The NCAA was without a playoff for the major college football teams in the University Division, later known as Division I-A, during the 20th century. The NCAA recognizes Division I-A national champions based on the final results of polls including the "wire service" (AP and UPI), FWAA and NFF. The 1964 AP poll continued to rank only ten teams, compiling the votes of 55 sportswriters, each of whom would give their opinion of the ten best. Under a point system of 10 points for first place, 9 for second, etc., the "overall" ranking was determined.
The 1964 season ended with controversy as to whether Alabama or Arkansas should be recognized as the national champion:
Alabama finished the regular season at 10–0 and was ranked No. 1 in the final AP and UPI Coaches Polls. The AP and UPI did not conduct post-bowl game polling at that time. Accordingly, and despite a loss in the 1965 Orange Bowl to No. 5 Texas, Alabama remained the national champion in the AP and UPI polls.
After a one-year trial run in 1965, the AP Poll began its current practice of naming their national champion at the conclusion of the bowl games in 1968. The UPI Poll followed suit in 1974, after its choice for national champions in each of 1965, 1970, and 1973 lost their respective bowl games.
The Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association changed its official name to the Big Eight Conference prior the 1964 season; this name remained until the league's dissolution and formation of the Big 12 Conference in 1995.
The following week (September 26), #1 Mississippi was upset 27–21 by a late Kentucky touchdown at Jackson, and #2 Oklahoma was crushed by the USC Trojans, 40–14, before a record home crowd. #3 Illinois beat California 20–14, and #4 Texas shut out Texas Tech 23–0. #5 Ohio State defeated SMU at home, 27–8. In the poll that followed, the Texas Longhorns were the new #1 and USC #2, followed by Illinois, Alabama, and Ohio State.
On October 3, #1 Texas beat Army 17–6 at home. Meanwhile, #2 USC lost 17–7 at Michigan State and #3 Illinois won 17–6 over Northwestern. #3 Alabama beat Tulane in a neutral site game at Mobile, 36–6. #5 Ohio State beat Indiana at home, 17–9. Previously unranked Kentucky earned a spot in the next poll after beating Auburn 20–0 in Birmingham. Two games, Duke at Tulane and Florida at LSU, were postponed until the end of the season due to the threat of Hurricane Hilda, which made landfall in Louisiana that day. The top 5: 1.Texas 2.Illinois 3.Alabama 4.Ohio State 5.Kentucky.
Top-ranked Texas beat Oklahoma 28–7 at Dallas on October 10. Visiting #4 Ohio State shut out #2 Illinois 26–0 in the Big Ten, and #3 Alabama beat North Carolina State 21-0. #5 Kentucky, previously 3–0, was beaten 48–6 by Florida State, the start of a four-game losing streak en route to a 5–5 season. Two road wins moved teams into the top five: #6 Notre Dame won 34–7 at Air Force and #8 Michigan won 17–10 at Michigan State. The top 5 were 1.Texas 2.Ohio State 3.Alabama 4.Notre Dame 5.Michigan.
On October 17, #8 Arkansas beat #1 Texas at Austin, 14–13, stopping a late two-point conversion attempt. #2 Ohio State beat the USC Trojans in Columbus, 17–0. #3 Alabama and #4 Notre Dame remained unbeaten, defeating Tennessee (19–8) and UCLA (24–0) respectively. #5 Michigan lost to Purdue 21–20. Ohio State was the new #1. #6 Nebraska, which had beaten Kansas State 47–0 (and outscored its opponents 171–34 in five wins), took over fifth place. The rankings were 1.Ohio State 2.Notre Dame 3.Alabama 4.Arkansas 5.Nebraska.
October 24 had #1 Ohio State over Wisconsin at home, 28–3. #2 Notre Dame beat Stanford 26–7, #3 Alabama beat Florida 17–14. #4 Arkansas beat Wichita State 17–0, and #5 Nebraska beat Colorado 21–3. The top five remained unchanged.
October 31, #1 Ohio State beat Iowa 21–19, while #2 Notre Dame defeated Navy 40–0. In the next poll, the Fighting Irish rose to #1. #3 Alabama (23–6 over Ole Miss), #4 Arkansas (17–0 over Texas A&M) and #5 Nebraska (9–0 over Missouri) remained unbeaten.
November 7, #1 Notre Dame beat the Pitt Panthers at Pittsburgh 17–15. Meanwhile, #2 Ohio State suffered its first loss to unranked (3–4) Penn State, 27–0. #3 Alabama (17–9 over LSU), #4 Arkansas (21–0 vs. Rice) and #5 Nebraska (14–7 over Kansas) stayed unbeaten, and moved up in the poll. Texas (7–1), whose lone loss had been to Arkansas, was fifth after a 20–14 win at Baylor.
November 14, #1 Notre Dame defeated Michigan State 34–7, and #2 Alabama beat Georgia Tech in Atlanta, 14–7, to stay unbeaten. Also unblemished were #3 Arkansas (44–0 over SMU) and #4 Nebraska (27–14 vs. Oklahoma State). #5 Texas won 28–13 over TCU. The poll remained unchanged (1.Notre Dame 2.Alabama 3.Arkansas 4.Nebraska 5.Texas)
November 21, #1 Notre Dame beat Iowa in South Bend, 28–0. #3 Arkansas beat Texas Tech 17–0 to close its regular season with five straight shutouts, unbeaten at 10–0. #4 Nebraska suffered its first loss at Oklahoma, 17–7. Michigan defeated Ohio State 10–7 to win the Big Ten title and a berth in the Rose Bowl. In the November 23 AP poll, unbeaten Notre Dame, Alabama, and Arkansas were first, second, and third, followed by Texas and Michigan.
November 26–28, Thanksgiving Day saw #2 Alabama finish the regular season unbeaten (10–0) with a 21–14 win over Auburn in Birmingham. #5 Texas beat Texas A&M 26–7 to finish 10–1. On November 28 in Los Angeles, #1 Notre Dame led USC 17–0 at halftime but lost, 20–17. With only Alabama and Arkansas remaining unbeaten, both with records of 10–0, the final AP poll was taken on November 30. Alabama took over the top spot and recognition as the NCAA national champion. Arkansas was second, Texas rose to third, Notre Dame dropped to fourth, and Michigan was fifth.
Alabama won the SEC championship, but a "no repeat rule" prevented them from playing in the Sugar Bowl for a second straight year. The Orange Bowl invited Alabama and Texas on November 21. The Cotton Bowl had invited then-unbeaten Nebraska on November 15 to play unbeaten Southwestern Conference champion Arkansas. As such, there would be no #1 vs. #2 matchup in the Cotton Bowl Classic. Notre Dame declined to play in a bowl game. The Irish did not play in any bowl games for over forty years, until the 1969 season.
Top-ranked Alabama, led by quarterback Joe Namath, fell to #5 Texas 21–17 in the Orange Bowl, the first night postseason bowl game. In the final minutes, down by four and facing 4th-and-goal at the Texas one-yard line, Namath's quarterback sneak was denied by the Longhorn defense. In the Cotton Bowl, quarterback Fred Marshall drove #2 Arkansas to a touchdown with 4:41 left to beat #6 Nebraska 10–7. Notable members of the 1964 Arkansas team include Jerry Jones, who would later become a billionaire as owner of the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL, and Jimmy Johnson, whom Jones would hire as coach of the Cowboys. #5 Michigan routed #8 Oregon State 34–7 in the Rose Bowl, while in the Sugar Bowl, #7 LSU beat unranked Syracuse 10–7 on a late field goal.
A five-member committee of the Football Writers Association of America awarded Arkansas the "Grantland Rice Trophy" as the #1 team in a poll taken after the bowl games. The Helms Athletic Foundation, which also took polls after the bowl games, named Arkansas as the national champions. Notre Dame was named as the National Football Foundation's national champion. In 1965, the AP's final poll came after the bowl games, but the policy did not become permanent until 1968. The Coaches' Poll adopted the same policy in 1974, after similar issues in 1970 and 1973. These selectors, including the AP Poll and the Coaches' Poll, were nationally syndicated in newspapers and magazines during the 1964 football season.