Bob Devaney was in his ninth year as the head coach at Nebraska when the 1970 college football season began. Neither he, nor the program, had won a national championship. This year was when the Cornhuskers broke through and began a back-to-back run at the top of the polls.
It didn’t start out that way. Nebraska was ranked #9 in the preseason polls. They played USC to a tie in September. But a team that had All-Americans in offensive tackle Bob Newton and linebacker Jerry Murtaugh, to go with explosive wide receiver Johnny Rodgers, slowly began grinding their way back up the rankings.
In the meantime, the focus turned to Ohio State and Texas. The Longhorns were the defending national champion. The Buckeyes were the preseason #1 team. Both were as good as advertised.
Texas had a potent three-pronged rushing attack. Steve Worster was an All-American at running back, but Jim Bertelsen and Eddie Phillips had comparable numbers. Bill Atessis was a top defensive end, and the ‘Horns had the nation’s best kicker in Happy Feller.
Ohio State’s ground game was in the capable of hands of John Brockington, who went for over 1,100 yards. But the Buckeyes’ best player was on defense. Jim Stillwagon played on the nose and won both the Lombardi and Outland Trophies. Jack Tatum, a physical hitter in the secondary with a big NFL future ahead of him, was an All-American at safety.
The Buckeyes and Longhorns both stayed undefeated as they pointed to their showdown games at the end of the regular season. Both games—Ohio State-Michigan just prior to Thanksgiving and Texas-Arkansas on the first weekend of December, conjured up memories of the epic finish to 1969.
In 1969, an undefeated Ohio State team that Woody Hayes considered the best he’d ever coached, had been stunned by what seemed a pedestrian Michigan team under first-year head coach Bo Schembechler. That opened the door for the Texas and Arkansas, both undefeated, to take the top spot in the polls. In a game attended by President Richard Nixon, the Longhorns rallied to win an unforgettable game over the Razorbacks, and subsequently beat Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl for the national title .
The 1970 college football season would see no such dramatics, at least in these two games. Michigan was a good team, probably better than the ’69 edition, with Dan Dierdorf keying the offensive line. They came into the Ohio State game undefeated. But the Buckeyes won a 20-9 decision. The victory won Ohio State some lost favor with the pollsters—the Buckeyes had gradually slipped to #5 in the polls in spite of winning every game. The win over Michigan vaulted Ohio State back to #2.
Arkansas was ranked #4 and hoping a defense led by tackle Dick Bumpas could slow the Texas running game. No such luck. The Longhorns didn’t need a big comeback in this one, cruising to a 42-7 win.
Texas would rematch with Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Joe Theismann was quarterbacking an Irish team that opened the season ranked #6. Theismann finished second in the Heisman voting. Tom Gatewood caught 77 passes at wide receiver, a high number in this era of running game primacy. Larry DiNardo was one of the nation’s best offensive lineman.
Notre Dame won their first seven games and took their own turn at #1 in the polls. A narrow win over Georgia Tech knocked the Irish from that perch, but Notre Dame followed it up with a hard-fought 3-0 win over seventh-ranked LSU. The Irish were poised to play for the national title…until they went to USC for the season finale and lost 38-28. Ara Parseghian’s crew would have to settle for trying to play spoiler in Dallas on New Year’s Day.
For a team that didn’t have a vintage season, USC made a big impact. We’ve noted their tie with Nebraska and victory over Notre Dame. The Trojans also hammered Alabama 42-21 on a Saturday night in September. Even though the Tide were another top program on something of a down year, this game was still historic. The play of USC’s racially integrated team, led by physical running back Sam “Bam” Cunningham gave Alabama head coach Bear Bryant the leverage he needed to bring integration to Tuscaloosa.
The team that did emerge from the Pac-8 this season was Stanford. The Cardinal had the Heisman Trophy winner, in quarterback Jim Plunkett. They were up to #6 in the polls in November when they paid a visit to Colorado Springs to play Air Force. An independent, the Falcons were having a good year themselves, with All-American receiver Ernie Jennings catching 74 passing at 17 yards a pop
Air Force took their good season and turned it into a special one. The Falcons won 31-14 and got what remains their most recent major bowl bid, a ticket to the Sugar Bowl.
Alabama’s down year meant the SEC was open. Ole Miss was a preseason favorite, ranked #5 in the first polls. But the Rebs didn’t live up their billing. Tennessee and LSU both did. The Vols and Tigers each had top five defenses nationally. They were ranked #4 and #5 respectively in the final polls. Tennessee got the Sugar Bowl nod to play Air Force. LSU would go to the Orange Bowl.
Waiting for LSU at the Orange Bowl was Nebraska. The Cornhuskers had quietly kept winning and by regular season’s end, they were 10-0-1 and ranked #3. They were in the mix for the national championship, but help was needed.
Help is what came. Notre Dame knocked off Texas 24-11 in the Cotton Bowl. Stanford upset Ohio State 27-17 in the Rose Bowl. The national title was up for grabs when the Orange Bowl kicked off that night.
LSU took a 12-10 lead into the fourth quarter and potential chaos loomed. Tennessee, who had beaten Air Force 34-13 earlier that day, was the natural next in line. The fifth-ranked Tigers would stake their own claim if they could hold on. So would Notre Dame, #6 coming in and fresh off beating the top-ranked team.
Nebraska made the voters’ decision easier. A 67-yard drive, capped off by quarterback Jerry Tagge sneaking in for the touchdown, secured the Cornhuskers a 17-12 win. At long last, they were national champions. And a year later, they came back and did it again.