The CFB National Champion That Lost Their Last Game

Football on a tee

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In the next two years, we will debate which 9-3 team belongs in a newly expanded college football playoff. We will compare strength of schedules and argue over who passes the eye test and wonder if the field is too big and watered down. Those are conversations that will fill the airwaves and message boards and it will be beautiful in so many ways.

But by 2025, we will wonder what took us so long to get to a larger field playing for the national championship. We will talk about the creation of these Super Saturdays of playoff games and realize home campuses are awesome for the opening round.

We will also look back and wonder why anyone thought picking two teams and using a model featuring media voting and computer polls ever made sense.

Sports, like life, evolves. Change is inevitable and we eventually find a way to adjust. We will play college football. We already have an understanding that players are now getting paid and schools are the ones paying them-although we tell you it runs through collectives.

But there was a time where the college game and we determined a national champ was much different. Heck, the Big Ten didn't like the commercialization of the sport, so it only allowed one team to play in a game after each season. They didn't change that rule until...1975! The league didn't allow a team to repeat a trip the Rose Bowl and likely cost teams and the conference at least a half dozen national titles because of that rule.

But let's go back to the 1959 season in college football. The AP Poll, along with the UPI Poll, crowned a national champion by a vote. The AP Poll consisted of 201 voters. Syracuse was the only undefeated team in the country at 10-0. But they weren't a unanimous choice. They received 134 first-place votes. In total, seven teams received first place votes. Wisconsin went 7-2 and received five first-place votes and Alabama went 7-1-2 and also got five first-place votes.

That Syracuse team went on to finish 11-0 by beating Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Wait, what? I said they were the national champs at 10-0 but finished the season at 11-0. That's right. Back then the final poll was done after the regular season. There was no poll after the bowls. Yes, there were teams voted number and recognized as national champs who then lost a bowl game but they were still national champs.

That's what brings us to the 1960 season in college football. Oklahoma State joined seven other members of the Missouri Valley Independent Athletic Association and the media and schools created an "unofficial name" called the Big Eight- that stuck. The AP changed its numbers from 201 to 48 and Syracuse started out as the preseason number one team. Back then, there was not a new poll until after the third week of the season then every Monday for the remainder of the year. After sitting at number one, Syracuse won their third game and dropped from the top spot to fourth.

An unbeaten Minnesota team reached the top spot with a 7-0 record. They lost the following week to unranked Purdue and dropped to fourth. Two weeks later a 7-1 Golden Gopher team won at Wisconsin, 26-7. While number one Missouri lost their game, second ranked Iowa and third ranked Ole Miss, yet Minnesota vaulted back to the spot heading into the final week of the regular season.

That week Minnesota, Iowa and Ole Miss all won their games. Earlier in the year, Minnesota, then ranked third, beat top ranked Iowa at home 27-10. Ole Miss finished the regular season at 9-0-1, tieing LSU earlier in the season, 6-6. The Rebels' defense allowed just 60 points in their ten regular season games.

Back then, AP voters could split their vote. Someone could give half-a-vote to two teams. When the final regular season AP Poll came out, Minnesota earned 17.5 first-place votes and Ole Miss got 16. Iowa received 12.5 votes. Minnesota was recognized as the AP and UPI national champions. Both polls came out before any bowl games were played.

On January 2, 1961 Minnesota lost to number six Washington in the Rose Bowl 17-7. Second ranked Ole Miss beat unranked Rice in the Sugar Bowl 14-6. What did number three Iowa do in their bowl game? They didn't play in a bowl game because of that Big Ten rule allowing only one team to play in a bowl. Number five Missouri beat fourth ranked Navy 21-14 in the Orange Bowl.

Despite the Minnesota loss and Ole Miss win, the AP and UPI didn't vote in another poll. They recognized Minnesota as champs after the regular season. Had there been a poll after the bowls- Ole Miss and Missouri would have had an argument about being national champions.

Recognizing how odd it looked with Minnesota suffering a second loss, the Football Writers Association of American voted Ole Miss national champions.

The Helms Athletic Foundation recognized Washington as national champs. Who was the Helms Athletic Foundation you ask?

First, there was no foundation. Bill Schroeder and Paul Helms ran Helms Bakery in southern California and they put out all-American teams and selected a national champ in football and basketball.

The NCAA recognizes Minnesota and Missouri as schools that won national titles in 1960.

Can you imagine if we still had a system like this today? Part of me wishes we did. 

We've come a long way since 1960 and soon we will have 12 teams competing in a postseason tournament that might be worth north of $600M per year. But don't worry, we still will be using votes to determine who gets in, thanks to the playoff committee. So the more things change, the more they kind of stay the same.

Final note: The first World Cup was played in 1930 in Uruguay. There were 13 teams. The US lost to Argentina in the semifinals. Uruguay beat Argentina in the final, 4-2.

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