Tip Top 25 in helmets, smaller
                                Top 25 Rankings 1901-1935
                                1921 National Championship

1921 College Football Top 25

1922 Rose Bowl, Washington and Jefferson vs. California

Defending 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 the 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.
The other contenders for the 1921 MNC were 9-0-1 California, 10-0-1 Washington & Jefferson, and 9-0 Lafayette. I summarized each of these 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.

#3: California vs. Washington & Jefferson

Washington & 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.

However, 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.

#10: Navy

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).

Navy #10

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 Georgia

Vanderbilt 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 Illinois

I 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.

I initially 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.


1921 Oberlin football team

Oberlin 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.

Others Receiving Votes

Here are the teams closest to making this top 25.

Detroit 8-1

Detroit Mercy football coach James F. Duffy

As 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.

Georgetown 8-1

Also covered above, 8-1 Georgetown lost to #19 Georgia Tech, and they didn't beat anyone of value.

Southern Cal 10-1

Southern Cal football coach Gus Henderson

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 ever since: 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.

Texas 6-1-1

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 Southwest region.

Pennsylvania 4-3-2

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

1921 football game, Miami-Ohio vs. Ohio Wesleyan

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

1921 New Hampshire football team

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.

1921 Top 25

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
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

Others Receiving Votes:
Detroit 8-1
Georgetown 8-1
Southern Cal 10-1
Texas 6-1-1
Pennsylvania 4-3-2
Miami (Ohio) 8-0
New Hampshire 8-1-1

Top 25 Rankings 1901-1935
1921 National Championship