The Oldest American College Football Teams [Top 10]

During the 2018-19 season, football at the college level ranked second among the most popular sports in America.

If you’re not familiar with the sport, it’s easy to assume that college football is simply a smaller version of the National Football League (NFL). But that’s not the case at all.

You see, while league football and college football are both, well, football they might as well be two different sports altogether.

Fun fact: college football has a massive fan base with matches usually attracting 100,000+. That’s not common in an NFL game.

All in all, the outstanding popularity has something to do with the fact that college football is a really old sport. It has deeply ingrained roots in American history.

In appreciation of this amazing heritage, we’ve compiled for you a list of the top ten oldest college football teams in the US.

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1. Princeton Tigers (Princeton University)

  • Played their first season in 1869

Princeton University, an Ivy League institution, has one of the oldest football teams in the history of college football.

The university’s football program played its first football game in November 1869. Back then, Princeton went by the name, The College of New Jersey.

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On November 6, 1869, members of The College of New Jersey team traveled to New Brunswick to play against the neighboring Rutgers College. Today it’s known as Rutgers University.

This game is generally considered the first-ever intercollegiate football game. It is popularly known as “the Princeton/Rutgers game”.

Princeton came back to beat Rutgers a week after the first game where they lost. That first match ended up sparking one of the longest-running football feuds ever. 

2. Harvard Crimson (Harvard University)

  • Played their first season in 1874

Harvard University, a veteran in college football, is one of the earliest institutions to play the game. At a time when the rules of football were murky, the Harvard Crimson played under their own improvised guidelines.

While Harvard was already playing the sport by 1873, their personal rules made the university unable to play with others.

However, on May 14, 1874, Harvard met with the team from McGill for a couple of games. These matches included both teams’ individual rules.

3. Michigan Wolverines (University of Michigan)

  • Played their first season in 1879

The University of Michigan started competing in college football in 1879.

On May 30, 1879, the Michigan Wolverines met the Racine College football team at White Stocking Park in Chicago. That was the first match Michigan played at the intercollegiate football level.

The Michigan Wolverines have since gone on to claim 11 national championship titles and won league titles 42 times. This has established them as a dominant force in the history of the game.

4. Minnesota Golden Gophers (University of Minnesota) 

  • Played their first season in 1882

By 1878, the University of Minnesota had become familiar with football. Students within the institution were actually playing the game recreationally.

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In 1882, the university established its first official football team. They would go on to compete in the 1882 intercollegiate football season.

On September 30, 1882, the Minnesota Golden Gophers met with two other teams at the King’s Fair Ground. The other teams came from Hamline University and Carleton College. 

Minnesota came out with an easy victory against Hamline University in their first-ever football game.

5. Cincinnati Bearcats (University of Cincinnati)

  • Played their first season in 1885
Oct 3, 2020; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats defensive end Myjai Sanders (21) celebrates his sack during the third quarter against the South Florida Bulls at Nippert Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bearcats enjoy a seat at the table among the oldest college football programs in the US. The team first played for the University of Cincinnati in 1885 as an independent.

However, the Bearcats’ first intercollegiate football match took place in Ohio in December 1888.

6. Iowa Hawkeyes (University of Iowa)

  • Played their first season in 1889

The University of Iowa football team, the Iowa Hawkeyes, debuted in college football in 1889. But they were not new to the game. They had been playing football locally as a recreational sport with other colleges dating back to 1882.

From 1882 to 1887, the Hawkeyes played under the Western Interstate University Football Association, which was one of the earliest intercollegiate athletic conferences.

The first official college football game involving the Hawkeyes took place in Grinnell, Iowa on November 16, 1889. 

The University of Iowa played against the neighboring Grinnell College at the latter’s home ground.

7. NC State Wolfpack (North Carolina State University)

  • Played their first season in 1892
during the first half of N.C. State’s game against East Carolina University at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, August 31, 2019.

The North Carolina State University’s football program dates back to its humble beginnings in 1892. 

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Today it’s known as the NC State Wolfpack. But back then, it was the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. 

On March 12, 1892, the Wolfpack battled it out against Raleigh Male Academy and came out victorious.

8. Alabama Crimson Tide (University of Alabama)

  • Played their first season in 1892
Crimson Tide Football Earns 2019 AFCA Academic Achievement Award –  University of Alabama News | The University of Alabama

The Alabama Crimson Tide football team, back then going by the name the Alabama Cadets football team, represented the University of Alabama in college football beginning in 1892.

The Alabama Cadets, established the previous year, were ready to hit the ground running for the 1892 season.

And on November 11, 1892, the Cadets emerged victorious against Birmingham High School. This is considered the first game in the history of Alabama football.

9. LSU Tigers (Louisiana State University)

  • Played their first season in 1893
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The present day LSU Tigers football program of Louisiana State University dates back to 1893.

On November 25, 1893, Louisiana State University had its first game against Tulane University. 

LSU lost the match and it marked the beginning of what would become a longstanding rivalry spanning generations.

Back then, the Louisiana State University football team had not yet adopted the name the “Tigers”. That name was first associated with the 1896 team.

10. Washington State Cougars (Washington State University)

  • Played their first season in 1894

The Washington State University football team debuted in the college football scene in the 1894 season.

The state university was once known as the Washington Agricultural College and School of Science. 

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In its first official college football game played on November 18, 1894, WACSS walked away with a victory against the University of Idaho.


Conclusion

Today, college football in the US tends to attract millions of fans watching live on packed stadiums and viewing on TV. 

The spectacle can make it hard to imagine the sport had a humble start, at times attracting less than 200 people. 

Now it’s been over 150 years since the first college football match played and the sport has become a part of the nation’s legacy.

Author bio

Adam Marshall is a freelance writer who specializes in all things apartment organization, real estate, and college advice. He currently works with Grove at Flagstaff to help them with their online marketing.

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