The 150-year national championship Empires Map

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Imagine if teams took each other’s land when they claimed a national championship. Here’s how that would look.

Almost 150 years ago, a little game started on a field in New Brunswick, N.J., between Princeton and Rutgers. It has grown into one of the largest sports in the world, with some college football team (or a few) claiming supremacy in every year since 1869.

To take a look at the history of college football, I mapped the teams as they’ve won championships.

The methodology is mapping the closest county to each school, with the number of championships won acting as a weight. The more championships, the farther a school can reach.

I’m using the list of championships claimed by teams, whether they actually deserved each of them or not. We’ll look at how the map changes each decade, with a GIF of the entire history at the end.

In the first year of college football, Rutgers and Princeton each won one game apiece, which both claim as a championship.

Princeton went 1-0 with a win over Rutgers to win their second championship of many, as you can see, Princeton having multiple championships gives the Tigers far more weight on the map.

  • Claimed championships: Princeton’s 8 (10 total) and Yale’s 6
  • First-time championship claims: Yale (1872)

Princeton, now with 10 titles, overpowers the reach of Rutgers, causing Rutgers to have no land on the map despite claiming one championship.

  • Claimed championships: Yale’s 7 (13 total), Princeton’s 5 (15), Harvard’s 1
  • First-time championship claims: Harvard (1890)
  • Claimed championships: Yale’s 7 (20 total), Princeton’s 5 (20), Penn’s 3 (3), Harvard’s 2 (3), Lafayette’s 1
  • First-time championship claims: Penn (1894) and Lafayette (1896)

1901-1910

The beginning of the 1900s marked the emergence of non-Ivy League schools. Michigan became the first non-Ivy to claim multiple championships, signaling the start of the Ivy League’s decline as the dominant group.

  • Claimed championships: Yale’s 6 (26 total), Michigan’s 4, Penn’s 3 (6), Princeton’s 2 (22), Harvard’s 1 (4), Minnesota’s 1, Chicago’s 1
  • First-time championship claims: Michigan (1901), Minnesota (1904), and Chicago (1905)

1911-1920

The Ivy remains strong, but a handful of other teams start working their way into the championship ranks, including teams from outside the Northeast and Midwest.

  • Claimed championships: Harvard’s 3 (7 total), Pitt’s 3 (3), Princeton’s 2 (24), Illinois’ 2, Michigan’s 1 (5) Chicago’s 1 (2), Cornell’s 1, Georgia Tech’s 1, Texas A&M’s 1, Centre’s 1, Cal’s 1
  • First-time championship claims: Illinois (1914), Pitt (1915), Cornell (1915), Georgia Tech (1917), Texas A&M (1919), Centre (1919), Cal (1920)

Among the most college football decades ever, with 29 championship claims by 19 different teams in 10 years.

  • Claimed championships: Cal’s 3 (4 total), Cornell’s 3 (4), Notre Dame’s 3, Alabama’s 3, Illinois’ 2 (4), Lafayette’s 2 (3), Yale’s 1 (27), Princeton’s 1 (25), Penn’s 1 (7), Michigan’s 1 (6), Pitt’s 1 (4), Georgia Tech’s 1 (2), Texas A&M’s 1 (2), USC’s 1, Stanford’s 1, Navy’s 1, Dartmouth’s 1, Iowa’s 1, Detroit’s 1
  • First-time championship claims: Iowa (1921), Notre Dame (1924), Alabama (1925), Dartmouth (1925), Stanford (1926), Navy (1926), USC (1928), Detroit (1928, but with no land, because of Michigan’s six championship claims overpowering the Titans’ one)
  • Claimed championships: Pitt’s 4 (8), Minnesota’s 4 (5), USC’s 3 (4), Princeton’s 2 (27), Michigan’s 2 (8), Tennessee’s 2, TCU’s 2, Cornell’s 1 (5), Cal’s 1 (5), Alabama’s 1 (4), Texas A&M’s 1 (3), Stanford’s 1 (2), SMU’s 1, Boston College’s 1
  • First-time championship claims: TCU (1935), SMU (1935), Tennessee (1938), Boston College (1940, but with no land, because it’s overpowered by Harvard’s seven claims)

World War II drained rosters around the country, and Army and Notre Dame dominated much of the decade. (Notre Dame’s enrollment dwindled, and Navy helped the school survive by picking South Bend as the site of a major training program.)

  • Claimed championships: Notre Dame’s 4 (7), Army’s 3, Michigan’s 2 (10), Princeton’s 1 (28), Minnesota’s 1 (6), Alabama’s 1 (5), Tennessee’s 1 (3), Ohio State’s 1, Georgia’s 1, Oklahoma State’s 1, Oklahoma’s 1, Kentucky’s 1
  • First-time championship claims: Ohio State (1942), Georgia (1942), Army (1944), Oklahoma State (1945), Oklahoma (1950), Kentucky (1950)

The Big Ten controlled the 50s, with current members claiming 11 championships. Michigan State, having joined the Big Ten in 1950, led the nation in claims.

  • Claimed championships: Michigan State’s 4, Iowa’s 3 (4), Ohio State’s 2 (3), Oklahoma’s 2 (3), Ole Miss’ 2, Minnesota’s 1 (7), Illinois’ 1 (5), Tennessee’s 1 (4), Georgia Tech’s 1 (3), Maryland’s 1, UCLA’s 1, Auburn’s 1, LSU’s 1, Syracuse’s 1, Washington’s 1
  • First-time championship claims: Michigan State (1951), Maryland (1953), UCLA (1954, but overpowered by USC’s four claims), Auburn (1957), LSU (1958), Ole Miss (1959), Syracuse (1959), Washington (1960)

The historic powerhouses of the major conferences controlled the ‘60s.

  • Claimed championships: Alabama’s 3 (8), Ohio State’s 3 (6), Texas’ 3, USC’s 2 (6), Michigan State’s 2 (6), Notre Dame’s 1 (8), Tennessee’s 1 (5), Arkansas’ 1, Nebraska’s 1
  • First-time championship claims: Texas (1963), Arkansas (1964), Nebraska (1970)

The dominance of the bluebloods peaked, with only a few teams claiming titles. This decade marks the fewest championship claims until the formation of an actual championship game.

  • Claimed championships: Alabama’s 3 (11), USC’s 3 (9), Notre Dame’s 2 (10), Oklahoma’s 2 (5), Pitt’s 1 (9), Nebraska’s 1 (2), Georgia’s 1 (2)
  • First-time championship claims: None

The ‘80s were total chaos. Of the 10 teams who claimed championships in this span, only 3 had multiple championships entering the decade, and one of those (Georgia Tech) hadn’t won one since the ‘50s.

  • Claimed championships: Miami’s 3, SMU’s 2 (3), Washington’s 2 (3), Penn State’s 2, Notre Dame’s 1 (11), Oklahoma’s 1 (6), Georgia Tech’s 1 (4), BYU’s 1, Clemson’s 1, Colorado’s 1
  • First-time championship claims: Clemson (1981), Penn State (1982), Miami (1983), BYU (1984), Colorado (1990)

With the introduction of the BCS, we begin to see fewer national championships claimed per decade, bringing the total close to one per year.

  • Claimed championships: Nebraska’s 3 (5), Florida State’s 2, Alabama’s 1 (12), Michigan’s 1 (11), Oklahoma’s 1 (7), Tennessee’s 1 (6), Miami’s 1 (4), Washington’s 1 (4), Florida’s 1
  • First-time championship claims: Florida State (1993) and Florida (1996)

In the first five years of the 2000s, five different conferences won championships. The SEC then took over college football in the late 2000s, holding control for nearly a decade.

  • Claimed championships: USC’s 2 (11), LSU’s 2 (3), Florida’s 2 (3), Alabama’s 1 (13), Ohio State’s 1 (7), Miami’s 1 (5), Texas’ 1 (4), Auburn’s 1 (2)
  • First-time championship claims: None

The ‘10s introduced the College Football Playoff, as well as the Alabama-Clemson rivalry. The two teams have claimed six championships, splitting the last four down the middle.

  • Claimed championships: Alabama’s 4 (17), Clemson’s 2 (3) Ohio State’s 1 (8), Florida State’s 1 (3), UCF’s 1
  • First-time championship claims: UCF (2017)

College football is one of America’s favorite sports for two primary reasons: tradition and chaos. This map shows the prevalence of both of those.

Nearly every decade, we get a champion that no one would have expected. Sometimes they continue their dominance, like Nebraska and Oklahoma, but sometimes the teams fade into obscurity, like Centre and Detroit.

The GIF also shows that no team really controls college football for more than 10 to 15 years at a time. So maybe there is hope that we won’t have to watch Alabama vs Clemson 19 after the 2034 season.

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