The 1973 college football season was marked by one of the sport’s great national championship battles, a controversial tie game, and what is surely it’s most memorable Heisman Trophy presentation.
Notre Dame, coached by Ara Parseghian, was seeking its first national title since 1966. The Irish were ranked #8 in the preseason poll. Ara built his offense around quarterback Tom Clements. A reliable and efficient passer, Clements had the nation’s best tight end, Dave Casper, as his primary target. Notre Dame’s defense was led by All-American defensive back Mike Townsend.
With both the offense and defense ranking in the top 10 nationally, the Irish rolled through the first part of their schedule against mostly non-descript competition. They were still at #8 in late October when USC came into South Bend. The Trojans, ranked sixth, were the defending national champions. Notre Dame’s 23-14 win vaulted them into the top five. Two weeks later, the Irish knocked off a pretty good Pitt team 31-10. Notre Dame closed the regular season undefeated, ranked #3 and bound for the Sugar Bowl.
Waiting in New Orleans was Bear Bryant’s top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide. From an opening position of #6, the Tide relied on exceptional balance. No one in the backfield rushed for more than 752 yards, in spite of the offense being heavily tilted towards the run. All-American guard Buddy Brown paved the way for a bevy of backs who made the Tide the third-most prolific offense in the country.
The SEC was balanced. Tennessee opened the season ranked #9, with LSU and Auburn also getting recognition in the Top 20. LSU moved into the top 10 with a 17-6 win over 10th-ranked Colorado in September. Tennessee knocked off Auburn in the season’s opening month.
That set up Alabama’s first big test, against the Vols on October 20. The Tide passed with flying colors, a 42-21 win. They were ranked #2 in the country.
LSU was still sitting out there, with a solid quarterback in Mike Miley and a good running back with Brad Davis. The Tigers had the other All-America guard, in Tyler Lafauci. It made for a juicy Thanksgiving Day matchup when Alabama and LSU went head-to-head. The Tide took home this one too, 21-7 .
Alabama was on its way to the Sugar Bowl for a showdown with Notre Dame. LSU still got an Orange Bowl bid, although a subsequent loss to Tulane took the Tigers out of the top 10 by bowl time.
Penn State was coming into the Orange Bowl undefeated. The Nittany Lions had not played a great schedule, so their perfect run through the regular season only lifted them from #7 in the preseason to #6 at bowl time. But they closed the year in November with a 35-29 win over a good N.C. State team and an impressive 35-13 dismantling of Pitt. An excellent defense was keyed by tackle Randy Crowder on the interior. And the Lions had John Cappelletti.
Cappelletti was a prolific running back and went on to win the Heisman Trophy. There was also a tremendous human interest component. Cappelletti’s little brother Joey had leukemia. At the Heisman presentation in New York, Cappelletti brought a roomful of dignitaries to tears, as he told them about his brother.
John said that while the media said he (the football player) was courageous, that this was courage that only needed to be on the field. Joey’s courage, and his pain, on the other hand were around the clock. Cappelletti gave the Heisman to his brother. The story was eventually made into a book and a movie called Something For Joey.
None of the above teams were atop the polls when the season began. Those honors fell to USC and Ohio State. A year earlier, the Trojans had won a national championship by defeating the then-#3 Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl. With USC and Ohio State 1-2 in the preseason polls, Pasadena was the early frontrunner to again have a championship battle in January.
The Trojans had elite talent, with Anthony Davis rolling up over 1,100 yards on the ground, the great Lynn Swann at wide receiver and a future NFL starter in Pat Haden at quarterback. Linebacker Richard Wood and defensive back Artimus Parker were 1st-team All-Americans.
But the whole was never as great as the sum of the parts. USC only finished 27th in the country in scoring offense and 41st on defense. They played to a tie in September against Oklahoma. The loss to Notre Dame came later in the season. Even though the Trojans were beating conference opposition, they weren’t in the national picture by November.
UCLA had hopes of dethroning their crosstown rival. With a top defensive back in Jimmy Allen, the Bruins were ranked #10 to open the season. But they fared even worse than their rivals did in non-conference play—UCLA was trashed 40-13 by Nebraska. Like USC, the Bruins got healthy against the Pac-8 and got into the Top 10, but they weren’t a national contender.
Even without national championship stakes, USC-UCLA in a winner-take-all battle for a Rose Bowl bid still stirred the juices of college football fans in this generation. The battle was set for November 24.
The other half of the Rose Bowl was also coming down to November 24. Ohio State had met expectations. John Hicks was the best offensive lineman in the country, winning both the Outland and Lombardi Trophies. Archie Griffin ran for almost 1,600 yards in his sophomore year, setting the table for what would be historic back-to-back Heisman runs in the years to come. The Buckeyes had All-American talent on defense, with Van DeCree at defensive end and Randy Gradishar at linebacker.
Ohio State took USC’s place at the top of the polls and held it to November 24. They went to Ann Arbor. Michigan was also undefeated. They weren’t quite as loaded with individual stars, but defensive end Dave Gallagher was an All-American. The Buckeyes and Wolverines had the two best scoring defenses in the country.
The general consensus is that Michigan outplayed Ohio State on this day. The statistics back up that belief. The Wolverines rallied from a 10-0 deficit to pull even at 10-10, and then missed some golden opportunities to take the lead. The game ended in a tie.
Who would go to the Rose Bowl? In those days, it was settled by a vote of the athletic directors. In a 6-4 tally, the ADs chose Ohio State. How did Michigan take it? Let’s just say the next time there was this much controversy over vote tallies in the Rustbelt was the 2020 presidential election. It’s even been the subject of a documentary.
No matter. Ohio State was going to the Rose Bowl. But the tie dropped them to #4. They were blocked out of a path to the national championship.
Texas and Nebraska both had recent national championships. The Longhorns in 1969, the Cornhuskers in 1970 and 1971. They were ranked #3 and #4 respectively to start this 1973 campaign. But Texas lost early, a 20-6 upset defeat to Miami. In a competitive Big Eight Conference, Nebraska lost to Missouri 13-12 in the early part of October.
It was Oklahoma, the key rival of both teams that was putting together a big year. The Sooners had two 1,000-yard rushers in Waymon Clark and Joe Washington, while quarterback Steve Davis ran for nearly 900 yards. Linebacker Rod Shoate was one of the nation’s best. The Sooners edged Miami 24-20. They beat up on ranked Colorado, 34-7. And they blitzed Texas in the Red River Rivalry, 52-13.
Texas still rolled through the SWC behind the great work of a 1,400-yard rusher in Roosevelt Leaks. As for Oklahoma, their September tie with then-#1 USC was the only blemish on the record when they faced off with Nebraska for the Big Eight title. This was the first year of what would be a great coaching rivalry. Barry Switzer at OU and Tom Osborne with the Cornhuskers were each in their first seasons as head coach.
Switzer would often get the best of Osborne in a rivalry between coaches who each amassed three national titles. 1973 started the trend. Oklahoma’s 27-0 whitewashing of Nebraska vaulted the Sooners to #2 in the polls.
There was only one problem. Oklahoma was on probation and not eligible for a bowl. Realistically, that took them out of the national title picture and made it all but certain that #1 Alabama and #3 Notre Dame would play for the top spot in the Sugar Bowl. It also sent Nebraska, at 8-2-1, to the Cotton Bowl.
The Sugar Bowl was played on New Year’s Eve in Tulane Stadium. In a classic game, Notre Dame led 24-23 late in the fourth quarter. But the Irish faced a 3rd-and-long back against their own goal line. Alabama looked all but certain to get the ball in good position for a field goal. Until Clement dropped back, threw deep and completed a big pass down the sidelines. One of the great clutch throws in college football history enabled the Irish to salt away the win and a national championship. The Tide settled for #4 in the final polls.
Nebraska took some measure of solace for an otherwise disappointing year by beating Texas 19-3 and finishing #7. Ohio State, driven to validate the confidence the Big Ten ADs had shown in them, put a 42-21 beatdown on USC. The Buckeyes finished #2, nudging ahead of Oklahoma. Michigan was not able to go to a bowl because the Big Ten still forbade teams from playing anywhere else besides Pasadena. The Wolverines ended up sixth.
The final game of the season was the Orange Bowl. Twice before, in 1968 and 1969, Joe Paterno’s Penn State teams completed perfect seasons but were unrewarded by the pollsters. This year, it would happen again. In the aftermath of the Lions’ 16-13 win over LSU, Paterno—knowing full well how the final vote would shake out—informed reporters that he had conducted his own poll, “the Paterno poll”, and Penn State won a unanimous vote.
But the voters of the AP did not agree. Notre Dame was back on top again.