WHO'S NUMBER ONE?
"There's just no substitute for contemporary opinion when you're trying to recreate the past" - Brock J. Hanke
When searching for historical reality, put yourself in the position of someone who really was there at the time. When looking for the national champion of a college football season, ask yourself which team was considered the contemporary consensus national leading team. Ask which team would finish first if an AP poll existed at that time. In 1901, the voters in such a poll would have had a 25-year tradition of regarding the championship team of the east as the same thing as the national leading team. When the Michigan, Minnesota and Chicago teams came along in 1901-1905, would any of them have been regarded by the contemporary consensus as the nation's leading team? Would any of them have finished first in a contemporary AP poll?
Prior to 1901, only four schools had ever been considered champions of the east. Yale would be the first place everyone looked, followed by Princeton, Harvard and Pennsylvania. Michigan's combined record against these four teams in the years prior to 1901 was 0-7. The Wolverines were 0-3 against Harvard, 0-2 against Yale, and 0-1 against both Princeton and Pennsylvania. Michigan did not play any of these four in the years 1901-1905. The Wolverines did not defeat any of these four eastern teams until 1909 when they beat Pennsylvania.
If you can't be the best until you beat the best, who exactly did Michigan defeat in 1901 that would establish them as being superior to the eastern champion?
1901 Caspar Whitney: 1-Harvard, 2-Yale, 3-Michigan, 4-Wisconsin, 5-Army, 6-Princeton, 7-Cornell, 8-Lafayette, 9-Navy, 10-Syracuse, 11-Columbia, 12-Pennsylvania, 13-Minnesota, 14-Dartmouth, 15-Williams, 16-Northwestern, 17-Illinois, 18-Chicago, 19-Iowa, 20-Tennessee.
1902 Caspar Whitney: 1-Yale, 2-Harvard, 3-Army, 4-Michigan, 5-Princeton, 6-Dartmouth, 7-Brown, 8-Pennsylvania, 9-Cornell, 10-Amherst, 11-Carlisle, 12-Navy, 13-Lehigh, 14-Lafayette, 15-Minnesota, 16-Syracuse, 17-Columbia, 18-Chicago, 19-Wisconsin, 20-Illinois.
1903 Caspar Whitney: ? (not yet found)
1904 Caspar Whitney: 1-Yale, 2-Pennsylvania, 3-Army, 4-Princeton, 5-Harvard, 6-Dartmouth, 7-Minnesota, 8-Michigan, 9-Amherst, 10-Chicago, 11-Navy, 12-Lafayette, 13-Wisconsin, 14-Carlisle, 15-Haskell, 16-Nebraska, 17-Northwestern, 18-Columbia, 19-Maine, 20-Brown.
1905 Caspar Whitney: 1-Yale, 2-Harvard, 3-Pennsylvania, 4-Chicago, 5-Dartmouth, 6-Princeton, 7-Army, 8-Navy, 9-Brown, 10-Carlisle, 11-Amherst, 12-Columbia, 13-Cornell, 14-Lafayette.
Note that Caspar Whitney really was there at the time and did not rank the teams by looking into a record book or a score book from a standpoint many years in the future. Retroratings do not have priority over the contemporary consensus when looking for historical reality.
The trouble with naming Michigan as "national champion" in 1901 is:
A) Retroratings (looking into a record book or score book to select a team with a gaudy record rather than asking how the people thought who really were there at the time.)
B) Subjective judgment selection being treated as if it were the same thing as objective fact and historical reality. One could also select Dartmouth as "national champion" of 1965 since they were the only perfect record major college team of that year, but such a selection would have nothing to do with historical reality based on the contemporary consensus.
When critics maintain that the polls do not necessarily select the best teams for the national championship, we can be in complete agreement. What the polls do is select the team who the largest number of their informed voters THINK is the best or most deserving team. By "informed experts" we are assuming that most people who vote in these polls give their decisions some conscientious investigation. But, in effect, they are giving something like a popularity vote, as the perceptions are in the minds of the selectors. The ability of a team to be recognized as national champion is based on perceptions. In 1998, for example, Tennessee and Tulane both won all their games, yet Tennessee was perceived as being worthy of being voted the national championship while Tulane was not.
And, to be honest, the AP voters are not going to be THAT far off.
Remember, for purposes of historical reality, we are looking for the teams who were perceived as the best, not necessarily which teams were the best. Selecting Michigan retroactively as "national champion" of 1901 only serves to muddy the waters concerning historical reality.
(Thanks to Professional Football Researchers Association editor Bob Carroll for material used in this article.)