We’re starting to think there may not even be a college football season in America this fall, the way things are going. Regardless, we are committed to exploring sports history now, and here comes an analytical series to determine the mythical national championship in college football.
We call it “mythical” because the NCAA has never sanctioned an official national champion for big-time college football. For the record, the official NCAA football champ every year is the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) title winner—formerly known as Division I-AA.
North Dakota State University has won eight of the last nine FCS titles, winning a tournament each time to legitimately gain the crown. We know the Football Bowl Subdivision does nothing so transparent and honest … hence, our term “mythical national championship” (or MNC) applies here and throughout this Wednesday series of sports analysis.
The modern college football era began in 1936 with the advent of the Associated Press poll, and that’s where we will start with our crowning of MNCs: It’s not arbitrary, as before this date, a lot of silliness went on in scheduling, and from 1936 on, the whole sport gained some legitimacy (before losing it again in the early 2000s with the Bowl Championship Series).
This means we have about 85 weeks of exciting Wednesdays coming up, where we analyze data from sports-reference.com to pick our MNC. There are other systems out there that have done this, but with current sabermetric analysis, it’s time to do it our own way and be satisfied with that.
Criteria used in determining an MNC are as follows, roughly in order:
- Overall record: Unlike college basketball, the college football season is so short that every loss does matter, although not all losses (or wins) are created equally. However, the record will matter here, in conjunction with strength of schedule (SOS) and conference placement.
- Conference championship: You are not the best team in the country if you are not the best team in your conference, period, so no team will be winning our MNC unless it managed to win or tie for its conference title. For independent teams, we will consider the best teams of the bunch for the MNC.
- Strength of schedule (SOS): A team cannot waltz through a pancake schedule to a perfect record and claim an MNC over a one-loss team that negotiated a landmine schedule to win its tougher conference.
- Season-ending performance (when applicable): Basically, ending the season with strong momentum matters. You cannot finish on a loss and back into an MNC. If the team didn’t play in a bowl game, it could be a negative, depending on comparisons.
- Head-to-head (H2H): If two teams are matched evenly and one of the has the direct edge against the other on the field, then the tie is broken, easily.
- Translative scores: When two teams did not play head to head while having common opponents, those scores could factor into a decision.
- Probation: Teams that were constructed through fraud (and caught after the fact) will not be considered for the MNC. Teams on probation as a result of past transgressions are eligible, however.
- MNC consideration from others: In extremely close cases, we will consult the list of past “winners” to break close ties. It does help to know how other people see things, but this is a last-gasp resort to sort out the tougher seasons.
This is the best we can do, so without further hullabaloo, here is our analysis series of which team should be awarded the mythical national championship in Division I-A/FBS college football.
The 1936 MNC: Three-way battle comes down to SOS
Associated Press Top 10, including final record with key bowl results
1. Minnesota: 7-1-0 — None
2. LSU: 9-1-1 — L, Sugar, 14-21
3. Pittsburgh: 8-1-1 — W, Rose, 21-0
4. Alabama: 8-0-1 — None
5. Washington: 7-2-1 — L, Rose, 0-21
6. Santa Clara: 8-1-0 — W, Sugar, 21-14
7. Northwestern: 7-1-0 — None
8. Notre Dame: 6-2-1 — None
9. Nebraska: 7-2-0 — None
10. Penn: 7-1-0 — None
The Minnesota Golden Gophers won the AP title, with a 7-1 record in the Western Conference, the official name back then of what we know now as the Big Ten. However, Minnesota did not win the Western Conference: That honor went to the Northwestern Wildcats, who beat Minnesota, 6-0, on Halloween, and finished 7-1 as well, with a last-game, blowout loss to Notre Dame on the road. That eliminates both schools from MNC consideration, for varying reasons as noted above.
The Alabama Crimson Tide finished 8-0-1, the only team without a loss. However, the LSU Tigers won the Southeastern Conference with a 6-0 record, while the Tide finished 5-0-1 in SEC play. Unfortunately, the two teams didn’t play H2H, so you can see the challenges here with uneven schedules in big conferences. However, LSU lost the Sugar Bowl to Santa Clara, which means neither team is eligible for the MNC, either.
Perhaps the best independent team in 1936 was the Pittsburgh Panthers (8-1-1), with a dominating Rose Bowl victory, too, over the Pacific Coast Conference champion Washington Huskies. The PCC was the precursor to what we know now as the Pacific-12 Conference, of course. What other conference champions are left out there to challenge Pitt?
Duke won the Southern Conference, precursor to the modern-day Atlantic Coast Conference, with an overall 9-1 record, but the Blue Devils did not play in a bowl game. Duke’s one loss was by two points on the road to Tennessee, the fourth-place SEC team.
Nebraska won the Big Six, precursor to the current Big XII, but the Cornhuskers lost to both Minnesota and Pitt, thus eliminating them from consideration. The loss to the Panthers was at home, too, by double digits, so there’s no doubt here about the superior team. Arkansas won the Southwest Conference, but with three overall losses and no bowl win, the Razorbacks aren’t in this MNC conversation, either.
Santa Clara, winners of that Sugar Bowl over LSU, perhaps has an independent-team argument to rival Pitt, with an 8-1 overall record, a bowl win over a better team than the Panthers beat in their bowl game, and only one loss (at home, to TCU, the second-place finisher in the Southwest Conference).
This leaves us with three teams meeting the most criteria: Pittsburgh, Duke, and Santa Clara—probably not what you were expecting. The Panthers have an issue, though, with a home loss to Duquesne and a road tie against a ranked Fordham squad. Combined, that’s worse than Duke’s road loss to Tennessee or Santa Clara’s home loss to TCU.
The Blue Devils did not play a bowl game, however, for whatever reason. They did finish the season with four straight victories by a combined 111-7 score, so there’s that for momentum. But why wasn’t Duke selected to play in a bowl game? Two seasons later, in 1938, the Blue Devils would be picked to play in the Rose Bowl—the school’s first bowl game ever. It might say something that Duke was overlooked in 1936 in favor of Pitt.
Pitt’s overall strength of schedule—beating both the PCC and the Big Six champs, plus a nice road win at Ohio State, too—is more impressive than Santa Clara’s schedule. The Broncos did beat Auburn, the third-place SEC team, at home, as well as Stanford on the road (only a hop, skip, and jump up the road, though), though.
Here is the breakdown of SOS, based on sports-reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS), for each of our three finalists:
- Pittsburgh: 9 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank 17.00
- Santa Clara: 7 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank 49.00
- Duke: 10 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank 60.30
What we see here is a clear distinction that the Panthers played the best schedule, by far, enough to compensate for the loss and their schedule. Pitt took on four Top-10 teams, and six teams overall on the Panthers schedule were in the SRS Top 21. Meanwhile, Duke’s best victory was over the No. 20 team, and while Santa Clara did play three teams in the Top 22, that isn’t enough to topple Pitt.
Congratulations to the 1936 Pittsburgh Panthers, the mythical national champs!
Check in every Wednesday for a new feature on the mythical national championship in college football on The Daily McPlay!