Commentary

Prestige Rankings: Nos. 1-5

Originally Published: January 23, 2009
By Chris Fallica, Nick Loucks and Harold Shelton | ESPN Research

Who is No. 1? That debate rages weekly during each college football season, and often long after the season is over and the trophies have been handed out. The debate is as much a part of the annual ritual as the touchdowns, fight songs and bowl games.

If you think that process can spark a debate, try ranking each Football Bowl Subdivision team's all-time position in college football history.

But the ESPN Research Department devised a plan to settle the argument. Its system lets the numbers do the talking.

ESPN's Prestige Rankings are a numerical method of ranking the best FBS college football programs since the 1936 season. Point values were assigned for certain successes (win a national title, earn 25 points) and failures (get your program banned from the postseason, lose two points). The research department ran all the numbers through the computer to come up with the No. 1 program (and Nos. 2 to 119) of the past 73 seasons.

ESPN.com will be rolling out the rankings all week. Final stop: teams 1 to 5. Take a look:

1. Oklahoma Sooners
Total points: 1,968
Positives: When you look at the big picture of college football since 1936, no program has achieved greatness as consistently as Oklahoma. We didn't even count the fact that Oklahoma owns the longest win streak in FBS history (47) or leads the nation with a .765 winning percentage since World War II. The 1956 Oklahoma team catapulted the Sooners past Notre Dame to the top of the Prestige Rankings, and it's been in the top spot ever since. OU's seven national titles have spanned four decades. The Sooners have finished in the final poll's top 5 an astounding 29 times. But the real fuel for OU's rise to the top of our rankings has been its conference dominance. The Sooners finished the regular season with at least a share of their conference's best record a stunning 39 times, seven more than any other program in the country.
Negatives: Oklahoma was downright mediocre in the '90s. The Sooners ranked 51st in that decade's rankings, directly behind Hawaii. OU also didn't have a single major bowl win and suffered through three losing seasons. The Oklahoma program also has been punished by the NCAA to varying degrees six separate times in its history.
Through the decades: Through 1958: 1st | 1968: 1st | 1978: 1st | 1988: 1st | 1998: 1st
Did you know? Oklahoma has been voted the No. 1 team in the country by the AP a record 97 times, including twice this past season to break a tie with Notre Dame.

2. USC Trojans
Total points: 1,897
Positives: With 513 points in 11 seasons (almost 100 more than its nearest competitor), the Trojans have been the undisputed king of the BCS era. USC's special 2004 season accounted for 118 points, which is one point shy of '93 Florida State's Prestige Rankings season record. It has enjoyed the services of an astounding 17 consensus All-Americans in the last seven seasons. USC has finished in the top 3 in annual Prestige Points in each of those seven seasons. USC also is the top-scoring program in the 1970s and is tied with Notre Dame and Ohio State for the most all-time Heisman winners with seven.
Negatives: It's amazing how USC's recent success has overshadowed its mediocrity in the 1990s. The Trojans didn't enjoy a single 10-win season between 1989 and 2001. It is barely over .500 (37-35) in the last five years of that stretch before Pete Carroll came to town. If you look at just the '90s, USC has fewer Prestige Points than schools like Syracuse, Wisconsin and BYU. USC was also docked for minus-29 points on our probation scoring system.
Through the decades: Through 1958: 8th | 1968: 5th | 1978: 3rd | 1988: 3rd | 1998: 5th
Did you know? If you altered our points system such that it did not include any points for best conference records or conference title game bonuses, USC would edge Oklahoma for the top spot by 11 points.

3. Ohio State Buckeyes
Total points: 1,655
Positives: Dripping with football tradition, Ohio State has been a fixture in the Prestige Rankings for the past half-century. In 1968-69, the Buckeyes racked up 190 points alone. As a point of reference, that's more than the highly successful Boise State program has earned in the last decade combined. OSU is the No. 5 program in the 1970s, and it could have been much higher had it not been for its "Ten-Year War" with Michigan during that time. Even for all the flack that John Cooper received for his 2-10-1 record against Michigan, he is responsible for a boatload of NFL 1st-round draft picks. The recent knock on OSU has been its failure to win the big bowl games, but that hasn't stopped them from finishing in the top 5 in all but two of the last seven seasons. Plus, the five-time national champions should like their spot in the Prestige Rankings ahead of their longtime rival to the north.
Negatives: The Buckeyes would have been a threat for the top spot in our rankings if not for the lack of dominating seasons in the '80s after Woody Hayes was fired. And if they had been able to knock off Florida and LSU in the two recent BCS National Championship Games, the Buckeyes would have really been nipping at USC's heels for the BCS-era crown.
Through the decades: Through 1958: 5th | 1968: 6th | 1978: 6th | 1988: 6th | 1998: 6th
Did you know? Ohio State has just five losing seasons since 1936 (and just two since 1960). That's the fewest among any program that's been around that long.

4. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Total points: 1,579
Positives: A true blue blood of the sport, Notre Dame is synonymous with college football. The Fighting Irish won four national titles in a seven-year span in the '40s. The Golden Domers had another golden era in the '70s, when a national-high 18 consensus All-Americans helped them win it all two more times. Notre Dame was also the early dominator in our Prestige Rankings through 1955. The next season was a historic one, with ND's Paul Hornung winning the Heisman Trophy despite being on a 2-8 Irish squad. Notre Dame is still the all-time leader in consensus All-Americans with 77.
Negatives: Notre Dame haters would be quick to notice that the Irish earned almost a third of their Prestige Points before 1950. Of course, Notre Dame's recent struggles have been well documented, but we have to continue to pile it on here. ND has just one bowl win since 1994. Since 2000, Notre Dame has a third of the first-round draft picks that Boston College has (2 to 6). And since 1998, Notre Dame ranks 30th in the country, behind four non-BCS schools and both Oregon teams.
Through the decades: Through 1958: 2nd | 1968: 2nd | 1978: 2nd | 1988: 4th | 1998: 2nd
Did you know? Since 1995, Notre Dame has fewer consensus All-Americans than Northwestern.

5. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Total points: 1,553
Positives: Nebraska has five national titles, including two sets of back-to-back titles (1970-71, 1994-95). They followed up the 1994-95 titles with a shared title in 1997. The Huskers also have enjoyed the services of three Heisman winners: RB Johnny Rodgers (1972), RB Mike Rozier (1983) and QB Eric Crouch (2001). Nebraska ranks in the top five in numerous categories such as major bowl appearances (30, T-2nd), 10-win seasons (23, 3rd), bowl appearances (45, 4th), conference titles (26, T-4th), weeks at AP No. 1 (70, 5th) and major bowl wins (14, 5th).
Negatives: Nebraska isn't among the elite in the first three decades of the AP poll era. The Huskers are in 35th place in the Prestige Rankings when the 1950s began. Things didn't turn around quickly after that either. In fact, Nebraska had 17 losing seasons in a 21-season span between 1941 and 1961. More recently, Nebraska has produced only two first-round picks this decade, while finishing the season unranked in four of its last five seasons.
Through the decades: Through 1958: 49th | 1968: 23rd | 1978: 8th | 1988: 7th | 1998: 4th
Did you know? Nebraska had a record 35 consecutive bowl appearances from 1969 to 2003. The longest current bowl-appearance streak belongs to Florida State, which has 27.

Chris Fallica, Nick Loucks and Harold Shelton are researchers at ESPN.