The 1951 college football season finished with seven unbeaten major college teams, of which five were unbeaten and untied. Ultimately, the Tennessee Volunteers were voted the best team by the Associated Press, followed by the Michigan State Spartans, with the Vols having a plurality of first place votes (139 to 104). Tennessee lost in the Sugar Bowl to the equally undefeated and untied #3 Maryland Terrapins, but the postseason games were not taken into account by the major polls. Tennessee, Maryland, Michigan State, and Illinois all claim national championships for 1951.
During the 20th century, the NCAA had no playoff for the college football teams that would later be described as "Division I-A". The NCAA did recognize a national champion based upon the final results of "wire service" (AP and UPI) polls. The extent of that recognition came in the form of acknowledgment in the annual NCAA Football Guide of the "unofficial" national champions. The AP poll in 1951 consisted of the votes of as many as 307 sportswriters.
Though not all writers voted in every poll, each would give their opinion of the ten best teams. Under a point system of 10 points for first place, 9 for second, etc., the "overall" ranking was determined. Although the rankings were based on the collective opinion of the representative sportswriters, the teams that remained "unbeaten and untied" were generally ranked higher than those that had not. A defeat, even against a strong opponent, tended to cause a team to drop in the rankings, and a team with two or more defeats was unlikely to remain in the Top 20. Generally, the top teams played on New Year's Day in the four major postseason bowl games: the Rose Bowl (near Los Angeles at Pasadena), the Sugar Bowl (New Orleans), the Orange Bowl (Miami), and the Cotton Bowl (Dallas).
Conference and program changesEdit
- Three conferences began play during the 1951 season:
In the preseason poll released on September 24, 1951, Tennessee and Michigan State were ranked first and second, with Tennessee having 60 of the 115 first place votes. MSU had opened its season on the 22nd with a 6-0 win over Oregon State. They were followed by #3 Ohio State, defending champion #4 Oklahoma, and #5 California (which had won its opener against Santa Clara, 34-0). As the regular season progressed, a new poll would be issued on the Monday following the weekend's games.
On September 14, the Central Missouri Jules played the Southwestern Moundbuilders in the rejected touchdown game where Southwestern's head coach Harold Hunt "rejected" a touchdown awarded by officials because his player stepped out of bounds.
On September 29 #1 Tennessee beat Mississippi State 14-0. #2 Michigan State won at Michigan, 25-0, to take the top spot from the Vols. #3 Ohio State beat visiting SMU 7-0 in a win not deemed good enough to stay in the top five. #4 Oklahoma beat William & Mary 49-7. #5 California won in Philadelphia against Penn, 35-0, and rose to second in the next poll. The game was broadcast in New York in a test for color television  Notre Dame, which had beaten Indiana 48-6, rose to fifth. The poll: 1.Michigan State 2.California 3.Tennessee 4.Oklahoma 5.Notre Dame
October 6 #1 Michigan State won at Ohio State, 24-20. #2 California beat Minnesota, 55-14. #3 Tennessee beat Duke 26-0. #4 Oklahoma lost at #10 Texas A&M, 14-7 and fell out of the top bracket, and the Aggies took their place. #5 Notre Dame had beaten Mercy College of Detroit, 40-6, the night before. The poll: 1.Michigan State 2.California 3.Tennessee 4.Texas A&M 5.Notre Dame
October 13 #1 Michigan State had trouble in defeating Marquette 20-14. #2 California beat Washington State 42-35 and took over the top spot from the Spartans in the next poll. #3 Tennessee beat the University of Chattanooga (now UT Chattanooga, but athletically branded simply as "Chattanooga") 42-13. #4 Texas A&M beat Trinity College 53-14 and fell from the top five. #5 Notre Dame lost to visiting SMU, 27-20. Taking the places of the Aggies and the Irish were #6 Texas (which had beaten Oklahoma in Dallas, 9-7) and #8 Georgia Tech (which had beaten LSU 25-7). The poll: 1.California 2.Tennessee 3.Michigan State 4.Texas 5.Georgia Tech
October 20 In Los Angeles, #1 California and USC, both unbeaten at 4-0-0, faced off, and the Golden Bears lost the game, along with the top spot in the poll, 21-14. Earlier, in Birmingham, #2 Tennessee defeated Alabama 27-13. #3 Michigan State won at Penn State, 32-21. #4 Texas lost at Arkansas, 16-14. #5 Georgia Tech defeated Auburn 27-7. Appearing in the top five were #8 Illinois (which had a 27-20 win over Washington) and #7 Maryland (which had beaten North Carolina 14-7). The poll: 1.Tennessee 2.Michigan State 3.Georgia Tech 4.Illinois 5.Maryland
Another significant game on this date, though for a far different reason, was the Drake–Oklahoma A&M matchup. Then-unbeaten Drake was led by quarterback Johnny Bright, who was leading the nation in total offense at the time and had been touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Two years earlier, he had been the first black player to appear in a game at A&M's home field, without incident. The same could not be said about this game. Bright was forced to leave the game in the first quarter after suffering three concussions and a broken jaw as the result of a racially motivated attack by white A&M player Wilbanks Smith, and A&M ultimately won 27–14. The attack was immortalized in a photo sequence in the Des Moines Register that won the photographers a Pulitzer Prize. It also had an enduring legacy on the sport:
- By the end of the school year, Drake and Bradley withdrew from the Missouri Valley Conference in protest over both the attack and the failure of either the conference or Oklahoma A&M to discipline Smith. Bradley would return to the MVC for non-football sports in 1955, with Drake doing the same a year later, but Bradley never returned for football (dropping the sport in 1970) and Drake did not return to MVC football until 1971.
- The attack led to new NCAA rules regarding illegal blocking and mandating the use of helmets with face guards.
October 27 #1 Tennessee beat Tennessee Tech 68-0. #3 Michigan State beat visiting Pitt, 53-26. #3 Georgia Tech won narrowly at Vanderbilt, 8-7. #4 Illinois won at Indiana, 21-0. Unbeaten (4-0-0) and #5 Maryland visited once-beaten (4-1-0) LSU, and won convincingly, 27-0. With all five teams staying unbeaten, the poll changed slightly: 1.Tennessee 2.Michigan State 3.Illinois 4.Maryland 5.Georgia Tech
November 3 #1 Tennessee won at North Carolina, 27-0 for its fourth shutout. In six games, the Vols had outscored their opponents, 207-14. #2 Michigan State was idle and dropped to fifth in the next poll. #3 Illinois beat Michigan 7-0. #4 Maryland shut out Missouri 35-0. #5 Georgia Tech was tied by Duke, 14-14. #6 Princeton, which rose to 5-0-0 after a 12-0 win over Brown, gave an Ivy League addition to the Top Five. Michigan State came back to the five after a 53-26 win over Pitt. The poll: 1.Tennessee 2.Illinois 3.Maryland 4.Princeton 5.Michigan State.
November 10 #1 Tennessee beat Washington & Lee, 60-14. #2 Illinois beat Iowa 40-13. In Baltimore, #3 Maryland beat Navy, 40-21. #4 Princeton won at Harvard, 54-13, and left the top five. #5 Michigan State (6-0-0) hosted Notre Dame (5-1-0) and shut out the Irish, 35-0, and returned to #1 spot in the poll. In Los Angeles, two unbeaten and untied (7-0-0) powers faced off, as #7 Stanford and USC met. The Stanford Indians (they would later be called the Cardinal) beat the Trojans 27-20. The poll: 1.Michigan State 2.Tennessee 3.Illinois 4.Stanford 5.Maryland
November 17 #1 Michigan State won at Indiana, 30-26. #2 Tennessee won at Mississippi, 46-21. #3 Illinois got a blemish on its record with a 0-0 tie at Ohio State. #4 Stanford beat Oregon State 35-14. #5 Maryland overwhelmed N.C. State 53-0. Princeton, which had shut out Yale 27-0, came back to the top five. The poll: 1.Tennessee 2.Michigan State
3.Stanford 4.Maryland 5.Princeton
#1 Tennessee beat Kentucky 28-0. #2 Michigan State beat Colorado 45-7 to finish its season at 9-0-0. #3 Stanford suffered its first defeat, falling to California, 20-7. #4 Maryland stayed unbeaten, over West Virginia 54-7. #5 Princeton closed its season with a 13-0 win over Dartmouth. Illinois, which won at Northwestern 3-0, returned to the top five. The penultimate poll: 1.Tennessee 2.Michigan State 3.Maryland 4.Illinois 5.Princeton. On December 1 #1 Tennessee closed its season unbeaten with a 35-27 win over Vanderbilt.
The University of San Francisco Dons closed their season—and their football program—with a perfect record of 9 wins, 0 losses and 0 ties. After their November 24 game against in-state Jesuit rival Loyola University (since merged into Loyola Marymount University), a 20-2 win, USF stopped playing football.
The following is an incomplete list of conference standings:
- All six games played on Tuesday, January 1, 1952.