1981 Nebraska football was looking to get some separation from Oklahoma. Tom Osborne became the head coach in 1973 at a time when the program had two recent national championships (1970-71). Osborne continued to win at a high level, but not only were national titles not forthcoming, he couldn’t get past Barry Switzer’s Sooners in the old Big Eight Conference.
The only year Osborne beat Switzer was 1978, and even that year they still shared the conference title and were forced into a rematch at the Orange Bowl…which Oklahoma won. The Cornhuskers were ranked #6 coming into the 1981 college football season and anxious to finally get over the hump that was the Sooners.
It was all about line play at Nebraska and that started with center Dave Rimington, who won the Outland Trophy. On defense, Jimmy Williams was an All-American at end, while Rodney Lewis was the same in the secondary.
Nebraska didn’t throw the ball match, with Turner Gill and Mark Mauer splitting duty. And when you have running backs like Roger Craig and Mike Rozier, why bother? Craig, a future NFL star with the San Francisco 49ers, rolled up over 1,000 yards and his 12 catches in this ultra-conservative offense were a foreshadowing of the versatility he would show playing with Joe Montana. Rozier ran for 943 yards and the sophomore got rolling on the college career that would lead him to a Heisman Trophy two years later.
The Cornhuskers had a difficult non-conference schedule with Florida State—fresh off back-to-back Orange Bowl appearances—and Penn State. What Nebraska hadn’t counted on was that the season opener at Iowa would also prove to be tough. The previously dormant Hawkeye program came to life this year with a run to the Rose Bowl and they upset Nebraska 10-7.
Osborne’s team bounced back with a 34-14 blasting of Florida State at home, but they next week, the Huskers let Penn State come into their house and control the fourth quarter. Nebraska lost 30-24 and fell out of the national rankings.
A 17-3 win over Auburn and consecutive blowouts of bad Big Eight teams in Colorado and Kansas State got Nebraska back up to #15. The Big Eight was shaping up to be a balanced race, with Oklahoma also having relative struggles and it heightened the importance of Nebraska’s October 24 visit to 19th-ranked Missouri.
The game was scoreless was 2:36 left and it looked like the Cornhuskers were headed for a third blemish on their record. They got the ball on their own 36-yard line, when Gill began to showcase the arm that would be such a weapon for this team in the coming two years. He hit Irving Fryar and Todd Brown on key passes that got the ball to the 3-yard line. Phil Bates blasted it over for the winning touchdown.
Gill’s arm, combined with Nebraska’s 222-85 edge in rush yardage gave them a 6-0 win. In spite of the early losses, the Cornhuskers were still unbeaten in league play. And while OU struggled to a 6-4-1 season, Nebraska rolled past Kansas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State to wrap up the outright conference championship and automatic Orange Bowl spot.
There was still the matter of beating Oklahoma on the football field and with Nebraska now #5 in the polls, they were back in the national championship discussion when they visited Norman for the regular season finale. When the Sooners scored on the first drive, there had to be at least some “here we go again” laments going through Husker Nation.
But this time, Nebraska took over the football game. They ran for 314 yards. Mauer was in at quarterback for this one and he went 11/16 for 148 yards. Rozier and Craig both cleared the 100-yard mark. Nebraska’s power-I formation attack trumped Oklahoma’s wishbone option, and the Cornhuskers won 37-14. They concluded the regular season ranked #4.
The opponent in Miami would be top-ranked Clemson. At the time, the Tigers were a Cinderella program and it taken a crazy and chaotic year in college football as a whole to get Clemson to the top of the polls. A lot of observers were expecting Nebraska to enforce the old traditional order on New Year’s Night.
There’s nothing saying for sure that Nebraska would have vaulted to #1 with a win—Texas was also in the discussion—and the Cornhuskers’ two defeats would surely have come under greater scrutiny. But a championship was definitely in play for both teams, not just Clemson.
Nebraska seemed to have control of the line of the scrimmage in the early going, but two drives inside the 30-yard line ended with lost fumbles. Meanwhile, Clemson put it on the ground three times for the game, but recovered each one. The breaks were going Clemson’s way, and eventually the flow of play did too. A 75-yard touchdown drive from the Tigers in the third quarter was the decisive blow and put Clemson in control. Nebraska lost 22-15.
The Cornhuskers might have come up short of the national championship, but in 1981 it was enough to finally clear the Oklahoma hurdle and get back to playing in the Orange Bowl. And the next two years would be even better.