Bear Bryant had arrived in Tuscaloosa back in 1958. In his first eight seasons, he finished #1 in the AP poll three different times and had an unbeaten, but uncrowned team in 1966. He hadn’t been back on top since, but the 1973 Alabama football team came into the season with some momentum. They had won two straight SEC titles and finished in the national Top 10 each of the previous two years. This ’73 edition of the Tide would match those feats…and come oh-so-close to winning it all.
The primary quarterback was Gary Rutledge, but Richard Todd—a future NFL starter with the Jets—would get considerable playing time behind center. Both quarterbacks were efficient, completing over half of their passes and Rutledge averaged nearly 16 yards per attempt.
Wilbur Jackson was an all-conference running back, who went for 750 yards at an astonishing 7.9 yards a carry. Todd’s 560 rush yards were second-most on the team. Other backs in a balanced running game included Randy Billingsley, Ellis Beck and Calvin Culliver.
The emphasis on running the ball that was characteristic of both Alabama and the era they played in can be seen in the stats of receiver Wayne Wheeler. He caught 19 passes for the entire season, but made honorable mention All-American. Wheeler’s 27.9 yards-per-catch underscores that when teams did throw the football, they really let it fly.
Bryant’s offensive line was keyed by two excellent tackles. Buddy Brown was the one player in the lineup to get first-team All-American honors. Steve Sprayberry on the other side was an All-SEC blocker. Alabama’s offense ranked third in the nation in points scored.
The defense was almost as good. Woodrow Lowe, an honorable mention All-American at linebacker with an NFL future, led the way. Players like defensive end Mike DuBose, defensive tackle Mike Raines, and secondary leaders Mike Washington and David McMackin got all-conference recognition. If Bryant needed to control field position, he did it with the SEC’s best punter, Greg Gant. The Tide defense ranked fifth in the nation in points allowed.
Alabama was ranked #6 in the preseason polls and tuned up with a 66-0 thrashing of a bad Cal team at home. The Tide then had back-to-back road games within the SEC. They knocked off mediocre teams in Kentucky, 28-14 and Vanderbilt, 44-zip. By the end of September, Alabama was up to #3 in the polls.
The first test of real note came on October 6 when Georgia came to town. The Dawgs held a 14-13 lead with a little over eight minutes to play. Then Alabama missed a 30-yard field goal. They were in trouble. But they got the ball back and quickly drove 59 yards in three plays, scoring the go-ahead TD with 2:22 to play. A lockup touchdown with 34 seconds to play gave ‘Bama their second 28-14 win of the season.
A week later, they were in Florida, facing another team that was in the “pretty good, not great” category. The result was a 35-14 win for the Tide. The ensuing polls had Alabama up to #2.
But there was no rest in the SEC schedule. Tennessee, ranked #10, came to town for a high-profile showdown. On the first play of the game, Rutledge dropped back and hit Wheeler with an 80-yard touchdown strike. It set up what would be a back-and-forth game that went to the fourth quarter tied 21-all.
Then Alabama blew it open. Rob Carey took a punt 62 yards to the house and gave the Tide the lead. Jackson ripped off an 80-yard touchdown run. Paul Spivey’s short TD run completed the outburst. With over 500 yards of total offense, Alabama won 42-21.
The schedule lightened over the next four weeks. Alabama didn’t play well against lowly Virginia Tech, but won 17-6. They shut out mediocre Mississippi State on the road, 35-0. The Tide got a week off, then hosted another average team in Miami. The Hurricanes were one of four teams that finished one game below .500. Alabama’s 43-13 win meant they had deprived all four (including Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State) of a winning season.
Alabama was still #2 in the polls and the biggest game of the season had arrived. They would travel to LSU, ranked #7, on the Thursday prior to Thanksgiving. The stakes were the SEC title, a Sugar Bowl date with Notre Dame and keeping alive the hopes of a national championship. On top of all this, the Tide was aiming for the 500th win in the history of the program.
Rutledge came through. In the second quarter, he took off on a 19-yard touchdown run. He hit George Pugh on a 49-yard touchdown pass. And the quarterback unloaded to his big-play target Wheeler on a 77-yard scoring strike. Alabama won 21-7.
Ohio State was ranked #1 and the Big Ten champion was bound to the Rose Bowl against the Pac-10 champ. Alabama had no way of surpassing the Buckeyes without getting some help. Two days after the LSU win, the Tide got what they needed—Ohio State played Michigan to a 10-10 tie. The Buckeyes still went to the Rose Bowl, but Alabama was now #1.
What’s more, Notre Dame was #3. Even though Oklahoma sat in between at #2, the Sooners were on probation and not going to a bowl game. It was apparent that the Alabama-Notre Dame was a winner-take-all national title fight.
The Sugar Bowl went down on New Year’s Eve in Tulane Stadium (this game didn’t shift to the Superdome until 1975). And it would be one of the great college football games ever played.
Alabama trailed 14-7 before scoring ten straight points and nudging out to a 17-14 lead. Trailing 21-17 in the fourth quarter, Bryant dialed up a trick play. Richard Todd handed off to Mike Stock. Todd snuck out of the backfield, Stock ran the other way, then threw the pass back across the field to Todd for a 25-yard touchdown pass. The Tide had the lead…but the extra point was missed. The lead was 23-21.
Notre Dame drove and got a go-ahead field goal. An Alabama drive stalled, but the Tide pinned the Irish right up against the goal line. In the final minute, Notre Dame faced a 3rd-and-long from their own 2-yard line.
Everything seemed set up for the Tide. If the Irish even attempted a pass, they risked a safety that would all but win the game for Alabama. Again, this was an era were passing was not nearly as efficient. Bryant was convinced he would get a good shot at a field goal.
Instead, Notre Dame quarterback Tom Clement threw deep. And he found his man down the left sideline. The first down effectively ended the game. Alabama lost 24-23.
The coaches’ poll was still doing their last vote at the end of the regular season, so the Tide would be recognized as UPI champions, even though the more credible AP writers vote that included the bowl games went for Notre Dame.
It was a crushing end to a fantastic season. 1974 would be more of the same. Alabama played Notre Dame in a bowl game with the national title on the line (for the Tide in this case, not the Irish) and lost a nailbiter. In 1977, Alabama finished #2 in the nation in a debated vote…behind Notre Dame. All of this is on top of the fact that Alabama’s 1966 undefeated team had finished behind Notre Dame in the polls. Suffice it to say, the Tide were more than a little frustrated.
But the Bear would get his final breakthroughs. Alabama won a share of the national title in 1978 and they won both polls in 1979. Avenging Notre Dame would have to wait until the modern era with Nick Saban—the Tide crushed the Irish for the 2012 national championship and again in a 2020 playoff semifinal.