The biggest development in the 1980 college football season was the arrival of a freshman running back that would define the sport for the next three years. Herschel Walker made Georgia must-see television at the outset of the decade and in his first year he led the Bulldogs to an undefeated season and a national championship.
Two more traditional powers played important parts in the drama of the season. Georgia had to displace two-time defending national champion Alabama in the SEC. The Crimson Tide slipped a bit this year, but were still good enough to reach the Cotton Bowl and get what would prove to be the final major bowl victory for the great Bear Bryant.
Notre Dame was looking to return to the top and to do it for outgoing coach Dan Devine. The Irish made a serious run at #1, highlighted by a dramatic head-to-head win over Alabama. A late season loss ultimately ended those dreams, but Notre Dame got a crack at Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
Another pair of traditional powers didn’t make a serious run at a national title, but they impacted the season and won major bowl games. Oklahoma survived a challenge from Nebraska and won its third straight Big Eight title, earning the automatic ticket to the Orange Bowl. Michigan won the Big Ten, which by itself wasn’t unusual. But they also won the Rose Bowl and that was outside the norm—in fact, for current head coach Bo Schembecler it was unprecedented.
Outside, the world of the “Bluebloods”, Florida State showed that their run to the Orange Bowl in 1979 was no fluke, by doing it again this year and this time matching up much better with Oklahoma. And Pitt, with a who’s who of future NFL talent up and down its lineup, made a run at the top and settled for the #2 spot in the final polls.
This articles below take you on a season-long run through the seven most consequential teams in college football’s 1980 season:
Texas A&M hadn’t gotten the old Southwest Conference’s Cotton Bowl bid in 18 years. Auburn had the Heisman Trophy winner in Bo Jackson and were looking to vindicate themselves after a disappointing regular season. Here’s a look back at the paths these two future SEC West rivals took through the 1985 college football season, to an ultimate New Year’s Day meeting in Dallas at the 1986 Cotton Bowl.
The Aggies had made a big splash after the 1981 season when they hired Pitt head coach Jackie Sherrill for the then-staggering amount of over $250,000 per year. A&M hadn’t been to a major bowl game since that Cotton Bowl trip following the 1967 season, and in Sherrill’s first three years they went 16-16-1 with no bowl trips. Expectations weren’t any higher for 1985, as they opened the season unranked.
But Sherrill was compiling some explosive talent in the backfield. The top three running backs on the 1985 team—Anthony Toney, Roger Vick and Keith Woodside would each be chosen in the first three rounds of the NFL draft over the next three seasons. Toney’s 845 yards in ’85 was third-best in the run-heavy SWC, while Vick’s 754 was fifth in the conference.
Kevin Murray would be the SWC’s best quarterback, leading the league in passing yards (1,965), completion percentage (59%) and yards-per-attempt (7.8). His 251 pass attempts were the most of any conference quarterback, and the primary target was Jeff Nelson, whose 51 catches and 651 yards both led the league.
The Aggie defense was anchored by All-American linebacker Johnny Holland, and defensive back Kip Corrington intercepted five passes in ’85.
Texas A&M got a stiff test to the open the year, as Alabama came to College Station. The Tide were ranked 20th at the time and ended the season 8-2-1. When the Aggies lost 23-10, it seemed like another mediocre year was at hand. Beating UL-Monroe and Tulsa, then escaping lowly Texas Tech 28-27, didn’t change that impression.
The offense unleashed against another bad team in Houston, a 43-16 blowout, but the good vibes from that win were quickly given back in a 20-15 loss at 14th-ranked Baylor. The Aggies blew out Rice, an SWC team at the time and the perennial cellar-dweller. If nothing else, Texas A&M at least looked on track for some sort of bowl invitation as the record stood at 5-2 going into November.
Baylor was setting the pace in the SWC with a 5-0 conference record, while Texas A&M joined Arkansas, Texas and SMU at 3-1. The Aggies came with SMU on November 2 would start the filtering out process.
A&M pulled out a 19-17 win and headed into a bye week. On November 9, Arkansas did everyone a favor by beating Baylor. There were now four teams with one league loss and the Aggies still had two of them—Arkansas and Texas—coming up.
The home game with Arkansas was under the lights, and the A&M defense forced four turnovers. Murray threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Vick and they held a 10-0 lead deep into the fourth quarter. The Razorbacks got a touchdown with three minutes left, but the critical two-point conversion was stopped and the Aggies closed out a 10-6 win.
Now it was a three-way tie for first. Texas A&M took care of business at TCU with a 53-6 rout. The Baylor-Texas game was the same day and the Aggies desperately needed a Longhorn win. That’s what they got. The race was now a dead heat between Texas & Texas A&M and they were going to play in College Station on Thanksgiving Night.
It was the first time since 1943 this great rivalry game had a Cotton Bowl trip on the line. Texas got the ball and got a nice drive going early, getting to a 1st-and-goal on the 4-yard line. Texas A&M’s defense came up with a goal-line stand.
The momentum shift was dramatic and a tidal wave pushed the Aggies forward. Vick ran for 92 yards, Toney ran for 79 more and the rout began immediately following the defensive stand. Texas A&M won 42-10 and that big contract to Sherrill was at last vindicated. They were going to the Cotton Bowl ranked #11 in the nation.
Pat Dye had revived the Auburn program and they had just missed a national title in 1983. The Tigers came out in 1984 as the preseason #1 team, but disappointed with a four-loss season, including a loss to Alabama that cost them a Sugar Bowl trip. Jackson was now in his senior year and expectations were again high, as Auburn was ranked #2 to start the season.
Jackson would live up to his billing. He rushed for nearly 1,800 yards, 17 touchdowns and even with his heavy workload, still averaged 6.4 yards-per-attempt, third-best in the SEC. Bo won the Heisman Trophy in one of the closest votes in history, edging out Iowa quarterback Chuck Long.
When Jackson did need a breather, Brent Fullwood came in and rushed for 684 yards, including an SEC-best 7.4 yards-per-attempt. Tommie Agee, a tough between-the-tackles runner, added 400 more.
All these horses in the backfield were necessary, because Auburn could not throw the football. Pat Washington only attempted 122 passes for the season, only completed 46 percent and only got 6.3 yards-per-attempt off those throws.
The Auburn defense had some ballhawks in the secondary, with Tom Powell and Kevin Porter combining for eleven interceptions. Punter Lewis Colbert got some All-American support. Even without the passing game, Dye’s formula of an explosive running attack, opportunistic defense and strong punting game could win games.
Auburn opened with a rout of UL-Lafayette and then beat a pretty good Southern Miss team 29-18. Oklahoma, the preseason #1 team, didn’t open its season until September 28, and Auburn elevated to the top spot by the time they went to Tennessee on that day.
Things came undone in Knoxville. The Vols were unranked, but this was a program much like Texas A&M—they had made a big splash when they hired a former Pitt coach, in this case Johnny Majors, and 1985 was the year they were ready to cash in. But the time the bowls were over, Tennessee would be a top five team, and their coming out party was this game, a 38-20 rout that sent Auburn plummeting to #14.
The Tigers bounced back with a 41-0 win over a subpar Ole Miss team and then traveled to play Florida State. The Seminoles were on their way to an 8-3 season and this game would be Auburn’s best of the season.
Bo got the party started early in the game with a 53-yard touchdown run. He would rush for 176 yards on the day and would add a 35-yard scoring jaunt. Auburn led 31-27 in the fourth quarter and then simply blew it open. The defense scored twice on Pick-6’s, the final was 59-27 and it vaulted them back into the national Top 10.
A tough 17-14 victory at a good Georgia Tech team was next, then a 21-9 win at home against mediocre Mississippi State. The start of November brought Florida to town. The Gators were on probation, but ranked #2 in the nation. Auburn lost 21-10, effectively ending their SEC title hopes.
They bounced back with a 35-10 rout of lowly East Carolina and then went to Athens to meet 12th-ranked Georgia. The Bulldogs were still hoping to edge out Tennessee for the Sugar Bowl berth, and had the third-ranked rush defense in the nation. It would be strength on strength between the hedges.
Bo had plenty of strength. He ran for 121 yards, including a 67-yard touchdown run. The Tiger defense stopped Georgia on fourth down four times, all in scoring territory. Auburn forced four turnovers and blocked a field goal. They won 24-10 and were #7 in the polls.
The regular season still ended on a bad note. Auburn lost to Alabama 25-23 on a last-second field goal and only the fact that bowl bids were locked up in advance of the regular season ending in those days, got the Tigers to the Cotton Bowl. But it was a needed chance for redemption. They had ended the regular season at #16, had lost to their archrival, but could still get a major bowl victory if they played well in Dallas.
It started well for Auburn. Jackson scored on a five-yard touchdown run, then caught a swing pass from Washington and went 73 yards for a score. But Murray was playing exceptionally well, and would end up throwing for 292 yards, then a Cotton Bowl record. Texas A&M led 21-14 going into the fourth quarter.
With twelve minutes left, the sequence of plays for which this game is remembered went down. Auburn had first-and-goal on the six-yard line. Three straight times, Jackson took the ball, but was only able to get to the two-yard line. Dye called his number one more time. And one more time, he was stuffed.
Much like their season finale with Texas, the Aggies took over a game after a goal-line stand, albeit much later in this case. They scored two more touchdowns and for good measure, stopped Bo on fourth down one more time. The final was 36-16.
It was the first of three straight Cotton Bowl trips for Texas A&M, and the first of two wins in their conference’s showcase bowl game. Neither Auburn nor Bo were going anywhere either. The latter would become a two-sport legend with both the Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Raiders before a hip injury ended his career. And Dye would keep Auburn in contention and in major bowls in the years ahead.
Boston College had a magical year in the 1984 college football season, one whose biggest moment lives on as perhaps the most famous sports play of the modern era. It would be a stretch to call Houston’s year magical, but the Cougars had a lot break right for them on the way to a Southwest Conference title. BC and Houston came together on January 1 at the 1985 Cotton Bowl. Here’s a look back on the paths each team took to Dallas…
Doug Flutie was coming into his senior year at quarterback and in 1984 he was outstanding in every way for BC. Flutie completed 58 percent of his passes, an extremely good number in this era, especially considering how often the offense threw the ball. He finished with over 3,600 passing yards and a dazzling 30/13 TD-INT ratio. He was fully deserving of his landslide Heisman Trophy selection.
Gerald Phelan would catch Flutie’s most famous pass and Phelan caught a lot more, leading the team with 71 catches and 1,065 receiving yards. Troy Stradford was a solid threat running the football with 862 yard and 5.2 yards a pop. Stradford was also skilled coming out of the backfield as a receiver with 41 catches for over 400 yards.
The Eagle defense was led by All-American defensive back Tony Thurman. They weren’t an overwhelmingly talented team, but this was a program with momentum under head coach Jack Bicknell. He’d gotten them to bowl games in 1982-83, the first time in over forty years and now was aiming for a return to New Year’s Day. BC was ranked #19 coming into the season.
BC opened with a 44-24 tuneup win over Western Carolina and then traveled to play Alabama in a prime-time battle. The Crimson Tide were now two years removed from the leadership of the legendary Bear Bryant, but expectations were still high and ‘Bama was ranked #9.
Boston College dug themselves a 31-14 hole in the third quarter, including giving up a 99-yard kickoff return. Then Flutie started his Heisman campaign in earnest. He ran for one touchdown and threw for another. He completed 19/38 passes for 254 yards. The Eagles won the turnover battle 6-2 and eventually pulled even 31-31. Stradford won the game with 42-yard touchdown jaunt with 3:26 left.
The 38-31 win vaulted BC to #10. This wouldn’t be a very good Tide team by the time all was said and done, as they finished 5-6. But it was a huge marquee win for the Eagles and with top teams falling left and right in the early part of 1984, Boston College was up to #4 by the time they played another game two weeks later.
BC then started a run of games against teams that would win between five and seven games. The Eagles blew out North Carolina 52-20 and got by Temple 24-10. But a road trip to West Virginia resulted in the first loss, a 21-20 nailbiter that pushed Boston College down to #11 in the rankings.
A 35-23 win over Rutgers followed, but BC gave it right back when they went to Penn State, where Joe Paterno was struggling with one of his worst teams to date, and lost 37-30. Bearing Army 45-31 and then knocking off Syracuse 24-16, in a game played in Foxboro, got Boston College back on track and had them ranked #10 with the season finale in Miami.
It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and from the BC standpoint, there wasn’t a lot on the line. Heisman ballots were usually turned in by this time and it’s impossible to suggest that Flutie’s hold on the trophy would be impacted by this game. Boston College had already accepted a bid to the Cotton Bowl. For a game that was meaningless, it proved to be as meaningful as you could imagine.
Flutie and Miami counterpart Bernie Kosar put on a passing display for the ages. Flutie threw for 472 yards, while Kosar threw for 447. Over the last quarter-plus there were six lead changes. The fifth of those changes came on a Hurricane touchdown with 28 seconds left that put them on top 45-41. BC got the ball back on their own 20, pushed to midfield and had time for one play.
What happened next became one of the most popular highlights of all-time. Flutie dropped back, launched the ball towards the end zone. Amidst a sea of bodies in the end zone, Phelan caught the pass. It was “The Magic Flutie” and it resulted in a 47-45 win, a lasting legend for both Flutie and Phelan.
Houston had joined the Southwest Conference prior to the 1976 season and under the direction of head coach Bill Yeoman, won the league’s Cotton Bowl bid three times in the next four years and went 2-1 in those games. The previous four years had seen a slippage—the Cougars only reached two bowl games from 1980-83 and coming off a 4-7 season, there was no reason to think 1984 would mark a turnaround.
The team’s best player was All-American tight end Carl Hilton, who caught 38 passes for 517 yards, but otherwise the personnel was fairly pedestrian. Quarterback Gerald Landry completed 48 percent of his passes for 6.4 yards-per-attempt, both numbers around the middle of an SWC that few quarterbacks that could throw the ball effectively.
Wide receiver Larry Sheppard also caught 38 passes, and running back Raymond Tate rushed for 864 yards, third-best in the SWC. Defensive back DeWayne Bowden intercepted six passes. On balance though, it wasn’t a great roster and Houston would never be ranked at any point in the 1984 college football season.
The season began with a 30-17 win over Miami-Ohio, but the Cougars quickly lost to another set of Cougars—those from Washington State, led by future NFL quarterback Mark Rypien, in a 35-7 rout. When Houston dropped a 30-28 decision to woeful Louisville, it looked like another long year was ahead for Yeoman.
Victories over mediocre teams in Baylor (27-17) and Texas A&M (9-7) got the conference schedule off to a good start and then came October 20.
Houston was playing SMU on the road. The Mustangs were ranked #6 in the country, had won the conference in 1982 and finished second in 1983. Houston stunned everyone by blowing the game open, with a 68-yard touchdown pass from Landry to Hilton opening up a 19-point lead. An SMU rally made the score respectable, but the 29-20 win was never in doubt.
The Cougars lost their next two games, falling to Arkansas 17-13 and TCU 21-14, both solid teams that would be in title contention in what was a jam-packed race for Dallas.
As Houston prepared to go to Texas, the Longhorns were leading the way with a 4-0 league mark and a #3 national ranking. TCU was 4-1 in SWC play, while Houston, SMU and Arkansas were all 3-2.
It was fully expected the Cougars would play their way out of the race in Austin on November 10. Instead, the opposite happened. After spotting the Longhorns a 7-0 lead, the Cougars got a field goal back, Landry threw a 79-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Ketchum and Houston built up a 20-17 lead by the fourth quarter.
The Cougars were hawking the ball in the secondary and intercepted five passes on the day. The big one came with the 20-17 lead and Texas driving. Bowden picked one off and took it 62 yards to the house. It was the dagger in a 29-15 win.
Houston had the next week off and watched Texas knock off TCU. It was now the Longhorns still holding the league lead, but a battalion of four two-loss teams (Houston, TCU, Arkansas and SMU) giving chase.
On November 24, Houston didn’t play an impressive game against a subpar Texas Tech team, but they won 24-17. Meanwhile, everything the Cougars could have wished for in the other games broke their way. Texas lost at Baylor. TCU lost at Texas A&M. Even the head-to-head SMU-Arkansas game when Houston’s way—SMU, whom the Cougars held the tiebreaker on, got the win.
It left Houston in a win-and-you’re-in spot for the season finale, and they had the perfect opponent—one of the worst teams in the country in Rice. The Cougars again didn’t dazzle anyone, but they won 38-26. Yeoman had his fourth Cotton Bowl bid and easily his most improbable.
The weather in Dallas on New Year’s Day was blustery and attendance was the lowest for the Cotton Bowl since 1948. Flutie did not play well, completing just 13/37 passes for 180 yards. His teammates had his back though, with Stradford and #2 running back Steve Strachan muscling for almost 300 yards between them.
Boston College built up a 31-14 lead, but a Pick-6 thrown by Flutie got momentum moving in the other direction and the lead was cut to 31-28. In recent years, BC fans had already seen their basketball team lose a big game to Houston—a regional final in the 1982 NCAA Tournament. Now it seemed like a major bowl win might be slipping away.
But the Eagles went back to Stradford and Strachan and pounded their way to an insurance touchdown and then tacked on one more for icing on the cake. Boston College had shown their versatility, winning a big game when their star quarterback was struggling. The 45-28 win gave them to a Top 5 national finish.
Both of these programs have had some special moments since—Houston produced a Heisman Trophy winner in Andre Ware in 1989. Boston College has produced a Super Bowl-winning head coach in Tom Coughlin, several notable national wins and a good NFL quarterback in Matt Ryan. But neither BC, nor Houston, has been on the major bowl stage since their meeting at the 1985 Cotton Bowl.
The 1984 Cotton Bowl was one of the most memorable in the long history of the Dallas-based bowl game. Second-ranked Texas was upset by Georgia in a game that took on even greater significance by the time the night had ended. Here’s a look back on the road the Longhorns and Bulldogs took through the 1983 college football season before arriving in Dallas on January 2.
Georgia had spent each of the previous three years among the national elite. The Bulldogs won it all in 1980 and were close each of the following two years with Herschel Walker in the backfield. But Herschel was gone in ’83 and Georgia started the season ranked #15.
The cupboard wasn’t bare in Athens though. Defensive back Terry Hoage was an All-American and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Freddie Gilbert was a game-changer at defensive end. And though Georgia didn’t throw the ball much, tight end Clarence Kay was a good blocker and would enjoy a solid nine-year career in the NFL with the Denver Broncos.
Head coach Vince Dooley replaced Walker with a running back-by-committee approach, splitting the load between Keith Montgomery, Barry Young and David McCluskey. Quarterback John Lastinger also did some running, as Texas would eventually find out.
As a passer though, Lastinger didn’t bring much to the table. He threw for fewer than 800 yards, completed less than 50 percent of his passes and only averaged 5.8 yards-per-attempt.
Georgia opened the season at home against 20th-ranked UCLA. The led 12-8 in the fourth quarter when the Bruins began driving for the potential game-winning score. Defensive back Charles Dean stepped in front of a Rick Neuheisel throw, intercepted the pass and took it 81 yards to the house, sealing a 19-8 win.
A road trip to Clemson, a nine-win team and two years removed from winning the national championship, resulted in a 16-16 tie, but the Dawgs still nudged up in the polls, now ranked #14. Then they began piling up wins against the soft part of their schedule.
South Carolina, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Temple all were either under .500 or no better than six win-teams. Georgia won them all, with a 20-13 scare at Vandy being the only game that was close. By the time it was done, the calendar was turning to November and Georgia was ranked sixth in the country.
The Dawgs were joined atop the SEC by Auburn, but Florida was right behind, and Georgia would play each team on successive weeks in November.
Florida had the conference’s best passing quarterback in Wayne Peace and the Gators moved the ball, getting inside the Bulldog 25-yard line six times. But those trips netted only three field goals. The Bulldogs got a 51-yard field goal from future NFL kicker Kevin Butler, but still trailed 9-3 when they got the ball on their own one-yard line in the fourth quarter.
Twice in the previous three years, Georgia had beaten Florida by driving 90-plus yards in the fourth quarter. In 1980 it was a lightning strike, a 93-yard touchdown pass. In 1982, it was by repeatedly giving Walker the football. This time it was another long drive, and the Dawgs when the distance, all 99 yards and won 10-9.
Now they were up to #4 and hosted Auburn in a head-to-head showdown that could win Georgia a fourth straight conference title. They didn’t get this one, losing a tough 13-7 decision, but with a 27-24 non-conference win over Georgia Tech to end the season, Georgia was still ranked #7 and destined for Dallas. Not bad for a team on a rebuilding year.
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 while UT beat Alabama in that game, the opportunity was only there because conference champion SMU was on probation. Texas seemed to be slipping and had spent five years chasing either SMU, Houston or Baylor.
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.
Unsurprisingly, the Cotton Bowl was a defensive war. Georgia would punt nine times and get a field goal, but otherwise Texas was able to chip away, with three field goals from Ward. The Longhorn 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.
Georgia resorted to their top weapon of the day—punter Chip Andrews. He kicked another one to return man Craig Curry, who moved under it at his own 23-yard line…and muffed it. The Bulldogs recovered and had new life.
Even so, 23 yards against this defense wasn’t exactly an easy road to travel. Two plays netted six yards. On third down, 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, who would have been the only unbeaten team had they won.
Miami’s win over Nebraska is one of college football’s history moments and a considerable part of its lore came because of what Georgia did to Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
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.
Texas and Alabama are two of college football’s historic programs and they played a memorable game at the 1982 Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day in Dallas. It was a big win for a Longhorn program that needed it, and it was the final major bowl appearance for legendary Crimson Tide head coach Bear Bryant. Here’s a look back on the road both Texas & Alabama traveled through the 1981 college football season to reach January 1 in Dallas.
The Longhorns had been struggling—at least by the standards of a national power since the regular season ended in 1977. Texas had concluded that year, the first season for head coach Fred Akers, undefeated and ranked #1 in the country. They were promptly blown out by Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl and over the next three seasons went 25-11.
Meanwhile, new contenders in the old Southwest Conference were rising. Houston went to consecutive Cotton Bowls and Baylor also reached the league’s showcase bowl game. SMU was moving on up, to say nothing of traditional power Arkansas. The ‘Horns were ranked #9 coming into the 1981 college football season and needed to reverse momentum.
Texas rolled over Rice and then looked sluggish in beating North Texas to start the season, but with upsets going down around the country, the Longhorns still rose to #4 in the polls. They beat Miami, a rising national power with Jim Kelly at quarterback, 14-7 at home. September ended with Texas ranked third in the nation and their traditional rivalry game with Oklahoma was next.
The Sooners would not have a good year in 1981, but they were still ranked #10 when the Red River Rivalry went down on October 10th. And Oklahoma started the game quickly, jumping out to a 14-3 lead at halftime.
Texas wasn’t ideally suited to make a comeback. Rick McIvor only completed 40 percent of his passes, and while the standards of 1981 were considerably different then today, this would still be the worst completion percentage of any quarterback of the ten teams who made major bowl games. Nor did McIvor make up for it with big plays, averaging a mediocre 6.6 yards-per-attempt.
The Longhorns did have a well-balanced rushing attack, with Jam Jones and John Walker each finishing in the top eight of the SWC in rush yardage, running behind an offensive line anchored by All-American tackle Terry Tausch. The defense was led by tackle Kenneth Sims, the best interior lineman in the country and soon-to-be #1 overall pick in the NFL draft.
It was Jones who stepped up and took over the Oklahoma game. He got the ball 36 times and gained 137 yards. Jones scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 14-10 and Texas never stopped. The game turned into a rout, 34-14 and when it was all over the Longhorns were ranked #1 in the country.
But it only last a week. Even though Arkansas would have a fairly average team and lose three league games, Lou Holtz had his Razorbacks ready for this one, and the hung a 42-11 shellacking on Texas. The Longhorns dropped all the way to #10.
SMU was ranked eighth in the country and undefeated when the Longhorns traveled to play the Mustangs. But SMU was also on probation. They could be ranked, and their games counted in the league standings, but the Mustangs were not eligible for the Cotton Bowl. Texas came up with a big 9-7 win, then came home to beat lowly Texas Tech 26-9.
It set up a big prime-time game at the Astrodome against Houston. Both teams, along with Arkansas, were fighting for the Cotton Bowl slot and ideally to do it by finishing ahead of SMU. The Longhorns fell behind the Cougars 14-3 in the fourth quarter. Once again, the team whose offense wasn’t built to come from behind did exactly that.
Walker ran for a touchdown and then threw a pass that converted the two-point play, cutting the lead to three points. With 2:40 left, kicker Raul Allegre, who would eventually kick for the New York Giants, hit a 47-yarder that tied the game 14-14. That’s where it ended. Texas was a game ahead of Houston and Arkansas, and a half-game back of SMU.
SMU’s probation made the end of the season a little anticlimactic. Texas beat up TCU and Baylor easily, the latter struggling to a 5-6 record after winning the conference in a runaway in 1980. When Arkansas lost to SMU it eliminated the Razorbacks. With one week to go, the Longhorns would not catch the Mustangs for the true league championship. But they worst that could happen would be a tie with Houston.
In that case, with head-to-head not able to settle the Cotton Bowl slot, the nod would likely go to Texas anyway, ranked #7 in the polls. Texas didn’t allow it to come to that, beating Texas A&M 21-13 on Thanksgiving and finishing outright in second place behind SMU.
Alabama wasn’t the same loaded team that had won back-to-back national titles in 1978-79. They had slipped a bit in 1980, though they still came to the Cotton Bowl and crushed Baylor. The offense lacked explosiveness. Starting quarterback Walter Lewis only threw 66 passes and the Tide relied on a rushing attack where five different backs, along with Lewis ran for between 300-400 yards on the season.
Defensively, the Tide had two players that got All-American recognition, defensive back Tommy Wilcox and linebacker Tom Boyd. And the respect the Bear commanded still had Alabama ranked fourth to start the season, even as SEC rival and defending national champion Georgia—with much more talent in the cupboard—was ranked tenth.
Alabama opened the season at LSU, though the Tigers weren’t very good at this time and the result was an easy 24-7 win. It moved the Tide to #2. No one could have expected what happened next. Georgia Tech was a terrible team in 1981 and they won only one game. That game was their September 12 visit to Alabama, a 24-21 shocker that shook up the polls (top-ranked Michigan lost the same day). The Tide were down to #10.
Pedestrian victories over bad teams in Kentucky and Vanderbilt followed, and a 38-7 blowout of Ole Miss, another shaky team, lifted ‘Bama to #7. But their second visit outside the SEC went almost as bad as the first. Alabama played Southern Miss, a team that would finish the year with a losing record, to a 13-13 tie and plummeted back to #15.
A game with Tennessee, a pretty good team that would make a bowl game at a time when such was a bigger accomplishment than it is today now loomed even bigger. Alabama got back on track with a 38-19 win. Normally, a non-conference home win over Rutgers wouldn’t mean much, but given the way non-conference games had gone for ‘Bama, this 31-7 victory surely brought relief. It also got them back into the Top 10.
Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi State were all unbeaten in conference play on October 31, and the Tide would host seventh-ranked Mississippi State. One year earlier, MSU, coached by former Bryant assistant Emory Bellard, had upset the Tide. And this game would be another tough battle.
Tough should not be equated with well-played, and there were a combined 13 turnovers. Alabama clung to a 13-10 lead when Bulldog quarterback John Bond suddenly rifled three straight completions for a combined 69 yards and put Mississippi State on the Alabama 9-yard line in the closing seconds. Bond stepped back one more time. This time Wilcox was waiting and his interception at the one-yard line preserved the win.
After a week off, Alabama traveled to face fifth-ranked Penn State, who was still in the national championship picture. History was also in the making. All season long, Bryant’s pursuit of the career victories record held by Amos Alonzo Stagg had been on the front-burner of media coverage. The old head coach was only two wins away…and there were only two games left in the regular season.
The Tide did their coach proud, defeating the Lions with surprising ease, 31-16. The respect Bryant commanded was made apparent when he left the field and Penn State fans crowded around the tunnel to give him an ovation as he left.
It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving that Alabama hosted Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The Tide was playing for at least a share of the SEC title with Georgia. The Tigers were 5-5 and playing for a winning season. To say nothing of the rivalry stakes. But the nation was watching to see if Bear would break the record, and he did with a 28-17 win.
Alabama and Georgia were both unbeaten in league play, and the Tide had to play one more conference game (7-0 vs 6-0), but with winning percentage being tied and the Bulldogs ranked #2, while the Tide were #3, it was Georgia chosen for the Sugar Bowl. Alabama still went to the Cotton Bowl hoping for the right confluence of circumstances to win a national championship.
Those circumstances were that if Alabama could beat Texas, the Tide needed to hope for Georgia to lose to Pitt and #1-ranked Clemson to lose to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Those games would take place in prime-time, while the Cotton Bowl was in the early time slot. So the hope for the Tide was to get a win and then sit back and hope for chaos at night.
For three quarters in Dallas, Alabama looked the part of a team that had a lot on the line, and Texas looked like a team that needed the probation of a rival to be here. The Tide were moving it up and down the field, but couldn’t put the game away. Alan Gray, who shared quarterback time with Lewis killed one drive with a fumble on the Longhorn 15-yard line. Consequently, the score was only 10-0 when the fourth quarter began.
It was fitting end for Texas, in a year where they came from behind to beat Oklahoma and to tie Houston. They “whipped”, to use Bryant’s postgame words, the Crimson Tide in the fourth quarter.
Backup quarterback Robert Brewer got the opportunity here and while he threw for over 200 yards, helping the comeback cause, his biggest play came with his feet. With the lead cut to 10-7, and Texas on the Alabama 30-yard line, Brewer took off on a quarterback draw for a touchdown.
The Tide still rallied, with the final drive starting with a big kickoff return. Longhorn defensive back William Graham led the team with seven interceptions this season and the last one came on the one-yard line to preserve the win. After a voluntary safety by Texas, the game ended 14-12.
Texas ended up rising all the way to #2 in the final polls, after Georgia lost to Pitt (Clemson would beat Nebraska for the national championship). It was the biggest bowl win in Akers’ career, coming as Bryant made his last appearance on the New Year’s stage.
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.
The Houston Cougars and Nebraska Cornhuskers each flirted with greatness during 1979 college football season. Each “settled” for just being really good, at 10-1 before they met on New Year’s Day in the 1980 Cotton Bowl. Let’s look back on the road each team took to Dallas.
Bill Yeoman’s Houston program had already made quite an impact on the Southwest Conference. The joined the league dominated by Texas and Arkansas in 1976 and promptly won the league title and its automatic Cotton Bowl bid twice in three years. Respect was coming—despite having to replace a pair of 1,000-yard rushers, the Cougars were ranked #16 to begin the 1979 season.
The defense was anchored by linebacker David Hodge, who made All-American for the second straight year. Defensive tackle Hosea Taylor was another All-American, as was offensive tackle Melvin Jones on the other side of the ball.
Houston’s quality up front helped ease the backfield transition. Terald King rushed for over 1,000 yards and finished second in the SWC in rushing. John Newhouse was a good second option, finishing seventh in the league in rushing, as quarterback Delrick Brown ran an offense that was moderately conservative by the standards of the era.
The non-conference schedule wasn’t very good, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Houston scheduled a trip to perennial Pac-10 power UCLA, but this turned out to be a down year for the Bruins, as they finished sub-.500. The Cougars won 24-16.
After that they hosted Florida and escaped 15-10. Florida was nowhere near the program is it today, but even by those lower standards, this was a particularly bad team. The Gators went winless, but no one knew that at the time and with their 2-0 start, Houston was moved to #8 in the rankings.
An easy win over West Texas A&M was the last tuneup for league play The opener was a tough 13-10 home win over Baylor, an up-and-comer that would claim the conference one year later. Another three-point win against a decent team followed, 17-14 at Texas A&M. The Cougars were now ranked fifth nationally and promptly blew out SMU.
October 27 sent Houston to play fourth-ranked Arkansas. Despite trailing 10-7 at the half, the Cougar defense went into lockdown mode and they were able to grind out a 13-10 win. Houston was still undefeated going into November.
The following week was a “sandwich game” at woeful TCU, and Houston was unimpressive in a 21-10 win. The other side of the Arkansas-Texas sandwich came next—a trip to Austin, where the Longhorns were ranked ninth, and very much alive in the Cotton Bowl race.
It proved to be a heartbreaker—Houston trailed just 14-13 in the fourth quarter, but Brown threw three interceptions and Texas tacked on a late touchdown to win 21-13. The SWC race was now completely up for grabs—Houston, Texas and Arkansas were in a circular three-way tie, having split amongst each other. The Cotton Bowl would get to choose if it ended that way, and it’s impossible to fathom they would have picked the Cougars.
One week later Houston didn’t play well, surviving a bad Texas Tech team 14-10, but the Coogs got the break they needed—Texas was upset by Texas A&M. Now the conference was a two-way tie and Houston had the tiebreaker on Arkansas. Yeoman’s team took full advantage in crushing lowly Rice 63-0 to secure their Cotton Bowl trip. They entered New Year’s Day ranked eighth.
Nebraska had been a consistent winner since Tom Osborne took over for the legendary Bob Devaney in 1973, but the Cornhuskers had an Oklahoma problem. Osborne lost his first five games to the Sooners. When Nebraska finally beat them and won the Big Eight’s Orange Bowl bid in 1978, they were forced into a rematch with OU—which the Cornhuskers lost decisively.
Osborne had a team that was simultaneously a respected national power, while also seen as Oklahoma’s little brother. Nebraska was ranked #8 to begin the 1979 season.
The running game was what it was about in Lincoln. Jarvis Redwine, a transfer from Oregon State, stepped into the lineup and went over 1,100 yards. He was supported by I.M. Hipp, Andra Franklin and Craig Johnson, who all cleared 500 yards and finished among the Big Eight’s top ten rushers.
When Nebraska wanted to throw, their quarterbacks, Jeff Quinn and Tim Hager, could target the nation’s best tight end in Junior Miller. His seven touchdown catches were easily the Big Eight’s best and in this offensive scheme in this era, his 23 catches marked him a modern-day Antonio Gates.
The Huskers opened the season with a 35-14 win over Utah State and then escaped a road trip to mediocre Iowa, 24-21. They were moved to #6 in time to host a nationally televised game with Penn State at the end of September.
Nebraska started poorly, with Penn State scoring the first two touchdowns, one off a Pick-6. Then the Cornhuskers got down to business. Hager connected with Miller on a short touchdown pass of 11 yards, and then hit the great tight end on a 70-yard scoring strike. Nebraska scored 28 points in the second quarter and never looked back on their way to a 42-17 win.
Even though it wasn’t a great Penn State team—Joe Paterno’s squad was ranked #18 coming in and wouldn’t make a major bowl game—it still qualified as a big-time statement win for Nebraska. They had dominated the Lions on the ground, winning rush yardage 298-160, with Redwine going for 124. When the next polls came out, Nebraska was in the top five.
There were no serious tests in October, blowing through New Mexico State, Kansas and, Oklahoma State and Colorado by a combined score of 173-10. Oklahoma State, on its way to seven wins under first-year coach Jimmy Johnson, was the only one of these teams even remotely capable of being on the same field with the Cornhuskers, who were ranked #2 in the nation by the end of the month.
Nebraska went to Missouri to open November. The Tigers were a pretty good team, and no one needed to persuade Osborne—the previous year, a loss to Mizzou cost the Huskers a chance to play for the national championship. This time Nebraska won, but it wasn’t easy in a 23-20 win. Another fairly close game, this time to a poor team at home—21-12 over Kansas State—resulted in Nebraska slipping to #3 in the polls.
The Cornhuskers blew out Iowa State to set up the season finale with Oklahoma. The Sooners had lost a non-conference game to Texas and were realistically out of the national title race. Nebraska was blocked out by fellow unbeatens Alabama and Ohio State, neither of whom they could possibly play in a bowl game.
It would take an inside straight to finish #1, but there was still an undefeated season and the not-so-small matter of simply beating Oklahoma still on the line when Nebraska went to Norman on November 24.
After taking an early 7-0 lead, the game proved to be the same-old, same-old when it came to facing Oklahoma. The Cornhusker defense, lacking All-American talent, was overrun by OU’s star running back Billy Sims. Nebraska trailed 17-7 with less than five minutes left when they scored on a trick “fumblerooski” play, where Quinn took the snap, set the ball on the ground and an offensive lineman picked up and ran for a touchdown. But the game ended at 17-14 and Nebraska settled for a Cotton Bowl date with Houston.
The Cotton Bowl itself was a good tough football game on a sunny day in Dallas. Houston led 10-7 in the fourth quarter, but a fumble on their own 31-yard line set up a Nebraska touchdown with less than four minutes left. The Cougars had lost a crusher here a year ago to Notre Dame and seemed poised to lose another heartbreaker in their league’s signature bowl game.
What’s more, Brown was out and backup quarterback Terry Elston had the task of mounting a drive against Nebraska. Elston ended up an unlikely hero. He led the team gradually down the field and faced a fourth-and-goal on the six-yard line. For the second straight year, the Cotton Bowl was coming down to one final pass into the end zone.
Wide receiver Eric Herring was well-covered and Nebraska had everyone blanketed. Elston took a chance and rifled it toward Herring. It caromed off a defender and into Herring’s hands for a 17-14 win.
The win was the high point of Yeoman’s tenure—he had also won the Cotton Bowl two years earlier, but beating Nebraska had more cache than knocking off Maryland. For Nebraska, it just added to the close-but-not-quite trend that would trail them for another fifteen years.
The 1978 Cotton Bowl was the lynchpin to a dramatic turn of events that saw the polls turned upside down on January 2, as Notre Dame stunned top-ranked Texas and ended up vaulting from #5 all the way to a national championship by night’s end.
The regular season of 1977 was the third year for Notre Dame head coach Dan Devine and he was feeling the pressure, as the first two seasons had not produced a major bowl berth. Devine would in fact give serious thought to resigning throughout the year.
If your job is going to be on the line there are worse quarterbacks to have than Joe Montana, and that’s who Devine relied on. The junior QB had an All-American target in tight end Ken McAfee, who finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. Jerome Heavens ran for a nearly 1,000 yards, and the defense was led by Ross Browner, the end who had won the Outland Trophy in 1976 and made All-American all again this season.
The Irish opened the season ranked third in the nation and they opened by going on the road todefending nationalchampion Pitt and winning 19-9. That’s not as impressive as it might look on first glance though—Pitt had already lost its Heisman Trophy runner, Tony Dorsett, to the NFL and its head coach, Johnny Majors, to Tennessee. Early in this game they lost quarterback Matt Cavanaugh to a broken wrist and in handing ND seven turnovers, all but gifted the Irish this win.
Notre Dame’s flaws were quickly laid bare in a 20-13 loss at Ole Miss the following week that dropped them to #11. After three straight wins, including one over a pretty good Michigan State team, Notre Dame was still on #11 and hosted fifth-ranked USC.
It would prove to be the defining game of the Devine era. To the surprise of the players, green jerseys were in their locker room. The green created an eruption of emotion on the team and then with the crowd. Montana threw a pair of touchdowns to McAfee and ran for two more. The final was 49-19, Notre Dame was up to #5 in the polls and their season was back on track.
The Irish closed out the season with five straight wins, including a tough 21-17 win at eight-win Clemson. Notre Dame was still at #5 when they got the invitation to go to Dallas for New Year’s.
Texas faced uncharacteristically low expectations when the 1977 season began. Legendary head coach Darrell Royal had retired, and the program was coming off a .500 season. They had not reached a major bowl game since 1973 and were clearly losing ground to archrival Oklahoma, who had won a pair of recent national titles.
Fred Akers was hired to replace Royal and changed the offense from the wishbone to a single-back I-formation. It proved to be a boon for Earl Campbell. The senior running back had struggled to fulfill his immense potential as the fullback in the option. As the single back in the I, Campbell ran for over 1,700 yards, won the Heisman Trophy and became one of the truly great running backs of all time.
Texas had another big award-winner on defense, as defensive tackle Brad Shearer won the Outland Trophy, meaning the ’78 Cotton Bowl would feature each of the last two Outland winners in Shearer and Browner. Russell Erxleben was an All-American punter and also one of the best kickers in the country.
It was the running game, defense and kicking game for Texas, which is a good thing, because they weren’t going to beat anyone throwing the football. Randy McEachern opened the season as the third-stringer and threw only 89 passes for the entire season.
The Longhorns opened the season unranked, but in their first three games, they scored 184 points in blasting bad opponents and quickly vaulted to #8. It was time for their annual battle with Oklahoma, who was undefeated and ranked #2.
Texas’ starting quarterback at the time was Mark McBath. Seven plays into the game he was injured and lost for the season. The backup was Jon Aune. Nine plays later he was injured and lost for the season. McEachern was up. He played well enough to win, which is to say he gave the ball to Campbell.
Earl ran for 124 yards against a great defense, and his 24-yard touchdown run broke a 3-3 tie and was the key play of the game. The second-biggest play came from Shearer. Texas held a 13-6 lead, but OU reached the five-yard line with four minutes left. On 4th-and-1, Shearer stuffed Sooner quarterback Thomas Lott.
Texas moved to #2 in the country, behind only Michigan. The Longhorns had no time to worry about the polls because eighth-ranked Arkansas, their prime competition for the championship of the old Southwest Conference—and the automatic bid to the Cotton Bowl—were up next.
Erxleben nailed field goals from 58 & 52 yards. His counterpart, Steve Little, who would get the nod for All-American, hit a 67-yarder for Arkansas and the Razorbacks eventually led 9-6. But Campbell was too much. He ran for 188 yards, and his running helped set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Ham Jones with four minutes left. Jones was one of three brothers on the Texas team who went by the nicknames of Ham, Lam and Jam.
One week later, Michigan lost and Texas moved to the top of the polls. They won their final six games without incident, including over good teams in Texas Tech and Texas A&M. The Longhorns were the odds-on favorite to wrap up a national championship in Dallas on January 2.
It was set to be a great holiday weekend in the Lone Star State, The Dallas Cowboys had won the NFC Championship on New Year’s Day Sunday. Now Texas had to follow suit. But no one, not even the biggest Notre Dame optimist, could have predicted what would happen next.
Texas had a nightmarish game, turning the ball over six times, with almost all the damage coming in the second quarter. Heavens and Vagas Ferguson combined for a huge day for Notre Dame, going over 200 yards rushing. The score was 28-10 by halftime and shockingly ended 38-10.
The game was the first step to chaos in the national title picture. No one was left undefeated, though Oklahoma would have easily been anointed if they had won the Orange Bowl. But the Sooners were blown out by Arkansas. Michigan, ranked #4, lost the Rose Bowl. Of the favorites, only third-ranked Alabama held serve, hammering Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.
It was either Notre Dame or Alabama for the national championship. The Irish, on the strength of blowing out the consensus #1 team, shot past the Crimson Tide and were voted national champs.
Upstarts crashed the 1977 Cotton Bowl. The Houston Cougars were in the first year of the old Southwest Conference, which had the bowl’s automatic bid. Rather than pay deference to legendary coaches in Texas’ Darrell Royal and Arkansas’ Frank Broyles, both in their final year, Houston quickly won the league. Their opponent was Maryland, who rose up to enjoy an undefeated season. Here’s how they arrived in Dallas following the 1976 college football season.
Bill Yeoman had taken over the Houston program in 1962, and after nine straight winning seasons, the Cougars fell to 2-8 in 1975. Nothing suggested a turnaround was in the offing. They were unranked to start the year. An opening day road win over what would prove to be a pretty good Baylor team was promising, but the Cougars promptly lost 49-14 at Florida on September 18.
September 25 was what gave Houston fans real hope that this year would be different. They hosted ninth-ranked Texas A&M. The Aggies had a terrific running back in George Woodward, who would average 144 yards-per-game this season. Houston shut him down.
The Cougar defensive front was led by Wilson Whitley, who won the Lombardi Award and would go #8 overall in the coming spring’s NFL draft. Houston won the game 21-10, then blew out West Texas A&M two weeks later to move into the Top 20.
Houston thumped SMU, but then dropped a tough 14-7 decision at home to Broyles and Arkansas. The loss sent the Cougars back out of the polls. They began another climb and this time they didn’t stop.
The Cougar running game was led by Alois Blackwell, who rushed 934 yards and they had a ballhawking defensive back in Anthony Francis, who intercepted ten passes. Houston blasted winless TCU to move into the polls and then opened everyone’s eyes when they went into Austin and shut out Texas 30-0. It’s true that was not a vintage Longhorn team for Royals’ final year—they went 5-5-1—but beating Texas in any era is significant and certainly a road shutout in the mid-1970s.
It set up Houston’s biggest game, at unbeaten and fifth-ranked Texas Tech on November 20. The winner would hold the inside track to the Cotton Bowl. Cougar quarterback Danny Davis was often erratic—even by the standards of the era, his 47.8% completion rate was low, but he led an offense that put up 27 points in Lubbock. Houston led 27-19 late in the game and an interception killed a final Red Raider drive.
The victory moved Houston to #7 in the polls and they took care of three-win Rice a week later to sew up the Cotton Bowl spot. A non-conference home win over Miami, 21-16, had the Cougars ranked #6 when New Year’s Day arrived.
Maryland was a program that head coach Jerry Claiborne had moving up, with a 25-10-1 record in the coach’s first three years in College Park. All three years had resulted in bowl appearances, but the Terps had yet to play on the New Year’s stage. They opened the 1976 season ranked #12.
The Terrapins opened with seven games that were relatively easy. Villanova, then playing Division I football, was the only one of the seven to finish with a winning record, and Maryland won all seven games. They elevated from #12 to #5 in the process.
Maryland, like Houston, was led by a great defensive tackle. Joe Campbell was an All-American and would be chosen one spot ahead of Whitley in the coming NFL draft. The Terps also had two excellent guards in Ed Fulton and Tom Shick, and tackle Dave Conrad rounded out a very good offensive line. The line cleared the way for fullback Tim Wilson, running back Alvin Maddox, and running quarterback Mark Manges.
The biggest game of the year wasn’t an ACC opponent—it was a home date with Kentucky, the place Claiborne had gone to school and would eventually return to coach in 1982. The Wildcats would finish the season 7-4, and had beaten ranked teams in Penn State and LSU. Kentucky came to College Park on October 30 and Maryland answered the bell with a 24-14 win.
Claiborne’s team followed that up with a win over eight-win Cincinnati, and then shut out Clemson and Virginia. It put a lock on not just an ACC title and not just a Cotton Bowl bid, but an undefeated season.
Maryland was ranked #4, but had no real chance at the national championship. Another undefeated upstart out of the East, the Pitt Panthers, were ranked #1 and in the Sugar Bowl. If Pitt lost, the polls would surely crown the winner of Michigan-USC in the Rose Bowl, the two teams immediately behind Pitt in the rankings. Neither were undefeated, but the Terps simply lacked the respect and the weakness of the ACC at this time didn’t help.
There might not have been a national title to settle in Dallas, but the winner of this game would end up in the Top 5 of the final polls, a much better neighborhood than either team was accustomed to.
The weather was ice cold in Dallas, and it was Houston who came out and struck very quickly. After a touchdown drive, the Cougars blocked a punt to set up another quick score. Then they recovered a fumble and scored again. It was 21-0 and all three touchdowns had come within a 5 ½ minute span.
But Maryland stormed back. Manges ran for a touchdown in the second quarter. Houston answered that one, but missed the extra point. In the third quarter, Manges both ran and threw for a touchdown and now it was 27-21. Houston was backed up on their own goal line in the fourth quarter facing third and long. Davis made one of the biggest throws of the season, converting the first down. Later in the drive, on 4th-and-1, Yeoman went for it, and it kept a drive for a clinching field goal alive.
Houston won 30-21, keyed by Blackwell going for two touchdowns and over 160 yards against a defense that hadn’t allowed a rushing touchdown for 22 quarters coming into the game. The Cougars got into the Top 5, finishing fourth in the final poll.