Since his arrival in Tuscaloosa in 2007, Nick Saban and Alabama have gradually become the most successful team in the SEC and all of college football. After going 7-6 during the first year of his tenure, the Crimson Tide have posted a 61-8 record over the last five seasons. Winning a national title is quite an accomplishment for any college football program, but the Tide have won three of the last four. Last season they became the first team to repeat as undisputed national champions since Tom Osborne’s Nebraska Cornhuskers in the mid-90’s.
Several other schools have repeated as national champions, but none have won three in a row since the AP Poll began in 1936. The last school that achieved a three-peat was the Minnesota Golden Gophers (led by future Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson at quarterback) who were atop of college football from 1934-36. The Gophers went 23-1 during that stretch under Bernie Bierman and their achievement was culminated during the first year that the AP Poll was in existence. Many dominant teams have come close to matching that feat, but a gap year during a potential national title streak or a close finish the year before or after a national title streak has made this feat unprecedented since the days of Bud Wilkinson and Bernie Bierman.
1944-46 Army Cadets – Heisman winners “Mr. Inside” Doc Blanchard and “Mr. Outside” Glenn Davis helped the Cadets achieve a 32 game unbeaten streak during their time together at West Point. Earl Blaik’s squad went 9-0 in 1944 and 1945, entering the 1946 as the twice defending national champions. Army finished the season without loss (9-0-1), but was ranked second in the final AP poll to Notre Dame (8-0-1). The Fighting Irish and Cadets played to a 0-0 tie that season at Yankee Stadium in what was billed as the “Game of the Century.” While neither team played in a bowl game that season, decades later, they surely would have been headlining a much anticipated rematch in the BCS National Championship Game.
1946-49 Notre Dame Fighting Irish – After edging out Army as the national champions in 1946, the Fighting Irish were once again the top team in the nation the following year. Their quest for a 3-peat was halted in 1948 after finishing second in the polls to the Michigan Wolverines (9-0). Notre Dame started out 9-0, but tied USC 14-14 in their final game of the season. Frank Leahey’s squad continued their dominance in 1949 with a 10-0 record and another national title. His team was the first to win three championships in four years, narrowly missing out on an unprecedented 3-peat and 4-peat.
1954-58 Oklahoma Sooners – Oklahoma was the most dominant team in college football during the Bud Wilkinson era. The Sooners were conference champions during his first 13 years in Norman, only lost eight games during the 1950’s, and once had winning streaks of both 31 and 47 games. The peak of their success came during a 51-2 stretch from 1954-58. Oklahoma finished as the third ranked team in the nation after a 10-0 record in 1954 and won back to back national titles during the ’55 and ’56 seasons. Their record-setting 47 game winning streak and bid for a 3-peat was snapped after a 7-0 home loss to Notre Dame. The Sooners finished fourth in the final polls with a 10-1 record and Orange Bowl victory. Oklahoma went 10-1 in 1958 and repeated as Orange Bowl champions.
1964-66 Alabama Crimson Tide – The Crimson Tide became national champions during year four of the Bear Bryant era and continued their success with back to back titles in 1964 and ’65. They were favored to win it all again in ’66 as the number one team in the preseason AP Poll. Alabama (11-0) finished the season as the third ranked team in the country, despite being the only team that finished the season without a loss or tie. Notre Dame (9-0-1) was selected as the national champion and Michigan State (9-0-1) came in second place. The Fighting Irish played the Spartans to a 10-10 that season in East Lansing, with neither school playing in a bowl game that year.
1970-72 Nebraska Cornhuskers – Nebraska finished first in the AP Polls in 1970 and were even more dominate when they repeated as national champions the following year. The Cornhuskers won 12 of their 13 games by 24 or more points. Their closest margin of victory was a 35-31 triumph on the road over #2 Oklahoma in one of college football’s most famous games. Their memorable season was topped off with a 38-6 victory over Alabama in the Orange Bowl. Nebraska repeated as Orange Bowl champions the next season, but went 9-2-1 to finished fourth in the final AP Poll in Bob Devaney’s final season as head coach.
1973-75 Oklahoma Sooners – Barry Switzer took over for Chuck Fairbanks in the midst of a probation that would eventually give Oklahoma a two year bowl ban. The NCAA violations and postseason ban didn’t stop their success on the field in year one of the Switzer era, as the Sooners posted a 10-0-1 record in 1973, finishing third in the AP Poll and second in the Coaches Poll. The Sooners continued their strong play in ’74, becoming the most recent team to finish atop of the AP Poll (Oklahoma wasn’t eligible for the Coaches Poll) without playing in a bowl game. Oklahoma came in first place for both polls the following year after a 10-1 season. Their only blemish in 1975 was a 23-3 home loss to Kansas.
1977-79 Alabama Crimson Tide – Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide also came close to achieving a three-peat during the late 1970’s. Alabama finished the decade by winning three Sugar Bowls in a row. Bryant’s squad went 11-1 in ’77, finishing second to Notre Dame in the final polls. The Crimson Tide went 11-1 again the year after (#1 in the AP Poll) and split the national title with USC (#1 in the UPI Poll). Their success continued in ’79 when they were the undisputed national champions after a 12-0 season.
1987-91 Miami Hurricanes – The Hurricanes have never repeated as national championships, but had a five year stretch under Jimmy Johnson (left after 1988) and Dennis Erickson when they went 56-4 and won three national titles (’87, ’89, and ’91). That run included two gap years that might have been a three-peat. Miami finished the 1988 season with an 11-1 record and a number two ranking in the final polls. Their only loss (31-30) was against eventual national champion Notre Dame in South Bend. In 1990, they were ranked third in the final polls after posting a 10-2 record and winning the Cotton Bowl.
1993-97 Nebraska Cornhuskers – Tom Osborne finished his coaching career after the 1997 season after the Cornhuskers had one of the most dominant runs in the history of college football. Nebraska went 61-3 during his final five seasons as head coach and became the first school to win three national titles in four year seasons (’94, ’95, and ’97), since Notre Dame in the 1940’s. The Cornhuskers almost made their national title repeat from ’94 and ’95 a three-peat, but a missed field goal against Florida State in the 1994 Orange Bowl denying them a national title for the 1993 season.
Their second chance to three-peat during that stretch was during the 1996 season. The twice defending national champions were once again number one in the preseason, but were shutout on the road against 17th ranked Arizona State in their second game of the year. Nebraska rebounded by winning their next nine games and were third in the polls heading in to the inaugural Big 12 Championship Game. A 37-27 upset against the Texas Longhorns kept them out of a potential matchup against unbeaten Florida State for the national title. The Cornhuskers went 13-0 in 1997, during Tom Osborne’s final year on the sidelines and split the national title with Michigan.
Nebraska came that close to winning not one, not two, but five championships in a row.
1998-2000 Florida State Seminoles – No team in the AP or BCS era has won three consecutive national championships, but one school has played in three consecutive national championship games. The Seminoles played in the first three Bowl Championship Series title games, but only came out on top in their second appearance. Tennessee beat Florida State 23-16 in the first BCS title game. Florida State entered the 1999 season as the top ranked team in country and never lost that honor, becoming the first “wire to wire” national champion. The Seminoles returned to the national title game the year after, but were upset 13-2 by Oklahoma.
2003-05 USC Trojans – USC finished atop of the AP Polls in 2003, despite not getting selected to play Oklahoma or LSU in the BCS National Championship Game. The Trojans were heavy favorites to win the national title in 2004 and became to the second team to finish as “wire to wire” national champions, after a 55-19 rout over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. They became even bigger favorites to win it all again in 2005, after Heisman winner Matt Leinhart decided to return to Los Angeles for his senior year.
Throughout the season and even before it began, many members of national media were already proclaiming the 2005 USC Trojans as one of the greatest teams in college football history. The Trojans went 12-0 during the regular season and won nine of their games by more than 19 points. They faced Vince Young and the Texas Longhorns in a Rose Bowl matchup that would go down as one of the greatest games in college football history. The Longhorns upset the twice defending national champions 41-38 to win their first national title since 1969.