The fun, weird and sometimes absurd national title controversies in CFB history

On October 10, 1990, Colorado was mistakenly allowed five downs because of an officiating mistake and scored on the final play to beat Missouri. (0:59)

For as much progress as college football has made toward a resumption of activities over the past month, there are still so many unknowns standing between a return to games and the crowning of a champion.

Players have been quarantined, workouts have hit the pause button and schedules are being tweaked. That might just be the start of a wild season as officials do their best to get the games played while keeping players, coaches and fans safe. The one certainty right now is that we don’t have any idea of what’s to come.

Could we have some teams cut seasons short? Could elite teams suffer a loss while its star player is in quarantine? Could the playoff get nixed just as March Madness did this spring?

So what if 2020 looks a lot more like 1946 or 1966 or 1990, back when champions weren’t decided on the field but sometimes years after the fact by a computer algorithm, and multiple teams made their own claims to a title?

We dug into some of the most controversial titles in college football history (most of which are less serious than 2020 and not pandemic-related) to figure out what went wrong, who was left out and what it might mean for this year’s (fingers crossed!) college football season.

Jump to: The original pandemic | UCF vs. Alabama
USC fights for No. 1 | Minnesota, Pitt or … Slippery Rock?
Bama’s absurd claim | Auburn wins on probation
Notre Dame-Michigan State | Five downs and two champs


1918: The original pandemic season

Pop Warner had never lost a game as Pittsburgh’s coach, but as his team prepped for its second game in three days, he got word the fix was in.

This was November, 1918, and the flu pandemic had ripped through the U.S. at a merciless pace as troops returned from World War I that spring. But it was the far deadlier second wave that upended the college football season, with U.S. mortality reaching its apex in October. Pitt was among the handful of teams working to salvage a football season by playing an exhaustive slate in just a few weeks in late fall.

The Panthers had ascended to the top of college football with a 32-0 win over defending champ Georgia Tech, then toppled Penn State before heading west to take on the Cleveland Naval Reserves. Before the game, a telegraph from the head coach of the Reserves reached the agreed-upon linesman, according to a Pittsburgh Gazette account, telling him not to make the trip as “all the officials had been rounded up” and his services were no longer needed.

Warner was dubious, and he urged the official to make the trip anyway. Sure enough, controversy ensued. According to the Gazette, each of the first three quarters were shortened by officials, who said the official time keeper’s watch was incorrect. As the Reserves staged a comeback in the fourth quarter, officials let the clock run long. The Reserves won 10-9.

“Pop Warner himself strolled briskly off the field and into the clubhouse,” The Gazette reported. “He said nothing, but his jaws were set to hold back the rage that was in his soul.”

At the time, no national championship was awarded, though Warner’s future with the program was left in doubt, with Georgia offering him $10,000 to move south. Instead, Warner would stick with Pitt for five more seasons, though none as successful as his initial run, and the Panthers would eventually be awarded a retroactive national title for the abridged season — one they were forced to share with 5-0 Michigan.

UCF beats Memphis in an epic game that features 117 points, the most in a conference championship game in FBS history.

The College Football Playoff was supposed to make championship debates a relic of the past, leaving no deserving team out of the mix.

Then along came UCF.

The Knights marched through the 2017 season undefeated but were passed over for a playoff bid by virtue of a weak schedule. The complaints about schedule strength took a blow in the Peach Bowl, however, as UCF stunned No. 7 Auburn — a team that had beaten both playoff title game participants, Georgia and Alabama, head-to-head.

Was that enough to earn the title of champions of college football? Depends who you ask.

Thousands of fans gathered along Disney’s Main Street USA for a parade in celebration of UCF’s title. Florida’s governor joined the chorus, issuing an official proclamation that UCF was the season’s best team. The Colley Matrix, an unofficial poll that once served as a contributor for the BCS rankings, added the finishing touches, by naming UCF its champion, too, the only major outlet to do so.

But don’t parse semantics for UCF fans. The way they see it, their title is just as significant as any other.

Perfection achieved. 🏆#ChargeOn pic.twitter.com/cLJb8MrJLw

“It’s something we’re really proud of,” White said. “It’s really hard to go undefeated. While it may have irked some, what our fans are proud of is that we accomplished it, and what those kids did on the field that season showed the inequity in college football.”

Not surprisingly, Alabama fans aren’t convinced.

Even UCF’s parade met with some derogatory sneers from the Crimson Tide.

The Tide lost to Auburn in that year’s Iron Bowl and missed the SEC championship game altogether, but they still managed to earn the No. 4 seed in the playoff, thumping Clemson in the semifinal before beating Georgia in overtime to win the school’s 17th claimed title — though several of those claims are based on even less data than UCF’s.

“I guess anybody has the prerogative to claim anything. But self-proclaimed is not the same as actually earning it,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told USA Today in 2018. “And there’s probably a significant number of people who don’t respect people who make self-proclaimed sort of accolades for themselves.”

The BCS system worked well enough for the first five years of its existence, but 2003 gave college football its first push toward the playoff and its last truly split championship.

LSU won the SEC, earning a decisive No. 1 ranking at season’s end and a spot in the BCS championship game. The question of who deserved the No. 2 spot was far less clear. USC’s lone loss was a triple-overtime thriller against Cal, but the Trojans had opened the season eighth in the polls and were playing catch-up most of the year. Oklahoma, meanwhile, went wire-to-wire as the top team in the country, only to fall to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game, 35-7.

Despite the embarrassing upset, Oklahoma held strong with the BCS computer algorithms and retained its No. 1 ranking, getting the title game bid over USC, which topped both the Associated Press and Coaches’ polls.

“The BCS system is what it is,” USC coach Pete Carroll said at the time, “but obviously there’s some kind of problem because the No. 1 team in the country isn’t playing in that game.”

Turns out, Carroll and the voters knew a good bit more than the computers did, with USC toppling Michigan in the Rose Bowl and Oklahoma falling again, 21-14 to LSU in the Sugar Bowl. The Tigers won the BCS title and the coaches’ poll, and USC claimed the AP crown.

The AP Poll has become one of the pillars of college football rankings, standing side by side with the coaches’ poll in many newspapers and websites, but that wasn’t always the case.

In fact, the first championship the AP awarded to Minnesota in 1936 wasn’t even unanimous. UPI — another news gathering service — instead ranked Pitt as No. 1. And the stats-based Boand and Duke Houlgate systems would back that assessment, bolstering the Panthers’ argument for the seventh of its nine championships. Even a look at the final AP poll favors that conclusion: Whereas Minnesota (7-1) beat two ranked teams, Pitt (8-1-1) beat three, including a 21-0 rout of Washington in the Rose Bowl.

But those claims were child’s play compared to the little known (and mostly satirical) campaign to crown unranked Slippery Rock as national champs that season. It is perhaps the first and most ridiculous application of the ever popular transitive theory to college football. The school’s official website continues to tell the story of one brave journalist who was so disenchanted by the Minnesota-Pitt debate that he set about to compare the scores of the 1936 season and came to his own conclusion: “Slippery Rock beat Westminster, which beat West Virginia Wesleyan, which beat Duquesne, which beat Pitt, which beat Notre Dame, which beat Northwestern, which beat Minnesota.”

So what if the Rock finished the season at 6-3? The math totally checks out.

Wayne Atcheson didn’t set out to rewrite Alabama history. Back when he joined the school’s communications staff in the 1980s, they only recognized Bear Bryant’s six national championships, and everyone sort of accepted it. Atcheson didn’t think much of it, either, until he went digging through old scrapbooks in the summer of 1984 in search of unusual statistics for the upcoming season’s media guide.

“There were a lot of national championship services back in those days,” Atcheson said. “I suppose it just occurred to me that I looked at them and, ‘This poll here says they’re national champions.‘”

He found five more viable championships in all and without asking — or really considering the ramifications — changed the media guide from six titles to 11.

“And I never thought a thing about it,” he said. “It’s just something I thought should have been done. Nobody even questioned it at all or even asked me about it for 25 years.”

That’s when AL.com got to the bottom of it and quoted Atcheson. Then the Wall Street Journal called. The attention made him uncomfortable, but he has learned to live with it.

No one ever asks him about four of the five additional titles, he said. It’s 1941 that everyone likes to bring up. Why in the world would a two-loss Alabama team, ranked 20th by the AP, be considered national champs over an unbeaten Minnesota?

Well, Atcheson said, he studied those two losses, and they were kind of fluky. And, besides, he explained, those wins were against great teams like Tennessee, Georgia and Tulane, which was a formidable program at the time. What’s more, Minnesota didn’t play in a bowl game that year — and the AP did its final poll at the end of the regular season — and among the four bowls, he thought Alabama’s win was the most impressive, beating top-10 Texas A&M.

“If it was in our day you would have said they had the best team at the end of the season even though they had the two losses,” Atcheson said. “I still stand by it.”

You’d think the NCAA would want to wipe Auburn’s 1957 national championship from existence, but it’s there on the organization’s official website for all to see. Never mind that the Tigers were on probation at the time — banned from postseason play because of a pay-for-play scandal and therefor ineligible for the UPI poll. But because the AP was under no such restriction, the title somehow stands.

And it’s due in no small part to a publicity campaign. According to a story from AL.com, when Auburn beat Alabama 40-0 to finish the season 10-0, sports information director Bill Beckwith got to work securing enough votes from AP writers to earn the top spot. Buddy Davidson, a student manager on that team, told the newspaper years later, “It wasn’t really a controversy as far as anybody here was concerned.”

As it turns out, the championship-on-probation phenomenon would happen a second time. In 1974, Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer would tell Sports Illustrated, “They can keep us off TV and ban us from the bowls, but nobody said that we couldn’t win and have some fun.” Which they did, eventually finishing 11-0. This time, it was the AP poll that crowned the supposed cheaters, while the UPI refused to rank anyone on probation and instead awarded the title to 10-1-1 USC.

College football was ultimately spared the same embarrassment a few years later — just in time the SMU’s legendary run of rule breaking. When the Mustangs went 10-1 in 1981, they didn’t appear on the coaches’ poll and finished fifth in the AP. But it didn’t matter. SMU claims the ’81 title either way.

Talk about unsatisfying endings. There may be no more unnecessary or inexplicable championship debate than that of Notre Dame and Michigan State. They actually had the opportunity to settle it on the football field, and didn’t.

To imagine what played out in East Lansing, Michigan, that November boggles the mind all these years later. What was billed as the “Game of the Century” between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country went down to the wire. Top-ranked Notre Dame stormed back from down 10-0 in the first half and had the ball on its own 30-yard line with one last opportunity to try to score to win the game … and instead ran out the clock.

“We couldn’t believe it,” Michigan State defender George Webster told Sports Illustrated. “When they came up for their first play we kept hollering back and forth, ‘Watch the pass, watch the pass.’ But they ran. We knew the next one was a pass for sure. But they ran again. We were really stunned. Then it dawned on us. They were settling for the tie.”

According to SI, Michigan State defenders yelled at Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian. Bubba Smith apparently shouted, “Come on, you sissies.”

The safe play worked, though. Michigan State ended its season that day, while Notre Dame had the added benefit of one more game. It went on the road and destroyed USC. While both teams ultimately finished 9-0-1, the Irish wound up No. 1 in the major polls.

But the National Football Foundation wasn’t satisfied. It ranked Notre Dame and Michigan State both No. 1, resulting in the first joint MacArthur Bowl presentation.

Coming off an 11-1 season, Colorado opened the 1990 campaign with its sights set on a national championship.

“We knew we had talent … so that was our goal,” quarterback Darien Hagan said. “The whole emphasis was on us.”

By the end of one of the wildest seasons in college football history, however, the emphasis wasn’t just on Colorado anymore — thanks to Nebraska coach Tom Osborne.

Colorado opened the season with a tie against Tennessee, then lost to Illinois two weeks later. Their season was on life support for a game at Missouri on Oct. 6, when one of the most famous officiating blunders in the sport’s history changed everything. The notorious “fifth down” — a mistake that gave the Buffaloes five plays at the goal line in the final seconds of action — kept Colorado in the title hunt, and a bowl win over Notre Dame seemed to clinch the championship on Jan. 1.

But Osborne didn’t see it that way.

His Nebraska team lost to Colorado in November and was demolished by Georgia Tech in the Citrus Bowl, which convinced him to cast what is widely considered the deciding vote in making the Yellow Jackets (11-0-1) the champions in the coaches’ poll, while Colorado took the AP hardware.

“We won the AP, and AP was the boss,” Hagan says now. “I’ve never acknowledged that it was split. We won it. We deserved it. You can’t take that away from either program, but in my mind, we’re the consensus champions.”

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