As any casual student of college football history surely knows, the "mythical national championship" is a subject of intense debate and scrutiny.
The term "mythical national championship", or MNC, refers to the fact that, since college football lacks a playoff and there is so little overlap in regular season schedules, the national championship declared at the end of each season is somewhat "mythical" in the sense that there is no formal on-field structure (i.e. playoffs or full round-robin scheduling) to narrow down a champion. That doesn't mean, however, that there hasn't been a formal system, however subjective, for declaring a national champion for well over half a century.
The early days of college football were characterized by the lack of an established system for declaring a national champion, and titles from this era can be highly contentious since schools have a great deal of discretion in choosing which ones to claim (more on this below). This all changed however in 1950 with the advent of what can be referred to as the "dual-poll era".
In was in that year that United Press (later UPI) began organizing a weekly coaches' poll in an effort to create such an established system. Since that time, the coaches' poll (now sponsored by USA Today and ESPN), along with the Associated Press poll that had already become widely established by 1950, has been viewed as one of two widely accepted authorities in crowning a college football national champion. For 60 years now, it has become generally accepted that the team(s) that finishes #1 in the final vote of the two major polls is considered national champion. Over the course of those 60 years, the two major polls have mostly been in accord with one another, crowning the same champion 49 times, with eleven exceptions (a.k.a. split national championships), leaving us with 71 national championship teams from the era.
For 60 years now, we have had an established system in place that relies on the two accepted authorities to crown national champions, with no reliance whatsoever on the schools themselves. While things seem cut and dry enough, there are still many who would challenge the claims of some of those 71 teams who have been crowned national champion during the dual-poll era. The primary reason for these challenges is simple confusion and ignorance about the rules regarding bowl games under which the polls operated for much of this 60-year period.
The following is an attempt to educate fans of all schools about these rules and their effect on the resulting final polls that determined the 71 national champions during this era. At the conclusion, we'll tally the championships by school beginning with the advent of the dual-poll system in 1950.
Original Rules: the 26 Pre-Bowl National Champions
At the beginning of the dual-poll era, neither poll counted the bowl games as part of their consideration. The final votes for each poll were taken before the bowl games were played, and thus the national champions during this time were crowned at the end of the regular season. Whether as a cause or as a result of this fact, teams did not take bowl games seriously as an essential part of the competitive process. Notre Dame refused to participate in any bowls during this time. For a short period the Big Ten didn't allow its members to participate in bowls. Some schools and bowls for a time had rules against competing in bowl games two years in a row. Others simply elected not to participate in some years. Finally, those who did participate knew that the bowl games were merely exhibitions in terms of national championship implications, and likely didn't view the games with the same import as regular season games. Bottom line: with the champion already crowned, little was at stake except pride.
Although the final AP poll was taken after the bowl games for the first time in 1965 and then every year beginning in 1968, the coaches' poll continued to crown their national champion before the bowl games until 1974. This means that during the 24-year period 1950-1973, 26 teams were crowned national champions (thanks to 1954 and 1957 split titles) prior to the bowl games. Five of those teams (Michigan State 1952, UCLA 1954, Oklahoma 1956, Auburn 1957, and Notre Dame 1966) didn't even play in a bowl game. Eight of those teams (Oklahoma 1950, Tennessee 1951, Maryland 1953, Minnesota 1960, Alabama 1964, Michigan State 1965, Texas 1970, and Alabama 1973) lost their bowl games after being crowned champions. That means exactly half of the 26 champions crowned under these rules either didn't even participate in a bowl game or lost their bowl game after being crowned national champion, while only half actually went on to win a bowl game.
Obviously, if the rules then were the same as they are now, and national champions were decided after the bowls, things would have been different in many regards. Perhaps different teams may have been crowned champions following the bowls. Perhaps teams would have treated the bowl games differently, in the obvious sense of simply showing up in the case of the five teams that didn't participate, and in the less obvious sense of just treating the game differently in the case of the eight teams that lost their bowl games.
But the point isn't what might have happened if the rules had been different; the point is that the rules then were, well, the rules. In sports and, really, life in general, we can't go back in time and declare something illegitimate just because it took place under a different set of rules. Teams, fans, and the coaches and media members voting in the polls during this time were all aware of the rules and based their decisions accordingly. Also note that rules involving teams on probation have changed, which allowed some teams (not going to mention names) in the past to be declared national champions even though they were banned from postseason play that season. Under today's system, those teams could not be crowned champions, but under the rules of the day they were.
Below is a list of every national champion crowned prior to the bowl games. Fans can question the legitimacy of the national championship claims for these teams all they want, but the bottom line is that these 26 teams were crowned national champions by one or both of the major polls under the established rules of the day.
|Year||Coaches' Poll||AP Poll|
|1952||Michigan State||Michigan State|
|1966||Notre Dame||Notre Dame|
Rule Change: the 45 Post-Bowl National Champions
Despite the lack of national title implications in the 1950s and most of the 1960s, many schools, of course, still participated in bowl games, and the bowls still drew a lot of media and fan attention even though they didn't play a role in the national championship hunt. One of the most high-profile bowl games during this time took place following the 1964 season, which, not coincidentally, was the final year before the AP first decided to wait until after the bowls to crown their champion. Alabama, which had been named national champion by both polls at the end of the regular season, faced off against #3 Texas in the Orange Bowl. In front of a very rare national television audience, the national champions were defeated in a very controversial, dramatic finish. You can read a great RBR article on this game here.
Following the game, which had captured the attention of so many around the country, the AP elected to change its rules for the following season and vote on their final poll after the bowl games for the 1965 season. Ironically, this decision would ultimately benefit the same team that lost in that controversial Orange Bowl following the 1964 season--the Alabama Crimson Tide. At the end of the 1965 season, Michigan State was ranked #1 in both polls, and was crowned national champion by the coaches' poll, which had not changed its rules. However, #1 Michigan State lost to #7 UCLA in the Rose Bowl, #2 Arkansas lost to unranked LSU in the Cotton Bowl, and #3 Nebraska lost to #4 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Naturally, when the final AP poll was taken after the bowl games, Alabama was voted national champion by the AP.
Perhaps due to the confusion created when the top three teams all lost in bowl games at the end of the 1965 season, the AP reverted back to their original rules for the 1966 and 1967 seasons. However, beginning in 1968 and continuing to the present, the AP has conducted their final poll and named their national champion after the bowl games. The coaches' poll however continued to name their national champion before the bowl games up until 1973. Once again, Alabama was at the center of the decision to change the rules.
At the end of the 1973 regular season, Alabama had finished #1 in both polls, and had therefore been crowned national champion by the coaches' poll, which had not yet changed its rules. Notre Dame had finished the season undefeated but ranked behind the Tide in the polls. The two teams were matched up against one another in a much-hyped nationally televised game following the season at the Sugar Bowl. The Irish went on to win a dramatic one-point thriller that propelled them to leap to #1 in the final AP poll which was taken after the bowls under the new rules. Following this game, there were calls for the coaches' poll to change their rules to account for bowl games as the AP had done just a few years earlier. Beginning in 1974, the coaches' poll changed their rules, and ever since both polls have waited until after the bowl games to crown the national champions.
Below is a list of every national champion crowned following bowl games.
|Year||Coaches' Poll||AP Poll|
|1977||Notre Dame||Notre Dame|
|1982||Penn State||Penn State|
|1986||Penn State||Penn State|
|1988||Notre Dame||Notre Dame|
|1993||Florida State||Florida State|
|1999||Florida State||Florida State|
|2002||Ohio State||Ohio State|
A Note on the Years Prior to the Dual-Poll Era
Now, prior to 1950 things are much more contentious. The main issue is that instead of having two widely accepted authorities, there were dozens upon dozens. The bottom line is that there seems to be an unwritten rule that the AP and coaches polls are the legitimate authorities for crowning champions from 1950 onward, and schools have a good deal of discretion in choosing which titles to claim prior to 1950. Essentially, if a school was claimed national champion by one or more of the dozens of services in a given year prior to the dual-poll era, schools can choose to officially claim the national championship or not.
Let's take our own Alabama Crimson Tide as an example. Alabama obviously claims all titles awarded by the AP and coaches' polls from the dual-poll era, as do all 27 schools who received such a title. Alabama was also named national champion by one or more of the national services six times prior to the dual-poll era (1925, 1926, 1930, 1934, 1941, and 1945). The school essentially can choose whichever of the six years it wishes to officially claim, and as was explained right here on RBR just a few weeks ago, the decision on which titles to claim looks to have fallen on one man working in the athletic department in the early 1980s.
That all changed in 1983 when the university's sports information director Wayne Atcheson added the five titles prior to Coach Bryant's tenure in that year's media guide. Today, he admits his selection wasn't exactly the most scientific but they have come to be accepted as canonical by Alabama fans.
Atcheson chose to claim five of the six titles from this era--all except 1945, a perfect season capped by a Rose Bowl victory--although it is still not clear why he chose the ones he did. What is clear is that once the ones he decided upon appeared in the school's official media guide, those five became the five that UA officially claims as championships. If it were up to me personally, I would have included 1925, 1926, 1930, 1934, and 1945, while omitting 1941 (still leaving the 13 total). My reasoning is that in each of those five seasons we finished as conference champions, unbeaten, and winners of the nation's top bowl game at the time, the Rose Bowl (in addition to obviously being named national champion by one or more national service). In 1941, on the other hand, we had two losses and did not even win our conference title despite being proclaimed national champions by one service. But that's just my opinion. Again, things become a bit open to interpretation.
I say this not to start a discussion or debate about which titles Alabama should or should not claim from prior to 1950. That's missing the point. The point, rather, is simply that you could debate the titles Alabama or any other school claims from prior to 1950 if you want, since the schools themselves do have some discretion in choosing which titles to claim from this era. The point, furthermore, is to distinguish this leeway in discretion that exists in years prior to 1950 from the dual-poll period we are discussing in this article, for which it was the two major polls and their rules of the day--not the schools--that have decided the 71 dual-poll era national champions.
One final note: teams that won an AP championship from 1936-1949 often claim those as being more legitimate than other claims from schools prior to the dual-poll era, but there are two things to keep in mind here. First, in the early years of the poll (before WWII) the AP was but one of dozens of services crowning a champion (many of which were arguably more established than the AP poll at the time), and took a few years to become as prominent as it became following WWII. Second, most schools stopped fielding football programs for a year or more due to the war, allowing the few that remained in operation (namely Notre Dame and Army) to not only clean out the hardware during the war, but to establish years of dominance in the late 1940s while most other schools were rebuilding their programs from scratch. This isn't to say that these teams don't have a right to claim these AP titles as national championships--they most certainly do--it's just that calling them more legitimate than others from the pre-1950 era is a bit off-base.
The point of saying all this is to distinguish the dual-poll era from the pre-1950 period. Prior to 1950, it all comes down to which years schools wish to claim from among the years where one of the dozens of services crowned their team national champion. After 1950, however, we don't have to rely on what schools claim or don't claim. For this reason, it is very easy to look and see how schools stack up against one another over the last 60 years.
The Dual-Poll Era (1950-present): the Final Tally
Although the rules have changed regarding bowl games, the two major polls have provided us with an established choice (and in eleven cases, split choices) for national champions the last 60 years. The nature of humans voting in a poll of course always makes the decision somewhat subjective and often controversial. Many teams during this period have legitimate arguments to make about why the voters got it wrong in this year or that (Alabama fans can of course readily point to 1966 and 1977 as cases in point). But the bottom line is that for these 60 years, there has a system in place with well-established rules to crown a national champion. Rules change, but championships last forever.
With that said, here is the breakdown of national championships by school since the advent of the dual-poll system in 1950. Teams with the same number of championships are sorted by most recent won.
8 -- Alabama (1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, 1979, 1992, 2009)
7 -- USC (1962, 1967, 1972, 1974, 1978, 2003, 2004)
7 -- Oklahoma (1950, 1955, 1956, 1974, 1975, 1985, 2000)
5 -- Miami (1983, 1987, 1989, 1991, 2001)
5 -- Nebraska (1970, 1971, 1994, 1995, 1997)
4 -- Texas (1963, 1969, 1970, 2005)
4 -- Ohio State (1954, 1957, 1968, 2002)
4 -- Notre Dame (1966, 1973, 1977, 1988)
3 -- Florida (1996, 2006, 2008)
3 -- LSU (1958, 2003, 2007)
2 -- Florida State (1993, 1999)
2 -- Tennessee (1951, 1998)
2 -- Penn State (1982, 1986)
2 -- Michigan State (1952, 1965)
1 -- Michigan (1997)
1 -- Washington (1991)
1 -- Colorado (1990)
1 -- Georgia Tech (1990)
1 -- BYU (1984)
1 -- Clemson (1981)
1 -- Georgia (1980)
1 -- Pitt (1976)
1 -- Minnesota (1960)
1 -- Syracuse (1959)
1 -- Auburn (1957)
1 -- UCLA (1954)
1 -- Maryland (1953)