The 1981 Cotton Bowl brought together one traditional power for whom the bid was a disappointment, and one up-and-comer for whom just being there was reason to celebrate. Alabama, the two-time defending national champion, met Baylor in the game that followed the 1980 college football regular season.
Alabama had the #1 defense in the country, and it was through a cohesive team effort. Defensive end E.J. Junior was the only consensus All-American, though linebacker Tom Boyd got honorable mention and defensive back Jeremiah Castille went on to an NFL career whose biggest moment came when he recovered a fumble that preserved the 1987 AFC Championship Game for the Denver Broncos.
Offensively, the Tide took a step back from their attacks of the previous two seasons. The same balanced rushing attack existed, but at a little less prolific levels. Billy Jackson and Major Ogilvie got the bulk of the carries, and quarterback Don Jacobs was a runner, not a passer. Jacobs only attempted 76 passes all season.
Alabama was ranked #2 to start the season, behind only Ohio State. The Tide opened with a 26-3 win over lowly Georgia Tech and then crushed woeful Ole Miss 59-35, an uncharacteristic high-scoring game. An unimpressive win by Ohio State the same day nudged the Crimson Tide to the top of the polls as they gunned for a third straight national title.
Two more shutouts of bad teams followed, the victories over Kentucky and Vanderbilt coming by a combined 86-0. A tough escape at seven-win Rutgers, 17-13 was next and the defense spun yet another shutout at Tennessee, beating the mediocre Vols 27-0.
October 25 saw an unbeaten Southern Miss team come to Tuscaloosa. The Golden Eagles were coached by Bobby Collins, who would go on to take SMU to an undefeated season two years later and be the head coach when that program got the death penalty shortly after that. Southern Miss also had Sammy Winder, who in the NFL would be Castille’s teammate in Denver and score the winning touchdown in the playoff game that Castille ultimately preserved.
Southern Miss was coming off a rout of a good SEC opponent in Mississippi State and hoped that could translate against the #1 team in the country. It didn’t—the Tide won 42-7. Up next was Alabama’s own game with Mississippi State and the result against the common opponent should have made a Tide victory a foregone conclusion.
Sports is never that simple though, and Alabama-Mississippi State was a defensive war. The Bulldogs were coached by Emory Bellard, who had taught Bear Bryant the wishbone offense and Mississippi State held a 6-3 lead on their homefield when Alabama drove inside the red zone in the final minute.
A tie wouldn’t do Alabama any good—not with Georgia undefeated and not on the ‘Bama schedule. A tie would be as good as a loss, both in the SEC and nationally. Alabama reached the 4-yard line, but with no timeouts, they had to rush to the line for one last snap. Jacobs took it and tried to run the option right. He was met and a fumble was forced. Mississippi State recovered.
There was one last burst of interest when Mississippi State fumbled the snap on the play to kill the remaining clock and a furious pile-up, reminiscent of a scene in the Tom Cruise movie All The Right Moves, ensued. But State recovered and Alabama slipped to #6 in the polls.
After dispatching seven-win LSU by a 28-7 count, Alabama prepared for the arrival of Notre Dame, who had only an inexplicable tie against Georgia Tech darkening their resume. The game summarized the Alabama season—the defense was great and the only Notre Dame points came after a ‘Bama fumble inside their own 5-yard line. But the offense did literally nothing and the 7-0 defeat eliminated any faint hopes of a national championship.
Alabama still closed the year strong with a 34-18 win over Auburn and went to the Cotton Bowl ranked #9.
Grant Teaff took over the Baylor program in 1972 and showed improvement and got to the Cotton Bowl in 1974. A series of up-and-down years followed, but the Bears won eight games in 1979 and looked poised to again compete in the old Southwest Conference, typically dominated by Texas, Arkansas and now newcomer Houston, who had grabbed the league’s automatic berth in Dallas three times in the last four years.
Baylor had talent on the defensive end and it started with All-American linebacker Mike Singletary, a future two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year with the Chicago Bears. Vann McElroy intercepted eight passes in the secondary and was a starter on a Super Bowl champion with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1983. On the offensive side, guard Frank Ditta was also All-American.
There was explosiveness at the skill positions, starting with 1100-yard rusher Walter Abercrombie. Dennis Gentry, a future teammate of Singletary’s in Chicago, ran for 900 yards. The quarterback play was pedestrian, with Jay Jeffrey completing 44 percent of his passes, and Baylor would have to overcome a lack of respect—they were unranked to start the season.
Baylor’s non-conference opponents were as bad in 1980 as they are today, and the Bears opened by crushing Lamar and West Texas A&M. The first conference game, an 11-3 win over a poor Texas Tech team nudged them into the polls at #20.
A potential changing of the guard in the SWC was signaled on the first week of October, when Baylor beat Houston 24-12, and then the Bears got set for a game with another undefeated up-and-comer, 20th-ranked SMU, in Waco.
Jeffrey might not have been a great passer, but he came up big with his legs in this game. After Baylor fell behind 21-0 in the second quarter and still trailed 28-14 in the third quarter, Jeffrey ran for three touchdowns from in close. Baylor survived, 32-28.
The Bears went on to blow out Texas A&M and beat TCU to get into the Top 10. Then they hosted San Jose State, and perhaps looking ahead to November games with Arkansas and Texas, the Bears suffered a stunning 30-22 upset. It dropped them back to #16, though they were still undefeated in league play and in control of the race for the Cotton Bowl nod.
Baylor smoothly dispatched Arkansas 42-15, then won a surprisingly competitive game at Rice, 16-6. The Bears had locked up their spot in Dallas—they would ultimately clear the field by three games in the SWC. But that didn’t mean the season finale at home with Texas didn’t have a lot of meaning for the fans and the program.
Gentry put his mark on the 1980 Baylor-Texas game. He bolted for a 64-yard touchdown run in the second quarter to start the scoring. With the score still 7-0 in the fourth quarter, Gentry ran 16 yards for the clincher. Baylor won the rushing battle 302-25. They intercepted four passes, and they tacked one more safety for a 16-0 win. Teaff’s team concluded the regular season ranked sixth in the nation.
Bear Bryant was at the end of his career and would only coach through the 1982 season. The 1981 Cotton Bowl proved to be the Bear’s last major bowl victory—ironically over a team nicknamed the Bears with two future members of the Chicago Bears on it (yeah, corny humor, I know).
Alabama led 6-0, when Baylor missed its best chance to turn momentum. They had gotten a 50-yard pass interference penalty and were on the Tide 8-yard line. The Bears fumbled it away. Jacobs immediately responded with a deep post pass to Jesse Bendross that set up an Alabama touchdown. The great defense took over from there, and Baylor turnovers kept setting up ‘Bama points. Baylor’s defense did score, getting a safety, but the final was an ugly 30-2.
Bryant would appear in one more major bowl, losing to Texas in this same venue the following year. Baylor wouldn’t get back to college football’s biggest stage until the end of the 2013 season and are still after the program’s first major bowl win since the Sugar Bowl following the 1956 season.