The Pitt Panthers are not high on the list of teams college football fans talk about when they think of the storied programs in the sport’s long history. But they were a rising force in the early 1970s. And in a 1976 college football season filled with upstart teams, the Panthers won it all.
Pitt was led by one of the great running backs of all-time. Tony Dorsett, in his senior year, and headed to a Hall of Fame NFL career, ripped off over 2,100 yards rushing and won the Heisman Trophy. Matt Cavanaugh was an exceptionally efficient quarterback. The defense was anchored by Al Romano in the middle and had a ball hawking secondary.
The Panthers schedule had tough games with Notre Dame and Penn State at the bookends. The Fighting Irish had Ross Browner at defensive end, the man who would ultimately take home the Outland Trophy. The Lions had delivered three perfect seasons since 1968, and were the gold standard of football in the East.
These three teams were ranked right in succession to open the season—Pitt at #9, Penn State #10 and Notre Dame coming in at #11. It didn’t take long for the Panthers to get some separation with a 31-10 blowout of the Irish.
Pitt kept rolling, gradually ascended to #1 in the polls and then faced off with their in-state rival on Black Friday. When Pitt decisively beat Penn State 24-7, the undefeated season was complete, the Panthers were ticketed for the Sugar Bowl and the national championship was theirs for the taking.
Other national contenders were coming out of the Big Ten and Pac-8 with their eyes on the Rose Bowl. Michigan opened the season ranked #2 in the country. The Wolverines had a balanced running attack led by All-American Rob Lytle, a versatile quarterback in sophomore Rick Leach, and a big-play All-American receiver in Jim Smith. They led the nation in scoring. The defense, even without All-American talent, ranked second nationally.
Michigan rolled through September and October undefeated and moved up to #1 in the polls. A crushing 16-14 loss to Purdue in early November dropped them from the top spot, but they were still sitting on #4 when the season-ending showdown with Ohio State came.
The Buckeyes had gone to the Rose Bowl each of the previous four years. This 1976 team was faced with the challenge of replacing the two-time Heisman Trophy running back Archie Griffin in the backfield. Jeff Logan did a credible job, rushing for over 1,200 yards. The big fullback Pete Johnson, added 724 yards.
But this Ohio State game fell in the category of “good, but not great.” On the plus side, they knocked off Penn State 12-7 in September battle of teams ranked in the top 10. But they lost to unranked Missouri a week later, then played a good UCLA team to a tie. By the time the big battle with Michigan arrived, the Buckeyes were at #8 in the polls—no shot at a national title, but the Rose Bowl bid still in play.
UCLA was the defending Pac-8 champs and had won the Rose Bowl a year earlier, an upset that denied Ohio State the national championship. But crosstown rival USC was more highly regarded coming into this 1976 college football season.
The Trojans had All-American running back Ricky Bell leading the way for the fourth-best offense in the nation. Vince Evans, with a long NFL career ahead of him, was the quarterback. The defense was led by another future pro, safety Dennis Thurman. USC was ranked #8 in the preseason polls.
But the Trojans would also run into trouble with Missouri. A team that only finished 6-5 on the year, Mizzou caused national contenders more than their share of trouble. The Tigers put a 46-25 shellacking on USC in September. But the Trojans licked their wounds, bounced back and still had only that single loss on their record when they got to their season-ending parlay of UCLA & Notre Dame.
As for the Bruins, they proved that ’75 campaign was no fluke. Dick Vermeil had left for the NFL, but Terry Donahue was starting a long, successful career in Los Angeles. The Bruins pounded #3 Arizona State 28-10 in September and began moving up the polls themselves. They had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Theotis Brown and Wendell Tyler.
Thus, on November 20, both ends of the Rose Bowl would be settled. Michigan and Ohio State would play early. Then UCLA and USC, ranked #2 and #3 in the polls, would follow. The Wolverines decisively handled the Buckeyes 22-0. The Trojans knocked off the Bruins 24-14, then followed it up with a 17-13 victory over Notre Dame a week later.
USC was #2 going into the Rose Bowl and Michigan was #3. The winner of this game was set up as the alternative if Pitt couldn’t close the deal. Ohio State went to the Orange Bowl. UCLA, even though they were still #6, had to settle for a Liberty Bowl invite.
The Big Eight had the two-time defending national champion in Oklahoma. They had the nation’s preseason #1 team in Nebraska. But neither the Sooners or the Cornhuskers had a vintage season. Nebraska joined the list of highly ranked teams to lose to Missouri. Oklahoma fell to Oklahoma State. Both traditional powers had multiple losses by the time they met each other on Black Friday.
The Sooners won that game, but both teams settled for minor bowl invites, OU to the Fiesta and Nebraska to the Bluebonnet. The Big Eight’s Orange Bowl bid wound up in the hands of Colorado. The Buffaloes had their weaknesses—the 63d-ranked defense nationally—but they had a 1,200-yard rusher in Tony Reed and in a down year for the powers-that-be, Colorado was slotted alongside Ohio State on New Year’s Night in Miami.
Pitt wasn’t the only undefeated team coming out of the East. Maryland, with the fourth-best defense in the country, ran the table and won the ACC. A soft schedule had the Terps at #4 in the polls going into the bowl games, so they were blocked out of the national title conversation. But they did get a Cotton Bowl invite and a chance to validate their perfect regular season against the SWC champ.
That SWC champion was the Houston Cougars, another upstart crashing the major bowl party in 1976. With Texas struggling to a mediocre season, the door was open in this conference. With Lombardi Award-winning defensive tackle Wilson Whitley, it was the Coogs who pushed through the door. A 30-0 blasting of the Longhorns in early November sealed the transfer of power to Houston.
We still need an opponent for Pitt on New Year’s Day. That would fall to the SEC. Bear Bryant’s Alabama was the preseason favorite, ranked #6 in the first polls. But the Tide dropped a 10-7 decision to Ole Miss on September 11. Here was another conference where the door was open to a new contender.
Georgia was led by quarterback Ray Goff, a future head coach in this program and who finished seventh in the Heisman voting for 1976. The Dawgs had a 1,000-yard rusher in Kevin McLee. By the first weekend of October, they were up to #6 nationally and had a head-to-head crack at Alabama. Georgia won easily, 21-0. Even though they also fell prey to Ole Miss, the Bulldogs got a big 41-27 win over Florida in a November battle of Top 10 teams and captured the SEC’s Sugar Bowl bid.
The number of surprise teams meant that the bowl undercard was stacked with more of the traditional powers than normal. An attractive slate began on December 20 when Alabama blasted UCLA. Oklahoma and Nebraska each won their games and finished the season ranked #5 and #8 respectively. Pitt’s two big victims—Notre Dame and Penn State—played in the Gator Bowl, with the Irish winning 20-0.
That brought us to New Year’s Day. The two undefeated teams were going in the early afternoon time slots. Maryland’s dream season crashed with a 30-21 loss to Houston.
But the one everyone was focused on was the Sugar Bowl. Pitt simply dismantled Georgia. Any doubts about the quality of this Panther team was eliminated in a 27-3 blowout.
USC took the runner-up spot in the polls with a 14-6 win over Michigan. Ohio State salvaged some pride for the Big Ten by easily taking apart Colorado, 27-10.
The 1976 college football season was on the books. A year filled with upstarts had ended appropriately, with Pitt standing atop the heap.