The 1978 college football season saw five teams predominate the national championship race as teams fought their way to the major bowl games, three of those teams make it to January 1 with a shot, and an unforgettable New Year’s Day with two epic goal-line dramas.
Alabama, USC and Penn State were the three teams that were in position to play for #1 in the major bowls. The Crimson Tide had been the preseason #1 before losing to USC. A subsequent loss by the Trojans forced them to play catchup, while Penn State kept rolling along undefeated.
In the meantime, Oklahoma had replaced Alabama as the #1 team by the end of September and the Sooners looked like they were on a course to meet Penn State in the Orange Bowl. Nebraska had recovered from an opening loss at Alabama, and the Cornhuskers were up to #4 by the time their season-ending battle with OU went down.
By this point, it seemed as though Alabama and USC were out of luck—everything was in place for Penn State to play either Oklahoma or Nebraska. The Cornhuskers won the head-to-head battle and moved up to #2, with the Nittany Lions sitting at #1. But one week later, Nebraska was stunned at home by Missouri.
Now the polls had Penn State-Alabama-USC in that order. The Nittany Lions travel plans were redirected to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl. USC, in spite of trailing both teams, hoped that their head-to-head win with ‘Bama might sway some votes if the games fell the right way.
Outside the national championship picture, Notre Dame overcame losing their first two games to rally to win eight of nine and get a Cotton Bowl bid. They were paired up with Houston, who was sending a message to Southwest Conference powers Texas & Arkansas that they, the Cougars, were serious. It was Houston’s second league title and Cotton Bowl spot in the three years since they joined the league.
Michigan beat Ohio State and went to the Rose Bowl to face USC, although it took probation on Michigan State to get the Wolverines here this time. And Nebraska and Oklahoma? Well, the Orange Bowl Committee decided that twice was nice, and paired up the two rivals in a rematch.
New Year’s Day proved to be about drama on the goal line. Alabama made an epic stand to beat Penn State. USC got a big touchdown on a terrible officiating call near the goal line, and the debate was down the Tide and Trojans.
Alabama and USC ended up splitting the vote, although the USC was clearly the deserving team, having won head-to-head, and on the road no less—by double digits. Alabama partisans saw it as payback for having been robbed in 1977 and in 1966. Although in both cases, their beef is with Notre Dame, so the real payback didn’t come until a generation later in 2012.
But regardless, 1978 was an exciting season and one of the best New Year’s Days ever. The links below show how all eight teams that played in the major bowl games traveled that road. You’ll read about their key players, big wins, poll movements and tough losses, as the best college football teams marched the road to the major bowls.