College football saw plenty of seasons end with multiple teams laying claim to the national championship in the era prior to the Playoff. Perhaps none was stranger than the 1974 college football season. That’s because the team universally regarded as the best was on probation. The Oklahoma Sooners were eligible in the AP writers poll—which they won—but not in the UPI coaches poll. Thus, a season that would otherwise have likely ended with the Sooners validating their greatness in a bowl game, was filled with jousting for the UPI prize and debate over how much that prize really meant.
OU opened the season ranked #1 in the country. The potent wishbone offense of Barry Switzer was orchestrated by quarterback Steve Davis. The best running back was All-American Joe Washington, who racked up over 1,300 yards. Oklahoma scored more points than anyone in the country. Their defense, led by linebacker Rod Shoate was fifth nationally. The Sooners won a tough 16-13 game over Texas in October and rolled into November in control of a competitive Big Eight Conference.
Nebraska, with national titles as recently as 1970 and 1971, was Oklahoma’s prime rival in the old Big Eight. The Cornhuskers had the best center in the country, Rik Boness, leading a balanced running attack. No one rushed for even 700 yards individually, but collectively, this run-heavy offense of Tom Osborne’s still finished fifth in the nation in points scored. A Top 10 defense would make them a tough out.
Even though Nebraska suffered a 21-20 upset loss to Wisconsin in September, and dropped a 21-10 decision to Missouri in October, the Cornhuskers still had a shot at the conference title when they met Oklahoma on November 23. But the Sooners were too good. They won 28-14, securing their undefeated season and #1 ranking in the AP poll as they went into the clubhouse. Nebraska would still play in the Sugar Bowl.
Alabama and Notre Dame had played an epic Sugar Bowl that settled the national title in 1973, with the Irish winning. These two programs were as good as place as any to look for prospective challengers to Oklahoma. Notre Dame opened the season ranked #3, with Alabama at #4. A challenge to the Crimson Tide was anticipated in the SEC from LSU, ranked #9 in the first polls of the 1974 college football season.
Notre Dame briefly rose to #2 in the latter part of September, but a 31-20 loss to Purdue knocked the Irish back down. They had a solid quarterback in Tom Clement throwing to All-American receiver Peter Demmerle. Notre Dame rallied to get to 9-1 going into their season finale with USC. With an Orange Bowl bid in hand, the Irish still had a shot at the UPI top spot.
Bear Bryant’s Alabama team was carried by the fourth-best defense in America, a unit led by defensive end Leroy Cook. A pretty good offense had future pros in quarterback Richard Todd and tight end Ozzie Newsome. The Tide got a 21-16 win in September over a good Maryland team. They blew out ranked Mississippi State in early November. By the time the season finale against Auburn arrived, the Crimson Tide were ranked #2.
LSU hadn’t lived up to advance billing, but Auburn was a viable challenger in the SEC. The Tigers, led by linebacker Ken Bernich, were #7 when they came into the Iron Bowl clash against Alabama on Black Friday.
The Crimson Tide won a tough 17-13 game. They had beaten Auburn, gotten a rematch with Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl, were in a great position for the UPI title…and with an impressive showing against the Irish, could maybe even persuade AP voters to give them another look while Oklahoma sat on the New Year’s Day sidelines.
As for Auburn, a 25-14 loss to Florida in early November proved costly. The Gators, even with three losses, got a Sugar Bowl ticket while Auburn took their #6 national ranking to the Gator Bowl.
USC ruled the roost in the Pac-8, while Michigan and Ohio State were both several lengths ahead of everyone else in the Big Ten. With the two conferences locked into the Rose Bowl, the collision course they were all on started when the first polls came out. Ohio State was ranked #2, USC was fifth and Michigan sixth to begin the ’74 season.
Ohio State’s Archie Griffin was the best running back in the country and would win the first of what remains the unprecedented feat of two Heisman Trophies. Griffin ran behind an offensive line led by center Steve Myers. Cornelius Greene didn’t throw a lot at quarterback—but his 60 percent completion rate combined with 9.7 yards per attempt were exceptional for this era. Brian Baschnagel was the top target.
The Buckeyes were able to displace Oklahoma at the top of the polls on style points alone going into November. But a devastating 16-13 loss to Michigan State on November 9 would prove costly. Michigan, with All-American defensive back Dave Brown leading the nation’s best defense, churned through their schedule undefeated up to the finale.
Michigan was ranked #3 and Ohio State was #4 when they met in Columbus to settle the Rose Bowl bid. Baschnagel’s hands rescued the Buckeyes. Not by catching passes. He was also the holder for field goals and saved a couple of low snaps and kept them in line to be converted field goals. Ohio State won 12-10.
USC was waiting in Pasadena. Anthony Davis was an electrifying running back, who rolled up over 1,400 yards. Richard Wood was an All-American linebacker. The Trojans were a complete team on both sides of the football.
A 22-7 non-conference loss to Arkansas in September sent USC plummeting downward in the rankings. A victory over 18th-ranked Pitt helped get the Trojans moving back upward. In league play, USC had to settle for a 15-15 tie against Cal, led by the eventual #1 overall draft pick, Steve Bartkowski. With a loss and a tie, the Trojans hopes for national recognition seemed lost when they hosted Notre Dame to end the season.
The 1974 USC-Notre Dame game would become one of the most legendary in the history of this storied rivalry. The Irish led 24-0. Everything was in place for their Orange Bowl game with Alabama to settle the UPI title. Then Anthony Davis completely went off. In the third quarter alone, the Trojans scored 41 points. Instead of getting blown out, they went into the final period doing the blowing out. The stunning turn of events ended with a 55-24 USC win.
The Trojans went to the Rose Bowl ranked #5, while Ohio State was #3. The fourth-ranked Wolverines did not go anywhere, this being the final season that the Big Ten did not allow its runners-up to compete in a bowl game. The Irish could only play spoiler, ranked #9 going into the rematch with the Crimson Tide.
Penn State had completed perfect seasons three times in the previous six years, each time left unrewarded by the pollsters. The Nittany Lions were good again in 1974, ranked #8 to begin the season with a defense anchored by tackle Mike Hartenstine.
A 7-6 upset loss to Navy at the end of September ended any national title talk in Happy Valley, the Lions stayed in the Top 10 and looked ahead to a November where they would play the other contenders in the East. Maryland had the great Randy White at defensive tackle. Destined for NFL greatness in Dallas, White won both the Outland and Lombardi Trophies for the Terps in 1974.
Maryland won a 20-10 decision over N.C. State, another contender out of the ACC. That set up a Lions-Terps battle on November 2. Penn State stepped up and won 24-17. But the Wolfpack turned around and beat the Lions one week later, 12-7. Penn State’s November challenges ended on a good note though, with a 31-10 Thanksgiving throttling of archrival Pitt. Ranked #7 in the final regular season polls, Joe Paterno’s Lions got a ticket to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl.
The old Southwest Conference had an automatic spot in the Cotton Bowl. With Texas and Arkansas leading the way, the SWC had produced some great Cotton Bowl matchups with national implications in recent years. This season would not be one of them.
Arkansas could not sustain the momentum of their September win over USC . The Hogs turned around and lost one week later to unranked Oklahoma State and never returned to serious national contention. As for Texas, they got up to #3 in the polls after the season’s opening month, but were blown out by unranked Texas Tech, lost to Oklahoma and were not heard from again.
The door was open for a new team to win the SWC. Baylor lost its first two games, taking it on the chin from Oklahoma and then dropping one to Missouri. In midseason, they were shutout by Texas A&M.
But the Bears had a 1,100 yard rusher in Steve Beaird. They went 6-1 in conference play. In November, help came. Texas A&M, ranked fifth coming into the final month, with All-American Pat Thomas in the secondary, lost to SMU. Then the Aggies were hammered by Texas on Black Friday. Baylor, at 8-3, with an offense and defense that ranked outside the top 50 in scoring, were on their way to the Cotton Bowl.
Texas’ win over Texas A&M had shown some Longhorn Pride and UT got another chance when they received a Gator Bowl invite to play Auburn. But in the top matchup of the bowl undercard, Auburn hammered the ‘Horns 27-3 on December 30. The Sugar Bowl was on New Year’s Eve, still played outdoors in Tulane Stadium. Nebraska beat Florida 13-10. In the early part of New Year’s Day, Penn State rolled Baylor 41-20.
Now it was time for the final two games of the year. USC-Ohio State in the Rose, followed by Alabama-Notre Dame in the Orange. With a whole lot of interested people watching in Oklahoma.
The Rose Bowl was a thriller. Ohio State led 17-10 late in the game, before USC launched a late TD drive and converted the two-point play to get an 18-17 lead. A desperation 61-yard field goal try by the Buckeyes fell short. USC, at #5, would now surely leapfrog Ohio State and Michigan in the polls. Alabama was the only team standing between the Trojans and Sooners.
That night in Miami, Bear Bryant’s frustration against the Irish continued. Ara Parseghian ended his legendary coaching career at Notre Dame by upsetting Alabama 13-11.
The UPI crowned USC at the top of its poll. But there was no real argument for moving USC to the top in any poll where Oklahoma was eligible. The Sooners retained their #1 ranking the AP. It was the first national title for Barry Switzer. A year later, without probation hanging over the heads, Oklahoma did it again.