Winning three straight national titles is a task that has proven next to impossible in college football. The fact that recruiting is constant and you only get players for four years at the most makes a three-peat seem that much more difficult. And it should. Since 1940, there have been nine instances where a team has repeated as national champions in either the AP or Coach’s polls or both only to fail at winning it in a third straight season.
The first team to come up short at a three-peat was the first team to complete it. The Minnesota Golden Gophers repeated as AP national champions in 1940 & ’41 before going only 5-4 in 1942, but still finishing in the AP top 20.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish team that split the national title with the Army Cadets in 1946 went on to win the AP title and share the national title again in 1947, this time with the Michigan Wolverines. Ironically, it was a famous tie that ended the Fighting Irish’s hopes for a third straight title. In their final game of the 1948 season, the Fighting Irish played to a 14-14 tie with the USC Trojans, at the time not ranked. The tie caused the Fighting Irish to finish #2 in the final standings.
Almost a decade later, Bud Wilkinson had created a football juggernaut as coach of the Oklahoma Sooners. The Sooners had won the AP and UPI (Coach’s) national titles in 1955 and ’56, and appeared on their way to a three-peat in 1957. Then came a 7-0 loss in Norman, Oklahoma to the Fighting Irish. The loss snapped a 47-game winning streak for the Sooners, still a record. The Sooners didn’t lose another game that season and finished #4.
Almost another decade later, another iconic college football coach took aim at the three-peat. Paul “Bear” Bryant and the Alabama Crimson Tide had won the AP & Coach’s title in 1964 and then just the Coach’s title in 1965. What ended up costing them a third straight national title was their schedule, not the difficulty, but when they began their season. The Crimson Tide didn’t start the 1966 season until late September, and by this time were #3 in the polls. The Crimson Tide went 11-0 and dominated the whole way with six shutouts and four in a row to finish the regular season, but because the Fighting Irish had gotten ahead of them in the polls and also went undefeated (though with a famous tie), they ended up with the national title.
Bob Devaney went out a winner as coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers after the 1972 season, but it could have been a three-peat out the door instead of a more ceremonial exit in the Orange Bowl. Devaney’s teams won the AP title in 1970 and both polls in 1971. Their hopes for a three-peat died in the first game of the 1972 season when the UCLA Bruins, quarterbacked by future actor Mark Harmon, upset the Cornhuskers 20-17.
In the mid-70’s, the Sooners were the best team that nobody could see. Because of NCAA probation, the Sooners weren’t allowed on national television, but still won the AP title in 1974 and both polls in 1975. However, they couldn’t produce the same magic in 1976 as they tied their archrivals, the Texas Longhorns, before losing back-to-back games in November.
At the end of the 1970’s, “Bear” Bryant got a second chance at a three-peat. The Crimson Tide shared the title with the Trojans in 1978 and then won in both polls the following season. In 1980, the Crimson Tide started the season 7-0 before losing 6-3 to the Ole Miss Rebels. They lost two weeks later to the Fighting Irish and ended up finishing 10-2.
When Tom Osbourne finally collected his first national championship as coach of the Cornhuskers in 1994, he didn’t stop there. With a phenomenal set of talent, the Cornhuskers repeated with ease in 1995 and were in position to play for a third straight title after the 1996 regular season. Of course, this was the first season since the Big 8 became the Big 12. This meant a conference title game against the Longhorns. The game ended up as an instant classic that the Longhorns won partially due to a fourth down pass from Longhorns quarterback James Brown setting up the game-clinching touchdown.
Finally, the Trojans’ near-three-peat that is still relatively new in the grand scheme of things. The Trojans were a dominant machine in the early and mid-2000’s, gathering Heisman Trophies and big bowl wins. In 2003, they won the AP national title after being ranked #1 in both polls, but #3 in the BCS poll and left out of the national title game; they won the Rose Bowl that season. There was no controversy in 2004 as the Trojans rolled to a national title that has since been vacated after the scandal involving Reggie Bush, a running back for the Trojans during this period. In 2005, the Trojans went undefeated through the regular season for the second straight time before losing to the Longhorns for the national title in what has come to be almost universally recognized as the best BCS title game in the poll’s 15-season history.
What I hope this has conveyed is the true importance of winning three straight national titles in college football. It is not only historic, it is immortalized because of its rarity. Every team that has come close had dominated the game over that specific period, but this feat proved too much to complete. It speaks to how special that team that completes the feat is not only in the present as they’re completing it, but in the history books forever among a very exclusive club.