AP Era: 1936-1949
Now things get interesting. 1936 was the first year of the AP rankings, so from here on, the national championships from some formula or a college professor – while still validated by the NCAA – aren’t nearly as prestigious until college football gets to 1) when the Coaches Poll gets involved and 2) the start of the BCS era. The AP rankings were hardly perfect, but they established a baseline and a steady goal to shoot for.
Each of the games on the list had something to do with deciding the AP national title because until 1950, that’s what really mattered.
1936 Notre Dame 26, Northwestern 6
Minnesota was the AP national champ despite losing 6-0 at Northwestern. The Wildcats would’ve ended up as the national champions, but they got whacked by Notre Dame in the season finale. That allowed the Golden Gophers to win their third straight championship.
1937 Pitt 0, Fordham 0
Both the Panthers and Rams finished without a loss and with only the tie coming against each other, but Pitt won nine games and Fordham seven. Pitt gave Nebraska and West Virginia their only losses, and it beat terrific Duke and Notre Dame teams. Fordham was also able to come up with a few big wins, but not as many. This tie didn’t settle much, but Pitt won the national title.
1938 TCU 39, Baylor 7
This is one of the bigger national champion whiffs. Tennessee was named the champion from a few ranking sources after giving Clemson, Alabama and Oklahoma their only losses on the year. It also came up with a 47-0 stomping of a great Ole Miss squad, but TCU – despite facing a much, much easier schedule – won the AP title thanks to a mid-season blowout win over Baylor that took over the narrative of the season.
1939 USC 0, UCLA 0
USC claiming the 1939 national championship is about as soft as it gets. Texas A&M won the AP national title after pounding its way to a 10-0 season before beating a strong Tulane team in the Sugar Bowl.
USC was proclaimed the national champion by the Dickenson System – named after a professor at the University of Illinois – thanks to a great win over Oregon State, a victory over Notre Dame, and in the end, a fantastic Rose Bowl win over Tennessee. However, A&M was able to take the AP title because the Trojans tied both a bad Oregon team to start the year and a solid UCLA squad at the end of the regular season campaign.
1940 Minnesota 7, Michigan 6
Minnesota won a whole slew of national titles without really beating anyone amazing, This wasn’t one of those seasons. Tennessee, Stanford, and Boston College all were named national champions by other outlets, but the 8-0 Golden Gophers won the one that mattered, getting the AP title thanks to a 7-6 win over a Michigan team that didn’t lose another game.
1941 Minnesota 7, Michigan 0
In the midst of an 18-game winning streak and two straight 8-0 seasons was Minnesota’s second straight national championship season. The team overall had an easy path with a whole slew of easy games, but it was able to hand Michigan its only loss of the season in what turned out to be the game to decide the title. This was big, but the most famous game of the season was the Rose Bowl between Duke and Oregon State, moved to Duke’s home field coming off the attack on Pearl Harbor.
1942 Auburn 27, Georgia 13
Georgia claims 1942 as a national championship season after going 11-1 with a Rose Bowl win over UCLA, but it didn’t beat anyone all that great other than Georgia Tech. The loss to Auburn allowed Ohio State to win the national title that mattered – the AP championship. The Buckeyes lost at Wisconsin, but finished 9-1 against a far tougher schedule than Georgia’s.
1943 Notre Dame 33, Navy 6
And so begins the era of the military academies and Notre Dame dominating the college football world. The Irish were able to beat Army and handed Iowa Pre-Flight its only loss, but they finished up the season with a loss to Great Lakes Naval Academy, who finished 10-2. Navy was fantastic – joining Notre Dame as the only teams to take down Army – finishing 8-1 on the year, but got whacked by the Irish in Cleveland.
1944 Army 59, Notre Dame 0
The 1944 Army team didn’t play too many tough teams, and Notre Dame lost to Navy, too, but the 59-0 obliteration of the Irish in New York City paved the way for an unquestioned national championship. No one came close all season long to competing with Red Blaik’s 9-0 Army juggernaut.
1945 Army 32, Navy 13
The 1945 Army team wasn’t as good as the 1944 version, but it played a much, much tougher schedule. It didn’t matter – 1944 Navy was the only team to come closer than 20 points of Army, and it lost by 16.
The 1945 Navy team tied Notre Dame 6-6, but destroyed everyone else on the way to a showdown in the regular season finale between two unbeaten teams. Army had no problem taking a second straight national title in the blowout win.
Key Game To Know
1946 Notre Dame 0, Army 0
1946 Army got hosed. It got the national championship nod from almost all the outlets, but it didn’t get the big one despite playing a far tougher schedule than Notre Dame, who was named the AP national champion. The Cadets were on a 25-game winning streak going into the showdown with the unbeaten Irish, and it ended with the famous scoreless tie.
1947 Notre Dame 38, USC 7
1947 Michigan got screwed. Notre Dame was coming off its AP national title-winning 1946 season and rolled to a 9-0 record – without beating anyone with a pulse in 1947 until the regular season finale. The Irish went to USC and whacked around the Trojans in a battle of unbeatens to take home the AP national championship. Michigan, though, played a brutal schedule, got through it with dominant ease, and destroyed USC 49-0 in the Rose Bowl.
Key Game To Know
1948 Notre Dame 14, USC 14
Michigan got the break it needed. Notre Dame was in the midst of its amazing three-year run going 26-0-1 before closing out the season against USC. The Irish were a shoo-in for a third straight national title, but it was tied on the road by an okay Trojan team. Michigan finished off a winning run of 23 straight in just over two years – against a far, far tougher schedule than the Irish played – to earn the AP national championship.
1949 Army 21, Michigan 7
It was a strange year for the national championship chase. Several teams finished the season without a blemish, but Notre Dame and Michigan were the stars. The Irish won their third AP national title in four years, and once again, played a relatively light and breezy schedule to do it. Unfortunately, they didn’t have to face Army, who finished the year 9-0, including a dominant victory in Ann Arbor over a No. 1 Michigan team on a 25-game winning streak.