Alabama still claims most national titles (with some sketchy counting)

In any other sport except college football, Alabama’s quest for another national championship would be a major storyline this week. The NCAA’s football record book includes detailed descriptions of every national championship selector and a page that narrows the list by identifying how “national poll champions” since 1900 fared in bowl games.

Alabama and Notre Dame are each recognized as having 12 all-time championships, most in the country. Naturally, the Crimson Tide’s quest for No. 13 to become the all-time national champion should be major news entering the College Football Playoff National Championship, right?

Only in college football could the all-time king be up for debate.

Alabama claims a “college football-best” 15 national championships. Three of them aren’t recognized by the NCAA, which really has nothing do with football championships anyway and doesn't run the sport's postseason. By Alabama’s calculations, it’s going for No. 16 against Clemson. Notre Dame claims 11 national titles but could add 10 more if it used Alabama’s math.

While some fans and media members argue that four playoff teams aren’t enough, Alabama’s selective counting of titles offers a good reminder of how far college football has come, even if it took way too long to get here. The playoff better settles championships on the field, not by debate and politicking.

Alabama's 15 claimed national championships are heavily ingrained in the culture of the university’s storied history, which undoubtedly makes the Crimson Tide one of the game’s greatest football programs. Each time the Crimson Tide wins another national championship, fans rush out to buy memorabilia counting the latest championship number.

Fifteen (or whatever the latest digit has become) is a valuable number. It is on jerseys, T-shirts, jackets, banners, helmets and framed photos. You name it, there’s probably a No. 15 on it somewhere. For marketing and merchandise purposes alone, Alabama decided long ago not to correct how many championships it counts.

The back story: In the mid-1980s during the Ray Perkins era, then-Alabama sports information director Wayne Atcheson added five pre-Bear Bryant national titles to the Crimson Tide’s media guide: 1925, 1926, 1930, 1934 and 1941. Alabama’s 1982 media guide, the last season for Bryant, listed 1934 as the only pre-Bryant national championship, thanks to a footnote of Alabama’s SEC history. In the year-by-year results in the 1982 media guide, only Bryant’s six national titles were listed. Once Atcheson made the changes, Alabama claimed 11 national titles.

“I want to say the right thing here,” Atcheson explained to me in 2010 for an article in The Birmingham News. “I made the change because Coach Bryant had these 25 years and six national championships and they were emphasized so much. It was on all the stationery. And when I got there, it was a matter of seeing there were five others (before Bryant) and we should put them all together. It was as simple as that. …

“I tried to make Alabama football look the best it could look and just make it as great as it could possibly be. I was a competitor myself with the other schools, and what they bragged about and boasted about, I wanted people to know the best about my school.”

Nick Saban after winning the 2013 BCS title with Alabama. (USATSI)
Nick Saban after winning the 2013 BCS title with Alabama. (USATSI)

Three of the national championships that Atcheson claimed aren’t listed by the NCAA among its recognized poll champions:

1930: Alabama and Notre Dame both went 10-0. The Crimson Tide got recognized as No. 1 by four ranking systems, all of which came retroactively. Notre Dame was ranked No. 1 by three ranking systems that existed in 1930 -- Dickinson, Dunkel System and Houlgate System -- and the NCAA recognizes the Fighting Irish as the 1930 national poll champion. (Adding to the confusion, this link on NCAA.com does list Alabama as a 1930 national champion with Notre Dame.)

1934: This was the first season Alabama finished No. 1 in a ranking system that existed at the time. Alabama went 10-0 and was No. 1 by three ranking systems, the same number as Minnesota (8-0). In the years since, Minnesota collected more retroactive No. 1 rankings for 1934 than Alabama. The NCAA recognizes Minnesota as the national poll champion.

1941: This is by far the silliest title claimed by Alabama, which went 9-2, finished third in the SEC and was ranked 20th in the final AP Top 25. Minnesota (8-0) is widely recognized as the undisputed national champion by being ranked No. 1 in 12 polls. Atcheson counted a title for Alabama because it finished No. 1 in the Houlgate System, a mathematical rating from 1927-58 developed by Deke Houlgate of Los Angeles.

Alabama's Claimed National Titles
Season Record National Poll Champion*
1925 10-0 Alabama, Dartmouth
1926 9-0-1 Alabama, Stanford
1930 10-0 Notre Dame
1934 10-0 Minnesota
1941 9-2 Minnesota
1961 11-0 Alabama, Ohio State
1964 10-1 Alabama, Arkansas, Notre Dame
1965 9-1-1 Alabama, Michigan State
1973 11-1 Alabama, Notre Dame
1978 11-1 Alabama, USC
1979 12-0 Alabama
1992 13-0 Alabama
2009 14-0 Alabama
2011 12-1 Alabama
2012 13-1 Alabama

In 1941, Alabama lost 14-0 at home to eventual SEC champion Mississippi State and 7-0 at Vanderbilt. Atechson defended the 1941 inclusion for years, arguing the Mississippi State loss came in the rain, the Vanderbilt defeat was close, and that Alabama was the country’s best team by the end of the season thanks to wins over Georgia (8-1-1), Tennessee (8-2) and Texas A&M (9-2).

Also, old rules for polls allowed Alabama to win titles in 1964 and 1973 despite losing bowl games. At the time, some polls decided champions before the postseason. Alabama was crowned Associated Press and United Press International champion in 1964 but then lost to Texas at the Orange Bowl. Arkansas went 11-0 in 1964 with a win at Texas.

For 1964, the NCAA record book recognizes Alabama (AP and UPI champion), Arkansas (Football Writers Association of America champion) and Notre Dame (National Football Foundation champion). Notre Dame doesn’t count 1964 so it claims 11 consensus national championships, not the 12 listed by the NCAA.

In 1973, Alabama was UPI’s champion but lost to Notre Dame at the Sugar Bowl, creating split national champions. UPI changed when it crowned its champion in 1974. Given that those were the rules at the time, it’s easier for Alabama to justify the 1964 and 1973 championships.

There are four seasons Alabama was picked No. 1 by at least one championship selector that the school doesn’t count: 1945, 1966, 1975 and 1977. Another factor when counting Alabama and Notre Dame titles: Notre Dame didn't go to bowl games from 1925 through 1968. That was due in part to academic schedules and bowls playing no bearing on the national title.

Alabama is hardly alone in claiming questionable titles. Other schools have cherry-picked through the years, though few do it quite like Alabama. (Clemson's titles are much easier to count. The Tigers have just one -- 1981.)

Auburn, the main rival of Alabama, created a committee in 2014 to consider claiming six more national titles, including the Tigers’ undefeated 2004 season when they were left out of playing for the BCS championship. After a year-long study -- counting titles is that big a thing in the state of Alabama -- Auburn decided not to officially add championships.

However, never underestimate the insanity/sense of humor of Alabama politicians. For fun last August, Alabama state senator Trip Pittman introduced a resolution urging Auburn to claim nine national titles instead of two.

Who has won the most college football national championships? It’s an arbitrary question that universities, fans, media and politicians will never be able to definitively answer.

If every poll system ever used since the birth of college football was the standard for counting titles, neither Alabama nor Notre Dame could claim to have the most. Take a bow, Princeton (28 titles) and Yale (27).

But who’s counting?

Most National Championships
Team Recognized by NCAA Recognized by AP Claimed by School
Alabama 12 9 15
Notre Dame 12 8 11
USC 10 5 11
Ohio State 8 5 8
Oklahoma 7 7 7
Minnesota 6 4 7
Michigan 6 2 11
Yale 6 0 27
Harvard 6 0 7
Miami 5 5 5
Princeton 5 0 28
CBS Sports Senior Writer

Jon Solomon is CBS Sports's national college football writer. A former Alabama resident, he now lives in Maryland and also writes extensively on NCAA topics. Jon previously worked at The Birmingham News,... Full Bio

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