1970 NCAA football season was a fascinating one in the history of college football for a variety of reasons. Most notably, for whom should be crowned the actual National Champion of the 1970 season? To many, the answer was simple, as the Nebraska Cornhuskers finished-off an unbeaten season with a victory in the Orange Bowl, and finished up 11-0-1. However, the Cornhuskers were just one of four teams to finish the season undefeated, and the other three teams managed to finish without a blemish on their records, including a tie. Throw-in the fact that three 1-loss teams can actually make a case to claim a piece of the National Championship for the 70' season, and we have one heck of an intriguing scenario to make sense of.
Long before the current College Football Playoff, the BCS, the "Bowl Alliance", or the "Bowl Coalition", the 'National Champion' for college football was basically decided by the independent voting bodies (i.e. polling systems). The Associated Press (AP) and UPI (Coaches' Poll) were the two major polling services that awarded National Champions based on who finished #1 in their respective polls. There were several other NCAA-recognized bodies that selected National Champions during this time period as well. 1970 was unique in the fact that it fell right in between a major split in how the two major polling systems conducted their final poll.
Up until the 1960s, both the AP and Coaches' poll would issue their final rankings at the end of the regular season, hence, selecting their National Champion in the process. However, as the Bowl games were becoming increasingly important in finishing the seasons by allowing quality teams from different regions to square off, it was, a lot of times, the only opportunity to see teams from different areas of the country play one-another. During the decades preceding the 60s, inter-regional travel was more difficult, and schools tended to play schedules that limited traveling expenses, etc. That lead to some, but not many inter-regional games, which made selecting a "National Champion" quite difficult in many seasons. By the 60s, the Bowl games had become an important factor in deciding who was the best in the country, as regions could be pitted against one-another. Selecting the National Champion before these bowl games, caused numerous issues, as several "National Champions" went-on to lose in season-ending Bowl games. This led the AP to change their final voting to after the bowl games, for one season in 1965, and then permanently in 1968. The Coaches' Poll would not make the change until 1974, which caused for a few interesting scenarios to arise, none-more-so than the 1970 season.
With that background, let's dive into that 1970 season a bit more. Officially, three schools claim a legitimate piece of the National Title, thanks to how the polling systems operated at the time. Nebraska finished as the AP Champion following their victory over LSU in the Orange Bowl. Texas was named the UPI (coaches' poll) National Champion, thanks to being selected #1 in the final poll of the season, prior to the Cotton Bowl, where the Longhorns played Notre Dame. Meanwhile, both Texas and Ohio State were chosen as co-champions by the NFF (National Football Foundation), who was also an 'official' recognized selector by the NCAA. Nebraska was also named National Champion by the FWAA (Football Writers Association of America).
What makes this 3-way National Champion scenario so unique and interesting, is what happened in the bowl games to closeout the season. #3 Nebraska trailed for the most of the game against #5 LSU in the Orange Bowl, only to score a 4th quarter TD and sneak-out a 17-12 victory. Meanwhile, #6 Notre Dame met #1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl, and the Irish came away with a surprising 24-11 victory, handing the Longhorns their first loss of the season. That result opened the door for Ohio State, who had finished the season as unbeaten Big Ten Champions. The Buckeyes were heavy favorites ahead of their matchup with #12 Stanford (8-3) in the Rose Bowl. OSU subsequently lost 27-17 to Jim Plunkett and the Cardinal. Lastly, #4 Tennessee took care of business by defeating #11 Air Force in the Sugar Bowl, 34-13, to finish the season 11-1, matching Nebraska and Arizona State as the only other teams to finish the season with 11 victories.
The outcomes of the Bowl games would suggest that Nebraska should have the most concrete claim to the National Championship, however, the Cornhuskers did suffer one blemish, and it was a 21-21 early-season tie at USC. The Trojans were ranked #3 at the time, but went on to finish the season at just 6-4-1. Meanwhile, Notre Dame's only loss of the season was at USC, 28-38. However, when looking at Nebraska's schedule, the Big 8 suffered a down season overall, and only Oklahoma (7-4-1) managed a season of note out of the conference. Nebraska's win over Oklahoma and subsequent win in the Orange Bowl, gave them their two best victories of the season. Notre Dame also defeated LSU, during the regular season, and then their victory over Texas in the Cotton Bowl actually gives the Irish the more impressive resume, although they suffered a loss and Nebraska didn't.
If going undefeated was one of the overall deciding factors, however, then what about Arizona State (11-0), Toledo (12-0), and Dartmouth (9-0)? The Sun Devils had yet to join what would become the Pac-10 and today's Pac-12 conference and were competing in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). While not considered a premium conference by any means, it should be noted that this version of the WAC was much different than today's. The conference consisted of current-Pac 12 members Arizona and Utah, and also had BYU, Colorado State, and Wyoming. New Mexico and UTEP rounded out the conference. The Sun Devils won the WAC, and their resume featured victories over New Mexico (7-3) and ACC runner-up North Carolina (8-4) in the Peach Bowl.
Toledo was in the middle of an impressive run of three consecutive undefeated seasons out of the MAC. While the Mid-American was not viewed on equal-footing as some of the premier conferences of the time (Big Ten, Big Eight, Southwest), it wasn't fully recognized as a 'second-tier' type of conference. The Rockets were led by QB Chuck Ealey, who was a master of deception and escape, and he made opposing defenses extremely frustrated for 3 seasons. Ealey owns one of the most incredible records in college football history, and yet you've probably never heard of him. He went an incredible 35-0 in college, and never lost a single game in his three-year career at Toledo. Was it good enough to consider the Rockets of all teams as 1970 National Co-Champions? Probably not. Their two wins over a pair of 7-3 teams in Miami OH and Western Michigan were impressive, but not enough to merit National Champion attention. It should be noted, however, that Toledo was the only program in the country to win 12 games and finish a perfect 12-0.
Dartmouth also went undefeated without a tie or loss in 1970. While nobody will mistake the early 1970s Ivy League for today's SEC, the league was still competing at the full Division 1 level and turning out quality programs year-in and year-out. Head coach Bob Blackman had built a power in New Hampshire of all places in the late 1960s. Blackman's Indians went unbeaten in 1962 and 1965 as well, while they only lost one game in 1969. Dartmouth's key victory in 1970 came against fellow-unbeaten-at-the-time, Yale, who was 5-0 ahead of their mid-season clash. Dartmouth shutout Yale, 10-0, in a completely dominant effort, even if the final score didn't show it. A victory over Harvard, who finished the season 7-2, was also notable. While it may be difficult to give the 1970 Dartmouth squad any serious consideration for a piece of the 1970 National Championship, keep in mind that 6 of their 9 games ended in shutouts, and they closed the season by outscoring Yale, Columbia, Cornell, and Penn by a combined score of 117-0, with 3 of those contests coming on the road. For the season, the Indians only allowed 42 points while scoring 311. At any rate, by the end of the 70' season, Blackman's Dartmouth squads were considered to be some of the best in country, that could stack-up with any of the big boys, they just really never got the opportunity.
All of that brings us back to Texas and Notre Dame. The Longhorns finished the season unbeaten and ranked #1 in both polls heading into their Cotton Bowl showdown with the Irish. They had notable victories over Arkansas (9-2) and Texas Tech (8-4), as well as UCLA (6-5) in non-conference action. Since the Longhorns were considered the best in the county after the regular season, it was a bit of a shock for them to fall to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Since the Irish were able to defeat the #1 team in the country by two touchdowns to closeout the season, one could certainly make the argument that they should be crowned the National Champions, especially taking into the consideration that they defeated LSU during the regular season, the same team that Nebraska topped in the Orange Bowl.
One other notable team from the 1970 season was the Tennessee Volunteers. The SEC squad finished second in the conference to LSU, despite not even playing the Tigers during the season. LSU went 5-0 compared to Tennessee's 4-1 in SEC play and thus were declared Conference Champions and the birth in the Orange Bowl. Tennessee, meanwhile, suffered their only loss to Auburn early in the season, and then went on to win-out, including an impressive 34-13 victory over Air Force in the Sugar Bowl. Impressive quality wins over Georgia Tech (9-3), and the above-mentioned Air Force (9-3) give the Volunteers' just as impressive a resume as anyone, with the exception of maybe Notre Dame. UT's lack of a conference championship, pretty much excludes them from consideration, but consider that their only loss (to 9-2 Auburn) was to a better opponent than Notre Dame's only loss (to 6-4-1 USC), and the Volunteers can at least throw their hat into the conversation.
Lastly, here is a breakdown of the aforementioned contenders for the 1970 National Championship. Who is your choice, or choice(s) to be crowned the correct National Champion for the 1970 season?
- Nebraska (11-0-1)🏆
Def #5 LSU (9-3) in Orange Bowl W 17-12
Big Eight Champs
T (@ USC 21-21)
W (OU 7-4-1, LSU 9-3)
- Arizona State (11-0)
Def North Carolina (8-4) in Peach Bowl W 48-26
W (NM 7-3, UNC 8-4)
- Dartmouth (9-0)
Ivy League Champs
W (Yale 7-2, Harvard 7-2)
- Toledo (12-0)
Def William & Mary (5-7) in Tangerine Bowl W 40-12
W (Miami OH 7-3, WMU 7-3)
- Ohio State (9-1)🏆
Loss to #12 Stanford (9-3) in Rose Bowl L 17-27
Big Ten Champs
- Notre Dame (10-1)
Def #1 Texas (10-1) in Cotton Bowl W 24-11
L (@ USC 28-38)
W (LSU 9-3, Texas 10-1)
- Texas (10-1)🏆
Loss to #6 Notre Dame in Cotton Bowl L 11-24
Southwest Conf Champs
L (ND 11-24)
W (Arkansas 9-2, Texas Tech 8-4)
- Tennessee (11-1)
Def #11 Air Force in Sugar Bowl W 34-13
L (Auburn 23-36)
W (Georgia Tech 9-3, Air Force 9-3)
In the end, my final rankings for the 1970 season would look something like this:
(1) Nebraska (11-0-1) (co-Champs)
(1) Notre Dame (10-1) (co-champs)
(3) Texas (10-1)
(4) Arizona State (11-0)
(5) Tennessee (11-1)
(6) Ohio State (9-1)
(7) Dartmouth (9-0)
(8) Michigan (9-1)
(9) Toledo (12-0)
(10) Stanford (9-3)
I hope enjoyed reading my article on selecting the National Champion for the 1970 NCAA football season. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. Please consider shooting me an upvote and/or a follow and I will do the same! Happy writing & reading!