The 1978-88 timeframe in college football started with hallowed names of the past, like Bear Bryant and ended with rising stars of the future, like Jimmy Johnson. In between, Joe Paterno won two national championships. Notre Dame rose, fell and rose again. Georgia won with Herschel Walker, Oklahoma ran the wishbone to perfection and Clemson announced the age of parity had arrived. Above all, the era was marked by a small private college in Miami becoming a national brand known simply as “The U.”
TheSportsNotebook has articles on the teams that shaped the race for the national championship in each season of this 11-year stretch. You’ll read about their key players and their season-defining moments.
The links below take you to a page that will have the individual articles within each season. Read on and experience what it was like to be a college football fan in this era, through the eyes of its best teams.
Drama on the goal line was the story of the 1978 college football season. Alabama stopped Penn State in the Sugar Bowl with an epic goal-line stand. USC edged Michigan in the Rose Bowl thanks to a controversial non-fumble call on the goal line. Nebraska upset Oklahoma thanks to a late fumble near the goal line. And though it didn’t impact the national title, Notre Dame’s last-play touchdown to beat Houston cemented the growing legend of Joe Montana. In the end, the Trojans and Crimson Tide shared the national championship.
Alabama and USC were back for more and spent much of the regular season eyeing each other up from across the country. A crucial slip-up by the Trojans opened the door for ‘Bama to roll on to a second straight national title, this one outright. But they needed a little help from USC before it was over—the Trojans had to down unbeaten Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. Oklahoma and Nebraska continued to stay in national contention. And college football got a surprise new entrant, when Bobby Bowden brought Florida State to the New Year’s stage.
The legend of Herschel Walker began in Georgia, as the great freshman running back led the Bulldogs to the national championship. The Dawgs supplanted Alabama in the SEC. Notre Dame tried to send Dan Devine out with a title, but they couldn’t stop Herschel in the Sugar Bowl. Pitt, with a boatload of NFL-bound talent finished #2 and the Sooner Schooner at Oklahoma continued to thunder on with Orange Bowl trips. Florida State showed ’79 was no fluke. And the most heartwarming story was Bo Schembechler finally winning a Rose Bowl at Michigan.
It was the year parity arrived in college football and nowhere was that more evident than when Clemson came from nowhere to win the national championship. The Tigers were the only unbeaten team left standing and they sealed it with an Orange Bowl win over Nebraska. Meanwhile, Bear Bryant made his last major bowl appearance with Alabama, Dan Marino’s Pitt team won a great Sugar Bowl over Herschel and Georgia. Penn State got back into national contention, setting the stage for 1982 and Texas took advantage of circumstances to finish #2.
Joe Paterno reached the top and Penn State won the national championship. The Nittany Lions defeated Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, after Herschel led his Dawgs to another undefeated season. SMU was right behind Penn State in the polls while being right ahead of the one-loss Lions in W-L record. The Mustangs had Eric Dickerson and Craig James as their Pony Express backfield and beat Pitt in the Cotton Bowl, a disappointing end to an inconsistent senior year for Marino. Nebraska was rightfully furious over a regular season loss at Penn State and had its best team in ten years.
All season long, Nebraska’s running game pummeled people and the Cornhuskers were discussed as the greatest team of all-time. Texas had a rigid defense, went undefeated and tried to get national respect themselves. To the shock of the nation, neither team would survive its bowl game. Georgia, post-Herschel, upset Texas. Then the Miami Hurricanes shocked the world with an Orange Bowl upset of Nebraska. In the SEC, Auburn and Bo Jackson emerged and put themselves in the national conversation. It would be Miami and Auburn that the pollsters had to choose between and the Hurricanes won the vote.
1984 was another year of chaos and it started early. Every one of the preseason top 5 lost a game before September was finished. It opened the door for a hotly disputed Cinderella national champion. BYU was the only unbeaten team, they were contractually committed to the Holiday Bowl and secured the #1 ranking before New Year’s festivities arrived. Oklahoma and Washington met in the Orange Bowl hoping to make their case. The Huskies won that game, but settled for #2 in the polls. Nebraska was #1 two different times, but couldn’t hold on.
It was the beginning of a two-year stretch where Oklahoma, Penn State and Miami ruled college football. This year was the Sooners’ time. They beat the top-ranked Nittany Lions in the Orange Bowl. Even though OU lost in the regular season to Miami, the Hurricanes were crushed by Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl. Iowa and Michigan stayed at or near the top of the polls much of the year and played a memorable 1 vs. 2 game in October. Nebraska again flirted with the top and again came up short against Oklahoma.
The Power Trio of Miami, Penn State and Oklahoma was back. The Hurricanes again beat the Sooners in the regular season and this time there was no way back into the national title race for OU. Miami powered through the remainder of its schedule. Penn State rolled on to an undefeated season of its own. The two independents could choose a bowl outside the traditional structure to play each other and they opted for the Fiesta, changing college football forever. Penn State won a stunning upset for the national championship that continues to live on in the sport’s lore.
The season would be a coincidental foreshadowing of college football’s future, with four teams playing a de facto playoff. On one side of the bracket was Miami and Florida State. The Hurricanes won a classic game over the Seminoles in October. On the other side of the bracket was Oklahoma and Nebraska. The Sooners continued their mastery of the Cornhuskers. Miami and Oklahoma met for the national championship in the Orange Bowl. Florida State and Nebraska played a consolation game in the Fiesta Bowl. Both Sunshine State schools won. Further north, Syracuse was unbeaten and unappreciated.
This season is defined by one of the most famous games of all-time, the “Catholics vs. Convicts” battle between Notre Dame and Miami on October 15. Both navigated difficult schedules. A 31-30 win by the Irish was the margin in the national championship race, as the two teams took the 1-2 spots in the final polls. West Virginia got a crack at the top, but the best Mountaineer team in history couldn’t match up with ND. Michigan nearly toppled both Notre Dame and Miami and settled for winning the Rose Bowl, while USC and UCLA kept things interesting out west.