When you think of dominance in sports, nothing comes to mind quite like a dynasty. Unlike a single game or season, excellence carried across multiple years represents the pinnacle of competition. After standing well above one's peers for a sustained period of time, sports dynasties and those who help build them are immortalized forever.
As opposed to other sports, college football has actually had their fair share of collegiate empires, with legendary head coaches and All-American players ushering in stretches of unrivaled campus glory. Even as the game evolves and players move to new schools, the sport has shown no signs of a dynasty drop off.
With all that being said, here are GMTM's five greatest CFB dynasties of the past half-century.
*All statistics courtesy of Sports Reference CFB.
5) 1977-80 Alabama
Before Saban, there was Bear Bryant. While previous iterations of 'Bama football dominance were ineligible for this list, the '70s dynasty more than holds their own. Although several top programs from the decade missed the cut (Notre Dame, USC, Nebraska), the Tide's mind-numbing consistency, coupled with this being The Bear's final years in Tuscaloosa, merited a mention at #5.
From '71-76, Alabama suffered a minuscule total of nine losses, along with four top-5 finishes during that timespan. Still, Bryant's boys had failed to win a national championship. That fact was only amplified following a heartbreaking exclusion from the top spot in 1977, when the Tide were second place behind Notre Dame.
After a crushing loss to USC in 1978, the Crimson's title chances looked slim. An undefeated run the rest of the season, including non-conference wins over Nebraska and Missouri, set up a heavyweight clash with no. 1 Penn State in the 1979 Sugar Bowl. After a long drive, the Tide defense managed to stop Penn State in an epic goal-line stand, clinching the school's fifth national championship by a score of 14-7. An undefeated run the following year, culminating in a 24-9 drubbing of Arkansas on New Year's Day, made Alabama back-to-back champions.
4) 2002-2008 USC
While they would eventually become mired in controversy, Pete Carrol's USC Trojan tenure is most famous for an absurd collection of talent that made up the greatest squad of the 2000's.
Stuck in mediocrity throughout much of the 1990's, Carroll was named USC's head coach prior to the 2001 season, met with limited expectations and public outcry in SoCal. After going 6-6 in year one, Carroll led the Trojans to an 11-2 record in 2002 and a Rose Bowl victory over Iowa. The next year, the only loss on the schedule was in triple-overtime to Cal, yet the BCS system questionably kept USC out of the national title game, a move that resulted in a split national championship fiasco. The 2004 group came back with a vengeance, going 13-0 and finishing their season with a 55-19 scraping of Oklahoma in the title game.
In 2005, the Trojans rode into the national title game as an unstoppable force, having won 34 straight games stretching back to 2003. However, Vince Young's Texas Longhorns eked out a win in an absolute classic BCS Championship. Although the loss would mark USC's last chance to win a title, the team still had three straight top-4 finishes in the final AP Poll through 2008. Despite winning just one title, the 82-9 record compiled during this span, accompanied by some of college football's biggest names (Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez, Reggie Bush, Lendale White, Clay Matthews) made this one of the more notable dynasties in the history of the sport.
3) 1993-97 Nebraska
Under head coach Tom Osbourne, Nebraska football had maintained their historic pedigree with competitive seasons each year. However, the Cornhuskers had failed to take home a National Championship in the two decades since Osbourne took over in 1973.
In 1993, Nebraska looked poised to finish the job. After a 12-0 start, they went into the Orange Bowl looking to topple no. 1 Florida State in a de-facto title game. A low-scoring battle soon ensued, and Nebraska was in position to win the game if kicker Byron Bennet could connect on a 45-yard field goal. Spoiler: he didn't. Angry over a brutal defeat the season prior, 1994's edition set out to take care of 'Unfinished Business'. Scoring 459 points and giving up just 162, the Huskers completed an absolutely dominant year with a 24-17 Orange Bowl victory over Miami. As an encore, the 1995 Huskers were even better, averaging an absurd 53.2 points per game (no. 1 nationally) in addition to possessing the nation's fourth-best defense en route to another undefeated season.
Failing to three-peat as national champions in 1996 with an 11-2 year, Osbourne's crew was back to their winning ways in 1997. In the head coach's final year in Lincoln, the Huskers carried a dynamic run game led by Ahman Green (1,877 rush yards, 22 touchdowns) and quarterback Scott Frost (1,095 rush yards, 19 touchdowns) to another no. 1 offensive ranking. Their third undefeated season in four years was capped off with an overpowering victory over Tennessee in the Orange Bowl by a score of 42-17. While not as enduring as the next two selections on the list, the Huskers during this time period went an absurd 60-3 over four seasons while taking home three national titles.
2) 1983-92 Miami
The Miami dynasty of the 1980s and early 90s is likely the most famous entrant on our list. Not only did the Hurricanes draw the ire of just about every other program in the nation, they did it while playing by their own rules, possessing then-unheard of levels of confidence and swagger. To be fair, they earned it: four national titles during this span under three different coaches made this a dynasty that was greater than any player or staff member.
Miami has had a football program since 1936, yet only finished in the top 25 five times before 1980, having almost been dropped by the university due to their lack of success. That all changed with the arrival of Howard Schnellenberger, former offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins. After a rocky first season in 1979, Schnellenberger slowly gave the Hurricanes respectability, finishing the season ranked in 1980 and '81. The 1983 group gave Miami their first title in underdog fashion; following a brutal opening week loss to Florida (28-3), the Hurricanes strung together twelve straight wins, culminating with a major upset of Nebraska in a 31-30 Orange Bowl victory.
After leaving the school in 1983, Schnellenberger's successor, then-Oklahoma State head coach Jimmy Johnson, proved to be just as successful. Unlike his predecessor, Johnson encouraged his players to embrace the role of college football's villains, trash-talking and showboating along the way. While drawing the ire of the rest of the nation, Johnson's leniency played a major role in transforming the school from Miami to 'The U', ushering in a decade of dominance that was marked by a 1987 national title and a 52-9 record over five seasons. Their excellent play and assortment of stars (Michael Irvin, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde, Jerome Brown) firmly established the Hurricanes as CFB's newest blue blood.
Departing for the Dallas Cowboys, Johnson handed over the keys to the program to Dennis Erickson. While never receiving the acclaim of the two previous head coaches, Erickson won two national titles (1989, 1991) and still holds the highest winning percentage in school history (.875). Although the program began to decline by the end of his tenure, Erickson was able to conduct a seamless transition from the Johnson era while maintaining the same level of excellence on both sides of the ball. Perhaps most impressive about this Miami dynasty is that it laid the foundation for the absurdly stacked Hurricanes squads of the early 2000's who revived The U's national standing.
1) 2009-2021 Alabama
The most obvious choice is also the correct one. The sun never sets on Nick Saban's empire, as the Tide have won six National Championships since he took over in Tuscaloosa. However, what is arguably the greatest dynasty in the history of American sports didn't always seem destined for greatness.
When Saban was named head coach in 2007, he inherited a blue blood that had fallen on tough times, suffering from mediocre head coaches and NCAA sanctions that cast a black eye over the entire program. A 12-2 2008 season that gave fans hope was soon dashed by a 31-17 Sugar Bowl defeat to Utah. Luckily for 'Bama, the 2009 Crimson Tide were unstoppable, wrecking teams with Saban staples: stout play in the trenches, athletic stars at running back, and smart, game-manager quarterback play. What has ensued since that season has been nothing short of jaw-dropping: five more national championships, a nearly annual appearance in the College Football Playoff, three different Heisman winners in Mark Ingram ('09), Derrick Henry ('15) and DeVonta Smith ('20), and a never-ending talent pipeline to the NFL.
This past season's iteration may have been the best team not just in Alabama's rich history, but college football. Saban's embrace of a passing-focused offense changed how defenses were able to defend against the Tide, no longer able to stack the box in order to slow down the running game. An aerial attack led by quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris, and wide receivers Smith and Jaylen Waddle absolutely wrecked the competition in 2020, averaging nearly fifty points per game. The closest margin of victory all season was fifteen, and the team steamrolled their way through the College Football Playoff. The craziest thing about this dynasty is that it shows no signs of slowing down; Alabama commands 2021's top recruiting class, and should continue to bring in high-level talent as long as Saban is coaching.