In our second part in an ongoing series about the mythical college football national championship, we look at the 1937 season—which is more complicated than the 1936 season we started with last week, for sure … Welcome to MNC Wednesday!
We laid out our methodology and data source last week, so let’s get right to it.
The 1937 MNC: So many unbeaten teams to consider!
Associated Press Top 10, including final record with key bowl results
1. Pittsburgh: 9-0-1 — None
2. California: 10-0-1 — W, Rose, 13-0
3. Fordham: 7-0-1 — None
4. Alabama: 9-1-0 — L, Rose, 0-13
5. Minnesota: 6-2-0 — None
6. Villanova: 8-0-1 — None
7. Dartmouth: 7-0-2 — None
8. LSU: 9-2-0 — L, Sugar, 0-6
9. Notre Dame: 6-2-1 — None
(tie) Santa Clara: 9-0-0 — W, Sugar, 6-0
We start with the AP No. 1 team, the Pittsburgh Panthers. The defending MNC squad posted a 9-0-1 record, with only a road tie to Fordham on its slate. However, the Panthers turned down the Rose Bowl invitation, for whatever reason (see below). That may come back to haunt them; also, five other teams finished without a loss, as well, including that same Rams team that Pittsburgh tied.
Dartmouth finished 7-0-2 with ties against both Yale and Cornell, and the Big Green also did not play in a bowl game. Furthermore, and this is most damning, Dartmouth had three wins against small-college teams, diminishing its overall accomplishments rather, thoroughly. We put them on hold for the moment.
The California Golden Bears finished 10-0-1 while winning the Pacific Coast Conference (modern-day Pac-12) with a 6-0-1 record in league play and were named No. 2 in the final AP poll as a result. Then, to cap it all off, Cal beat previously unbeaten No. 4 Alabama—the SEC champion—in the Rose Bowl, 13-0. The only blemish on the Golden Bears record is a 0-0 home tie against Washington, the second-place PCC team.
The aforementioned Fordham Rams posted a 7-0-1 record, with that tie against Pittsburgh standing out. The defense gave up just 16 points all season, although like Dartmouth, this is a team with a weakened schedule that included two games against small schools. The Rams also go on hold for now.
Villanova fought its way to an 8-0-1 mark, with a tie against Auburn on its slate. The Tigers finished third in the SEC, behind Alabama and LSU, so even though Villanova was at home, a tie against Auburn isn’t ugly. The Wildcats did play one small school, though, yet their overall schedule featured more road games than home games. Interesting.
Our last team without a loss is one of the final contenders from 1936: the Santa Clara Broncos. Schedule strength is an issue here again, but a 6-0 win over LSU in the Sugar Bowl sure looks good on the overall ledger. That bowl win is huge in our evaluations.
Now, was there any other conference champion out there with a bowl win that we should consider?
- Maryland won the Southern Conference (modern-day ACC), but the Terrapins had two losses against an otherwise weak schedule;
- Minnesota won the Western Conference (modern-day B1G), but the Golden Gophers also had two losses;
- Rice won the Southwest Conference, but the Owls finished with three losses and two ties;
- Nebraska won the Big Six (modern-day Big XII), but the Cornhuskers lost to Pitt, while also registering two ties in conference play.
That means we have our select group of teams under consideration as explored above: the six schools without a loss. We need to examine their strength of schedule, although since only two of them won bowl games, that may reduce our field right there. In alphabetical order, using the Simple Rating System from sports-reference.com:
- California: 9 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank 50.33
- Dartmouth: 6 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank 40.33
- Fordham: 6 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank 38.17
- Pittsburgh: 9 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank 35.44
- Santa Clara: 7 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank 72.14
- Villanova: 7 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank = 61.86
Pitt played the hardest schedule, and the Panthers also tied for the most legit opponents, too. Cal and Santa Clara won the big bowl games over top-notch opponents, but the rest of those two schedules were not impressive, especially for the Broncos. Give them credit for traveling across the country for the Sugar Bowl, however.
Pitt did tie the next-best team in terms of schedule strength here on the road. For whatever reason (see below), the Panthers turned down an invite to the Rose Bowl after winning it in 1936. It’s too bad Pitt and Cal didn’t get to play in the Rose Bowl; that would have given us some fodder for more discussion, of course, seeing a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in the Grandaddy of Them All.
One last thing we must do is look at St. Mary’s College (CA), a team that lost to Cal, Fordham, and Santa Clara—all on the road. We said we’d look at translative scores, if needed, and here is what we learn:
The Gaels lost to Cal by 23 points in Berkeley, which is about 10 minutes from the St. Mary’s campus. The Gaels also lost to Santa Clara by 7 points in Santa Clara, which is about 30 minutes from the St. Mary’s campus. The Gaels then traveled across the country to New York City to face Fordham and lost by just 6 points.
Now, comparatively, we readily can infer that Fordham wasn’t as good as Cal or Santa Clara, and if Pitt merely tied Fordham, well … what does that say about the Panthers? Did Pitt turn down the Rose Bowl bid out of fear? In 1936, Pitt finished No. 3 in the AP poll, which was finalized before the bowl games—and then won the Rose Bowl, anyway, with something to prove.
We may never know for sure why the Panthers turned down the Rose Bowl bid, but we don’t think it’s a stretch to say they’d already claimed the AP title—and they didn’t want anyone second guessing that. But there may have been a real reason why, knowing that Cal was a dangerous team they could lose to if the team went to the Rose Bowl again.
There also is a story that Pitt turned down the bid and the trip because the players had been promised money for it the season before and then never paid for the effort. We are not touching that one, yet we also don’t like it one bit. What were the Panthers afraid of?
Pitt’s 1937 schedule doesn’t come close to touching the strength of its 1936 schedule, either, when it won a bowl game in very convincing fashion over a lesser PCC champion than this California squad. Does the SOS justify sitting on its laurels and staying home?
No. We have to give the Golden Bears the nod in the end for taking on No. 4 Alabama and decisively beating the previously unbeaten Crimson Tide—a team that also had a lot to play for in the Rose Bowl. If Bama had won, we’d be looking at the Crimson Tide right now for the MNC instead of Cal.
This Crimson Tide team was no joke: From 1936 to 1938, Alabama posted a 24-2-2 record. And California won, 13-0, in the Rose Bowl. That’s good enough for us to recognize that Pitt didn’t have a win that impressive all season, despite its superior overall SOS.
Congratulations to the 1937 California Golden Bears, the mythical national champs!
Check in every Wednesday for a new feature on the mythical national championship in college football on The Daily McPlay!