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.