The 1981 college football season can be marked as the year parity arrived. College football had long been the province of a few exclusive powers, but the effects of scholarship limits began to take hold and new teams rose up to challenge the establishment. Nowhere was that more evident than the Clemson Tigers coming out of nowhere to win the national championship.
A look at the preseason polls in 1981 show how dramatic the change was. The top three teams when the season opened were Michigan, Oklahoma and Notre Dame. All traditional powers. And none would end up playing in any of the major bowl games.
Conversely, Clemson was joined by Iowa and SMU as the fresh young challengers. Iowa broke the Michigan-Ohio State hold on the Rose Bowl bid and went to Pasadena.
SMU won the old Southwest Conference, although probation kept them out of the Cotton Bowl. As for Clemson, they began the season unranked before finishing on top.
Even the very structure of New Year’s Day was part of the change. January 1 had been the province of four bowls, the Rose, Cotton, Sugar and Orange. The Fiesta Bowl is now one of the big players on the college football stage and they made their first move upward when they got their game onto New Year’s Day this season.
The Fiesta then went and got two marquee programs, Penn State and USC to play, with the Trojans having Heisman Trophy winning running back Marcus Allen.
Other notable developments in the 1981 college football season include…
*Nebraska got the best of Oklahoma, finally winning the Big Eight title outright. The Cornhuskers eventually fell to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
*Pitt and Penn State were great teams in the East, with Dan Marino behind center for the Panthers and Curt Warner in the backfield for the Nittany Lions. Pitt was ranked #1 deep into the season and ended up in the Sugar Bowl, while Penn State went to the Fiesta.
*Georgia and Alabama each dominated the SEC, going undefeated in conference play, but non-conference games tripped up the national title hopes of each. Both still ended up playing on New Year’s, the Bulldogs in the Sugar and the Tide in the Cotton. The latter would prove to be the final major bowl appearance for Alabama legend Bear Bryant.
*There were wild races in the Big Ten & Pac-10. Iowa wasn’t the only challenger to Michigan-Ohio State hegemony. Wisconsin and Illinois were in the mix, while the Wolverines and Buckeyes didn’t disappear. And the Pac-10 had perhaps its best ending ever, with two big rivalry games, USC-UCLA and Washington-Washington State settling the Rose Bowl bid. It was Washington who ended up in Pasadena for the second straight year.
*And Texas took full advantage of SMU’s probation. The Longhorns were able to get the Cotton Bowl bid and their win over Alabama completed a year where Texas also defeated Oklahoma. The ‘Horns actually ended up #2 in the polls though they did not enter January 1 with a chance at the crown.
This compilation describes the journey of the ten teams that made major bowl games and the roads they took to get January 1. Each article in is published individually on The Sports Notebook, and then pulled together and edited in this compilation. Together, they serve to tell the story of the 1981 college football season through the eyes of its best teams.