Top 25 Rankings 1901-1935
1918 National Championship
College Football Top 25
Pictured above is Pittsburgh Hall of Fame halfback Tom Davies
running wild on Georgia Tech. This was the most anticipated game of the
year, as neither team had lost since 1914, and Georgia Tech had been
posting awe-inspiring scores for 2 years, and in fact they came into
this game 5-0 by an average score of 85-0. But Pittsburgh dominated
32-0, decisively settling a debate that had not been settled in 1917.
The next week, Pitt lost 10-9 to Cleveland Naval Reserves, a
military team composed of former college stars from around the country.
Cleveland NR lost only to Chicago Naval Reserves, another military
all-star team who finished 8-0. Pitt finished 4-1, but as Spalding's
football guide put it at the time, they were "universally conceded to
be the champion team of the country," and if there had been an AP poll
in 1918, Pitt would have easily finished out as the highest ranked
primary contender for the 1918 mythical national championship (MNC) was
5-0 Michigan, and I summarized and compared the 2 teams in detail in my
national championship article.
You'll notice that both teams played short schedules. 1918 is the most
difficult year for rating teams, as the combination of World War I and
the Spanish flu epidemic wiped out much of the college football season.
Some teams just played 1 or 2 games, and some canceled their seasons
entirely. It may therefore be silly to bother rating teams at all for
1918, but I am going to forge ahead anyway.
The top of a hypothetical AP poll for 1918 is pretty easy, though. Pitt would have been #1, and that works fine.
#2: Michigan vs. Navy
Navy probably would have been rated #2 in a 1918 AP poll, 5-0 Michigan
#3. Navy's only loss came 7-6 to 8-0-2 Great Lakes Navy, a military
all-star team, and they rolled up huge scores in their other games
(average score 69-3 in their wins). But I discussed the issue of Navy
in my 1918
national championship article, and the gist of it is this: Navy beat no one of any value, while Michigan beat 5-1 Syracuse (will be rated #4), as well as 3-3 Ohio State (#21).
Michigan #2, Navy #3.
Navy was helmed by Hall of Fame coach Gil Dobie (pictured). He had gone an amazing 58-0-3 at Washington 1908-1916,
and he went 18-3 at Navy 1917-1919, taking one loss each season. After
that, he moved on to Cornell, where he won 3 school-claimed MNCs 1921-1923.
Dobie's secret to success was to schedule as weak a lineup of opponents
as possible, then run up as many points as possible on them. Needless
to say, he was not well-liked by his peers.
Navy fielded 2 consensus All Americans this season, guard Lyman
Perry and halfback Walcott Roberts. Quarterback Bill Ingram made a 2nd
team AA list, and he would win Navy's only MNC as head coach in 1926.
#4: Syracuse vs. Georgia Tech
#4 in a 1918 AP
poll would have been a close race between 5-1 Syracuse and 6-1 Georgia
Tech. My guess is that Tech would have edged Syracuse out, as they were
the defending MNC. However, Syracuse's loss was less embarrassing, and
they defeated a pair of teams that will be rated in this top 25, while
Georgia Tech did not, so we'll go with Syracuse at #4 here.
Syracuse lost 15-0 at Michigan, and they defeated 5-2 Rutgers (will
be rated #10) 21-0 and 5-1 Columbia (#25) 20-0. Georgia Tech lost 32-0
at Pittsburgh, and they beat 5-2 Clemson (#26-32) 28-0. Tech rolled up
more than 100 points twice this season, against Furman and North
Syracuse #4, Georgia Tech #5.
was coached by Hall of Famer Frank "Buck" O'Neill (pictured above at
left). He went 52-19-6 at Syracuse over 3 stints, 1906-1907, 1913-1915,
and 1917-1919. In 1917, Syracuse had gone 8-1-1, and they were also a
top 5 team that season. Syracuse has only fielded top 5 teams twice
since 1918, in 1959 (11-0, #1) and 1987 (11-0-1, #5). Overall, O'Neill
went 81-41-8 at 3 schools.
Like Navy, Syracuse fielded 2
consensus All Americans this season, tackle Lou Usher and guard Joe
Alexander. Usher went on to a 5 year pro career. Alexander, pictured
above at right, repeated as a consensus AA in 1919, then was named a
nonconsensus AA at center in 1920, and he is in the Hall of Fame. He
went on to a 7 year pro career, and was a practicing doctor while he
was playing for the New York Giants.
Quarterback Willard Ackley was a nonconsensus AA this season.
Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota
Next in line we
have 5-2 Illinois, 6-2-1 Iowa, and 5-2-1 Minnesota. Illinois split the
Big 10 title with Michigan, and despite the 5-2 record, they might have
been the best team in the country this year (they would win an MNC the next season).
Both of their losses came to military all-star teams (8-0-2 Great Lakes
Navy and 8-0 Chicago Naval Reserves) by the same 7-0 score. They won
19-0 at 6-2-1 Iowa (will be rated #7), 22-0 at 3-3 Wisconsin (#15), and
13-0 over 3-3 Ohio State (#21).
In addition to Illinois, 6-2-1
Iowa lost to Great Lakes Navy, and they were also tied by another
military team, Camp Dodge. They won 6-0 over 5-2-1 Minnesota (#8) and
23-7 over 2-2-1 Northwestern (#16). 5-2-1 Minnesota took their other
loss to 8-0 Chicago Naval Reserves, and they tied a team of Minnesota
alumni in their opener. Their best win came 6-0 over 3-3 Wisconsin
Illinois #6, Iowa #7, and Minnesota #8.
Princeton and Rutgers
3-0 Princeton is
iffy to include in a ranking, because they only played 3 low-level
military training camp teams. My limit for inclusion in this top 25 was
a minimum of 3 games, which means that teams like 1-0 Army and 2-0 Holy
Cross were not eligible for ranking. But Princeton comes closer to not
playing a real season at all than any other team in this top 25. This
is about where I think an AP poll would have ranked them, on name value
alone. They played no one.
But 5-2 Rutgers didn't beat anyone of
value either, so no harm done in ranking Princeton ahead of them.
Rutgers took their losses to Great Lakes Navy and #4 Syracuse.
Princeton #9, Rutgers #10.
Texas, Washington (Missouri), Oklahoma, and Virginia Tech
Here we have
token spots for a bunch of regional unbeatens, and ranked higher than
usual for token teams thanks to World War I and the Spanish flu. 9-0 Texas won every game
by more than a touchdown until their finale, a 7-0 home win over 6-1
Texas A&M (will be rated #19). Washington (Missouri) won every game
by more than a touchdown, the highlight being a 20-7 win over 2-3-1
Nebraska. Texas gets the nod over them for producing a better "best
6-0 Oklahoma scored 103 points on 3-2 Arkansas, but they
struggled to get by 4-2 Phillips 13-7. Washington (Missouri) gets the
nod over them for not having a close win. 7-0 Virginia Tech also had a
close win, 6-0 over 1-3 VMI, and since Oklahoma's close win came over a
better team, we'll give them the nod over VT.
OK, enough nodding.
Texas #11, Washington (Missouri) #12, Oklahoma #13, and Virginia Tech #14. Texas was coached by Bill Juneau, who had gone 7-0 as coach at Wisconsin in 1912.
He was 19-7 at Texas 1917-1919, and 86-39-12 overall at 6 schools.
Oklahoma was led by Hall of Fame coach Bennie Owen, who had gone 10-0
at Oklahoma in 1915. You can read more about him in the Oklahoma section of that linked article.
(Missouri), located in St. Louis, played in the Missouri Valley
Conference with teams like Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, and Kansas
State. They got a rare win over Nebraska this season, and it is
the only season they ever fielded a top 25 caliber team. The coach was
R. B. Rutherford (pictured above), who went 15-5 here 1917-1919, then
13-14-6 at Oregon State 1920-1923 for a career record of 28-19-6.
star player was back Eber Simpson, who had previously played for
Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and then for Wisconsin. He was the captain,
playcaller, and kicker. The line is pictured below at a practice,
wearing masks to protect themselves from the Spanish flu epidemic.
Tech was known as VPI at this time (Virginia Polytechnic Institute),
and wouldn't be called "Virginia Tech" until the 1970s. VPI had
previously fielded top 25 caliber teams in 1901, 1905, and 1909. But
this season was their last top 25 caliber team until 1968, when they make my fixed and expanded AP poll top 25. They were ranked by the original AP poll in 1954, but I tossed that team out when I fixed it.
coach this season was Charles "Yank" Bernier (pictured), who went
18-6-1 at VPI 1917-1919. They won the South Atlantic Intercollegiate
Athletic Association title this year. Bernier was a Hampden-Sydney
graduate, and he coached there 21 years, going 68-101-17 1912-1916
and 1923-1938. A good place to work, as there obviously wasn't much
pressure to win there.
Wisconsin, Northwestern, Pennsylvania, and Swarthmore
I believe that
5-3 Penn would have been rated next, mostly on name value. They lost to
the Philadelphia Naval Yard, not known as a powerful military training
camp team, they were upset by 4-2 Swarthmore (will be rated #18), and
they were crushed 37-0 by #1 Pitt. They won a rematch against
Swarthmore, but didn't otherwise beat anyone of value. 4-2 Swarthmore likewise
didn't beat anyone of value except Penn, and they lost to the League
Island Marines, another military team that was not known as a football
3-3 Wisconsin and 2-2-1 Northwestern, who would have been
rated not far behind Penn and Swarthmore, ought to be rated higher.
Wisconsin's 3 losses came to Camp Grant (yet another military team that
was not known as a power), #6 Illinois, and #8 Minnesota. They won 14-3
at 3-3 Ohio State (#21) and 7-6 over 4-3 Michigan State. That's 2 major
winning opponents, compared to 1 each for Penn and Swarthmore, and on
that basis I'm going to move Wisconsin ahead of both. Northwestern took
their losses to 8-0 Chicago Naval Reserves and #7 Iowa, and they tied
8-0-2 Great Lakes Navy, a top 5 team power-wise. That tie gave them a
better relevant record than that
of Penn or Swarthmore, and it was a better accomplishment than any Penn
or Swarthmore win, so we'll move Northwestern ahead of both as well.
Northwestern also had a better relevant record than Wisconsin, but the
tie was their only accomplishment, whereas Wisconsin had 2 good wins,
and Northwestern was routed in both of their losses, while Wisconsin
lost by just 6 points at #8 Minnesota. So Wisconsin will get the higher
rating here. Northwestern was coached by Fred Murphy, who had played tackle for a pair of MNC Yale teams, 1907 and 1909. He went 16-16-1 at Northwestern 1914-1918, and he was 40-37-4 at 3 schools for his career.
As for Penn and Swarthmore, since they each defeated the other,
either could be rated higher than the other, and they would probably be best placed in
a tie, but we'll go with the choice a 1918 poll would
have made, Penn ahead of Swarthmore.
Wisconsin #15, Northwestern #16, Penn #17, and Swarthmore #18.
Swarthmore had fielded 5 straight top 25 caliber teams 1903-1907,
and the only other years they fielded top 25 teams after that were in
1912 and this season. The coach this year was Leroy Mercer (pictured), a Hall of
Fame fullback who had been a consensus All American at Penn in 1910 and
1912. He was a surgeon who also coached at Swarthmore 1917-1930, going
63-41-7. He became the dean of Penn's physical education department in
The star player this year was do-it-all tackle Pard Larkin, adept at
blocking, tackling, passing, running, punting, kicking, intercepting
passes, and blocking kicks. He played every minute of every game in
1917 and 1918.
Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and Ohio State
Next we have 6-1
Texas A&M, 4-2 Vanderbilt, and 3-3 Ohio State, and we'll just rank
them in the order of their straight records. AP poll voters have always
placed more importance on straight records than anything else.
6-1 Texas A&M took their loss 7-0 to #11 Texas. They defeated
3-2 Southwestern (Texas) 7-0, which is either their best win or their
worst performance... or both. 4-2 Vanderbilt took their losses to a
pair of military teams, Camp Hancock and Camp Greenleaf. They beat 2-1
Kentucky (#26-32) 33-0. They may have been better than Texas A&M,
but A&M was 4-0 against military teams, so maybe not. 3-3 Ohio
State took their losses to #2 Michigan, #6 Illinois, and #15 Wisconsin.
They beat no one of value.
Texas A&M #19, Vanderbilt #20, and Ohio State #21.
Notre Dame, California, and Colorado Mines
I think the next
teams to be rated in a 1918 AP poll would have been 3-1-2 Notre Dame,
6-2 California, and 4-0 Colorado Mines, in that order. I think that
Notre Dame vs. Cal would have been a very close call, and it's possible
that Cal would have been rated higher, but I also think that Notre Dame
accomplished more, so I'm giving them the edge here.
3-1-2 Notre Dame was all over the place. They were tied by 2-3-1
Nebraska and they lost to 4-3 Michigan State, both unrated (though both
good teams). But the Irish tied 8-0-2 Great Lakes Navy, a top 5 team
power-wise, and they won 26-6 at 3-3 Purdue, who won 14-6 at 4-3
Michigan State. All but one of their games was played on the road.
It's impossible to compare 6-2 Cal to 3-1-2 Notre Dame, as they
played in a region that was unconnected to the rest of the nation this
season. They were crushed by a pair of military teams, and they won 6-0
over 4-2 Oregon.
4-0 Colorado Mines was the champion of the state of Colorado, and
that's all we really know about them, as they only played in-state
teams. But they won all their games in routs, average score 46-5.
Dame #22, California #23, and Colorado Mines #24. Colorado Mines played
in the same conference as Colorado and Colorado State, though they
played neither team this season. This is the only top 25 team Colorado
Mines ever fielded. Their coach was Irving "Stub" Barron, a lawyer who
never coached another year of college football. He had played football
at Iowa 1913-1915, where he had also been the intercollegiate
heavyweight wrestling champion.
#25: Columbia vs. Bucknell vs. Centre
We have 3 candidates for the final slot:
5-1 Columbia, 6-0 Bucknell, and 5-0 Centre. I'm pretty sure that an AP
poll would have gone with Columbia. They had dropped their football
program after the 1905 season, and had only started playing again in
1915, so it is doubtful that they were actually any good. Their loss
came 20-0 to #4 Syracuse, and their 5 wins were all worthless, so it's
impossible to know how good they were. 6-0 Bucknell won every game by
more than a touchdown, average score 39-1, so perhaps they were a top
25 team. However, Bucknell played a schedule that was even less
impressive than Columbia's, definitely equivalent to lower-division
play today, so Columbia can be rated ahead of Bucknell.
Centre is another story. No one knew who they were this year, though
next year they would go 9-0, fielding a top 5 team and more consensus
All Americans than any other team. This year they gave Camp Zachary
Taylor their only loss 10-6, and their other 4 wins came by an average
score of 47-1. Certainly they were more impressive than Columbia, and
there is no doubt in my mind that they were a significantly better
team. But that's just my conjecture. Since we don't know, I'm going to
compromise and place Centre into a tie for #25 with Columbia.
Columbia and Centre share #25.
are the teams closest to making this top 25.
As discussed above, 6-0 Bucknell stormed through the equivalent of a division 2 or 3 schedule by an average score of 39-1. They were coached by Edgar Wingard, who had helmed LSU to 10-0 in 1908.
took both losses and their tie against military teams. They beat no one
of value, and struggled to get by NYU 7-0. #25 Columbia beat NYU 12-0.
4-0-1 Ohio tied 3-0-2 Cincinnati (discussed below), and they beat no one of value.
3-0-2 Cincinnati tied 4-0-1 Ohio (discussed above) and 5-0-1 Miami-Ohio (discussed below), and they beat no one of value.
Miami (Ohio) 5-0-1
5-0-1 Miami (Ohio) tied 3-0-2 Cincinnati (discussed above), and they beat no one of value.
lost 33-0 at #20 Vanderbilt. They won 24-7 at 2-2 Indiana, and they
beat Georgetown-Kentucky 21-3. I only mention that because #25 Centre
beat Georgetown-Kentucky 83-3.
5-2 Clemson lost
28-0 at #5 Georgia Tech and 66-13 to Camp Hancock. They won 39-0 at
2-1-1 South Carolina, 7-0 over 0-2-1 Citadel, and 7-0 at 2-1-1 Davidson.
2) Michigan 5-0
3) Navy 4-1
4) Syracuse 5-1
5) Georgia Tech 6-1
6) Illinois 5-2
7) Iowa 6-2-1
8) Minnesota 5-2-1
9) Princeton 3-0
10) Rutgers 5-2
11) Texas 9-0
12) Washington (Missouri) 6-0
13) Oklahoma 6-0
14) Virginia Tech 7-0
15) Wisconsin 3-3
16) Northwestern 2-2-1
17) Pennsylvania 5-3
18) Swarthmore 4-2
19) Texas A&M 6-1
20) Vanderbilt 4-2
21) Ohio State 3-3
22) Notre Dame 3-1-2
23) California 6-2
24) Colorado Mines 4-0
25) Columbia 5-1
Miami (Ohio) 5-0-1