Alabama came to the 1978 Sugar Bowl hoping that a combination of a win and the right confluence of events could lift them to a national championship. Ohio State came hoping to get to finally get a big win over a really good team. Neither team got what it really wanted, although ‘Bama certainly did everything in its power to make it happen.
Bear Bryant’s Tide were looking to get back on top of the SEC when the 1977 college football season opened. After winning the conference outright from 1971-75, they had slipped behind Georgia in 1976 and failed to make a major bowl game. With a balanced running attack, and a good downfield passing game, keyed by quarterback Jeff Rutledge and All-American WR/TE Ozzie Newsome, the Tide were ranked #6 to start the season.
After a win over Ole Miss, disaster came on a trip to Nebraska. This wasn’t a great Cornhusker team–they would lose three games and be nowhere to find in the New Year’s Day bowl games, but in front of a national TV audience, Rutledge threw five interceptions in a 31-24 loss. Alabama fell to #10 in the polls.
Victories over Vanderbilt, and Georgia, who slipped under .500, set up an October 8 trip to top-ranked USC. The Tide trailed 3-0 at the half, but got two fourth-quarter rushing touchdowns from Tony Nathan and took a 21-6 lead. USC had one more rally in them. The scored a touchdown and converted the two-point conversion. Now leading 21-14, Alabama gave up another touchdown and USC head coach John Robinson decided to go for the win. This time, the Tide defense held and they escaped with a 21-20 win.
Alabama moved back to #4 in the polls and while USC kept sliding downward the rest of the way, ‘Bama was finally starting to roll. They were never tested the rest of the way, including a 24-3 smothering at eight-win LSU. As outright SEC champs again, Bryant’s team was locked in to the Sugar Bowl and they were ranked #3 in the country.
Ohio State opened the season in an analogous situation to Alabama. After winning the Big Ten and going to the Rose Bowl each year from 1972-75, the Buckeyes slipped behind Michigan in 1976. Woody Hayes’ team was ranked fifth to start the season.
Hayes, as always, built his success around the running game. Ron Springs ran for over 1,110 yards, while Jeff Logan and Paul Campbell were solid complementary runners. Chris Ward was an All-American at offensive tackle. There were All-Americans on the defensive side in linebackers Aaron Brown and Tom Cousineau, along with defensive back Ray Griffin.
After starting 2-0, Ohio State faced a big test when second-ranked Oklahoma came to Columbus. The Buckeyes had reason to hate the Sooners–Ohio State lost key games in 1974 and 1975, both of which opened the door to national titles for OU. The bad fortune continued as the Buckeyes fell behind 20-0.
But the offense, led by quarterback Rod Gerald, came back. They took a 28-20 lead and with the rain falling on the artificial turf that used to be on the field in Columbus, they looked in command. Oklahoma scored late, but Ohio State stopped the two-point play. All that was left was to cover the onside kick.
Only the Buckeyes didn’t take care of business on the onside attempt and OU got the ball back. The Sooners got the ball into position for kicker Uwe von Schamann to try a 41-yard field goal. During the time-out before the kick, the crowd chanted “Block that kick!” Ever confident, von Schamann stepped back, removed his helmet and “orchestrated” the crowd in their chant. Then he backed up and broke Ohio State’s heart with a field goal that won the game 29-28.
The Buckeyes only dropped to sixth in the polls, although there weren’t a lot of great opportunities to move up the next seven weeks. They ripped through what was then a soft Big Ten and the schedule didn’t include the conference’s third-best team in Michigan State. Ohio State was waiting for November 19 at Michigan.
Michigan had lost a conference game, so Hayes’ team had a share of the league title already clinched. But the Rose Bowl bid and supremacy were still at stake. Ohio State dominated the game between the 20-yard lines, but lost it in the red zone. Four trips inside the Michigan 20 resulted in two field goals and two lost fumbles.
The final lost fumble came when trailing 14-6 late in the game. Hayes, enraged, knocked over an ABC cameraman, an incident that was an ominous foreshadowing of when he would hit a Clemson player in the following season’s Gator Bowl and lose his job as a result.
Ohio State finished the regular season at #9, but for a program for whom great expectations where a way of life, the agonizing losses to Oklahoma and Michigan, left them looking for some redemption when they arrived in New Orleans to face Alabama.
The Sugar Bowl was played in the early afternoon time slot until 1981, alongside the Cotton Bowl. Alabama was hoping that #1-ranked Texas would lose the Cotton, meaning all teams would have one loss. Then, if #2 Oklahoma fell in the Orange Bowl that night, it would open the door to a national title for the Tide.
When you’re looking to win a big game, putting the ball on the ground ten times isn’t recommended. That’s what happened to Alabama. Amazingly, they only lost two of them. And they dominated Ohio State in every other facet of play. They ran for 280 yards. The Tide led 13-0 at half, 21-0 after three quarters and coasted to a 35-6 blowout win.
Meanwhile, Alabama was getting the breaks. Texas lost, as did Oklahoma. But it turns out Texas lost by a little too much–Notre Dame’s 38-10 dismantling of UT in the Cotton Bowl was so thorough that the Irish were lifted from #5 to #1 (fourth-ranked Michigan lost the Rose Bowl). Alabama’s #2 ranking is a subject that rankles Tide fans to this day, believing that only Notre Dame’s national popularity decided the vote.