The College Football Playoff finale between Alabama and Ohio State features two of the most decorated programs in the sport. So just how many national titles has each program won? Well, as the kids say nowadays, it’s complicated.
The playoff in its current format is only seven years old, of course. An Alabama win would be its third title in the playoff era, while Ohio State would match the Crimson Tide and Clemson with its second should the Buckeyes prevail.
Before the playoff was the Bowl Championship Series, and before that was the Bowl Coalition/Bowl Alliance that attempted, not always successfully, to match the top two teams in the postseason to create a unified champion.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that unlike nearly every other collegiate sport, the NCAA has never administered an actual championship tournament in football’s top division. For several decades, the so-called national champion was determined by the polls – and they didn’t always agree. Prior to the advent of the AP writers’ poll in 1936, determining the No. 1 team was even more subjective. It was often done retroactively using mathematical formulas or awarded by various researchers.
So while the NCAA’s collection of listed champions in its record book isn’t officially official, the organization does recognize 15 seasons crediting Alabama with at least a share of a national championship and eight for Ohio State heading into Monday’s game. There was, in fact, one year when both were voted a share of the title.
Since the inception of college football in 1869, there have been 187 national champions crowned. These are the 10 teams who have more than five titles to their names.
Here they are by year with a note or two on each.
Crimson Tide fans in the stands in 2017. (Photo: Adam Hagy, USA TODAY Sports)
1925 – The first of three recognized titles for the Crimson Tide under coach Wallace Wade was the school’s first undefeated campaign, culminating in a 20-19 Rose Bowl victory against Washington that helped launch the career of future movie star Johnny Mack Brown.
1926 – The Tide went 9-0 in the regular season for a second consecutive year, but this time their Rose Bowl meeting with Stanford ended in a 7-7 tie. Both are recognized as national champions by the NCAA.
1930 – Wade’s third title team again went 10-0 with a Rose Bowl victory against Washington State. Notre Dame, also 10-0 that year, is recognized as co-champ.
1961 – The first of six championship seasons under the legendary Bear Bryant concluded with a 10-3 win against Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl. While the Tide were voted first in the polls, the Football Writers Association of America chose Ohio State.
1964 – The 10-0 Tide, led by Joe Namath, were picked first in the final AP poll but lost the Orange Bowl to Texas. The resulting controversy led the AP to begin conducting a post-bowl poll the following year.
1965 – The following season the Tide went 8-1-1 in the regular season but downed Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and were voted No. 1 by the AP and FWA.
1973 – For the second time, the Tide’s bowl outcome led to a policy change for a major poll. This time it was the coaches who voted 11-0 Alabama No. 1 before a Sugar Bowl loss to Notre Dame. The coaches joined the AP in conducting a final vote after the bowls a year later.
1978 – A 14-7 Sugar Bowl victory against top-ranked Penn State earned Alabama a share of the title along with Southern California, who had accounted for the Tide’s lone loss during the regular season.
1979 – The Bear didn’t have to share the last of his titles with anyone as the Tide wrapped up a 12-0 run with a Sugar Bowl victory against Arkansas.
1992 – The Tide’s lone title under coach Gene Stallings featured a 28-21 victory against Florida in the inaugural SEC championship game followed by a 34-13 domination of top-ranked Miami in the Sugar Bowl for a 13-0 finish.
2009 – Nick Saban’s first of, thus far, five titles with the Tide came under the auspices of the BCS. Heisman winner Mark Ingram capped off the perfect run with a two-touchdown performance in a 37-21 triumph over Texas in the Rose Bowl.
2011 – Despite not winning the SEC, a crazy final weekend of the regular season resulted in Alabama getting a rematch with LSU in the BCS championship game, where a smothering defense held the Tigers to 92 total yards in a 21-0 shutout.
2012 – This time the high-powered offense quarterbacked by A.J. McCarron and featuring then-freshman receiver Amari Cooper set the tone in the BCS final, rolling to a 42-14 win against Notre Dame.
2015 – Alabam’as first championship of the playoff era began with a semifinal blanking of Michigan State, followed by a 45-40 classic final against Clemson in which the Tide executed a perfect onside kickoff in the second half to gain a critical extra possession.
2017 – Alabama missed the SEC championship game but made the most of their inclusion in the playoff field, downing Clemson in the semifinal then upending Georgia 26-23 in overtime in the title game in Atlanta on Tua Tagovailoa’s famous hook-up with future superstar DeVonta Smith.
Buckeyes players celebrate on the podium after defeating the Ducks in 2015. (Photo: Matthew Emmons, USA TODAY Sports)
1942 – Fielding a team was difficult with the country fully involved in World War II, but coach Paul Brown and standout wingback Les Horvath led the Buckeyes to a 9-1 season including a 21-7 win against Michigan to claim the Big Ten title and the program’s first No. 1 finish in the AP.
1954 – In his fourth season helming the Buckeyes, Woody Hayes coached the Buckeyes to a 9-0 campaign and the school’s second AP title with a dominant defense that forced 35 turnovers. Howard ‘Hopalong’ Cassady, who would win the Heisman a year later, recorded a big interception return touchdown in the win against Wisconsin. The coaches voting in the UPI poll, however, picked UCLA No. 1 in their final rankings.
1957 – The Buckeyes overcame a season-opening loss to TCU to post a 9-1 record and Big Ten crown. This time it was the coaches who made OSU No. 1, as the AP voters went with Auburn.
1961 – Once again, an opening date with TCU provided the only blip on the Buckeyes’ slate. OSU followed that 7-7 tie against the Horned Frogs with eight wins in a row. Though the major polls had Alabama No. 1, the FWAA awarded the title to the Buckeyes. The school’s faculty council voted to turn down an invitation to the Rose Bowl following the conclusion of the season.
1968 – Arguably the strongest of Hayes’s six championship teams, the undefeated 1968 group featured quarterback Rex Kern and running back Jim Otis on offense and hard-hitting linebacker Jack Tatum on the defensive side. OSU knocked Purdue from the No. 1 spot early in the season, closed with a dominant triumph over Michigan, and capped the year with a 27-16 comeback win against USC in the Rose Bowl.
1970 – The 1970 Buckeyes posted a 9-0 regular-season mark en route to another Big Ten title. The Buckeyes were voted No. 1 by the National Football Foundation in its final rankings, but OSU lost to Stanford in the Rose Bowl as other polls awarded the national championship to Nebraska and Texas.
2002 – Perhaps the most improbable of the Buckeyes’ eight titles, second-year coach Jim Tressel led OSU to a series of close calls through an undefeated Big Ten run and a Fiesta Bowl date with Miami for the BCS championship. Aided by a pass interference call in the first overtime that still has Hurricanes’ fans seething, the Buckeyes survived 31-24 in double-OT.
2014 – Urban Meyer’s third season in Columbus began inauspiciously with a week two loss to Virginia Tech. But the Buckeyes rebounded to run through the Big Ten and entered the inaugural College Football Playoff as the No. 4 seed. A huge game from Ezekiel Elliott, including a back-breaking 85-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, helped the Buckeyes past No. 1 Alabama 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl semifinal. A 42-20 win against Oregon and Heisman winner Marcus Mariota capped the program’s eighth championship.
Follow USA TODAY Sports colleges reporter Eddie Timanus on Twitter @EddieTimanus
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