Alabama had split the national title with USC in 1978. The Crimson Tide were ranked #2 to start the new season, so they would open needing at least a little bit of help—it was their old nemesis out west in USC that was ranked #1. The bowl structure of the time meant that the SEC champ was locked in to the Sugar Bowl, while the Pac-10 champ was contractually bound for the Rose Bowl. The 1979 Alabama football team got just the tiniest fraction of help, but it was all they needed to barge down the door and win an outright national championship this time around.
Tide head coach Bear Bryant changed out a lot of the spots at the skill position. Steadman Shealy took most of the snaps at quarterback and though he only threw 81 passes all season, Shealy was the team’s leading rusher with 791 yards.
The running backs were a cadre of Steve Whitman, Major Ogilvie, Don Jacobs, John Hill and Billy Jackson, whom Bryant kept moving in and out and constantly attacking defenses with a fresh back behind an offensive line led by All-American guard Jim Bunch.
The top receiver was Keith Pugh, and in this offensive system, his 25 catches for 433 yards seemed to make him look like an early version of Jerry Rice.
Defensively, Alabama only had one All-American, corner Don McNeal. But the whole was much greater than the sum of the parts—the Tide gave up just 5.6 points per game, the best in the land.
The title quest started at mediocre Georgia Tech with a 30-5 win. Alabama then hosted Baylor, a program that was started to move upward—in fact these teams would meet the following season in the Cotton Bowl. The Tide smacked down the Bears 45-zip, then crushed lowly Vanderbilt 66- and shutout overmatched Wichita State.
Florida was a hapless foe that would not win a game, even with future NFL wide receiver and TV analyst Cris Collingsworth in the lineup. ‘Bama beat the Gators 40-0.
That same day, USC blew a three-touchdown lead and tied Stanford 21-21.The Crimson Tide were now atop the polls.
One week later, 18th-ranked Tennessee provided a test. Alabama, playing at home, fell behind 14-0 early and trailed 17-7 at the half. Shealy then did something rare and made a big play with his arm, throwing a 33-yard touchdown pass. Ogilvie got rolling, going for 109 yards on the day and scoring two second half-touchdowns. Alabama took over in the second half and won 27-17.
Easy victories over losing teams in Mississippi State and Virginia Tech followed. A trip to LSU was nearly fatal—the Tide mustered only a field goal worth of offense. Fortunately, their elite defense saved them, as they pulled off a 3-0 shutout over a team with future Super Bowl-starting quarterback David Woodley.
The defense spun another shutout against 5-6 Miami, and the offense picked up the pace in a 30-0 rout. One more opponent remained and it was archrival Auburn, ranked #14. The Tigers had the SEC Player of the Year, Joe Cribbs in the backfield. Cribbs and his backfield mate James Brooks would each go on to productive NFL careers and they gave Alabama everything the Tide could handle.
Auburn kicked an early field goal, but when Alabama scored two second-quarter touchdowns it looked like business as usual. But with Cribbs running for 93 yards, Auburn came back and took an 18-17 lead in the fourth quarter.
Alabama was getting a big game from Whitman, who carried 14 times for 107 yards, and Shealy, who rushed for 99. The quarterback capped off a drive with an eight-yard touchdown run and the Tide took a 25-18 lead. Auburn came right back, driving to the ‘Bama 24 before the Tide defense finally held.
The undefeated season and national title shot was preserved, but the AP poll moved Alabama down to #2. The Tide still controlled the UPI poll, but now they were again set to share honors with unbeaten Ohio State, bound for the Rose Bowl. In an ironic twist, ‘Bama needed a little help from USC, who would play the Buckeyes.
First things first. There was the not-so-small matter of playing sixth-ranked Arkansas, coached by Lou Holtz. The New Year’s Day bowl schedule at the time had the Sugar Bowl kicking off in the early time slot, to be followed by the Rose at its usual midafternoon time. The Tide would have a chance to make a first impression on the voters.
And they were ready. Even though McNeal fumbled the opening kickoff away, the defense stiffened and the Hogs got only a field goal. ‘Bama controlled the rest of the game behind the outstanding running of Major Oglivie. He scored on runs of 22 & 1, and also had a 50-yard punt return to set up a field goal shortly before the half, as the Tide led 17-3.
Arkansas briefly made it interesting in the third quarter, taking the second half kickoff and driving 80 yards to cut the lead to 17-9. But Alabama sealed the deal with a life-sucking 98-yard drive on nine plays that made the final 24-9.
There was little doubt the Tide were in for at least a share of the title. Now they had to await the results from Pasadena. Once again, they got the smallest amount of help possible—Ohio State led 16-10 in the fourth quarter, but USC’s Heisman-winning running back Charles White ripped off two long runs that set up the winning touchdown in a 17-16 final.
The national championship belong exclusively to Alabama. It was the last title for the Bear in his extraordinary career.