Monday night, the Alabama Crimson Tide mercilessly clobbered Notre Dame in the BCS championship game. According to Alabama, it was the school's 15th national football title. Football has been an intercollegiate sport for 142 seasons, starting in 1869 (no one played in 1871). So that should mean that Alabama has won more than 10 percent of all national championships.
Except the Crimson Tide has done no such thing. If you add up all the claims on mythical national championships through the years, you get 242 titles—a full, round 100 of them being bullshit ones.
For its part alone, Alabama ballyhoos three quote-unquote national championships that it should have the dignity to disown. In 1941, the two-loss Tide finished 20th in the AP poll but went on to win the Cotton Bowl and be recognized as champs by exactly one selector, the Houlgate System, a then-prominent mathematical formula; 13 other polls and subsequent computer models have picked undefeated Minnesota or 8-1-1 Texas over the Tide for that season. And in Alabama's alleged title years of 1964 and 1973, Bear Bryant's teams actually lost their bowl games. In '73, Alabama won the coaches' poll before losing the Orange Bowl—to the undefeated Irish, the consensus national champ. Yet the Tide faithful still claim that wilted title. It's a little sad, when you think about it. Both the Associated Press (for '65) and the coaches' poll (for '74) revised their systems to account for bowl results, in response to awarding the wrong team—Alabama, in both cases—the national title.
But the Tide is just doing what major college programs do: They round up, in their favor, even if that carries more than a hint of outright fraud.
Curse the unholy Bowl Championship Series if you like, but it's at least an attempt to standardize what had for decades been a mishmash of mythological championships.
For the purposes of discussing football in the 21st century, we can pretty much throw out the 19th. It was all Ivy League schools claiming titles until Michigan arrived in 1901 to connect us to modernity. The exception was 1896, when Lafayette claimed a title that was later conferred, such as it could be, by Lafayette's then-coach, Parke H. Davis, who later did his best to sift through the rudderless morass and determine champions. Except he also named a bunch of co- and tri-champions, which of course raises questions as to his understanding of the word "champion." For 1874 he named a 2-1-1 Harvard team champion along with 2-0 Yale and 2-0 Princeton. So as we said earlier, a national championship didn't used to mean a whole helluva lot.
The Associated Press poll came along in the 1930s to lend a veneer of coherence to the college game, even if, for the first 30 or so years, the final poll was taken before the bowl games. Other polling organizations did the same, or didn't. This meant that for quite a long while, a team could "win" the AP national title and then whiff the bowl, or not play a bowl at all. Champions!
The College Football Data Warehouse has compiled all of what it deems are legitimate national championships; since 1950, the total is 90 champions for 63 seasons. That leaves 27 ersatz champions lurking in the weeds, nearly a third. We're hereby assigning national champions as they rightfully should be, one per year, since the coaches' poll became a regular benchmark. If this list isn't definitive, it should at least be considered a reference for skeptics the next time Ohio State or Texas or USC or Oklahoma starts listing off all the so-called titles they've won.
2012: Alabama. It's hard to argue with the BCS anymore, such is its monopolization of the sport, but we were really hoping some rogue AP voter would cast a ballot for the undefeated, untied outlaw Ohio State Buckeyes. Alas, the scribes merely put the Buckeyes third, a slot ahead of the denuded Irish.
2007: LSU. With two losses, the Tigers beat out two-loss Missouri and Southern Cal.
2006: Florida. You could make a case for 13-0 Boise State. I won't.
2004: USC. The Trojans had to vacate because of cheating. But they won at the time because they were the best.
2003: USC. LSU won the BCS title, but didn't deserve to. Both the Tigers and the Trojans had one loss during the year: USC by a field goal in triple-OT at ho-hum Cal, LSU by 12 at home to ho-hum Florida. The computers picked the Tigers to skate by Oklahoma in the title game, in the Sugar Bowl. USC was left to double up No. 4 Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Style points count, and the AP, which picked USC, knew it. The Tigers claim the BCS national title.
2002: Ohio State.
2001: Miami. Dorsey, Portis, Reed, Shockey, Andre Johnson, Bryant McKinnie, Sean Taylor. Seriously.
1999: Florida State.
1998: Tennessee. The first BCS title.
1997: Michigan. The Wolverines (12-0) won the AP crown while Nebraska (13-0) won the coaches' poll. The Huskers also were the favorite of a majority of computer rankings, while the Football Writers Association of America liked Michigan. The Huskers were a freakin' juggernaut that year, 30 points better than Kansas State, the second-best Big 12 team. So here's why we're going with the Wolverines. They didn't need an admitted cheat move—an intentionally kicked ball that led to a miracle catch in the end zone—to get past Missouri in overtime. The AP took the rare step of demoting the Huskers from No. 1 to No. 3 after that win. Michigan beat six ranked opponents in its final seven games.
1996: Florida. Finished 11-1, including a 32-point win in the Sugar Bowl over No. 1 Florida State, which earlier had dealt the Gators their only loss, by three points.
1994: Nebraska. The 12-0 Penn State campaign was at the time the best argument for ensuring a No. 1 vs. No. 2 at season's end. The Nittany Lions beat No. 21 Ohio State 63-14 on Oct. 29 but fell to No. 2 in the polls because Nebraska thumped No. 2 Colorado that same weekend. The polls didn't waver after.
1993: Auburn. Florida State won every relevant poll, but the Seminoles lost by a touchdown at Notre Dame, which lost the next week
at vs. Boston College. The Tigers, who were serving a postseason ban, won all their games but could neither play for the SEC title nor in a bowl. You know who beats everyone in front of them in a major conference? Champions, that's who.
1991: Washington. There's no easy answer here; Miami won the AP's title, while 12-0 Washington won the coaches' poll, both by single-digit margins over the other. Miami had the better signature win, 17-16 over Florida State in Tallahassee, but it required the Seminoles to miss a 34-yard field goal (Wide Right) in the final minute. No one got closer than a touchdown to the Huskies that year.
1990: Georgia Tech. Colorado won the AP and coaches' polls, but tied a game, lost a game, and needed the infamous fifth down to beat Missouri. Georgia Tech played a less formidable schedule but suffered only one tie.
1988: Notre Dame.
1986: Penn State.
1983: Miami. Nebraska was the wire-to-wire No. 1 until the final minute of the Orange Bowl, when the Huskers failed on a two-point conversion and lost to Miami 31-30.
1982: Penn State. Nebraska finished with an identical 11-1 record but lost the head-to-head in September.
1978: USC. Alabama won the AP vote and could reasonably claim this one, but for the fact that USC finished with an identical 11-1 record and beat Alabama in Birmingham in September. Oklahoma also was 11-1 that year, the loss by three to Nebraska.
1977: Notre Dame.
1975: Oklahoma. Arizona State, then a WAC team, was undefeated and ranked No. 2. But, again: WAC.
1974: Oklahoma. USC claims this year because the 10-1-1 Trojans won the UPI coaches' poll. For a team with as much success as USC has enjoyed to call themselves champions after the Sooners finished a resounding 12-0 is threadbare. The Sooners were on probation from the coaches' poll, but USC of all teams ought to see the capriciousness in that designation.
1973: Notre Dame.
1970: Nebraska. Don't let Texas tell you otherwise. The only blemish on the Huskers' season was a tie at No. 3 USC in September. The Longhorns lost their final game of the season, against Notre Dame, in the Cotton Bowl. But because the final coaches' poll occurred before the bowl game, which dropped Texas to No. 3 in the AP, they still claim to have won the title in 1970. You'd think it would be beneath the program's dignity to claim a national title in a year when it lost its final game. Alas, you'd be wrong.
1969: Texas. The Longhorns won all their games, including the so-called Game of the Century at No. 2 Arkansas. Penn State was also undefeated but didn't have the same strength of schedule. See how easy that was, Texas? Win all your games. 1969, championship. 1970, ersatz championship.
1968: Ohio State.
1967: USC. Had one loss, 3-0, at Oregon State, while Oklahoma, also 10-1, lost earlier in the year, 9-7, to Texas. USC swept the polls. C'est la vie.
1966: Notre Dame. Both the Irish and Michigan State claim this season, which culminated in their 10-10 tie. Michigan State went on to play in no bowl; not its fault, really, as the Big Ten held to an idiotic "no repeat" Rose Bowl rule until 1972. But Notre Dame had one game left, in which it went to Southern Cal and blasted the Trojans 51-0. It won the AP and the coaches' poll, yet somehow Michigan State's media guide still calls 1966 a "consensus" national championship for the Spartans. This is not only false, it's desperate.
1965: Alabama. Michigan State's media guide also calls this a "consensus" national title - hogwash. The Spartans' only loss came in the Rose Bowl, against UCLA. Alabama's only loss, by a single point to Georgia, came in the first game of the year. The AP, voting after the bowl season for the first time, picked the Tide as the champions. The coaches picked Michigan State champions before the bowl loss. Decision: 'Bama.
1964: Arkansas. The reason the AP moved back its final vote, and thus the reason Alabama won its 1965 title, was the debacle of '64, when everyone picked the Tide as champions only to watch Alabama lose to Texas in the Orange Bowl. Meanwhile Arkansas (which had beaten Texas) won its bowl and finished the year undefeated. Still, to read an Alabama media guide is to be transported to a land in which the Tide's loss was insufficient to sway voters against them: "Despite the controversial [Orange Bowl] loss to Texas, Alabama was the AP and UPI champion." You see what they did there, right?
1962: USC. The Trojans won the national polls, but it's impossible to tell how many voters punished undefeated, untied Ole Miss for all the crazy racist bullshit transpiring on its campus that year. You can't blame Ole Miss for claiming this as a title, but there can be only one champion. Sorry, Rebs.
1961: Alabama. Ohio State claims this among its "seven" national championships, but Woody Hayes's boys went 8-0-1 and skipped the Rose Bowl. Not sure why the Football Writers Association of America deemed that effort better than Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide going undefeated and allowing 25 points in 11 games, but no other pollsters saw fit to pick the Buckeyes.
1960: Ole Miss. Minnesota counts its scrubby 8-2 squad as national champions in part because, again, the AP used to take its final count before the bowl games. The full-page description of the 1960 Golden Gophers in the Minnesota media guide mentions their first-ever trip to the Rose Bowl but elides the fact that Washington clocked them 17-7. Ole Miss finished 10-0-1, tying LSU midseason. Dear Minnesota: Stop claiming this as a national championship.
1959: Syracuse. Ole Miss lost its final game and yet has the gall to claim this as a national championship season on this basis: "The team, which went 10-1, gave up only 21 points all season, and defeated LSU in the Sugar Bowl, was rated the third best squad from 1956-1995 by Sagarin." Awesome. But if I can name a team that was demonstrably better on the last day of the 1959 season (LSU, to pick just one) then you're not the champion.
1958: LSU. Refreshingly, Iowa does not appear to claim this as a national title despite having a thin claim to do so. Rather, in its media guide it states in dignified and in low-key font amid its history: "Recognized as national champions by the Football Writers Association and earned Grantland Rice Trophy by Look Magazine." That's what a sane 8-1-1 team says about a year when LSU goes 11-0. Alabama, Ole Miss, USC, or Ohio State likely would not be so gallant.
1957: Auburn. The Tigers, undefeated, allowed 2.8 points per game and won the AP vote, but was on probation and ineligible for the coaches' poll. Ohio State won that despite losing its first game of the season, at home to TCU. Of course Ohio State claims this among its "seven" titles.
1956: Oklahoma. The only undefeated team won all the major polls despite being bowl-ineligible.
1954: Ohio State. UCLA was likewise undefeated and untied and would've played the Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl, if not for that asinine "no repeat" Rose Bowl rule. The Bruins' defense was insanely good, allowing 4.4 points per game. But they beat Washington by only a point and didn't have the strength of schedule of Ohio State, which was 6-0 against top-20 teams. The AP picked the Buckeyes while the coaches picked the Bruins.
1953: Notre Dame. Maryland would like you to know that it finished No. 1 in the final AP poll and that it was thus national champion in '53. I would like you to know that the Terrapins were shut out in the Orange Bowl and don't deserve to call themselves champions of anything but the ACC in '53.
1952: Michigan State.
1951: Maryland. Tennessee likes to claim this one as a "consensus" national title but lost as No. 1 to the undefeated Terps in the Sugar Bowl. That is behavior unbecoming a national champion, consensus or otherwise, and the Volunteers should acknowledge as much.
1950: Princeton. Oklahoma pounded people all year and then lost to Bear Bryant's Kentucky team in the Sugar Bowl to finish 10-1. (Why it took the AP and the UPI so long to move their final polls after the bowls is baffling.) Princeton finished No. 6 in both polls but played in no bowl; two computers later dubbed the Tigers champions. The Sooners count this as a national championship season because no one ever bothers to check these things.