College Football is as engrained in American culture as just about any sporting event, but crowning a national champion within the sport has never been a straight-forward process.
In fact, collegiate football has gone through change after change over the years aimed at ensuring the best possible champion is crowned. What began as a very unorganized and subjective process has devolved into a highly dramatic postseason tournament that is slowly growing.
Strap in as we take you through the full history of the college football championship process, beginning back in 1869, going through the present day and what’s likely to change in the future for the College Football Playoff.
How Did College Football Crown Champions Before the CFP and BCS?
The Associated Press ranking poll, which became the gold standard of collegiate ranking for decades, didn’t come into existence until 1936. Before that, college diehards tried everything to determine their champion.
The first breakthrough came in 1926, when University of Illinois economics professor Frank G. Dickinson crafted a mathematical formula that was quickly deemed a “major selector” of the champion by the NCAA Football Records Book. The Dickinson System was used to predate the national champion every season until the AP poll was recognized in 1936.
In many respects, Dr. Dickinson is the Einstein of what later became the computerized ranking platform that the Bowl Championship Series used.
What is the Associated Press Poll?
In 1936, the AP Poll was established – a compilation of votes from sports writers and media personnel ranking the top 25 teams in college football. Upon its inception, the poll was loosely used to crown a national champion up until 1998.
It faced fierce opposition, as a rival Coaches Poll was established in 1950. Polling all the head coaches in the NCAA, it served as a believable substitute. In fact, 1954 saw the first “split” national champion as AP writers selected Ohio State and the coaches chose UCLA.
See, the squabble between journalists and football coaches isn’t exactly new. They’ve been battling to decide national champions for over seven decades!
The system was inherently flawed, though. Through 56 years, only 8 times did the No. 1 and No. 2 teams face off in one of the premier bowl games. Individual bowl selection committees had the authority to pick schools based on conference, and that often removed the chance of a true championship game.
It took the big college football boom of the 80’s and 90’s for the NCAA to recognize that humans, whether spectators or coaches themselves, maybe shouldn’t be deciding the national champion anyway. Two committees called the Bowl Alliance and the Bowl Coalition took charge briefly from 1992 to 1997 before those darn computers stepped in.
What Happened to the BCS?
Most champions are labeled ‘undisputed’ for a reason – that’s because one key factor of a championship is that it leaves no question of who the real champion is.
The Bowl Championship Series was coined in 1998 to produce this very thing – aimed at letting the best two schools in the country decide the championship on the field. But what began in 1998 as a method to increase confidence in the championship ended up sparking more controversy than ever before.
The BCS system relied on a mixture of the AP & Coaches Polls, and the good ole computer selection method to rank the top 10 teams. The top two faced off in the BCS National Championship, with the other 8 teams rotating in the marquee bowl games – the Sugar, Rose, Fiesta and Orange Bowl games.
The BCS lasted until 2014, when the polls and computers had differed one too many times for the public – and NCAA brass – to stomach another. Outcries for a multi-team playoff grew louder, until they were finally answered.
What is the College Football Playoff?
The College Football Playoff is just that – a playoff to decide the national champion that began in 2014.
The CFP is currently assembled as a four-team tournament of schools who are hand-picked by a selection committee. The No. 2 and No. 3 teams face off, while the No. 1 team gets to play the 4th-ranked team.
The two CFP semifinals happen within the New Year’s Six bowl games, and rotate between the six games – the Peach, Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta, and Cotton Bowls – so that each iconic college football bowl gets a chance to host a semifinal once every three years.
Who’s in the CFP Selection Committee?
The CFP selection committee is headed up by executive director Bill Hancock, and the full list of 2021 committee members is as follows. These individuals meet collectively to create the CFP rankings, and eventually decide the top four teams.
- Mitch Barnhart – University of Kentucky Athletic Director
- Gary Barta (Chair) – University of Iowa Athletic Director
- Paola Soivin – Arizona State University Professor
- Tom Burman – University of Wyoming Athletic Director
- Charlie Cobb – Georgia State University Athletic Director
- Boo Corrigan – NC State Athletic Director
- Rick George – University of Colorado Athletic Director
- Will Shields – University of Nebraska Former All-American
- Gene Taylor – Kansas State Athletic Director
- Joe Taylor – Virginia Union University VP for Athletics
- John Urschel – Penn State University Former All-American
- Rod West – University of Notre Dame Former Student Athlete
- Tyrone Willingham – Former Head Coach of Stanford, Notre Dame & Washington
When is the College Football Playoff Expanding?
Ever since the beginning of the CFP, there’s been constant talk over how and when to expand it from four teams to eight. Think about it – there are 5 conferences that make up the Power 5, often a couple elite teams that didn’t win their conference, and usually one undefeated school outside the Power 5.
After years of debate, the idea of expansion was discussed by college football brass for the first time in 2021. CFP executive director Bill Hancock confirmed this to ESPN’s Heather Dinich that talks have taken place, but they’re up against the clock.
The four-team playoff is slated to run through the 2024 season, and it could go longer if expansion is not agreed to. Talks have taken place among college football leaders, but no changes have been agreed to just yet.
Who Has the Most College Football National Championships?
With measurements of past champions disputed, the NCAA official site is the best place to go for the most championships all time. Yale still leads the way with 18 titles.
From 1869 to the present day, here’s the Top 10!
Most National Championships in College Football
- Yale: 18
- Alabama: 16
- Princeton: 15
- Notre Dame: 13
- Michigan: 9
- Southern California: 9
- Harvard: 8
- Ohio State: 8
- Oklahoma: 7
- Minnesota: 6
Who Has the Most CFP Appearances and Victories?
Unsurprisingly, Alabama has the most CFP appearances with 7. This means they reached the playoff every year except for one – the 2019 season. Here’s the full list provided by the NCAA of most appearances, wins and titles.
Alabama has the most games played with 12, and the most titles won with 3. Clemson has won 2 titles with 10 games played, and Ohio State has won once with 6 games played. Cincinnati became the 13th school to reach the CFP before Alabama ousted them on New Year’s Eve 2021.
Most CFP Appearances By School
- Alabama: 7
- Clemson: 6
- Oklahoma: 4
- Ohio State: 4
- Georgia: 2
- Notre Dame: 2
- Cincinnati, Florida State, LSU, Michigan, Oregon, Washington & Michigan State: 1