Reclaiming & Disputing College Football National Champions: The 1890s

The 1890s was a transformative decade of college athletics as colleges and universities began to move towards organized league play. The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association consisted of teams now in the SEC and ACC, while states like Colorado and Indiana formed their own associations of schools. Perhaps the most organized of these leagues was the Western Conference, which would later be known as the Big Ten.

While the Ivy League independents were still established as the top contenders, the age of playing organized conference schedules was growing across the rest of the country.

1890

Claimed Champions: Harvard

Contenders:
Harvard (11-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Colorado Mines (6-0), Furman (2-0), Harvard (11-0), Nebraska (2-0), Vanderbilt (1-0), Washington University (Saint Louis) (2-0), & Williams College (5-0)

Harvard’s first national title claim did not come easy, as their season finale against Yale was a 12-6 bloodbath. In front of a crowd of 17,000, the Crimson knocked off the Bulldog dynasty for the first time in eleven attempts.

New Champions: Harvard

1891

Claimed Champions: Yale

Contenders:
Yale (13-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Duke (3-0), Ohio Wesleyan (4-0), Purdue (4-0), Wake Forest (1-0), & Yale (13-0)

Yale shut out every single one of their opponents in 1891, but what was even more impressive was how they capped off their season.

On November 21, the Bulldogs took down undefeated reigning national champs Harvard by a score of 10-0. Five days later, they beat another undefeated opponent in Princeton. The game against the Tigers presumably took place in front of a whopping 40,000 people at Manhattan Field in New York.

New Champions: Yale

1892

Claimed Champions: Yale

Contenders:
Yale (13-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Biddle (Johnson C. Smith University) (1-0), Case (Case Western Reserve) (3-0), Centre College (6-0), Colgate (3-0), Furman (1-0), Mercer (1-0), Minnesota (5-0), North Carolina (1-0), Oberlin (7-0), Purdue (8-0), Saint Mary’s (1-0), Utah Agricultural (Utah State) (1-0), Washington & Jefferson (4-0), & Yale (13-0)

Yale continued their winning streak under Coach Walter Camp, again not allowing a single point to be scored on them. They capped their season off by beating undefeated Harvard for the second year in a row before beating one-loss Princeton.

The 1892 season was also the beginning of the Utah and Utah State rivalry, with Utah State winning the inaugural contest.

New Champions: Yale

1893

Claimed Champions: Princeton & Yale

Contenders:
Princeton (11-0)
Yale (10-1)
– Loss: vs Princeton (6-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Case Western Reserve (4-0), Central University (Eastern Kentucky) (2-0), Fordham (4-0), Gonzaga (1-0), Howard (2-0), Maryland (6-0), Miami (OH) (3-0), Minnesota (6-0), North Carolina A&M (2-0), Princeton (11-0), Saint Mary’s (1-0), Texas (4-0), Washburn (1-0), & Wyoming (1-0)

Before a crowd of roughly 40,000 people at Polo Grounds in New York, Princeton took down the mighty Yale Bulldogs to end their astonishing 37-game winning streak (1890-1893). The final score was 6-0 as Yale was unable to stop Princeton’s double wingback formation offense.

The Thanksgiving Day contest was scolded by the New York Herald for its prominence on the national holiday: “The kicker is now king and people bow down to him. The gory nose tackler, hero of a hundred scrimmages and half as many wedges, is the idol of the hour,” the review of the game wrote.

Nevertheless, Yale claims the 1893 title despite the season finale loss to an undefeated Princeton squad.

New Champions: Princeton

1894

Claimed Champions: Penn, Princeton, & Yale

Contenders:
Penn (12-0)
Princeton (8-2)
– Losses: vs Penn (12-0), vs Yale (24-0)
Yale (16-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Baldwin Wallace (1-0), Buchtel (Akron) (1-0), Case Western Reserve (7-0), Hampden-Sydney (1-0), North Dakota Agricultural (North Dakota State) (2-0), Penn (12-0), USC (1-0), Villanova (1-0), VMI (6-0), Wyoming (3-0), & Yale (16-0)

Princeton claims a national title in 1894 despite getting shutout by unbeaten Penn and unbeaten Yale. This is an obvious dispute for the program that claims the most national titles in all of college football.

Penn finished the year undefeated and never met Yale, resulting in a split title. Yale’s 16-0 record would not be matched by another college football team until 2019, when North Dakota State would win the FCS title with the same record.

Ironically enough, the 1894 season was North Dakota State’s first as a program. They finished 2-0 by beating current conference foe North Dakota twice.

New Champions: Penn & Yale

1895

Claimed Champions: Penn & Yale

Contenders:
Penn (14-0)
Yale (13-0-2)
– Ties: vs Boston Athletic Association (0-0), at Brown (6-6)

Unblemished Recognition: Arkansas (1-0), Carthage College (2-0), Henry Kendall College (Tulsa) (1-0), LSU (3-0), Miami (OH) (3-0), New Mexico A&M (New Mexico State) (2-0), Occidental College (5-0), Oregon (4-0), Penn (14-0), Texas (5-0), Washington Agricultural (Washington State) (2-0), Washington University (Saint Louis) (2-0), & Wyoming (1-0)

Penn capped off a second straight undefeated season and yet again avoided Princeton and Yale on their schedule. Nevertheless, they outscored their opponents 480 to 24.

Yale was not as dominant on the offensive side of the ball as Penn was. Yale ties against the Boston Athletic Association and Brown, who they beat earlier in the year, are what disputes them from claiming this championship.

Despite Yale’s 20-10 season-ending victory over Princeton, Penn is able to claim this title outright.

New Champions: Penn

1896

Claimed Champions: Lafayette & Princeton

Contenders:
Lafayette (11-0-1)
– Tie: vs Princeton (0-0)
Princeton (10-0-1)
– Tie: at Lafayette (0-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Carthage College (4-0), Colorado (5-0), Fordham (1-0), Georgia (4-0), LSU (6-0), North Carolina A&M (1-0), Oklahoma (2-0), & Wyoming (2-0)

The story of the year wasn’t the Princeton and Lafayette tie in early October, but the Lafayette victory over Penn in Philadelphia. The win marked the first time that a “smaller” institution beat out one of the Big Four (Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale). This would be Penn’s lone loss on the season.

After Lafayette won three straight games against West Virginia, they enrolled one of West Virginia’s own players – tackle Fielding Yost, who played for them for the remainder of the season. George Barclay, inventor of the football helmet who also played professional baseball the previous summer, also suited up for Lafayette.

Due to obvious eligibility concerns, Lehigh canceled the annual rivalry matchups between the two schools. Eligibility requirements and transfer rules, along with the first non-Big Four champion, represented major changes that were arriving in the sport.

New Champions: Lafayette & Princeton

1897

Claimed Champions: Penn & Yale

Contenders:
Penn (15-0)
Yale (9-0-2)
– Ties: at Army (6-6), at Harvard (0-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Alabama (1-0), Buffalo (7-0), Butler (3-0), Fairmont (Wichita State) (1-0), Oklahoma (2-0), Oregon Agricultural (Oregon State) (5-0), Penn (15-0), Washington State (2-0), & Wyoming (2-0)

Multiple players from this Penn team were inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, including Head Coach George Washington Woodruff. The 15 wins that Penn raked in would be the most by any team until the 2018 Clemson Tigers.

Yale, who tied at Army and Harvard, also claims a title for this season despite their obvious setbacks.

New Champions: Penn

1898

Claimed Champions: Harvard & Princeton

Contenders:
Harvard (11-0)
Michigan (10-0)
Princeton (11-0-1)
– Tie: at Army (5-5)

Unblemished Recognition: Carthage College (3-0), Colorado Mines (8-0), Detroit College (Detroit) (5-0), Drexel (7-0), Harvard (11-0), Kentucky State College (Kentucky), LSU (1-0), Michigan (10-0), North Carolina (9-0), Sewanee (4-0), & Washington University (Saint Louis) (6-0)

Michigan’s 10-0 season was the first undefeated double-digit win season for a team outside of the Big Four. That is not why we put them in our list of contenders for the national title, but rather because of their Western Conference championship in the league’s third season.

Harvard was equally as dominant as the Wolverines and both teams allowed less than 26 total points throughout the regular season. The two played zero common opponents.

Princeton only allowed five points all season long and they were all to Army, who was part of the derailing of Yale’s national title claim season the year prior.

New Champions: Harvard & Michigan

1899

Claimed Champions: Harvard & Princeton

Contenders:
Harvard (10-0-1)
– Tie: vs Yale (0-0)
Princeton (12-1)
– Loss: at Cornell (5-0)
Sewanee (12-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Arizona Normal (Arizona State) (3-0), Buffalo (6-0), Detroit (5-0), Kansas (10-0), Montana Agricultural (Montana State) (3-0), New Mexico State (1-0), North Dakota (6-0), Sewanee (12-0), Utah State (1-0), & VMI (1-0)

Harvard’s lone blemish came at the end of the season against Yale, 0-0. Princeton was able to beat that Yale team, but also suffered a loss to Cornell. Without going too deep into how the Ivy League powers were losing their unanimous national edge in the sport, that Cornell team lost to Chicago – winners of the Western Conference.

Sewanee demolished nearly every major program in the southeastern United States as they won the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA). Only Auburn, under Head Coach John Heisman, was able to score points on them in a thrilling 11-10 victory. The team was known as the “Iron Men” after pitching five shutout wins over Texas A&M, Texas, Tulane, LSU, and Ole Miss in a matter of a six-day period.

This is another season where a national champion was difficult to predict due to the lack of uniformity the sport had on a national level. The 1900s, with the establishment of postseason games such as the Rose Bowl, were the first true identifier of how certain leagues stacked up against others.

New Champions: Harvard & Sewanee

1890 – 1899

YearChampions
1890Harvard
1891Yale
1892Yale
1893Princeton
1894Penn & Yale
1895Penn
1896Lafayette & Princeton
1897Penn
1898Harvard & Michigan
1899Harvard & Sewanee
New CFB National Champions by Year, 1890 – 1899

Team Totals (up to 1899)

TeamChampionshipsYears
Yale151872, 1874, 1876,
1877, 1880, 1881,
1882, 1883, 1884,
1886, 1887, 1888,
1891, 1892, 1894
Princeton141869, 1870, 1872,
1873, 1874, 1875,
1877, 1878, 1879,
1880, 1885, 1889,
1893, 1896
Harvard31890, 1898, 1899
Lafayette11896
Michigan11898
Rutgers11869
Sewanee11899
New CFB National Champions by Team, 1869 – 1899

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