College Football and the Postseason: From Polls to Bowls to Playoffs

Given that 76 teams participated in college football bowl games this year, it’s hard to imagine an era when most universities viewed postseason play as antithetical to amateurism and the spirit of college athletics. An era when Yale was a football powerhouse and athletics scholarships were anathema to higher education. It is probably also difficult to conceive of a time when a team that had won 40-consecutive games did not participate in a postseason bowl game, though it was named national champions. All of these scenarios were reality at one point. College football’s journey to the playoffs has required radical change to overcome obstacles unimaginable from our modern perspective.

Historically college football has been a predominantly regional game. The sport was created at elite, northeastern universities before slowly spreading west during the 1880s and 1890s. Scholars have identified a contest between Princeton and Rutgers in November of 1869 as the first intercollegiate football game. During its early years, college athletics followed a strict Victorian definition of amateurism. Under this model, college sports were organized, managed, coached, and financed by students typically under the leadership of an elected team captain. The first intercollegiate sports competitions took place in crew. During the 1850s regattas were widely popular as were track and field meets. These sports were acceptable because of their genteel nature that was closely aligned with upper class athletic and country clubs. Indeed, respectability in sports was often linked so social class. Football was a late addition to these college competitions.

Under the leadership of Walter Camp, Yale emerged as a dominant force both on the gridiron and in the rulebook. Dubbed the “Father of American Football,” Camp joined the Yale team in 1876 and remained directly involved with the team until 1909. According to Richard O. Davies, “during this 34-year time period, Yale won 95 percent of its games, losing only 14 times.” Although this success is remarkable, Camp’s true legacy came within the rules committees. His ideas produced the foundation for the modern game as he developed mass momentum plays, blocking, introduced the “downs and distance” concept, settled on eleven players per team, assigned players positions, and much more. Likewise, he promoted the sport with his mythical All-America teams published every winter in major newspapers.

With Camp as their tutor, Yale players remained loyal to the ideals of amateurism and did not appoint their first paid coach until 1913. Many of Camp’s rules, however, lent themselves to strategy and organization requiring the direction of a strong “corporate executive” style leader. Other colleges did not have the advantage of Camp’s advisement, so they began using professional coaches much earlier than Yale. While some schools had professional coaches by the first decade of the twentieth century, most did not and continued to utilize alumni advisers such as Camp. According to football historian John Watterson, Walter Camp’s athletic structure at Yale became the blueprint for future athletic departments and administrators. As an entrepreneur Camp and other alumni boosters utilized football to build the infrastructure for athletics. In the 1880s the influence of alumni boosters were at the center of the thrust towards the modernization of college sport, which lasted until the 1920s.

Because of its regional nature and the uneven development of the sport, national champions were difficult to determine. Likewise, during this period intersectional games were rare. The sport simply wasn’t national in nature. Some newspapers attempted to apply to the label, mostly to traditional northeastern powers. Others, used lesser titles, such as “Champions of the West” to denote exceptional football teams. Most of the teams recognized as national champions from this period were selected retroactively by different organizations, such as the Helms Foundation.

Let’s Go Bowling
Although the Rose Bowl was founded in 1902 and has been contested regularly since 1916, post-season contests were prohibited and looked down on by most athletic conferences and top-tier programs. They saw them as a violation of the amateur code. Like with radio, the NCAA was at first reluctant to endorse or sanction post-season play, however, by the 1930s they began changing their tune.

Between 1933 and 1937 four new contests appeared establishing bowl games as a regular component of college football. As Robert Ours outlines in his study of Bowl Games, the Sugar and Orange Bowls began in 1935 (although its forerunner began in 1933), the Sun Bowl was added in 1936, and the Cotton Bowl in 1937. These postseason games were the product of chamber of commerce groups interested in attracting tourists and vacationers to warm Southern climates. Indeed, the NCAA even recognized the Bacardi Rum Bowl in Havana Cuba in 1937.

The games put up large guarantees to the home and visiting teams, making them quite lucrative. The first “official” Orange Bowl in 1935 offered a $15,000 guarantee to the visiting team and $12,500 to the home team. The success of the Orange Bowl allowed it to build a new stadium in 1937 at cost of $325,000. While bowl games primarily served as another opportunity for economic solvency for athletic departments, they also worked to establish college football as a national game. They were almost always intersectional contests that presented opportunities for different regions and conferences to vie for national supremacy. The creation of the Heisman Trophy in 1935 and the AP Poll in 1936 only added to the nationalizing of football during the Great Depression.

While postseason bowl contests rapidly expanded during the 1930s, many of the best teams still didn’t go. With the exception of the 1924 Rose Bowl, Notre Dame refused to participate in postseason bowl contests until 1969. Most of what would become the Ivy League, also refused to participate in bowl games.

Trying to limit participation and spread opportunities around, the Big 7 Conference prohibited its teams from competing in a bowl game in consecutive years. In off years, the conference runner-up replaced the champion in the postseason. This was exactly the case for the 1956 University of Oklahoma Sooners. They had won 40-consecutive games at the end of the season and were named repeat national champions, but remained ineligible to play in a bowl game under Big 7 rules.

Polls and Bowls: Who’s the Champion?
Oklahoma was named national champions in 1955 and 1956 by the Associated Press (AP). The AP Poll began in 1936 and annually awarded its national championship trophy to the team that finished first in its rankings at the end of the season. This was problematic for many fans. For example, Oklahoma was also named national champions in 1950 after 31-consecutive victories, but fell to the University of Kentucky in the 1951 Sugar Bowl. The bowl loss did not affect their championship.

Of course, rival polls and agencies also sought to declare their own national champions. Beginning in 1950, the United Press International (UPI) coaches poll also ranked the best college football teams and awarded championships. The UPI poll later became the USA Today coaches poll. Like the AP, however, it also awarded championships prior to bowl games, and in some years the two polls disagreed on who was the best team.

Following 1968 college football season bowl game results were finally factored into the AP championships. Yet, teams serving NCAA and conference postseason bans were still eligible for the AP National Championship. The UPI followed suit with the coaches’ poll after the 1974 season. This increased the emphasis on postseason play and helped to further nationalize the sport by settling regional differences on the playing field. Bowl games were also nationally broadcast which helped increase the exposure of various schools and earned them generous paydays.

While bowl games provided a festive postseason atmosphere and helped compare teams from different conferences and regions, the matchups weren’t always decided with crowning a national champion in mind. Many bowl organizers were more interested in attracting fans to their stadiums and high TV ratings to please their sponsors. Money played a major role.

Perplexed by fan dissatisfaction, five of the major conferences and Notre Dame formed the Bowl Coalition in 1992 to help create marquee bowl game match ups from among their conference champions. A central goal of the Bowl Coalition was to create a national championship game that would quell controversy and establish a consensus champion. Prior to the Bowl Coalition agreement, there were co-champions in both 1990 and 1991. The Bowl Coalition was replaced by the Bowl Alliance in 1995. The Bowl Alliance followed a similar logic and tier system of creating bowl matchups. Both systems were flawed, however, because they did not include the BigTen and Pac10. They also both relied on the AP and Coaches polls to decided their matchups. Under the Bowl Alliance and Bowl Coalition, the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) agreed to select the winner as their national champion. Prior to this, the famous AFCA crystal football trophy was awarded to the #1 team in the coaches poll.

Beginning in 1998, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) replaced the Bowl Alliance. It corrected many of the flaws in the previous system. First, it included the BigTen and Pac10. Second, it opened the door for the participation of mid-major teams. Finally, it altered the methods of selecting its top teams. The BCS established its own poll that combined various polls and added in computer rankings to determine the best two teams. These teams then met in the national championship game to decide the one true champion.

The BCS was not without controversy either. Many fans disagreed on the rankings and other factors used to select the top teams. The narrativization of college football continued to create regional biases and arguments of the strength of different conference schedules. Likewise, the AP continued to select its own national champion regardless of who won the BCS National Championship Game. This happened after the 2003 season when LSU won the BCS title game and the AFCA trophy, but USC received a higher vote total in the AP Poll. Co-Champions returned.

Playoff Football: Small College Style
Major college football is a latecomer to the playoff party. There are 72 teams from 504 schools that compete in playoffs annually at the Divison 2, 3, and NAIA levels. Indeed, the first college football playoff began in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). Although the NAIA was founded with basketball in mind, by the early 1950s it began to expand into other sports.The NAIA’s member schools, however, are predominantly small colleges. Its members broke away from the NCAA following squabbles over governance and voting rights. Small schools felt like they were losing their voice so they formed their own association.

The NAIA began sanctioning football as a sport in 1956. During its first two seasons it selected its top two teams for a national championship game. Four teams were chosen for a playoff in 1958. Today, the top 16 teams in the final NAIA coaches poll advance to the playoffs. The first three rounds of the playoffs are held on campus before the championship game is hosted at a neutral site.

Small colleges continued to pioneer playoff football when the NCAA split into 3 divisions in 1973. Prior to the reorganization the NCAA had a “College Division” from 1964 to 1972. It’s top teams competed in four bowl games before a poll decided the national champion. When Division 2 and Division 3 were created in 1973 playoffs were instituted. Division 1-A (now called Division 1 Football Championship Subdivision) was added in 1978 with its own football playoff.

Fans of big-time college football who are disappointed with the four-team playoff shouldn’t fret. Each lower division playoff began with a limited number of teams but has since expanded. Division 3 went from 4 teams in 1973 to 8 teams in 1975. By 1985 they were at 16 teams, and today 32 teams are listed in the tournament bracket. Division 2 followed a similar pattern of growth, though they continue to have a 24 team field. Likewise, FCS has expanded from 4 teams in 1978 to 8 in 1981 and then 12 in 1982. In 2013 the FCS playoff field expanded to 24 from the previous 20 team field established in 2008. The playoffs for each of these divisions are spread across 4 to 5 weeks in December concluding with their championship games in early January.

Big-Time Playoff Football
This is the first year of the playoff football for big-time college football, or NCAA Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision. It builds on previous methods of determining national champions, while continuing to preserve the heritage of the bowl system. Like its lower division cousins, the new playoff bracket is starting out small though expansion may be on the horizon.

Despite being a fresh new approach to deciding champions, the College Football Playoff maintains similar agreements from the BCS era. Its composed of the five major conferences with limited opportunity for mid-major programs, and releases it own weekly standings throughout the season. The AFCA trophy is also linked to the new College Football Playoff as are 6 major New Years bowl games. Unlike the BCS and Polls, however, the College Football Playoff uses a committee to select and seed its four participants.

To be sure, controversy will likely continue under the new system. Just like the NCAA Basketball Tournament, fans will continue to second-guess the committee’s selections, seedings, and argue for the supremacy of their team or region. The AP might also disagree with the outcome of the game and select another team as its national champion, though this seems more unlikely with the playoff format. No longer an integral part of the selection process, the polls may lose their significance.

It’s a new era. Big-time college football has finally embraced the postseason without abandoning its tradition. Bowl games and controversy survive, though the on-the-field action has already disrupted traditional narratives and disproven the pollsters. Ohio State’s upset of Alabama has quieted the SEC faithful and Oregon’s defeat of Florida State shattered the mystique of the undefeated. While the competing narratives will continue to matter and add to the drama so loved in college football, we now get to seem the acted on the gridiron for all to see. Champions will finally be made on the football field and not the polling booth or press box.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. His dissertation explores the impact of Bud Wilkinson and college football on Oklahoma. You can reach him via email at or on Twitter: @admcgregor85

3 thoughts on “College Football and the Postseason: From Polls to Bowls to Playoffs

  1. Pingback: The Road to the Playoffs: College Football, Mass Media, and Money | Sport in American History

  2. Pingback: Blogging & the College Football Playoff | Andrew McGregor

  3. This blog entry states,

    “Division 1-A (now called Division 1 Football Championship Subdivision) was added in 1978 with its own football playoff.”

    That should be “Division I-AA” — double-A, that is. Division I-A (single-A) designates the major-college football programs, now termed “Division I Football Bowl Subdivision” (FBS).

    Also, the NCAA’s convention is to identify the Divisions with Roman numerals — Division I, Division II, Division III — not with Arabic numerals (“1”, or “2”, or “3”).


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