New Year’s Eve –
Both of the championship semi-final bowl games will be played tomorrow, and I’ll be eager to see how the Georgia/Oklahoma matchup turns out. Both teams contend for the national championship, a title more properly presented than it has been for some time. Alabama and Clemson, the current champion, square off as well, and by the end of New Year’s Day, only two teams will be left on collegiate football’s center stage. Any one of the four could take the title, although, surprisingly, Alabama may be the underdog this year.
It’s fun to have some meaningful college football after Christmas.
Penn State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin are the coulda-woulda-shoulda teams, each soundly thumping other teams considered playoff worthy in post-season play. The three Big Ten teams knocked off USC, Miami, and Washington with relatively little difficulty. Oh, and Michigan State thumped Washington State, Purdue beat Arizona, Northwestern beat Kentucky, and Iowa beat Boston College. So, the current tally is Big Ten 7 – Rest of the world 0.
- Day later. Michigan, in the only consolation game I actually care about, blew a 16 point lead to allow the South Carolina Gamecocks to take the Outback Bowl. Now Big Ten 7 – Rest of the world 1. Michigan burrowing ever deeper into college football obscurity.
I’ll watch the last of the bowl games with interest. OK, watch the college bowl games with interest; I’ll pass up the NFL’s Pro Bowl for the thirtieth consecutive year, and I’ll forego my annual “who wrecked the conferences” rant because the SEC and Big Ten emerge again as truly powerful conferences, a reality confirming my conviction that the more things change, the more college football establishes something like parity among the thirty or thirty-five notable programs.
National championships? Where are the champions of yesteryear? I offer a quick look at “championships” by decade to identify the seismic shifts, the gradual decline of the Ivies and the service academies, and the steady improvement of programs once considered minor or marginal.
It’s easy to forget that no championships were determined by playoff until 1998. After 1936, championships were bestowed upon teams by polling writers, coaches, the Associated Press, United Press International and specialized agencies. Prior to 1936, championships were determined by consensus, often leading to contending claims.
From 1869 until 1927, Princeton, Yale, or Harvard had at least a share of the national title every year; Yale claims 27 and Princeton 28. Lafayette shared the title with Princeton in 1896, never to appear at that lofty pinnacle again, but by 1901, Michigan had arrived as a consensus champion, wining 11 championships between 1901 and 1997. LSU and Penn State had broken into the top tier by 1911, Army, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame by 1919.
In the next decade, both Cal and Stanford took top honors, and Alabama picked up the first of its 16 national championships. By 1936, the reigning powers included Minnesota, USC, Texas A&M, and Pittsburgh. In the 1940’s, Ohio State appeared for the first time although the dominant teams of that era were Army and Notre Dame. Some now familiar programs emerged in the 1950s as Oklahoma, UCLA, Auburn, Iowa, Mississippi, and Syracuse entered the fray. Texas, Arkansas, Michigan State, and Nebraska joined the club in the 1960’s, and Pittsburgh reemerged in the middle of the 1970’s. By the start of the BCS era, Miami, Florida, Florida State, Washington, and Clemson had become perennial contenders. In retrospect, Tennessee’s championship in the first BCS year, may be like Lafayette’s, an anomaly.
Over the years, great rivalries have emerged outside of conference play as programs have contended for national recognition. The Notre Dame/Army games from the 20’s to the 40’s were widely followed, broadcast on radio, earning headlines across the country in regional papers. When Notre Dame modulated its privileged status as an independent program, a conference unto itself, it joined the ACC in most sports but retained a few traditional rivalries, keeping USC, Stanford, and Navy, alternating Michigan State, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh.
Looking to the past again, the decades reveal strength of rival programs.
Back at the start, Princeton/Rutgers was not only the first football game but the first rivalry. The only programs that intruded on the dominance of the Ivies in the first decade were Michigan and Minnesota, quickly followed by Wisconsin. We think of Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, and LSU as football’s preeminent programs in the south, but in the first decade of the 20th Century, the ranked southern schools were Vanderbilt and Sewanee, neither of which could get past the decade’s powerhouse, Amos Alonzo Stagg’s University of Chicago Maroon.
The 1920’s were considered the golden age of sports (Ruth, Dempsey, Cobb, Gehrig, Grange, Tilden) and football came of age with Red Grange’s heart stopping breakaway runs at Illinois and great contests such as the 1922 Rose Bowl game in which 10-1 USC hit the big time beating Penn State at about the same time that Notre Dame climbed out of regional play. Pittsburgh, Michigan, and Minnesota remained threatening throughout the 20’s and 30’s, joined by teams that enjoyed a short burst of notoriety, Fordham, Duke, and Santa Clara as Hardin Simmons was to do in the 1940’s; meanwhile, Alabama and Tennessee climbed steadily.
In the annals of college sports, the Army/Notre Dame rivalry was a perennial favorite, culminating in a tilt for the national championship, in 1945. By the 1950’s and 60’s, the landscape had changed again. Syracuse Orange football put Jim Brown, a force of nature, on the field in the middle of the decade, winning the national championship in 1959 with the future first African-American winner of the Heisman, Ernie Davis. Oklahoma, Texas, Mississippi, and UCLA topped the ranks of teams in the 1950’s, but Bear Bryant was on his way to Tuscaloosa.
‘Bama won three championships in the 1960′ and almost won a fourth. The decade ended with controversy as Texas and Arkansas, played one of the great games between unbeaten teams. Texas won, went on the the Cotton Bowl, beat Notre Dame, and was named champion by President Richard Nixon, even though Penn State’s fans felt their undefeated team coached by Joe Paterno had equal right to the crown. The ’70’s belonged to Alabama again (103-16-1 over the decade) followed closely by Nebraska, USC, Michigan, and Texas.
Stagg and Rockne had been coaches with considerable clout in their day, but the 70’s brought huge television bounty to college football and established the cult of coaches that remains. The power programs remain the power programs because they recruit and stockpile recruits based on the charisma of coaches and the strength of national reputation. There wasn’t much room at the top anymore; teams had to scrap to make a place for themselves. In the same way the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels swiped a spot in the national conversation in basketball, football’s bad boys from the “U” and the only slightly less raucous Seminoles of FSU edged in at the end of the 1980’s. In the 1980’s, FSU went 109-13, top four every year from 1987 to 1999. Oklahoma and Texas ruled the first decade of the 21st Century, but both Virginia Tech and LSU joined the clubs at the top.
So, where are we now? Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, Oklahoma this year, with very strong representation from the Big Ten, Penn State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. Notre Dame is often contending, but Florida, LSU, Tennessee, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Purdue, and Nebraska have fallen fast. The PAC 12 had a contender in Oregon and recently in Washington, but both USC and UCLA are inconsistent, and Stanford, arguably the best of the bunch in conference play, stumbles in big games outside the conference.
Who’s next? Can Michigan come back from ignominy? Do teams such as UCF, Memphis, TCU, or Oklahoma State have a chance to bust out? Or, as those weary of SEC boasting might fear, is the end of this decade doomed to belong to Alabama? Is Penn State poised for a run? How many quarterbacks does Urban Meyer have in reserve?
Let’s just enjoy Alabama/Georgia and see what happens.