That One Time Tennessee Didn't Allow a Single Point & UCLA Went Undefeated and Neither One Won the Championship…
I want to start off today's article by first taking a moment and thanking everyone on this awesome platform for their support. I hit the 1k mark yesterday and am super-pumped to be a part of such an awesome group of sports enthusiasts and talented writers. I will look forward to doing my part moving forward in 2019 to expand awareness and help grow this wonderful platform as much as possible. If you haven't already, please checkout my boy @thesportsguru and his awesome sportscast on this very topic. Thank you all again, and without further ado, let's get into today's story - one that is truly unique in the realm of college football history:
As we go back through the decades in the history of college football, much has changed over the years to say the least. We now have a playoff (it's a great time to be alive!), conference championship games, advanced computer rankings, strength of schedule metrics, and a plethora of data available to sort through all of the teams in the country. Years ago of course, it was nothing like this, and as I've previously wrote about, selecting a "National Champion" was anything but easy. Going back to the decades before the 1960s it gets even more stickier when sorting through who should be the best in the country on a yearly basis. That takes us to today's story. What if I told you there was a season in college football history, where the Tennessee Volunteers managed to go a perfect 10-0 during the regular season, not allow a single point in those ten contests, and still manage to not get any piece of the national championship? What if I told you in that same season that UCLA would finish the year without a loss, yet could only manage a final ranking of #7?
Eighty years ago was an interesting time in college football. The sport was growing immensely both at the collegiate and professional level. The first Heisman Trophy was awarded in 1935, and selecting a "National Champion" came to the forefront during the 1920s and 1930s. A growing popularity had led to a number of mathematical systems being developed that began selecting national champions. The "major polling systems" first started selecting national champions in 1936 with the Associated Press (AP) poll.
This was the setting for the 1939 college football season. Tennessee had went undefeated and won the National Championship in 1938 and came into the season highly regarded. The Volunteers turned in an epic regular season in which they finished a perfect 10-0. They were SEC champions, and even though the conference and college football landscape was much different back then, still defeated the likes of Alabama, LSU, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and Auburn in conference play. They started the season with a 13-0 shutout of N.C. State and then defeated lesser opponents in Sewanee (at the time a member of the SEC), and Chattanooga, winning by a combined score of 68-0.
The following week yielded an impressive 21-0 victory over #8 Alabama, and the Volunteers followed that up by going to #18 LSU two weeks later and defeated the Tigers 20-0. They closed the regular season by shutting out Vanderbilt 13-0, Kentucky 19-0, and Auburn 7-0. They finished the season 6-0 in SEC play, sharing the conference championship with Georgia Tech (the two did not play each other during the season as the conference had 13 members and teams played anywhere from just 3, all the way up to 7 conference games). For the season, the Vols outscored their opponents 212-0. They are the last team to finish a regular season unbeaten, untied, without allowing a point in NCAA history. Despite this incredible season, they could still only muster a #2 ranking in the final AP poll, finishing behind Texas A&M, who also went a perfect 10-0, finishing as Southwest Conference Champions.
The AP issued their final poll of the season following the conclusion of the regular season at the time, and both the AP and later UPI Coaches Poll would not change their final rankings of the season until after the bowl games until the 1974 season.
There were other selectors at the time, and most preferred Texas A&M as well. Some of those selectors waited until after the bowl games, which did no favors to Tennessee. Despite going 10-0 in the regular season without allowing a single point, the Vols would go on to surrender 14 to USC in the 1940 Rose Bowl, and lose 14-0, finishing the season 10-1. Meanwhile, Texas A&M went on to win the Cotton Bowl over fifth-ranked Tulane, and finish up 11-0. Even though UT lost in the Rose Bowl, it is still surprising that a team that went unbeaten without allowing a single point could get excluded from a National Title in an era where the honor was usually bestowed before the outcomes of bowl games. Since USC was able to defeat Tennessee in the Rose Bowl, they were chosen as the 'Dickenson' system (one of the major mathematical selectors of the time) champion.
That brings us to UCLA. Earlier I mentioned how the Bruins managed to finish the season undefeated, yet could only muster a final ranking of #7. How could this be? Well I forgot to mention that while they did go unbeaten, they also managed to match the NCAA record for most ties in a season with 4, finishing the season 6-0-4. It is one of the most unusual records you will ever see. Temple went 3-2-4 in a lackluster 1937 season in which all four of their ties ended in scoreless draws. Central Michigan managed to go 6-1-4 in 1991 and finished 2nd in the MAC that season. But going undefeated with 4 ties?
A non-conference victory over TCU, and subsequent road victory at Washington to start the season got the Bruins off to a solid start. The one tie that probably set them back the most was the following week when they could only muster a 14-14 finish with Stanford. The Cardinal went on to finish the season just 1-7-1 overall, and winless in conference play (Pacific Coast Conference at the time). A scoreless tie to #14 Santa Clara a couple of weeks later, and 13-13 tie the following week with Oregon State did not hurt UCLA much as both were quality opponents, and Oregon State went on to finish the season 9-1-1. That setup a season-ending showdown with rival USC.
UCLA came into the game ranked #9 at 6-0-3, and USC came in ranked #3 at 7-0-1 on the season. Making the rivalry showdown from the LA Coliseum a de facto conference title game. As it turned out, the two played to a 0-0 scoreless tie in front 103,000. The Trojans finished conference play 5-0-2, and the Bruins 5-0-3, sending USC to the Rose Bowl as Conference champion by the slimmest of margins. There were only 5 bowl games at the time, meaning despite finishing the season without a loss, the Bruins season ended with the tie to USC. The Trojans went on to finish the season by defeating #2 Tennessee 14-0 in the Rose Bowl, giving USC a final tally of 8-0-2 on the season and a partial claim to the 1939 championship.
This is just one of many interesting seasons, national championship claims, and unique circumstances in the history of college football. In the end, the correct choice(s) were most likely made with Texas A&M and USC sharing the championship. While Tennessee certainly had one of the great seasons in college football history, they couldn't quite close it out with the loss to USC. UCLA's season was just an incredibly unique one in the annals of college football. One score here or one less score there, and the Bruins may very well have been National Champion. My top 5 for the season would look something like this:
1) USC (8-0-2) [co-champs]*
2) Texas A&M (11-0) [co-champs]*
3) Tennessee (10-1)
4) UCLA (6-0-4)
5) Tulane (8-1-1)
I hope you all enjoyed another story from the unique history of NCAA football. I would love to hear your thoughts below as always! I will be doing some posts leading up to the Super Bowl, including my 'Ultimate Super Bowl trivia', so be sure to check back! I will also be providing a "projected field" recurring article feature similar to that of other pundits out there leading up to the "March Madness" and the NCAA basketball tournament. As always, happy reading and writing!