Colleges often justify the hefty costs and baggage of a big-time football program by highlighting the branding boost that comes with a competitive team. What most of these nonprofit institutions fail to mention is just how profitable the pigskin can be.

Football generated roughly $4.64 billion in operating profits for U.S. colleges last year, according to a Business Journals analysis of financial data submitted by some 885 institutions with school-sponsored teams. Those numbers equate to an average operating profit of $5.24 million per school, although the variance among bottom lines was broad. Powerhouse schools such as the University of Texas, the University of Tennessee and the University of Alabama each topped the $100 million profitability threshold, while 52 schools failed to crack $100,000.

See where all college football programs in Texas ranked for profit-per-student.

The Business Journals' analysis relied on statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Education. Each football program's operating profit was determined by the net difference between revenue and operating expenses recorded in the most recently available academic data.

WHY SMALL CAN BE BEAUTIFUL

A program's profitability can go a long way on campus, particularly when it comes to supporting less-profitable sports and student amenities. In some instances, the football largess can be significant enough to be directed back to the university in the form of scholarships, endowed faculty positions and new facilities.

On a per-student basis, smaller private schools tend to fare better where football operating profits are concerned. Many of those schools also tend to rank among the most competitive to attend, regardless of whether their teams rank on the gridiron.

Related: Texas college football’s wealthiest programs

The crown-jewel among college football programs, at least when it comes to generating a profit and fielding a competitive team, is the University of Notre Dame. With just 8,400 students, the Fighting Irish ranks No. 5 nationally among schools favored to win a national championship, and its $89.6 million in profits last year also ranked fifth.

On a per-student basis, Notre Dame has no equal; it's $10,571 profit per student was 75 percent higher than second-ranked Texas Christian University's $6,042 and more than double what was recorded by big public schools such as the University of Oklahoma, University of Alabama and The Ohio State University.

Here are the country’s top 25 college football programs by profit-per-student

BIGGEST OF THE BUNCH

As many long-suffering college football fans can tell you, a team’s profits often have little to do with its success on the field.

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Both Notre Dame and the University of Texas, which generated the largest total net profit of $134 million last year, have struggled in recent years. The Irish finished the 2017 season at No. 11 after going 10-3. Meanwhile, the Longhorns finished the year unranked at 7-6.

Indeed, Notre Dame’s football profits are more closely tied to several lucrative financial deals with little relation to its win-loss record.

Since 1991, NBC has shelled out millions to have exclusive broadcast rights for Notre Dame home games, a deal valued at $15 million per year through 2025. Notre Dame also has an unusual agreement that enables its teams — save for football — to participate as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The arrangement effectively allows Notre Dame to maintain its NBC deal without adhering to the ACC’s revenue-sharing contracts for football. Along the way, it also collects around $5.8 million in revenue-sharing payments from the ACC, equal to about half of what the conference's other schools receive.