College football is almost 150 years old, and for almost all of those seasons, there’s been no official championship system. And now that there is, we still have annual debates about who gets to make it and how seriously to take the whole thing.
Lots of teams claim lots of national titles. In almost every year, that’s totally justifiable. How can a team that beat every team it played not be considered a champ? How can you definitively decide between two teams from different regions that never played?
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 (see page 108 here for the list), though the governing body isn’t in charge of the top-level football title.
Here’s what we’re gonna do: find the closest thing to a consensus in each season, combining those many selectors and other quality measurements like SRS, S&P+, a series of deeply researched articles by James Vautravers, and more.
Your team will probably end up with fewer titles on this list than it claims, though we’ll also find quite a few teams that should claim more, as well as one season where the clear national champ doesn’t even claim it.
The College Football Playoff era
The four-team tournament, selected by a panel of suits, was supposed to finally fix everything. Narrator voice: it didn’t.
2017: Alabama. Undefeated UCF’s claim is reasonable, with a No. 1 ranking in one NCAA-listed selector.
2014: Ohio State.
The BCS era
With all the conferences finally on board, everyone agreed a mix of polls and computers would match up a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game. Annual controversy raged anyway. No one has ever been in charge.
2013: Florida State.
2012: Alabama. Oh, and Ohio State was unbeaten, but bowl-banned. Claim it if you want!
2011: Alabama beat LSU more decisively in the BCS title game than LSU beat Alabama in the regular season. Bama’s title is indisputable...but LSU was the season’s better team. And if Oklahoma State ever wants to hang a banner, go for it.
2010: Auburn, though undefeated Rose Bowl champ TCU has a case, if it ever wants to make it. This was a weird year; S&P+ would’ve picked Boise State to beat anybody, while SRS would’ve taken Stanford (not that either of those two has a valid claim).
2009: Alabama. Unbeaten Boise State won another Fiesta Bowl, FWIW.
2008: Florida, though undefeated Fiesta Bowl champ Utah would have a strong case, 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 Bowl win gives it every reason to claim a title, if it wants (there are shirts, unofficially).
2004: USC, regardless of the NCAA’s alternative facts. Unbeaten Fiesta champ Utah could print T-shirts. BCS snub Auburn gave players title rings, but doesn’t officially claim it.
2003: LSU. USC fairly claims some poll titles, though nobody but USC cares.
2002: Ohio State. The world will never agree on the pass interference call against Miami, but it happened.
1999: Florida State. Nobody beat Marshall, though.
1998: Tennessee. Nobody beat Tulane, though.
The Bowl Coalition/Alliance era
The proto-BCS was designed to try and get something close to a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game into one bowl every year. It came close most of the time, but the Big Ten and Pac-10 preferred the Rose Bowl to a title game.
1997: Nebraska over Michigan, but since they didn’t face each other, claim it up. The Huskers played more final-ranked teams, won more decisively overall, and have the selector majority, but were punished in the AP Poll for the Flea Kicker against Missouri. Here’s what cancels out that controversy: Washington State being robbed of its final play against Michigan in the Rose Bowl. The Huskers probably would’ve been favored in a title game, too.
1994: Unbeaten Nebraska beat two of the final top six teams. Unbeaten Penn State beat four of the final 14. PSU’s overall schedule was harder, but Nebraska was more dominant. The (many) polls favored the Huskers, while the Nittany Lions have the advanced-stats advantage, roughly splitting the computers at the time and adding SRS and S&P+ since (the stats say Penn State is one of the best non-title teams ever). Nebraska ended up with almost three times as many outright NCAA-listed No. 1s, including the AP.
1993: Florida State. Notre Dame beat FSU and could claim it, based on the always indecisive National Championship Foundation and one mathematical ranking (there are shirts, yes). Unbeaten Auburn was bowl-banned. They don’t officially claim this as a title, though they sure like to hint at it.
The polls era
For most of the 20th Century, teams based title 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 No. 1 in more selectors and No. 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 fake news. CU’s record should’ve been 10-2-1 at best, if not for the Fifth Down.
1988: Notre Dame.
1987: Miami. (You can also buy Syracuse shirts.)
1986: Penn State.
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 actual 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 No. 5 to No. 1 in the polls, but Auburn should claim this year. The Tigers faced a far harder schedule and beat the Florida that blew out the Canes. Emotional human poll voters were swayed by late drama and Miami’s great story, while unfeeling numbers have consistently backed Auburn (or even Nebraska).
1982: Penn State.
1978: USC and Alabama split the major polls. USC beat Alabama by 10 in Birmingham. Next.
1977: Notre Dame.
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 of polls refusing to rank OU No. 1 because of NCAA violations.
Now we enter the era in which the polls didn’t all agree to post final rankings after bowl season.
Here’s why the last major poll to adopt that change, the UPI/Coaches, finally did so:
1973: Notre Dame beat Alabama in their No. 1 vs. No. 3 bowl, so 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 had black players back into the 1800s (Harvard’s William H. Lewis was an All-American in 1892 and ‘93), while integration (or re-integration, in some cases) didn’t really 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 both 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, though.
1970: Texas and Ohio State claim it, 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.
1966: Notre Dame, though Michigan State (the fellow unbeaten who tied the Irish) and Alabama (unblemished) have claims. The Irish were No. 1 nationally on both sides of the ball and faced a slightly tougher schedule than MSU or Bama did. Fun fact: Bama doesn’t claim this one, despite being No. 1 in the NCAA-listed Berryman and Sagarin. Trade 1973 and 1941 in for this one, 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 it, but lost its bowl.
1962: USC swept the polls. Unbeaten Ole Miss has a claim, based on a few computer rankings.
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 No. 1 in several polls, but was 8-2. Missouri only went unbeaten via a Kansas forfeit. The closest to consensus is 10-0-1 Ole Miss, though its schedule is unimpressive. Iowa (only lost to Minnesota and has lots of love by the computers) should claim this year, and the retroactive claim by Washington (one loss, beat Minnesota, and was No. 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 it, based on a couple polls not ranking the Tigers due to NCAA stuff.
1954: Ohio State over fellow unbeaten UCLA, thanks to a much stronger schedule. The two couldn’t play each other in what would’ve been one of the biggest Rose Bowls ever, thanks to the era’s dumb rule against a team playing there 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, which should start claiming this year. 9-0-1 Notre Dame should even more proudly claim this year, with backup from lots of math and historians. S&P+ has these Irish as the fifth-best team of the ‘50s. Notre Dame doesn’t claim this year, but, um, somebody legit has to. Take it, Notre Dame.
1952: Michigan State went 9-0 as an independent and has the majority of selectors, while Georgia Tech beat 11 FBS-equivalent teams (and Florida State, which wasn’t really 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 it, despite losing its bowl to unbeaten Maryland. Michigan State has a fair claim, though.
1950: Oklahoma claims it, but lost its bowl to Bear Bryant’s Kentucky, which also claims it. Tennessee beat Kentucky, but lost to a Mississippi State that otherwise went 2-5 against FBS-equivalent teams. Unbeaten Princeton claims it, because Princeton is shameless (respect), 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 ended its season by beating AP No. 5 Texas in the Cotton.
World War II fallout in college football lasted until somewhere around here
The service academies were often 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 1949 Oklahoma could claim it too. The College Football Researchers Association takes the Sooners.
1947: Michigan by a mile. Notre Dame’s AP No. 1 came before Michigan destroyed USC, 49-0, in the Rose Bowl while the Irish sat at home. The AP tried a post-bowl re-vote of the top two spots. Michigan deservedly took it, though Notre Dame still claims a title.
1946: Co-champs Army and Notre Dame tied in a GAME OF THE CENTURY. The Irish had the best raw and opponent-adjusted numbers on the year, while Army faced a tougher schedule. It’s one of the most difficult eternal arguments in college football history. One solution would be to take an 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 had destroyed.
1945: Army, the most outrageously stacked team of all time. In 2016, Oklahoma State added a retroactive coaches poll trophy somehow.
1944: Army, though unbeaten Ohio State’s claim is fine.
1943: Notre Dame, SRS’ highest-rated team ever, even though it lost a game. Purdue didn’t.
1942: Most of the humans have picked Ohio State, but the numbers pick Georgia. The Dawgs had better wins, shutting out No. 5 Georgia Tech, shutting out UCLA in the Rose Bowl, and beating No. 10 Alabama by 11, while OSU’s only final-ranked win was by 14 over Michigan.
1941: Minnesota. Alabama’s claim this year is the most ridiculous in the sport’s history. The Tide were shut out twice, ranked No. 20 in the AP Poll, and waited 40 years to start claiming this title, 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. Cornell went undefeated and claims it. SRS and Sagarin rank the Big Red No. 1.
1938: TCU won the AP at the time, while the Vols have most of the contemporary and retroactive computers, plus the CFRA. Then again, 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 No. 7 Northwestern, while Pitt lost to No. 14 Duquesne at home and tied No. 15 Fordham.
The era before the AP Poll
Total f***ing anarchy! There were still people publishing title selections, and historians and math still go back into this era. But now we’re without the historical gold standard of contemporary popular thinking.
1935: Minnesota. Princeton claims it, because Princeton claims everything. SMU has a lot of statistical support, but lost the Rose Bowl 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 perfectly valid.
1933: Michigan. Princeton, as always, claims it too.
1932: USC annihilated everything, including an unbeaten Pitt in the Rose Bowl, but Michigan has a valid claim. (Also, now we’re back into the era of teams giving up 0 points all year. Colgate did it against a horrendous schedule and has a Parke Davis title share to show for it.)
1930. Notre Dame and Alabama were both 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, but Bama’s claim is unimpeachable.
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 plotted for months to ruin UGA by constantly benching starters all season long to keep them healthy. Texas A&M played a really light schedule, but has a fair statistical claim. Yale’s schedule was brutal and included only a loss to UGA in a weird game. Illinois remains the popular choice overall.
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 athletic club from San Francisco. Navy’s only blemish was a tie with 7-1-1 Army, while Bama’s was a tie with Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Any of these teams should claim it. Alabama has the historical majority on its side and did play one of the year’s toughest schedules.
1925: Bama’s Rose Bowl win is a thing of legend, with some claiming it as the first time a Southern team found national respect. (Not quite. See 1917, for starters.) 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 it, but most go with Princeton over Cal (narrowly).
1921: Cal has the majority of outright support. Cornell’s title claim is fine, as would be one by Iowa.
1920: Cal, though a whole bunch of teams claim it. VMI could, too!
1919: This might be the biggest mess ever. The CFRA has awarded one split title ever, to Harvard and Illinois in this year, while 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 these teams, but not No. 1 (Alabama). Sagarin has Centre No. 1. Nobody’s ever agreed on anything other than Illinois being on the short list.
World War I fallout era
Less of an impact.
1918: Pitt went 4-1 and blamed its one-point loss to Cleveland Naval Reserve (one of several all-star teams brought about by World War I) on crooked officiating. Michigan and many other teams have claims, but selectors have slightly favored Pitt.
1917: Georgia Tech.
The United States isn’t in World War I
Back to normal!
1916: Pitt. Colgate and Army can claim, and I mean, Georgia Tech beat a team 222-0 and only suffered a tie.
1915: Cornell, though Oklahoma and Pitt have cases.
1914: Most pick Army, but Illinois was even more dominant against what SRS judges to be a much tougher schedule. Texas annihilated a light schedule.
1913: Harvard, though some go with Chicago, and Auburn has another title it could start fully claiming, having gone unbeaten as No. 1 in Billingsley’s formula that factors margin of victory.
1912: Harvard. Penn State could claim it too, though.
1911: Princeton. Vautravers makes a nice argument for Carlisle Indian School (Jim Thorpe’s team), and SRS considers Minnesota by far the best of the contenders.
1908: Penn, though some like Harvard. Unbeaten LSU could claim it, thanks to a share of the NCF No. 1.
1906: Numbers and historians are all 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 fair claims.
1903: Princeton, but Michigan has a fair claim.
Between these two seasons, the number of teams roughly doubled to 70-something.
Things were also rapidly expanding nationally even as the game was desperately in need of becoming less violent. Enjoy these last couple non-Ivy champs coming up.
1901: Some take Princeton, which dominated a really tough schedule, but Michigan slaughtered its middling schedule by a 550-0 margin (not a misprint) and won the first bowl game in football history.
1900: John Heisman’s 6-0 Clemson might as well claim it, though Yale won twice as many games in a more established region.
1899: A historian split between Harvard and Princeton. SRS comfortably 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 team feat in football history. This is the only year in which I’m ignoring all selectors (other than a public vote held recently by the College Football Hall of Fame) and the school’s lack of a claim and just stamping my own champ.
1896: Princeton, though Lafayette has a case.
1892: Yale. This was the last of many titles won by Walter Camp, the adoptive father of American football. Heisman’s debut season: 7-0 at Oberlin, with two demolitions of Ohio State and a win over Michigan.
1890: Harvard! After reading the next 20 seasons, you’ll remember Harvard’s name as an oasis.
1888: It’s Yale with the first 10-win season ever. Thirteen, actually.
1886: Yale, though Princeton has a technical case. Most historians take note of the circumstances in its de facto national championship, which was called early because of darkness. That meant a tie, despite Yale leading, per rules. 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.
1884: Yale’s the popular pick over the undefeated Princeton it tied in a title game, thanks to much better scoring margins. Take note that Yale averaged 55 points a game this season...
1883: ... and that Yale averaged 60 points a game this season...
1882: ... because Yale averaged 6.5 points a game this season. After this season was when Camp really started messing with the sport’s scoring system. Going forward, field goals were worth four points, and touchdowns were two plus four-point kicks. Scoring kept evolving for the next 30 years.
1881: Yale has slightly more historian support and only one tied game, to Princeton’s two.
Now there are fewer than 10 teams, so things are really simple. Usually.
1880: Princeton and Yale went 4-0, then tied in a de facto title game. Historians and math slightly favor Yale.
1877: Princeton went 2-0-1 and has a legit title claim. That’s how far back we’ve gone. 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. Thank you.
1875: The oldest title controversy! Princeton beat Columbia and eventual Division III school Stevens Tech, both at home. Harvard beat a Canadian all-star 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: There’s a historian split, but Yale’s win over Stevens was the year’s only win over any team not named Columbia or Rutgers.
1871: No college football happened, other than Princeton’s scrimmages against a local seminary. You can see all that practice paying off in later titles.
1870: Princeton beat Rutgers, but Rutgers beat Columbia. That was the season.
1869: Princeton. Contrary to popular belief, Rutgers didn’t win the only game in the first-ever season. In fact, the teams rematched a week later. Princeton won a shutout and took the total scoring differential, 12-6. So no, Rutgers doesn’t have a convincing claim to any outright titles in the sport invented on its campus.
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: Miami, Ohio State, Penn, Pitt
- 3: Army, Florida, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Illinois, LSU, Tennessee, Texas
- 2: Auburn, Cal, Clemson, Georgia, Penn State
- 1: Arkansas, BYU, Chicago, Cornell, Maryland, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Sewanee (awarded by SB Nation as of right now and yet to be claimed), Syracuse, Texas A&M, Washington