The Gophers were crowned champions in 1934, ‘35 and ‘36. While that achievement comes with a few asterisks, it’s still Minnesota and Minnesota alone that holds that spot in the NCAA’s official record.
That distinction actually is not all that well known even in “the Land of 10,000 Lakes.” Time and many years of relative mediocrity have obscured it from general knowledge. But those who are aware of the rare three-in-a-row distinction are fiercely proud and protective of it.
“Most Gopher fans will be paying close attention to Georgia this year because they’re going for a three-peat, and most of them will be cheering against Georgia, to be honest with you,” said Rob Litt, co-owner of the fan page GopherHole.com and a resident historian on Minnesota athletics. “We like our place in history; we don’t want to share it with you guys. As far back as that goes, it is still something that we tip our hat to, and we know those 1934-to-36 teams will probably be mentioned more this year than they ever have been.”
A handful of teams have had a chance to match the accomplishment in the decades since. The latest was Alabama, which had its bid undone in the cruelest of fashions in 2013. The Crimson Tide, then led by a defensive coordinator named Kirby Smart, were a two-time national champ and 11-0 going into Auburn for the Iron Bowl. That’s when a long, ill-fated field-goal attempt became known as the “Kick Six.” Auburn defensive back Chris Davis fielded the kick that fell short and returned it 109 yards for a touchdown, and the Tigers won 34-28.
As a result, it was Auburn, rather than Alabama, that met Florida State in a BCS title game won by the Seminoles. The Tide ended up losing to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl to finish 11-2.
“That was the last time this was brought up a lot, and for sure, Gopher fans were cheering against (Alabama),” Litt said. “We are proud to be undefeated lifetime against both Alabama and Auburn. We beat them both in bowl games the last 20 years.”
A check of the official record reveals that the Gophers defeated No. 9 Auburn 31-24 in the 2020 Outback Bowl and that they also beat Alabama, then coached by Mike Shula, 20-16 in the 2004 Music City Bowl.
Of course, three-peating, as it were, could not be further from the minds of the Bulldogs. Yes, they are quite aware of the history that could be made should they win a third national championship in a row. They have been reminded of it at virtually every press conference and public appearance since the day after defeating TCU 65-7 in Los Angeles to claim the 2022 title.
What’s more, Georgia looks to be a runaway favorite to win it all again. With 16 starters returning from last season’s 15-0 team and a schedule that looks more like a red-carpet walk into the College Football Playoff, the Bulldogs are the consensus No. 1 pick of preseason polls and the prohibitive favorite of oddsmakers to win it all. Georgia was listed by the DraftKings Sportsbook at plus-215 to win the national championship, minus-115 to win the SEC championship and minus-500 to win the SEC East. That was two weeks ahead of the Sept. 2 home opener against Tennessee-Martin (6 p.m. SEC Network-Plus).
Next will come Ball State, followed by South Carolina and Alabama-Birmingham, all in September. Not until a Sept. 30 trip to Auburn is Georgia expected to encounter a viable challenge. In fact, early postings have the Bulldogs as a double-digit favorite in every game they play until a Nov. 18 trip to Knoxville to face Tennessee in the SEC regular-season finale. Caesars sportsbook in Las Vegas has Georgia giving nine points in that one.
All of which, of course, means nothing inside the shiny walls of Georgia’s Butts-Mehre football complex. There you will find absolutely no mention of a three-peat or anything beyond “Beat the Skyhawks,” the FCS opponent whom the Bulldogs face in the opening game. That or “Better Never Rests,” the catchphrase Smart borrowed from New Zealand’s national rugby team, the most successful professional franchise of all time.
Smart’s young charges are paying attention. No one has communicated the Bulldogs’ sensibilities regarding the prospect of a three-peat better than sophomore linebacker Jalon Walker.
“It would be a great historical feat,” Walker said after a Week 3 preseason practice. “I know it hasn’t happened in a long time, and having that opportunity before us, we don’t take it for granted. But it starts for Game 1. It starts for tomorrow.
“Our goal here is to make history every day, and making history every day is what we plan on. So, that history will be made at today’s practice, then tomorrow make history at the next meeting, history at the next team event. You know, overall, it’s just an opportunity for us to seize, and having that opportunity will be in the hands of our preparation and things of that sort to attack.”
Hearing this, Smart beamed.
“I saw where Jalon said that; that was good,” Smart said a few days later. “I didn’t have anything to do with that. Jalon came up with that himself. He continues to work really hard and is one of the leaders of our team.”
Walker represents another reason why so many are so high on Georgia. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound linebacker is yet another former 5-star prospect who has been maturing behind the scenes while matriculating through the Bulldogs’ ranks. He is one among dozens of underclassmen. Including walk-ons, Georgia’s roster lists 76 players who carry an eligibility distinction of third-year sophomore down to freshman.
The 2023 squad is young, which tends to happen to a program that sent 25 players into the NFL draft over the past two seasons. Accordingly, there are a bunch of new faces emerging into starring roles. That starts with the Bulldogs’ new QB1, Carson Beck. A fourth-year junior from Jacksonville, Florida, Beck was named Stetson Bennett’s successor two weeks ahead of the first game. Changeovers in the backfield and at both offensive tackles and having to replace the irreplaceable Jalen Carter on the defensive line would cast doubt within a lot of programs about trying to repeat as champions.
Then, again, Georgia lost 15 players to the NFL draft after winning it all in 2021. All it did the next season was win its 15 games by an average margin of 26.8 points.
Times were slightly different when the Gophers were working their magic under coach Bernie Bierman nearly nine decades ago. Hired from Tulane after coaching the Green Wave to an 11-1 season that ended with a loss to USC in the Rose Bowl, Bierman immediately got the Gophers on a winning track. Utilizing a single-wing formation that featured an unbalanced line – innovative stuff at that time – Bierman’s first team won five of its first six games before losing to Wisconsin and Michigan to end the 1932 season.
The 1933 season started an impressive nine-year run for the Gophers. Starting with a 4-0-4 overall record (2-0-4 in the Big Ten) that year, they went 27-1-4 in four seasons. They had a 28-game unbeaten streak (24-0-4) from 1933 until Oct. 31, 1936, when they lost to Northwestern 6-0 at Evanston, Illinois. That loss, played in a driving rain amid 30 mph winds, ended a 21-game win streak. They won their final three games in 1936 by a combined score of 123-19.
In nine seasons from 1933-41, the Gophers went 58-9-5 overall and 38-5-5 in the Big Ten. They won or shared seven conference titles and five national titles (1934, ‘35, ‘36, ‘40, ‘41). After the 1941 season, which concluded with Bruce Smith becoming the only Gophers player to win the Heisman Trophy, Bierman went into the military service. He served in the U.S. Marines for the second time in a World War.
Bierman came back to great expectations. But when the Gophers didn’t get to the Rose Bowl with what was considered a loaded roster in 1949, he was fired.
Minnesota has shared only two Big Ten titles since, and those were in 1960 and ‘67.
“Up until recently, they’ve pretty much wandered through the wilderness for quite a while,” said Randy Johnson, who covers Minnesota football for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “A lot of coaching changes set them back I’d say, probably.”
In 2019, the Gophers finished in the top 10 of a final AP poll for the first time since 1960. That 1960 squad is the last Minnesota football team to be declared national champion. Even though it finished 11-2 and lost to Washington in the Rose Bowl, polls were released and champions declared after the regular season and bowl results were not considered.
What is now considered the “poll era” actually did not begin until 1936 with the advent of the Associated Press poll. That’s when the Gophers claimed the third of their three consecutive national championships. They went 7-1 and did not play in a bowl game. Pittsburgh also claims a national title that year. The Panthers went 8-1-1 and defeated Washington 21-0 in the Rose Bowl, considered the de facto championship game of the day.
There was little doubt, though, that the Gophers had the best team in 1934 and ‘35. They went 16-0 over those two seasons, outscoring opponents 270-38 one year and 194-36 the next.
At the end of the ‘36 season, Bierman and Minnesota were given permanent possession of something called the Toledo Cup. A traveling trophy presented in the U.S. from 1934-36, it was bestowed according to the votes of 250 sports editors from across the country. It came with a bylaw that any team to claim it three years in a row got to keep it. It remains on display today in Minnesota’s Gibson-Nagurski Athletic Center in Minneapolis.
Since it comes from a now-defunct group of voters, the Gophers won’t have to give up the Toledo Cup to Georgia even if the Bulldogs manage to become the first consecutive three-time champion since then. But the Gopher Nation is hesitant to give up any of its claims from that bygone era.
They’re vowing to keep a close eye on the Bulldogs this season, and they wholly will be pulling against them.
“We know college football, and obviously we know who Georgia is and how they’ve sort of reset hierarchy in the SEC and nationally. That’s been fun to watch the last couple of years,” Litt said. “But if Georgia falls to Alabama or Tennessee along the way or gets upset in the playoffs, there won’t be many tears shed in Minnesota.”
It would, however, be raining tears in Georgia.
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com