Brain Bowl: The Top Ranked FBS Academic Schools Head-to-Head in Football

By Amy Daughters -

Did you know that Northwestern will play both Stanford and Duke in 2015?

It amounts to the top three academic schools in the FBS squaring off in the same season, according to U.S. News & World Report’s National University Rankings.

Among the rankings’ top 25 institutions are 10 schools that field FBS football teams; eight play in power conferences, one is an independent and one hails from Conference USA.

Though it is easy to identify which of these schools consistently pump out winning football teams, what about the smart squads that have had the most success straight-up against the other top academic institutions?

It’s the first-ever Brain Bowl, tracking the top 10 FBS smart schools straight-up, all-time.

10. Rice

National University Ranking:  No. 19

All-Time vs. Top 25 FBS Academic Opponents:  10-26-1 (28%)

The only two Top 25 FBS Academic schools Rice has a winning record against are Stanford (3-1) and Northwestern (4-3). The Owls have won one game apiece against Duke (1-5), Vanderbilt (1-4) and Cal (1-1).  They have never beaten Notre Dame (0-5), UCLA (0-5) or USC (0-2-1). Rice has never played Virginia in football.

What hurts the Owls in the rankings is that they’ve played the least number of total games against the other smart-schools (36). The last time the Owls faced a top academic foe was in 2014, when they traveled to South Bend and got whacked 48-17 by Notre Dame in the season opener.

9. Northwestern

National University Ranking:  No. 13

All-Time vs. Top 25 FBS Academic Opponents:  28-62-3 (32%)

The sole Big Ten member on the list, Northwestern only has a winning record against two of its fellow smart schools: Vanderbilt (2-1-1) and Cal (2-1). The Wildcats are .500 all-time vs. Duke (8-8) and UCLA (3-3) and have losing records against Stanford (1-3-2), Rice (3-4) and USC (0-5). What kills it is the number of times it has played, and lost, to Notre Dame (9-37-2). Northwestern is one of four smart schools to have never played Virginia.

The Wildcats faced two members of the brain trust last season.  They opened up with a 31-24 loss to Cal in Evanston and then picked up a 43-40 road win over Notre Dame in mid-November.

8. California

National University Ranking:  No. 20

All-Time vs. Top 25 FBS Academic Opponents:  106-183-7 (37%)

Cal is one of four Pac-12 schools listed among the Top 25 academic schools, making it no surprise that they’ve played in the third most brain bowls (296).

The Golden Bears don’t have a winning record vs. any of the other nine programs in the brain trust; the nearest thing is their 1-1 mark vs. Rice.  Cal is 1-2 vs. Northwestern, 43-55-10 vs. Stanford, 32-52-1 vs. UCLA and 29-68-5 vs. USC.  They have never beaten Duke (0-1-1) or Notre Dame (0-4) and have never played Vandy or Virginia in football.

Cal went 1-3 in its four brain games last season: Opening up with a 31-24 road win at Northwestern, losing at home to UCLA (36-34) and Stanford (38-17) and dropping a road trip to USC (38-30).

7. Stanford

National University Ranking:  No. 4 (tie)

All-Time vs. Top 25 FBS Academic Opponents:  139-172-18 (44.98%)

Stanford’s edge over Cal comes down to its 55-43-10 all-time mark straight-up vs. the Golden Bears.  The Cardinal is second on the list in total brain games played with 329.

Stanford also has a winning record vs. Duke (3-1) and Northwestern (3-1-2), but has a losing mark vs. Notre Dame (10-19), Rice (1-3), UCLA (38-45-3) and USC (29-60-3).  Like Cal, the Cardinal have never faced Vanderbilt or Virginia on the gridiron.

Stanford played four smart schools in 2014, beating Cal (38-17) and UCLA (31-10) and losing to USC (13-10) and Notre Dame (17-14).

6. Virginia

National University Ranking:  No. 23 (tie)

All-Time vs. Top 25 FBS Academic Opponents:  40-49-2 (45.05%)

What helps Virginia is that it’s only played five of its fellow top academic teams, never squaring off with Stanford, Northwestern, Rice or Cal in football.  Almost 75 percent of the 91 games the Cavaliers have played vs. the brain trust consists of the 66 times they’ve met fellow ACC member Duke (33-33).

Like Cal, Virginia doesn’t have a winning record against any member of the SAT honor roll.  Other than Duke, the only such team it has ever beaten is Vanderbilt (7-12-2).  The Cavs are 0-1 vs. Notre Dame, 0-1 vs. UCLA and 0-2 vs. USC.

Virginia suffered a pair of losses to fellow smart schools last season, a 28-20 defeat to UCLA in Charlottesville in the season opener and a 20-13 loss to Duke in Durham in October.

5. Duke

National University Ranking:  No. 8 (tie)

All-Time vs. Top 25 FBS Academic Opponents:   53-59-1 (47%)

More than half of Duke’s total brain bowl resume (113 games) is via its 66 meetings with Virginia, games the two split 33-33.  Unlike the Cavaliers, the Blue Devils are one of only three smart schools that have played all of the other academic achievers at least once.

The only opponents Duke has a winning record against are Rice (5-1) and Cal (1-0-1). Besides Virginia, the Blue Devils are even all-time vs. Northwestern (8-8).  They have losing marks vs. Stanford (1-3), Notre Dame (1-3) and Vanderbilt (4-7) and have never beaten UCLA (0-1) or USC (0-3).

The most recent non-Virginia brain bowl game Duke participated in was in 2012, when they lost 50-13 at Stanford.


National University Ranking:  No. 23 (tie)

All-Time vs. Top 25 FBS Academic Opponents:  139-123-8 (53%)

UCLA is the second of the three smart schools to have played all of the other top academic FBS teams.  What’s even better is that Bruins have a winning record against six of the nine:  Stanford (45-38-3), Duke (1-0), Vanderbilt (1-0), Rice (5-0), Cal (52-32-1) and Virginia (1-0).

UCLA is all tied up in its series with Northwestern (3-3) and has a losing mark vs. crosstown rival USC (31-46-7).  The Bruins have had four whacks at Notre Dame and have yet to win.

In 2014, UCLA went 3-1 in brain bowl action, winning at Virginia (28-20), at Cal (36-34) and vs. USC (38-20) and losing at home vs. Stanford (31-10).

3. Vanderbilt

National University Ranking:  No. 16 (tie)

All-Time vs. Top 25 FBS Academic Opponents:  24-17-3 (58%)

The sole SEC member on our list, only Rice (37) has played fewer top-academic foes than Vanderbilt (44).  What helps the Commodores in the rankings is that they’ve seen limited action against the toughest smart opponents, losing twice to Notre Dame and never squaring off with USC.

Vandy is 7-4 vs. Duke, 4-1 vs. Rice and 12-7-2 vs. Virginia.  It holds a losing mark vs. Northwestern (1-2-1) and has never beaten UCLA (0-1-0).  The Commodores have never played Stanford or Cal in football.

Vanderbilt’s most recent brain bowl was in 2012 when it traveled to Evanston and lost 23-13 to Northwestern.

2. USC

National University Ranking:  No. 25

All-Time vs. Top 25 FBS Academic Opponents:  217-134-18 (61%)

With 369 games, USC has had the most intelligent action of any team on the list.  The only program it hasn’t ever faced in football is Vanderbilt. Of the other eight, Notre Dame is the only team the Trojans have a losing record against (35-45-5).

USC is 59-29-3 vs. Stanford, 67-29-5 vs. Cal, 44-31-7 vs. UCLA, 3-0 vs. Duke, 5-0 vs. Northwestern, 2-0-1 vs. Rice and 2-0 vs. Virginia.

What this means is that, other than Notre Dame and the Pac-12 representatives, Rice is the only brain team to have done something other than lose to the Trojans, engineering a 7-7 tie back in 1947.

Like UCLA, the Trojans were 3-1 vs. the brain trust in 2014: Beating Stanford (13-10), Cal (38-30) and Notre Dame (49-14) and falling to the Bruins (38-20).

1. Notre Dame

National University Ranking:  No. 16 (tie)

All-Time vs. Top 25 FBS Academic Opponents:  120-56-7 (67%)

Not only does Notre Dame have the best overall record vs. fellow smart schools, it has played each of the other nine programs listed and has a winning record against the entire field.

The Irish are 19-10 vs. Stanford, 3-1 vs. Duke, 37-9-2 vs. Northwestern and 45-36-5 vs. USC.  Notre Dame has never lost to Vandy (2-0), Rice (5-0), Cal (4-0), UCLA (4-0) or Virginia (1-0).

In 2014, the Irish went 2-2 in the brain bowl bracket, beating Rice (48-17) and Stanford (17-14) and losing to Northwestern (43-40) and USC (49-14).

Amy Daughters is a contributor to

Comments (26)

Whenever there is scheduling news, Kevin, Amy and the gang cover it. This is reasonable content for a slow week.

They used the US News Rankings and took the Top 10 FBS-playing Universities. The next few would have been: Wake Forest, Michigan, North Carolina, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Wisconsin, Penn St., Florida, Miami (FL), and Washington.

Because Georgia Tech is not ranked among the Top 25 schools according to USN. Therefore, they do not qualify for this list despite fielding an FBS school.

Re-read the intro again to see the qualifications for being included in this list.

US News doesn’t really rank top-to-bottom. After the top schools, they have Tier 2 and Tier 3, and those aren’t ranked, they’re just all in a bunch.

Great article and thanks for taking notice of the rivalries between some of the best schools in the country. Northwestern is deliberately scheduling more games against peer schools that share this academic commitment. Our students want to compete both in class and on the field.

No Boston College, No Georgia Tech. I like the premise of the article just don’t agree with all the schools in the article

Apparently you didn’t read the intro to the chart:

“Of the Top 25 schools in the USN National University Rankings, 10 of them field FBS football teams.”

Neither Boston College nor Georgia Tech are ranked in the top 25 school listing, and therefore are not included on this list.

Read the article again, and follow the link to USN to find out where BC and GT rank.

Great concept but completely bogus rankings after the obvious top two, ND and USC. Vanderbilt, Duke and Virginia all have historically weak teams but enjoy high rankings here because they only play each other. Next to Rice, they are clearly the three worst teams on this list by any plausible measure. Only the most ignorant fool would say that Vandy has had a better football team over the years than UCLA! If these two schools had played each other for the past 50 years, I guarantee you that UCLA would have won at least 48 of the 50 games (and the Bruins would have been favored to win all 50, but I’m assuming a couple of upsets).

Here is the correct list, with the schools also divided into three very obvious tiers:
1. ND
2. USC
[Big gap here]
4. Stanford
5. Northwestern
6. Cal
[Another gap here]
7. Vanderbilt
8-9. Duke-Virginia (take your pick)
10. Rice

As Eric the Wildcat pointed out, Northwestern deserves credit for going out of its way to schedule these games. Since 2012, NU has won five of six (with two other games cancelled), beating Notre Dame, Stanford, Cal, Duke and Vanderbilt while losing the return match vs. Cal. Sadly, after losing to NU in both 2010 and 2012, the cowardly Commodores bought their way out of rematches in 2013 and 2014, in order to play football weaklings Austin Peay and UMass instead.

you need to re-read the article, they didn’t start with fb rankings they started with USN rankings of top 25 schools from academic perspectives, then identified those with an FBS fb team, of which there was only 10, then ranked those 10 by the records against each other.

Actually, Grady has a point. It’s clear that these rankings are derived from a set of National University Rankings that do not include the federal academies, I think Grady’s observation makes sense. Just because the Air Force Academy, West Point, and Annapolis choose not to participate in those ranking systems doesn’t mean they’re not among the very best of collegiate institutions in this country.

Grady makes a good point, but the academies didn’t choose to not be ranked by USN, USN excludes the academies because of their political nomination and appointment criteria. They would certainly be top 25 otherwise as they are in other publications

In what world is Cal a #20 ranked university? It is the #1 public university in the country. Are all of the rest of these private?

Oh, please. The only one of those schools that belongs in a “Brain Bowl” is Stanford.

Great article! How about a Brain Bowl All Star team based on 1st team, 2nd, etc. All-Americans?? Hope to see it here!

Not sure where these academic ranking come from, but of the ranking service MOST used in academics, the ARWU, the top 10 ranked universities in the WORLD for 2016 are:

1. Harvard
2. Stanford
3. Cal
4. Cambridge
5. MIT
6. Princeton
7. Oxford
8. Cal Tech
9. Columbia
10. University of Chicago

Notre Dame? 201 – 300 (when you’re *that* low, they start grouping by 100’s, lol)
Northwestern? 26
USC? 49
UCLA? 12
Vanderbilt? 60

Calling Notre Dame an “academic institution” is just plain embarrassing. The ONLY two FBS schools in the Top 10 of academics are Stanford & Cal.