The 1981 college football season can be marked as the year parity arrived. College football had long been the province of a few exclusive powers, but the effects of scholarship limits began to take hold and new teams rose up to challenge the establishment. Nowhere was that more evident than the Clemson Tigers coming out of nowhere to win the national championship.
Clemson’s journey from unranked in August to champs in January is the biggest story of the landmark 1981 season, but far from the only one. And the bluebloods were hardly excluded from the story’s plot line, even if none of their number would ultimately finish on top…
*Nebraska got the best of Oklahoma, finally winning the Big Eight title outright. The Cornhuskers eventually fell to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
*Pitt and Penn State were great teams in the East, with Dan Marino behind center for the Panthers and Curt Warner in the backfield for the Nittany Lions. Pitt was ranked #1 deep into the season and ended up in the Sugar Bowl, while Penn State went to the Fiesta.
*Georgia and Alabama each dominated the SEC, going undefeated in conference play, but non-conference games tripped up the national title hopes of each. Both still ended up playing on New Year’s, the Bulldogs in the Sugar and the Tide in the Cotton. The latter would prove to be the final major bowl appearance for Alabama legend Bear Bryant.
*The old Southwest Conference should have been represented by a newcomer, but conference champ SMU was on probation. Texas took full advantage, getting the Cotton Bowl bid and their win over Alabama completed a year where the Longhorns also defeated Oklahoma. Texas actually ended up #2 in the final polls though they did not enter January 1 with a chance at the crown.
The articles below tell the story of the seven most consequential teams in college football’s 1981 national championship race.