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Penn State History Lesson: Unclaimed Football National Championships

On Monday, Georgia defeated Alabama to win the 2022 College Football Playoff National Championship. The Bulldogs avenged a loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game thanks to the structure of the College Football Playoff, which allows the four best teams in regardless of conference.

For most of college football’s history, there wasn’t a formal national championship game. Instead, the winner was determined by a panel of NCAA-approved electors at the end of the season. It was not until 1998 that a dedicated national championship game between the two best teams in the country came to fruition. And, in 2014, the format was expanded to the current four-team playoff field. 

Since the electors often had a hard time agreeing on the national champion before 1998, several teams were often named co-champions for the season. Penn State only recognizes its 1982 and 1986 national titles, which were both unanimous or near-unanimous selections. Some universities choose to claim every national championship they received a vote for, though.

If Penn State wanted to, it could probably lay claim to as many as seven national titles. To put that into perspective, let’s take a look back at some of the best Penn State teams that didn’t win a trophy…but maybe should have.

1911

Many associate Joe Paterno with Penn State’s rise to prominence, but the Nittany Lions had championship-caliber seasons long before he became head coach. The 1911 team, led by second-year head coach Bill Hollenback, finished with a record of 8-0-1, which was the best finish in school history at the time. The team’s best wins were against solid Penn and Cornell teams, and it finished the season with a shutout victory over Pitt. Penn State’s only blemish was a scoreless tie against Navy, which is no longer possible in today’s game.

The team was retroactively declared national champions by the National Championship Foundation, an independent outlet whose picks have been included in the NCAA’s historical record books. 

1912

If the 1911 team was debatably the best in the country, the 1912 team was a near certainty. The Nittany Lions annihilated their opponents on their way to another undefeated season, outscoring them by a total margin of 285 to six. The National Championship Foundation has since named them the rightful champions, marking a rare instance of back-to-back national titles.

This season notably featured Penn State’s first-ever matchup with Ohio State, who was a part of the then-Ohio Athletic Conference but saught to join what is now the Big Ten conference. The Buckeyes rarely played quality teams and thought that scheduling Penn State would boost the credibility of their bid to move up conferences. Confusion abounded when they were promptly lit up by Penn State’s quarterback, Eugene “Shorty” Miller, who stood at a towering five feet ten inches and 145 pounds. By the fourth quarter, Penn State held a 37-0 lead. Ohio State decided to forfeit, chalking their decision up to Penn State’s supposed dirty hits. The Buckeyes walked off the field as fans hucked trash at Penn State’s players. Stay classy, Columbus! 

1969

The 1969 Nittany Lions were dominant, finishing 11-0 and defeating Missouri in the Orange Bowl. This was also the year that Richard Nixon made a questionable decision and interfered with who won the national championship. Nixon gave Texas a plaque, declaring that it was the national champion after the regular season and completely ignoring the purpose of the bowls. At the time, teams needed to choose their bowl opponents in November, so second-ranked Penn State didn’t have the chance to settle it on the field with Texas. Nonetheless, the team was recognized as national champions by two NCAA-approved selectors. Years later, Joe Paterno would famously say, “I don’t know how Richard Nixon could know so much about college football in 1969 and so little about Watergate in 1973.”

1981 

This season is Penn State’s weakest case for a national championship but remains one of the best campaigns in school history. Penn State finished 10-2 against a strong slate of opponents, and both of its losses were to teams that finished inside the top 10. The Nittany Lions topped the AP Poll halfway through the season and fought their way back to No. 2 with a 48-14 drubbing of top-ranked Pitt and a victory over USC in the Fiesta Bowl. Penn State got one vote for national champion, but it would not need to wait for long to reach its ultimate goal. Many of its players, including quarterback Todd Blackledge, would return the following year as the core of the first national championship in school history.

1994

The 1994 season is widely regarded as one of the most controversial championship selections ever, and for a good reason. Penn State, which had just joined the Big Ten after playing as an independent program for nearly a century, trounced its new conference on its way to an 11-0 regular-season record. Running back Ki-Jana Carter led the way with over 1,500 rushing yards and a second-place finish in Heisman voting. 

By the end of the regular season, Penn State rose to No. 2 and was breathing down the neck of top-ranked Nebraska. Similar to 1969, though, Penn State’s fate was taken out of its hands by the bowls. Due to a contractual agreement between the Big Ten and Pacific-10 conference, Penn State was stuck facing No. 12 Oregon in the Rose Bowl while Nebraska played in the Orange Bowl against No. 3 Miami. When Nebraska came from behind and won, NBC announcers declared the Cornhuskers the national champions then and there. Penn State, which would play the next day, had its hopes dashed in the eyes of the general public before it even took the field. The Nittany Lions would soundly defeat Oregon, but their victory rang hollow when they finished No. 2 in the poll. 

The 1994 team has been ranked by ESPN as the 16th greatest college football team of all time, one spot behind Nebraska. It was also named the highest-ranked team without a national title. Even today, you’ll find students and alumni alike who are still miffed about the greatest “What if?” season in program history.

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About the Author

Adam Babetski

Adam Babetski is a junior majoring in communications. He's from the only part of Virginia without tractors and southern accents. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamBabetski for hot takes about sports. For serious inquiries, email [email protected]

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