On this edition of MNC Wednesday, we have a unique problem: An Associated Press poll champion that cheated and wasn’t punished for it until after the fact. We are not blind to the fact that many schools violate NCAA rules and continue to do so today, regardless of whether they’ve been caught. This creates a horrible situation where we must become judge and jury for each individual case that arises in this space.

Today’s analysis represents our attempt to navigate the minefield that college football had become in the 1980s, and it’s as close as we can get to the “truth” of the matter.

The 1981 MNC: We love drama, and luck is a fickle thing in the end …

Here is the Associated Press Top 10, including final record with key bowl results:

1. Clemson: 12-0-0 — W, Orange, 22-15
2. Texas: 10-1-1 — W, Cotton, 14-12
3. Penn State: 10-2-0 — W, Fiesta, 26-10
4. Pittsburgh: 11-1-0 — W, Sugar, 24-20
5. SMU: 10-1-0 — NONE (probation)
6. Georgia: 10-2-0 — L, Sugar, 20-24
7. Alabama: 9-2-1 — L, Cotton, 12-14
8. Miami (FL): 9-2-0 — NONE (probation)
9. North Carolina: 10-2-0 — W, Gator, 31-27
10. Washington: 10-2-0 — W, Rose, 28-0

What a mess. First things first—this is what the New York Times reported in December 1982 about Clemson’s probation, which was very drastic at the time: “… the N.C.A.A. cited violations dating from 1977 to 1982 … The violations included giving prospective players automobiles, television sets, clothing, ‘substantial’ sums of cash and other gifts … In addition, the N.C.A.A. said Clemson had awarded scholarships to friends and relatives of recruits and paid telephone bills of recruits’ families.”

The entire 1981 roster was therefore compromised, and we cannot validate the Tigers’ season—and we won’t. For the record, Clemson finished just fifth in the SRS, so maybe it wasn’t the best team, anyway. So what other teams are eligible for consideration here? Obviously, the cheaters at Miami (FL) and SMU aren’t eligible, either. What a time this was!

The Longhorns were the de facto champions of the Southwest Conference, so they’re in—they also beat the cheating Mustangs head to head. The Nittany Lions finished atop the SRS, so they’re in. They also eliminated the Panthers, since Pittsburgh’s one loss was to Penn State, 48-14. That came late in the season (November 28) when the Panthers were ranked No. 1, too.

We take the Tar Heels as the de facto champs of the ACC, since Clemson isn’t eligible here. The Huskies get in, too, as the Pac-10 champions. What about the B1G? Ohio State and Iowa tied for the league title, but the Buckeyes finished with three losses, while the Hawkeyes lost the Rose Bowl.

BYU posted an 11-2 record with a bowl win, so we can consider the Cougars in this odd year of MNC analysis. No one else really makes the first cut, so at this point in the process, we have 5 teams to tackle more thoroughly now. These are the best teams and their respective SOS ratings, after the initial trimming down and topical analysis of the contenders:

  • BYU: 13 Division I-A opponents, -2.80 SOS rating, 86th of 137
  • Washington: 12 Division I-A opponents, 3.26 SOS rating, 62nd
  • North Carolina: 12 Division I-A opponents, 3.38 SOS rating, 58th
  • Penn State: 12 Division I-A opponents, 11.86 SOS rating, 1st
  • Texas: 12 Division I-A opponents, 7.69 SOS rating, 11th

Wow. The Nittany Lions’ SOS rating compensates plentifully for the half-game edge that the Longhorns have in overall record, but this is incredible to see the team with the top schedule also be in the hunt for the MNC. That doesn’t happen very often.

The Longhorns lost big on the road to Arkansas and then tied Houston on the road as well. Those two teams were a combined 15-8-1 on the year, so other than the margin of defeat to the Razorbacks, Texas is in good shape. As for Penn State, both losses came to teams ranked in the Top 10 that aren’t eligible here for the crown (that’s luck, for sure): Alabama and Miami (FL).

But therein lies the rub: Texas beat the Crimson Tide in the Cotton Bowl, while the Nittany Lions lost to them at home. The Longhorns got the higher-marquee matchup (No. 6 vs. No. 3) in the bowl games, while Penn State had to settle for playing USC in the Fiesta Bowl (No. 7 vs. No. 8). Even though the Nittany Lions won more impressively in their bowl game, the fact is that Alabama played a key role here in deciding the MNC.

This is a rarity, in both seeing Penn State with the top SOS rating—and in seeing the weakness of that position, where a loss to a tough common opponent means another team under consideration’s win over that common opponent decides it all. Luck sometimes is a big factor here, circumstantially, so this is Texas’ second MNC in our book (along with 1963) after we took away the Longhorns’ 1969 mythical crown.

Congratulations to the 1981 Texas Longhorns, the mythical national champion!

Check in every Wednesday for a new feature on the mythical national championship in college football on The Daily McPlay.