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Naming the single definitive national champ for each season, 1869-2019

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Or the closest thing to it, based on historical consensus. We’ll also do a final count at the end.

Arnold Friberg’s depiction of the first-ever football game/the current national title trophy. Banner Society illustration.

For almost all of college football’s 150 years, there was no formal top-level championship. And now that there is, we still debate who gets to compete and how seriously to take it.

Lots of teams claim lots of old titles. In almost every year, that’s justifiable.

How can a team that beat every team it played not be considered a champ? How can you decide between two strangers from different regions?

But going all the way back to the beginning, historians and mathematicians have made their picks for each season’s closest thing to a champ.

They’ve been joined by media polls, coaches’ polls, more advanced computer systems, and so on. Many of those are listed as “selectors” by the NCAA, though the governing body has never been in charge of the top-level football title.

So let’s pick exactly one champ from every season, year by year and team by team, and then count them all up.

This will not be one person’s opinion. We’ll find the closest thing to a consensus in each season, combining NCAA-recognized selectors and quality measurements like SRS, S&P+, a series of deeply researched articles by James Vautravers, Parke Davis’ 1911 history of football, a series by Bill Connelly informed by advanced stats, and more.

Your team will probably end up with fewer titles than it claims, though we’ll also find a few teams that should claim more, as well as one season in which the only clear champ doesn’t claim it.

The College Football Playoff era

College Football Playoff - Head Coaches Press Conference Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

A four-team tournament, selected by a panel of suits, was supposed to fix everything. Narrator: it didn’t.

  • 2019: LSU.
  • 2018: Clemson.
  • 2017: Alabama. Undefeated UCF’s claim is reasonable, with a #1 ranking in one NCAA-listed selector. (If the previous sentence has upset you, I don’t think you’re prepared to handle the rest of college football history. Goodbye.)
  • 2016: Clemson.
  • 2015: Alabama.
  • 2014: Ohio State.

The BCS era

Obama Welcomes BCS Champion U. Of Alabama Crimson Tide To White House Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

With all the conferences finally on board, a mix of polls and computers would match #1 vs. #2 every year. Annual controversy raged anyway. No one has ever been in charge.

  • 2013: Florida State.
  • 2012: Alabama. Ohio State was unbeaten, but bowl-banned. Claim it if you want!
  • 2011: Alabama beat LSU more decisively than LSU beat Alabama ... but I ain’t mad at those who still say LSU was the year’s best team. Also, the BCS computers thought Oklahoma State should’ve made the title game, so claim it if you want.
  • 2010: Auburn, though undefeated Rose Bowl champ TCU would have a case. This was a weird year — S&P+ would’ve picked Boise State to beat anybody, while SRS would’ve taken Stanford (not that either has a valid claim).
  • 2009: Alabama. Unbeaten Boise State won another Fiesta Bowl, FWIW.
  • 2008: Florida, though undefeated Sugar champ Utah should claim as well, with a win over SEC West champ Alabama and final No. 1 rankings in several BCS computers.
  • 2007: LSU, but if Georgia, Kansas, and USC gave themselves trophies, it wouldn’t be anywhere near the craziest thing about that season.
  • 2006: Florida, though unbeaten Boise State’s legendary Fiesta gives it every reason to claim a title, if it wants (there are shirts, unofficially).
  • 2005: Texas, thanks to maybe the most beloved game ever.
  • 2004: USC, regardless of the NCAA’s alternative facts. Unbeaten Fiesta champ Utah could print T-shirts. BCS snub Auburn gave players rings, but doesn’t claim it.
  • 2003: LSU. USC fairly claims poll titles, though nobody but USC cares.
  • 2002: Ohio State. Miami, feel free to decide the final call didn’t happen and give yourself a trophy, though.
  • 2001: Miami, one of SEVERAL entrants in the greatest-team-ever debate.
  • 2000: Oklahoma.
  • 1999: Florida State. Nobody beat Marshall, though.
  • 1998: Tennessee. Nobody beat Tulane, though. Are you sensing a trend?

The Bowl Coalition/Alliance era

Northwestern v Nebraska Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images

The proto-BCS tried to create #1 vs. #2 bowls. It came close, but the Big Ten and Pac-10 preferred the Rose Bowl to a title game.

The polls era

For most of the 20th Century, teams based claims on either the Associated Press poll, UPI/Coaches poll, a major equivalent, or ... whatever else they wanted to cite.

  • 1991: Washington. Unbeaten Miami’s claim is legit, but the Huskies were #1 in more selectors and #2 ahead of Miami in scoring on both sides of the ball, all against a top-10 schedule, with S&P+ favoring them in a hypothetical title game by almost four points.
  • 1990: Georgia Tech. The majority of polls favor Colorado, but that’s dumb. CU’s record would’ve been 10-2-1, if not for the Fifth Down.
  • 1989: Miami.
  • 1988: Notre Dame.
  • 1987: Miami. (You can also buy Syracuse shirts.)
  • 1986: Penn State.
  • 1985: Oklahoma.
  • 1984: BYU, by default. One of the weirdest seasons ever produced an undefeated team that swept the polls, but didn’t play anybody more glamorous than 6-6 Michigan. (The best team, per S&P+, SRS, Sagarin, and six contemporary selectors: a bowl-banned Florida. Claim it, Gators.)
  • 1983: Miami barely beat Nebraska to leap from #5 to #1, but Auburn should claim. The Tigers faced a far harder schedule and beat the Florida that blew out the Canes. Emotional human voters were swayed by late drama and Miami’s sudden story, while unfeeling numbers consistently back Auburn (or even Nebraska).
  • 1982: Penn State.
  • 1981: Clemson.
  • 1980: Georgia.
  • 1979: Alabama.
  • 1978: USC and Alabama split the polls. USC beat Alabama by 10 in Birmingham. Next.
  • 1977: Notre Dame.
  • 1976: Pitt.
  • 1975: Oklahoma, but Arizona State went unbeaten in the WAC (yep, there’s a shirt).
  • 1974: Oklahoma. USC’s claim is based on a couple polls refusing to crown OU because of NCAA stuff. Narcs.

Now we enter the era in which the polls didn’t all agree to post final rankings after bowl season.

Notre Dame Athletics

Here’s why the last major poll to change, the UPI/Coaches, finally did so:

  • 1973: Notre Dame beat Alabama in a #1 vs. #3 bowl. Ignore Bama’s claim to this season, unless you’d also like to ignore the game between the two at the end of the 2012 season. SRS considers once-tied Oklahoma the best non-World War II team ever, by the way.

The last teams to racially integrate (BYU, LSU, and Ole Miss) did so in 1972. Many people justifiably refuse to acknowledge titles involving segregated teams.

Some teams accepted black players in the 1800s (Harvard’s William H. Lewis was an All-American in 1892 and ‘93), yet integration (or re-integration) didn’t get rolling until the 1930s nationally and 1960s in the South.

  • 1972: USC, probably the best team in Pac-12 (and all its previous names) history.
  • 1971: Nebraska, with the Huskers and Alabama ranking among S&P+’s top 10 teams since WW2. Toledo should claim something for going undefeated for three straight seasons.
  • 1970: Texas and Ohio State claim, but lost their bowls. Nebraska didn’t lose at all.
  • 1969: Texas, but unbeaten Penn State could claim it, based on a few computers.
  • 1968: Ohio State.
  • 1967: USC.
  • 1966: Notre Dame, though Michigan State (fellow unbeaten who tied the Irish, with much of the country mad at Notre Dame playing for the draw) and Alabama (unblemished) have cases. The Irish were #1 on both sides of the ball and faced a slightly tougher schedule. Bama doesn’t claim this one, despite being #1 in the NCAA-listed Berryman and Sagarin. Trade 1973 and 1941 for this, Bama.
  • 1965: Alabama. Michigan State claims it, based on a poll released before MSU’s bowl loss, though the numbers would take MSU to beat Bama.
  • 1964: Unbeaten Arkansas. Bama claims, but lost its bowl.
  • 1963: Texas.
  • 1962: USC swept the polls. Unbeaten Ole Miss has a claim, based on a few computers.
  • 1961: Unbeaten Alabama. Ohio State claims it, but suffered a tie against a 3-5-2 TCU that also happened to wreck Texas’ perfect season.
  • 1960: Big mess! 8-2 Minnesota was #1 in several polls, but was 8-2. Missouri only went unbeaten thanks to a Kansas forfeit. The closest to consensus is 10-0-1 Ole Miss, though its schedule is unimpressive. Iowa (a computer darling that only lost to Minnesota) should claim, and the retroactive claim by Washington (one loss, beat Minnesota, #1 in one NCAA selector) is legit, too.
  • 1959: Another season with two of S&P+’s 10 best teams since WW2. Ole Miss was an epic touchdown away from at least sharing honors with Syracuse.
  • 1958: LSU. Iowa could claim a piece.
  • 1957: Auburn. Ohio State claims, based on a couple polls not ranking the Tigers due to NCAA stuff. Narcs.
  • 1956: Oklahoma.
  • 1955: Oklahoma.
  • 1954: Ohio State over fellow unbeaten UCLA, thanks to a much stronger schedule. The two couldn’t combine for one of the biggest Rose Bowls ever, thanks to the era’s dumb rule against a team playing in back-to-back years. The Bruins’ claim is fair.
  • 1953: Maryland took both major polls, then got shut out in its bowl against Oklahoma (OU should start claiming). 9-0-1 Notre Dame should loudly claim this year, with backup from lots of math and historians. S&P+ has these Irish as the fifth-best team of the ‘50s. Take it whether you want it or not, Notre Dame.
  • 1952: Michigan State went 9-0 and has the majority of selectors, while Georgia Tech beat 11 FBS-equivalent teams (plus Florida State, which wasn’t a thing yet). The Jackets beat four ranked teams to MSU’s three, and that’s counting MSU’s win over 4-3-2 Purdue as a ranked win. GT’s claim is legit.
  • 1951: Tennessee claims, despite losing its bowl to unbeaten Maryland. Michigan State has a fair claim.
  • 1950: Oklahoma claims, but lost its bowl to Bear Bryant’s Kentucky, which also claims. Tennessee beat Kentucky, but lost to a Mississippi State that otherwise went 2-5 against FBS-equivalent teams. Shameless Princeton claims it, but the Ivy League was proto-FCS by that point. Oh, and OU played a tougher schedule than the SEC teams did. What a mess! Go with Tennessee, which beat AP #5 Texas in the Cotton.

World War II fallout in college football lasted until somewhere around here.

The service academies were hilariously powerful, as was Notre Dame, as many non-military schools gave up the sport for a while.

  • 1949: Notre Dame swept basically every poll and formula, but the College Football Researchers Association takes Oklahoma.
  • 1948: Michigan.
  • 1947: Michigan by a mile. Notre Dame’s AP #1 came before Michigan destroyed USC in the Rose while the Irish sat at home. The AP tried a post-bowl re-vote of the top two spots. Michigan took it, though Notre Dame still claims.
  • 1946: Co-champs Army and Notre Dame tied in a GAME OF THE CENTURY. The Irish had the year’s best raw and opponent-adjusted numbers, while Army faced a tougher schedule. It’s one of the toughest eternal arguments in college football history. One solution: unbeaten Georgia (claim it, Dawgs). Most selectors favor Notre Dame, which was otherwise unchallenged all year; Army almost lost to a 1-8 Navy that Notre Dame whapped.
  • 1945: Army, the most outrageously stacked team of all time. (In 2016, Oklahoma State added a retroactive coaches poll trophy somehow.)
  • 1944: GAME OF THE CENTURY winner Army, though unbeaten Ohio State’s claim is fine.
  • 1943: Notre Dame, SRS’ highest-rated team ever, though it lost a game. Purdue didn’t.
  • 1942: Most humans have picked Ohio State, but the numbers love Georgia. The Dawgs had better wins, shutting out #5 Georgia Tech, shutting out UCLA in the Rose, and beating #10 Alabama by 11.
  • 1941: Minnesota. Alabama’s claim is the most embarrassing by any team ever. The Tide were shut out twice, finished #20 in the AP Poll, and waited four decades to claim this, based literally on one man’s analysis.

The United States isn’t in World War II yet

Back to normal!

  • 1940: Minnesota went undefeated against what might’ve been the country’s hardest schedule, including four final top-10 teams. Stanford’s claim is reasonable.
  • 1939: Texas A&M. SRS and Sagarin rank undefeated Cornell #1.
  • 1938: TCU won the AP. The Vols have most of the contemporary and retroactive computers, plus the CFRA. TCU has some historian favor of its own and SRS. Tennessee played a slightly tougher schedule, but both should keep claiming.
  • 1937: Pitt. Cal and Santa Clara (!) have cases.
  • 1936: Minnesota. Pitt played more ranked teams and had more decisive wins over common opponents, but Minnesota’s loss was at #7 Northwestern, while Pitt lost to #14 Duquesne at home and tied #15 Fordham.

The era before the AP Poll

1933 Rose Bowl program
eBay

We have now entered total fucking anarchy! There were people publishing title selections, and historians and math still go back into this era. But without the AP Poll, we’re without the gold standard of contemporary consensus.

  • 1935: Minnesota. Princeton claims it, because Princeton claims everything. SMU has statistical support, but lost the Rose by a touchdown.
  • 1934: Minnesota has most of the contemporary and retroactive selectors and had the year’s best win (at Pitt), though Alabama played two more games after the Gophers were done, including a win over previously unbeaten Stanford, and beat a couple teams better than any of the non-Pitt stuff on Minnesota’s schedule. Both claims are valid.
  • 1933: Michigan. Princeton, as always, claims.
  • 1932: USC annihilated everything, including an unbeaten Pitt in the Rose, but Michigan has a valid claim. (Also, we’re into the era of teams giving up 0 points all year. Colgate did it against a horrendous schedule and has a title share from historian Parke Davis.)
  • 1931: USC.
  • 1930. Notre Dame and Alabama were unbeaten monsters. The majority of humans and numbers side with Notre Dame’s brutal schedule over Alabama’s greater dominance, with SRS considering these Irish an all-time great. Bama’s claim is sound.
  • 1929: Notre Dame. Pitt, Purdue, and Tulane have cases.
  • 1928: Georgia Tech.
  • 1927: Georgia might’ve been the easy pick, if Georgia Tech hadn’t tanked for weeks just to ruin UGA. Texas A&M played a light schedule, but has a fair statistical claim. Yale’s schedule was brutal and included only a weird loss to UGA. Illinois remains the popular choice.
  • 1926: Lafayette was unbeaten against a light schedule. Notre Dame had an ugly loss amid a tough schedule. Stanford nearly lost to an 0-5-1 non-college. Navy’s blemish was a tie with 7-1-1 Army, while Bama’s was a tie with Stanford in the Rose. Everybody should claim. Alabama has the historical majority and played one of the year’s toughest schedules.
  • 1925: Bama’s Rose win is a thing of legend, with some still calling it the first time a Southern team found national respect. (Nope. See 1917.) Vautravers makes an excellent case for unbeaten Dartmouth, though the far majority take Alabama.
  • 1924: Notre Dame.
  • 1923: Illinois, though Cal, Cornell, Michigan, and Yale have cases.
  • 1922: Cornell and Iowa can claim, but most go with Princeton over Cal (narrowly).
  • 1921: Cal has the majority of support. Cornell’s claim is fine, as would be one by Iowa.
  • 1920: Cal, though a bunch of teams claim. VMI could!
  • 1919: Biggest mess ever? The CFRA’s only split title (Harvard and Illinois). Parke Davis and the NCF handed out three-way titles, roping in Notre Dame and Texas A&M. Vautravers splits it between Illinois and Penn State. SRS has Illinois over all those, but not #1 (Alabama). Sagarin has Centre #1. Nobody’s ever agreed on anything other than Illinois making the cut.

World War I fallout era

1917 Georgia Tech “Golden Tornado”
New York Times, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The less impactful World War, sports-wise.

  • 1918: Pitt went 4-1 and blamed its one-point loss to Cleveland Naval Reserve (an actual all-star team produced by the war) on officiating. Michigan and others have claims.
  • 1917: Georgia Tech.

The United States isn’t in World War I

1902 Michigan
University of Michigan

Back to normal!

  • 1916: Pitt. Colgate and Army can claim. Georgia Tech beat a semi-team 222-0 and only suffered a tie.
  • 1915: Cornell, though Oklahoma and Pitt have cases.
  • 1914: Most pick Army, but Illinois was more dominant against what SRS judges to be a much tougher schedule. Texas annihilated a light schedule.
  • 1913: Harvard, though some go with Chicago. Auburn has another title it could claim, finishing unbeaten and #1 in Billingsley’s formula that factors margin of victory.
  • 1912: Harvard. Penn State could claim, though.
  • 1911: Princeton. Vautravers makes a nice argument for Carlisle Indian School (Jim Thorpe’s team), and SRS considers Minnesota by far the best contender.
  • 1910: Harvard.
  • 1909: Yale.
  • 1908: Penn, though some like Harvard. Unbeaten LSU could claim, thanks to a share of the NCF #1.
  • 1907: Yale.
  • 1906: Numbers and historians are split on Princeton or Yale, who tied each other. I’ll break this tie. Yale was the only team to beat Harvard, while Princeton didn’t play Harvard.
  • 1905: Chicago, though some take Yale.
  • 1904: Penn, but Michigan and Minnesota have cases.
  • 1903: Princeton, but Michigan has a fair claim.
  • 1902: Michigan.

Right before 1902, the number of teams roughly doubled to 70-something.

The game was rapidly expanding nationally even as it was desperately in need of becoming less violent. Enjoy these last couple non-Ivy champs coming up.

  • 1901: Some take Princeton, which dominated a tough schedule, but Michigan slaughtered its middling schedule by a 550-0 margin and won the first-ever bowl.
  • 1900: John Heisman’s 6-0 Clemson might as well claim, though Yale won twice as many games in a more established region.
  • 1899: Historians split between Harvard and Princeton. SRS favors Harvard and says the Crimson played the harder schedule; Princeton lost a game and struggled in two others. However, the people’s champ is Sewanee. The Tennessee Tigers went 12-0 and obliterated the South, including shutouts of Texas A&M, Texas, Tulane, LSU, and Ole Miss during a six-day road trip, maybe the greatest feat in football history. This is the only year in which I’m ignoring all selectors and stamping my own champ.
  • 1898: Harvard.
  • 1897: Penn, the last FBS-equivalent team until 2018 to go 15-0.
  • 1896: Princeton, though Lafayette has a case (partly thanks to one of the NCAA’s recognized historians being Davis, who was ... Lafayette’s coach this year).
  • 1895: Penn.
  • 1894: Yale.
  • 1893: Princeton.
  • 1892: Yale. The last title won by Walter Camp, the adoptive father of football. Meanwhile, Heisman’s debut season: 7-0 at Oberlin, with two demolitions of Ohio State and a win over Michigan.
  • 1891: Yale.
  • 1890: After reading the next 20 seasons, you’ll remember Harvard’s name as an oasis.
  • 1889: Princeton.
  • 1888: It’s Yale with the first 10-win season ever. Thirteen, actually.
  • 1887: Yale.
  • 1886: Yale, though Princeton has a case. Most historians take note of the circumstances in this de facto national championship, called early because of darkness. That meant a tie, despite Yale leading. Everyone met at a hotel to argue about it. “The great struggle of Thursday at Princeton accomplished nothing,” said the New York Times. Princeton offered a rematch. I’ll keep you posted.
  • 1885: Princeton.
  • 1884: Yale’s the popular pick over the undefeated Princeton (they tied in a title game), thanks to much better scoring margins. Take note that Yale averaged 55 points a game this season ...
  • 1883: ... after Yale averaged 60 points this season ...
  • 1882: ... after Yale averaged 6.5 points this season. This was when Camp really started messing with the sport’s scoring system, partly to keep Princeton from using its widely reviled dock-the-battleship offense. He’d make field goals worth four points and touchdowns worth two, plus four-point kicks. Scoring would keep evolving for 30 years.
  • 1881: Yale has slightly more historian support and only one tied game, to Princeton’s two. (Around now, it becomes apparent college football is gonna make a lot of money and someone’s gonna have to figure out how to square that with amateurism. Any year now!)

Now there are fewer than 10 teams, so things are really simple. That last part is a lie.

Look at these beasts at 1876 Yale!
  • 1880: Princeton and Yale went 4-0, then tied in a de facto title game. Historians and math slightly favor Yale, though the big dispute this year was over a weird precedent set in 1879:
  • 1879: Football’s tiny governing body, the Intercollegiate Football Association, controversially declared Princeton the champ, citing 1878’s results as a tiebreaker of sorts. (In hindsight, this is easy to resolve without that rule — 1879 Princeton tied Yale but had more wins, a better scoring margin, a better result against Harvard, and SRS’ #1 rating.)
  • 1878: Princeton.
  • 1877: Princeton went 2-0-1. The Tigers tied Yale, which claims historian support, perhaps via winning more games, but [clears throat] 1877 Yale ain’t played nobody. Princeton beat two .500-plus teams, while Yale beat none. I’ve just applied College Football Playoff committee metrics to 1877.
  • 1876: Yale, who later argued in 1880 that the 1878-79 Previous Year’s Champ rule meant Yale should take all of Princeton’s titles for every year since 1876, which Yale judged to be fake football years because of rule changes. “The controversy continued to rage until finally buried beneath the accumulation of time, although among the older generation of football men it occasionally breaks out even to this day,” Parke Davis would write three decades later.
  • 1875: Princeton beat Columbia and eventual Division III school Stevens Tech, both at home. Harvard beat a Canadian pickup team twice (once in Montreal), won at Tufts, and won at Yale. (I’ve now listed both entire schedules.) Travel aside, Princeton was more dominant against a tougher list of teams.
  • 1874: The oldest title controversy! There’s a historian split, but Yale’s win over Stevens was the only win by anyone over any team not named Columbia or Rutgers. (Also note: everything before the mid-1870s or maybe even early-1880s here is quite arguably not football. Declaring these years non-canon could drop Princeton below Alabama in the all-time count, though, and that would be less funny, so leave them be.)
  • 1873: Princeton.
  • 1872: Princeton.

1871: No college football happened, other than Princeton’s scrimmages against a seminary. You can see all that practice paying off in the 1870s.

1869 Princeton
Princeton
  • 1870: Princeton beat Rutgers. Rutgers beat Columbia. That was the season.
  • 1869: Foreshadowing the 2011 BCS, the Round 1 winner got shut out in the rematch. Princeton took the season’s total scoring differential, 12-6, winning both the first of many Games Of The Century and the first of many Worst-Place Games at the same time. So (most Rutgers statement of all time inbound) Rutgers doesn’t have a convincing claim to any titles despite at one point having won 100 percent of all football games ever.

Now it’s time to add all that together, awarding exactly one champ per season. Here is the “consensus” national championship count:

  • 17: Yale
  • 15: Princeton
  • 11: Alabama, Notre Dame (including 1953, which ND has yet to claim despite being by far the best option)
  • 7: USC
  • 6: Oklahoma
  • 5: Harvard, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska
  • 4: LSU, Miami, Ohio State, Penn, Pitt
  • 3: Army, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Tennessee, Texas
  • 2: Auburn, Cal, Georgia, Penn State
  • 1: Arkansas, BYU, Chicago, Cornell, Maryland, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Sewanee (awarded by Banner Society), Syracuse, Texas A&M, Washington

Controversies settled, right? No? I doubt we’ll agree on every single year here, but I’ve showed all my work, so if you disagree with any of these counts, be sure to show yours in the comments as well.