Reclaiming & Disputing College Football National Champions: 1869 – 1879

The inaugural college football decade looked a lot different than the sport that encapsulates so many campuses today. Improvised rules were made by the home teams and current Ivy League member institutions were at the forefront of new American football, which more closely resembled soccer and rugby in its early days. Here, we take a look at which teams have rightful claims to national championships.

1869

Claimed Champions: New Jersey (Princeton) & Rutgers

Contenders:
Princeton (1-1)
– Loss: at Rutgers (6-4)
Rutgers (1-1)
– Loss: at Princeton (8-0)

The first two college football games were played between Princeton and Rutgers, each winning on their home fields. After the hilarious account of Rutgers’ win at Princeton, one of the new rules Princeton added when Rutgers came to town was the awarding of the “free kick” to any player that caught the ball without it hitting the ground. Apparently, the rule greatly affected the Rutgers squad and resulted in an 8-0 Princeton victory.

There are very few records of the first college football season, but one thing is certain: the lack of a true national champion started here. A third game, which would have acted as the first national championship, was scheduled to be played. Conflicts over which rules to play under and complaints from faculty at both institutions prevented the game from ever happening.

This would alter college football and the culture of not having one true champion for over a century.

New Champions: Princeton & Rutgers

1870

Claimed Champions: Princeton

Contenders:
Princeton (1-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Princeton (1-0)

Columbia joined Princeton and Rutgers as the only three programs in the country. Rutgers was the only team to play both of their available opponents, beating Columbia and losing to Princeton. This was the first true national championship season in college football, with Princeton taking it all after a 6-2 defeat of Rutgers at home.

New Champions: Princeton

1871

No college football games were played in 1871. Princeton played a few exhibition games against Princeton Theological Seminary, but those games are not considered to count towards any type of regular season.

New Champions: N/A

1872

Claimed Champions: Princeton & Yale

Contenders:
Princeton (1-0)
Yale (1-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Princeton (1-0) & Yale (1-0)

With Yale and Stevens (Institute of Technology) bringing the college football team total to five, the sport made its return after a one-year hiatus.

Princeton beat Rutgers, 4-1, and Yale beat Columbia, 3-0. There is no virtual way to compare these wins, even knowing the fact that Rutgers beat Columbia that season. Using the transitive property to compare team’s opponents is rarely a strong metric, making this another split national championship season.

New Champions: Princeton & Yale

1873

Claimed Champions: Princeton

Contenders:
Harvard (1-0-1)
– Tie: vs McGill (0-0)
Princeton (1-0)
Washington & Lee (4-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Princeton (1-0) & Washington & Lee (4-0)

The beginning of the season consisted of a New York City meeting between Columbia, Princeton, Rutgers, and Yale to decide on what rules would be used for America’s newest sport. Harvard did not attend, continuing to play under their own set of rules.

Harvard faced McGill (Canada) twice in a two-day span that year; the second game, which was the first rugby-style football game ever played in the United States, ended in a scoreless tie. Both games were technically played in May of 1874.

Washington and Lee played all four of their games against the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), but little is known about the Generals’ first season.

Princeton took down Yale, who was their fellow co-national champion from the previous year, in the first game played between the two institutions.

New Champions: Princeton

1874

Claimed Champions: Princeton & Yale

Contenders:
Princeton (2-0)
Yale (3-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Princeton (2-0), Tufts (1-0), & Yale (3-0)

Another season in which Princeton and Yale avoided each other, both of them went undefeated in the 1874 season. Princeton defeated Columbia and Rutgers while Yale defeated Stevens and Columbia (twice) handily.

Harvard only played one contest in 1874, where they traveled to Montreal for a rematch with McGill.

For the second time in three years, this was a split title for Princeton and Yale.

New Champions: Princeton & Yale

1875

Claimed Champions: Columbia & Princeton

Contenders:
Columbia (4-1-1)
– Tie: at Rutgers (1-1)
– Loss: at Princeton (6-2)
Harvard (4-0)
Princeton (2-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Harvard (4-0) & Princeton (2-0)

Columbia was at the forefront of scheduling and actually traveling to play their opponents. However, their 1875 claim to a national title is an obvious dispute due to their 6-2 loss at Princeton.

Harvard finished the season 4-0 with wins over the Canada All-Stars (twice), Tufts, and Yale. The blemish on Harvard’s schedule came on Independence Day, 1875. Harvard lost to Tufts on that summer day in Cambridge but does not consider it apart of their 1875 season. Instead, they consider it a continuation of the 1874 season. Tufts, on the other hand, considers the summer victory an 1875 contest.

Princeton is the deserving national champion of 1875 due to their 2-0 record that consisted of wins over Columbia and Stevens, who each played six games that season.

New Champions: Princeton

1876

Claimed Champions: Yale

Contenders:
Yale (3-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Rutgers (1-0) & Yale (3-0)

For the first time in college football’s young history, Princeton did not finish the season with at least a share of the national title.

Rutgers played one game in ’76, defeating Stevens by a score of 3-2.

Yale took down Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia while not allowing a single score against them. On the Thanksgiving Day contest against Princeton, the first ever forward pass was used on a Yale touchdown; Yale’s Walter Camp ran for a significant gain before tossing the ball forward to O.D. Thompson, who ran the ball in for a touchdown. After a dispute between the two teams on the legitimacy of the play, the referee tossed a coin. Yale won the coin toss, and the play stood.

New Champions: Yale

1877

Claimed Champions: Princeton & Yale

Contenders:
Princeton (2-0-1)
– Tie: vs Yale (0-0)
Yale (3-0-1)
– Tie: vs Princeton (0-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Amherst (1-0)

Both Princeton and Yale took down Columbia in the 1877 season. In the season finale, Princeton and Yale played to a 0-0 tie on a neutral field in Hoboken, New Jersey. Under rules created before the start of the game, reaching the endzone only afforded that team a chance to kick through the goalpost. Reaching the endzone alone awarded no points. Princeton never reached the endzone, while Yale did twice and was unable to convert their kicks.

This is the third season in the first decade of college football where Princeton and Yale would share claim to another national championship.

New Champions: Princeton & Yale

1878

Claimed Champions: Princeton

Contenders:
Princeton (6-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Princeton (6-0)

Princeton asserted their collegiate dominance in 1878, beating Penn (twice), Stevens, Rutgers, Harvard, and Yale. The first of the sport’s dynasties, Princeton made sure to leave no doubt as to which school boasted the best football program.

New Champions: Princeton

1879

Claimed Champions: Princeton & Yale

Contenders:
Princeton (4-0-1)
– Tie: vs Yale (0-0
Yale (3-0-2)
– Ties: vs Harvard (0-0), vs Princeton (0-0)

Unblemished Recognition: Massachusetts Agricultural College (UMass) (1-0)

Once again, the national title ran through the neutral grounds of Hoboken, New Jersey, where Princeton and Yale played to a 0-0 tie at the end of the season.

The edge that Princeton has is its 1-0 victory over Harvard, a team that Yale tied that year. This was the Tiger’s ninth national title during the early years of American college football.

New Champions: Princeton

1869 – 1879

YearChampions
1869Princeton & Rutgers
1870Princeton
1871N/A
1872Princeton & Yale
1873Princeton
1874Princeton & Yale
1875Princeton
1876Yale
1877Princeton & Yale
1878Princeton
1879Princeton
New CFB National Champions by Year, 1869 – 1879

Team Totals (up to 1879)

TeamChampionshipsYears
Princeton91869, 1870, 1872,
1873, 1874, 1875,
1877, 1878, 1879
Yale41872, 1874,
1876, 1877
Rutgers11869
New CFB National Champions by Team, 1869 – 1879

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