The 1976 college football season saw several new teams step up and reach the four major New Year’s Day bowl games. No team made a bigger splash than Pitt, who produced the Heisman Trophy winner in Tony Dorsett, displaced Penn State as the top team in the East and eventually won the national title.
Pitt got its chance to win the national title in the Sugar Bowl and took advantage in a win over Georgia. No one could call the Bulldogs a new team on the national stage, but they did manage to end Alabama’s five-year run atop the SEC.
Other new teams included Houston, Maryland and Colorado. Houston won the Southwest Conference in their first year of membership, vaulting over traditional powers Texas & Arkansas. Maryland went undefeated and matched up with Houston in the Cotton Bowl. Colorado shared the Big Eight title and got the Orange Bowl bid out of a conference that usually produced Oklahoma or Nebraska.
Only the Rose Bowl went according to form. The Big Ten & Pac-8 races came down to winner-take-all finales between Michigan-Ohio State and USC-UCLA. The Wolverines and Trojans won and each went into New Year’s Day holding out hopes of a national championship if Pitt lost. Ohio State got the consolation prize of the Orange Bowl over UCLA.
You can read about the season-long paths of all eight participants in the major bowl games and how each one unfolded, at the links below.