The History of the College Football National Championship

College Football National Champions:


Another year, another chase for the mythical college football “National Champion”. ESPN touts the current system’s winner as the “National Champion”, but is it really? Well. it’s better than it used to be, but the current tournament is only available to the Power 5 Conferences (Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Pac 12, ACC). Any school not in one of these conferences, except Notre Dame, need not apply. When 50% of the schools that play Division I football have no chance to compete, no matter how successful their regular season, it can not be considered a “National Championship”[We discussed this thoroughly last season, if you need a refresher here it is].


Let’s review the history of the naming of college football “National Champions”, and show how we’ve gotten to where we are. Before the advent of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) in 1998, the “National Champions” were selected by different associations and foundations. There are six organizations, prior to 1998, that have been widely recognized to name a legitimate “National Champions”. The six organizations are as follows:


Associated Press (AP):

Sportswriters representing writers from all sections of the country. Began releasing a weekly college football poll in 1936. In 1965, for the first time, the final poll was taken after the bowl games. The poll reverted to the last poll being after the end of regular season in 1966, but then permanently changed to after the bowl games in 1967.


United Press International (UPI):

Cross section of coaches throughout the country. Released a college football poll weekly from 1950-1995. UPI last poll was at the end of the regular season until 1973, when the final poll was taken after the bowl games.


U.S.A Today (USA):

Took over the Coaches poll from UPI in 1996.


Helms Athletics Foundation (Helms):

Put out by the Paul Helms Bakery operation out of Los Angeles. The foundation was founded by Paul Helms and Bill Schroeder in 1936. Schroeder, a very knowledgeable football analyst, personally selected the National Champion in football from 1948-1982 (He also selected a College Basketball National Champion every year). He later retroactively named National Champions from 1947 back to 1883. These are well researched selections, but they are basically the conclusions of one man, Bill Schroeder.


National Football Foundation (NFF):

Founded in 1947 by General Douglas MacArthur, Grantland Rice, and Army Coach Earl Blaik. The Foundation runs the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. The current chairman is Archie Manning. Since 2014 the NFF has combined with the FWAA to create the “FWAA-NFF Grantland Rice Super 16 Poll”.


Football Writers Association of America (FWAA): Founded in 1941, it consists of men and women across North America who cover college football for a living.


National Championship Foundation (NCF): Mike Riter retroactively selected National Champions from 1869 to 2000.


As you can see, prior to the AP Poll in 1936, there was no recognized (at the time) process to declare any school a “National Champion”. The “National Champions” listed in the record books were retroactively selected by the Helms Athletic Foundation and the National Championship Foundation.

Let’s take 1930 as an example. Two schools have declared that they won the “National Championship”; Alabama and Notre Dame. At that time Notre Dame did not participate in bowl games so after their 27-0 route of USC in their final game in Los Angeles, they stood at 10-0, thus claiming the “National Championship”. The only problem was that two other schools also finished the regular season unbeaten, Alabama (9-0) and Washington State (9-0), and they so happened to to meet in the Rose Bowl. Alabama won easily, 24-0. When you look at the record books of both Notre Dame and Alabama, they both claim 1930 as one of their “National Championships”. Both the Helms Foundation and the National Championship Foundation have retroactively declared Notre Dame the “National Champion”. How legitimate is that?


Let’s now look at 1926; Stanford(10-0) and Alabama(9-0) both finished the regular season undefeated. They met in the Rose Bowl on January 1st 1927 and played to a 7-7 tie. Both the Helms Foundation and the National Championship Foundation has gone back and declared them Co-National Champions. Two “National Champions”, how does that work. Both schools now show 1926 as a “National Championship” year. Again, two ‘National Champions”.


How about 1922? Cal ended the season 9-0, Cornell and Princeton finished 8-0. The National Championship Foundation has named both Cal and Princeton “National Champions”, while the Helms Athletic Foundation went with Cornell. Three National Champions?


Things improved in 1936 with the coming of the Associated Press Writers Poll (AP). From 1936-1949 their was only one “National Champion”, the winner of the final AP Poll. They still had problems.

In 1946 Notre Dame with a record 8-0-1 was voted #1 in the final AP poll, and if you look at the record, 1946 is one of Notre Dame’s undisputed “National Championships”. Here’s the rub, Notre Dame’s one blemish was a 0-0 (that game is an article in itself) tie against Army. Going into the November 2nd contest, Army was ranked #1 and Notre Dame #2. Notre Dame would remain #2 until the last game of the season, when the Irish easily defeated USC (26-6) and Army struggled in a 21-18 win over Navy. This allowed Notre Dame to jump Army (preventing Army from winning a 3rd straight “National Championship”) and vaulting to #1. Army finished the year 9-0-1, while Notre Dame was 8-0-1. Notre Dame was the undisputed “National Champion”?


Let’s also look at Notre Dame’s 1947 “National Championship”. The Irish finished the regular season 9-0. At that time Notre Dame did not accept bowl invitations, so that would be their final record. The team that finished #2? Michigan; their record 10-0, culminating in a 49-0 thrashing of USC in the Rose Bowl. Why not Michigan? Well, the last AP Poll was conducted prior to the Bowl Games, so Michigan’s impressive win over the Trojans had no impact. Just about every year there is a similar situation, showing that most of the time the “National Champion” was decided by consensus opinions. This problem still exists today.


The Coaches Poll (UPI) began in 1950 and lasted until 1995, then USA Today took over the Coaches Poll, but like the AP, their final poll came out before the bowl games. In the first year of the Coaches Poll, Oklahoma cruised through the regular season with a 10-0 record, ranked #1 in both the AP and UPI  final polls. A National Championship for the Sooners! Well, maybe not; Kentucky beat Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Should that matter? This was not the only time a team finishing #1 in the final polls lost their bowl game, Tennessee in 1951, Maryland in 1953, and Minnesota in 1960.

In the mid 1960s the AP changed to conducting their final poll after the bowl games. So when #1 ranked (in both polls) Michigan State lost the Rose Bowl following the 1965 season, the AP replaced the Spartans with Orange Bowl winner Alabama, but Michigan State still won the UPI “National Championship”.

The year that convinced the coaches to conduct a poll after the Bowls was 1973. Alabama finished the regular season ranked #1 in both polls, but lost to #5 ranked Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. AP moved Notre Dame all the way to #1, but even after the loss Alabama still claimed the UPI “National Championship”.


Before 1965 the two polls didn’t always agree on the best team. In 1954 Ohio State won the AP poll, and UCLA the UPI, 1957 Ohio State again shared the title, this time with Auburn.  All four schools claim that they were “National Champions”.


Even years when the champion seems obvious aren’t without problems. In 1971 Nebraska finished 13-0, beat the teams that finished #2 (Oklahoma), #3 (Colorado), and #4 (Alabama). Where’s the problem? Toledo out of the Mid-American conference finished 12-0. Could Toledo have beaten Nebraska? They would have been a 25-30 point underdogs, but nobody can say they had a 0% chance of winning.


In back to back years in 1990 and 1991 the organizations selecting the “National Champion” had different winners.  In 1990 11-1-1 Colorado was selected by AP, FWAA, and NFF as the champion, but UPI chose the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Then in 1991 both Washington and Miami finished the regular season 11-0, then crushed worthy opponents in their bowl games to go 12-0. Who’s #1? Both of them are; the Huskies were honored by UPI, FWW, and NFF, while Miami secured the top spot from AP. Again, two “National Champions”.


Due to the chaos that 1990 and 1991 created, the conferences and the bowls work out a system in 1992 where the two highest rated teams at the end of the season would meet in one of the major bowls. The only problem was that the Big Ten, Pac 10 and Rose Bowl declined to participate. This allowed another split “National Championship” in 1997. Michigan (11-0) was ranked #1 in both polls, but due to the Rose Bowl policy they were forced to play #8 Washington State (10-1) in the Rose Bowl. The Orange Bowl then took the two highest ranked teams available, Nebraska (12-0) and Tennessee (11-1). Nebraska routed Tennessee (42-17), while Michigan won a tight game with WSU (21-16). Nebraska replaced Michigan as #1 in the final Coaches Poll, while Michigan remained #1 in the AP.


The Big Ten, Pac 12, and Rose Bowl learned their lesson and the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) was then inaugurated in 1998. The #1 and #2 teams would now meet in a “Championship Game” in an end of season bowl that would be rotated between the Rose Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Orange Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl. The problem now was; how do you determine who the best two teams are?


At first they used a complicated computer formula. The result was more confusion. The confusion is best represented by what happened in 2000 and 2001. Oklahoma was undefeated (11-0) and ranked #1 following the 2000 regular season, but who was #2? Five teams had only one loss (Miami, Washington, Florida State, Oregon State, Virginia Tech), and by coincidence all five teams had played at least one game against the other four. Miami beat Florida State and Virginia Tech, but lost to Washington. Washington had also beaten Oregon State, so the Huskies were 2-0 while the Canes were 2-1. All the other one loss teams were 0-1 against the others. Logic tells you that either Miami or Washington should be ranked #2 and face Oklahoma, but no, the computers said Florida State was the 2nd best team, and they went to the Orange Bowl where they lost to the Sooners. Of course, just to complicate things further both Miami and Washington soundly beat their opponents in the Sugar Bowl and the Rose Bowl respectively.


2001 would be even more strange. Miami finished the regular season undefeated and ranked #1. The Oregon Ducks won the PAC 12 and were ranked #2 in both polls, but the computers said Nebraska was #2, even though they had just been crushed by the Colorado Buffaloes (62-36) in their last regular season game. This allowed Nebraska to play for the “National Championship” even though they didn’t even win the North Division of the Big 12! Fortunately for the BCS Miami easily beat Nebraska, 37-14. What about Oregon? They beat 3rd ranked Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl, 38-10.


2003 was another fiasco. USC finished the regular season 11-1 and ranked #1 in both the AP Poll and the Coaches Poll. Again the computers didn’t agree. They rated Oklahoma (which lost the Big 12 Championship Game to Kansas State, 35-7) and LSU (12-1) ahead of the Trojans. The Trojans beat #4 Michigan (28-14) in the Rose Bowl, but when  LSU beat Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl (21-14) The Coaches Poll (USA Today), which was contractually obligated to rank the winner of the BCS Championship Game #1, moved LSU from #3 to #1 ahead of USC. Makes sense doesn’t it.


What the BCS avoided with Nebraska’s loss to Miami in 2001 came back to bite them in 2011. Alabama, which lost to LSU during the regular season, didn’t win the west division of the SEC (LSU did). Somehow this 11-1 non-conference champion was chosen to participate over the Big 12 Champion Oklahoma State Cowboys (also 11-1) in the BCS Title Game, and when they beat LSU in the rematch, they became “National Champions” when they weren’t even SEC Champions. How does that work?   


The CFB would take over the College Football Playoff in 2014, which now involved a 4-team playoff. A committee of 13 ranks the schools. The teams rated 1, 2, 3, and 4 are seeded accordingly and invited to participate in the College Football Playoff. 1 plays 4, and 2 plays 3. The winners meet for the Championship. Immediately in 2014 controversy reigned, when five teams with one loss were battling for three playoff spots. Two of those teams were from the Big 12 who ended up in a tie for the Big 12 Title (TCU and Baylor). Again the two Big 12 teams were left out.


This takes us to last year. Their was only one undefeated team in division one football, University of Central Florida (12-0), but the powers that be chose not to include them. Instead they included a team that didn’t even win their division in their conference. Again it was Alabama (do we see a pattern here). Of course, Alabama would go on to win the “National Championship”. How can you be National Champ if your not even Conference Champ?


The examples listed are just examples. Pretty much every year, since college football began, somebody felt slighted. We’ll close with this to ponder. In 1984 BYU finished the season 13-0 and won every organization listed  “National Championship” (AP, UPI, USA, FWAA, NFF). Here’s the concern. Brigham Young’s strength of schedule was 82nd out of 110 division one football teams. They closed the season with a 24-17 win over a 6-6 Michigan team in the Holiday Bowl. They beat no team that finished in the AP Top 20. This is not a knock on the Cougars, they beat every team on their schedule and one can make a good case that they were the best team in the country, but they had a weaker resume than Utah in 2008, than TCU had in 2010,  Boise State in 2009, or UCF last year. All four teams came from a non power 5 conference. In today’s system BYU would not be allowed to participate in the College Football Playoff, and that is just not right. Quit calling it the “National Championship Game”.




  1. […] During his run at Carlisle Indian School from 1907 to 1914 he took a ragtag bunch of displaced Native Americans and made them the talk of the sporting world. He found a young talent, Jim Thorpe and together they ran through Navy, Army and any other football team that came their way and then went to Oslo and won multiple Gold Medals in Track and Field. Carlisle was reliant on the Federal Government for its funding and in 1914 the money left Pennsylvania for the Midwest. With it went Warner, to Pittsburgh. It was here that he was realized as the true genius he was. He won the National Championship in 1915. But war came and with it took many of the good players. Warner’s Panthers would still be considered the best team during the Great War though the National Championship didn’t always get awarded to him. […]


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