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20 Longest Active Championship Droughts in College Football

by: Esteban On  Tuesday, November 20, 2012

college football championship droughts

Unless you’ve been living under rock, then as a sports fan you are well aware that the Notre Dame Fighting Irish—one of the most iconic brands in American sports—are ranked #1 in the country for the first time since 1993. And of course, if they win their final game of the season at USC this Saturday, they’ll get the chance to play (somebody) for their first National Championship since 1988.

That’s a long drought for such a famous program. That would be like the Yankees going a decade without winning a World Series—which of course happened in the 1980s. Nevertheless, while it has been a long time since Notre Dame was a legit contender, their National Championship drought is nothing compared to those of some other programs.

Want to see what I’m talking about? Well good, because we’re about to take a stroll through the longest standing droughts in college football. But before we get started, there’s one little thing I have to point out.

You see, back in the day, long before the BCS, multiple media outlets and sports organizations named national champions. Often there was one team that received more selections from reputable sources than others, and these we call “Consensus National Champions,” but there was no official way to settle on one single winner. Thus, there were also years in which there were multiple teams with legitimate National Championship claims.

So what do I consider a “legitimate” National Championship claim? Well, for our purposes here, I didn’t count a Championship if only one selector chose the team while multiple selectors chose other teams. This seems like a reasonable approach to me. Hopefully it also seems reasonable to you.

20. Washington Huskies

20 washington huskies national championship - college football championship droughts

Drought: 21 years

The Huskies went 12-0 in 1991. Of course, so did the Miami Hurricanes. So the vote was pretty much split. Miami got 8 selectors, including the AP, while Washington got 11, including USA Today.


19. Tie – Colorado Buffaloes & Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

19 georgia tech national championship - college football championship droughts

Drought: 22 Years

The Buffaloes were 11-1-1 in 1991 while the Yellow Jackets were 11-0-1. Moreover, Colorado got most votes, including the AP and USA Today. However, GT got 5 votes, which aint nothin’, and one of them was UPI—a vote which used to count for something. So they had a legit title claim.

Of course, neither team has won a National Championship since.

18. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

18 notre dame 1988 national championship - college football championship droughts

Drought: 23 years*

For most teams on this list, the year count has been updated to include 2012. However, it has not been updated for two teams who still have a shot at a Championship. Obviously Notre Dame, who last won in 1988 under Lou Holtz, is one of them. If they win, their drought ends at 23. If they don’t, it gets extended to 24.


17. Penn State Nittany Lions

17 penn state joe paterno national championship - college football national championship droughts

Drought: 26 years

Penn State last won a consensus National Championship in 1986, when they went 12-0, though they did get some votes in 1994, when they went 12-0 again. Nebraska, however, was the consensus #1 that year, having gone 13-0 and earned the votes of the AP, UPI, and USA Today.

In any case, this drought won’t be ending any time soon, what with the sanctions imposed on PSU by the NCAA this summer.


16. BYU Cougars

16 BYU cougars national championship 1984 - college football national championship droughts

Drought: 28 years

BYU’s lone National Championship came in 1984. At least they can say they were the consensus pick: at 13-0, they got all the votes that mattered most.


15. Clemson


Drought: 31 years

Clemson went 12-0 in 1981 and were rightfully crowned National Champions over one-loss teams like Pittsburgh and SMU.


14. Georgia Bulldogs

14 1980 georgia bulldogs - college football national championship droughts

Drought: 31 years*

The Georgia Bulldogs are the other team for whom I have not updated the year count to include 2012. They currently sit in 3rd place in the BCS standings, so if they beat Georgia Tech this week, then whoever they face in the SEC Championship Game—which will almost certainly be Alabama—they will get a shot at the National Championship regardless of what Notre Dame does this week. So whether their drought ends at 31 years or gets extended to 32 is entirely up to them.


13. Pittsburgh Panthers

13 tony dorsett pittsburgh panthers - college football national championship droughts

Drought: 36 years

Pitt got more than one vote in 1980,when they went 11-1, but Georgia went 12-0 that year and received all the crucial votes to become the consensus National Champs. So you have to go al the way back to 1976 for the Panthers, when they went 12-0 and were consensus Champs over 11-1 USC.


12. Michigan State Spartans

12 michigan state spartans 1966 - college football national championship droughts

Drought: 46 years

In 1966, Michigan State and Notre Dame both went 9-0-1. And while Notre Dame got more votes for the National Championship, including the AP and UPI, the Spartans got four votes, including a crucial one from the National Football Foundation, which was and still is a major selector.


11. Arkansas Razorbacks

11 arkansas razorbacks 1964 - college football national championship droughts

Drought: 48 years

They received a single vote in 1977, but their last and only consensus Championship came in 1964. That year they went 11-0, but had to split the title with 10-1 Alabama.


10. Ole Miss

10 ole miss 1962 - college football national championship droughts

Drought: 50 years

I’m being extremely charitable with this one. Ole Miss was not a consensus champ in 1962. However, they got three votes and went 10-0, so their claim is pretty legit, even though USC was received more votes. If you want to be a stickler, then you could put the Rebs’ drought at 52 years. Their last consensus title was actuall 1960, when they split the Championship with the…


9. Minnesota Golden Gophers

9 minnesota golden gophers 1960 - college football national championship droughts

Drought: 52 years

Yep, Minnesota won a National Championship way, way back in the day. In 1960, the Golden Gophers went 8-2, yet still were selected at the champs by the AP, NFF, and UPI. Ole Miss got more votes that year, but only one of them was from a supposedly “major” organization—the Football Writers Association of America.


8. Syracuse Orangemen

8 syracuse football 1959 - college football national championship droughts

Drought: 53 years

Syracuse? National Champs in football? Yeah, now we are going back a way. They were the lone consensus National Champions (over Old Miss) in 1959, with a record of 11-0.


7. UCLA Bruins

7 ucla bruins football 1954 - college football national championship droughts

Drought: 59 years

If by some chance you only started paying attention to college football this year, you’d see the Bruins here and not think anything of it. (Because the 2012-13 squad is actually good.) However, Bruins football hasn’t been solid for a long, long time. So you have to go all the way back to 1954 to find a Bruins team that received enough votes to be considered a consensus National Champ. That year they went 9-0 and received two major votes to 10-0 Ohio State’s one.


6. Maryland Terrapins

6 maryland football 1953 - college football national championship droughts

Drought: 60 years

In 1953, Notre Dame went 9-0-1 and got more votes (probably thanks to the reputation of their program), but the Terps went 10-0 and got the votes that mattered to become consensus National Champs for the first and only time.


5. Army Black Knights

5 army football 1946 - college football national championship droughts

Drought: 66 years

The way college sports works today, programs like Army cannot compete at the highest level because they cannot recruit most of the guys who only want to play two years and then head to the NFL. But back in the day? They were a college football powerhouse. Their last legit title claim came in 1946. Army went 9-0-1 and received 6 votes, while Notre Dame went 8-0-1 and received 10.


4. TCU Horned Frogs

4 tcu football 1938 - college football national championship droughts

Drought: 74 years

TCU went 13-0 in 2010, but with no playoff system in college football, there was no way anybody was going to pick them as #1 over the 14-0 Auburn. So you have to go back to 1938 to find the last time the Horned Frogs had a legit title claim. That year both they and Tennesse went 11-0, splitting the selectors’ votes pretty evenly.


3. California Golden Bears

3 1938 rose bowl alabama california - college football national championship droughts

Drought: 75 years

Yeah, there aren’t too many people around anymore who remember when Cal used to be a football powerhouse. But they were…back in the 20s and 30s. Their last remotely legit Championship claim came in 1937, when they went 10-0-1 and received two votes to Pitts’ 11. If you don’t want to be that charitable, you’d have to go back to 1922, when they received four votes to Princeton’s five.


2. SMU Mustanges

2 mustangs rose bowl 1936 - college football national championship droughts

Drought: 77 years

The Mustangs were very good in the early 80s thanks to the illegal dealings that earned them the dreaded NCAA “death penalty.” However, during those years, no more than one selector ever declared them the National Champs. You have to go all the way back to 1935 to find a legitimate National Championship claim. That year, three selectors went with SMU, while Princeton and TCU got one vote each.


1. Illinois Fighting Illini

1 red grange fighting illini - college football national championship droughts

Drought: 85 years

Illinois claims they won a National Championship in 1951, when they went 9-0-1. However, that year they got just one vote. Maryland, who went 10-0, got 5, and Tennessee, who went 10-1, got 4, including the two that mattered most at the time (AP and UPI). So really, you have to go all the way back to 1927 to find a season in which the Fighting Illini recieve more than one single vote. That year, the legendary Red Grange led Illinois to a consensus Championship with a 7-0-1 record.