Should the NCAA Recognize College Football National Titles?
National champions have been determined in different ways during college football’s history, which may question how legitimate some of them truly are.
Updated: Feb. 25, 2018 • 9:23 AM ET
The Rose Bowl is one of several College Football Playoff sites.
While the future of the College Football Playoff remains the main topic of discussion in the sport, let’s take a moment to reflect on the past. Though not entirely perfect itself, one thing the Playoff proves is just how flawed the previous systems were. If not for the Playoff, Alabama wouldn’t be the current national champion, and they wouldn’t even have had a chance to play for the title this past season.
Even in the inaugural Playoff in 2015, No. 4 seed Ohio State pulled off two shocking upsets over No. 1 Alabama in the semi-finals and then No. 2 Oregon in the National Championship. As a result, recent results make one wonder: should the NCAA reconsider whether they officially recognize national titles prior to the Playoff, or at the very least, before the BCS was established in 1998?
Even mentioning such an idea will cause an uproar from the millions of fans of those schools who hold these titles. But to be fair, there’s a lot of controversy surrounding most of the titles and how legitimate they really are.
First off, being crowned “national champion” implies that your team was the best in the country that given year. However, looking through the history of college football and teams that are recognized as national champions, it brings skepticism. The biggest issue is that there are multiple years where the national title was split amongst several teams. And in some cases, there are teams that are recognized as national champions despite losing in their bowl games. For example:
• In 1950, national champion and No. 1 Oklahoma lost to No. 7 Kentucky in the Sugar Bowl
• In 1951, national champion and No. 1 Tennessee lost to No. 3 Maryland in the Sugar Bowl
• In 1953, national champion and No. 1 Maryland lost to No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl
• In 1960, co-National champion and No. 1 Minnesota lost to No. 6 Washington in the Rose Bowl
• In 1964, one of three national champions and No. 1 Alabama lost to No. 5 Texas in the Orange Bowl
Should teams really become national champions if they lost their bowl game? Part of the prerequisite for labeling a team “champion” should be actually winning in the postseason.
Those unfamiliar with the history of the previously mentioned games are probably wondering why those teams are still recognized as national champions despite losing. Well, the answer is simple: they were voted No. 1 at the end of the season. Did you notice something interesting about the rankings in those games? None of those games were played between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country, which wasn’t exactly rare during the early years of college football.
Some programs argue, though not officially recognized by the NCAA, that they are the national champions of some given years — And why not? Sometimes the only reason they’re not recognized is because they didn’t get ranked high enough at the end of the season. Essentially, it was the polls — “You’re the national champions because we said so.”
That’s it. No tournament. No playoffs. No championship game.
And as the Playoff has also proved, the best team in the country doesn’t always finish in the top 2, let alone the top spot. How many teams have been denied their rightful shot at a national title because of a flawed ranking system?
Boise State certainly comes to mind. For well over a decade, the Broncos have been one of the best teams in the country, having 13 double-digit winning seasons since 2000. It seemed that every year they put up a spectacular season, they only found themselves winning another Fiesta Bowl instead of playing for the title. And why were they denied? Because they didn’t come from a sexy enough conference to get the decision makers’ attention.
Even this past season, the UCF Knights have argued that they should be national champions, or at the very least had the opportunity to play for one after going 13-0, including a win over SEC West champion Auburn in the Peach Bowl.
In 2009, five teams finished undefeated. However, Alabama was once again given the No. 1 slot and Texas awarded the No. 2. The other three undefeated teams included Cincinnati, which finished No. 3, TCU, which finished No. 4 and Boise State, which finished No. 6. Boise State went on to defeat TCU in the (surprise) Fiesta Bowl. Even if the current playoff system had been used, Boise State would have still found themselves on the outside looking in.
But if there’s any team that has a right to complain about the ranking system used in the BCS Bowl era, it has to be Auburn. In 2004, Auburn started the season ranked No. 17 in the AP Poll. They went undefeated in the regular season, including three huge wins over top 10 opponents, and won a conference title. However, USC and Oklahoma went undefeated as well that same year with USC claiming the No. 1 spot and Oklahoma the No. 2. The only difference between those teams and Auburn was that USC and Oklahoma began the season at their respective ranks. So, despite Auburn possibly being the best team in the country that year, they were denied their rightful shot simply because of the ranking system.
It’s understandable that a lot of fans would cringe at the idea of losing some of those national titles they’re so proud of. But the titles are called into question as to whether they’re warranted, specifically those programs that are recognized as national champions in years that they lost their bowl game.
The titles will likely never be stripped, however. There’s too much history and pride behind those titles, and the NCAA won’t revoke titles without cause. Unlike basketball, baseball or any of the other sports, football never had a tournament to decide who was truly the best in the country until the Playoff arrived in 2014. And it’s fair to say that fans should remain skeptical about national title claims because there’s no definitive proof that your team was actually the best in the country when they won.
Even with the Playoff system as it is, it still has its flaws. But it provides a better measurement as to who has truly earned the right to hoist the biggest trophy in college sports.