College Football's 150 Most Important Games Of All-Time

College Football's 150 Most Important Games Of All-Time

College Football Features

College Football's 150 Most Important Games Of All-Time


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In the 150th anniversary of college football, which games in each season turned out to shape the respective national title races? Here are the 150 most important games of all-time.

 The 1800s | 1900-1920 | 1921-1935
AP Era 1936-1949
AP & Coaches Era 1950-1973
Poll & Bowl Era 1980-1989 | 1990-1994
Bowl Alliance 1995-1997
BCS Era 1998-2001 | BCS Era 2002-2004
BCS Era 2005-2008 | BCS Era 2009-2013
CFP Era 2014-2015 | CFP Era 2016-2017
CFP Era 2018

Which games turned out to be the ones that shaped each season’s national championship chase?

Once the BCS Championship and College Football Playoff came around, that became easy to figure out, but in the 150th anniversary of the first college football game, which ones in each of the 149 seasons – there wasn’t a season in 1871 – turned out to change the history of the game? (We double up in one year to get to the top 150 games.)

Here are the ground rules.

1. These aren’t the necessarily the “greatest” games ever or the best played. They’re the ones that ended up being the most important in each season when it came to determining the national champion.

2. For most of the seasons, we cut to the chase. The games back in the 1800s up until the dawn of the more sophisticated polling eras usually came down to one key matchup to determine the historically-awarded national championships – the races for the titles usually weren’t all that compelling. We fly through those.

3. Remember, the bowls weren’t a part of the national championship puzzle up until 1968 for the AP Rankings and 1974 for the Coaches Poll. We try to take that into account when it came to determining the key games, and then from the early 1970s up until 1997, the bowl games became almost everything. We go into a bit more detail with these.

4. The BCS era was the most fascinating in college football history when it came to arguments and debates, and then came the College Football Playoff. We dive deep into those. For those years, we only highlight the top regular season or conference championship games that made a difference in the respective races, since the most important games were obviously the national championships themselves.

5. Only the main national championship ranking methods and selection organizations for each era are counted …

1869 to 1879: National Championship Foundation (NCF)
1880 to 1935: NCF & Helms Athletic Foundation
1936 to 1949: Associated Press (AP)
1950 to 1981: AP & United Press International (UPI)
1982 to 1997: AP (and 2003) & USA Today (Coaches Poll)
1998 to 2013: Bowl Championship System
2014 to 2018: College Football Playoff

 The 1800s | 1900-1920 | 1921-1935
AP Era 1936-1949
AP & Coaches Era 1950-1973
Poll & Bowl Era 1980-1989 | 1990-1994
Bowl Alliance 1995-1997
BCS Era 1998-2001 | BCS Era 2002-2004
BCS Era 2005-2008 | BCS Era 2009-2013
CFP Era 2014-2015 | CFP Era 2016-2017
CFP Era 2018

Contact CFN @ColFootballNews

The 1800s

1869 Princeton 8, Rutgers 0

There were two games. Rutgers won the first ever college football game over Princeton 6-4, but the Princeton 8-0 win in the rematch was more impressive.

1870 Princeton 6, Rutgers 2

It was a sweet run for the Tigers – play one game, win the national title. Rutgers went 1-1 with a win over Columbia before losing to Princeton.

1871 NONE

No one played anything other than a few light scrimmages. There wasn’t a college football season in 1871.

1872 Princeton 4, Rutgers 1

Yale won its one game 3-0 over Columbia, but Princeton got more national title recognition with a win over a Rutgers team that finished 4-1-1.

1873 Princeton 3, Yale 0

The Tigers only played one game, but that was enough to earn the historic national championship nod. College football started to blossom – Washington & Lee went 4-0 – but Princeton was still the acknowledged star at the time.

1874 Yale 6, Stephens 0

Harvard and Princeton might be in the historical national championship mix, but Yale was the real champ – if that’s possible after going 3-0 with two of those wins coming against Columbia. Stevens would’ve been a national championship, but it went 3-1 with that one defeat the loss at Yale.

1875 Harvard 4, Yale 0

Yeah, there’s a fight for who gets to call itself the true champion among a few schools, but in terms of the best system for the era – the National Championship Foundation – it’s Harvard after finishing 4-0. There were two wins over an all-star team from Canada, but the win over Yale was the signature win – and only win of note.

1876 Yale 1, Harvard 0

Assuming you accept the premise that Harvard really was the defending national champ – at least the rightful one – then Yale was able to take it back in the season opener. It was Harvard’s lone loss; Yale ended up going 3-0.

1877 Yale 0, Princeton 0

For the geeky historical types, there’s a bit of a fight for who the national champ was, but the NCF recognized Yale. Princeton wants to claim the title, but it went 2-0-1 – Yale won three games.

Key Game To Know

1878 Princeton 1, Yale 0

This was among the most important games in the first ten years of college football. Yale gave up a grand total of one point from 1876 until the final game of the 1882 season, and it was in this one. Both teams were 5-0, but the season finale turned into a true national championship.

1879 Princeton 0, Yale 0

For the second time in three years, it was an unsatisfying scoreless tie between these two that ended up giving Princeton a national title. Yale went 3-0-2 and Princeton went 4-0-1. But if you thought that wasn’t enough …

1880 Princeton 0, Yale 0

Yeah, it was 0-0 for the third time in four years between these two, but there was a key difference this time around – it was officially a split national championship. The NCF and Helms Athletic Foundation couldn’t settle the matter, so both 4-0-1 teams got a piece of the championship. And if THAT wasn’t enough between these two …

1881 Princeton 0, Yale 0

It was yet another scoreless tie between these two, but this time, it was enough to earn Yale the national championship. Princeton tied with Harvard the week before, Yale whacked Harvard 1-0 earlier in the year, and was able to finish up going 5-0-1 on the way to another title.

1882 Yale 1, Harvard 0

The Yale win over Harvard the year before was a massive deal in the national title chase, but this time around, the 1-0 win on the road turned out to be a true national championship moment on the way to an 8-0 season.

1883 Yale 6, Princeton 0

All of a sudden, Yale figured out that this college football thing was more fun when it scored a whole lot of points. It hung up 540 on the year in a 9-0 season, but only six came when it handed Princeton its only loss.

1884 Princeton 0, Yale 0

This one sort of stinks. Yale became the national champion according to both the NCF and HAF after going 8-0-1, partly because it put up 495 points in those eight wins. Princeton went 9-0-1 against a better schedule.

1885 Princeton 6, Yale 5

Forget your 0-0 ties between these two. Princeton got its revenge after missing out on the 1884 national title with a 6-5 win on the road  thanks to a late punt return for a score. Yale was handed its only loss from 1879 up until the end of the 1889 season. However …

1886 Princeton 0, Yale 0

It was technically another 0-0 tie between these two for the record books, but Yale actually scored. In a weird ruling, the game was called after it got dark and declared a scoreless tie, but Yale ended up being named the historical national champ. The tie was the only blemish on either team’s record.

1887 Yale 17, Harvard 8

In the season finale between the two, Yale finished 9-0 after handing Harvard and its high-powered offense – it finished with 660 points on the year – its only loss. This came five days after Yale stopped a good Princeton team 12-0, which set the tone for …

1888 Yale 10, Princeton 0

Yale won the season finale to make it 33 straight games without a loss. Princeton was 11-0 – outscoring opponents 609-6 coming into the national championship-caliber showdown – but Yale finished the year outscoring its opponents 694-0.

1889 Princeton 10, Yale 0

Yale came into the game 16-0 and on a 49-game streak without a loss. Princeton wasn’t dominant throughout the season, but it rose up to stop Yale, and then two days later finished up the season by whacking around the Columbia Athletic Club 57-0 to go 10-0.

1890 Harvard 12, Yale 6

For the second straight season, Yale saw its national title – at least in the historical world – season go bye-bye. Harvard won the first meeting between the two in 1875, and went 0-9-1 in the series before closing out the 1890 season with a win to finish 11-0. The loss by Yale spoiled what would’ve been the historical national title game the following week against Princeton.

1891 Yale 19, Princeton 0

Yale put together one of the greatest seasons of all-time, finishing 13-0, outscoring its opponents 488-0, and doing it all with a historically rough finishing kick. It handed Penn one of its two losses on the year; the other came against Princeton. Yale gave defending historical national champ Harvard its only loss of the season, and then stopped an unbeaten Princeton team 19-0 in the season finale.

1892 Yale 28, Penn 0

Yale had to work to end the year on a 27-game winning streak, handing a fantastic Penn team that finished 15-1 its only loss of the season, followed it up by giving Harvard its only loss of the year, and closed it all out with a 12-0 win over a loaded Princeton squad whose only other defeat was to Penn. Yale ended up outscoring its opponents 429-0.

1893 Princeton 6, Yale 0

The mighty Yale machine rolled in having won 37 in a row, two straight historical national championships, and having outscored its opponents 330-6 on the year including giving Harvard its only loss of the season. Princeton didn’t have to play Harvard, and the schedule wasn’t anything special, but it got the job done when it had to in an 11-0 campaign.

Key Game To Know

1894 Yale 24, Princeton 0

Okay, so you’ve blown off all the Yale, Princeton and Harvard stuff so far, but this one matters. Why? First, Penn ended up going 12-0 and didn’t play Yale, but it only beat Princeton 12-0 – Yale beat Princeton by 24. That win in the 1894 finale closed out the greatest season by any team in the history of college footballat least according the CFN Historical Season Ranking Formula – going 16-0 and outscoring its opponents 485-13.

1895 Penn 17, Harvard 14

In terms of national champions, this one doesn’t quite pass the smell test, but winning at Harvard was the key to the historical title. Penn didn’t have to play Yale or Princeton. Each came up with some weird ties, and Princeton was able to beat Yale, but Penn ended the season 14-0. It didn’t beat anyone who was all that great, though.

1896 Princeton 24, Yale 6

This history types got this one a little bit wrong. It was a split national championship season with Lafayette taking a part after finishing 11-0-1- the one tie came against Princeton at home. The Maroon also handed Penn its only loss, but Princeton handled a far, far tougher schedule including giving Yale its only defeat.

1897 Penn 15, Harvard 6

Yale tied Harvard 0-0 late in the season, and it handed Princeton its only loss. The championship picture would’ve been murky, but Penn took care of business to finish 15-0 for the national title and the best season in school history.

1898 Harvard 10, Penn 0

Defending national champ Penn was on a 31-game winning streak, but Harvard put an end to that. It was Penn’s only loss on the season, and Harvard went on to go 11-0, closing out the season with a 17-0 breezy win at Yale.

1899 Cornell 5, Princeton 0

Harvard didn’t beat anyone who was any good, but it ended up winning the national title despite a 0-0 tie to an okay Yale team on the record books. It’s all thanks to Cornell’s shocking performance, handing Princeton its only loss of the year. Princeton would finish 12-1 and would’ve easily rolled to the national title, but it suffered a power outage in Ithaca.

 The 1800s | 1900-1920 | 1921-1935
AP Era 1936-1949
AP & Coaches Era 1950-1973
Poll & Bowl Era 1980-1989 | 1990-1994
Bowl Alliance 1995-1997
BCS Era 1998-2001 | BCS Era 2002-2004
BCS Era 2005-2008 | BCS Era 2009-2013
CFP Era 2014-2015 | CFP Era 2016-2017
CFP Era 2018

NEXT: Most Important College Football Games 1900-1920

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