ND vs. Bama 2013 and 1973 and why SEC’s football championships count is a joke

Page 282 of BETTER OFF WITHOUT ’EM includes a brief explanation of the methodology I used in figuring college football consensus national champions dating from 1950. That page also includes a brief but important—to me, anyway—recollection of the 1973 Sugar Bowl between Notre Dame and Alabama.

Because it’s relegated to smaller type and a back-of-book Notes position, I have a feeling very few people actually read the thing.

But as it’s central to my overall argument about the bogus nature of college football polls, of sentimental value to me and relevant to this coming Monday’s national championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama, I’m posting it here.

For a longer treatment of that epic 1973 game, by the way, check out this terrific New York Times piece that ran in December.

Note #9 from Chapter 4 (Football: Louisiana State, ESPN, BCS, and the gridiron Delusion of the SEC) of BETTER OFF WITHOUT ’EM:

Since the very first national college football championship was “split” between teams from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) and Queen’s College (now Rutgers) of 1869, choosing a titleholder has been a maddening process producing a number of dubious results. According to page 72 of the NCAA record book cited below, during the last 142 years more than 30 different bodies have been involved in selecting national champions. Often they have disagreed.

I used 1950 as the starting point for my national title calculations for three reasons. First, 1950 is the year the NCAA record book begins its listing of “Consensus National Champions,” so there is that governing body’s stamp of approval, debatable though it may be.

Second, 1950 is the year that the first coaches poll was published; originally the UPI poll, the coaches poll has more recently been passed between ESPN and USA Today and become an important part of the clumsy apparatus used to decide national champions.

Third, many of the older national championships, particularly those from the 1800s, were granted retroactively according to formulas that gained prominence in the 1920s and ’30s.

Even with the NCAA endorsement, figuring “consensus” champions is a challenge. For example, the NCAA’s record book lists Tennessee as the 1951 consensus champion. What the record book fails to note, however, is that this title was granted before the number-one-ranked Volunteers’ final game against number-three-ranked Maryland in the Sugar Bowl played on January 1, 1952. Maryland won that game 28-13 to finish its season 10-0. That the Vols finished their 10-1 season with a loss to #3 Maryland yet somehow managed to retain their “consensus” championship is merely evidence that rigging titles in favor of the SEC is a longstanding tradition.

Alabama has also benefited from obvious fraudulence.

In the 1973 season-ending Sugar Bowl, for just one example—I’ll provide another shortly, simply because I can’t resist pointing out all of this unadulterated rah-rah SEC bullshit—the undefeated and number-one-ranked Crimson Tide squared off against the undefeated and number-three-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish in a game that the entire country understood would decide the national championship. Well, almost the entire the country. Rather than wait for the outcome of the game, the UPI went ahead and crowned Alabama national champions, even before the two teams met. (As well as having a tie blemish its 10-0-1 record, #2 Oklahoma was on probation for having ineligible players on its roster and not allowed to participate in bowl games.)

Notre Dame ended up beating Alabama 24-23. The AP, Football Writers Association of America, National Football Foundation, and pretty much every fan in the country recognized the Irish as the 1973 champions. The UPI, however, did not change its decision, keeping Alabama as its champion. That “championship” is one those alleged thirteen football titles hilariously referenced by Alabama fans on T-shirts and websites such as Roll Bama Roll.

I believe that 1973 Sugar Bowl, by the way, was the high point of my Notre Dame graduate father’s sporting career. The game was also either the first or one of the first live sporting events ever televised in Juneau, Alaska, and the memory of Dad’s smile in our living room after the game remains to me almost as satisfying as it was to him.

Incidentally, of the thirteen Alabama titles claimed on those ubiquitous (in Tuscaloosa) T-shirts and that Roll Bama Roll website, only three are recognized as “consensus” titles (1979, 1992, 2009) by any non-biased organization or publication. Much of that Bama titles list is padded with “national championships” “earned” by teams like the 1941 Crimson Tide. Alabama went 9-2 that year yet somehow managed to win a title endorsement from some outfit called the Houlgate Poll.

Meanwhile, ten other bodies, including the AP, Sagarin, and the National Championship Foundation, named the 8-0 and number-one-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers as national champs. Alabama wasn’t even the SEC champ in 1941. Mississippi State was. Anyone questioning my application of the C. Vann Woodward quote at the start of this chapter about southerners clinging to illusions, fantasies, and pretensions might do well to review the almost-comical psychosis of fans who proclaim themselves champions in light of such obvious contradictory evidence.

There are, of course, a number of ways to play with numbers and statistics, but I believe my tabulations are fair to the SEC. I wrote that counting national titles from 1950 statistically favors the South and the SEC and indeed it does.

Were one to count all consensus national titles from the inception of college football in 1869 to the beginning of the BCS era in 1998, the championship winning percentage of southern teams would be just 9.375 percent, as opposed to the 20.83 percent I cited in the chapter. While starting the historical count from the very beginning of college football history seems logical, it also struck me as an unfair way of calculating the success of southern football programs, given that Alabama didn’t even field a team until 1892 and the SEC wasn’t officially created until 1932.

Point being, that while I acknowledge there are ways to cook most of these numbers—Should one count that 1973 Alabama UPI “title” as legit? I did not, even though 1973 Bama quarterback Gary Rutledge recently told the New York Times that he still wears “my 1973 national championship ring”—I remained diligent and fair-minded while making my calculations.

In this effort I received invaluable help and guidance from researcher Patrick Clark.

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