Debates Down South: What are the SEC's 3 most egregious claimed national titles?
Claimed national championships are weird. And not.
They’re a punchline in modern college football because now, we have an actual way of crowning a champion with a Playoff system that’s widely accepted. It isn’t based on polls, and it allows for teams to decide it on the field (don’t tell UCF fans I said that).
When it comes out that a team claimed a national championship 50 years after the fact, we all collectively scratch our heads. Why, now, should they be honored as champs? Well, we know the reason. It’s all about marketing. Sell that vision to the outside world of “a championship caliber program” and don’t worry about who questions it.
It’s a dubious honor. No fan base wants their team mentioned as the “most egregious claimed national title.” The other day, I tweeted out that SEC teams had 11 claimed national titles that weren’t recognized by the NCAA and that 4 of them belonged to Tennessee, guess what the response was? Tennessee fans either being unhappy with me or accusing other schools of having more bogus national titles.
I don’t blame them. Nobody wants to be called a fraud.
The goal today is to figure out who the biggest frauds are. In order to do that, I narrowed it down to the 11 claimed national titles from SEC programs that the NCAA doesn’t recognize. If the NCAA acknowledges a title, it adds legitimacy to it.
Why was/is this a debate?
Well, I sort of answered that already. Whoops.
I used the official NCAA website to determine what’s acknowledged as a national championship. Here’s a breakdown of the 11 instances in which the NCAA refused to acknowledge a claimed national championship with their records and the record of the officially recognized NCAA champion that year:
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As you can tell just from looking at that, some teams have more compelling cases than others. For example, going undefeated like Alabama did in 1934 and not getting recognized as a national champ by the NCAA seems, well, justified. The same could be said for Tennessee in 1938 or Ole Miss in 1962.
Those aren’t really the cases that we’ll dig into as much today. Why? I’m not about to tell an undefeated SEC team that didn’t get recognized as an NCAA national champion that they’re wrong for feeling shorted. Shoot, I even get why fans of 2017 UCF or 2004 Utah would feel frustrated that they didn’t get recognized by the NCAA after their undefeated seasons, and that was after we had a much better system in place to crown a national champion.
That’s really at the root of why this is such a debate. At different times, the NCAA acknowledged the following polls to determine a national champ:
- Associated Press (AP)
- Bowl Championship Series (BCS)
- Football Writers Association of America (FWAA)
- United Press International (UPI)
- National Football Foundation (NFF)
- USA Today/ESPN
- USA Today/CNN
- College Football Researchers Association (CFRA)
- Helms Athletic Foundation (HAF)
- National Championship Foundation (NCF)
Um, no wonder there’s always so much debate. One team earns a No. 1 ranking from a poll and it’s considered a claim. And those are just the polls acknowledged from the NCAA. In total, 21 organizations claimed a college football national champion.
Remember when UCF had its undefeated season in 2017? It claimed a national title because it finished No. 1 in the Colley Matrix (CM). Check that. It’s referred to as “Colley’s Bias Free Matrix Rankings.” It claims that because, as it lays out on its website that looks like it’s from 1998, it only uses wins and losses (no margin of victory) and it “adjusts effectively for strength of schedule, in a way that is free of bias toward conference, tradition, or region.”
Remember when Alabama lost to Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Champion at the end of the 2016 season? CM gave Alabama the national title. Remember when Alabama beat Notre Dame 42-14 to win the 2012 BCS National Championship? CM gave Notre Dame the national title. So apparently CM is also free at acknowledging actual football games.
The point is, it doesn’t take much for some teams to claim a national title. It wasn’t until 1936 that we had the Associated Press recognized as a widely-recognized poll, and we still had all of these retroactive computer models crowning champions.
A mess, it is.
What people said at the time
That brings us to Jeff Sagarin, AKA the MIT graduate who took rankings to a different, more analytical level. His unique rankings system was used in the BCS formula from 1998-2014. His proprietary formula uses only wins and losses and ignores margin of victory. It factors where a game is played and the quality of opponent.
It also fueled cases like 1959 Ole Miss.
In 2013, then-Rebels coach Hugh Freeze tweeted a picture of Ole Miss’ 3 claimed national titles:
— Hugh Freeze (@CoachHughFreeze) May 20, 2013
The problem? The NCAA only acknowledged 1960 as a national championship season for Ole Miss. The reaction was, “um, Syracuse went undefeated and won the national title in 1959.” Shoot, they even made a movie about it called “The Express” to chronicle the racial hurdles of Syracuse running back Ernie Davis. The AP and UPI were the widely accepted polls, though the NCAA acknowledged Syracuse getting the title from the FWAA and NFF, as well.
(Read the responses to Freeze’s tweet. They’re worth your time.)
So why did Ole Miss suddenly claim a national title from 1959 half a century later? Because polls from Berryman, Billingsley, Dunkel all gave Ole Miss the nod after a season in which it suffered a loss to LSU, but it avenged it and outscored teams 350-21. More important, Sagarin retroactively declared Ole Miss the national champs and named them the 3rd-best team from 1956-95. If you go to Ole Miss’ official website, you’ll find those exact points made.
These days, that’s how you’ll find out about claimed national titles. It’s usually in some sort of “pat-on-the-back” way. It’s not like the school sends out a release and says, “We decided that we won a national title in 1959. Good day.”
Nope. They try to slip it under the radar in a self-complimentary way and usually end up getting ripped for it.
There was also the time when A&M joined the SEC and suddenly claimed 2 national championships. How did we find out? A fan sent a picture to Deadspin of some additions to A&M’s “Wall of Champions,” which was part of a renovation to Kyle Field. Mockery ensued because who decided that nearly a century after a season ends that a national title is worth claiming?
The Billingsley Report, which was released in 1996 and also used in the ever-complex BCS formula, retroactively named the 1919 A&M squad national champs. And in 1980, the NCF retroactively declared national champs for every year dating to 1869 when college football began. For the 1919 season, the NCF decided that A&M earned a 3-way tie with Harvard and Illinois (that A&M team was actually acknowledged by the NCAA after going 10-0 and not allowing a point the entire season).
As for 1927, the NCAA gave that title to Yale and Illinois based on the HAF, NCF and CFRA polls. Then why did A&M quietly wait until 2012 to claim it? Sagarin. The Sagarin Rankings retroactively gave A&M that title after it went 8-0-1 with a 0-0 tie to TCU. The NCAA’s recognized 1927 national champs, Illinois and Yale, went 7-0-1 and 7-1, respectively, but they dominated the polls.
If a team claimed a national title during the 2010s, chances are, it was from 50-plus years ago … and it was met with much public criticism. It’s a bit slimy to casual add that in there during a stadium renovation like A&M did, and it doesn’t come off well when Freeze brags about “Ole Miss” standard with an additional 2 national title trophies that haven’t been addressed.
Well, at least it’s not as bad as getting your new coach a future national championship plaque:
Texas A&M awards themselves a hypothetical future National Championship – upon completion it will be displayed in Atlantis in a flying car pic.twitter.com/LbYrNVCVqz
— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) February 28, 2018
The worst take you can have about this debate
I’m sure there’s a bad take about some team that went 5-2 who lost to a pilot school, yet they claimed a national championship 60 years later. But for my money, this is the worst take.
“Everybody claims national titles, so who really cares?”
First of all, not everyone claims national titles because people do actually care. The public heat isn’t worth it.
Take 2004 Auburn, for example. That team went undefeated and didn’t even get to play in the BCS National Championship. Tigers fans felt and still feel robbed. They should. We had a system that failed to acknowledge how we’d get a true championship game in the event that 3 Power 5 teams went undefeated. That’s what happened. Even more interesting was the fact that the eventual winner, USC, was forced to vacate that national title by the NCAA after Reggie Bush’s impermissible benefits.
In other words, there’s a national title just waiting for Auburn to claim it. But what would the reaction be? Alabama fans would have an absolute field day. Fans of LSU, which has won multiple national titles since that 2004 season, would also laugh at Auburn’s expense. No matter how much it would be spun by Auburn as “a chance to properly honor the undefeated team,” it would look like they just did it to keep up with their rivals.
Again, people do care. If they didn’t and it was just a free-for-all without any sort of public perception-related consequences, “unclaimed national titles” wouldn’t be a thing. But they are. Alabama has 5 unclaimed national titles, including that bizarre 2016 title from CM.
Can you imagine if Alabama claimed that 2016 title? All of that frustration directed at UCF fans would look completely hypocritical.
That’s why, despite the madness that ensued for much of the 20th century, we can’t just go around claiming every national title. In many cases, they’re not worth the trouble. There’s no good way to announce a title is suddenly claimed decades later, and it’s a punchline waiting to happen.
Thing I didn’t know/forgot until revisiting this debate
This feeds into exactly what I was just saying. When the initial subject was brought up, my first thought went to A&M. I remembered them getting called out in 2012 for suddenly claiming those pre-World War II titles. Recency bias told me that the Aggies would have the most egregious national titles.
I remember thinking it was a ridiculous move, but I didn’t realize that the 1919 team didn’t allow a point all year while Illinois went 6-1 and Harvard went 9-0-1. Oh, and the NCAA acknowledges that title for A&M now.
In fact, A&M’s only claimed national title that the NCAA doesn’t recognize was in 1927. And as I already outlined, Illinois and Yale weren’t undefeated, either. Spoiler alert — A&M doesn’t have one of the SEC’s 3 most egregious claimed national titles.
I really wasn’t sure what the breakdown would look like. In case you don’t feel like scrolling up, here’s how many claimed national titles by SEC programs are not recognized by the NCAA:
- Tennessee: 4
- Alabama: 2
- Ole Miss: 2
- Georgia: 1
- Kentucky: 1
- Texas A&M: 1
Speaking of Tennessee …
Where do I stand on the debate?
Before we start, I’m eliminating the undefeated teams as candidates for “most egregious claimed national title.” They never lost. The system stunk, and while they might have been ridiculed for it (1919 Texas A&M), they could make a clear case that you were robbed.
While I’m at it, let’s eliminate cases where the recognized national champ had as many losses as the SEC team that tried to claim that title. That gets rid of 1942 Georgia, 1950 Kentucky, 1950 Tennessee.
Through all of this research, I found the 3 most egregious claimed national titles from SEC teams.
It’s 1940 Tennessee, 1941 Alabama and 1967 Tennessee.
Why didn’t I have 1959 Ole Miss? The Rebels essentially did what 2011 Alabama did. That is, destroy everyone, lose 1 nail-biter game to LSU and then avenge that loss to the Tigers in a bowl game in New Orleans. Egregious? Sure, but it wasn’t as bad as Ole Miss’ 1959 claim.
Let’s start with the 2 Tennessee teams.
The 1940 Vols claimed a national championship … after losing its bowl game to Boston College. What? Granted, Minnesota didn’t play in a bowl game, but it still went undefeated and beat a trio of top 15 teams. From 1936-49, the NCAA only recognizes the AP winner, Minnesota, as its national champion. With all due respect to war hero Robert Neyland, the Gophers beat 3 top 15 teams while Tennessee lost to the only one it faced.
Here’s the crazy thing — that Boston College team went 11-0 with the Tennessee victory and claimed that 1940 title … but the NCAA didn’t recognize it because the AP was the only poll accepted for that era.
The more egregious Tennessee claimed title was actually 1967. Yes, the 2-loss team that lost its first and last game of the season determined it was worthy of that title. Meanwhile, a USC team that beat 4 opponents ranked in the top 5 had just 1 loss — a 3-0 defeat against Oregon State. A young man by the name of O.J. Simpson turned a few heads that year.
The Vols celebrated the Litkenhous national championship. That’s right. The Litkenhouse national championship. Because if that doesn’t roll off the tongue, I don’t know what does.
Doug Dickey said of the 1967 in a 50th anniversary story that “when you beat Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Ole Miss, you’ve done pretty well.” He’s not wrong. A 9-2 season is a sign that you played “pretty well.” But elite? All-time great. Outside of Litkenhous, probably not.
It’s tied with 1941 Alabama for the single most egregious national title claimed. That season, Alabama got shut out by Mississippi State and Vanderbilt in a 9-2 season. Picture a 2020 universe in which that happens. Does Nick Saban get fired?
That year, Minnesota earned the AP national title, and was ranked No. 1 in 12 polls. But because it went 8-0 without having played in a bowl game (and teams ranked 1-5 didn’t play in bowl games), that paved the way for yet another random formula to declare Alabama the best team in America that year. Never mind the fact that Alabama was ranked No. 20 going into the postseason before a Cotton Bowl win against No. 9 Texas A&M.
So why did Alabama claim that? The Crimson Tide somehow earned a No. 1 ranking by the Houlgate System, which was a mathematical ratings formula used from 1927-58.
Former Alabama sports information director Wayne Atcheson added a whopping 5 national titles to Alabama’s media guides during the 1980s. All of those were before Paul “Bear Bryant” arrived. Atcheson bumped Alabama’s national title total from 6 to 11. He explained why in a 2010 AL.com story:
“I tried to make Alabama football look the best it could look and just make it as great as it could possibly be,” Atcheson said. “I was a competitor myself with the other schools, and what they bragged about and boasted about, I wanted people to know the best about my school.”
It gets worse. According to Atcheson, the 1941 title is legit. A CBS Sports story said that “(Atcheson) argued the Mississippi State loss came in the rain, the Vanderbilt defeat was close and that Alabama was the best team in the country at the end of that season.”
Yikes. That’s why people hate claimed national titles, egregious or not.
I’d argue 2012 Texas A&M has a far better claim for a national title than 1941 Alabama. Thankfully, though, A&M didn’t try claim that title.
At least not yet.