Mississippi State Football: Should the Bulldogs claim a title from the ’40s?

Sep 14, 2019; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs fans cheer before the game against the Kansas State Wildcats at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 14, 2019; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs fans cheer before the game against the Kansas State Wildcats at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports /

A recent Twitter thread has Mississippi State football fans debating if their program should claim a national championship from the 1940s.

Mississippi State football has seen a fair amount of success in recent years, but the all-time history of the program is significantly lacking.

The program has an all-time losing record, has reached the SEC Championship Game just once in 1998, and has only one SEC title from 1941. And most notably, the Bulldogs have never won a national championship in football.

But even for other major programs that have experienced similar historical struggles, many still have at least one season that they claim a national championship for.

43 FBS programs claim national championships. And while many of those championship claims are not officially recognized by the NCAA, it doesn’t stop those schools from hanging banners and their fanbases from spouting those titles (legitimate or not) in arguments.

Mississippi State Football has neither NCAA recognized nor claimed national championships. But as it turns out, there may be a season for which they could make that claim.

Sickos Committee, a popular Twitter page devoted to celebrating the oddities of college football, decided to dive into a bit of Mississippi State football history by highlighting the 1940 season, MSU’s only ever undefeated campaign.

State went 10-0-1 that year, with only a 7-7 tie at Auburn preventing a perfect record. They defeated Georgetown in the Orange Bowl to close out the season and finished ranked 9th in the AP Poll.

Tennessee going a perfect 5-0 in SEC play, as opposed to MSU’s 4-0-1, kept State from winning the SEC title, which they would win the next year. But 1940 is still the most successful season overall in program history.

Is it a year that Mississippi State can, or should, claim a title for, though? At first glance, it may not seem like a team that didn’t win its conference and finished 9th in the rankings would have a legitimate claim for a championship. But it isn’t quite that straightforward.

As is the case with many decades-old college football seasons, rankings and national title debates are quite convoluted.

There were several different polls that selected champions, and in an era where national champions were named before bowl games were played, the validity of those selections is regularly called into question. Four teams claim national championships for 1940: Minnesota, Stanford, Tennessee, and Boston College.

Minnesota went 8-0, won the Big Ten, and was named AP Poll champions. But the Gophers did not play in a bowl game as Big Ten rules at the time prohibited their schools from participating in bowls.

The league felt that playing in bowls would be putting too much priority on football over academics. That factor alone has had a major impact on national title claims across the sport. Minnesota is the only team officially recognized as a national champion for 1940 by the NCAA, but other teams certainly have strong arguments.

Stanford was also perfect at 10-0. The Pacific Coast Conference and Rose Bowl champions were named national champions by three selectors.

If not for the Big Ten’s laughable viewpoint on bowl games, Stanford and Minnesota would’ve met in the Rose Bowl to determine once and for all who was the rightful champion of the two (though the Gophers still would’ve been AP champions based on the ridiculous selection process of the time).

Tennessee’s title claim is interesting. The Volunteers finished the regular season 10-0, and as mentioned earlier, won the SEC outright. That was enough to make Big Orange national champions in the eyes of the Dunkel System. But this is a perfect example of the flaw of naming teams champions prior to bowl games, as Tennessee would go on to lose in the Sugar Bowl to finish 10-1.

Who did they lose to? Boston College. The Eagles took down Tennessee 19-13 to cap off a perfect, 11-0 season.

No polls named BC champions, as they had just one impressive win during the regular season, defeating the Georgetown team MSU would later beat in the Orange Bowl. But the win over Tennessee showed they were undoubtedly amongst the nation’s elites in 1940, and the school declared themselves national champions as a result.

As you can see, naming any one champion for this season isn’t easy. Should Mississippi State add to the complexity of the discussion? Tennessee’s title claim is the biggest justification for MSU.

Though the Vols did win the SEC over State, the teams did not play each other to have any head-to-head argument. And MSU ultimately finished with a better record than Tennessee after the bowls were played.

And while State was only 9th in the final AP Poll, five teams ranked ahead of MSU in the final rankings finished with worse records than MSU, including Tennessee. How do those rankings look if bowl results are taken into account? State is the only team in the top 10 that doesn’t claim a title despite not having any losses.

Considering Minnesota and Stanford both stayed perfect by not playing each other, Tennessee claims a title despite losing their bowl, and Boston College makes a claim with no selectors naming them champions, Mississippi State football could likely justify a title claim.

It wouldn’t be unprecedented. SEC foes in Kentucky and Texas A&M recently made title claims for seasons that happened eons ago.

Alabama infamously claims 1941 as a national championship season, a year in which the Tide finished 9-2 with a loss to SEC champion Mississippi State and was ranked 20th in the AP Poll.

Should Mississippi State actually claim a national championship over 80 years after the fact, though? I’m likely in the minority in that I would not.

Though a case can certainly be made that MSU has a valid claim, there’s something that just doesn’t sit right with me with retroactively calling your team national champions when no selectors awarded you the title nor was there a singular game against a team that does claim a title which you won.

And the reality is the teams that have done this recently or at least considered the move haven’t exactly gotten positive publicity for doing so. Reactions have largely been critical, with plenty of ridicule and mocking towards those programs.

The point of claiming a title so long after the fact is to boost the perception of your program. But the opposite actually happens. Do you want to open yourself up to that?

I’d rather not, though I can certainly understand the sentiment of saying “If these other teams can claim titles, why shouldn’t Mississippi State football?” It’s an interesting debate, for sure.