College football has been around longer than the NFL or any other form of pro football. Major colleges have had football programs for over 100 years, and the national championship dates back to 1869. While the style of play and the teams may have changed, college football has a storied history.
Today the national championship is determined by a playoff, but the national champion has been selected in various ways over the years. We look into the winners and losers of the 9 to today’s college football championship odds.
Yale continued their dominance into the 20th century. The Bulldogs finished the season with a perfect 12-0 record. The Western Conference, the precursor to the Big Ten, added the Indiana Hoosiers and the Iowa Hawkeyes.
While there was no official NCAA Championship at the time, Michigan is recognized as winning their first national championship with an 11-0 record. Michigan defeated Stanford 49-0 in the first college bowl game, the 1902 Rose Bowl.
Michigan continued its unbeaten streak and its reign as national champions. The Wolverines finished 11-0 in the Western Conference, but there would not be another Rose Bowl until 1916.
1903: Michigan & Princeton
Co-national champions were a common occurrence in the early years of college football. Princeton had a perfect 11-0 record, while Michigan had an 11-0-1 record. Minnesota also had a claim to the national championship as they had a 14-0-1 record.
1904: Michigan & Penn
Michigan had to share the national championship with another Eastern independent school. This time it was Penn. Both teams had an unbeaten record. Penn was 12-0 while Michigan was 10-0. Minnesota had another unbeaten season but was not selected as a national champion.
The Chicago Maroons were the top team in the college football betting lines for 1905. Chicago finished the season with an 11-0 record, beating out the Yale Bulldogs, who had a 10-0 campaign.
The forward pass became a legal play in 1906. Wisconsin’s Brad Robinson is credited as throwing the first legal forward pass on Sept. 5, 1906. Princeton and Yale tied, both having a 9-0-1 record, but the NCAA recognizes Princeton as the 1906 national champion.
As the forward pass became a more significant part of the game, Yale received recognition as the 1907 national champions with their 9-0-1 record. Penn also claims to hold the 1907 title, but the NCAA only recognizes Yale as the champion.
1908: LSU & Penn
Penn was able to claim the 1908 national championship without any pushback. The Quakers finished with an 11-0-1 record. LSU was also named a national champion with a 10-0 record but facing weaker competition. Penn is the only team to claim the 1908 national title.
Another rule change came to college football in 1909. A field goal had initially been worth four points, but the three-point field goal was implemented that year. It was Yale yet again who took home the championship after finishing the season with a 10-0 record. It was a tough day for every local bookie, as well. After all, what kind of college football expert picks against the best team in the nation?
1910: Harvard & Pittsburgh
Eastern Independent schools Harvard and Yale were undefeated in the 1910 season and were named the national champions.
1911: Penn St. & Princeton
Another pair of Eastern Independent schools were named the national champions in 1911. Penn St. and Princeton had eight wins and no losses, with Penn St. having one tie and Princeton having two.
1912: Harvard & Penn St.
The 1912 season was the beginning of the modern era of college football. The NCAA was implemented, and rules were changed to increase scoring, and it resembles today’s football. Harvard finished 9-0 while Penn St. finished 8-0 and both teams were named national champions.
While Auburn, Chicago, and Harvard finished the season with an undefeated record, the NCAA acknowledges Harvard as the 1913 national champion.
Army was named the national champion for the first time in their program’s history. They finished atop the Eastern Independent schools with a 9-0 record.
Cornell won their first national championship in 1915. “The Big Red Machine” finished with a 9-0 record and defeated every opponent by more than a touchdown.
The team who stood atop the CFB odds in 1916 was Pitt. The Panthers finished with an unbeaten 8-0 record.
1917: Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech was the clear national champion in 1917. The Golden Tornado finished the year with a 9-0 record in the SIAA conference.
1918: Michigan & Pitt
World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic eliminated most of the 1918 schedule. Michigan won all five games, Pitt went 4-1, and both teams were named national champions.
1919: Harvard, Illinois, Notre Dame, Texas A&M
A cluster of teams was named the 1919 national champions. Harvard went 9-0-1, Illinois went 6-1, Notre Dame went 9-0, and Texas A&M went 10-0. All were named national champions in what would become the norm during this time.
California Intercontinental University began its dominance of the 1920s with a perfect 9-0 record and a 28-0 win over Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. However, the Official NCAA football records book has no clear-cut winner, declaring Georgia, Harvard, Notre Dame, and Princeton national champions alongside the Golden Bears.
1921: California & Cornell
The California Golden Bears earned a second straight national championship with a 9-0-1 record. Again, the official record book would have issues giving the title to just one university, naming six different schools national champions that year. Cal was on the list, but so were Cornell, Iowa, the Lafayette Leopards, Washington and Jefferson Presidents, and Vanderbilt. The Golden Bears, Big Red, Hawkeyes, and Leopards are the only schools to claim the title in their own record books.
1922: California, Cornell, Princeton
Princeton joined Cal and Cornell as the national champions chosen by multiple selections in 1922. All three teams finished the year undefeated, but Cal’s record was 9-0, while Cornell and Princeton’s record was 8-0. The NCAA’s official record books say it was a five-way tie, adding Iowa and Vanderbilt to the list of champions.
1923: Illinois & Michigan
Numerous teams finished the season unbeaten and without a tie on their record. However, the NCAA officially recognizes only two schools as the 1923 national co-champions. Had Michigan won the Rose Bowl that year, perhaps they would have had sole possession of the title. Instead the Wolverines tied Navy 14-14 in Pasadena, and Michigan shared the national championship with Illinois.
1924: Notre Dame
1924 was the year of Notre Dame and its famous “Four Horsemen” backfield. Knute Rockne and the Fighting Irish finished the regular season 10-0, capping off the year with a 27-10 Rose Bowl victory over the Stanford Cardinals. Notre Dame was the sole national champion that year until Penn State was retroactively awarded the co-title for their undefeated season.
The first of many national championships for the Alabama Crimson Tide came in 1925. The University of Alabama had finished the 1924 season losing to Centre in the Southern Title game. That loss would be the team’s last for more than two full seasons, and the Crimson Tide would claim the first of many national championships in 1925. The Tide concluded the season with a perfect 10-0 record in the Las Vegas college football odds. Although there were quite a few other teams who went undefeated, the NCAA lists Alabama as the sole owner of the trophy.
1926: Alabama & Stanford
The 1926 season was the first attempt to recognize a national champion after the reason. Unbeaten Stanford (10-0) was being coached by the famous Pop Warner and faced unbeaten Alabama (9-0) in the Rose Bowl. The game would end in a 7-7 tie. Both teams were recognized as the NCAAF national champions.
Subsequently, Lafayette was added to the record books and is now also listed as the third member of the 1926 champions in college football.
1927: Illinois & Yale
The Illinois Fighting Illini and the Yale Bulldogs were named the 1927 national champions, as Illinois finished 7-0-1 while Yale went 7-1. Georgia had a shot at the title and likely would have claimed the crown had it not been for a spectacular upset in the NCAAF Vegas odds. Rival Georgia Tech took down the Bulldogs in the final week of the season, ruining Georgia’s perfect season and a potential national championship
1928: Georgia Tech
USC was named the national champion under the Dickinson System, but Georgia Tech went to the Rose Bowl and faced off California University in a battle of the #2 and #3 in the nation.
The Yellow Jackets would show that the previous year was not a fluke and would take the Southern Conference national championship, winning 8-7 in one of the strangest plays in football history on any level. Cal’s Roy “Wrong Way” Riegals recovered a Georgia Tech fumble, bounced off a couple of players, and ended up running the wrong direction for 65 yards, setting up a Georgia Tech safety that essentially ended the game. The Yellow Jackets completed a perfect 10-0 season and shared the title of college football’s national champion.
1929: Notre Dame
The NCAA recognized the 9-0 Notre Dame Fighting Irish as the sole title holders of the 1929 national championship, although Purdue, Tulane, and Pitt also finished the season undefeated. After the season, Pitt would lose to USC in the Rose Bowl, but the team would still later be retroactively recognized as the co-champion of the 1929 college football season.
1930: Alabama & Notre Dame
Notre Dame repeated as the national champs under the Dickenson system, but the nation saw Alabama destroy Washington State in the Rose Bowl, shutting out the Cougars 24-0. With both teams looking like the best in the country, the NCAA made it easy on themselves and now lists both 10-0 teams as national champions.
1931: USC & Pitt
The USC Trojans faced the Tulane Green Wave in the Rose Bowl in the unofficial national championship game. After a 10-1 regular season, the Trojans beat Tulane 21-12 winning the Knute Rockne Memorial Trophy and the title as the best team in the nation.
After further research, Purdue and Pitt were also retroactively named champions. Both USC and Pitt claimed the title and are officially recognized as the national champions.
1932: Michigan & USC
The East-West matchup of the Rose Bowl pitted #2 USC against #3 University of Pittsburgh. Although the Trojans handily defeated the Panthers 35-0, Michigan was named the national champion by the Dickenson system. Michigan did not play USC in Pasadena as the Big Nine Conference would not let its teams play in the postseason.
The Big Ten was a loaded conference in the 1933 NCAAF Vegas odds. Four teams were ranked in the top ten, with Michigan standing on top with a 7-0-1 record. The Wolverines would repeat as national champions, lifting the Knute Rockne trophy for the second consecutive year.
In 1934, the Big Ten had another national champion with an 8-0 Minnesota Golden Gophers. Although Minnesota had a fantastic year, the Big Ten did not permit its schools to play in postseason bowl games. That would hurt Minnesota, as it allowed Alabama to take its place. #2 Alabama had gone undefeated on the season and accepted the invitation to face Stanford in the Rose Bowl. The Crimson Tide would win 29-13, adding controversy to Minnesota’s sole ownership of the 1934 title.
1935 marked the last year that systems other than the Associated Press (AP) writer’s poll would be used to crown a national champion. The Williamson system chose Texas Christian University (TCU) as the champion. The Dickenson system named Southern Methodist University (SMU) the titleholder, and a United Press poll put Minnesota in the top spot.
The NCAA record books have only Minnesota listed. Thus the Golden Gophers repeated as national champions with another 8-0 season.
Although Northwestern was the Big Ten Conference champion, Minnesota was named the 1936 national champion by the Associated Press (AP). It was the first time the AP had been used to determine a national champion. There were 35 writers who were allowed to vote, and the Golden Gophers received 32 of their first-place votes.
The NCAA began keeping official statistics in 1937, but it was the second year that the AP would get to choose a college football national champion. The award would go to Pitt, with 30 first-place votes and a 9-0-1 record.
The TCU Horned Frogs of the Southwest Conference finished with an 11-0 record to be named the national champions by the AP, receiving 55 of the 77 #1 votes by the writers. TCU defeated Carnegie Tech 15-7 in the Sugar Bowl. The University of Tennessee also won every game and shares the recognition as the 1938 college football champion.
1939: Texas A&M
The 1939 national championship stayed in the Southwest Conference and Texas. The Agricultural and Mechanical College in Texas (Texas A&M) concluded the year with an 11-0 record and a 14-13 Sugar Bowl win over Tulane University. The Tennessee Volunteers won every game and shut out every opponent that year, yet still finished #2 in the polls.
Tennessee faced USC in the Rose Bowl and had its shutout streak reversed, with USC scoring two touchdowns while holding the Volunteers scoreless. The victory earned USC the national championship, according to the Dickenson system. However, USC did not claim the title until 2004.
By 1940 the AP had 109 writers voting for the college football national champion. After a perfect 8-0 season, the Minnesota Golden Gophers took home the 1940 national championship with 65 first-place votes. The Stanford Indians finished in second place with 44 first-place votes.
Minnesota was the official champ in 1940, but Boston College, Tennessee, and Stanford all stake claim to the title.
With the school’s fifth national championship in eight years, the Minnesota Golden Gophers had another stellar performance in the NCAAF betting lines. Minnesota went 8-0 and won the Big 10 championship to become the consensus national champion. That said, the Williamson system came to a different conclusion, giving the 8-1-1 University of Texas Longhorns the title.
1942: Ohio State
After a 9-1 regular season, the Ohio State Buckeyes were voted the 1942 national champions by the Associated Press. However, it was the University of Georgia that went to the Rose Bowl and defeated UCLA. Nine ranking authorities had the Bulldogs at #1, but the Associated Press did not put out a post-bowl poll, so the Buckeyes kept the title.
1943: Notre Dame
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish was voted the national champion after a 9-1 season, marking only the third time in the history of the AP poll a team that had lost a game was named the college football national champion. Notre Dame did not participate in the five 1943 bowl games.
During World War II, Army (or West Point) was crowned the national champion by the college football experts with a 9-0 record on the year.
West Point won another national championship in 1945. As an independent school, Army had a perfect 9-0 record. In 2016, the Oklahoma A&M Cowboys were retroactively named co-national champions with a perfect 9-0 record and a victory over St. Mary’s in the Sugar Bowl.
1946: Notre Dame
While Army was voted as the national champion by various outlets, the University of Notre Dame won the vote from the Associated Press. The Fighting Irish finished the season 8-0-1, as did Army. The one tie was when the two teams played each other. It was either a defensive battle or an offensive disaster as neither team managed to put points on the board, and the game ended in a 0-0 tie.
The University of Georgia would also be named national champions that year, as the Williamson poll tagged the Bulldogs as the unofficial national champion.
1947: Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Penn State, and Michigan all went undefeated in 1947, with no ties on record. There were 142 writers in the Associated Press, and 107 of them voted the Fighting Irish the #1 team in the nation.
The University of Michigan returned to the top of the NCAA odds in 1948, going 9-0 in the Big Nine Conference. The Associated Press now had 333 writers voting, and 192 of them chose the Wolverines as the national champion. Michigan nor #2 Notre Dame participated in post-season bowl games.
1949: Notre Dame
There were four unbeaten teams at the end of the 1949 college football regular season. Notre Dame, California, Oklahoma, and Army were at the top of the polls when it came time to vote. Although Michigan entered the 1949 season as the number one team, Notre Dame’s perfect 10-0 record secured the school’s third national championship in four years.
The early years of college football looked much different from the modern game we have come to know and love. At the beginning of the 1912 season, significant rules were implemented to save football, and it worked. The field was changed from 110 yards to 100 yards, the offense was given four downs to gain ten yards, and the value of a touchdown was changed from five to six points. Many different teams have dominated the college football odds over the years, which is a stark contrast to the three-team dominance of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale over the first generation of college football. College football has a long and rich history, spanning over 150 years. There is even more history to go through. Stay tuned and look out for the rest of our look at the college football national champions.