Alabama was coming off national championship seasons in both 1978 and 1979, as the coaching career of the legendary Bear Bryant neared its end. The 1980 Alabama football team didn’t make it a three-peat, but they made a run at it and their ultimate Cotton Bowl victory would be Bryant’s last victory in a major bowl game.
The Crimson Tide had the #1 defense in the country and it was through a cohesive team effort. Defensive end E.J. Junior was the only consensus All-American, though linebacker Tom Boyd got honorable mention and defensive back Jeremiah Castille went on to an NFL career whose biggest moment came when he recovered a fumble that preserved the 1987 AFC Championship Game for the Denver Broncos.
Offensively, the Tide took a step back from their attacks of the previous two seasons. The same balanced rushing attack existed, but at a little less prolific level. Billy Jackson and Major Ogilvie got the bulk of the carries and quarterback Don Jacobs was a runner, not a passer. Jacobs only attempted 76 passes all season.
Alabama was ranked #2 to start the season, behind only Ohio State. The Tide opened with a 26-3 win over lowly Georgia Tech and then crushed woeful Ole Miss 59-35, an uncharacteristic high-scoring game. An unimpressive win by Ohio State the same day nudged the Crimson Tide to the top of the polls, as they gunned for a third straight national title.
Two more shutouts of bad teams followed, the victories over Kentucky and Vanderbilt coming by a combined 86-0. A tough escape at seven-win Rutgers, 17-13 was next and the defense spun yet another shutout at Tennessee, beating the mediocre Vols 27-0.
October 25 saw an unbeaten Southern Miss team come to Tuscaloosa. The Golden Eagles were coached by Bobby Collins, who would go on to take SMU to an undefeated season two years later and be the head coach when that program got the death penalty shortly after that. Southern Miss also had Sammy Winder, who in the NFL would be Castille’s teammate in Denver and score the winning touchdown in the playoff game that Castille ultimately preserved.
Southern Miss was coming off a rout of a good SEC opponent in Mississippi State and hoped that could translate against the #1 team in the country. It didn’t—the Tide won 42-7. Up next was Alabama’s own game with Mississippi State and the result against the common opponent should have made a Tide victory a foregone conclusion.
Sports is never that simple though and Alabama-Mississippi State was a defensive war. The Bulldogs were coached by Emory Bellard, who had taught Bear Bryant the wishbone offense and Mississippi State held a 6-3 lead on their homefield when Alabama drove inside the red zone in the final minute.
A tie wouldn’t do Alabama any good—not with Georgia undefeated and not on the ‘Bama schedule. A tie would be as good as a loss, both in the SEC and nationally. Alabama reached the 4-yard line, but with no timeouts, they had to rush to the line for one last snap. Jacobs took it and tried to run the option right. He was met and a fumble was forced. Mississippi State recovered.
There was one last burst of interest when Mississippi State fumbled the snap on the play to kill the remaining clock and a furious pile-up, reminiscent of a scene in the Tom Cruise movie All The Right Moves, ensued. But State recovered and Alabama slipped to #6 in the polls.
After dispatching seven-win LSU by a 28-7 count, Alabama prepared for the arrival of Notre Dame, who had only an inexplicable tie against Georgia Tech darkening their resume. The game summarized the Alabama season—the defense was great and the only Notre Dame points came after a ‘Bama fumble inside their own 5-yard line. But the offense did literally nothing and the 7-0 defeat eliminated any faint hopes of a national championship.
Alabama still closed the year strong with a 34-18 win over Auburn. The Tide got a bid to the Cotton Bowl to play Baylor, 10-1 and the champion of the old Southwest Conference.
‘Bama led 6-0, when Baylor missed its best chance to turn momentum. They had gotten a 50-yard pass interference penalty and were on the Tide 8-yard line. The Bears fumbled it away. Jacobs immediately responded with a deep post pass to Jesse Bendross that set up an Alabama touchdown.
The great defense took over from there, and Baylor turnovers kept setting up ‘Bama points. The Tide did allow the Bears to get on the board, but it was the Alabama offense that gave up the points—a safety. The final score was 30-2.
Bryant only had two more years left in his career. He would make it back to another major bowl, reaching this same venue and losing to Texas in 1981. The 1980 season might not have been what Alabama wanted at the beginning, but their January 1 victory gives them a special place in the lore of this proud program.