Reclaiming & Disputing College Football National Champions: The 1880s

The second decade of college football re-established what was already known – Princeton and Yale were still king. As college football grew and expanded the length of the country, game scheduling and rule changes became necessary components. Yale graduate Walter Camp became the national leader of the sport as new, universal sets of rules were put in place to appease the needs of the new era.

1880

Claimed Champions: Princeton & Yale

Contenders:
Princeton (4-0-1)
– Tie: vs Yale (0-0)
Yale (4-0-1)
– Tie: vs Princeton

Unblemished Recognition: Kentucky University (Transylvania) (2-0) & Michigan (1-0)

The 1880 season was capped off the same way as it was in 1879, with Princeton and Yale battling to a 0-0 tie on a neutral site. This time, the two squads met in New York City for their contest, rather than the usual neutral site location of Hoboken, New Jersey.

Transylvania beat Centre College two times in a cow pasture and Michigan defeated the University of Toronto across nation’s borders to finish 2-0 and 1-0, respectively.

The Sun described an 1880 matchup between Harvard and Princeton as “a series of wrestling encounters for possession of a large leather globe” – which is essentially the same sport being played today.

New Champions: Princeton & Yale

1881

Claimed Champions: Princeton & Yale

Contenders:
Princeton (7-0-2)
– Ties: vs Harvard (0-0), vs Yale (0-0)
Yale (5-0-1)
– Tie: vs Princeton (0-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Georgetown (1-0), Penn State (1-0), & Richmond (1-0)

Princeton was granted the 1879 title on our scale due to only tying Yale, while Yale also had a tie against Harvard that year. 1881 was the exact opposite of that season, with Yale only having the single tie against Princeton and the victory over Harvard.

For the third consecutive year, Princeton and Yale capped off their seasons with a 0-0 tie at a neutral site. Despite the teams tying each other, Yale was able to take down Harvard during the season as Princeton drew the Crimson to a 0-0 tie.

Richmond took down Randolph-Macon College twice and Penn State defeated Lewisburg (Bucknell), 9-0. However, Bucknell denies the game between the two schools ever happened even though it was reported by newspapers in both State College and Lewisburg.

New Champions: Yale

1882

Claimed Champions: Yale

Contenders:
Yale (8-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Colorado College (1-0), Navy (1-0), Richmond (1-0), & Yale (8-0)

The early days of college football were obviously dominated by the Ivy League schools, and the 1880s saw the rise of the Yale Bulldogs. They smoked their competition throughout the season, compiling an 8-0 record that included seven shutouts and a season-capping victory over Princeton, 2-1.

New Champions: Yale

1883

Claimed Champions: Yale

Contenders:
Yale (9-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Carleton (1-0), Gallaudet (2-0), John Hopkins (1-0), & Yale (9-0)

Yale graduate and former player Walter Camp, who is known as the Father of American Football, altered the rules of the game many times before settling on four points for a touchdown, two points for kicks after the touchdowns, two points for safeties, and five points for field goals before the start of the season.

Once again, Yale secured an undefeated season as they plowed their way to a 9-0 record. They closed the year out against Harvard at Polo Grounds in New York, where they won by a score of 23-2; the two points given up were the only points scored on them that season.

New Champions: Yale

1884

Claimed Champions: Princeton & Yale

Contenders:
Princeton (9-0-1)
– Tie: vs Yale (0-0)
Yale (8-0-1)
– Tie: vs Princeton (0-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Michigan (2-0), Navy (1-0), Wabash (1-0), & Williams College (2-0)

Princeton and Yale dominated much of their respective schedules in 1884 before meeting in the season finale, again held at Polo Grounds.

Both teams entered the game undefeated, and 15,000 spectators came to see the match. The game itself was riddled with injuries and questionable scoring results. Yale was up 6-4 before the game was stopped due to darkness.

The referee who stopped the game stated that “Properly speaking Yale won the game, but on a mere technicality I was forced to call the contest a draw. The rule calls for two full three-quarter-hour innings to be played.”

New Champions: Yale

1885

Claimed Champions: Princeton

Contenders:
Princeton (9-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Colorado College (1-0), Michigan (3-0), & Princeton (9-0)

For the first time since 1878, Princeton was able to take down Yale by a score of 6-5. They would crush Penn five days later to secure the outright national championship as well.

The game versus Yale was defined by Princeton’s Henry “Tillie” Lamar returning a punt 90 yards in the closing minutes of the game to secure the win.

New Champions: Princeton

1886

Claimed Champions: Princeton & Yale

Contenders:
Princeton (7-0-1)
– Tie: vs Yale (0-0)
Yale (9-0-1)
– Tie: at Princeton (0-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Cincinnati (2-0) & Michigan (2-0)

One of the most controversial games of the century was Princeton and Yale’s 0-0 “tie” on Thanksgiving Day. The game, which retroactively was the national championship game, was indeed not a tie at all.

A referee arriving late, heavy rain, and eventual darkness prevented the game from ever being finished. With Yale leading 4-0 in the waning minutes, the game had to be declared a “no contest” and resulted in a 0-0 draw.

The Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA) held a special meeting to discuss the Princeton and Yale game, where they agreed that the Bulldogs should have been declared the winner. However, under existing rules at the time, the IFA stated that they did not have the authority to award a winner of the game.

It is impossible to say what would have concluded at the end of the match, as the previous year featured a Princeton game-winning punt return in the final minutes. The 1884 and 1886 seasons are both widely disputed for Princeton’s national title claims in favor of Yale, who was leading in both contests before the games were called off.

New Champions: Yale

1887

Claimed Champions: Yale

Contenders:
Yale (9-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Butler (3-0), California (4-0), Cincinnati (1-0), Michigan (5-0), Minnesota (2-0), Penn State (2-0), Washington University (Saint Louis) (1-0), & Yale (9-0)

Yale was on fire again in 1887. They beat Wesleyan by a score of 38-0 and then again, ten days later, by a score of 106-0.

They took out their two toughest opponents, Princeton and Harvard, in a five-day span. Their season finale victory over previously unbeaten Harvard was played in front of 15,000 people in New York, securing a second straight national championship for the Bulldogs.

New Champions: Yale

1888

Claimed Champions: Yale

Contenders:
Yale (13-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Notre Dame (1-0), USC (2-0), Washington University (Saint Louis) (1-0), & Yale (13-0)

Yale was the only viable option for a national title claim in 1888. The Bulldogs allowed zero points to be scored on them and took out undefeated Princeton in the season finale.

Harvard and Yale did not meet this season, with the Crimson’s lone loss coming at Princeton, 8-6.

New Champions: Yale

1889

Claimed Champions: Princeton

Contenders:
Princeton (10-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Butler (2-0), Iowa College (Grinnell) (1-0), Lake Forest College (1-0), Miami (OH) (4-0), Notre Dame (1-0), Princeton (10-0), Trinity College (Duke) (2-0), USC (2-0), & Washington University (Saint Louis) (2-0)

Princeton reestablished themselves as champions of college football after taking down Yale, who was certainly the team of the decade. Five Tigers players were selected to the All-American team, which was a new concept that honored the nation’s best. In 1889, the All-American team consisted only of players from the Big Three schools (Harvard, Princeton, and Yale).

Five of the 11 All-Americans were Tigers players, including Edgar Allan Poe, second cousin to the famous writer of the same name.

New Champions: Princeton

1880 – 1889

YearChampions
1880Princeton & Yale
1881Yale
1882Yale
1883Yale
1884Yale
1885Princeton
1886Yale
1887Yale
1888Yale
1889Princeton
New CFB National Champions by Year, 1880 – 1889

Team Totals (up to 1889)

TeamChampionshipsYears
Princeton121869, 1870, 1872,
1873, 1874, 1875,
1877, 1878, 1879,
1880, 1885, 1889
Yale121872, 1874, 1876,
1877, 1880, 1881,
1882, 1883, 1884,
1886, 1887, 1888
Rutgers11869
New CFB National Champions by Team, 1869 – 1889

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