The 1977 college football season defined by a dramatic January 2, when the four major bowl games were played. Two big blowouts created chaos and a controversial national champion.
Oklahoma and Michigan spent the first half of the season trading the #1 spot, moving up and down based on victories that were less than impressive. In October, both fell. Michigan’s loss was an upset to Minnesota, while OU lost a showdown battle with Texas. The Longhorns were the program on the rise.
Texas, after opening the season unranked, with a first-year head coach in Fred Akers, came barreling through the regular season as the nation’s only undefeated team. They had a Heisman Trophy winner at running back in Earl Campbell and were fully expected to make the national championship an easy vote in the Cotton Bowl.
Notre Dame was the opponent in Dallas, ranked #5. The Irish had bounced back from an early season to Ole Miss to get their season around. If Notre Dame could win, other candidates for the top of the polls included Orange Bowl foes Oklahoma and Arkansas, who had only lost to Texas. Third-ranked Alabama was hoping to make its case in the Sugar Bowl against Ohio State. And Michigan was still out there, ranked fourth and headed for the Rose Bowl to face unheralded Washington.
The Fighting Irish stunned the nation and the crowd in Dallas with a 38-10 blowout that was out of hand by halftime. Alabama blasted Ohio State, while Michigan was upset by Washington. There would still be no real debate if second-ranked Oklahoma could win—but the Sooners were crushed by the suspension-laden Razorbacks.
Notre Dame and Alabama were who the debate revolved around, with Arkansas, the runner-up in the old SWC to Texas, destined to finish third. The Irish had lost to an SEC opponent and had been ranked two spots behind the Tide coming into the bowl games. Conversely, another common opponent was USC—whom Notre Dame beat by thirty and Alabama beat by one. And the Irish had buried the consensus #1 team in a road-neutral environment.
The vote went to Notre Dame. The rise from #5 to #1 has not been duplicated since, and with the advent of the new era of playoff football, it never will