In our third part in an ongoing series about the mythical college football national championship, we look at the 1938 season—which is less complicated than the first two seasons we analyzed, by far. Welcome to MNC Wednesday!
We laid out our methodology and data source in the first week, so let’s get right to it.
The 1938 MNC: Simple debate between two teams from the South
Associated Press Top 10, including final record with key bowl results
1. TCU: 11-0-0 — W, Sugar, 15-7
2. Tennessee: 11-0-0 — W, Orange, 17-0
3. Duke: 9-1-0 — L, Rose, 3-7
4. Oklahoma: 10-1-0 — L, Orange, 0-17
5. Notre Dame: 8-1-0 — None
6. Carnegie Mellon: 7-2-0 — L, Sugar, 7-15
7. USC: 9-2-0 — W, Rose, 7-3
8. Pittsburgh: 8-2-0 — None
9. Holy Cross: 8-1-0 — None
10. Minnesota: 6-2-0 — None
Texas Christian University won the Southwest Conference and then went on to win the Sugar Bowl, finishing with a perfect 11-0 record. The Horned Frogs are definitely in the conversation, of course. But what other schools are there to consider?
The Tennessee Volunteers also finished 11-0, after winning the Southeastern Conference and then emerging victorious in the Orange Bowl over the Big Six champion Oklahoma Sooners. This gives us at least two teams that fit our primary criteria for being named mythical champions.
Notre Dame had been No. 1 in the polls until its final game of the season against USC—champion of the Pacific Coast Conference—but the Fighting Irish lost on the road in Los Angeles. The Trojans won the Rose Bowl, but they finished with two losses, and even though the PCC was the best conference in the country, it’s hard to overlook those defeats—including one at home to SEC runner-up Alabama to start the season.
Duke University was 9-0 and the champs of the Southern Conference, but the Blue Devils lost that Rose Bowl to USC—giving the Trojans quite the list of vanquished foes, in truth. No other teams really stand out in this year’s analysis, leaving us with the head-to-head battle between the Horned Frogs and the Vols.
Let’s look at strength of schedule, based on the Simple Rating System:
- TCU: 11 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank 61.36
- Tennessee: 10 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank 51.20
The Vols played a “harder” schedule, and they beat a better opponent in their bowl game, as TCU’s win over Carnegie Mellon in the Sugar Bowl was its best win all year. Meanwhile, Tennessee had two wins better than that on its schedule, against Alabama and Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
We suspect AP voters were swayed by the fact Horned Frogs quarterback Davey O’Brien was the Heisman Trophy winner. Neither team was ranked until the week of October 22, when each debuted in the Top 10—TCU at No. 7 and Tennessee at No. 8, starting an uphill climb for both teams from that point forward.
TCU rates out as a slightly better team on paper, yet it’s really hard to ignore this reality: Tennessee played the better schedule, and three teams from the SEC ended up in the final poll, while TCU was the only team from its conference to make that final poll.
The Vols played the tougher schedule—and they dominated it more thoroughly, too, outscoring legitimate opponents by a 248-16 margin (compared to a plus-209 scoring differential for TCU). That seals it for us in this debate.
Congratulations to the 1938 Tennessee Volunteers, the mythical national champs!
Check in every Wednesday for a new feature on the mythical national championship in college football on The Daily McPlay!