In our fourth entry in an ongoing series about the mythical college football national championship, today we look at the 1939 season—a doozy, for sure, with so many teams under consideration. Welcome to MNC Wednesday!
We laid out our methodology and data source in the first week, so let’s get right to it.
The 1939 MNC: A four-way battle comes down to strength of schedule
Associated Press Top 10, including final record with key bowl results
1. Texas A&M: 11-0-0 — W, Sugar, 14-13
2. Tennessee: 10-1-0 — L, Rose, 0-14
3. USC: 8-0-2 — W, Rose, 14-0
4. Cornell: 8-0-0 — None
5. Tulane: 8-1-1 — L, Sugar, 13-14
6. Missouri: 8-2-0 — L, Orange, 7-21
7. UCLA: 6-0-4 — None
8. Duke: 8-1-0 — None
9. Iowa: 6-1-1 — None
10. Duquesne: 8-0-1 — None
Six teams finished without a loss in the regular season, adding Georgetown to the five noted above in the AP Top 10. Not all of them played in a bowl game, however, making this more than just a matchup between the Aggies and the Trojans. Yet we have some simple methods for eliminating teams under consideration, as always.
First, the “easy” one: The Trojans won the Pacific Coast Conference with a 5-0-2 record, ahead of the Bruins’ 5-0-3 record. That seems to be silly, because USC played one less game than UCLA did. The two teams, of course, tied in the final regular-season game of the year, with the conference title on the line—and it was a home game for UCLA.
The Bruins actually had eight home games in 1939, which is ridiculous. They tied Stanford on the road, while the other three ties came at home. USC’s other tie came at home, too, against Oregon. And the crosstown rivalry game isn’t exactly a true road game for the Trojans.
UCLA’s tie against Stanford is bad, though, as the then-Indians finished in last place among OCC brethren, while the Ducks finished in a tie for third. USC deserved to win the PCC over UCLA, based on some clear tiebreakers, even with the uneven schedule. So the Bruins are not part of the MNC conversation.
Next, we must sort the three independent schools under consideration: Cornell, Duquesne, and Georgetown. The Big Red don’t have any ties on their ledger, so they have an immediate edge, and then when we examine the respective ties for the Dukes and the Hoyas, we have some issues.
Georgetown tied Syracuse on the road, and Syracuse was bad in 1939, posting just a 2-3-2 record against major-college competition. The Hoyas have a bad tie, therefore. The Dukes tied Detroit Mercy in the final game of the year at home, and that’s not good when you consider the Titans played a weak schedule that included three small colleges to finish 5-3-1 in the regular season.
That’s schedule padding at its worst, especially when you consider Detroit Mercy lost one of those games to a small school! Both Duquesne and Georgetown have those bad ties on their record, while Cornell does not.
The Big Red played its full schedule all against major-college teams, as well, while the Dukes and the Hoyas played a combined three small schools. Cornell is going to be our designated independent representative in the MNC debate—against Texas A&M and USC.
Before we move on, though, are there any one-loss teams to consider that won their conferences? Ohio State won the Western Conference with two losses, and the Buckeyes lost to Cornell, anyway. Clemson (9-1) and Duke (8-1) tied for the Southern Conference title, with Clemson getting the bowl bid to the Cotton Bowl—where it knocked off Boston College. That could put the Tigers in the conversation, depending on strength of schedule.
Two-loss Missouri won the Big Six, but these Tigers lost the Orange Bowl by 14 points to SEC co-champ Georgia Tech. Meanwhile, SEC co-champ Tennessee got smoked in the Rose Bowl by USC. For the record, Tulane—the third SEC co-champ in this crazy season—lost the Sugar Bowl to Texas A&M. The Yellow Jackets, by the way, had two losses, so they don’t figure in to the debate at all.
That leaves us with four teams to examine more closely now: Texas A&M, USC, Cornell, and Clemson. Let’s go straight to the SOS, based on the Simple Rating System:
- Texas A&M: 11 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank 51.73
- USC: 10 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank 57.70
- Cornell: 8 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank 36.25
- Clemson: 9 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank 59.89
The Aggies’ only seriously impressive win was over Tulane in the bowl game, and it was by one point. The Trojans beat the Volunteers soundly in the Rose Bowl, while also adding a win on the road over Notre Dame (ranked No. 7 at the time on the way to a 7-2 record). Cornell dominated the toughest schedule of the bunch, with big wins over Ohio State and Princeton (7-1), but the Big Red didn’t play in a bowl game. Lastly, Clemson played the easiest schedule of the bunch, in addition to being the only team here with a loss.
So, Clemson is out, and in general, USC with its two ties and lesser SOS isn’t going to make the cut against the Aggies or the Big Red. It comes down to Texas A&M, the AP champs, and Cornell—the team with the best argument, really, by far, despite the absence of a bowl-game victory.
Is it Cornell’s fault it couldn’t go to a bowl game? The fact is the Big Red have never played in a bowl game, dating back to 1888. In 93 seasons of major-college football (the Ivy League dropped down to I-AA football in 1982, since scholarships are not a part of the athletic programs), bowl games were not an option for Cornell.
When looking at the SOS based on SRS—plus the fact that SRS rates the Big Red the top team for 1939, by two points-plus over TAMU on a neutral field—it’s easy to overlook the bowl game issue this time. Cornell was the best team … and probably the smartest, too.
Congratulations to the 1939 Cornell Big Red, the mythical national champs!
Check in every Wednesday for a new feature on the mythical national championship in college football on The Daily McPlay!