Top 25 Rankings 1901-1935
1921 National Championship
College Football Top 25
national champion California's 18 game winning streak
came to an end on the rain-swamped field of the Rose Bowl, as they were
surprised and outplayed by Washington & Jefferson (with the ball in
picture above) in a 0-0 tie. That outcome leaves the 1921 mythical
national championship (MNC) rather murky. At the close of the regular
season, a 1921 AP poll would have had 9-0 California or 10-0 Centre at
the top. However, on the same day that Cal took their upset tie in the
Rose Bowl, Centre was shocked 22-14 in Dallas by 6-1-2 Texas A&M, who will
not even make this top 25.
A post-bowl AP poll for the 1921 season would have had 7-0 Iowa or 8-0 Cornell at the top.
other contenders for the 1921 MNC were 9-0-1 California, 10-0-1
Washington & Jefferson, and 9-0 Lafayette. I summarized each of
teams and compared them in detail in my 1921
national championship article.
As I concluded there, I think that Iowa should have been ranked #1
thanks to one huge win over 10-1 Notre Dame. Cornell will therefore
have to settle for #2.
Iowa #1, Cornell #2.
California vs. Washington & Jefferson
& Jefferson outplayed Cal in their Rose Bowl tie, and they played a
tougher schedule as well, so I would rank W&J higher. An AP poll,
however, would have gone with Cal, and that will work because Cal did
outperform W&J across the season as a whole. No one else came close
to Cal, while W&J posted 3 close wins, the worst of them a 14-7 win
at 4-4 Lehigh (would not merit a spot in a top 40).
California #3, Washington & Jefferson #4.
Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Lafayette
10-1 Notre Dame
lost 10-7 at #1 Iowa, and no one else came close to them except for 7-1
Nebraska, whom they beat 7-0 at home. No one else came close to
Nebraska, whose big win came 10-0 at 5-3-1 Pittsburgh (will be ranked
#9). 9-0 Lafayette won just 6-0 at Pitt, the only top 25 team they
played. On the basis of Nebraska's better performance at Pitt, they
should be ranked ahead of Lafayette, as there was no other relevant
difference between the teams. Notre Dame and Nebraska likely would have
been rated higher than Lafayette in a 1921 AP poll anyway, largely
because Lafayette was mostly playing a lower-division type schedule by
this time. They played 2 major teams and 2 mid-majors (who both had
losing records), while Notre Dame played 5 majors and 3 mid-majors, and Nebraska played 6 majors.
Notre Dame #5, Nebraska #6, and Lafayette #7.
#8: Penn State vs. Pittsburgh
8-0-2 Penn State
had not lost a game since 1919. They tied 5-3-1 Pittsburgh, and they
obviously had a better straight record than Pitt did, and they would have been
easily ranked higher, but Pitt actually had the better relevant record.
That's because Pitt's 3 losses came to #4 Washington & Jefferson,
#6 Nebraska, and #7 Lafayette, all ranked higher than Penn State, and
so those losses are irrelevant when comparing Pitt to PSU. Penn State,
meanwhile, took their 2nd tie to #12 Harvard, a lower-ranked team, and
that tie leaves them effectively half a game behind Pitt for the season.
Pitt did not actually beat a team that was ranked as highly as Harvard.
Their best win came over 7-2 Syracuse, who will be ranked #20. Penn
State gave 2 teams their only loss, 6-1 Navy (will be #10) and 8-1
Georgia Tech (#19), and on that basis, I think Penn State can be ranked
higher than Pitt. Penn State also performed better (Pitt had a close
win over a weak opponent, and PSU did not), and their tie with Pitt
occurred on Pitt's home field.
Penn State #8, Pittsburgh #9.
Rounding out the
top 10, we have 6-1 Navy. Their loss came to #8 Penn State, and they
secure this spot because they did not take an upset loss, while 10-1
Centre was upset by unranked Texas A&M on January 2nd. Navy's big
win came 13-0 over 4-3 Princeton (will be ranked #18).
Centre, Harvard, and Yale
10-1 Centre won
6-0 at 7-2-1 Harvard, long considered the biggest upset in college
football history. Obviously, however, it was not actually much of an
upset at all, given that these teams would have been ranked pretty
similarly by just about anyone this season. Centre over Harvard wasn't
even the biggest upset of this season, though Centre was still
involved. The real upset was Texas A&M giving Centre their only
loss 22-14 in Dallas on January 2nd, because Texas A&M was not even
a top 30 team this year, and they probably weren't even top 40, whereas
Centre played like a top 10 team in all of their games but that one. As
an example, Centre beat 7-2 Arizona 38-0 in San Diego, while Texas
A&M only beat Arizona 17-13 at home.
Harvard defeated 8-1 Yale 10-3 at home in their finale, and they
tied #8 Penn State, but they took an upset loss 10-3 at 4-3 Princeton
(will be ranked #18), a team Yale beat 13-7 at home.
I'm not at all sure how a post-bowl AP poll would have rated these
3 teams relative to each other, and they are very difficult to rate. It
depends on where you put Centre. If Centre is rated ahead of Yale, then
Centre > Harvard > Yale. Otherwise, Yale > Harvard >
Centre. Since I think the former chain is closer to what an AP poll
would have come up with, and since it matches the head-to-head chain of
their games against each other, that is what I am going with here.
Centre #11, Harvard #12, and Yale #13.
Chicago, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State
Here is another
difficult group of teams to rate. 5-2 Ohio State had a worse straight
record than 6-1 Chicago, 5-1-1 Wisconsin, and 5-1-1 Michigan, but they
were certainly the 2nd-most highly esteemed Big Ten team behind 7-0
Iowa this season, and they might have ended up rated higher than
Chicago, Wisconsin, and Michigan. And they won 14-0 at Michigan and 7-0
at Chicago in back-to-back games. The problem is, they took 2 upset
losses, 7-6 to 7-0-1 Oberlin early in the season, and 7-0 to 3-4
Illinois in their season finale, both games at home. The timing of the
2nd upset loss is particularly damaging.
Now, if 7-0-1 Oberlin were to be rated higher than Chicago,
Wisconsin, and Michigan, then Ohio State could and should be rated
higher than all of those teams as well. That would be logically viable,
and it's how I would be inclined to rate these teams. However, I am
certain that a 1921 AP poll would not have rated Oberlin so highly, and
in fact I think that Oberlin would barely make a top 25 for the season.
And that is logically viable too. Oberlin played a lower-division type
schedule, and they were tied by 6-2-2 Case (another minor team).
With 2 upset losses, Ohio State had a worse relevant record than
that of Chicago, Wisconsin, and Michigan, even with the head-to-head
wins, and the timing of their upset loss to Illinois seals their fate.
They're going to come in behind the other 3 teams. 6-1 Chicago defeated
5-1-1 Wisconsin 3-0 at home in their finale, and Wisconsin tied 5-1-1
Michigan at home the game before that. Since Michigan lost to a
lower-rated team (Ohio State), they'll come in behind Wisconsin.
Wisconsin also beat Illinois 20-0, and Michigan beat them just 3-0, so
Wisconsin had that performance edge on Michigan.
Chicago #14, Wisconsin #15, Michigan #16, and Ohio State #17.
#18: Princeton vs. Georgia Tech vs. Syracuse
I'm not sure
where Princeton would have been ranked. They were rather highly
esteemed, but they also sported an unhandsome 4-3 straight record.
However, their 3 losses came to #10 Navy, #13 Yale, and #14 Chicago,
and they defeated #12 Harvard, so they had a better relevant record
than did 8-1 Georgia Tech and 7-2 Syracuse. In fact, they had a better
relevant record than did several teams ranked in front of them, and
Princeton could be viably ranked as high as #14, behind Yale. On the
other hand, their win over #12 Harvard was their only win of any value,
so I think they can be ranked this low as well.
8-1 Georgia Tech was very impressive in every game except one, but
that one game put them up against the only top 25 team they played this
season, and they got spanked hard by #8 Penn State 28-7 in New York
City. Princeton beat Harvard, who tied Penn State. Georgia Tech did
beat 8-1 Georgetown 21-7, but Georgetown played a lower-division type
schedule, beat no one of value, and they would not have quite made a
top 25 for this season.
7-2 Syracuse was embarrassed 35-0 at #9
Pittsburgh, but they gave #4 Washington & Jefferson a good game in
a 17-10 loss. They also defeated 6-2-1 Dartmouth (will be ranked #21)
14-7 in New York City in their finale, and I would be inclined to rate
Syracuse ahead of Georgia Tech based on that win. But an AP poll would
have rated GT higher, and Tech beat more winning teams, so I can go
along with that.
Princeton #18, Georgia Tech #19, and Syracuse #20.
Dartmouth, Vanderbilt, and GeorgiaVanderbilt
held very little national attention this season despite being a "name"
team at the time and posting a terrific 7-0-1 record. It's hard to say
where they would have been rated. They had the same relevant record as
6-2-1 Dartmouth, as both teams took a tie to a lower-ranked team,
Vanderbilt with 7-2-1 Georgia at home and Dartmouth with 4-3-2 Penn in
New York City. Dartmouth's losses came to #2 Cornell and #20 Syracuse
(also in New York City, and the week after their tie with Penn). The
big difference here is that Dartmouth went down to Georgia and beat
them 7-0 in their season finale, a week after Vanderbilt tied Georgia
at home. So I'm ranking Dartmouth higher.
7-2-1 Georgia comes in
behind Vanderbilt due to Vandy's better straight record. In addition to
Dartmouth, Georgia lost at #12 Harvard 10-7.
Dartmouth #21, Vanderbilt #22, and Georgia #23.
Oberlin, Detroit, Southern Cal, Georgetown, and IllinoisI
think a 1921 AP poll would have ranked 7-0-1 Oberlin and 8-1 Detroit
next. Oberlin got a huge 7-6 win at #17 Ohio State, but they were tied
by 6-2-2 Case. Detroit's only loss came 14-2 to #4 Washington &
Jefferson, but they didn't beat anyone of value, and they struggled to
get by 4-6 Tulane 14-10 at home. 8-1 Georgetown lost 21-7 at #19
Georgia Tech, also didn't beat anyone of value, and they had 2 close
wins over weak opponents. One of those was a 14-10 edging of Boston
College, whom Detroit beat 28-0. 10-1 Southern Cal lost 38-7 at #3
California. Like Detroit and Georgetown, they didn't beat anyone of
value, and like Detroit they had one close win over a weak opponent.
It's important to keep in mind that at this time, Southern Cal was an
unknown, with less "name" value for national writers than Georgetown,
or even Detroit. Next year they would go to the Rose Bowl and make a
name for themselves with a big win over Penn State.
ignored 3-4 Illinois, as I try not to rate teams with losing records
unless they post more than one big win, and Illinois' only big win came
7-0 at #17 Ohio State in their finale. Their other wins came over South
Dakota and DePauw, useless. However, Oberlin also had just one big win,
7-6 at Ohio State, and unlike Illinois, Oberlin was upset by an unrated
team. Illinois' 4 losses came to #1 Iowa, #14 Chicago, #15 Wisconsin,
and #16 Michigan. So I just can't see a good reason for
Oberlin to be ranked ahead of Illinois. And Detroit, Georgetown, and
USC didn't win any big games at all.
Illinois #24, Oberlin #25.
was coached by Thomas Nelson Metcalf, who played here 1909-1911. He
went 25-4-2 at Oberlin in 1913 and 1919-1921, and with 3 years at
Columbia he was 33-13-4 overall. He became the athletic director at
Iowa State 1924-1933 and at Chicago 1933-1956, where he replaced the
legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg. He oversaw the ending of Chicago's
football program following the 1939 season.
This was Oberlin's
first unbeaten season since 1892. Oberlin's victory at Ohio State in
1921 is the last time any Ohio team has beaten the Buckeyes.
are the teams closest to making this top 25.
covered above, 8-1 Detroit lost to #4 Washington & Jefferson, and they didn't beat anyone of value.
Detroit, full name University of Detroit Mercy, was
coached by Colgate grad James F. Duffy (pictured above). He went
43-12-1 here in 1917, 1919-1922, and 1924, and his .777 winning
percentage is the best in Detroit Titans football coaching history.
above, 8-1 Georgetown lost to #19 Georgia Tech, and they didn't beat anyone of value.
Southern Cal 10-1
Yet another team covered above, 10-1 Southern Cal was trounced at #3
Cal, and they didn't beat anyone of value. Southern Cal was just
emerging as a football power. The head coach was "Gloomy" Gus
Henderson (pictured above), an Oberlin grad who went 45-7 here 1919-1924. That's a winning percentage of
.865, the best in USC history, but it wasn't good enough because he
couldn't beat Cal, and he was fired. Of course, no one beat Cal 1920-1924 (literally:
they were 44-0-4 those 5 seasons). Still, USC benefited from the
change, as they hired Howard Jones, the coach of this year's #1 team,
7-0 Iowa, and he brought USC the kind of success they've been expecting
national championships. Henderson moved on to Tulsa, where he went
70-25-5 and won 5 conference titles. He still holds the record for most
wins at Tulsa. Overall, he was 126-42-7 for his career.
Southern Cal was an unknown at this time, but the next year, though
they were trounced by Cal and finished 10-1 again, they beat #21 Penn
State in the Rose Bowl, thus establishing themselves for the first time
as a nationally competitive team. Maybe they could have done the same
thing this season if given the chance, but we'll never know.
6-1-1 Texas lost
20-0 to #22 Vanderbilt in Dallas, and they were tied by unranked 6-1-2
Texas A&M in their finale. They won their other 6 games by an
average score of 45-1, though they didn't beat anyone of value. They
probably don't belong on this list, but someone needs to represent the
4-3-2 Penn tied
#21 Dartmouth (6-2-1) in New York City, which would have gotten them
into the top 25, were it not for the fact that they were also tied by
unranked 4-2-2 Swarthmore at home. Their losses came to #2 Cornell, #7
Lafayette, and #9 Pittsburgh, all in routs (average score in those
games 36-2). The tie with Dartmouth is all they accomplished, as they
beat no one of value, and struggled to get past Gettysburg 7-0 at home
the week before Swarthmore tied them.
Miami (Ohio) 8-0
8-0 Miami (Ohio) not only posted a perfect record, they also beat every
opponent by more than a touchdown. However, they were playing a
lower-division type schedule, so we have no idea how good they were. 6
of their 8 opponents from 1921 are not in the FBS division today.
Miami's head coach was Hall of Famer George Little. He went 27-3-2
here in 1916 and 1919-1922, and he won 2 conference titles. He also
coached Michigan to 6-2 in 1924 and Wisconsin to 11-3-2 over the
following 2 seasons. Overall he went 54-16-4 over 9 seasons at 4
schools, and if you're wondering how that short career got him into the
Hall of Fame, well he later became the executive secretary of the Hall
of Fame, so there you go.
New Hampshire 8-1-1
8-1-1 New Hampshire lost 24-0 at #21 Dartmouth (6-2-1), and they
tied at 4-5-2 Springfield, an egregiously bad result, but they make
this list because they won 10-7 at 6-4 Army. If not for that game, Army
would certainly be top 25. Instead, they don't even make this list.
New Hampshire's coach was Butch Cowell, a Kansas grad who went
87-69-24 here 1915-1917 and 1919-1936, winning 2 conference titles. The
stadium is named for him. This season is the closest the school has
ever gotten to top 25 worthiness.
1) Iowa 7-0
2) Cornell 8-0
3) California 9-0-1
4) Washington & Jefferson 10-0-1
5) Notre Dame 10-1
6) Nebraska 7-1
7) Lafayette 9-0
8) Penn State 8-0-2
9) Pittsburgh 5-3-1
10) Navy 6-1
11) Centre 10-1
12) Harvard 7-2-1
13) Yale 8-1
14) Chicago 6-1
15) Wisconsin 5-1-1
16) Michigan 5-1-1
17) Ohio State 5-2
18) Princeton 4-3
19) Georgia Tech 8-1
20) Syracuse 7-2
21) Dartmouth 6-2-1
22) Vanderbilt 7-0-1
23) Georgia 7-2-1
24) Illinois 3-4
25) Oberlin 7-0-1
Southern Cal 10-1
Miami (Ohio) 8-0
New Hampshire 8-1-1