The 1971 college football season was dominated by the old Big Eight Conference and the SEC. They produced the best teams and those teams squared off in big bowl games. The Big Eight was the one who ended up with both a historic trifecta—Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado finishing 1-2-3 in the final polls—along with providing one of college football’s greatest games.
Nebraska was the defending national champion. The Cornhuskers were ranked #2 in the preseason polls. They had a tough defensive front, anchored by Outland Trophy winner Larry Jacobson and All-American Rich Glover. The great Nebraska running game hummed behind Jeff Kinney. And quarterback Jerry Tagge put up solid passing numbers.
But none of those players were the ones who defined Nebraska in this ’71 college football game. That honor fell to Johnny Rodgers. As a wide receiver, he rolled up what was then an exceptionally high number of 956 receiving yards. He was a dynamite kick returner. And he took over this season at its most important moment.
Oklahoma opened the season ranked #10 and used the first part of October to establish their bona fides The Sooners beat a pretty good USC team 33-20, then hammered archrival Texas 48-27. OU had an explosive offense, averaging a national best 44.5 points per game. Greg Pruitt was the key, rushing for 1,700 yards and earning All-American honors. Jack Mildren, a running quarterback, pounded out over 1,200 yards himself. Tom Brahaney was the nation’s best center. The Sooners entered the season’s stretch drive poised to make a run at the top.
Colorado was the under-the-radar team. Unranked to start the year, they quickly knocked off ninth-ranked LSU. An offense keyed by 1,300-yard rusher Charlie Davis got the Buffaloes into the latter part of October undefeated.
The Buffs didn’t have the defense to keep up with Nebraska and Oklahoma, something that was made clear in the head-to-head meetings. OU beat Colorado 45-17 and the Cornhuskers pounded the Buffaloes 31-7. But Colorado beat everyone else and ended up ticketed for the Bluebonnet Bowl at season’s end.
As for Nebraska and Oklahoma, they were ranked #1 and #3 respectively, and pointing towards a Thanksgiving Day showdown in Norman.
Bear Bryant’s Alabama program was coming off a down year and looking for some redemption. Pollsters weren’t optimistic and only ranked the Tide #16 in the initial rankings. The 1970 season had gotten away from ‘Bama when they lost at home to USC early on. This year, Alabama reversed the script. They went on the road to the L.A. Coliseum and beat the fifth-ranked Trojans 17-10 and put themselves back onto the national map.
The Crimson Tide went on to a decisive win over a good Tennessee team. Alabama didn’t pass much—only 84 passes all season. But they moved along behind the running of Johnny Musso and stayed undefeated.
Auburn had no problems in the passing game. Pat Sullivan, the Tiger quarterback, won the Heisman Trophy. Terry Beasley was his top target and had receiving numbers that matched that of Rodgers. Auburn won a tough 10-9 game over Tennessee early on when both teams were ranked in the top 10. And like Alabama, the Tigers just kept winning.
Alabama and Auburn were undefeated, ranked #2 and #5 respectively, going into their Iron Bowl showdown on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Notre Dame was actually the team that got the #1 spot in the preseason polls. But the Irish lost that status before their season opener on September 18. Early wins did not impress the pollsters. The defense was terrific, with Lombardi Award winner Walt Patulski at defensive end and Clarence Ellis in the secondary. But the Irish could not replace quarterback Joe Theismann, the runner-up in the 1970 Heisman voting. They lost at home to USC, closed the year with a loss at LSU and stayed home for bowl season .
Stanford fared better at replacing their great quarterback. The Cardinal said goodbye to 1970 Heisman winner Jim Plunkett. They made up for it in 1971 with a defense that ranked in the top 10 nationally, along with a big-play receiver in Miles Moore. Stanford had something of a strange year—non-conference losses to Duke and San Jose State and another to a bad Pac-8 rival in Washington State. But the Cardinal won the biggest games—back-to-back weeks on the road at USC and Washington and it was enough for a second straight Rose Bowl bid.
Michigan was the Big Ten representative in Pasadena. Bo Schembechler’s offense was led by Billy Taylor, who rushed for nearly 1,300 yards behind an offensive line anchored by Reggie McKenzie.
Pollsters didn’t give Michigan the same credit as the undefeated teams from the Big Eight or SEC, thanks to a weak schedule that wasn’t helped when UCLA and Ohio State had down years. The pollsters were vindicated in the Rose Bowl when Stanford nipped Michigan 13-12.
No team defined college football in 1969 and 1970 more than Texas. The Longhorns won a national title in ’69, keyed by a classic win over Arkansas and a Cotton Bowl victory over Notre Dame. Texas had been ranked #1 going into the Cotton Bowl in 1970 before the Irish got revenge. Ranked #3 in the preseason polls, Darrell Royal’s Longhorns were primed for another shot.
But after getting blown out by Oklahoma, Texas lost another one to Arkansas. The Longhorns recovered, finished 8-2 and got another Cotton Bowl bid, but the fact this was not a vintage Texas team was underscored on New Year’s Day in Dallas.
Penn State was the opponent. The Lions had what can fairly be called a pretty good complement of running backs—Lydell Mitchell ran for over 1,500 yards, Franco Harris was the change-of-pace and a future Heisman winner in John Cappelletti was biding his time. Even so, the Lions had lost twice. But they vaulted themselves into the final top 5 with a 30-6 pounding of Texas.
Thanksgiving Day had a couple of good NFL games going, with four playoff contenders on display. But the game that has lived on through the ages is the Nebraska-Oklahoma battle. Rodgers was positively electric, both on offense and special teams and he sealed the Heisman Trophy. Nebraska won 35-31. The game is on any credible list of the greatest college football games ever played.
Saturday’s Iron Bowl wasn’t nearly as dramatic. Alabama pounded Auburn 31-7. The Tide would play Nebraska in the Orange Bowl for the national championship. The Sugar Bowl was serving as the de facto consolation game, with Oklahoma playing Auburn.
The 24-hour period of December 31 and January 1 were a tour de force for the Big Eight. Colorado got it started on New Year’s Eve. They played 15th-ranked Houston, a team with future NFL running back Robert Newhouse, in the Houston Astrodome. The Buffs won 29-15.
That was nothing compared to what was coming in the showcase games. On New Year’s afternoon, Oklahoma thumped Auburn 40-22. Nebraska did a number on Alabama in a 38-6 thrashing. The Cornhuskers had made history with their repeat national championship. The Sooners finished #2. And the Buffs came in third nationally, completing a Big Eight trifecta that has not been repeated since.