The 1983 Cotton Bowl was a what-might-have-been game. Pitt and SMU had reached the 1-2 spots in the national rankings by the end of October in the 1982 college football season. But each team, particularly Pitt had some disappointment in November and while the Cotton Bowl was still a good game between two highly ranked teams, it wasn’t a national title battle.
SMU was a program on the rise, although they were also running afoul of the NCAA in the process, something that would get the program suspended for two years later in the decade.
Ron Meyer coached the Mustangs to a 10-1 record in 1981 and the championship of the old Southwest Conference, where the principal rivals were Texas and Arkansas.
But probation denied SMU the Cotton Bowl bid that came with the league title. Meyer departed to coach the New England Patriots and Bobby Collins took over for 1982.
The backfield lives on in college football lore as “The Pony Express”, and the greatness of Eric Dickerson and Craig James was real and not myth. Dickerson rolled up over 1,600 yards on the ground, averaged seven yards a pop, scored 17 touchdowns and made first-team All-American, joining Georgia’s Heisman Trophy-winning Herschel Walker.
James ran for 938 yards, a figure that makes him the leading rusher at most schools, even with only getting the carries of a #2 back. He finished third in the SWC in rushing. Lance McIlhenny was the quarterback and certainly wasn’t required to throw very much, but he was efficient—only three interceptions all year-and he made some big plays when his team desperately needed them.
SMU opened the season ranked #6 and rolled through four non-conference games against Tulane, UTEP, TCU and North Texas. The TCU game was the only that was competitive. But the non-descript competition kept the Mustangs at sixth in the polls.
A victory over a subpar Baylor team opened SEC play and nudged SMU into the top five. The Mustangs escaped mediocre Houston 20-14 and stayed undefeated as they got set to go to Texas. The Longhorns were ranked #19 and had a good running back of their own in Darryl Clark, who finished second in the conference in rushing.
SMU was actually outrushed in this game, 206-183 and the game was tied 10-10 in the fourth quarter. McIlhenny then stepped up with a 79-yard touchdown pass to Bobby Leach, then added a 33-yard touchdown pass. The Mustangs pulled away to a 30-17 win and were now ranked #4.
When they blasted Texas A&M 47-9, SMU vaulted to #2 as the calendar flipped to November. The Mustangs were right behind Pitt in the polls, but with the Panthers not tied to any bowl, the Cotton would be free to create a 1 vs 2 battle in Dallas.
SMU held up their end of the bargain with a 41-14 blowout of Rice, but a Pitt loss to Notre Dame resulted in Georgia jumping up to #1. Even though SMU was now #2, they no longer controlled their own fate, since Georgia was tied to the Sugar Bowl.
What the Mustangs could control was winning the SWC again and this time getting the Cotton Bowl bid. They beat lowly Texas Tech 34-27 to get to 10-0 and set the stage for the last game of the year against Arkansas.
The Razorbacks, coached by Lou Holtz, were ranked ninth and had just one loss in league play. Arkansas could take control of the conference race—they would still need to beat Texas two weeks later, but SMU needed to win or tie its finale to lock up the Cotton Bowl spot without any doubts.
The game was played in Texas Stadium, then the home of the Dallas Cowboys and it was a great battle. Arkansas took an early 7-0 lead and was driving for more when SMU defensive end Russell Carter blocked a field goal. McIlhenny later converted a 3rd-and-17 with his feet and it set up Dickerson’s tying touchdown run.
After trading field goals, Arkansas took a 17-10 lead and there were just six minutes left in the game. McIlhenny completed a 3rd-and-8 pass to keep the drive going and then a controversial pass interference penalty put the Mustangs on the doorstep. They scored and Collins opted to kick the extra point and at least ensure a tie.
SMU still got a crack at the win, with a 52-yard-field goal. But that came up short. The national title hopes were gone, but the Mustangs were still undefeated, at 10-0-1, and most important, they were going to the Cotton Bowl.
1982 was a year of great expectation for Pitt. It was the senior year for quarterback Dan Marino. After three straight 11-1 seasons, including a dramatic Sugar Bowl win over Georgia following the 1981 season, this was to be the year that Pitt won it all and Marino won the Heisman Trophy.
Even a coaching change—Jackie Sherrill left for Texas A&M and defensive coordinator Foge Fazio took over—didn’t stop the high expectations and Pitt was ranked #1 to start the year.
There was no shortage of talent. Jimbo Covert and Bill Fralic were both All-Americans on the offensive line and both went on to good NFL careers. Defensive tackle Bill Maas was another All-American. Bryan Thomas rushed for 955 yards and Marino had a good group of receivers led by Dwight Collins.
But the quarterback himself struggled. Marino threw 23 interceptions and his 6.4 yards-per-attempt was nowhere near Heisman-caliber. The problems showed up right away in a high-profile game against North Carolina to open the season. The Tar Heels were ranked #5 and this was a Thursday night game (a rarity then) in Three Rivers Stadium.
Marino threw four interceptions and Pitt only scored seven points. Fortunately, the defense bailed him out. They held UNC’s talented running back Kelvin Bryant to 58 yards and Pitt led 7-6 late in the game. North Carolina reached the 21-yard line late in the game, but rather than play it safe, they tried to throw the ball. Maas came up with the big sack and the drive was turned back.
Pitt may have survived, but they were down to #2 in the polls. And with North Carolina going on to a seven-win season, this wasn’t the elite opponent that was perceived at the time.
The Panthers came up with a more impressive effort at Florida State ten days later, winning 37-17 against a team that would win eight games. Pitt then beat seven-win Illinois by a 20-3 count.
On the first Saturday of October, the Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia renewed in the Steel City. This was a good Mountaineer team, one that would go 9-2 and it showed here. The Panthers trailed 13-0 going into the fourth quarter. But they scored one touchdown with 10:52 left, and then Marino connected with Julius Dawkins to get a 14-13 lead.
Maas came up clutch again, sacking WVA quarterback Jeff Hostetler in the end zone for a safety. West Virginia made one last charge, but a tying a field goal attempt hit the crossbar. Pitt was still undefeated, and while Marino wasn’t lighting it up, the team was still beating good opponents each week.
Pitt blew out subpar teams in Temple, Syracuse and Louisville and were back to #1 in the country when October came to a close. Then came the fatal visit from Notre Dame on November 6, where the Panthers played poorly against a team that would struggle to a 6-4-1 finish. A 31-16 defeat sent Pitt plummeting to #8.
They bounced back to losing teams in Army and Rutgers were back up to #5 for the season finale against Penn State. The Nittany Lions were playing for a crack top-ranked Georgia in the Sugar Bowl for a national title. Pitt would need help to make it all the way back, with SMU and Nebraska also ahead of them in the polls.
But a victory over the Lions would heal a lot of wounds, particularly the ones that had opened the previous year when Pitt’s national title hopes had come crashing down in a 48-14 humiliation in Happy Valley.
It was time for one more disappointment though. Pitt lost 19-10 and went to the Cotton Bowl ranked #6 in the country. They would play for pride and redemption, rather than a championship.
The Cotton Bowl was played in a cold rain and the SMU defense slowed Marino to a halt. Pitt got only a field goal, their lowest point total since 1975. But the Panthers still led 3-0, as the slick artificial turf made it very difficult for Dickerson or James to get any footing.
McIlhenny stepped up with two big completions to Leach, one where Leach had to maneuver around an official to get in position for the catch. SMU took a 7-3 lead. Marino led Pitt back, hoping for a second straight New Year’s Day game-winning drive—albeit this one with eight minutes left. But his pass into the end zone bounced off the hands of one Mustang player and into the arms of another, Blaine Smith. The 7-3 final held up.
When Penn State beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, SMU was the only undefeated team left in the country. But the lack of a quality non-conference schedule and the fact that undefeated did not mean perfect, with the tie against Arkansas, prevented a groundswell for the Mustangs. They finished #2 in the final poll.
As for Pitt, the biggest beneficiary of Marino’s disappointing senior year was the Miami Dolphins. Having gone to the Super Bowl in 1982, but still needing a quarterback, they watched as Marino plummeted to the 27th pick in the first round. It’s safe to say Marino put the disappointments of 1982 behind him.