September is a month made for big college football games. More than any other sport, college football values its regular season. Even today, with four teams reaching a Playoff, big games in September shape the landscape for the rest of the season. The primacy of September was even more pronounced before the era of playoffs or guaranteed 1 vs. 2 battles. Today’s Notebook Nine focuses on the era of 1978-88 and selects the most consequential September college football games from that period.
1)Sept 23, 1978: USC 24 ALABAMA 14
Alabama finished #2 in the polls in 1977. The Tide opened up 1978 with a prime-time home win over 10th-ranked Nebraska, then beat a good Missouri team. USC tuned up with wins over Texas Tech and Oregon. The Trojans were coming off a disappointing ‘77 campaign, one that began with a home loss to Alabama. USC was looking for payback in this road game and they got it.
The Trojans intercepted ‘Bama quarterback Jeff Rutledge four times. A normally stingy Tide defense was being gashed by USC running back Charles White, including a beautiful 42-yard cutback run for a touchdown. The game was still close in the fourth quarter, with the Trojans up 10-7. But the USC collected four turnovers in the final period, and went on two touchdown drives that put the game away. The final was 24-14.
At season’s end, USC and Alabama were each 11-1 and the last two standing in the debate for the national championship. By that time, momentum was with the Tide, who had beaten top-ranked Penn State in the Sugar Bowl while USC’s last two wins–Notre Dame in the season finale and Michigan in the Rose Bowl–were marked with controversy. But the memories of what the Trojans did on this September afternoon was enough to get a split vote. Alabama and USC shared the national title in 1978.
2)Sept 25, 1982: PENN STATE 27 NEBRASKA 24
Penn State was coming off a top-5 finish in 1981 and had a potent offense, with Todd Blackledge at quarterback and Curt Warner in the backfield. Nebraska had ousted Oklahoma atop the Big Eight in 1981 and was ready to do more in ‘82. They met in State College and the game was everything you would want from a pair of national title hopefuls, each with coaches (Joe Paterno and Tom Osborne) after their first ring.
Penn State took a 21-7 lead, but Nebraska came grinding back and appeared to have won when they took a 24-21 lead with 1:18 to play. The kickoff went deep into the end zone, but the Cornhuskers committed an inexcusable special teams blunder–unsportsmanlike conduct after the whistle and gave the Lions a free 15 yards.
Blackledge went to work. He hit Kenny Jackson on a 4th-and-11 conversion and the Lions reached the Cornhuskers 9-yard line. Blackledge then connected with tight end Mike McCloskey at the two-yard line–a play where McCloskey was clearly out of bounds. With seven seconds left, Blackledge threw the game-winning touchdown pass and Penn State won 27-24.
The loss was Nebraska’s only one of the season. Cornhusker fans were rightfully rankled about the McCloskey “catch”, with Paterno admitting after the game the call was blown. Penn State finished the regular season 10-1. As an independent, they got a crack at top-ranked Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and won Paterno’s long-sought national championship.
3)Sept 19, 1981: CLEMSON 13 GEORGIA 3
Clemson was unranked, a program known more for being the foil to Ohio State in the 1978 Gator Bowl when Woody Hayes ended his career by punching a Tiger player on the sidelines. Georgia was the defending national champion, had the great Herschel Walker in the backfield and were ranked #4 in the polls. They had already handed Tennessee their worst defeat in 58 years when this game went down in Death Valley.
The Clemson defense was aggressive and had excellent players at each level–William “Refrigerator” Perry up front, eventual ACC MVP Jeff Davis at linebacker and future NFL defensive back Terry Kinard. They shut down Walker and collected nine turnovers. Clemson won the game 13-3.
It was the start of an improbable run in a wild year for college football. Clemson didn’t lose the rest of the way and sealed the national title with an Orange Bowl win over Nebraska. Georgia won out during the regular season and went to the Sugar Bowl at #2, before losing to Dan Marino and Pitt.
4)Sept 27, 1986: MIAMI 28 OKLAHOMA 16
Both teams had a revenge angle going for them. Miami had gone into Norman and beaten Oklahoma 27-14 a year earlier. But the Hurricanes lost twice, while the Sooners won out and claimed the 1985 national championship. The rematch in South Beach was a 1 vs. 2 showdown, Oklahoma on top and Miami right behind.
The Sooners ran the wishbone offense, a three-back setup that kept the ball on the ground while still being high-octane and explosive. They had already a good UCLA team already. But Miami was ideally suited to match up with OU. The Hurricanes were one of the few teams who had the speed to match the Sooners on the edge. With Jerome Brown anchoring the interior, they could stop the fullback up the middle on the wishbone and use their speed to chase down the option.
Miami defended their turf with little problem. They led 7-3 at the half and they got a couple turnovers. Quarterback Vinny Testaverde hit four straight passes that produced two touchdowns and stretched the lead to 21-3. The final score of 28-16 was deceptively close. Testaverde all but sealed his landslide Heisman Trophy on this day.
This game was as big as advertised. By season’s end, Miami was 11-0 and ranked #1. Oklahoma was 10-1 and ranked #3. Penn State, also 11-0 was situated in between at #2. Instead of a Penn State-Oklahoma rematch in the Orange Bowl, the Lions would head west to face Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, where they won a national championship for the ages.
5)Sept 20 1980: NOTRE DAME 29 MICHIGAN 27
Notre Dame and Michigan each had respectable seasons in 1979. But respectable wasn’t what you played for in South Bend or Ann Arbor. Neither went to a major bowl game in ‘79 and were looking to get 1980 off on the right foot.
The Irish jumped out to a 14-0 lead. Michigan quarterback John Wangler–playing on an injured leg and affectionately called “Johnny Wangs” by head coach Bo Schembechler, played brilliantly and brought the Wolverines back to lead 27-26 in the final minute. Notre Dame drove into field goal range–but the last play would still have to be a 51-yard attempt into the wind. Irish kicker Harry Oliver hit the field goal and sent Notre Dame Stadium into a frenzy.
It was the start of a special ride for Notre Dame in Dan Devine’s last season. The Irish got to 9-0-1 and were in position to win a national championship before losing at USC in the finale, then dropping a tough Sugar Bowl game to Georgia. And Michigan? They bounced back. The Wolverines returned to the top of the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl. Then they did something their head coach had never done and that’s win in Pasadena.
6)Sept 10, 1988: NOTRE DAME 19 MICHIGAN 17
Notre Dame re-emerged as a national contender in Lou Holtz’s second year of 1987. Michigan was coming off a four-loss season and looking to re-establish themselves atop the Big Ten. The two rivals played one of their many terrific season openers under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium.
Ricky Watters made a big special teams play early for the Irish, an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown. Then the defenses and kicking game settled in. Michigan was able to take a 14-13 lead by the third quarter. Notre Dame never scored an offensive touchdown, but diminutive kicker Reggie Ho kept hitting field goals. His fourth one came with 1:13 to play and put the Irish up 19-17. The Wolverines stormed down the field and got a chance for a 48-yarder to win it. The kick just missed.
Notre Dame went on to win the national championship. Michigan got back to the Rose Bowl and won it.
7)Sept 3, 1988: MIAMI 31 FLORIDA STATE 0
Miami was the defending national champion. Florida State was the preseason #1 team. The Seminoles recorded a rap video proclaiming their greatness. FSU was led by Deion Sanders, loaded with both bravado and talent. And they had a chance to put an early stamp on this season with the season opener in prime time at Miami.
The Hurricanes took careful note of the talk coming out of Tallahassee, remembered it all, and then punished the Seminoles on the football field. Miami completely dominated in all phases of the game. It was 17-0 by halftime, ended 31-0 and never even seemed that close. The ‘Canes were immediately vaulted from #8 to #1.
Florida State never lost again and ended the year with a Sugar Bowl win over Auburn. Miami won another thriller over Michigan in September. The Hurricanes’ 31-30 win could easily have made this list, but using this game in conjunction with Notre Dame-Michigan was the best way to show how the 1988 season was shaped without overloading the list with all three games.
Miami’s famous October loss to Notre Dame, the Catholics vs. Convicts battle was what ultimately decided the national championship and the Hurricanes finished #2 in the final polls.
8)Sept 17, 1983: TEXAS 20 AUBURN 7
Texas was ranked #3 in the country and with an outstanding defense was thinking about a run for the national championship. Auburn’s national profile was growing under the leadership of Pat Dye and the running of Bo Jackson. That was reflected in a #5 preseason ranking.
The game in Austin was a late season opener for the Longhorns, but for UT fans it was worth the wait. They shut down Bo and won the game 20-7. Texas rolled on to an undefeated season. They were #2 in the polls, trailing only unbeaten Nebraska. Auburn won the remainder of its games, took the SEC title and entered the Sugar Bowl at #3 in the country.
The events of the bowl games that ended the 1983 college football season were historic. In a stunning upset, fifth-ranked Miami knocked off Nebraska. That made Texas’ crushing 10-9 loss to Georgia in the Cotton Bowl even more heartbreaking. Auburn, who survived Michigan in the Sugar Bowl ended up in the debate with Miami over who was #1. The ‘Canes won the vote.
The events of September 17 in Austin shaped the polls throughout the season and on through the finish. And they nearly decided the national championship.
9) Sept 29, 1979: OHIO STATE 17 UCLA 13
The Ohio State program was in a state of major flux. Woody Hayes had been fired in the offseason, Earle Bruce was the new head coach and the Buckeyes were unranked to start the season. UCLA was ranked #17 when the two teams squared off in southern California.
The bad year the Bruins would eventually have, finishing 5-6, was by no means apparent at the time and they bolted to a quick 10-0 lead. Ohio State pulled back even 10-10 in the third quarter before UCLA took a 13-10 lead. The Bruins missed a chip-shot field goal that would have extended the lead. Ohio State’s sophomore quarterback Art Schlichter got the ball on his own 20 with 2:21 left.
Schlichter calmly completed six straight passes, the last of which was the winning touchdown with 46 seconds left. The victory put Ohio State in the Top 10. They rolled on to an undefeated season and only a one-point loss to USC in the Rose Bowl kept the Buckeyes from a share of the national championship.