The Year There Were 5 Champions - The Whacky 1951 College Football Season
The long, storied, history of college football is full of interesting seasons, unique circumstances, and a whole lot of muddled uncertainty when it came to selecting a 'National Champion'. It took until 1998 and the advent of the BCS to finally have a "system" in-place to guarantee a season-ending Bowl matchup between the #1 and #2 ranked teams. And even then, the BCS's computer rankings were regularly questioned, as deserving contenders sometimes ranked significantly higher - or lower in the computer rankings then what the "human" voting polls preferred. Even in the BCS era, there was a split-Championship when LSU won the BCS championship, and USC (who was somehow left out of the title game despite finishing the 2003 regular season ranked #1 in both polls), was voted the AP champion.
Choosing a Champion over the years has been anything but easy, and in the decades preceding the 1990s, there were numerous, NCAA officially-recognized "selectors" that crowned their own Champion. The AP and Coaches' (formally UPI) Polls have been the longest-running continuous selectors, going back to 1936 and 1950, respectively.
During the 1940s and 1950s, there were only five to six bowl games played, and the two major "polling systems" selected their National Champion in the final poll of the regular season, before the bowl games were contested. As you can imagine, this led to some interesting scenarios, with multiple teams claiming national championships, etc. I've previously discussed the unique season of 1970 and the conundrum of selecting a Champion that year. 1951 happens to be another one of those truly unique seasons in the history of college football.
Seven different teams finished the regular season unbeaten in 1951. Five of them "won" the National Championship that season. Here is the story of the remarkable 1951 college football season, the one - and only year - that 5 different schools can all say they were College Football National Champions.
First, The Contenders:
NORTHERN ILLINOIS STATE (9-0)
AP #: UR
Coaches #: UR
Northern Illinois State finished the 51' season a perfect 9-0 as IIAC champions. The 'Interstate Intercollegiate Athletic' conference wasn't much of a power at the time, and only provided one quality victory for the Huskies, a 20-7 victory over Western Illinois who finished the season 7-1-1. Despite the weaker schedule, the Huskies turned out a quality season, and won 7 of their 9 games by double-figures. While the resume isn't quite there to get a legitimate piece of the National Championship, they deserve their mention with the season's best.
AP #: (6)
Coaches #: (6)
The Tigers finished off their second-consecutive unbeaten season after going 9-0 in 1950 and claiming a share of that season's Nat'l Championship. The 1951 team was just as impressive if not more-so, averaging 34.4 points per game while only surrendering 9.1 per contest. The highlight was a mid-season 53-15 thrashing of #12 Cornell. The dominant victory propelled the Tigers to an impressive close to the season in which they shut-out 3 of their final 4 opponents, defeating Brown 12-0, Yale 27-0, and Dartmouth 13-0. The other win - a 54-13 complete destruction of Harvard.
While the Tigers had just one victory over a ranked opponent, they closed the season in dominating fashion, and owned the top player in the country. HB/QB Dick Kazmaier took home the Heisman Trophy in 1951, behind 966 yards passing, with 13 TD and 5 INT. He added another 861 yards rushing and 9 scores on the ground. While none of the numerous 'major selectors' picked Princeton as National Champion, they certainly did enough to merit consideration.
Second, the "Champions":
GEORGIA TECH (11-0-1)
AP #: (5)
Coaches #: (5)
The Yellow Jackets were SEC co-champions with #1 Tennessee. The two did not play each other during the season, and GT played a total of 7 conference games, compared to UT's 5. Back then teams played differing number of conference games, no one played the same amount, and since both did not lose to a fellow SEC opponent, they were declared SEC co-champs.
GT only allowed more than 7 points in a game twice all season long, and no more than 14 in any game. Their one blemish was a 14-14 tie at home to Duke. They closed out the season with a 48-6 destruction of in-state rival Georgia, and 17-14 victory over #9 Baylor in the Orange Bowl. Their one victory over a ranked opponent during the regular season came @ #17 Kentucky in week 3, a 13-7 win. The Yellow Jackets' other notable win was an impressive 25-7 victory over power LSU as the Tigers went on to finish the season 7-3-1.
Georgia Tech was chosen as the Berryman (B) National Champion, and Boand System (BS) (major NCAA selector) co-National Champ.
AP #: (1)
Coaches #: (1)
The Volunteers finished the regular season as undefeated (10-0) SEC co-champs with Georgia Tech. They started the season with shutouts of Mississippi State and #16 Duke and added impressive late-season road victories over Ole Miss (46-21) and #9 Kentucky (28-0).
5 of the Vols' 10 games ended were shutouts, and they won 7 of those games but no less then 25 points. Tennessee had managed one of the more impressive overall resumes for the season and were the choice of both major polls for National Champion, finishing #1 in both the AP and Coaches' final regular season poll (as was the custom as the time). This gives the Vols a legitimate piece of the 51' Nat'l Title, but they went on to lose to fellow-unbeaten, #3 Maryland in the Sugar Bowl, losing by two touchdowns, 28-13. That loss opened the door for several others to get a piece of the championship.
AP #: (3)
Coaches #: (4)
Maryland finished the 1951 season as Southern Conference co-champions with VMI. They opened the season by crushing 1950 conference champion Washington & Lee, 54-14. They added impressive mid-season shutouts @ LSU (27-0) and over Missouri (35-0) in consecutive weeks. After getting off to a strong start to the season, it was the close to the season that was most impressive for the Terrapins.
They finished the season by crushing both N.C. State (53-0) & West Virginia (54-7) and were matched with Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl. They took care of the consensus #1 team, by dispatching the Vols 28-13 to finish up a perfect 10-0. Maryland's overall resume was probably the most impressive of any, and they won 7 of their 9 regular season games by 27+ points. If Maryland's numbers weren't already impressive enough, they also managed to score 40+ in 5/9 games. In addition:
For the 1951 season, they outscored their opponents 353-62, and averaged 39.2 points per game, while they only surrendered 6.9 per contest. Their +32.3 margin of victory was incredibly impressive as well and helps cement their claim as the best in 1951.
The College Football Researchers Foundation (CFRA), Devoid System (DeS), Dunkel System (DuS), National Championship Foundation (NCF), and Sagarin Ratings (SR) all pegged Maryland as their National Champion. With (5) different 'official selectors' choosing Maryland, the Terrapins were chosen Nat'l Champ by more independent bodies than anyone else.
MICHIGAN STATE (9-0)
AP #: (2)
Coaches #: (2)
The Spartans came into 1951 highly regarded after going 8-1 the year prior. They would go on to finish 1952 9-0 and would be named consensus Champions. 1951 wasn't quite as clear however. The Spartans were still competing as independent, and opened the season with a 6-0 shutout over Oregon State and then an impressive 25-0 shutout over in-state rival Michigan at the Big House. They would go on to add noteworthy road victories over Ohio State and Penn State.
The marque win of the Spartans' season was an impressive 35-0 rout of #11 Notre Dame in East Lansing. They would go on to thrash Colorado 45-7 two weeks later to finish up the season. Sparty finished by outscoring the opposition 270-114 for season. There were only six bowl games at the time and without a conference affiliation, MSU did not play in a bowl game.
The one knock on them might be they struggled in two games with lesser opposition, defeating Marquette just 20-14, while barely getting past Indiana (2-7) in the second-to-last game of the year, 30-26. None-the-less, undefeated without a tie with a solid resume, it was enough for MSU to be named National Champion by three of the independent selectors, as the Billingsley Report (BR), Helms Athletic Foundation (HAF), and Poling System (PS) all named Michigan State as their National Champion.
AP #: (4)
Coaches #: (3)
That finally brings us to Illinois. The Fighting Illini won the Big TEN, and opened the season with impressive home wins over UCLA (27-13) & Wisconsin (14-10) - the Badgers went on to finish the season 7-1-1. That was just a start, as they added season-highlight victories @ #20 Washington, and a 7-0 shutout of #15 Michigan.
The Illini closed out the season a bit lackluster with a 0-0 tie to Ohio State and subsequent 3-0 hard-fought victory over Northwestern. Despite the quiet close to the season, they ended the season with a bang by destroying #7 Stanford in the Rose Bowl 40-7. The Cardinal had went 9-1 during the regular season, and the rout of Stanford was easily the best-showing of any of the teams involved with the six bowl games at the time.
Illinois closed the season especially strong when you take a looks at their final 6 games overall - including the bowl game victory. They allowed only 20 points total in those six games, with 4 ending as shutouts. It was enough for the Illini to be named co-champions by the Boand System (BS) (along with Georgia Tech).
Well, there you have it, seven undefeated teams, five different 'National Champions' and one heck of a 1951 college football season. It is crazy to think there was a time long ago where we could have 5 different champions in college football. With the way things were at the time, all five have a legitimate claim/piece of the National Championship, but if it were today, how would your final rankings look? Mine would look something like this:
1) Maryland (10-0) (Champs)*
2) Georgia Tech (11-0-1)
3) Michigan State (9-0)
4) Illinois (9-0-1)
T5) Tennessee (10-1)
T5) Princeton (9-0)