Historical Reality National
College Football Champions

by Bob Kirlin

Historical accuracy must be viewed by taking into account the reactions and opinions of contemporary observers, not the distorted hindsight produced by such actions as retro-ratings of previous seasons using a score book or a record book instead of looking for the team who really was perceived as the best, or applying the standards of the current era to previous eras by, for example, counting bowl results in seasons when bowl games had nothing to do with deciding the national leading team. (It took me a long time to learn this lesson!)

Historically accurate contemporary consensus annual national leading teams: If the AP poll existed prior to 1936, which teams would have been voted number one?

YearTeamRecordCoachNotable Player
1876Yale3-0-0noneEugene Baker, b
1877Princeton2-0-1noneEarle Dodge, b
1878Princeton6-0-0noneTed McNair, b
1879Princeton4-0-1noneBland Ballard, forward
1880Princeton4-0-1noneFrancis Loney, t
 Yale4-0-1noneRobert Watson, b
1881Yale5-0-1noneWaker Camp, b
1882Yale8-0-0noneLouis Hull, c
1883Yale8-0-0noneRay Tompkins, g
1884Yale8-0-1noneEugene Richards, b
1885Princeton9-0-0noneHenry Lamar, b
1886Yale9-0-1noneHarry Beecher, b
1887Yale9-0-0noneWilliam Corbin, c
1888Yale13-0-0Walter CampWilliam Bull, b
1889Princeton10-0-0noneHector Cowan,t
1890Harvard11-0-0George StewartMarshall Newell, t
1891Yale13-0-0Walter CampPudge Heffelfinger, g
1892Yale13-0-0Walter CampVance McCormick
1893Princeton11-0-0nonePhilip King, hb
1894Yale16-0-0Bill RhodesFrank Hinkey, e
1895Pennsylvania14-0-0George WoodruffCharles Gelbert, e
1896Princeton10-0-1noneAddison Kelly, hb
1897Pennsylvania15-0-0George WoodruffJohn Minds, b
1898Harvard11-0-0Cameron ForbesBenjamin Dibblee, b
1899Princeton12-1-0noneArthur Poe, e
1900Yale12-0-0Malcolm McBrideGordon Brown, g
1901Harvard12-0-0Bill ReidRobert Kernan, hb
1902Yale11-0-1Joe SwanGeorge Chadwick, b
1903Princeton11-0-0Art HillebrandJohn DeWitt, g
1904Pennsylvania12-0-0Carl WilliamsAndy Smith, b
1905Yale10-0-0Jack OwsleyTom Shevlin, e
1906Yale9-0-1Foster RockwellPaul Veeder, b
1907Yale9-0-1Bill KnoxTad Jones, hb
1908Harvard9-0-1Percy HaughtonHamilton Fish, t
1909Yale10-0-0Howard JonesTed Coy, fb
1910Harvard8-0-1Percy HaughtonPercy Wendeil, hb
1911Princeton8-0-2Bill RoperSanford White, e
1912Harvard9-0-0Percy HaughtonCharley Brickley, hb
1913Harvard9-0-0Percy HaughtonEddie Mahan, fb
1914Harvard7-0-2Percy HaughtonHuntington Hardwick, e
1915Cornell9-0-0AI SharpeCharley Barrett, qb
1916Pittsburgh8-0-0Pop WarnerBob Peck, c
1917Georgia Tech9-0-0John HeismanEv Strupper, hb
1918Pittsburgh4-0-0Pop WarnerTom Davies, hb
1919Penn State7-1-0Hugo BezdekBob Higgins, e
1920Princeton6-0-1Bill RoperDon Lourie, qb
1921Centre10-1-0Charlie MoranBo McMillin, b
1922Princeton8-0-0Bill RoperHerb Treat, t
1923Illinois8-0-0Bob ZuppkeRed Grange, hb
1924Notre Dame10-0-0Knute RockneHarry Stuhldreher, qb
1925Dartmouth8-0-0Jesse HawleySwede Oberlander, hb
1926Navy9-0-1Bill IngramFrank Wickhorst, t
1927Illinois7-0-1Bob ZuppkeRuss Crane, g
1928Georgia Tech10-0-0Bill AlexanderPete Pund, c
1929Notre Dame9-0-0Knute RockneFrank Carideo, qb
1930Notre Dame10-0-0Knute RockneMarchy Schwartz, hb
1931USC10-1-0Howard JonesJohn Baker, g
1932USC10-0-0Howard JonesErnie Smith, t
1933Michigan7-0-1Harry KipkeChuck Bernard, c
1934Minnesota8-0-0Bernie BiermanPug Lund, hb
1935Minnesota8-0-0Bernie BiermanDick Smith, t


(updated from The Sporting News of December 23, 1985)

There are four national championships in college football that have the highest recognition factor:

The AP rankings began in 1936 and consist of a poll of sportswriters and broadcasters throughout the nation. In the coaches poll, begun in 1950, head coaches across the country are polled. These two polls have produced different champions, and teams on probation are not recognized in the poll of coaches while the AP permits their inclusion. Beginning in 1974, by agreement with the American Football Coaches Association, teams on NCAA probation were ineligible for ranking and national championship consideration by the poll of coaches. Not until the 1974 season did the poll of coaches conduct its final poll after the bowl games. Prior to this time the poll of coaches champion was announced at the end of the regular season. The AP first announced its post-bowl champion after the 1965 season, then dropped the practice for two years before resuming after the 1968 campaign.

The MacArthur Bowl is determined by the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame which polls voting members after the last bowl game to determine a consensus champion. The MacArthur Bowl is, of course, named for U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur who was a devotee of college football. The Hall of Fame has been making its award since 1959. Starting in 1971 this award was presented after the bowl games.

The football writers or FWAA is picked by a panel of five veteran writers, each from a different section of the country. After the last bowl game, each calls in his choice. The school with the most votes is declared champion. The identity of the five voters is kept secret until after the vote so as to prevent undue pressure being placed on any of them. The FWAA began its award in 1954 and since 1955 has taken their final vote after the bowl games.

Various rating systems, computerized rankings and other polls are syndicated by different papers but the four listed here generally are considered preeminent. However, the NCAA has never declared the winner of any poll or bowl game as the official major college football national champion.

The chronology of each follow.

The Associated Press poll first began selecting national champions in 1936.

1936 Minnesota
1937 Pittsburgh
1938 TCU
1939 Texas A&M
1940 Minnesota
1941 Minnesota
1942 Ohio State
1943 Notre Dame
1944 Army
1945 Army
1946 Notre Dame
1947 Notre Dame (Unofficial post-bowl poll selected Michigan)
1948 Michigan
1949 Notre Dame

The United Press poll first began selecting national champions in 1950.

1950 Oklahoma (both)
1951 Tennessee (both)
1952 Michigan State (both)
1953 Maryland (both)

The Football Writers Association of America began selecting national champions in 1954. The Grantland Rice Award is given to the team that wins the FWAA vote. Grantland Rice, the dean of American sportswriters, was born an November 1, 1880, and died on July 13, 1954.

1954 UCLA (UP, FWAA)
     Ohio State (AP)

In 1955, and in every year since then, the FWAA has taken their final vote after the bowl games.

1955 Oklahoma (all 3)
1956 Oklahoma (all 3)
1957 Ohio State (UP, FWAA)
     Auburn (AP)

On May 24, 1958, the United Press and International News Service joined forces around the world in the creation of a single news agency named United Press International.

The correct designation of the coaches poll is United Press from 1950 to 1957 and United Press International since 1958. Prior to this merger, the International News Service had been taking their own poll for six years and voted these teams number one: Georgia Tech in 1952, Maryland in 1953, Ohio State in 1954, Oklahoma in 1955 and 1956, and Ohio State in 1957. [INS poll information provided by Harry Carson Frye.]

1958 LSU (AP, UPI)
     Iowa (FWAA)

In 1959 the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame began awarding the MacArthur Bowl to their choice of the national champion. General of the Army Douglas MacArthur was born on January 26, 1880 and died on April 5, 1964.

1959 Syracuse (all four)
1960 Minnesota (AP, UPI, NFF)
     Mississippi (FWAA)
1961 Alabama (AP, UPI, NFF)
     Ohio State (FWAA)
1962 USC (all four)
1963 Texas (all four)
1964 Alabama (AP, UPI)
     Arkansas (FWAA)
     Notre Dame (NFF)

In 1965 the Associated Press took their final poll after the bowl games for the first time.

1965 Michigan State (UPI, FWAA, NFF)
     Alabama (AP, FWAA)

In 1966 and 1967 the Associated Press took their final poll before the bowl games, just as they had done in all the years prior to 1965.

1966 Notre Dame (AP, UPI, FWAA, NFF)
     Michigan State (NFF)
1967 USC (all four)

In 1968 and in every year since then the Associated Press waited until after the bowl games to take their final poll.

1968 Ohio State (all four)
1969 Texas (all four)
1970 Nebraska (AP, FWAA)
     Texas (UPI, NFF)
     Ohio State (NFF)

The first year in which the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame waited until after the bowl games to award their MacArthur Bowl was 1971.

1971 Nebraska (all four)
1972 USC (all four)
1973 Notre Dame (AP, FWAA, NFF)
     Alabama (UPI)

The first year in which the United Press International took their final poll after the bowl games was 1974. Thus, starting with 1974 for the first time, all of the four major national championship selectors waited until after the bowl games to select their top team.

     Oklahoma (AP)
1975 Oklahoma (all four)
1976 Pittsburgh (all four)
1977 Notre Dame (all four)
1978 Alabama (AP, FWAA, NFF)
     USC (UPI)
1979 Alabama (all four)
1980 Georgia (all four)
1981 Clemson (all four)
1982 Penn State (all four)
1983 Miami FL (all four)
1984 Brigham Young (all four)
1985 Oklahoma (all four)
1986 Penn State (all four)
1987 Miami FL (all four)
1988 Notre Dame (all four)
1989 Miami FL (all four)
1990 Colorado (AP, FWAA, NFF)
     Georgia Tech (UPI)

The coaches poll that UPI had been publishing moved in 1991 to USA Today/CNN.

1991 Washington (USA Today/CNN, FWAA, NFF)
     Miami FL (AP)
1992 Alabama (all four)
1993 Florida State (all four)
1994 Nebraska (all four)
1995 Nebraska (all four)
1996 Florida (all four)

In 1997 the coaches poll became the USA Today/ESPN poll.

1997 Michigan (AP, FWAA, NFF)
     Nebraska (USA Today/ESPN)
1998 Tennessee (all four)
1999 Florida State (all four)

Presidential Elections

(an analogy concerning historical reality)

Year Won * You Voted For **
1868 Ulysses S. Grant Horatio Seymour
1920 Warren G. Harding James Cox
1928 Herbert Hoover Alfred Smith
1936 F D R F D R
1952 Dwight Eisenhower Dwight Eisenhower
1968 Richard Nixon Hubert Humphrey
* Contemporary consensus choice
** Your own choice, which may or may not be the same thing as the contemporary consensus choice. If you voted for Humphrey in 1968, you can say that your choice was better than Nixon, but Nixon still won the election.

* This represents the historical reality national champion of college football.
** This represents any individual with a subjective or math formula rating. It does not have priority over historical reality. The national champion for me is the team I vote for as number one, but the historical reality is the contemporary consensus.

Bob Kirlin is a college football historian, researcher and chronicler. He was the editor of the College Football Researchers Association, 1982-1992. His mailing address is:

   Bob Kirlin
   East 7609 Marietta
   Spokane, WA  99212-2228

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Bob Kirlin / cfrabob@hotmail.com