This analysis of Alabama’s National Championships is based on an article that I wrote which was originally published in the now-defunct Maple Street Press’s 2009 Alabama preview Yea Alabama and is being republished here without permission MSP’s permission.
Among life’s unanswerable questions, one has to count the college football national championship debate. Specifically, how many does any given team really have and what constitutes a national championship?
This is especially tricky for teams with such a long and rich tradition as the Alabama Crimson Tide. Because there’s no agreed-upon method for picking the champion, the number you end up with depends almost entirely on how you define a championship to begin with. As result, ‘Bama’s title count varies wildly from source to source, with fans (and the University itself) claiming 15 while various media sources and rival fans espouse numbers between 5 and 10.
The problem, of course, is that the NCAA doesn’t recognize any national champions in the Football Bowl Subdivision of Division I. National championships are self-proclaimed and based on dozens of different polls, computer rankings, and other selectors1.
The NCAA has a non-authoritative, non-comprehensive list of results from certain selectors for each year from 1869 to 2012, but provides no methodology for how it chose selectors. This page also replaces a previous page which recognized even more selectors. Regardless, as one might expect, there’s not much in the way of agreement among the various selectors. In the 100 football seasons before the BCS’s first season in 1998, there were only eight consensus champions on the NCAA’s old list. The selectors removed from the NCAA’s reference list did not suddenly cease to exist, they are simply no longer accounted for on the NCAA’s page.
Even in the wake of the BCS, though, split titles are embraced by college football. In 2003, LSU won the BCS title, but the Associated Press (AP) chose Southern California.
All this really tells us is that — at least until we have a reasonable playoff — there is just no such thing as “a” national champion, at least in the sense that there is (or should be) only one of them.
What Constitutes a National Championship?
Until recently2, it was generally accepted that the team at the end of the season with the #1 ranking in the AP Poll has earned a national championship. This was — and maybe still is — regarded as an unassailable truth. Try to make the same claim on the basis of a Sagarin or Dickinson ranking and you’ll likely be laughed out of town. But why?
The Associated Press Poll has been going on since 1936 and compiles votes from selected broadcasters and sportswriters. The voters have just hours after the completion of the final games on Saturday night to weigh and consider dozens and dozens of games. Even without commercials and fast-forwarded, there are simply not enough hours between the end of the games and the end of the voting period for the voters to watch all of the game. That’s before we consider the fact that these voters have jobs — many of which also come with tight, post-game deadlines. In short, there’s a lot of hype, guess-work, and regional bias that shows up on the individual ballots. Still, despite these obvious limitations, the AP has still crowned a de facto champion for decades.
These problems aren’t unique to the Associated Press. Any poll based on human votes is going to be susceptible to the same bias and information overload. On the other hand, people are naturally suspect of computer polls already, in part because they all attempt to reduce a very emotion-laden game to statistics and numbers and the average fan really has on idea how they work. Still, no system is without its flaws. One has to wonder if a computer’s ability to fairly analyze all game data makes up for the intangibles that computers might fail to capture.
In the end, the biggest problem is that we have a field of around 120 football teams who play 12-14 games a season with minimal overlap. Choosing the “best” or “most deserving” team is always going to be a guessing game and to suggest that any one poll is so vastly superior to all others ignores the real complexity inherent in the issue.
That’s an unsatisfying answer, but where does it leave us? When compiling a list of a team’s national championships, the only fair question is this one: does the team have a reasonable claim that they were the best or most deserving in a given year? If the answer is yes, it makes sense to allow their non-exclusive claim to the title.
There will still be debate about whether a team’s claim is reasonable, but where the answer to the question is a subjective one it makes sense to use a subjective standard.
This standard gets us around the silliness that you often see when critics question the validity of Alabama’s national championships, such as claiming that there were no champions prior to the introduction of the AP poll in 1936 — as though the concept of “best” didn’t exist until a group of sportswriters got together to say it did. It also allows us to side-step the debate about which polling method is best and whether or not another team has a more legitimate claim.
On the NCAA’s old championship list page (which disappeared before the Tide’s 2009 championship), Alabama was listed 17 times — five more than the school’s media guide claimed. Alabama currently claims 15 titles: 1925, 1926, 1930, 1934, 1941, 1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, 1979, 1992, 2009, 2011, and 2012. We’ll take a look at each of them, as well as some other years, to see if we can settle the age-old question: Got 15?
The AP and BCS Years
The BCS itself seems to need no defense, as it is an agreement among teams and conferences with regards to a methodology for selecting a champion. The AP is a little less iron-clad. For all of its troubles, issues, and other failings, the Associated Press Poll has still been a de facto standard. It is well-regarded and although it is no longer used in BCS calculations, it is still widely referenced (especially in Associated Press stories — go figure) and generally accepted as reasonable.
As a result, and because you’re unlikely to run across a sane person willing to debate the merits of these claims3, the Tide get the nine years they won AP or BCS titles without resistance. Those are 1961, 1964, 1965, 1978, 1979, 1992, 2009, 2011, and 2012.
The remaining six claims, as well as some unclaimed years, will be examined in turn.
To close the 1925 season, the 9-0 Crimson Tide faced a 10-0-1 Washington Huskies in the Rose Bowl. It was the first appearance by a Southern football team in the Rose Bowl and Wallace Wade’s team emerged victorious, 20-19. The win ended a dominant season in which the Tide registered eight shut-outs and out-scored their opponents 297-26.
The chief complaint about this national championship claim is that it is “back dated” — the polls ranking Alabama #1 came out years after the season was over. That doesn’t change the simple fact that Alabama was one of the most dominant teams in college football that year.
A number of polls list Dartmouth as the top team in the nation for 1925, but Dartmouth played fewer games and half of their schedule was against lower-division opponents, whereas only two of Alabama’s were. Further, Alabama’s eight same-division opponents had a 0.613 winning percentage, significantly better than that of Dartmouth’s four same-division opponents, who only registered a 0.529 winning percentage on the season.
The other conference champions in 1925 all had a loss, making this national title far less controversial than some of those of the BCS era.
This season saw the introduction of the first real attempt to crown a champion. Frank Dickinson, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois, developed his method of choosing a champion which awarded varying numbers of points for wins, losses, and ties based on the strength of the opponent.
While this was, nominatively, a system for selecting a national champion, it can really be best described as yet another act of northern aggression. The system was used from 1926 to 1940 and it included back-dated data for 1924 and 1925, but it only once selected a Southern football team (Southern Methodist in 1935).
1926 ended with a number of undefeated teams and the bowls did very little to alleviate the confusion. The Tide faced Stanford (eventually crowned the champion by Dickinson) in the 1926 Rose Bowl and played them to a 7-7 tie, but still managed to only earn a #6 ranking from Dickinson, despite having three teams ahead of them who had lost games.
As previously discussed, however, the existence of One True Champion is a myth, and 1926 is a season that demonstrates that rather aptly. Stanford, Navy, Brown, and Alabama all ended the season undefeated and a number of teams finished with only a single loss, providing lots of opportunity for reasonable title claims.
In a survey of 12 selectors for the 1926 season, nine of them selected Alabama or Stanford (five and four each, respectively) and since those two teams tied in a season-ending, head-to-head matchup, it would be difficult to argue the championship claims of either.
Also of note: Alabama, under the direction of Wallace Wade, compiled a record of 27-1-1 for the 1924, 1925, and 1926 seasons.
This was Coach Wade’s last season at the Capstone before leaving for Duke University and it was a great one for Alabama. Prior to the bowl games, there were three dominant, undefeated, and untied teams in college football: Notre Dame, Washington State, and Alabama. This is objective proof, in case more was needed, that the problem of crowning a national champion sans-playoffs is as old as the bowl system itself.
Notre Dame played its last game of the season against an 8-1 Southern Cal team and beat them 27-0. The undefeated Alabama and Washington State teams squared off in the Rose Bowl, where the Tide jumped out to a 21-0 half-time lead, going on to a 24-0 win.
The Dickinson system awarded the title to Notre Dame, but Alabama had a stronger season than the Irish by almost any objective measure. The Tide’s opponents had a slightly stronger winning percentage (0.630 as compared to 0.609 for Notre Dame’s opponents), Alabama scored slightly more points (271 to 265), and allowed less than a fifth as many points as Notre Dame did (13 to 74). The Tide registered eight shut-outs against Notre Dame’s three and played more teams with 8 or more wins.
That is certainly not to say that Alabama was clearly better than Notre Dame. There’s an argument to be made that Alabama’s signature win against Washington State was not as impressive as Notre Dame’s win over USC. Southern Cal’s only loss heading into the Notre Dame game was a 6-7 loss to Washington State but the Trojans had a significantly more difficult schedule than the Cougars did. Heading into their final games, Washington State had only faced 3 teams who would end up with winning records on the season while USC had faced five. USC also beat Stanford, a team that would end the season at 9-1, 41-12.
Suffice it to say that it was quite muddled at the top, but both Notre Dame and Alabama seem to have obvious claims.
For those scoring at home, Alabama is up to 12 clear title claims.
The Associated Press published their first poll in 1934 but didn’t start publishing continuously until 1936. This has led some to write off the AP’s 1934 selection as invalid, but it is difficult to argue that events happening after 1934 can render a previous championship invalid.
The two teams who seem to have claims to titles in 1934 are Alabama and Minnesota. Both teams ended their seasons undefeated and the Gophers have the benefit of being the selection of both the AP and Dickinson. If we use Minnesota as the standard by which championship claims for 1934 should be granted, it’s easy to construct a compelling case for the Tide.
Minnesota finished the season 8-0 including four shut-outs. They out-scored their opponents 270-38 (roughly 34-5 per game on average). Unfortunately, it’s hard to find a college football national champion with a weaker schedule. Only two of their opponents (Nebraska and Pittsburg) would finish the season with winning records. Two of them (Iowa and Michigan) managed two or fewer wins.
Alabama, on the other hand, finished 10-0 and defeated 9-0-1 Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Alabama registered five shut-outs and out-scored their opponents 316-45 (about 32-5 on average) — very similar to Minnesota’s numbers. The Tide had a much more difficult path, though, facing five teams that would end the season with winning records and facing only two who would notch less than 5 wins on the year.
Despite all of the Above, the final AP poll listed Alabama at #3 (behind Stanford, a team they beat in the Rose Bowl) and Dickinson put the Alabama team at #6 behind undefeated Minnesota and four other teams with losses (Pittsburgh, Navy, Illinois, and Rice).
Regardless of the decision by AP and Dickinson, it’s difficult to argue with the inclusion of Alabama as a champion in 1934.
At the end of this season, Alabama sported a 9-2 record and wound up ranked 20th in the final AP Poll. By all accounts, this was a very solid season for the Tide. It’s also a perfect example of why attempts to objectively measure championships are difficult and spotty at best.
As best I can tell, Alabama’s justifications for claiming 1941 as a title year are two-fold. First, the method that Alabama uses to determine who they recognize as champions in any given year is somewhat arbitrary: they have chosen 10 or 15 NCAA-recognized selectors and, essentially, any team chosen by one of those selectors in a given year is a champion. The 2003 media guide has a brief synopsis of each title along with other teams who, in the University’s eyes, earned titles that year. For 1941, the other teams are Minnesota and Texas. That explains, to some extent, why Alabama claims the title, but it doesn’t answer the question of whether or not that claim is reasonable.
Alabama played a relatively strong schedule in 1941 – far more daunting than Minnesota’s and marginally more difficult than that of Texas. Unfortunately, two of most difficult games ended up as losses for the Tide. Those two games could be erased from the schedule and Alabama would still have had a meatier slate than Minnesota’s, but the fact remains that the Tide lost two games in 1941. To Alabama’s credit, they did beat the #2 team in the country, Texas A&M, in the Cotton Bowl.
As a general rule, though, the more explanation you need to do to justify a team’s national title, the less likely it is to be reasonable. In this case, it requires a lot of guessing and acrobatics of logic. Specifically, though, it also requires us to throw out a lot of the arguments we’ve relied on in defense of previous years.
Simply put: the 1941 title claim is just too much of a stretch, even for the most die-hard of Alabama fans, unless your methodology is the same as Alabama’s. That methodology, however, would require a much different line of defense. Namely, it would require a thorough defense of each selector chosen as a “legitimate” selector.
Under our reasonableness rubric, allowing the 1941 season as one of Alabama’s national championships opens the flood gates of other teams with similar claims and could drastically devalue the whole enterprise of choosing champions. As a result, I wouldn’t count 1941 among Alabama’s titles.
Alabama’s last title claim that wasn’t buttressed by a #1 Associated Press or BCS ranking was 1973. The case against Alabama’s claim for this season is a compelling one: the UPI (a pre-cursor to the Coaches’ Poll) was the only selector to choose Alabama and it awarded the title before the Tide’s Sugar Bowl match-up against undefeated Notre Dame. Notre Dame went on to win that game (and the AP Title).
As if that alone wasn’t enough, the UPI decided to award its title after the bowls from 1974 on, a tacit admission that maybe they had gotten it wrong after the Irish pulled off the upset in New Orleans.
Though maybe we shouldn’t be quite so hasty – after all, the corollary to the notion that any team can prevail on any given Saturday is that sometimes the inferior team is going to win.
Alabama played a marginally more difficult schedule than Notre Dame did. They had similar seasons from a points-scored and points-allowed perspective. The even the head-to-head match-up couldn’t have been closer: in a game where the lead changed hands half-a-dozen times, Notre Dame prevailed by a single point. There’s an incredibly strong case to be made that Notre Dame and Alabama were equals, and equally deserving of the national title.
If this season had taken place in the 1920s, Alabama and Notre Dame probably wouldn’t have even faced each other and a split title would be a near certainty.
Still, accepting 1973 as a championship is questionable at best. You’re unlikely to convince anyone but an Alabama fan that it’s legitimate. If you created a hypothetical situation without team names and took a poll presenting the options of giving the title to the team who won the Sugar Bowl or a tie to both of the teams competing in the Sugar Bowl, you can only guess that the former option would win by a landslide.
1973 is a bit easier to defend than 1941 and, if we’re being fair, they probably are included for the same reason: the selectors the University respects gave the title, but under the proposed standards of this piece, we have to leave the ’73 team off of our list.
After taking a look at the claimed titles, we end up with 13 reasonable claims rather than the 15 national championships claimed by Alabama. The University of Alabama has a system for determining what they consider to be national championships. 1941 and 1973 are illustrations that the system has some flaws in it. While our rivals’ fans would love to point to them as examples of resume embellishment and other trickery, a simpler answer is that the mistakes were honest ones and examples of compromises that happen when deciding among multiple flawed systems.
If we’re going to apply a new standard to all of the schools claimed titles, it also makes sense to investigate places where ‘Bama’s flawed system might have chosen not to claim a title that they had a reasonable claim to under this article’s proposed system. A look at the seasons that Alabama doesn’t claim as title years provides a few options: 1945, 1962, 1966, 1975, and 1977.
In 1945, only the National Championship Foundation chose Alabama. That year, the NCF selected two champions, however. It, along with the other 13 selectors, chose Army. So, if you’re following along, Army received 13 solo selections, and one selection it split with the Tide. Not exactly an impressive haul for Alabama.
To make matters worse, in the other polls, Alabama wasn’t even second. Navy, whose only loss was to Army, came in second. Alabama, Indiana, and Oklahoma State ended the season ranked 3rd through 5th respectively and all undefeated.
Certainly a case could be made for Alabama as a national champion in 1945, but they really lacked the impressive, signature win that Army was afforded and while virtually all of Army’s opponents were solid (but mostly neither great nor terrible), Alabama’s slate had some very good teams and some very bad teams, which might subject it to some criticism.
Without any significant selectors coming down in Alabama’s corner, here, it’s tough to justify.
Four different teams topped the charts in one or more selectors. Three of them were (current day) SEC Schools (Alabama, LSU, and Mississippi). The fourth was Southern California. USC got 13 of 16 selectors by itself. LSU split an additional selector with USC. Alabama and Ole Miss each got a selector on their own.
During the season, Alabama had a loss to Georgia Tech. LSU had a loss to Ole Miss. Mississippi finished undefeated and beat Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama beat #8 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. USC, the AP champion for the year, was undefeated and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
Teams that are undefeated during the year, in general, have a much stronger claim to the title than teams with losses. To get around that, a team with losses needs to have really strong arguments in its favor — either a murderous schedule or a lot of popular support in the polls. In 1962, Alabama had neither of those.
If there’s an Alabama fan who doesn’t know the story of the 1966 season, I have yet to meet him. The Tide, two-time defending national champions, were ranked #1 by the pre-season AP poll, but fell to third before ever playing a game, jumped by Michigan State and UCLA. After the third week of play, Notre Dame jumped ahead and pushed Alabama back to 4th.
Heading into week 10, an 8-0 Alabama team was third in the AP poll behind Notre Dame and Michigan State. Nebraska and Georgia Tech rounded out the top five, all of whom were undefeated. Notre Dame played Michigan State to a tie4, but Alabama (who was off that week) did not jump into first place.
Neither the Spartans nor the Irish participated in any post-season game, and Alabama’s 34-7 thumping of the Cornhuskers in the Sugar Bowl wasn’t enough to propel them into first. Suggestions that the seemingly erratic polling behavior of the AP could be explained as retribution for the state of Alabama’s prominent role as an opponent of the civil rights movement have never been corroborated, but little else has been offered that explains the snubbing of the Tide.
Realistically speaking, regardless of the NCAA’s selectors, Alabama has just as much right to the 1966 title as Notre Dame does, possibly more by virtue of the fact that the Tide were unbeaten and untied in addition to playing well in a post-season match-up against a strong opponent.
Anyone itching to take the 1941 “title” away from the Tide almost has to grant one for 1966. If we’re using the standard of a reasonableness, the 1966 Alabama squad clearly meets it, bringing the total up to 14.
Alabama started the 1975 season ranked #2 in the country behind the defending champs, the Oklahoma Sooners. An opening weekend loss to Missouri might have been the fatal blow to Alabama’s hopes to end up in the top spot in the Associated Press Poll. The Tide dropped to 13th while Missouri went from unranked to fifth in the country overnight. This might be seen as some indication of how good the sportswriters thought Alabama was.
After week 5, a 4-0 Ohio State team jumped an undefeated Oklahoma team, largely on account of a few near misses against Miami and Colorado. Five weeks later, the Sooners would notch their first (and only) loss of the season to the Kansas Jayhawks. Barry Switzer’s crew dropped to sixth, one spot behind the Crimson Tide. The next week, Oklahoma dropped again – this time after scraping by Missouri, winning 28-27. The Sooners saved their season the following week, defeating the #2 Nebraska Cornhuskers 35-10.
Oklahoma’s big win catapulted them into 3rd place, passing Alabama, a team that had been quietly dismantling every opponent they faced. Between the loss to Missouri in their home opener and OU’s big win against Nebraska, the closest any team had come to beating Alabama was Mississippi State’s 21-10 loss in Jackson, Mississippi in early November. In fact, the Tide outscored their opponents 326-46 in that span of time (compared to Oklahoma’s 330-48).
#4 Alabama took care of business in the Iron Bowl while Oklahoma sat idle, shutting out Auburn 28-0 en route to a Sugar Bowl invitation to play #8 Penn State. ‘Bama’s win over the hapless 3-5-2 Tigers, however, lacked the gravitas that Oklahoma’s win over Nebraska had.
The Rose Bowl matched the top-ranked Buckeyes against #11 UCLA. OSU didn’t get the job done, falling 23-10. #3 Oklahoma beat #5 Michigan in the Orange Bowl 14-6 and Alabama took care of Penn State 13-6.
The tumultuous season concluded with the Sooners ascending to the top spot, an undefeated Arizona State squad jumping from seventh to second, and Alabama moving up one spot to third.
In the end, the team with the biggest gripe over the 1975 would have to be the Sun Devils. Alabama had a very similar claim to the title as Oklahoma did, but was hurt by the fact that they fell to a team that the Sooners managed to beat. That, coupled with the lack of an extraordinarily impressive win is how the polls settled out the way they did.
As to whether or not it would be legitimate for Alabama to claim a title for 1975 is another story. Given the similarities, the primary advantage the Sooners claim is better standing in the polls, but since the whole premise here is that polls are a questionable way to choose the one-and-only champion, that’s a weak edge.
ASU’s situation complicates the question. Without ASU hanging around, this is an easy inclusion for Alabama. On the contrary, if conventional wisdom had granted them the #1 spot, it seems that OU and ‘Bama would both be out of luck. But ASU’s presence at #2 raises some serious questions. Why were the undefeated Sun Devils left on the outside looking in? Were the poll too heavily biased in favor of Oklahoma? How does ASU leap Alabama but not OU? In short, ASU introduces enough ambiguity that makes this a tough one to categorize.
1975 could easily be argued either way. It has to be either the weakest granted claim or the strongest one denied.
In the end, we find Alabama with 14 unassailable title claims with one on the bubble. Even if we take the most skeptical (but fair) possible view, the 13 or 14 you’d end up with still far exceeds the numbers thrown around by AP-focused media organizations or bitter, jealous rival fans.
Really, though, how much does it matter if we’re talking one title here or there?
The number of “national titles” a team claims changes nothing about what actually happened on the field. The Tide not claiming the ’66 title doesn’t make that team any less impressive. Similarly, claiming the ’41 title doesn’t make that team any more dominant. They’re used as an estimate of a team’s dominance and tradition. They become a point of contention because of the subjectivity inherent in the college football season and because the rivalries and jealousy in college football all but beg you to deny greatness when you see it in your rival.
It’s an embarrassment of riches that nearly one in five seasons since ‘Bama’s first title has to be analyzed to see if the Tide had the best team. The more words5 that are spent supporting it or denying it only go to prove the larger point that Alabama’s national championship claims are really making: that if Alabama’s program isn’t the best in the history of NCAA football, it’s certainly among the most elite.
The AP poll was removed from the BCS calculations and had its respect start to wane. Adding to that, they now allow teams serving post-season bans (Ohio State, 2012) to appear in their polls. ↩
One of these is oft-criticized by fans of Alabama’s rivals. In 1964 the AP was still releasing its final poll before the bowl games. Alabama lost its final game that season to Texas while Arkansas went on to win its bowl game. The Football Writers Association of America awarded Arkansas the title. At that time, however, the bowls were seen, largely, as glorified scrimmages, not as a legitimate part of the season as they now are. This, combined with a bit of ex post facto protection, leads sane people to recognize this title claim, at least begrudgingly. ↩
Wall of text national championship, Pawwwwwl! ↩