The following preface is added with the intent to mitigate the risk that certain individuals may jump to false conclusions because they skim or partially read what was written (as they have done all too many times in the past), a risk generally present with the message boards.
So, before starting, it is stated in absolutely and perfectly clear terms (especially to a segment of the Wolverines and the Maize and Blue faithful) that this discussion is NOT intended, in any way, shape, or form, to malign or belittle the University of Michigan nor diminish the 2 outstanding all time records of 884 wins (in 1232 games across 133 seasons) and a 0.73295 winning percentage. Neither is it intended to suggest that those records be discarded or overturned.
The "Winningest" Team In College Football History
The recognized records, currently held by the University of Michigan, are a 0.73295 winning percentage and the accumlation of 884 wins (and 310 losses and 38 ties) in 1232 games over the course of 133 seasons. These 2 accomplishments are based on the 142 seasons on record.
Why this the discussion?
When looking over the 142 seasons, some questions arise. Which years should (or should not be included)? Should programs be put at a disadvantage because they elected not to field teams during WWI (primarily 1918, but also 1917 and some schools did not resume until the 1920 season) and WWII (primarily 1943, but also 1944 and 1945)? Which opponents should (or should not be included)? Should games against high schools be included? What about pickup games at military bases, or with athletic clubs or non-US teams?
While there are several points to be made about credit for games played against non-college/university teams or even against junior college or community college teams, those points will be saved for a different discussion. In the early years, it was difficult to find opponents. Also, separately listing those "other" games will likely affect all of the teams that were so important in the kick-off of college football and may well prove to not significantly affect the relative standings.
That leaves for discussion the question of which years should be included or excluded. Fundamentally, the one question that needs to be answered is, when did college football evolve to the point where it is relevant to the record?
There are certain significant dates from which point forward college football was substantially changed and hence merit discussion. Looking back to 1869, one would not recognize the game between Princeton and Rutgers as anything at all like modern gridiron football as we know it today. The same is true for the 1872 game between Columbia and Yale. As one progresses through the years, the game slowly evolves to what we have today. Do, when did college football become a fair approximation of what it is today?
In pursuit of information and potential answers, some interesting things popped up. For example, in the upcoming 2011 season Notre Dame (0.73223 winning percentage) can surpass Michigan's record of 0.73395 by winning 4 (or more) games more than Michigan. If ND goes 10-2 and UM goes 6-6 then the Irish take the winning percentage record away from the Wolverines, given the record books as they are written. Notre Dame fielded its first team in 1887 and has fielded teams continuously since 1892. From 1892 to present, Notre Dame has a 0.73364 winning percentage while Michigan's winning percentage for those same 119 seasons is 0.73717. Putting both teams on the same timeline benefits Michigan (its first 14 years posted a 0.61628 result). These are just a few of the points to be considered.
According to the records, Michigan leads Texas by 34 wins. Texas formed its first team in 1893 and has fielded teams 118 consecutive seasons, but Michigan fielded its first team in 1878. Between 1878 and 1892, Michigan accumulated 33 wins in 45 games. If looking only at those seasons (starting in 1893) when both teams fielded teams, the Wolverines lead the Longhorns by exactly 1 win for the past 118 seasons. The point? The winningest record is due in part to the number of seasons. Michigan gained a 33 win lead before Texas even fielded a team, but since then, the Longhorns have matched the Wolverines toe-to-toe with only a 1 win difference. To be fair, Texas has played 1212 games since 1893 and UM played 1177, a difference of 35 games. Still, one of the records is just the number of wins. The other, which Texas is not immediately in contention for, is winning percentage. Had Michigan played an additional 35 games (tying Texas for number of games played), its lead over the 118 seasons would be 26 games, not 1.
Finally, Michigan has held the record for most wins in college football but only for the past decade (2001-2010). Prior to that Yale held that record for 113 consecutive seasons and 115 of the 142 seasons listed in the college football record book. Princeton led for 16 seasons and Rutgers for 7. Princeton, Yale, and Rutgers were often tied during the first 20 years.
How did Michgan pass Yale? Through 1977, Yale had 95 more wins, a better winning percentage (0.76229 to Michigan's 0.73853) and played 108 more games and 5 more seasons than Michigan. In 1978, NCAA split Division I into I-A and I-AA (aka FBS and FCS). Since the split, MIchigan has chipped away at the lead with 0.72153 WL% to Yale's 0.55077, but also, since 1978, has averaged 2.3 games per year (112 total games) more than Yale. Had Yale played as many games as Michigan since the 1978 split and taking into account its lower winning percentage, Yale would still have a 2 win lead. Had Michigan played 112 fewer games (rather than Yale playing more games), the answer would substantially favor the Wolverines.
It is not just the number of seasons or games played that put a team in competition for the record. Take for example, Penn. The University of Pennsylvania holds the record for the most number of games played at 1316, but ranks No. 27 in all time wins (809). Rutgers and Princeton are tied for the most seasons played at 141 each, but neither Rutgers with 613 wins (No. 50) and a 0.50478 winning percentage (No. 151) in 1256 nor Princeton with 789 wins (No. 12) and a 0.66941 winning percentage (No. 16) are in a position to challenge for either of the all time records, at least not on the generally accepted timeline.
The point of those annecdotes is that changing the timelines for determining the records is a double edged sword. Depending on what is selected, one team may benefit, but if the selection is different, that same team will lose ground.
In the first 11 years of football, from 1869 through 1879, 12 schools (of the current D-I schools) fielded teams: Princeton & Rutgers (1869), Columbia (1870), Yale (1872), Harvard & Virginia Military (1873), Northwestern (1875), Pennsylvania (1876), Michigan & Brown (1878), Massachusetts & Navy (1879).
During the 25 years that followed, from 1880 through 1904, 127 additional schools fielding their first teams. That growth is explosive compared to the 105 schools added to the list in the subsequent 95 years from then to now (1905 through 2010).
So much for the annecdotes. Now to play out the "what if" scenarios. Each scenario is based on unique and perhaps critical moments in college football history. The data used include only current Division I programs. Division II and D-III may be added at a later date along with discontinued programs. However, it is believed that additional data will not have a significant impact on any of the analyses, hence, for now at least, the Division I data will suffice.
The history of college gridiron football is usually divided into the Early Years (1869 through 1917), the Golden Age (1918 through 1950), and the Modern Era (1951 through present). For the purposes of discussion, those are further divided, based on significant events and rules changes.
The Birth of Football (1869 - 1879)
The rules of Association Football (ala soccer) were originally codified in England by the Football Association in 1863 although the origins of the game predate that milestone by at least a couple of decades and 1863 is also the date generally accepted as the formal birth of both Association Football and Rugby Football. The origin of Rubgy Football dates back to the mid-1700s but the rules as they are now known, specifically running with the ball, originated in the 1820s. The use of the name "Soccer" in place of "Association Football" started in the 1880s. The first Association Football club in the US was established in Boston in 1862. The earliest record of a Rugby Football club lists the founding in 1872 in San Francisco.
The American Cival War, (aka, the War of Seccession; aka, the Great War of the Rebellion; aka, the Second War for American Independence), was concluded a mere 4 years prior to the generally recognized birth date of American Football. During the early years there were changes to the rules (e.g., placement of goal posts, size of the field, and number of players) that were tested on the field. Rules in effect at game time were usually the home team's version of rules and were variations or either soccer or rugby. Intercollegiate football during this era did not look too much different than the "mob football" played for several decades prior. Given that only 12 of the currently active Division I programs had teams, the use of the term "intercollegiate" is weak if not completely irrelevant.
Most sources credit the first football game (and football's birth date) as played on November 6, 1869, in New Brunswick, NJ, between teams fielded by Rutgers and Princeton. Rutgers took the first match and Princeton won the second, played a week later. The first game is usually described with several footnotes. First and foremost, the game was played using soccer rules, with 25 players per side, no referees, and on a 100 yard long by 75 yard wide field. Other than the use of football in the game's name, there were no resemblances to "gridiron football" as we know it today in any aspect.
In 1872 the first Rugby Football game (the true precursor to gridiron football) occurred between Yale and McGill (from Canada) with the game played using McGill's modified Rugby rules. In 1875, the first clash between 2 US college teams using the McGill rules took place.
In 1876, the Massasoit Convention was held and the first standarized rules for intercolletgiate football were written. One result of this was the formation of the Intercollegiate Football Association that consisted of Yale, Columbia, and Princeton. Yale, the other participant at the Massasoit Convention did not join until 1879 due to a disagreement on the number of players per team on the field. In 1878, Walter Camp attended his first Massasoit Convention.
In 1877, the first "uniform" was worn by L.P. Smock, a Princeton player, and hence the origin of the word smock: "a loose garment worn over one's clothes to protect them." The uniform was a tightly laced, partially padded tunic made of canvas.
During the 11 seasons starting in 1869, Princeton set the pace with a 23-3-2 (0.85714) record. Princeton clearly dominated this period of time earning 9 National Titles. Yale earned 2 titles and Harvard earned 1.
Why was 1869 selected as the first football game? The game in 1869 was not even based on Rugby, which is primarily where the rules of modern gridiron football originated. Would it not be more appropriate to declare as the first college football game the 1875 Tuffts versus Harvard? Perhaps, but the game in 1869 is significant for several reasons: (1) it was the first recorded football game by any rules between 2 college teams; (2) the colleges formed teams specifically to play each other; (3) the colleges played each other more than once; (4) the teams involved started playing on an annual basis. That the game was played using modified soccer rules and that the rules were not the same from one game to the next do not alter the games significance, but merely calls into question whether those games should be tallied in the gridiron record books. One could also argue that none of the games in this era should count in a gridiron football tally since rules do not seem similar at all to modern gridiron football rules. Given modern college football has its origens in Rugby rather than Soccer, the first intercollegiate football game with lineage to modern college football occurred in 1975.
The Walter Camp Era (1880 - 1904)
Walter Chauncey Camp (Yale player and coach) is universally heralded as the "Father Of American Football." He became a driving force at the Massasoit Conventions proposing and advocating rules that transformed McGill Rugby Football into a unique American sport.
Thanks to Walter Camp:
* In 1880, the number of players on the field was reduced from 15 to 11, the line of scrimmage and neutral zones were added, the positions of quarterback and center were added and the snap was added (the snap was not done with the hands, that came later);
* In 1881 the field was set to the modern dimentions of 100 yards (120 yards including the endzones) bye 53 1/3 yards (some sources set the date as 1912);
* In 1882, the "gridiron was establish with a first down requiring the gain of 5 yards in 3 downs. Aside from tackling (added in the McGill modified Rugby rules), this was the first true divergence from Rugby Football;
* In 1883, scoring was established, the "try" became the touchdown and was worth 2 points, the PAT at 4 points, the safety at 1 point and the "goal" became the filed goal worth 5 points; and
* Over the next decade the scoring was modified again with the TD = 4 pts, PAT = 2 pts, S = 2 pts, FG = 5 pts (1884), the 1st on-field official, the Referee was added (1885), the game was set to 2 halves of 45 minues each and a second official, the umpire was added plus the officials started getting paid (1887), and tackling below the waist was legalized (1888).
Also, in 1888, the first athletic conference, the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA) was founded by Albion, Hillsdale, Olivet, and Michigan State (then called State Agricultural College). This is the oldest active NCAA conference (now in Division III).
Over the next few years officials were issued whistles and stop watches (1889), a linesman was added (3rd on-field official) and dangerous formations such as the "flying wedge" were banned (1894), the number of backs in motion was limited to 1 (1896), and scoring was changed to TD = 5 pts, PAT = 1 pts, S = 2 pts, FG = 5 pts (1897).
It is noteworthy that in 1896 the first helmet, made of leather, was invented and used by George Barclay of Lafayette College.
Also, in 1896, the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives (aka Western Conference, aka Big Nine, aka BIG Ten) was founded by Chicago, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, and Wisconsin. This is the oldest active NCAA Division I conference.
The 1901 season ended with the first ever post-season bowl game, the Rose Bowl played on January 1, 1902 between Michigan and Stanford. Of all the bowls, the Rose has been played 97 times.
1903 saw the first football stadium build by Harvard.
1904 saw the first athletic scholarship for football issued by Amherst College.
In 1904, scoring was again modified to TD = 5 pts, PAT = 1 pts, S = 2 pts, FG = 4 pts.
During these 25 seasons, Yale was the dominant team with 257 wins in 280 games, 26 more than second place Princeton and a commanding 0.93750 winning percentage. This quarter century was dominated by Yale with 12 National Titles and Princeton with 11. A total of 35 titles were shared by just 6 teams.
Why not choose 1880 as the birth of football? Walter Camp is known as the Father and he only started influencing the evolution of football in 1880. Certainly the rule changes made in the first few years considerably diverged gridiron football from Rugby football. Also, by the end of the 1904 season more than half of the currently active Division I schoole (138 out of 244) were fielding teams.
During this quarter century, the game was substantially transformed, but was the game yet recognizable as similar to modern college gridiron football? 5 yards for a first down and 3 downs to get it done, a field goal and a touchdown both worth 5 points, and no forward pass, just for starters?
The Dawn of Intercollegiate Football (1905 - 1917)
Through 1904, the game evolved a great deal, but it still had strong ties to the days of "mob football" where the game was more about fighting than anything else. It was a brutal game by today's standards. In the 1905 season, there were more than 147 serious injuries and 18 deaths and that level of violence brought President Theodore Roosevelt to the brink of outlawing the game. The result of the Presidental intervention was the formation of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association (pre-cursor to the NCAA) in 1905 and the American Football Rules Committee in 1906.
In 1906 a number of significant rules were put in place. The forward pass (equivalent to the lateral pass today) was added, the game was cut back to 2 halves of 30 minutes each, a first down required 10 yards in 3 downs, and protective gear, especially shoulder pads, became required equipment. In the next couple of years the Field Judge was first tried (1908) and field goals were reduced to 3 points (1909).
In 1910, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association became the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
In 1912, the touchdown was changed to 6 points.
Other rule changes during the next few years included 7 men on the line of scrimmage (1910), a standardized football size and shape (1912), first down (10 yards) in 4 downs (1912), a penalty for roughing the passer added (1914) and the Field Judge permamently added as the 4th on-field official (1915).
During those 13 seasons, both Harvard (123 games) and Pennsylvania (143 games) were tied with 100 wins and a solid lead for most wins. Ignoring Stanford, which posted a perfect 8 win season before discontinuing football until 1919 and Albany with 2 1-game seasons (both wins), the best winning percentage belonged to Notre Dame (0.85149). No longer is one team dominating. Harvard and Pittsburgh but eked a lead earning 3 National Titles each. 22 National Titles were shared by 13 different teams.
There is a strong case for using 1905 as the start of college gridiron football. The significance of Roosevelt's intervention and the resulting formation of the IAA can not be ignored. The addition of the pass and the modern first down and the 6-point touchdown also aligned the game then much closer to game today.
On the other hand, only lateral passes were allowed. The forward pass was yet to come.
The Emergence of the Forward Pass (1918 - 1936)
For the previous 5 years, Knute Rockney developed modern passing techniques and tactics including the overhand pass and effectively integrated the pass into the Notre Dame offense. Up to through 1917, very few teams were using the pass and even fewer had effective defensive tactics to counter the pass. However, the pass, first added in 1906, was only a lateral pass and there were penalties for incomplete passes.
Over the next 17 years, rules changes resulted in passing being mainstreamed into college football. In 1918, eligible recerivers were allowed to catch a pass anywhere on the field, thus creating the first true forward pass. 1933 saw the removal of the rule limiting lateral passes to 5 yards or more behind the line of scrimmage and quarterbacks rather than fullbacks started taking the snaps from center. Penalties for incomplete passes were dropped in 1934.
In 1927, the goal posts were moved to the back of the endzone to prevent injuries.
In 1927, Glen "Pop" Warner publishes, "Football for Coaches and Players," one of the first comprehensive books on football strategy.
In 1932, athletic scholarships become available.
1934 saw the design of the modern football.
The first AP poll was published in 1934. Except for the 1935-36 season, it has been published every year since.
The first Heisman Trophy was awarded in 1935 to Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago.
1936 saw the first college football player (Jay Berwanger) drafted into the NFL.
The 1934-35 season ended with the inaugural Orange Bowl: Bucknell vs Miami (FL); and the inaugural Sugar Bowl: Tulane vs Temple.
The 1936-37 season added the Cotton Bowl: Texas Christian vs Marquette
Those 3 bowls, along with the Rose Bowl, becamse the Big 4 of the Bowl games. There would be no new major bowls added until after World War II.
During those 19 seasons, Southern California had the most wins (144 in 188 games) and Notre Dame had the best winning percentage of 0.82102. 44 National Titles were shared by 19 different teams with a 5-way tie for the most (4).
By the end of the 1936 season, more than 200 of the currently active D-I schools were regularly fielding teams. With the exception of a few rules, football in 1936 was arguably the similar to the game we know today. But those few rules are not inconsequential.
1918 is arguably one of the best dates for claiming football was actually football and in the almost 2 decades that followed, many events occurred for the first time that now are taken for granted but make the college gridiron experience what it is today.
The NCAA Era (1937 - 1950)
By the end of the 1936 season, football had grown up, mostly. Over the next 14 seasons, a number of significant changes molded college gridiron football into what it is today.
In 1937, numerals were required on all jerseys (front and back). Also, the NCAA divided teams into 2 divisons, The University Divsion (for large schools) and the College Division (for small schools). Later the University Division will become Division I. Unofficially, the University Division was subdivided into National and Regional programs.
The most significant change in 1937 was the NCAA started collecting official game statistics. Prior to this, the records were provided by the individual schools and, however accurate those are, those are all there are prior to 1937.
Another milestone significant to modern college football was the first televised game in 1939, Waynesburg vs. Fordham.
Also in 1939, helmets became mandatory standard equipment and the first plastic helmet saw action in a game. By 1950, plastic helmet had completely replaced their leather counterparts.
In 1941, platooning (separate offense, defense, and special teams) and unlimited substitutions were allowed and in 1945 athletic scholarships became standard.
In 1950, the United Press published the first Coaches Poll. Subsequently the Coaches Poll has been published by UPI, USA Today/CNN, and now USA Today/ESPN.
During those 14 seasons, Notre Dame led in both total wins (107 in 133 games) and winning percentage (0.83459). 13 different teams earned 21 titles with Notre Dame in the lead with 4.
When the NCAA took over keeping the official records marks the point in time when those records were independently verified and the data consistently recorded and the information standardized. When discussing the legitimacy of all time records, this nexus can not be ignored. The transformation of college gridiron football during these years was not how it was played on the field, but rather in the oversight and management of the intercollegiate aspects of the game.
The Modern Football Era (1951 - 1972)
By most accounts, the modern era started with the 1951 season. Although there are good arguments for pushing the date back to the end of WWII, there is good reason not to. The influx of hundreds of thousands of veterans to schools all over the nation under the GI Bill (education) caused substantial changes to many of the schools. By the end of the 1950-51 academic year, the vast majority of those service men and woman had graduated and moved on. This is the only segment that does not commence with a significant event or major rule change. A compromise would be to push it back to 1950 given the Coaches Poll first published rankings for that season.
In 1951, face masks were finally legalized.
In 1953, the platooning first permitted in 1941, was effectively banned by the use of strict and limited substitution rules.
In 1954, a limit of 10 games per season, excluding a bowl game, was imposed on all teams, with the exception that existing contracts would not be changed.
In 1955, the 5th on-field official, the Back Judge, was added.
In 1958, the 2 point conversion rule was added and in 1959, the goal posts were widened from 18' 6" to 23' 4".
Things remained more or less the same until 1965 when platooning was restored and in 1965, the AP started ranking teams after the bowl games.
Another refinement came in 1957 when the numerals on the jerseys became aligned with position and the number 50-79 were clearly identified as ineligible to receive a forward pass.
In 1971, the limit of 10 games per season was increased to 11 games, but that limit did not include a bowl appearance or a conference chamionship game and a 12th game could be played outside the US mainland (Japan for example).
In 1972, a Line Judge was added (6th on-field official).
During those 22 seasons, Mississippi led with 174 wins in 237 games and Florida A&M had the best winning percentage (0.80556). 36 titles were shared by 19 teams with Ohio State (5) and Michigan State (4) earning the most.
One can make strong cases for other dates, but the general concensus is that right after WWII, college football became the game as we know it.
The Modern Divisions (1973 - 1977)
In 1973, the NCAA Divisions I, II, and III were formed. In general, the University Division teams became D-I and the College Division teams became D-II (scholarships) and D-III (no scholarships). In 1973, Divisions II and III started the first college football division championship tournaments.
In 1973, mouth protectors became required equipment.
In those 5 seasons, Alabama led with 53 wins in 60 games and Oklahoma was best with a 0.89655 winning percentage. Earning 2 National Titles each were Notre Dame and Oklahoma.
The formation of the modern intercollegiate divisions was significant. Parity was substantially improved. The establishment of championship tournaments makes for a strong argument that football prior to 1973 was just not the same.
The Subdivisions (1978 - 1991)
In 1978, Division I was split into D-IA (now FBS) and D-IAA (now FCS) with the division based on attendance numbers. The split generally matches the previous and unofficial National and/or Regional status of each team. In 1978 the D-IAA teams were no longer included in the AP and Coaches polls and no longer in competition for the Division I National Title. Hence, D-IAA instituted its own post-season championship tournament, while the D-IA teams continued to be honored with a National Title via the polls. It is significant that the Ivy League teams elected to not participate in the FCS tournament.
In 1983, the Side Judge was added (7th on-field official).
In 1988 the defensive 2 point conversion rule was added.
In 1991, the goal posts reverted back to the pre-1958 18'6" spacing.
In those 14 seasons, Dayton led with 140 wins in 168 games tied with Nebraska (140 wins in 171 games) and Brigham Young (140 wins in 180 games). Dayton also had the best winning percentage (0.84226). Nebraska had the best winning percentage for just the D-IA teams (0.82164). In FBS, 17 National Titles were shared by 12 teams with Miami (FL) leading with 4. In FCS, 14 National Titles were earned by 10 teams with Georgia Southern leading with 4.
The significance of the split of Division I into what is essentially 2 separate divisions can not be trivialized. The legacy of the early east coast teams and their significance in the record books began to erode with the split.
The Chamionship Era (1992 - present)
Although the 1971 rules changed made the needed exception, the first Division I conference championship game did not get played until 1992.
Also in 1992, the Bowl Coallition was formed with the goal of forcing a No. 1 versus No. 2 game in one of the major post-season bowls. Since the Rose Bowl along with the B1G Ten and Pac-12 (then Pac-10) did not join, this attempt failed.
In 1995 the Bowl Alliance replaced the Bowl Coallition. It too did not succeed for the same reasons as the Bowl Coallition. Also, the so-called "mid-majors" continued to be excluded.
In 1996 overtime rules were established that eliminated tie games.
In 1998 the Bowl Championship Series replaced the Bowl Alliance. This time the Rose Bowl with the B1G Ten and the Pac-12 signed on. Also all D-IA conferences were included. Going forward, the National Title would be conveyed by the winner of the designated BCS Championship Game.
In 2002, bowl game statistics were first included in the players' career totals.
In 2006, the NCAA changed D-IA to FBS and D-IAA to FCS.
In 2006, the BCS included a 5th bowl game exclusively for the BCS Championship match.
In 2006 the season was increased to 12 games per season (excluding bowl & conference championship) with a 13th game allowance for an overseas game.
Commencing with the 2008-09 season, the AP Poll included worthy FCS teams.
In the 19 seasons of the Championship Era, Montana leads Division I with 205 wins in 256 games while Dayton holds the best winning percentage (0.80882). Among just the FBS programs, Florida leads with 191 wins in 245 games while Ohio State had the best winning percentage (0.79916). Amoung the FBS teams, 21 National Titles were shared by 14 teams with Florida and Nebraska both earning 3. In FCS, 19 National Titles were earned by 12 different teams. Appalachian State and Youngstown State earned 3 each.
The single most significant change in college gridiron football was the instantiation of the so-called Championship Game, especially starting in 1998 where the honor of being called National Champion was the result of winning a high-profiled bowl game. Why is this significant? Because from that point forward, the goal of the season, in the minds of not just a few, was to get to that one game and to win it. Having a great season was no longer enough. Beating your rivals was no longer enough. Getting to/winning a bowl game was not enough. The mentality that sprang forth from that single change is that there absolutely must be 1 team designated as the best.
The Winningest Teams In College Football History
So when did football become college girdiron football or at least first resembled the game played today?
Was it in 1872 when tackling was added to Rugby? Was it in 1880 when the number of players on the field for each team was reduced to 11? Did it begin when the quarterback was added or when the line of scrimmage bacame a rule? Was it in 1912 when 10 yards and 4 downs became the rule? Was it in 1918 when the true forward pass came into the game?
Maybe it was 1905 when President Roosevelt required a major overhaul to the game.
One serious concern is the evolution of scoring. One can only speculate on the number of wins and losses that would be changed if modern scoring had been used. Certainly a game with a field goal worth 5 points and a touch down worth 2 would not have ended with the same score using today's scoring. A strong case can be made that all games prior to 1912 (TDs became 6 points) are dubious. Lesser cases can be made for games prior to the 2-point conversion rule implemented in 1958 and a minor squack can be placed on games prior to the 1988 defensive 2 point confersion rule.
All of these major rules changes effect the definition of the game and how the winningest title is derived.
Another serious question is the veracity of the records prior to 1937 when the NCAA took over the record keeping job.
A truely significant point in time was the 1978 split of Division IA into what are now called the FCS and FBS subdivisions. From that point forward such vital rules as the number of games in a season diverged and historically significant programs began to fall behind.
So how does it resolve if a date other than 1869 is chosen as the birth date for college football? Using the eras as defined above, the following results are obtained:
1869: Michigan (first game in 1878) with 884 wins and Michigan with a 0.73295 winning percentage
1880: Michigan with 883 wins and Michigan with a 0.73293 winning percentage
1905: Texas (first game in 1893) with 783 wins and Ohio State with a 0.73724 winning percentage
1918: Alabama (first game in 1893) and Texas tied with 704 wins each and Ohio State with a 0.73592 winning percentage
1937: Oklahoma (first game in 1895) with 618 wins and Oklahoma with a 0.74881 winning percentage
1951: Oklahoma with 518 wins and Old Dominion with a 0.77273 winning percentage. Ohio State (0.76194) had the best winning percentage of the FBS teams.
1973: Nebraska (first game in 1890) with 370 wins and Nebraska with a 0.78211 winning percentage
1978: Nebraska with 324 wins and Dayton with a 0.82392 winning percentage. Nebraska (0.78382) had the best winning percentage of the FBS teams.
1992: Montana (first game in 1897) with 205 wins and Dayton with a 0.80882 winning percentage. Florida (first game in 1906) had 191 wins, the most of the FBS teams and Ohio State (0.79916) had the best winning percentage of the FBS teams.
A couple of other recognitions are in order. The teams with the most number of wins in a single season are the 1894 Yale team (16-0-0) and the 1899 Chicago team (16-0-2). Of the currently active FBS teams, Marshall has the most wins in a season (15-0-0). This was accomplished in the 1996-97 season. Marshall joined the ranks of the FBS in 1997. The team with the most games played in a single season is the 1894 Chicago team that posted an astonishing 15-7-1 record.
No record book could be complete without including the team with the most number of winning seasons and the team with the highest percentage of winning seasons. A winning season does not include 0.50000 seasons. Michigan is No. 1 with 112 winning seasons out of 133 played. Boise State is No. 1 with a 0.86047 (37 of 43) record. Note: Georgia State in its first year posted a winning season and technically should be No. 1 in the winning percentage column.
National Titles, Bowls and Polls (1869 - present)
National Titles, bowl wins, and No. 1 rankings in the polls are additional ways of identifying the winningest team(s). Like the overall number of wins and winning percentages, the more modern the start date of an alternate point of view as to when college gridiron football sufficiently resembled the game as it is today, the more likely Bowl and National Title records would change.
In 142 seasons of football, 216 Division I (including the University and College Divisions) National Titles have been awarded via polls or Title games (FBS) and another 33 Titles have been earned in the FCS Tournament. Princeton holds the all time Division I record of 26 National Titles. Notre Dame leads all FBS teams with 13 National Titles. Georgia Southern has won 6 of the 33 FCS Tournament Titles. Florida, Louisiana State, and Southern California each have 2 BCS Championship wins. Georgia Southern has been to the most FCS title games (8) and Oklahoma has been to the most BCS title games (4). Delaware is the only active Division I team to hold both a Division I title and either a Division II or a Division III title. There are 4 current FBS teams that hold FCS titles: Marshall (2), Boise State (1), Louisiana-Monroe (1), and Western Kentucky(1).
There are currently 35 active FBS bowls, but there are also 33 FBS bowls that have ceased holding games. In addition, there are 5 minor bowls (D-IA, II, III) currently holding games and another 120-130 minor bowls that have shut down. 1756 bowl games (major and minor) have been played. Of the currently active Division I teams, 213 different teams have made 1 or more bowl appearances.
Florida A&M holds the all time longest bowl streak of 49 appearances from the 1933-34 to the 1978-79 seasons. Nebraska all time longest D-IA bowl streak of 35 appearances from the 1969-70 to the 2003-04 seasons.
Florida State has the longest active bowl streak of 29 appearances that started in the 1982-3 season. However, since Florida State vacated the 2006 Emerald Bowl, credit must be given to Florida with a streak of 20 appearances that started in the 1991-92 season.
Florida State has the all time consecutive bowl winning streak of 11 wins from 1985-6 to 1995-6. Southern California boasts the longest currently active bowl winning streak of 4 wins that started in 2006-7 season.
Alabama (first bowl in 1925-26) holds the record for most bowl games (58) and Southern California (first bowl in 1922) the most bowl wins (34). Florida A&M leads D-IAA with 51 bowl appearances and most bowl wins (28).
21 teams have perfect bowl records. North Dakota leads all with 3 wins (and no losses). Florida Atlantic leads the FBS with 2 wins (and no losses).
Tennessee State (first bowl in 1944-45) has the best bowl game winning percentage (0.85000) of all teams with 4 or more bowl appearances. Nevada-Las Vegas (first bowl appearance in 1974) leads all FBS teams with 4 or more bowl appearances with a 0.75000 winning percentage.
The Associated Press (AP) started its reknown poll in 1934 and with the exception of 1935 has been ranking teams every year. Of the 76 seasons on record, 27 teams have been ranked No. 1 in the final poll. Notre Dame leads all with 8 No. 1 final season rankings.
15 Decades of Winners
There has been no team that, decade by decade, dominated Division I (either FBS or FCS) college football. What follows is a tabulation of which teams were on top during each 10 year interval.
Most Games Won
1869-1870 -- Princeton (2) & Rutgers (2)
1871-1880 -- Princeton (26); FBS only: Rutgers (11)
1881-1890 -- Yale (95); FBS only: Rutgers (23)
1891-1900 -- Pennsylvania (125); FBS only: Michigan (76)
1901-1910 -- Pennsylvania (97); FBS only Michigan (78)
1911-1920 -- Georgia Tech (69)
1921-1930 -- Southern California (89)
1931-1940 -- Tennessee (80)
1941-1950 -- Georgia (79) & Notre Dame (79)
1951-1960 -- Oklahoma (86) & Prairie View A&A (86)
1961-1970 -- Texas (89)
1971-1980 -- Alabama (107)
1981-1990 -- North Dakota State (111); FBS only: Nebraska (102)
1991-2000 -- Marshall (116), Note: Marshall moved up to D-IA in 1997
2001-2010 -- Boise State (114), Note: Boise State moved up to D-IA in 1996
Best Winning Percentage
1869-1870 -- Princeton (0.66667); FBS only: Rutgers (0.50000)
1871-1880 -- Princeton (0.88710); FBS only: Rutgers (0.43548)
1881-1890 -- Yale (0.95545); FBS only: Virginia (0.70588) **
1891-1900 -- Yale (0.93254); FBS only: Buffalo (0.79167)
1901-1910 -- Yale (0.91121); FBS only: Michigan (0.90000) **
1911-1920 -- Notre Dame (0.89241) **
1921-1930 -- Notre Dame (0.87245)
1931-1940 -- Morgan State (0.85897); FBS only: Alabama (0.83411)
1941-1950 -- Notre Dame (0.85052)
1951-1960 -- Florida A&M (0.88421); FBS only: Oklahoma (0.84135) **
1961-1970 -- San Diego State (0.86408)
1971-1980 -- Alabama (0.89167)
1981-1990 -- North Dakota State (0.86822); FBS only: Miami (FL) (0.84034)
1991-2000 -- Florida State (0.89113)
2001-2010 -- Boise State (0.87692)
** Special Recognition for Exceptional Win-Loss Record (< 10 games played)
1881-1890 -- Nebraska (2-0-0), Southern California (4-0-0), and Vanderbilt (1-0-0)
1901-1910 -- Prairie View A&M (1-0-0)
1911-1920 -- Duke (4-0-1) and Albany (2-0-0)
1951-1960 -- Gardner-Webb (2-0-0)
Most National Titles
1869-1870 -- Princeton (2)
1871-1880 -- Princeton (8)
1881-1890 -- Yale (7)
1891-1900 -- Princeton (4) & Yale (4)
1901-1910 -- Michigan (4)
1911-1920 -- Harvard (3) & Pittsbugh (3)
1921-1930 -- Alabama (3) & Notre Dame (3)
1931-1940 -- Minnesota (4)
1941-1950 -- Notre Dame (4)
1951-1960 -- Michigan State (2), Ohio State (2), & Oklahoma (2)
1961-1970 -- Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Texas (3)
1971-1980 -- Alabama (3) & Southern California (3)
1981-1990 -- Georgia Southern (4); FBS only: Miami (FL) (3); also Augustana (IL) (4) in D-III and North Dakota State (5) in D-II
1991-2000 -- Youngstown State (4); FBS only: Nebraska (3); also Mount Union (5) in D-III and Northa Alabama (3) in D-II
2001-2010 -- Appalachian State (3); FBS only: Florida (2), Lousisiana State (2), Southern California (2); also Mount Union (5) in D-III and Grand Valley State (4) in D-II
Most Bowl Wins
1901-1910 -- Michigan (1)
1911-1920 -- California (1), Harvard (1), Oregon (1), Washington State (1)
1921-1930 -- Southern California (3)
1931-1940 -- Prairie View A&M (8); FBS only: Southern California (5) ++
1941-1950 -- Grambling State (5) & Prairie View A&M (5); FBS only: Georgia (4), Hawaii (4), & Texas (4) ++
1951-1960 -- Prairie View A&M (10); FBS only: Georgia Tech (6) ++
1961-1970 -- Louisiana State (6) & Texas (6) ++
1971-1980 -- Florida A&M (9); FBS only: Oklahoma (7) & Southern California (7) ++
1981-1990 -- Florida State (8) ++
1991-2000 -- Penn State (7) & Wisconsin (7) ++
2001-2010 -- Utah (8) ++
++ Special Recogniztion 10 Consecutive Bowl Appearances
1931-1940 -- Prairie View A&M (8-3-0)
1941-1950 -- Florida A&M (3-7-1) & Prairie View A&M (5-6-0)
1951-1960 -- Florida A&M (6-4-0) & Prairie View A&M (10-2-1)
1961-1970 -- Alabama (5-4-1), Florida A&M (5-5-0), & MIssissippi (4-6-0)
1971-1980 -- Alabama (6-4-0), Nebraska (7-3-0), Y Penn State (6-4-0)
1981-1990 -- Brigham Young (4-6-0), Michigan (5-5-0), & Nebraska (3-7-0)
1991-2000 -- Florida (5-5-0), Florida State (7-3-0), Michigan (7-3-0), Nebraska (6-4-0), Tennessee (5-5-0)
2001-2010 -- Boston College (7-3-0), Florida (6-4-0), Florida State (6-4-0), Georgia (7-3-0), Georgia Tech (3-7-0), Louisiana State (7-3-0), Ohio State (6-4-0), Oklahoma (5-5-0), Texas Tech (7-3-0)
The record books show Michigan as the front runner on 4 occasions: (1) Only bowl win/bowl game in the 1901-1910 decade; (2) 4 National Titles in the 1901-1910 decade; (3) Most wins if counting starts in 1893 or earlier; and (4) Best winning percentage if counting starts in 1899 or earlier.
Alabama holds the record of most bowl appearances (58). Southern California holds the record of most bowl wins (34). Florida A&M holds the all time longest bowl streak of 49 appearances. Florida State has the all time consecutive bowl winning streak of 11 wins.
Princeton holds the all time record for National Championship Titles (26). Notre Dame leads all FBS teams with 13 titles and has ended the season 8 times ranked No. 1 in the AP poll, more often than any other team.
Yale held the record for the most all-time wins for 116 of the 142 seasons of record. Michigan has held the record for the last 10 seasons only.
Yale held the record for best all-time winning percentage for 37 of the 142 seasons and Notre Dame held the record for 35 seasons. Michigan has held the record for the last 4 seasons and a total of 6 seasons.
It is clear that the Wolverines have not always been the ranked as the winningest program in college football history. Certainly the 2 records have been earned, and neither is easy or quick. However, ascention to the No. 1 spot is a recent accomlishment.
The records, also, are tenuous at best. The 19 game lead over Yale is less than 2 seasons of games. Over the last 4 seasons, Yale has closed the gap by 2 wins. Texas has closed the gap by 27 wins from 61 to 34 in the past decade. The slim lead in winning percentage over Notre Dame can be lost in the 2011 season.
Michigan's true accomplishment is fielding winning teams year after year for nearly 14 decades. Michigan has 112 winning seasons (> 0.50000), more than any other currently active Division I team.
Michigan's records of most all-time wins and best all-time winning percentage are legitimate. What is called into question is the definition of "winningest."
The arbitrary selection of 1869 for the first college football game is a bit awkward since the rules did not evolve to the game as it's currently played until decades later. A game with a 2 point touchdown and a 5 point field goal is just not the same game. Lacking a quarterback, a snap from center, and a forward pass makes the game too unlike the game as it is today.
What is needed is an augmentation, a second set of legitimate records that include only those games that are recognizable as college gridiron football in play, in the rules, and in the scoring. It seems the more appropriate start date for keeping these new records should be 1951. Arguments for starting the record on other dates are legitimate and make valid points and organizational changes made since the inception of NCAA in 1937 (the latest being the 2006 increase to 12 games per season and the addition of a 5th bowl for the BCS Title game) should be part of the debate.