Heavy Hitters: College Football’s Top 20 Best Helmets
College football teams can be defined by their choice of helmet. Following in ESPN’s footsteps of ranking the best NFL helmets, we rank the college game’s top 20 lids.
Note: Rankings based on aesthetics, tradition, meaning, originality, and place in college football history, among other factors. FBS teams only.
The Bulldogs’ helmet is a perfect example of putting your own spin on something and making it better. The block ‘G’ also is on the helmet of the historic Green Bay Packers. Yes, they just
stole copied the decal. But Georgia’s red and black, though, gives it a different feel. If you look at Georgia’s helmet history (and who hasn’t?), the helmet has stayed pretty much the same throughout the years. The newest version has a white stripe on the top, not exactly a drastic difference from anything before it. Between the hedges, with Uga on the sideline, it wouldn’t seem like Georgia football without that regal lid.
The ‘Y’ on the helmets represents one of BYU’s landmarks, “Y Mountain,” which has the large letter looming over the campus. More than anything, though, it’s a representation of BYU football past and present; that’s why the school went back to the future in 2005, scrapping their disastrous new uniforms for a taste of the past. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall said it best: “This is about honoring tradition. This is about respect for and accountability to the coaches and players who have made BYU one of the national pillars of college football.” If they went back to the lighter shade of blue and got rid of the ugly helmet stickers, these lids would be even higher.
Let’s be honest, there are certain helmets that fit certain schools. When you see that maniacal boar coming at you off Arkansas’ helmet, it just feels right for the Razorbacks. You think down south, old-time
football. The school enlarged the decal on the helmet in 1995, no doubt to emphasis what already was awesome. From 1958-63, the Razorbacks did not have the ferocious pig, and the helmets looked like a low-rent version of the Alabama lid with the players’ numbers on the side. The change was for the better.
17. Penn State
If you aren’t a college football fan, you simply don’t get it. Yes, that’s right. We are helmet snobs. The Penn State helmet is straightforward and clean. To anyone else, it’s the most boring thing you’ve ever seen. That’s why art is in the eye of the beholder. Think about a soldout crowd in Happy Valley waving those white towels as Penn State takes the field with their plain white helmets. Though, it wasn’t always that way. Prior to 1974, Penn State had numbers on the side of the hats. We like it much better this way.
This is the beauty of college football in “Good Old Rocky Top.” The classic orange ‘T’ fits the program perfectly. It’s not as omnipresent as the “The U” in Miami but, for generations of Tennessee fans, it’s a source of pride. Of course, the helmet is nothing more than an orange and white popsicle stick . And only in college football could a host of high school athletes hope to one day wear a creamsicle on their heads.
This isn’t New York City or Los Angeles, it’s the nation’s heartland. And the definition of Nebraska is its proud football program, and that’s how the red, simplistic ‘N’ sits on this white background - prominent and proud. The Cornhuskers is an appropriate nickname, but how would you depict that on a football helmet? Prior to 1970, a ‘U’ accompanied the ‘N’ on the helmet, but it was removed from all helmets because there weren’t enough of the letters to go around. And that’s how the lone ‘N’ emerged as the symbol of Nebraska football, which is also a perfect symbol of life in the heartland: Plain and simple. Some of the greatest works of art come about by accident.
When June Jones arrived in 1999, he decided to makeover an already great helmet and it ended in disaster. But a year later, Hawaii got it right. The school did a great redesign, making the green helmet a staple for both home and away contests. To be honest, we prefer the silver version. But the green version - the green-on-green, to be more exact - gives you the impression you are on the lush Hawaiian landscape. And really, what’s better than that?
13. West Virginia
West Virginia has done a good job of putting a twist on a simple helmet. Not to be confused with the “Flying V” of Mighty Ducks fame, this helmet has a “Flying WV” introduced by Don Nehlen making each Mountaineer look like he’s motoring around the field. It’s a classic in West Virginia, a state in which WVU athletics is king. Of course, Mountaineers fans are known for their rowdiness, but nothing says controlled frenzy like the accentuated WV in a bold yellow against a dark background. It almost makes us want to head to Morgantown and burn some couches. Quietly.
Maybe it’s us, but the Arizona football team always looks strange out there. It’s a basketball school, and their uniforms aren’t as identifiable in the college football world. The school did a good thing, though, by switching up the helmets last season. It went back to the white ones with a blue stripe on one side and a red stripe on the other like the “Desert Swarm” days. It gave the Wildcats a unique look, one which includes the school’s colors and its classic block ‘A.’ We’re starting to come around on the Wildcats of the gridiron; we’re already sold on their helmets.
As we discussed during our uniform rankings, only certain teams can pull off orange. But Clemson is literally the only team who can have the famous paw print, the one which is placed prominently on its helmets. The school had to trademark the paw so that other schools could not copy it. Of course, tigers are perhaps the nation’s most popular mascot. Clemson’s white paw has a hook at its bottom so you can tell it’s exclusive to the South Carolina school that introduced it in 1970. Aesthetically, it’s beautiful - looking as if a tiger softly dipped its paw in the helmet’s orange paint.
Colorado’s helmet is a dual threat, a good logo with a classic color scheme. The black silhouette of a buffalo is ominous and intimidating and the school’s letters are placed perfectly. Yes, it’s a big upgrade from the gold and baby blue helmets the team once donned. More than anything, though, it puts Colorado State’s helmet to shame. The in-state rival has a poor man’s version of the St. Louis Rams’ lid. A really, really poor man. And as you know, sometimes you’re as good as who you’re standing next to.
LSU’s helmet history is actually a bit comical. There have been four revisions over the years and all of them clash a stark yellow and purple. But somehow, it works. In fact, the collision of the two colors is a bit royal, like that guy who wears the odd wardrobe just because he can. But in addition to the colors, the school’s abbreviation and a fierce tiger are placed prominently on the helmet, giving this lid all-around appeal. We’d wear this in Death Valley any Saturday in the fall.
8. Florida State
The tomahawk chop chant is annoying, but the spear’s presence on Florida State’s helmets is just right. The gold helmet with garnet and white spear was introduced in Bobby Bowden’s first year as coach in 1976. Bowden just recently retired, but the helmet looks like it will last. And why not? Forget FSU’s two national titles under the reign - both the helmet’s and Bowden’s - the thing has everything you want in a college football lid. It’s spear is large and distinct enough to pop off the helmet, letting you know it’s there. And the tomahawk stickers make it even more intimidating.
7. Ohio State
You’re probably expecting a memorabilia joke here, but we’re above that. This list is for college football purists, ones who love talking helmets, not selling them. The Buckeyes have a unique lid, one which has stickers with Buckeye tree leaves on them, given to players for big plays and consistency on the field. They’ve got a cool look to them, too, thanks to an infusion of glitter. Each sticker earned by a player gives him a tangible reward for his solid play. But they’re only given out if the team wins the game. No word on what happens if you forfeit.
6. Miami (FL)
“The U” is many things - the name fans and former players refer to the school by, the title of an ESPN documentary about the Hurricanes’ heyday and the logo on the side of Miami’s helmets. In 1973, the school asked a local public relations firm to come up with something distinctive for Miami’s logo. The school did not want to rely on its initials - UM - simply because so many institutions have similar initials. So, in an attempt to be unique, the Hurricanes were transcendent. But forget its place in pop culture, “The U” - in its orange and green - looks good, too.
5. Notre Dame
The school has the legendary “Golden Dome,” so it’s appropriate that its beloved football team runs around in exquisite gold helmets. There will always be a positive association. It’s the right call to go without a logo. Anything else on the helmet would take away from the gold’s quiet grace. Student-managers make sure the helmets don’t look any less than perfect, putting a fresh coat of paint on them each week. And not just the cheap stuff from Home Depot. The paint consists of real gold flakes. Of course it does.
Alabama is one of the most storied programs in college football, and its helmet is part of that lore. Yeah, we know college football is playing for the name on the front of the jersey, but in Tuscaloosa, it’s also about earning the number on the side of your helmet. The Crimson Tide’s helmets haven’t changed over the years, and the program has been pretty successful. Even during its lean years, Alabama kept its look the same. The style is so distinctive and that dark shade of crimson is so classy.
When you think Texas football, you think Matthew McConaughey. And burnt orange horns. But mostly Matthew McConaughey. Seriously, though, we know the Longhorns have a huge fanbase, most of which never forgets to remind us, “Hook ‘Em Horns.” It also wears its special shade of orange prominently. The helmet, with a pure white background, encapsulates everything that is Texas football - the color, the horns and the players’ numbers on the back. They weren’t always there, though. The numbers used to be placed above the logo, making it look ugly and cluttered. Nice adjustment. And massive props for making a cow on a helmet look awesome.
What other colors but
garnet cardinal and gold could befit the Men of Troy’s helmets? It’s not so much young Hollywood - Lindsay Lohan wouldn’t wear it - but classic Tinseltown. USC is a private university in Los Angeles, but its football team seems like public property in Southern California. And everyone wears Trojan colors. Refined and classy - it smells like old money (go ahead, insert your “University of Spoiled Children joke”). But other than being the definition of LaLa land, it’s design is a great depiction of a Trojan warrior. It’s a warrior that never stepped foot in SoCal in any decade but remains identifiable thanks to USC football. And the switch to a gray facemask under Pete Carroll was a great call.
Just like the University of Michigan, you either love these helmets or hate them. And yes, Fritz Crisler just re-used the design he originally came up with at Princeton. But the winged helmet is so incredibly original and steeped into college football history that it’s one of the first things that comes to mind when people think of college football like the “Four Horsemen” and the Heisman Trophy.
The mixture of maize and blue is awesome and they also have a functional purpose (supposedly): Helping quarterbacks see their receivers down field. Last year the AP also voted them the greatest helmets in college football and Bob Asmussen of the Champaign (IL) News-Gazette remarked, “I’ll bet the Wolverines get 10-15 percent of their recruits based on helmets alone.”