As you know, tonight Clemson is trying to become the first college football team ever to go 15-0 in a single season. That sentence is, FALSE. Four teams have done it — most recently the University of Pennsylvania, in 1897.
Yes, that’s 1897 — when live pigs were used as the ball and players were allowed to hit opponents with clubs (also false). What’s true is that a college football team hasn’t been 15-0-0 in 118 years. The Tigers will try to equal that mark when they take on Nick Saban and his Amazing Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff Championship (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona).
But Clemson’s feat, should they reach it, should be considered record-breaking. College football was vastly different in 1897 — hardly even resembling the sport we know today.
Fun Facts About the 1897 Penn Football Team
— Of Penn’s 15 games that season, 13 were at home, all played at Franklin Field in Philadelphia. Of the Quakers’ two road games, one was in Lewisburg, PA (Bucknell), the other in Rhode Island.
— John Heisman (1890-91) and John H. Outland (1897-99), for whom college football’s two most prominent awards are named, both played at Penn. Outland, who played on the 15-0 team, was All-American as a tackle. The following season he was All-American as a running back. He was 27 years old, studying medicine. Atchison Daily Globe: Outland worked his way through college as a companion to rich young men who were alcoholics. To keep them away from alcohol, Outland took them on camping trips in the Wyoming mountains.
— Penn outscored its opponents that season 463-20, with 12 shutouts. They had eight straight shutouts in the month of October.
— Penn beat Dartmouth and Penn State on the same day, Oct. 16, winning 34-0 and 24-0, respectively.
Fun Facts About College Football in 1897
— Scoring rules: 4 points for a touchdown, 5 points for a field goal, 2 points for a PAT kick.
— There was no NCAA — that wasn’t formed until 1910. If Clemson wins tonight, it will be the first 15-0 NCAA football team.
— It was possible to score points in fractions. History of College Football: On April 9, 1880 at Stoll Field, Transylvania University (then called Kentucky University) beat Centre College by the score of 13¾–0 in what is often considered the first recorded intercollegiate football game played in the South.
— Hardly anyone wore helmets. Leather helmets (a series of straps, really) weren’t first used until the previous year, 1896. Plastic helmets didn’t come in until 1940.
— The forward pass was illegal, although teams had tried to sneak them in since the 1870s, sometimes successfully. It wasn’t made legal until 1906.