The 1982 Orange Bowl saw the completion of Clemson’s Cinderella journey for a national championship and Nebraska finally get some separation from Oklahoma. Here’s a look back on the journey Clemson and Nebraska took through the 1981 college football season before finally meeting on New Year’s Night in Miami.
Danny Ford had become head coach of a Clemson program that was on the rise under Charley Pell, before the latter took the job at Florida. But the first two years under Ford saw some regression, as he went 8-3 and then 6-5. The Tigers were not on anyone’s radar when the 1981 college football season began, unranked in the national polls.
Ford had a talented and versatile quarterback in Homer Jordan, who completed a decent percentage of his passes (54.6), got big plays (8.3 yards-per-attempt) and was also an effective runner (in the top 10 among ACC rushers). Jordan had a terrific target in All-American receiver Perry Tuttle, who led the conference in both catches and yards.
The running game was balanced, with Cliff Austin and Chuck McSwain leading the way and joining Jordan in carrying the load. But the real stars of this team were on defense.
Terry Kinard was an All-American defensive back and a real playmaker, and Kinard wasn’t even the best player on the D. That honor belonged to linebacker Jeff Davis, whose dominance was so thorough that he not only made All-American, but he won the ACC’s MVP award—this in a league where Jordan would have been a solid choice and Maryland had a quarterback of some note named Boomer Esiason.
The Tigers warmed up by blasting Wofford, but an unimpressive win at Tulane did nothing to get them in the polls. It was their September 19 home game against defending national champion Georgia that changed the equation.
It was a defensive battle and both teams had problems taking care of the ball, with a combined nine turnovers. But Jordan found Tuttle in the corner of the end zone for the game’s only touchdown and Clemson won 13-3. They were ranked #14 when the next polls came out.
Clemson beat poor teams in Kentucky and Virginia, 21-3 and 27-0 respectively. Then they went to Duke and blasted a respectable Blue Devils’ team 38-10. In a year where chaos was breaking out at the top of the polls, the room was there for the Tigers to be movin’ on up.
They were now #4 and two more soft opponents were ahead. Clemson beat N.C. State 17-7. To date, all the scores look typical for a team that relies on its defense. That’s what makes the home game with Wake Forest on October 31 jump out even more drastically than it otherwise would—Clemson won 82-24, matching its offensive output of the previous three weeks.
The Tigers were ranked second in the nation, but a road trip to North Carolina was next. The Tar Heels were also in the Top 10 and like Clemson, angling for a prestigious January 1 bowl slot. UNC had an excellent running back in Kelvin Bryant, who went on to the NFL where he could do everything on a football field except stay healthy. The Clemson defense delivered another big-time performance in a 10-8 win.
Another impressive shutdown of an offensive star was next, as Clemson beat Esiason’s Maryland by a 21-7 count. The Tigers closed with a 29-13 win over mediocre South Carolina. One week later, they watched as Pitt fell to Penn State. Suddenly, the team that still had a hard time getting respect was ranked #1 and playing in the Orange Bowl for a national championship.
Tom Osborne became the head coach of Nebraska 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, but he couldn’t get past Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma in the old Big Eight Conference.
The only year Osborne had 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 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.
By the time the Orange Bowl kicked off, everyone knew third-ranked Alabama had lost. Georgia was ranked #2 in playing in the Sugar Bowl at the same time. It turns out, the Bulldogs would also lose.
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.
It was a 75-yard drive in the third quarter that was the decisive blow. Jordan found Tuttle near the pylon for the touchdown pass that finished the drive and put Clemson in control. They held on to win 22-15 and college football’s chaotic season had ended with a Cinderella national champion.