1981 Alabama football wasn’t the same loaded team that won back-to-back national titles in 1978-79. They had slipped a bit in 1980, though they still went to the Cotton Bowl and crushed Baylor. The offense lacked explosiveness. Starting quarterback Walter Lewis only threw 66 passes and the Tide relied on a rushing attack where five different backs, along with Lewis ran for between 300-400 yards on the season.
Defensively, the Tide had two players that got All-American recognition, defensive back Tommy Wilcox and linebacker Tom Boyd. And the respect the legendary head coach Bear Bryant commanded still had Alabama ranked fourth to start the season, even as SEC rival and defending national champion Georgia—with much more talent in the cupboard—was ranked tenth.
Alabama opened the season at LSU, though the Tigers weren’t very good at this time and the result was an easy 24-7 win. It moved the Tide to #2. No one could have expected what happened next. Georgia Tech was a terrible team in 1981 and they won only one game. That game was their September 12 visit to Alabama, a 24-21 shocker that shook up the polls (top-ranked Michigan lost the same day). The Tide were down to #10.
Pedestrian victories over bad teams in Kentucky and Vanderbilt followed, and a 38-7 blowout of Ole Miss, another shaky team, lifted ‘Bama to #7. But their second visit outside the SEC went almost as bad as the first. Alabama played Southern Miss, a team that would finish the year with a losing record, to a 13-13 tie and plummeted back to #15.
A game with Tennessee, a pretty good team that would make a bowl game at a time when such was a bigger accomplishment than it is today, now loomed even bigger. Alabama got back on track with a 38-19 win.
Normally, a non-conference home win over Rutgers wouldn’t mean much, but given the way non-conference games had gone for ‘Bama, this 31-7 victory surely brought relief. It also got them back into the Top 10.
Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi State were all unbeaten in conference play on October 31, and the Tide would host seventh-ranked Mississippi State. One year earlier, MSU, coached by former Bryant assistant Emory Bellard, had upset the Tide. And this game would be another tough battle.
Tough should not be equated with well-played and there were a combined 13 turnovers. Alabama clung to a 13-10 lead when Bulldog quarterback John Bond suddenly rifled three straight completions for a combined 69 yards and put Mississippi State on the Alabama 9-yard line in the closing seconds. Bond stepped back one more time. This time Wilcox was waiting and his interception at the one-yard line preserved the win.
After a week off, Alabama traveled to face fifth-ranked Penn State, who was still in the national championship picture. History was also in the making. All season long, Bryant’s pursuit of the career victories record held by Amos Alonzo Stagg had been on the front-burner of media coverage. The old head coach was only two wins away…and there were only two games left in the regular season.
The Tide did their coach proud, defeating the Lions with surprising ease, 31-16. The respect Bryant commanded was made apparent when he left the field and Penn State fans crowded around the tunnel to give him an ovation as he left.
It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving that Alabama hosted Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The Tide was playing for at least a share of the SEC title with Georgia. The Tigers were 5-5 and playing for a winning season. To say nothing of the rivalry stakes. But the nation was watching to see if Bear would break the record, and he did with a 28-17 win.
Alabama and Georgia were both unbeaten in league play, and the Tide had to play one more conference game (7-0 vs 6-0), but with winning percentage being tied and the Bulldogs ranked #2, while the Tide were #3, it was Georgia chosen for the Sugar Bowl. Alabama still got another Cotton Bowl bid and were hoping for the right confluence of circumstances to win a national championship.
The circumstances were this—‘Bama had to take care of its business against Texas and then hope for Georgia to lose to Pitt and #1 Clemson to lose to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Those games would take place in prime-time, while the Cotton Bowl was in the early time slot. So the hope for the Tide was to get a win and then sit back and hope for chaos at night.
Texas had finished 9-1-1, but also needed the probation of SMU—the actual regular season champion of the old Southwest Conference—to punch its ticket to Dallas. And for three quarters, Alabama looked the part of a team that had a lot on the line, and Texas looked the part of a team that needed the probation of a rival to be here.
The Tide were moving it up and down the field, but couldn’t put the game away. Alan Gray, who shared quarterback time with Lewis killed one drive with a fumble on the Longhorn 15-yard line. Consequently, the score was only 10-0 when the fourth quarter began.
Texas was built on running the ball and playing defense and you would think a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter was secure. But this Longhorn team had already rallied from behind in two of their biggest regular season games. And in the postgame words of Bryant, they “whipped” the Crimson Tide in the fourth quarter of this Cotton Bowl.
A backup quarterback, Robert Brewer, threw for over 200 yards against the ‘Bama defense. He cut the lead to 10-7 and then led a drive to the Alabama 30-yard line. Brewer took off on a quarterback draw for a touchdown. The Tide trailed 14-10.
Alabama still rallied, starting the final drive with a big kickoff return. But the season ended with an interception on the one-yard line to preserve the win. After a voluntary safety by Texas, the final was 14-12.
The loss didn’t cost the Tide a national title—while Georgia lost that night, Clemson won and took home an undisputed championship. But it was the end of an era. It was the final time Bear Bryant would coach a team in a major bowl game. The aging Bear only had one more year left in him. He retired following a tough 1982 season and passed away shortly after.