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From Polls to Playoff, Part 2: The System Breaks
September 3, 2014
Editor’s Note: This is the second part of the “From Polls to Playoff” series by TideFans member and resident historian, selmaborntidefan.
The Part I of this series on the history of the evolution from polls to playoff can be found here.
Beginning in 1936, the Associated Press ranked the nation’s top twenty football teams and awarded a national championship at the end of the regular season. Although bowl games (usually somewhere between five and seven) existed in these early days, the bowls were not taken into account when determining the national champion. There were several reasons the bowls were not included, including maintaining the amateur emphasis of college football, the fact the bowls were exhibitions, and the fact that most schools or conferences attempted to share the wealth by forbidding teams from attending the same bowl game in consecutive years.
The system, with the exception of an internal break-up in 1947, worked without fail. Several teams, including 1950 Oklahoma, 1951 Tennessee, and 1953 Maryland, won national titles with undefeated teams but then lost the bowl games. These games did not matter as they were merely exhibitions played among two highly ranked and popular teams. So second-rate were the bowl games considered by some partisans that Notre Dame refused to be considered for them until 1970.
The newly minted United Press poll (later called the United Press International) even helped along the dilemma of what to do when two teams end the year unbeaten but cannot face one another in a bowl game. In 1954, the UP selected UCLA as national champion while the AP voted for Ohio State. The teams could not play because of the “no repeat” rule that both conferences used to share the wealth. In 1957, Auburn University became the first team to ever win a national championship while on probation when the AP selected them as national champion while the UP opted for eventual Rose Bowl victor Ohio State (though the title was awarded before the bowl game).
Minimal changes occurred, most notably the ranking only of the top ten teams during regular season polls from 1962-1967. These polls were filled out to twenty teams for the final year-end poll. But the system came crashing to an abrupt end after the 1964 season.
ALABAMA OR ARKANSAS?
The Ole Miss Rebels began the 1964 season as the pre-season number one, but hopes were quickly dashed when they lost their second game of the season to eventual 5-5 Kentucky. The Texas Longhorns spent the next three weeks at number one, falling in a narrow loss to the Arkansas Razorbacks, 14-13. Ohio State was up next, and the Buckeyes held the top spot for two weeks until they were blasted, 27-0, by Penn State. Notre Dame now ascended to the top spot and held it until the final regular season poll.
In the next-to-last poll, the first-place votes were handily given the Irish. Number two was the Alabama Crimson Tide, with six votes, Arkansas with four, and one-loss Michigan with one. On Thanksgiving Day, Alabama topped 6-4 Auburn, 21-14, and two days later the Irish fell to 7-3 USC, 20-17. These results put both the AP and (now) UPI national championships in Crimson hands. (The UPI represented a select number of coaches).
It was the second national title in four years for the Tide and their coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. It was also the SEC’s fifth national title in eight years, an unprecedented run for any conference at the time. There was just a little exhibition bowl game with Texas that would be the first-ever night game in the Orange Bowl’s history.
New Year’s Day 1965 was the first time that fans could watch four bowl games consecutively on television, starting in the morning and ending with the Orange Bowl that evening. One television critic with The New York Times warned that the game was facing extinction via such over-exposure. It was also the day segregation ended at the Sugar Bowl when Syracuse, a team with eight black players, squared off against LSU. It was an eventful day that turned into a public relations bonanza for college football.
Early in the morning, Arkansas beat Nebraska, 10-7, to complete an unblemished regular season. LSU disposed of Syracuse, 13-10, in the Sugar Bowl, while Michigan blasted Oregon State, 34-7, in the Rose Bowl. Fans nationwide tuned in to catch the first night-time Orange Bowl between Alabama and Texas. What they got was an all-time classic.
Texas roared out to a quick 14-0 lead with the Tide’s star quarterback Joe Namath nursing a bad knee on the bench. Namath came off the bench and rallied Alabama. Namath got the Tide down by the goal line and, depending on whom you believe, he either scored or he didn’t.
To this day it does not matter if he did because the officials ruled he did not, and Texas escaped with a 21-17 victory in the best game played all year, a game viewed in prime time by over 40 million Americans, about 1/3 of the nation. Unfortunately for Alabama, the controversy didn’t end with the final play.
A number of outlets began complaining that the wrong team had won the national championship. The argument basically went like this: Alabama was given the championship before the bowl games, Alabama lost to Texas, and Arkansas beat Texas, therefore, Arkansas should be the national champions. The fact that this argument went against the entire history of college football seemingly made no difference. Never mentioned in this argument was the simple fact that Arkansas had not beaten Alabama, either.
National titles had been awarded for twenty-nine years the precise same way, and Alabama was not the first (or even the second or third) team to win the national title and then lose their bowl game. It was, however, the first time a national outcry of injustice was registered against the national champion.
One must credit the Associated Press for not deciding to take a second poll to determine the “real” champion as they had done in 1947. (Arkansas did, however, win the FWA national championship, an event so thrilling for the Hawgs fans that Governor Orval Faubus declared a state holiday of celebration on February 5, 1965).
Why was 1964 different than, say, 1951? The real reasons are multiple and determined by the context of the time.
If a poll had been taken of which state in America was the most hated by outsiders, Alabama not only would have won such a contest hands down in 1964, it would have finished third, fourth, and fifth, with only twin state Mississippi anywhere close to contention.
Because of the sociological events that included the integration of the school after Governor George Wallace’s infamous “stand in the doorway” in 1963, coupled with other events such as the Birmingham church bombing and Bull Connor setting loose the fire hoses on protestors, people outside of the state who had never been to Alabama instinctively hated it. Alabama, quite simply, was not popular nationwide.
But a number of other issues made this particular poll different than previous national championship teams that lost the bowl game:
1) it was a time of seeking public justice and rooting out injustice in many quarters in America, and this perceived injustice did not set well with the minds attempting to make wrong things “right;”
2) the 1963 Army-Navy game, played only two weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (himself a Naval Academy graduate), was the seminal moment in college football, the collegiate version of the 1958 NFL Championship overtime game;
3) the expansion of television nationwide gave fans greater access to watching more teams albeit on a somewhat limited basis; and
4) the prime time telecast viewed by 40 million people brought the issue to their attention in a way no previous champion had experienced. To put it simply, the context of 1964 was completely different than the context of 1950, when Oklahoma lost to Coach Bryant’s Kentucky team.
The 1963 Army-Navy game had shown what a jewel of beauty college football could truly be. It helped start the nation’s healing and recovery from the assassination and displayed both amateurism and academic achievement in the same men.
More people were already paying attention in 1964 than had ever paid attention to college football before. This feeling of injustice would have been expressed against any team in this context. It is doubtful, however, if the same level of venom would have been achieved if, say, USC had won the title and then lost the Rose Bowl rather than Alabama.
As noted earlier, the AP did not take away Alabama’s national championship nor hold a revote. What it did do, however, was very important: starting in 1965 (on an experimental basis), the AP would not issue their national championship until after the bowl games had been played.
If the invention of the UPI poll had been the first step towards a championship game, the AP’s actions in the wake of the 1964 final poll are the second. And less than one year later, they would be among the most ironic.
The pre-season top ten poll for the Associated Press began thusly:
3) Notre Dame
10) Ohio State
One might be inclined to ask why Nebraska, who had just lost the Cotton Bowl to Arkansas, was ranked five spots ahead of the Razorbacks given the season-ending controversy.
Nebraska opened with a thumping of TCU, 34-14. This apparently did not impress the AP voters, who dropped the Cornhuskers to number two and elevated Notre Dame to the top spot thanks to their thumping of a mediocre California team. (It should be noted that Nebraska was not yet a national brand name in 1965).
So impressed were the Irish with their newfound ranking that they immediately lost to Purdue, 25-21, and Texas rose to the top spot. After three weeks on top, the Longhorns again lost to Arkansas, who now rose to the top place in the AP poll.
To give the reader an idea about how volatile polls were at the time, Arkansas and Nebraska both would end the regular season undefeated and yet neither would be ranked number one for the rest of the year. (Yes, you read that correctly – Nebraska began the year as the pre-season number one, went undefeated, but dropped out of the top spot without losing a game).
Michigan State ascended to the top of the polls by virtue of their beating Purdue, 14-10. (You might be noticing how the top spot is controlled by who beats the teams that have beaten Notre Dame – if the Irish themselves are not there). The Spartans won out and completed a 10-0 regular season with a 12-3 win over Notre Dame in South Bend.
Had this been any of the previous twenty-nine years, Michigan State would have walked off the field as consensus national champions (and they did clinch the UPI title, which continued to award their championship prior to the bowl games). But because of the explosive outcry over the 1964 final poll, the Spartans would have to wait and prove their worthiness in the Rose Bowl. To make the situation even stranger, the Spartans would meet the UCLA Bruins in a rematch of the season opener for both teams.
This created a problem that the post-bowl polls were presumably going to fix: what if UCLA upset Michigan State? As it turned out, that is exactly what happened. After losing the opener in East Lansing, 13-3, the Bruins beat the Spartans, 14-12, on their home field in Pasadena. As if that were not strange enough, Arkansas, in position to benefit from the new post-bowl polls, lost a shocking upset to LSU, 14-7, in the Cotton Bowl.
This made the Alabama-Nebraska prime time Orange Bowl a “winner takes all” national championship contest as the teams were ranked third (Nebraska) and fourth entering the game. Steve Sloan gunned down the Cornhuskers with an excellent passing performance, and the Tide prevailed, 39-28.
The shocking turn of events of January 1, 1966, ended with the most improbable result, a second consecutive national championship for the Alabama Crimson Tide.
In one of the strangest twists of irony in college football history – and there have been many – Alabama won the 1965 title only because of anger over how they won the 1964 title. Had the AP left well enough alone, Michigan State would have won the AP title (or perhaps, in a sympathy vote to make up for 1964, Arkansas would have won). What happened instead was the implosion of the top three ranked teams on New Year’s Day and the ascendancy of number four to the national title.
Lost in this argument is the inconsistency of the AP poll. If it can be said that Alabama was “unjustly” awarded the 1964 title (more on this in a moment), how can it be said that Nebraska or Arkansas was treated justly in the 1965 regular season?
Had the pre-1965 rules applied, Arkansas, Michigan State, and Nebraska would have ended the year in a deep controversy over who was the “real” number one. In their efforts to get what was deemed a more “just” outcome, the powers that be got burned badly. Amazingly enough, this scenario would repeat itself throughout the next half century.
ADDENDUM: A DEFENSE OF ALABAMA’S 1964 NATIONAL TITLE
It doesn’t take much research on the Internet to realize that Alabama’s 1964 national title (among others) is often considered “tainted” or “undeserved” in the minds of many modern writers.
Articles are written decrying the “unfair” title that Alabama claims, usually concluding with the claim that Arkansas is the “real” national champion for 1964 by virtue of their win (and Alabama’s loss) against Texas. Lost in this argument is the inconsistency of the polemicists against Alabama’s championship.
When teams took the field for the 1964 season, they used a system to determine the champion that had been in use for nearly three decades. Regardless of the feelings of teams that felt “robbed,” the system had been accepted for a long time.
Nobody seriously argues that Oklahoma (1950), Tennessee (1951) or Maryland (1953) should give their titles away because they lost bowl games. Why? Because that is not how champions were determined at the time. Keep in mind that Alabama themselves were completely at the mercy of the polls and Notre Dame. If the Irish had simply taken care of business against USC, the Tide would have been on the outside looking in even had they beaten Texas.
Does anyone seriously believe that the same fans attacking Alabama’s 1964 title would suddenly declare the Tide should win it over the unbeaten Irish, who refused to attend bowl games? Of course not. But the argument is much worse than that.
Appeals are often made to “if this scenario occurred today.” Such appeals are meaningless on numerous levels. It is impossible for this scenario to occur today involving Alabama and Arkansas. Not only would one team beat the other one head to head in SEC play (with no ties) but any rematch for the championship would be settled on the field rather than by a poll vote.
Furthermore, it is entirely possible that instant replay would fully establish the correct call at the end of the Orange Bowl. But such appeals are erroneous based upon other criteria as well.
First of all, how exactly does focusing upon the result against Texas validate or invalidate either team’s claim to the title? Yes, Arkansas beat Texas who beat Alabama, but since when does the transitive property apply to college football? Arkansas themselves did not beat Alabama, so why treat it as though they did?
Secondly, how should a team’s strength of schedule play into such discussions? Alabama’s schedule was so much more difficult than Arkansas’ as to be obscene. The Tide played (and beat) a six-win team, three seven-win teams, and an eight-win team while playing four teams with losing records; Arkansas beat a ten-win team (Texas) and a six-win team and six teams with losing records in a weaker conference. Yes, Arkansas did beat nine-win Tulsa, but let’s not consider wins attained in the Missouri Valley Conference to be of great significance.
Such would be like touting the great record of the 11-3 Georgia Southern team that lost to Alabama in 2011. And finally, it should be remembered that the poll voters of 1964 were actually alive at the time and covering college football.
In their view at the time the regular season ended (which was all that mattered), Alabama was better than Arkansas. Whether or not the Tide really was is irrelevant.
Alabama was awarded the 1964 national title in both polls and barring a future committee overturning that result (which will never happen), that is how it will always be.
Next time: Poll Controversies Become The Norm
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