In 2017, UCF went undefeated, won the American, and knocked off #7 Auburn, which beat both of the teams playing for the national title. As the lone undefeated team in FBS, UCF decided it was actually the national champion. The Knights have a sign and everything.
You know what? Good for them.
Lord knows UCF’s claim to a national title ain’t as weird as a bunch of other ones claimed by bigger schools, including some who lost their bowl games, or, in the case of Alabama, lost twice and finished 20th in the dang AP Poll. If anybody wants to get mad about the Knights, well, maybe somebody should have beaten them.
But why stop at UCF?
After all, there are other teams in college football history who finished their seasons unblemished. Should they get to claim national championships too? Personally, I say yes.
Here’s my methodology.
I combed through the annual standings, looking for teams that finished completely undefeated (no losses or ties or forfeit wins) but do not formally claim a title from that year. I then mostly chose amusing ones. This isn’t even all of them!
Out of sheer pettiness, I intentionally excluded Ivy League schools, since it’s not like Princeton or Harvard need my help coming up with dubious titles. Look, if y’all claim you’re the champions back in 1899 or whatever when you beat McGill and the local YMCA, I figure claiming you also won in 1952 would go without saying. Y’all don’t need my help. The same for you, Alabama.
(This also doesn’t even count teams who were named champs by NCAA-recognized selectors and choose not to claim them.)
In my humble opinion, the following schools should update their Wikipedia pages.
1915 Colorado State
The Rams finished a perfect 7-0, giving up a paltry 4.4 points a game while shutting out three opponents en route to a Rocky Mountain Conference title. Sure, a schedule that included Colorado Mines, Colorado College, and Denver wasn’t judged to be as difficult as that of Minnesota, which won the Western (Big Ten) that season, but CSU’s SRS score (a points-based team-comparison tool explained here) was #6 in the country. That’s better than Cornell and Oklahoma, who claim titles that season.
John Heisman’s Georgia Tech is recognized as the true champ, but the Denver Pioneers went 9-0 with a defense that gave up just 5 points per game. Sure, one of those wins was against something called a Camp Logan, and they barely defeated a winless Tulsa team, but the only number that matters here is that big fat zero in the loss column.
1918 Washington (MO)
Today, the Bears compete with programs like Case Western Reserve and Carniege Mellon. But in 1918, they went 6-0 as a member of the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association, a league that included Kansas and Kansas State. The Bears beat Nebraska, a team with a win over the mighty Omaha Balloon School. Did Michigan or Pitt, the champs that season, have transitive wins over Omaha Balloon? No.
Five dang schools claim titles (Cal, Harvard, Notre Dame, Princeton, and Georgia). VMI also finished undefeated with a harder schedule than Notre Dame, and a higher SRS rating than Pitt or Cal. A 136-0 victory over Hampden-Sydney probably greased the stats, but VMI also beat Penn, UNC, Virginia, and Virginia Tech.
Drake started from the bottom. Then in 1922, they went 7-0. Then they went back to the bottom.
Six decades before the most famous seasons in Mustangs history, SMU gave up 9 points all year long and dominated the Southwest Conference.
Three teams claim titles, including USC, which lost twice. But you know who didn’t lose any games? Tulane, which went 9-0 and beat Georgia, Georgia Tech, LSU, Auburn, Texas A&M, and Sewanee.
Many people forget this, but today, Utah is in a power conference, the Pac-12, unlike other college football programs in Utah. But Utah wasn’t always in a power conference. In 1930, it played in the Rocky Mountain Conference. It won all of eight of its games, scored more points a game (42.5) than anybody else in the country, and shut out five opponents.
1937 Santa Clara
Santa Clara doesn’t play FBS football anymore. But in 1937, it went undefeated, knocked off the #10 LSU Tigers in the Sugar Bowl, and gave up 9 points all season. They finished #9 thanks to that horrible East Coast Bias, disrespecting Gonzaga football.
Georgetown football plays in the Patriot League at the FCS level now, and not particularly well. But in 1938, it finished 8-0, beat Maryland and West Virginia, and finished in the top 10 in scoring offense and scoring defense. Sure, it played a horrendous schedule, but HANG THE BANNER.
Alabama and Texas claim titles, but Alabama lost twice, and Texas lost once and tied another team. Duquesne won every game and finished #8 in the final AP Poll after beating Mississippi State 16-0 to end the season. Sounds like the big boys were ducking the Dukes.
Did you know Purdue could claim a title in 1931? I don’t see a reason why it shouldn’t add this one too. Purdue went 9-0, clobbered Ohio State, shared a Western title with Michigan, and finished fifth in the AP Poll. Notre Dame, the “actual” national champ that year, lost a game.
1950 and 1956 Wyoming
Wyoming was a powerhouse in the 1960s, but it had a few amazing years prior to Bob Devaney and Lloyd Eaton. The Pokes went undefeated in 1950 (and smacked Washington & Lee around in the Gator Bowl) and 1956, but didn’t crack the AP Top 10 in either season. The solution is to print t-shirts declaring retroactive championships.
1960 New Mexico State
The Aggies finally won a bowl game in 2017, their first since their undefeated run in 1960. NMSU finished 17th in the final AP Poll, but I don’t see why they shouldn’t have been dramatically higher.
1961 and 1976 Rutgers (yes, seriously)
Rutgers claims to have invented college football, and it has spent most of the last 100 years sucking at it. But it has gone undefeated (!) twice (!!) in the post-WWII era, even though it didn’t get invited to a bowl either time. This is probably because everybody was scared.
Did you know Toledo didn’t lose a regular season game for three dang seasons? It won the Tangerine Bowl all three times but never cracked the AP Top 10. Nobody goes that long without losing a game. Toledo should hang, like, 12 banners.
1969 San Diego State
Ohio State and Texas claim titles. But those teams didn’t lead the country in scoring offense while going undefeated or beat Boston University in something called the Pasadena Bowl.
1969 Penn State
The unbeaten Nittany Lions won the Orange Bowl and had the country’s best defense, but the country had already decided the winner of Arkansas-Texas would be the national champ.
1973 Miami (Ohio)
Five teams all claim shares (Alabama, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Oklahoma). So what’s the hurt in letting undefeated Miami grab a slice? Its defense was very nice, allowing only 6.9 points a game, and it beat Florida in the Tangerine Bowl to finish 15th.
1975 Arkansas State
Did the Red Wolves play an impressive schedule? No. But they finished third in scoring offense, second in scoring defense, and demolished everybody in the Southland en route to a 11-0 record. If they want to take their trolling of Arkansas to the next level, start making 1975 bumper stickers.
1970 and 1975 Arizona State
Wait, how’d a power-conference team go undefeated and not top any major polls? Because ASU was in the WAC at the time.
The Tigers went 11-0, but were bowl-banned based on previous NCAA violations.
The Green Wave averaged an outrageous 45 points a game en route to a 12-0 record and #7 ranking. They clobbered BYU in the Liberty Bowl. Now they have two national titles.
The Thundering Herd led the country in scoring defense, only giving up 10.5 points a game. They beat Clemson to open the season, knocked off BYU in the Motor City Bowl, and finished #10. Give ‘em a ring.
The Utes finished #4 after clobbering Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl but probably deserved a better opponent. Under Urban Meyer, Utah averaged a crazy 45.3 points a game and beat Texas A&M, Arizona, and North Carolina.
The Tigers went 13-0 and had arguably the country’s best defense, but missed the BCS Championship.
2006 and 2009 Boise State
We all remember its 43-42 Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma, but you might forget the #5 AP finish, second-ranked scoring offense, and obliteration of 10-win Oregon State. The Broncos had a similar season three years later with another Fiesta win.
Congrats Utah, you now have three national titles. 2008 Utah smacked Alabama around in the Sugar Bowl, finished #2 in the final AP Poll, and had a legitimate claim for a higher finish. If Utah printed some shirts, nobody would complain.
The Horned Frogs did everything you could have asked. They went 13-0, led the nation in scoring defense, beat top-10 Utah by 40 points, won the Rose Bowl, and thoroughly dominated their conference.
Until the Playoff changes enough for every team to have a viable championship path, as is the case in every other sport, more excluded teams who go unbeaten might start following UCF’s example and just calling themselves champs.