The proud Texas football program was struggling–at least by the standards of a national power since the regular season ended in 1977. Texas concluded that year, the first season for head coach Fred Akers, undefeated and ranked #1 in the country. They were promptly blown out by Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl and over the next three seasons went 25-11. The 1981 Texas football team needed to reverse the negative momentum.
New contenders in the old Southwest Conference were rising. Houston went to consecutive Cotton Bowls and Baylor also reached the league’s showcase bowl game. SMU was moving on up, to say nothing of traditional power Arkansas.
The Longhorns still had respect and were still ranked #9 to start the 1981 season. They rolled over Rice and then looked sluggish in beating North Texas to start the season, but with upsets going down around the country, the Longhorns still rose to #4 in the polls.
Texas beat Miami, a rising national power with Jim Kelly at quarterback, 14-7 at home. September ended with the Longhorns ranked third in the nation and their traditional rivalry game with Oklahoma was next.
The Sooners would not have a good year in 1981, but they were still ranked #10 when the Red River Rivalry went down on October 10th. And Oklahoma started the game quickly, jumping out to a 14-3 lead at halftime.
Texas wasn’t ideally suited to make a comeback. Rick McIvor only completed 40 percent of his passes, and while the standards of 1981 were considerably different then today, this would still be the worst completion percentage of any quarterback of the ten teams who made major bowl games. Nor did McIvor make up for it with big plays, averaging a mediocre 6.6 yards-per-attempt.
The Longhorns did have a well-balanced rushing attack, with Jam Jones and John Walker each finishing in the top eight of the SWC in rush yardage, running behind an offensive line anchored by All-American tackle Terry Tausch. The defense was led by tackle Kenneth Sims, the best interior lineman in the country and soon-to-be #1 overall pick in the NFL draft.
It was Jones who stepped up and took over the Oklahoma game. He got the ball 36 times and gained 137 yards. Jones scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 14-10 and Texas never stopped. The game turned into a rout, 34-14 and when it was all over the Longhorns were ranked #1 in the country.
But it only lasted a week. Even though Arkansas would have a fairly average team and lose three league games, Lou Holtz had his Razorbacks ready for this one, and they hung a 42-11 shellacking on Texas. The Longhorns dropped all the way to #10.
SMU was ranked eighth in the country and undefeated when the Longhorns traveled to play the Mustangs. But SMU was also on probation. They could be ranked, and their games counted in the league standings, but the Mustangs were not eligible for the Cotton Bowl. Texas came up with a big 9-7 win, then came home to beat lowly Texas Tech 26-9.
It set up a big prime-time game at the Astrodome against Houston. Both teams, along with Arkansas, were fighting for the Cotton Bowl slot and ideally to do it by finishing ahead of SMU. The Longhorns fell behind the Cougars 14-3 in the fourth quarter. Once again, the team whose offense wasn’t built to come from behind did exactly that.
Walker ran for a touchdown and then threw a pass that converted the two-point play, cutting the lead to three points. With 2:40 left, kicker Raul Allegre, who would eventually kick for the New York Giants, hit a 47-yarder that tied the game 14-14. That’s where it ended. Texas was a game ahead of Houston and Arkansas, and a half-game back of SMU.
SMU’s probation made the end of the season a little anticlimactic. Texas beat up TCU and Baylor easily, the latter struggling to a 5-6 record after winning the conference in a runaway in 1980. When Arkansas lost to SMU it eliminated the Razorbacks. With one week to go, the Longhorns would not catch the Mustangs for the true league championship. They had at least a tie for second place with Houston clinched. But Texas needed to beat Texas A&M to remove all doubt.
A loss to the Aggies would create a second-place tie and with head-to-head unable to settle it between Texas and Houston, the Cotton Bowl would get to pick who it wanted. Now the nod would likely go to Texas anyway, ranked #7 in the polls, the more marquee program and hungry for their first trip to the league’s flagship bowl in four years. So while not overstating the drama of what was at stake, we can still say that Texas wanted to eliminate any doubt about their Cotton Bowl trip–and beat their archrival. They did just that with a 21-13 win on Thanksgiving the ensured sole possession of second place behind SMU.
The Cotton Bowl would feature two of the nation’s great programs. Bear Bryant was bringing in Alabama. The Tide had won national titles in 1978 and 1979, and won this very bowl game a year earlier. Alabama was also ranked #3 in the country and hoping for the right confluence of circumstances to win the national championship.
For three quarters in Dallas, Alabama looked the part of a team that had a lot on the line, and Texas looked like the part of a team that needed the probation of a rival to be here. The Tide were moving it up and down the field, but couldn’t put the game away. Consequently, the score was only 10-0 when the fourth quarter began.
It was fitting end for Texas, in a year where they came from behind to beat Oklahoma and to tie Houston. They “whipped”, to use Bryant’s postgame words, the Crimson Tide in the fourth quarter.
Backup quarterback Robert Brewer got the opportunity here and while he threw for over 200 yards to help the comeback cause, his biggest play came with his feet. With the lead cut to 10-7, and Texas on the Alabama 30-yard line, Brewer took off on a quarterback draw for a touchdown.
The Tide still rallied, with the final drive starting with a big kickoff return. Longhorn defensive back William Graham led the team with seven interceptions this season and the last one came on the one-yard line to preserve the win. After a voluntary safety by Texas, the game ended 14-12.
When second-ranked Georgia lost the Sugar Bowl that night, the door was open for Texas to rise all the way to #2 in the final polls. The Longhorns were back on the national map.