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Fixing the Final 1938 AP College Football Poll

1) Texas Christian 11-0
2) Tennessee 11-0
3) Duke 9-1
4) Oklahoma 10-1
5) Notre Dame 8-1
6) Carnegie 7-2
7) Southern Cal 9-2
8)
Pittsburgh 8-2
9) Holy Cross 8-1
10) Minnesota 6-2
11) Texas Tech 10-1
12) Cornell 5-1-1
13) Alabama 7-1-1
14) California 10-1
15) Fordham 6-1-2
16) Michigan 6-1-1
17) Northwestern 4-2-2
18) Villanova 8-0-1
19) Tulane 7-2-1
20) Dartmouth 7-2
To the left is the final 1938 AP college football top 20. You can access all of these teams' full schedules here: College Football Data Warehouse (amongst a number of other places). The fixed final AP poll, expanded to 25 teams, follows the article below.

The AP poll had 4 teams with perfect records to choose from at the end of the regular season, 10-0 Texas Christian, 10-0 Tennessee, 9-0 Duke, and 10-0 Oklahoma, and AP voters went with TCU at #1. Why? Because TCU featured the nation's best player, Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Davey O'Brien.

O'Brien led the nation in passing and total offense, throwing for 1733 yards including TCU's bowl game. He completed 57% of his passes and tossed 19 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions, unheard-of numbers for the time.

However, the fact is that fielding the nation's best player isn't actually a logical argument for one team to be rated higher than another. That concept may be too baffling for your average sportswriter to grasp, but it is nevertheless true.

Is there a logical argument for TCU to be rated higher than Tennessee? No, there is not.

Texas Christian quarterback Davey O'Brien
Texas Christian quarterback Davey O'Brien was a national sensation, winning the Heisman Trophy and every other award he could get his hands on. He led the nation in passing and total offense, throwing for 1733 yards and 19 touchdowns. Shocking numbers for the time
.

Texas Christian vs. Tennessee

At the time the final AP poll was published, before the bowl games, Texas Christian had not played a single opponent ranked in the AP poll's own top 20, while Tennessee had beaten #13 Alabama (7-1-1). TCU's regular season opponents were 39-53-4, while Tennessee's were 52-41-3. So Tennessee played a far tougher schedule. On top of that, Tennessee outscored that tougher schedule by a total of 276-16, while TCU outscored their all-rube schedule 254-53. That's right, Tennessee played a schedule that was tougher by a country mile, but still scored more points and gave up fewer points. What were sportswriters thinking?

Well, of course they weren't thinking at all, they were feeling. Going with their gut. That's been the AP poll's biggest problem all along.

In the Sugar Bowl, TCU finally beat a rated team, topping #6 Carnegie 15-7, a good result. But on the same day, Tennessee shut out #4 Oklahoma 17-0 in the Orange Bowl. So counting the bowl games, Tennessee's opponents went 62-42-3, and Tennessee outscored them 293-16. TCU's opponents went 46-55-4, and TCU outscored them 269-60.
Furthermore, the SEC was 35-17 (.673) against nonconference opponents, the SWC 15-11-1 (.574).

Where is TCU's argument for being rated higher than Tennessee? It doesn't exist. It was simply a brainless decision. All gut.

The Case for Texas Christian

There is no case for TCU to be rated higher than Tennessee, but TCU does have a case for being rated #1 in a tie with Tennessee. First of all, just because one team plays a tougher schedule than another doesn't mean that that team is better. TCU proved they could beat a top 10 team in the Sugar Bowl. Of course, remember that the AP poll vote was taken at the end of the regular season, at which point I see no good case for TCU to have even been tied for #1. But post-bowl, which is what I'm concerned with when fixing these polls, TCU finally proved their mettle.

Secondly, while Tennessee scored more points and gave up fewer points than did TCU, those were largely style points. In realistic terms, these 2 teams performed about the same. Both had just 1 close game (touchdown or less-- no 2-point conversion at that time), Tennessee beating 4-5-1 Auburn 7-0 and TCU beating 2-7-1 Arkansas 21-14. Both won all the rest of their games by more than a touchdown.

Move Tennessee up to #1 in a tie with Texas Christian. Needless to say, if you were to choose only one of these teams to be #1, it would have to be Tennessee. This was, sadly, another triumph for machine over man-- 3 of 4 human MNC selectors listed in the NCAA Records Book went with TCU (only the College Football Researchers Association chose Tennessee), while 8 of 10 math/computer rankings had Tennessee #1 (one chose TCU and one liked 8-1 Notre Dame).

Alabama, Southern Cal, Notre Dame, and Duke

Tennessee wasn't the only underrated SEC team. 7-1-1 Alabama won 19-7 at 9-2 Southern Cal, yet they were rated #13 and USC was #7. Alabama's only loss came to 11-0 Tennessee. They did take an upset tie at 3-4-3 Georgia Tech, but Southern Cal took an upset loss at 3-5-1 Washington. So Alabama > Southern Cal.

Southern Cal, meanwhile, was rated behind 2 teams they defeated. They beat #5 Notre Dame (8-1) 13-0 in their regular season finale, and they beat #3 Duke (9-1) 7-3 in the Rose Bowl. So Alabama > Southern Cal > Notre Dame and Duke.

Because #5 Notre Dame beat #6 Carnegie, who beat #8 Pittsburgh, we'll leave Notre Dame where they are and just move Alabama and Southern Cal up ahead of them. So the question now is, where do we rate Duke, ahead of Notre Dame or behind them? Behind them, as Duke lost their bowl game and certainly would have dropped behind Notre Dame in a post-bowl poll anyway. But that is not quite far enough. Let's compare Duke to Carnegie.

Neither 7-2 Carnegie nor 9-1 Duke took an upset loss. Both beat #8 Pittsburgh (8-2), but Carnegie won 10-0 at Pitt, and Duke beat Pitt 7-0 at home. Carnegie also beat #9 Holy Cross (8-1), while Duke did not beat another rated team. Carnegie beat all their unrated opponents by more than a touchdown, including a 14-0 win at North Carolina State, while Duke had 4 close wins over unrated opponents, including a 7-0 win over North Carolina State at home. This is a slam dunk for Carnegie, so we'll drop Duke behind them.

All of that creates the following ratings shift: Oklahoma #3, Alabama #4, Southern Cal #5, Notre Dame #6, Carnegie #7, Duke #8, Pittsburgh #9, Holy Cross #10, Minnesota #11, Texas Tech #12, and Cornell #13.

Oklahoma

10-1 Oklahoma (originally rated #4) did not beat a ranked opponent, or a nearly-ranked opponent, so it shouldn't have come as a big surprise when 11-0 Tennessee whipped them 17-0 in the Orange Bowl. 8-2 Pittsburgh (originally #8) was more impressive, as they did beat a rated opponent (#15 Fordham), and they were dominating in all 8 of their wins, whereas Oklahoma beat 4-6 Rice just 7-6. Oklahoma may well have dropped behind Pitt after their bowl loss anyway, so let's go ahead and do that.

Drop Oklahoma back to #9, moving Pittsburgh and all the teams that had been ranked between Pitt and Oklahoma up 1 spot each.

Michigan and Northwestern

#16 Michigan (6-1-1) and #17 Northwestern (4-2-2) each had a better relevant record than did #15 Fordham (6-1-2). Michigan's only loss came to now-#11 Minnesota, and by 1 point on the road, and their tie came to Northwestern. Fordham was tied by unranked 5-1-2 Purdue and unranked 6-2-1 North Carolina. So Michigan had 1 less upset tie, and of course their upset tie came to a rated opponent, and they should therefore be ranked higher than Fordham (they had a better straight record too).

Northwestern is a more complex case. They took an upset tie to unranked 4-3-1 Ohio State, and they took an upset loss to unranked 5-3 Wisconsin. But on the plus side, they tied Michigan (who, again, belongs ahead of Fordham), and they defeated now-#11 Minnesota, while Fordham did not defeat any rated team. Northwestern balanced out their upset loss and tie with an upset win and tie, whereas Fordham did not balance out their ties to unranked opponents with any positive results against higher-ranked teams. Northwestern also lost to now-#5 Notre Dame by a mere 2 points in their season finale.

Move Michigan up to #15 and Northwestern to #16, dropping Fordham 2 spots.

St. Mary's and Texas Tech

Texas Tech, playing in the Border Conference at this time, was 10-0 when the AP poll ranked them at #11. Of course, they hadn't beaten anyone of any value, so I hope AP poll voters weren't too shocked when unrated 6-2 St. Mary's (California) beat Texas Tech 20-13 in the Cotton Bowl. St. Mary's lost only to #14 California and now-#17 Fordham, so of course they need to be ranked ahead of Texas Tech, and frankly they should have been ranked higher to begin with. Since Fordham beat St. Mary's, we'll place both teams behind the Rams.

Bring St. Mary's in at #17 and drop Texas Tech back to #18. Cornell, California, Michigan, Northwestern, and Fordham all move up 1 spot each.

Purdue and Wisconsin

5-1-2 Purdue (unrated) lost 7-0 at now-#11 Minnesota, and they tied now-#16 Fordham and unrated 1-6-1 Iowa. They defeated 5-3 Wisconsin 13-7 and 4-3-1 Ohio State 12-0. Wisconsin's other 2 losses came to Minnesota and #8 Pittsburgh, and they defeated now-#15 Northwestern and 7-4-1 UCLA. Purdue and Wisconsin should both be rated ahead of Texas Tech, who didn't beat anyone, and who repeatedly struggled to beat the nobodies they did play (close wins over Duquesne, Montana, UTEP, and Gonzaga). Purdue and Wisconsin also had better relevant records than the teams currently sitting behind Texas Tech.

Bring Purdue in at #18 and Wisconsin at #19, dropping Texas Tech and all the teams behind them 2 spots each.

Cornell and Dartmouth

I've been quite accommodating to the AP poll's early love affair with the schools that are now known as Ivy, but 5-1-1 Cornell (originally ranked #12) and 7-2 Dartmouth (originally #20) simply do not belong ranked in a top 25 for 1938. Cornell lost to unranked 5-3 Syracuse and they were tied by unranked 3-2-3 Pennsylvania. The only rated team they beat was Dartmouth, who should not be rated themselves. Dartmouth beat no one, and their other loss came to 3-6 Stanford by 10 points.

Show 'em the door. Everyone that had been ranked behind Cornell moves up 1 slot.

Clemson and Tulane

7-2-1 Tulane, originally ranked #19, lost 13-10 to unranked 7-1-1 Clemson at home, so of course Clemson should be ranked ahead of them.

Bring Clemson in at #21, dropping Tulane to #22. We have 3 more slots left to fill.

North Carolina

6-2-1 North Carolina lost to now-#7 Duke and to Tulane, but they tied now-#15 Fordham on the road, which was a nice result.

Bring 'em in next, at #23. 2 slots left to fill.

Ohio State

4-3-1 Ohio State lost to Southern Cal, Purdue, and Michigan, all currently rated, and they tied now-#14 Northwestern on the road, so they had the same relevant record as North Carolina did. I brought UNC in first only because UNC had a better straight record, which AP poll voters tend to enjoy.

Ohio State #24. 1 slot left to fill.

#25

There are 5 candidates for the last slot: 8-0 Georgetown, 6-3 Vanderbilt, 6-1-2 Boston College, 10-0 Memphis, and 7-1-1 Iowa State. Georgetown and Memphis had the best records, both straight and relevant, but while Georgetown played a credible schedule for a mid-major team, Memphis played a bunch of schools whose names their own alumni can't easily recall. Memphis, in other words, wasn't really a mid-major type team at this time, more like division 2, and thus they weren't really a candidate for #25. I just listed them as a "candidate" because I wanted to give them some recognition for their excellent "lower division" 10-0 season in 1938.

As for 8-0 Georgetown, their schedule may not have been impressive, but it wasn't awful, and unlike 5-1-1 Cornell, for example, they did not take any upset losses or ties.

Georgetown at #25.

Fixed AP Top 25

Two teams fall out of this fixed and expanded AP top 25, #12 Cornell (5-1-1) and #20 Dartmouth (7-2). Discounting their game against each other, they took 2 losses and 1 tie against unrated teams, and they did not defeat or tie any team the AP rated. The 7 new teams that enter the fixed poll combined for 3 wins and 3 ties against AP-rated teams, and they took 2 ties and no losses against unrated teams (discounting games against each other).

1) Tennessee 11-0
    Texas Christian 11-0
+0.5
- 0.5
3) Alabama 7-1-1 +10
4) Southern Cal 9-2 +3
5) Notre Dame 8-1 --
6) Carnegie 7-2 --
7) Duke 9-1 -4
8) Pittsburgh 8-2 --
9) Oklahoma 10-1 -5
10) Holy Cross 8-1 -1
11) Minnesota 6-2 -1
12) California 10-1 +2
13) Michigan 6-1-1 +3
14) Northwestern 4-2-2 +3
15) Fordham 6-1-2 --
16) St. Mary's (California) 6-2 IN
17) Purdue 5-1-2 IN
18) Wisconsin 5-3 IN
19) Texas Tech 10-1 -8
20) Villanova 8-0-1 -2
21) Clemson 7-1-1 IN
22) Tulane 7-2-1 -3
23) North Carolina 6-2-1 IN
24) Ohio State 4-3-1 IN
25) Georgetown 8-0IN

OUT: #12 Cornell 5-1-1
#20 Dartmouth 7-2

Fixed AP Polls
1938 National Championship
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