The 1978 Alabama football team felt like they had something to prove. They finished #2 in the polls in 1977 and felt like they were robbed of the top spot. They had gone undefeated in 1966 and been overlooked. While Bear Bryant’s program had consistently dominated the SEC over the past several years, they were looking for their first national championship since 1965.
Alabama was ranked #1 in the preseason polls, with a balanced rushing attack led by Tony Nathan and Major Ogilvie, who were the SEC’s top two backs in terms of yards-per-attempt. Quarterback Jeff Rutledge didn’t have to throw a lot, but he had a long NFL future ahead of him and was effective when he had to. Rutledge’s 13 touchdown passes led the SEC.
Defensively, Alabama was anchored by defensive tackle Marty Lyons and linebacker Barry Krauss, each of whom made All-American. Cornerback Don McNeal would soon be an NFL starter on a Super Bowl team with the Miami Dolphins.
Alabama hosted 10th-ranked Nebraska to start the year. After trailing 3-0 in the second quarter, ‘Bama drove 99 yards for the lead touchdown and then took over. They outrushed the powerful Cornhuskers 264-110, forced four turnovers and won the football game 20-3.
A win over a good Missouri team followed and set up Alabama to host seventh-ranked USC on September 23.
The Crimson Tide had a rough day at home against USC and it wasn’t against an opponent good enough to escape against. Rutledge threw four interceptions and the normally stingy Tide defense was vulnerable to the attack led by running back Charles White and quarterback Paul McDonald.
The game was tight in the fourth quarter, with USC leading 10-7, but Alabama surrendered two straight touchdowns, kept turning the ball over and lost 24-7. Bryant’s team fell to #7.
The Tide blew out Vanderbilt, survived a trip west to face defending Pac-10 champ Washington and won decisively over Tennessee, Virginia Tech and Mississippi State. Alabama was back up to #3 and set for a key home date with 10th-ranked LSU on November 11.
The championship picture was straightforward coming into this day. Oklahoma was ranked #1 and the Big Eight the Sooners then played in was committed to the Orange Bowl. Penn State was #2 and an independent, therefore free to match up with OU down in Miami. Alabama needed some help.
Bryant’s team handled their own business with a 31-10 win over LSU. That same day, fourth-ranked Nebraska upended Oklahoma 17-14. Alabama was back in business.
But the polls moved Nebraska into the #2 spot. The Cornhuskers were also locked into the Orange Bowl, so while the deck had been reshuffled, the Tide’s cards remained fundamentally the same. Alabama’s head-to-head win over Nebraska was being overlooked. As infuriating as this must have been for ‘Bama fans in the moment, it was a precedent they would be thankful for before the season was out.
They needed another break and they got it. Nebraska had a letdown week and lost to Missouri. Now the door was clearly open for Alabama to pair up with Penn State in the Sugar Bowl. The Tide sealed that opportunity with a 34-16 win over Auburn–who was above-average at best.
Alabama had their showdown with Penn State, but there was still a fly in the ointment. USC had gradually rebounded from an early loss themselves, were also 10-1 and were the new #3 in the polls. The Trojans were locked into the Rose Bowl to play Michigan, but if Alabama and USC both won, would the voters return to the results of September 23?
First things first. The Crimson Tide had to beat the nation’s only undefeated team and the game was a defensive classic. Alabama moved the ball better than Penn State, but couldn’t put points on the board until just before the half. Rutledge rifled a bullet over the middle that was caught in the end zone by Bruce Bolton for a 30-yard touchdown catch.
The two teams traded touchdowns and the Tide clung to a 14-7 lead into the fourth quarter. McNeal appeared to save the game when he intercepted a pass that stopped a potential tying drive by the Lions. But Then Rutledge gave it back with a bad pitchout and Penn State had the ball on the Alabama 19-yard line. They ground it down to the goal line with two chances to push it in.
After the first play was stuffed, Lyons is said to have noted that the Penn State still had a good six feet to go and told a Lion offensive lineman “You better pass.” Instead the ball went to fullback Mike Guman who tried to go over the top.
Krausse was ready. He leapt and met Guman head on, inches from the goal line. A Sports Illustrated cover caught the collision head-on in a photo for the ages. Alabama had held and they won the game 14-7.
USC won their game 17-10, with help from a controversial touchdown that would never stand in the era of instant replay–running back Charles White had clearly fumbled before breaking the goal line, and Michigan had clearly recovered. Outrage over the call was a key part of media discussion and it surely worked to Alabama’s favor.
I would have voted for USC in the belief that head-to-head–in Birmingham no less–trumps all else. Voters were of a more mixed opinion. The writers went to Alabama and the coaches to USC.
Either way, it was a national title for Bear Bryant. And if anyone had doubts about this one, the Bear and ‘Bama were coming back for more in 1979.