We inch closer to modern times on MNC Wednesday, as it is time to look at the midpoint of the 1980s. These seasons start take on personal significance for us, as we were teenagers at the time starting to follow the sport most seriously. That also makes us realize how old we are today, of course, as we sit at keyboards doing our analysis and writing. Oh, how time flies!

But we digress … bring on the data, and it’s a shocker this time around.

The 1985 MNC: It always comes down to SOS when doing the sabermetrics …

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

1. Oklahoma: 11-1-0 — W, Orange, 25-10
2. Michigan: 10-1-1 — W, Fiesta, 27-23
3. Penn State: 11-1-0 — L, Orange, 10-25
4. Tennessee: 9-1-2 — W, Sugar, 35-7
5. Florida: 9-1-1 — NONE (probation)
6. Texas A&M: 10-2-0 — W, Cotton, 36-16
7. UCLA: 9-2-1 — W, Rose, 45-28
8. Air Force: 12-1-0 — W, Bluebonnet, 24-16
9. Miami-FL: 10-2-0 — L, Sugar, 7-35
10. Iowa: 10-2-0 — L, Rose, 28-45

The Sooners won the Big 8 and the Orange Bowl, and their only loss famously came against Miami-FL in the fourth game—when quarterback Troy Aikman broke his leg. The Wolverines finished No. 1 in the SRS by almost three points, but they did not win the B1G thanks to a 2-point road loss to the Hawkeyes. So that wipes out the primary competition to Oklahoma right there, at least on the surface.

The Volunteers tied UCLA early in the season before losing to Florida, but Tennessee won the SEC and the Sugar Bowl to rebound nicely. The other tie came against Georgia Tech (see below), so the Vols will get advanced in our analysis. The Aggies also advance as winners of the Southwest Conference and the Cotton Bowl. The Bruins, too, can be moved into the finals for winning the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl.

What about the Falcons? Their only loss came late in the season to BYU on the road, but that cost Air Force a lot: Ranked fourth at the time, the Falcons not only dropped to 13th in the AP poll, but the loss ended up being the tiebreaker for the Western Athletic Conference championship. So Air Force is out.

Two other teams to look at: Georgia Tech posted a 9-2-1 record and a Hall of Fame Classic Bowl win, but the Yellowjackets did not win the ACC, while Fresno State went 11-0-1 with a California Bowl victory, but the Bulldogs played the fifth-easiest schedule in the nation. That won’t do, yet what a season nonetheless!

This leaves with 4 teams left in the pile to choose a mythical champ. These are the qualifying teams and their respective SOS ratings, after we sorted through the pile of contenders above:

  • UCLA: 12 Division I-A opponents, 5.80 SOS rating, 13th of 110
  • Texas A&M: 12 Division I-A opponents, 3.29 SOS rating, 39th
  • Oklahoma: 12 Division I-A opponents, 5.03 SOS rating, 19th
  • Tennessee: 12 Division I-A opponents, 6.96 SOS rating, 6th

This is impressive, to have three teams under consideration posting Top 20 schedule ratings. Remember our rules: A difference of 10 spots in the SOS rankings can erase a loss, and thus a difference of five spots can erase a tie, as well. We have been consistent with this from the start of our process here. That being said, we can rule out the Aggies right away, as a solid SOS is lagging behind the other three schools.

The Bruins (9-2-1) can only erase their tie with their SOS advantage over the Sooners (11-1), the team with the best record. So UCLA is out. That leaves the Vols and their 9-1-2 record: Tennessee’s only loss was on the road to a team on probation, which means the Vols easily come out on top here with those ties against UCLA and Georgia Tech. Playing the sixth-best schedule in the country gives Tennessee the edge over Oklahoma—and by enough to erase those two ties.

The Vols played four ranked teams in their first five games, coming through that gauntlet with a 3-1-1 record. Both their ties came at home, which probably were considered lost opportunities at the time, but with the Bruins and the Yellowjackets combining for an 18-4-2 record, there is no shame in those results looking back now. Tennessee also thumped the then-No. 2 Hurricanes in the Sugar Bowl, making a huge statement despite being ranked No. 8 at the time.

The Sooners had the advantage of being No. 3 entering bowl season, of course, and getting the direct matchup with then-No. 1 Penn State, but the Volunteers’ superior SOS trumps it all in the end, allowing Tennessee to leapfrog Oklahoma in our analysis. We understand the media hype that surrounds bowl season, especially at the time, but the Vols beating the Hurricanes was much more impressive than the Sooners beating the Nittany Lions—perhaps doubly so, especially when Oklahoma lost to Miami-FL at home.

This is the Vols’ second MNC from us, as they also won it in 1938. That’s a record gap now between MNCs, beating the 40-year record set by Pittsburgh in 1976.

Congratulations to the 1985 Tennessee Volunteers, the mythical national champion!

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