It’s almost been a year for MNC Wednesday, as we started this series back on March 25, 2020. We’ve covered a lot of ground in the last 12 months, for sure, and we move into the latter half of the 1980s today with a season that culminated in one of the first truly big bowl games in recent memory: the No. 1-versus-No. 2 matchup in the Fiesta Bowl. With two independents at the top of the polls, the upstart bowl in the Southwest rose to big-time status.

Now, let’s look at which teams really competed for the mythical national championship

The 1986 MNC: Pretty simple, thanks to some fortuitous results

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

1. Penn State: 12-0-0 — W, Fiesta, 14-10
2. Miami-FL: 11-1-0 — L, Fiesta, 10-14
3. Oklahoma: 11-1-0 — W, Orange, 42-8
4. Arizona State: 10-1-1 — W, Rose, 22-15
5. Nebraska: 10-2-0 — W, Sugar, 30-15
6. Auburn: 10-2-0 — W, Citrus, 16-7
7. Ohio State: 10-3-0 — W, Cotton, 28-12
8. Michigan: 11-2-0 — L, Rose, 15-22
9. Alabama: 10-3-0 — W, Sun, 28-6
10. LSU: 9-3-0 — L, Sugar, 15-30

The Nittany Lions are in, as the only major college to go unbeaten and untied during the season. The Sooners’ only loss was to Miami-FL early in the season on the road, so Penn State did Oklahoma a favor by dropping the Hurricanes in the Fiesta Bowl. Otherwise, the Sooners wouldn’t advance to the final round of consideration here.

The Sun Devils join the fray, although their case would be a lot better if they hadn’t lost the Territorial Cup to Arizona in the regular-season finale, that’s for sure. The Auburn Tigers didn’t win the SEC, so they’re not eligible for the MNC. The LSU Tigers did win the SEC, but they lost the Sugar Bowl.

Any other schools to consider not listed above? Nope. This is a simple season, so far, and it leaves us with 3 teams to choose from in finding a mythical champ. These are the qualifying teams and their respective SOS ratings, after we sorted through the pile of contenders above:

  • Oklahoma: 12 Division I-A opponents, 4.21 SOS rating, 24th of 105
  • Penn State: 12 Division I-A opponents, 5.91 SOS rating, 13th
  • Arizona State: 12 Division I-A opponents, 6.40 SOS rating, 10th

This is surprisingly close, and as we noted, that loss to the Wildcats really hurt the Sun Devils. They also tied Washington State early in the season, but we would have had a crazy debate if ASU had gone 11-0-1 instead. As it is, the Nittany Lions’ SOS is enough to clinch the discussion and confirm their AP poll title for our MNC.

It also saves us the awkward analysis of looking at the Sooners’ slate, with the loss to the Hurricanes—a team that Penn State beat, albeit barely, in that huge bowl game. Comparative/translative scores are hard to assess, but we do not have to tackle that challenge today, thankfully.

For the record, this is the second MNC for the Nittany Lions, after their confirmed title in 1982.

Congratulations to the 1986 Penn State Nittany Lions, the mythical national champion!

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