Fred Akers had taken over the Texas coaching job in 1977 and promptly went undefeated before losing the national title to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. That loss foreshadowed some difficulties, at least relative to Texas expectations over the next few years.
The Longhorns lost three of their next five bowl appearances. They only made one major bowl game, the Cotton Bowl following the 1981 season. And that opportunity was only there because conference champion SMU was on probation. Texas had spent five years chasing either SMU, Houston or Baylor. The 1983 Texas Longhorns were the team that had to reverse the trend.
Akers had a big-time defense this season and it would prove to be the nation’s best. They were led by two All-Americans in the secondary, Jerry Gray and Mossy Cade and another one at linebacker in Jeff Leiding. On the offensive side, the best player was All-American guard Doug Dawson.
It was a meat-and-potatoes football team that didn’t do much offensively. Nobody rushed for as much as 500 yards, as the workload was spread around between Ronnie Robinson, John Walker and Mike Luck. The primary quarterback was Robert Moerschell, but he only completed 40 percent of his passes, and both Todd Dodge and Rick McIvor got their share of time.
Texas was still ranked #3 in the country to start the season, trailing only Big Eight teams in Nebraska and Oklahoma. UT had a late start, not playing their first game until September 17, but it was one worth waiting for if you were a Longhorn fan. They went to fifth-ranked Auburn, with its potent running attack led by sophomore Bo Jackson and shut it down, winning 20-7.
The win moved them to #2, as Oklahoma lost to Ohio State the same day Texas then took care of North Texas and Rice before their annual game with the Sooners, played at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, just as it is today.
Texas fell behind 7-0 in the first quarter before driving a short field, 44 yards, in 11 plays to tie it up on a touchdown run by Edwin Simmons. They again fell behind 10-7 in the third quarter, but Simmons led a running game that produced over 240 yards total and the Longhorns eventually broke their archrival up front, in a 28-16 win.
A 31-3 rout of an Arkansas team that struggled to a 6-5 record and got head coach Lou Holtz fired led into a game against SMU at Texas Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. These were the only real contenders for the championship of the old Southwest Conference the Cotton Bowl bid that went with it. SMU was ranked #9 in the country coming in and was undefeated.
The Mustangs got an early field goal, before Longhorn kicker Jeff Ward aired a 52-yarder of his own to tie it by the end of the first quarter. They traded field goals again in the second quarter. In the third quarter, Dodge was at quarterback and led a 62-yard touchdown drive to get a 13-6 lead.
SMU drove for a touchdown of their own with 2:47 left. In this era before overtime, the Mustangs opted to go for the win rather than the tie, but the Texas defense held. They sealed the win with a safety in a 15-12 final.
The race for the Cotton Bowl seemed all but over by October, but there was the national championship to think about. Texas trailed only Nebraska in the polls, and was just hoping someone could upend the Cornhuskers, who would be committed to the Orange Bowl, and were demolishing opponents every week.
Texas beat Texas Tech 20-3, and then had close calls against weak teams in Houston and TCU, 9-3 and 20-14. A game at a pretty good Baylor squad resulted in another close game. The 24-21 win officially clinched the Cotton Bowl, but the games established beyond a doubt what was likely the case anyway—the Longhorns had no chance of catching the Cornhuskers on style points. They needed Nebraska to lose.
A 45-13 rout of mediocre Texas A&M capped the regular season and for the second time in seven years, Akers was taking an undefeated team to Dallas.
Georgia was ranked #7 in the country. 1983 had been an impressive year for Bulldog athletics. The basketball program overcame the early entry of Dominque Wilkins and made the Final Four. The football team overcame the early departure of Herschel Walker and was still here in the Cotton Bowl, ranked in the top 10 and hoping to spoil Texas’ national title hopes.
The game was a defensive war. That great Longhorn defense forced nine punts. Texas got three from Ward. The UT defense had a way of making a 9-3 lead seemed insurmountable, as the clock ticked under the five-minute mark in the fourth quarter.
But the tenth Georgia punt proved disastrous. Texas return man Craig Curry moved under it on his own 23-yard line…and muffed it. The Bulldogs recovered.
Two plays netted six yards. On third down, Georgia quarterback John Lastinger ran the option. Cade came up and wisely took the pitch man, forcing the unathletic Lastinger try and make the play. The quarterback did—he not only got the first down, but he raced for the right corner of the end zone and found it. Improbably, it was 10-9 Georgia and that was it.
The heartbreak in Texas would get worse by nightfall, when Miami stunned Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and the Hurricanes claimed the national title that would otherwise have, without question, gone to the Longhorns.
The loss was the beginning of the end for Fred Akers. As great as the 1983 Texas Longhorns were, the season now had the taste of disappointment. Akers only coached in Austin three more seasons and never made another major bowl game.