The 1980 Sugar Bowl saw a national title settled in New Orleans for the second year in a row and once again the team doing the claiming was Alabama. After a winning a co-national championship the prior year, the Crimson Tide won it all again. The team standing in their way was Arkansas, coached by Lou Holtz. Let’s look back on the paths Alabama and Arkansas took through the 1979 college football season to reach New Year’s Day 1980 in the Bayou.
Alabama was ranked #2 in the nation to start the year, right behind USC, whom they had split the title with the year before. 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, vaulting Alabama into the top poll position.
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.
Arkansas had reached the top five of the final polls two years earlier in Holtz’s first year before taking a modest step back in 1978. The Razorbacks were built on the running game, with Roland Sales going behind All-American tackle Greg Kolenda. Quarterback Kevin Scanlan threw 139 passes, which was moderate for the time. Scanlan was reasonably effective, completing 66 percent and getting 8.7 yards-per-attempt.
The Hogs opened the season ranked #20 and had moved up three spots before they played their first game on September 15. Arkansas blew out Colorado State to open the year. The Razorbacks then hosted Oklahoma State. The Cowboys were led by a rookie coach with whom Holtz would one day have an epic battle with—Jimmy Johnson. Nine years before the legendary Catholics vs. Convicts battle of Notre Dame-Miami, Holtz got the best of Johnson. Arkansas won 27-7.
After an easy win over Tulsa and a surprising 16-13 escape of lowly TCU, Arkansas beat Texas Tech 20-6. That win moved them to #10 in the polls in time for their two biggest games of the year, both at home—fellow Southwest Conference rivals Texas and Houston.
Texas was ranked #2 in the country, behind only Alabama, before the Longhorns came to Little Rock. Arkansas won it 17-14 and vaulted to #4, now in the national title picture themselves. When they led sixth-ranked Houston 10-7 at the half the following week, the picture looked even brighter. But the Razorback offense faltered after intermission and they lost 13-10, moving back to #9.
Arkansas opened November with a rout of an awful Rice team and then got an impressive 29-20 win over 17th-ranked Baylor, 29-20. That same day, Texas beat Houston and the Razorbacks were in a three-way tie for first in the SWC, which had an automatic bid to the Cotton Bowl.
The Hogs beat Texas A&M and SMU to end the year and at least claim their share of the conference championship. Texas was upset by A&M in the final week, removing the Longhorns from the tiebreaking and giving the Cotton Bowl bid to Houston on the head-to-head tiebreaker. Either way, Arkansas was ranked #6, with a piece of a league championship and still going to a major bowl as they got set to challenge Alabama.
Arkansas’ challenge was credible for about one quarter. McNeal fumbled the opening kickoff, but Arkansas could get only a field goal out of it. The Tide defense and Major Ogilvie took over. The Hogs couldn’t move, while Ogilvie scored two touchdowns and also had a 50-yard punt return to set up a field goal.
The score was 17-3 by half and after Arkansas briefly made it a game at 17-9, ‘Bama went on a soul-crushing 98-yard drive for the touchdown that sealed the 24-9 win and at least a share of the national championship.
It wasn’t until 1982 that the Sugar Bowl began being played in prime-time, so this was the first game of New Year’s Day. The national championship’s other half would now go up for grabs in the Rose Bowl, where Ohio State was meeting USC. The Buckeyes led 16-10 in the fourth quarter and looked like they might stake their claim. But the Trojans scored a late touchdown, won the game and the national championship belonged exclusively to Alabama.