the top four teams in the nation. Subsequently, those teams compete in two semifinals, with the winners advancing to the CFP National Championship. The winner of that game wears the crown as the college football national champion for that season.
While the format was meant to allow “smaller programs” the opportunity to compete for a national championship, it has taken until this season for a team outside of the Power Five to permeate the college football elite. The Cincinnati Bearcats are competing for their first college football national championship following their 13-0 campaign in the 2021 season.
Although Princeton lays claim to the most college football national championships, Alabama leads the way since the introduction of the poll system in 1936. Whether the AP poll, BCS, or College Football Playoff, the Crimson Tide has won 13 national championships. With three titles, Nick Saban’s team was the most successful team of the BCS era. Furthermore, they’ve won the most college football titles under the current format.