Ness Notes: We're No. 1 (How College Football Has Chosen Its No. 1 Teams)

by Larry Ness

Rutgers and New Jersey (now known as Princeton) faced off in what is considered to be the first American football game ever played on Nov 6, 1869. The game took place in New Brunswick, New Jersey, with an audience of about 100 on hand, according to Rutgers. Rutgers won 6-4. Stealing a line from the Virginia Slim Women's Tennis Circuit (formed in 1970), "We've Come A Long Way Baby." It took awhile but college football's first try at answering the question "Who's No. 1?" came in 1926. Frank Dickinson, an economics professor at the University of Illinois, released the first mathematical ranking of teams in an attempt to come up with a scientific method to rate/rank teams. This came 10 years before the first Associated Press poll (1936) and 24 years before the Coaches' Poll, which debuted in 1950 for United Press International. I'll start my "look back" in 1950, as this is going to be long article that will be broken into four parts.

The Associated Press Poll began with sports editors of AP newspapers voting for the top 20 teams nationally in 1936. Minnesota and Northwestern each finished with 7-1 records but even though Northwestern beat Minnesota 6-0 during the regular season, Minnesota was named No. 1 in the final poll. Right from the start, the AP's No. 1 team in its final poll was dubbed college football's " mythical national champion." What a great name. Nailed it! More trouble arose in 1947 when Notre Dame and Michigan alternated Nos. 1 and 2 slots throughout the year with Notre Dame getting the final regular-season nod, even though both teams were 9-0. The AP released its final poll before the bowl season back then and the Fighting Irish were not going to bowls back then. So, when Michigan beat USC 49-0 in the Rose Bowl, the public demanded that the voters release another post-bowl poll, which the Wolverines won easily. However, the AP decided that the postseason poll did not supersede the final regular-season poll. Can't make this stuff up. If the second poll was not going to count, why take it?

1950 became a pivotal year as AP’s rival United Press began its own top-20 poll, voted on by a panel of coaches. The two polls would go head-to-head for the next 45 years. By 1954, we had our first split national champions. Ohio State (10-0) prevailed in the AP and UCLA (9-0) in the UPI. The two teams were not able to meet in the Rose Bowl to decide the “on-the-field” champion, as UCLA had played in the Rose Bowl the year before against Michigan and under the Pac-8’s “no-repeater” rule had to remain in Westwood. Ohio State defeated an 8-4 USC team 20-7 in the Rose Bowl and gave coach Woody Hayes his first AP championship with a 10-0 record. FYI, UCLA beat USC 34-0 in 1954's regular season. In 1957, a 10-0 Auburn team won the AP title but the UPI national championship went to an Ohio St team that lost its first game but then won NINE in a row, capping its season with an unimpressive 10-7 Rose Bowl win over an Oregon team that lost its fourth game of the year in Pasadena. Things were fairly calm the next seven seasons but beginning in 1965, college football had SIX split national champions through 1978 (14-year span). 

Things settled down beginning in 1979, as through the 1989 season college football featured 11 straight consensus national champions. However, Colorado (11-1-1) won the AP title and Georgia Tech (10-0-1) won the Coaches' title in 1990 and then Miami-Fl (12-0) won the AP title and Washington (12-0) the Coaches' title in 1991. That caused "the powers that be" in college football to make a change. The Bowl Coalition was established for the 1992 season after those back-to-back co-national champions of 1990 and 1991. The agreement was in place for the 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995 college football seasons and we had FOUR straight clear-cut national champions, Alabama in 1992, Florida St in 1993 plus Nebraska in back-to-back seasons (1994 and 1995)  For some reason, that wasn't good enough, so the Bowl Alliance was implemented. I'll leave it to you to decide how well it worked.

The 1996 season proved to be far less than satisfying as the top two teams, Florida State and Arizona State, did not meet because Arizona State was bound to the Rose Bowl and a game vs Big Ten champion Ohio St. ASU would lose 20-17 to the Buckeyes, while FSU lost 52-20 to Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Those two results left the 12-1 Gators with the final No. 1 spot in both polls. Then came the 1997 season in which Michigan finished 12-0 after a 21-16 win over Washington St in the Rose Bowl and Nebraska finished 13-0 with a 42-17 win over Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. Michigan was named the AP national champion (Lloyd Carr got his first AP title in only his third year as head coach of the Wolverines) but even though both teams won in the bowls, 21 coaches changed their votes and handed Tom Osborne the third poll championship for Nebraska in four years.

The 1998 season was the first year of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), which is where I'll continue my journey next week.

Good luck...Larry

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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