College Football's Conflicting No. 1 Claims

College Football's Conflicting No. 1 Claims

The University of Alabama football team boasted six national championships when Wayne Atcheson took over as the school's sports-information director in 1983. Within three years, the Crimson Tide had five more titles.

What Mr. Atcheson did to expand Alabama's haul wasn't illegal, miraculous or even unique, though it has stoked a fiery debate. He simply exhumed the titles from dusty record books and added them to the school's football press guide, instantly enshrining them.

Major-college football is unusual among American sports in that for most of its history it had no playoff, no Super Bowl, to determine a champion—just a handful of exhibition-like postseason bowl games. Many of the nation's top teams didn't play one another, leaving open the perennial question: Which was the nation's best? That void spawned dozens of sportswriter and coaches' opinion polls and opaque mathematical "systems," each crowning its own champion. Some titles were so dubious the winners themselves didn't bother to claim them.

But the explosion of college football games on TV has intensified interest in the counting of national championships. Hence, Mr. Atcheson's reclamation of Alabama's nearly forgotten early 20th-century titles. The advent of an actual championship game after the 1998 season has only aggravated disputes about the relative worth of teams' claimed titles—the Tide's in particular.

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