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Alabama's 12 Mythical National Championships

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Alabama's 12 Mythical National Championships

One afternoon, I was traveling through a rural Alabama town.  The cotton crop was harvested. Trailers were stacked high with white cotton against a blue sky.  The town seemed abandoned on a weekend. 

A gas station attendant explained to the stupid Yankee: "Bama's playing."  I realize any analysis of Alabama's National Championships may be met with similar disbelief that anyone could be so ignorant, but I'll give it a go. 

Alabama claims twelve national championships1925, 1926, 1930, 1934, 1941, 1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, 1979, and 1992.  Additionally, some individuals have awarded a national championship for 1945, 1962, 1966, 1975, and 1977.  Over 19 years from 1961 to 1979, Alabama (or someone else) claims the Tide as national champions. 

Each school determines which years they are national champions.  The NCAA only provides a list of selections and the entities that selected them.  Different standards are used by different schools.

National Champions - No Question

Three of Alabama's 12 national championships (1961, 1979, 1992) are consensus choices of both the AP and Coaches Polls. 

In 1961, Alabama (10-0) was the only undefeated, untied team in America.  Only the Football Writers and the Poling System picked Ohio State (9-0-1).

In 1979, Alabama (12-0) crushed Arkansas and again was the only unbeaten, untied team in America.  Only College Football Research Association retrospectively picked USC.

In 1992, Alabama (13-0) was the consensus choice of the AP, Coaches and Football Writers.  Only Jeff Sagarin chose Florida State.

Mark down three titles for Alabama.  But put the Poling System, Football Research, and the Sagarin Rankings on the Collins Index of Rankings Suspicion.   

1920s

Prior to the first AP Poll in 1934, Alabama has clear claim to titles in 1925 and 1926.  In 1925, undefeated Alabama won a thrilling victory over once-tied Washington in the Rose Bowl in "The Football Game That Changed The South." 

The National Championship Foundation (NCF), the Helms Athletic Foundation (HAF), and the College Football Researchers Association (CFRA) picked Alabama as champions retrospectively.  Dartmouth was chosen by the Poling System and by the contemporary Dickinson System.

In 1926, Wallace Wade's Tide team (9-0) traveled to Pasadena to face Pop Warner's Stanford Indians.  The game was a tie.  HAF and NCF split their vote.  CFRA picked Alabama alone. 

Parke Davis, a historian who published in 1933, picked Lafayette (9-0).  Sagarin picked Michigan (7-1).  Navy (9-0-1) was chosen by the Boand System and the Houlgate System. 

Houlgate was another mathematical system that syndicated in newspapers with collective work published in "The Football Thesaurus" in 1946.  Doesn't it seem clear that Stanford and Alabama should split the title? 

Add Parke Davis, the Boand System and the Houlgate System to the Index of Suspicion. 

Up to five national championships for Bama. 

1930s-40s

The 1941 national championship is a fairy tale.  Alabama (9-2) had lost to Mississippi State (SEC champs) and Vanderbilt.  The Tide finished ranked 20th in the Associate Press Poll, behind four SEC teams.

Minnesota (8-0) swamped Duke (9-0) - now coached by Wallace Wade - in the final poll voting with 84.5 to 9.5 first-place votes.  (1941 AP Poll)  Minnesota swept the consensus picks (AP, CFRA, HAF, NCF).  How can you be a national champion when you do not win your conference, were ranked 20th and had two more losses than the consensus champion? 

1941 was the last year anyone claimed a championship who did not win the AP or Coaches Poll.  Only Houlgate picked Alabama.

In 1934, Alabama was Co-Champion of the SEC, but finished third in the inaugural AP Poll.  Minnesota beat the Tide 50 to 5.5 first-place votes.  All of the consensus selectors picked Minnesota. 

Who picked Alabama?  Houlgate, Poling, and Williamson.  Paul Williamson was a geologist from New Orleans.  His picks have a distinctive bent.  Eliminating the years when no Southern schools were at the top of the rankings and overwhelmingly consensus picks, he disagreed seven times.

Of the seven, six went to the Sugar Bowl the year he picked them.  Williamson was a member of the Sugar Bowl Committee. 

In 1930, Notre Dame (10-0) was chosen as champion by Helms, NFF, Dickinson, and almost all others.  Alabama (9-0) was third, but beat No. 2 Washington in the Rose Bowl.  Who picked Alabama?  Parke Davis, Sagarin, and Football Research.

So far, Alabama has five legitimate national championships and three have been discounted.  Four claimed titles remain. 

Last Four Claimed Championships

We expect "National Champions" are the champions of their conference, a bowl winner and often undefeated.  In two of the four years, Alabama did not win their bowl, leading to changes in when the polls were taken. 

In 1965, Alabama was fourth entering the bowl season.  Undefeated Michigan State won the Coaches Poll, prior to the bowls.  Arkansas and Nebraska, also undefeated, were second and third.  All three ahead of the Tide lost their bowl games. 

Joe Namath led "Bama to victory over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.  The Football Writers split the title.  The AP Poll, because it was taken after the bowls for the first time, gave the title to Alabama.   Alabama was clearly the best team in the nation. 

Add a sixth title to the Tide's list.

In 1964, Alabama won both the AP and Coaches Polls, only because both were taken prior to the bowls.  Bama lost to Texas in the Orange Bowl when Namath was stopped on a quarterback sneak at the 1-yard line in the last minute.

The Football Writers, who always waited until after the bowls, chose Arkansas, America's only undefeated team, as national champions.  Alabama finishes the season with a bowl loss.

If you agree with the reasoning behind awarding Bama the title in 1965, Arkansas, as best team after the bowls, gets the national title in 1964. 

If you stick to the AP and Coaches Poll results whenever they were taken, Alabama does not get the title in 1965. Michigan State is national champion. 

Either way, Alabama has six titles at this point.

In 1973, Bear Bryant's Tide, ranked No. 1, met Ara Parseghian's No. 3 Fighting Irish in a legendary Sugar Bowl.  Notre Dame topped Alabama with a last-minute field goal, 24-23.

Every authority gave ND the championship except the Coaches Poll, which still gave its trophy prior to the Bowls.  The Coaches Poll rectified their embarrassment by changing their final vote to after the bowls, beginning the next year.  Alabama ends their season with another bowl loss.

Strike another title from the list. 

In 1978, Alabama (11-1) lost to USC in the regular season.  USC lost to a conference foe during the season.  Alabama won the most consensus picks, but USC won the Coaches Poll.  Some say USC is champion due to the head-to-head matchup.  To me, this is a true split in the national championship. 

Add a seventh title to Alabama's list.

Varying Opinions

Bo Schembechler voiced his opinion:  "You play to win the Big Ten championship, and if you win it and go to the Rose Bowl and win it, then you've had a great season.  If they choose to vote you number one, then you're the national champion.  But a national champion is a mythical national champion, and I think you guys ought to know that.  It's mythical." (NY Times)

Experts differ on Alabama's number of championships from 11 to 9 to 7 to 5.  Notre Dame, who uses the strict "consensus standards" claims eleven championships, two less than the 13 usually attributed to them.   (Oklahoma is the only other team to claim fewer championships than are usually attributed to them.) 

Combining consensus and non-consensus standards, Notre Dame could be credited with twenty-one championships and Alabama could have seventeen. (Section at the end of the D-1 National Championship article.)

The excellent College Football Data Warehouse has two classifications for Alabama: "Recognized National Championships" with 11 (1941 is missing) and "Total National Championship" with all consensus and non-consensus entities with 25.  17 (above) or 25 consensus + nonconsesus titles?  Even experts lose track of the non-consensus entities declaring who were national champions. 

Without an overall sponsoring agency like the NCAA settling the question, we can make up our own minds.  Caution: the subject can get emotional.

 

Further references: 

AP Polls - http://www.appollarchive.com/football/ap/teams/index.cfm

Discussion of Standards for Determining National Championships - http://thenationalchampionshipissue.blogspot.com/2006/11/defining-champion.html

NCAA listing of champions and selecting entities - http://www.ncaa.org/champadmin/ia_football_past_champs.html

A bit of Alabama Tide history, including how the Tide got its name and The Elephant Story - http://www.collegefootballhistory.com/alabama/history.htm

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