36°N: The College Football Championship Line

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Lines of latitude are imaginary marks scientists have placed upon the globe so that humans can better navigate and understand the world in which we live.

In addition to aiding us in our travels, they also serve as a tangible and clear border for sharp differences in ideologies, nations, and even astronomical activities.

One of our planet’s most famous lines of latitude is the Arctic Circle, which marks the point at which the Sun is above the horizon for 24 continuous hours at least once per year, as well as below the horizon for 24 continuous hours at least once per year. This line serves as the border for the places where the sun truly is visible at midnight.

Other famous latitudes include the 38°N, which slices through the Appalachian region, but is most notable for its association with the border between North and South Korea; however, just 138 miles to the south of this line is the 36°N line of latitude, which splits through the states of North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Unlike the 38th which is an internationally famous border or the 37th which serves as a  boundary for six different US states, at first glance, the 36°N line of latitude doesn’t immediately jump out to the average person inspecting a map as being all too notable; however, when it comes to dividing two worlds and separating areas that are often as different as night and day, there is no other line of division in all of sports that is as consequential as this one: Dating back to 1996, all but two college football Division I/FBS champions (Michigan & Ohio State), have been won by schools located south of the 36°N line of latitude.

Fortunately for the Tennessee Volunteers, the 50-yard-line at Neyland Stadium is located exactly 3.10 miles south of this critical line of demarcation, hence the 1998 title is theirs.

Since 1996, the championship schools from south of the “football latitude” are Alabama (5),  Florida (3), Florida State (2), Clemson (2), Tennessee (1), Oklahoma (1), Miami (1), LSU (2), Texas (1), Southern Cal (1), and Auburn (1).

Though sports fans everywhere have theories and opinions as why this is the case, in truth, no one can say with certainty why the southern one-third of the United States has an 87% chance of earning the National Championship trophy each season.  Two things we can say with certainty regarding this year’s champion are as follows: Number one, we know beyond any shadow of a doubt that the Tigers will walk away with the big trophy (We’re proud of our ‘Dad Joke’) and secondly, we can say with surety that for yet another year, the winner of the championship will – once again – be a team from south of this imaginary line.

Perhaps even more interesting is that with the exception of Ohio and Michigan, no state located above this line, including many of our nation’s most populous and affluent states, with some of the richest football traditions and prestige have not claimed a single college football FBS championship in 23 years — that’s 32 states out of 50 who have not seen a championship in more than two decades.  No Notre Dame, no Minnesota, no Nebraska, no Army, no Penn State.  None.

In this the 150th season of college football, the reality of this “football line” is most fascinating when one considers the history of football, a sport invented, played and once dominated in the north, but it has at last become the South’s game.

Begun in 1869, college football did not see a national champion from south of the 36°N line of latitude until 1917, when Georgia Tech claimed the top spot… nearly a half century into the sport’s existence.

In the years that followed the 1917 championship, the many regions of the nation appeared equally successful in gathering championships, with teams like Notre Dame, Minnesota, Southern Cal, Army, Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska all seeing seasons of success; however, since the Clinton vs. Dole election, college football has become a sport won only by the Deep South with the exception of Michigan once and Ohio State twice.

Why this is the case is somewhat of a mystery, though there is no shortage of individuals desiring to weigh in with their thoughts and hypothesis.

In his 1954 classic book, “This was football”, Pudge Heffelfinger wrote, “Southern ball carriers run with reckless abandon, a wild fanaticism that’s rarely found in backs from other parts of the nation.”

Others argue there is a bias toward southern teams in determining playoff and championship game participants; while many contend that the sport just isn’t as important “up north” or that the weather along the “Sun Belt” is more conducive to year round activity for athletes.

Whatever the case may be, in this, the 150th year of college football, it is safe to say that the sport has become a staple of southern life and domination in recent decades.

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