In Another League

January 8, 2013



Colleges and universities first started competing for a “national championship” in football way back in 1869.  Back then, the Ivy League was the only conference that played the game.  It wasn’t until 1896 when Lafayette won its first of three titles that a non-Ivy school was declared champion.  Michigan, in 1901, was the first school from what are now known as “power conferences” to take home a title.  And it wasn’t until 1908 that an SEC school, LSU, was voted the best team in the nation by the National Championship Foundation. The NCF was one of the first organizations to name a national titlist beginning with 1869, and continued to do so until 2000, the longest run of any organization. 


But that’s a bit of a misnomer.  Polling for championships and contemporary voting didn’t officially begin until 1901 and the Associated Press (the most recognized media source for rankings) didn’t formally begin their polling of sportswriters until 1936.  It wasn’t until 1950 that United Press International created the first poll of coaches.  Many of the championships before that were the work of voting groups and mathematical systems that rated teams retroactively.  Of course, that doesn’t stop schools from claiming those “championships”.   So when a college claims to have won a very large number of national titles, most of them came from this grand perplexity.  Princeton leads the charge with a claim of 28 titles, but not far behind are Yale (27), Michigan (22), Notre Dame (21), Alabama (19), Oklahoma and USC (17) and Ohio State (14).  Even lowly Minnesota, which has only one season in its history in which it won as many as ten games claims 7 national championships.  This is why there are 215 more national championship claims than there are years in which football has been played, or 2.5 for every year collegiate football has been in existence.


Another issue with championships before 1950 is that polling methods varied greatly so it’s less clear which teams were the best in any given year.  In fact, with as many as 16 voting bodies, multiple champions were commonplace.  Five teams were declared national champion in each of 1919, 1921, 1926, 1935 and 1951.   In fact, from 1918 until 1963 in only two years – 1943 (Notre Dame) and 1948 (Michigan) – was the national champion unanimous among the voters.  And even when there weren’t a dozen groups voting, the national title selection wasn’t always logical.  In 1984, BYU was named national champion by 10 of the 16 voting bodies because they had gone undefeated, despite the fact that the best team they played that season was the 6-5 Michigan team they faced in the Holiday Bowl. 


It wasn’t until the BCS came into existence in 1998 that a better option became available for determining the national champion. True, the BCS has had some process issues in selecting who should be eligible to play for the title, but there is no question that playing for the crown is a lot better than voting for it.  Since teams have had to actually play for the championship no conference has won more than the SEC.  They have won 9 of the 15 title matches, eight of the last ten, the last seven consecutively.  The only time an SEC team has ever lost a BCS title game was when they had to play another SEC team (LSU vs Alabama, last year).  USC was stripped of its 2004 title due to NCAA violations so the only non-SEC team to win a national title since 2003 was Texas in 2005.  That said, the year USC’s title was taken the undefeated Auburn team that wasn’t allowed to play for the championship due to the BCS computations finished the season #2 in the rankings.  So it could be argued that since 2003 the SEC has been home to the best team in the country in every year but one.

The closest any conference has ever come to that kind of dominance over a similar span was the Big 12, from 1990 to 2000 with five titles (three by Nebraska, one by Colorado and one by Oklahoma).  The SEC has spread the wealth a little more with four different schools winning - Auburn with one, LSU and Florida each winning two and Alabama winning three.  Tennessee is the other SEC school to win a BCS title, claiming theirs in the first year of the system.  From 1952 to 1961 the Football Writers of America voted Big 10 teams as champions six times, but the two major polls – AP and UPI – did not agree and awarded them only four.  


The 2012 season marked the tenth consecutive season in which the SEC has posted a .500 record or better in bowl games.  Overall they are 17-8 in BCS games and 53-30 in all bowl games during that span, the best mark of any conference in both number of wins and winning percentage in both categories.  That speaks not only to the strength of the conference but to the quality of their depth.  At several points during this season, the SEC had six teams ranked in the top ten.  No conference has ever had more than four.  They finished with five teams in the top ten and seven in the top 25.  And it’s not just in this year that they have finished strongly:


Year    Number of Teams finishing in the Top 10

2012 – 5 (Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, South Carolina, Florida)

2011 – 4 (Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, South Carolina)

2010 – 3 (Auburn, LSU, Alabama)

2009 – 2 (Alabama, Florida)

2008 – 2 (Florida, Alabama)

2007 – 2 (LSU, Georgia)

2006 – 3 (Florida, LSU, Auburn)

2005 – 3 (LSU, Alabama, Georgia)

2004 – 2 (Auburn, Georgia)

2003 – 2 (LSU, Georgia)

2002 – 1 (Georgia)


As you can see, there is a confederacy of six or seven teams that regularly inhabit the top of the polls.  What’s also notable is that the trend is increasing and that with the addition of Texas A&M this past year the conference has grown even stronger. 


Were it not for two tipped passes that led to interceptions (one returned for a touchdown, the other occurring in the end zone) Florida might have won their match-up with Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.  Les Miles’ criminal mis-handling of the last three minutes in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl cost LSU a win against Clemson.  With 2:47 left in the game, all LSU had to do was run out the clock.  Yet with a running back averaging better than 10 yards per carry for the game – freshman Jeremy Hill ran 12 times for 124 yards – Miles inexplicably elected to pass the ball three consecutive times resulting in two incompletions and roughly a minute run off the clock.  Running three times could have easily run off nearly two minutes even had they not gained a first down.  Clemson required every second of the 1:39 remaining to get in position for the winning field goal.  Without those two easily preventable losses, SEC teams could have finished 8-1 in bowl games this year and finished with six teams in the top ten (LSU fell to #14 with their loss).  As it is, the conference went 6-3 and won the last three games on the schedule by a combined score of 121-44.  Earlier in the post-season this was being whispered as a “down” year for the SEC. 


Since the early 70s there have been other conferences and schools that had legitimate claims to regularly play for the title - Miami, Oklahoma, Nebraska, USC, etc. But with SEC’s success since 2003, it's gotten to the point where the national title game isn't legitimate unless there's one of their teams playing in it.  What the SEC has done to college football over the last decade, particularly Alabama over the last four years in what is pretty clearly the strongest conference in the country, is akin to what Barry Bonds did to baseball from 1999- but without the steroids.  It’s just a shame that so many, particularly in the sports media, refuse to completely recognize what they’re seeing.