The 2020 college football season could have as many as four national champions within the Football Bowl Subdivision, the 127-team top level of Division I. Four would be kind of a large number of champs, historically speaking! We’ll come back to that.
The College Football Playoff will determine the most obvious champion. Probably Alabama. Maybe Clemson or Ohio State. Notre Dame is also participating.
The Fighting Irish, who lost by 24 to Clemson the day before Selection Sunday, made it into the field over Texas A&M, sparing us from the Aggies facing Alabama again. Earlier in the season, A&M lost to the Tide by even more than the Irish lost to Clemson.
So either Bama, Clemson, or Ohio State. That’s one champ. How do we get to two, let alone four?
For starters, some snubbed teams didn’t lose any games by four touchdowns. Other snubbed teams didn’t lose any games at all—but were rejected by a system that openly favors the powers.
The Cincinnati Bearcats went 9–0, winning the American Athletic Conference, the midtier league whose lineage is the old Big East. Based on power ratings and public perception, it’s usually just a step below the Pac-12 or ACC, depending on the year. Cincy ranks No. 4 in a consensus of 50-plus unofficial polls and computers, averaged a victory margin of 23 points, and leads all Top 10 teams in number of victories over teams with winning records.
But the committee didn’t rank undefeated Cincinnati No. 4, No. 5, or even No. 6. It put the Bearcats behind Oklahoma, which has lost twice this year, to Kansas State and Iowa State. Kansas State, for its part, lost to Arkansas State, while Iowa State lost to Louisiana. Both of those teams are from the Sun Belt Conference, an also-ran like the AAC. Florida came out ahead of Cincy in the rankings too, despite the former notching three L’s, including a debacle against the worst LSU team since 1999. Cincinnati did not go down to defeat against a Sun Belt school or the bad version of LSU or anyone. But for an AAC team, zero losses is still too many.
2020 marks the third time in four years that an undefeated AAC champ has finished at least four spots away from the playoff.
One of those teams, 2017’s University of Central Florida, went on to add a Peach Bowl victory over an Auburn team that had beaten eventual national finalists Alabama and Georgia. The Knights then made a big thing of declaring themselves national champs, with rings and banners and a Disney parade.
There was much mockery, especially from Bama fans who’d just watched their Tide win the playoff. But based on decades of college football precedent, it was perfectly legit. That precedent was established in part by … the Tide themselves.
The century-old bowl system means the NCAA has no real role in determining football’s top-level champ. All the governing body has ever done is acknowledge the teams crowned by various “selectors,” an ever-shifting group of media polls, computer ratings, and panels of historians.
This is how the NCAA’s official records end up listing two, three, or—as in 1921 and 1981—as many as six different national champions from a single year. That happened even well into the Bowl Championship Series era, which was supposed to solve all this! The NCAA’s champions list shows three for 2003: BCS winner LSU, BCS loser Oklahoma, and title-game snub USC.
Lots of power-conference teams have even scoured the “selector” archives to claim old titles decades later. At some point around the 2000s, Kentucky cited a computer rating to begin claiming the 1950 title. In 2004, USC claimed a mathematical formula–based championship from 65 years prior. Oklahoma State picked up a bizarre claim to 1945’s title, 72 years after almost everyone agreed Army had won it. In 2012, Texas A&M helped itself to 1919 and 1927, based on computer rankings published in the 1970s and 1990s, respectively. Minnesota discovered its 1904 title 108 years later.
Bama wasn’t the first team to discover a championship in its attic. But in 1983, the Crimson Tide announced they’d won it all in 1925, 1926, 1930, 1934, and 1941. The first two were legit corrections of the historical record, each based on a majority of selectors. The second two are reasonable claims. And then there’s 1941, a year when Bama got shut out twice and ranked No. 20 in the AP poll. A mathematical model by a publicist named Deke Houlgate, and only Hougate, favored the Tide anyway.
So they can’t all be winners. Regardless, the NCAA’s record book piles in every selector all the same. Here’s how 1941’s champions are listed therein:
Minnesota: AP, Billingsley, Boand, DeVold, Dunkel, Football Research, Helms, Litkenhous, National Championship Foundation, Poling, Sagarin, Sagarin (ELO-Chess)
Texas: Berryman, Williamson
The closest thing to an official list of championship history also recognizes UCF’s No. 1 2017 finish based on a single source: the Colley Matrix, a former BCS computer. Guess the team’s trollish title claim is just as valid as those made by blue bloods.
Alabama: College Football Playoff, AP, †FW-NFF, USA Today
So let’s say No. 8 Cincinnati springs an upset on power-conference Georgia in the Peach Bowl. The Bearcats beating a big boy would surely put them in the top four of the AP poll—the sport’s closest thing to a single historical benchmark—which already has Cincy at No. 6. The team would also rank nicely in at least a few computer ratings, some of which might happen to be NCAA selectors. (It’s already No. 2 in Colley, the same system that anointed UCF.)
Whether a victorious Cincy could produce a technical case or not, they should claim the 2020 title if they beat Georgia. It’s 2020, man. Just go for it.
So that’s two champions. Let’s keep going.
No. 3 in the insurgent-enabling Colley is 11–0 Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers proved themselves by beating No. 16 BYU in the game of the year and taking down No. 19 Louisiana, which as you’ll recall beat a three-loss Iowa State—who in turn landed at No. 10, two spots ahead of Coastal, in the CFP rankings.
This year, that ranking means Coastal doesn’t even have a shot to prove itself against a Power 5 team in bowl season, watching as Iowa State makes the Fiesta Bowl against the Pac-12’s automatic bid, 4–2 Oregon.
Cincy not making the playoff is arguably justifiable; they did play a lighter schedule than the Irish or Aggies did. Cincy not coming particularly close is insulting. But Coastal getting paired against Liberty at the Cure Bowl? That cements 2020 as the playoff committee’s most egregious robbery yet.
However, if Coastal beats Liberty, the Chants should call themselves national champions too. Who could possibly prove they weren’t 2020’s best team? There would be no hard evidence against it. Paint the town teal and dare the sports cops to do something about it.
San Jose State likewise enters bowl season undefeated, boasting a 14-point win over Boise State, one of the few nonpowers the sport has ever kiiiiinda respected. The CFP ranks the 7–0 Spartans No. 22, below five three-loss teams and one five-win team. That’s usually a pretty fair ranking for a team with only a few really good wins, but it’s too late for all that. Get in, Spartans: We’re claiming championships. If you beat Ball State in the Arizona Bowl, you will be the national champions, with exactly zero other teams capable of proving you definitely are not.
But what if Cincy, Coastal, and SJSU lose their bowls? After all this huffing and puffing, that’d be pretty embarrassing. The little guys would be put in their places after all.
Nice try. We have two more precedents that would allow them to claim the title anyway.
First, if our heroes fall, they should do what power-conference teams often do when they lose big bowls to nonpowers: Just say they had a hard time getting themselves to care. Alabama lost to the Mountain West’s Utah Utes in 2008 because of a motivation deficit. How could a titan deign to care about beating a lightweight? Same for Auburn against UCF.
Why couldn’t Cincinnati just say they don’t really acknowledge a postseason loss to Georgia? How could anyone get lathered up for a game against a team whose best win is over the since-fired Gus Malzahn?
Second, the majority of college football’s championship claims don’t involve bowls at all. Texas and Ohio State still claim 1970 despite both losing their bowls. Same for 1973 Bama, 1967 Tennessee, 1965 Michigan State, 1964 Bama, 1960 Minnesota, 1953 Maryland, 1951 Tennessee, 1950 Oklahoma, and 1940 Tennessee. That’s how it worked for decades. Bowls were exhibitions, and the AP and Coaches polls didn’t start releasing post-bowl rankings until the ’70s, so teams could either claim a pre-bowl poll title or a post-bowls stats/historians/whatever title.
How fun that must’ve been, to have such options! Based on those precedents, our undefeated underdogs shouldn’t even wait until kickoff. They should hang their banners right now.
But that’s an outdated system, one might say. We don’t do things like that anymore. There’s an official title game now, which gives every team except half the country a path to an undisputed crown (unless 2003 USC disputes it).
Don’t do things like that anymore? Speak for yourselves, power schools. You got to enjoy that system for years, but Coastal Carolina started playing football in 2003, after the getting was no longer good. Shouldn’t every team get to spend a few decades enjoying such luxury?
So let Coastal, SJSU, and Cincinnati keep claiming whichever pre-bowl national titles they want for the next half-century. And then let’s call it even.