In our fifth week of an ongoing series about the mythical college football national championship, today we examine the 1940 season—and it was kind of complicated, on multiple levels. Welcome back to MNC Wednesday!
We laid out our methodology and data source in the first week, so let’s get right to our winner.
The 1940 MNC: SOS power can overcome a lot in these debates
Associated Press Top 10, including final record with key bowl results
1. Minnesota: 8-0-0 — None
2. Stanford: 10-0-0 — W, Rose, 21-13
3. Michigan: 7-1-0 — None
4. Tennessee: 10-1-0 — L, Sugar, 13-19
5. Boston College: 11-0-0 — W, Sugar, 19-13
6. Texas A&M: 9-1-0 — W, Cotton, 13-12
7. Nebraska: 8-2-0 — L, Rose, 13-21
8. Northwestern: 6-2-0 — None
9. Mississippi State: 10-0-1 — W, Orange, 14-7
10. Washington: 7-2-0 — None
There were 14 teams that finished with zero losses (5) or one loss (9), making this a crowded field to start with when looking for the mythical champion. Just by starting with the conference-title requirement, though, we can whittle that down relatively quickly.
The Golden Gophers won the Western Conference with a 6-0 conference mark, including a one-point home victory over the Wolverines. Stanford won the PCC with a perfect 7-0 mark, and that included a 10-point win at home over the Huskies.
The SEC again had uneven scheduling, with the Vols winning the conference due to a 5-0 league record, but they didn’t play the Bulldogs, who finished second with a 4-0-1 record. Both teams went to bowl games, though, and Tennessee dropped their game to the undefeated Eagles. Mississippi State won the Orange Bowl over Georgetown, which finished with two losses.
Boston College was the best independent team, so it gets advanced to the final round of consideration. Meanwhile, the Aggies tied for the SWC lead with SMU, both teams finishing 5-1 in conference play. But TAMU won the head-to-head matchup on the road, so the Aggies get the autobid, so to speak, for the league.
The way we see it after this process is that we have four conference-winning teams to examine and four winners of the major bowl games, totaling five teams under consideration: Minnesota, Stanford, Boston College, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State. That’s a crowded field and quite unique.
First, let’s look at Texas A&M and Mississippi State, as they have blemishes on their respective records. The Aggies lost their final regular-season game on the road to in-state rival Texas, 7-0, dropping them from the No. 2 spot in the poll. The Longhorns finished 8-2, including a 13-0 road loss to Rice (7-3)—which lost to TAMU, 25-0, the road.
That’s interesting there, and we’re willing to overlook the close loss to Texas in A&M’s case, due to rivalry stuff. Clearly, the Aggies were the better team. We will keep them in the discussion for now, but they’ll need a huge SOS edge to overcome that defeat and claim the MNC.
On the other hand, the Bulldogs tied Auburn early in the season on the road, and then the Tigers went on to lose four games, finishing 6-4-1. One of those losses—a 33-7 hammering on the road against Boston College—perhaps tells us something about Mississippi State. But we will hold decision-making right now, again, and defer to SOS. After all, with one more point, the Bulldogs are undefeated, and none of this matters.
That leaves us with all five teams to examine more closely now. Let’s go straight to the SOS, based on the Simple Rating System:
- Texas A&M: 9 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank 39.33
- Mississippi State: 7 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank 41.86
- Boston College: 8 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank 54.13
- Stanford: 10 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank 37.00
- Minnesota: 8 Division I-A opponents, average SRS rank 15.75
The Bulldogs played four small-college teams, which says a lot about traditional SEC scheduling habits, doesn’t it? Meanwhile, B.C. played three small-college teams. In contrast, the Golden Gophers played one of the toughest schedules we’ll ever see in this whole series, by far.
Stanford’s SOS tops every other contenders’ mark, save Minnesota’s SOS, and the fact it played 10 real opponents factors large in here, too. Texas A&M and Mississippi State do not have the SOS strength to overcome the blemishes on their respective records, either.
This comes down to Minnesota and Stanford: The Western Conferece was a very good league, and the PCC was probably the next-best group in the country. We can’t see any reason why the Golden Gophers would have skipped out on a bowl game, other than the reality was that the Western Conference—or the Big Ten, as we know it now—didn’t start sending its teams to bowl games regularly until after World War II.
Thus, we can’t blame Minnesota for dodging Stanford: Only the 1901 Michigan and 1920 Ohio State teams had gone to the Rose Bowl prior to this season. That’s a shame, because we would have loved to see those two teams play and decide this mythical title on the field of play to make it more concrete.
The Golden Gophers’ historically impressive schedule—the eight teams they played averaged a Top 16 team, basically—means they claim the MNC for this season, despite not playing in a bowl game.
Congratulations to the 1940 Minnesota Golden Gophers, the mythical national champs!
Check in every Wednesday for a new feature on the mythical national championship in college football on The Daily McPlay …