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:
Two storied programs and two legendary coaches battled for a national championship at the 1986 Orange Bowl. . Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma program was looking for its first ring since going back-to-back in 1974-75. Penn State and Joe Paterno were undefeated and seeking their second national title in four years. Let’s take a look back at the paths the Sooners and Nittany Lions took through the 1985 college football season before meeting in Miami on New Year’s Night.
Oklahoma entered the season coming off a loss in the Orange Bowl, a defeat to Washington when the Sooners were ranked #2 and hoping to make their case to voters for the top spot. They came into a new season with a fresh offensive approach.
Thanks to a talented sophomore quarterback named Troy Aikman, Switzer was ready to move past his beloved wishbone offense and go with a more pro-style set. Aikman had a good target in future NFL tight end Keith Jackson and talented running backs that started with Lydell Carr and Leon Perry.
But it was the defense that drove the 1985 Oklahoma Sooners. Defensive tackle Tony Casillas won the Lombardi Award as the nation’s best lineman on either side of the ball. There were two All-Americans at linebacker, the legendary Brian Bosworth, along with Kevin Murphy. Sonny Brown was an aggressive defensive back, who picked off five passes.
Whatever offense they ran, the Sooners were going to be built on defense. And that would prove to save them in a season that took an unexpected turn at the midway point.
Oklahoma opened as the preseason #1, but didn’t play their first game until September 28, by which point they were #2. The first game at Minnesota was a tough 13-7 win, although this was a pretty good Golden Gopher team, coached by Lou Holtz, and good enough to get him the Notre Dame job at season’s end.
OU then crushed woeful Kansas State 41-6 and got set for the annual Red River Rivalry game with Texas. The Longhorns were ranked #17, and the Sooners only had one win and one tie against their rival in the previous six years. When Casillas sprained a knee and was lost for the rest of the game after three plays, it seemed like more bad luck was at hand.
Oklahoma took a 7-0 lead, but a fumble by Carr deep in their own end was returned 12 yards for a touchdown and it was tied 7-7. Early in the fourth quarter, speedy Patrick Collins took a pitch from Aikman and went 42 yards for a touchdown.
With the Sooner defense holding the Longhorns to just 70 yards of total offense, the 14-7 lead was more than enough. That’s how it ended, though the close nature of the game, Oklahoma slipped to #3 in the polls.
Casillas came back, but the Sooners soon had bigger injury problems. They hosted unranked Miami the week after the Texas game. Aikman broke his ankle in a 27-14 loss. There were no other quarterbacks who could run a pro-set offense. Switzer went back to his roots, re-installed the wishbone and plucked freshman quarterback Jamelle Holieway off the bench to run it.
Holieway, even playing a shortened season, ran for 862 yards, and his first game was a 59-14 win over an Iowa State team that won five games in 1985. The Sooners blew out another .500 team in Kansas, 48-6. OU crushed lowly Missouri 51-0 and shut out seven-win Colorado 31-0. The Sooners had found an identity, they were up to #5 in the polls and second-ranked Nebraska was coming to Norman.
Early in the game, OU was backed up on their own 12-yard line. They dialed up the tight end reverse and Jackson rumbled 88 yards for a touchdown. Nebraska drove down to the Sooner 6-yard line, but the defense stiffed, the Cornhuskers missed a field goal and Oklahoma was never challenged from that point forward.
Holieway took off on a 43-yard option run for a second quarter touchdown. It was 17-0 by the half and the lead grew to 27-0. Nebraska’s only touchdown came with 26 seconds left, and it was a fumble return. The dominance of the Oklahoma defense was complete and they were up to #3 in the polls.
The late start of the season meant there were still two more games and neither one would be easy. Oklahoma State and SMU each had winning teams in 1985. But the Sooner defense shut down #17 Oklahoma State and their explosive running back Thurman Thomas, winning the Bedlam Rivalry game 13-0. OU closed out the year with a 35-13 win over the Mustangs. They were still ranked #3 heading into the Orange Bowl.
After winning the national title in 1982, Penn State had slipped off the radar for two years. They went 8-4-1 in 1983 and then a 6-5 season in 1984 resulted in no bowl appearance.
The Lions would revitalize themselves with defense. Shane Conlan, a future NFL mainstay with the Buffalo Bills, was the latest outstanding linebacker in Happy Valley. Michael Zordich was an All-American safety and played for twelve years at the next level.
All the defense was necessary, but Penn State had a serious lack of firepower on offense. John Shaffer only threw for 1,366 yards, only completed 45 percent of his passes and only generated six yards per pass attempt. And he threw ten interceptions. None of his targets even mustered 300 yards receiving on the season.
D.J. Dozier was talented running back and ran for 723 yards but Penn State was clearly to win with defense. They opened the season ranked #18.
The first game was at Maryland, where the Terps were ranked #7, would ultimately win the ACC and were hungry to win this rivalry game, with the Lions having won 20 straight in the series.
It was 100 degrees on the field and the Penn State defense set the early tone. On the second play, Zordich picked off a Stan Gelbaugh pass and went 32 yards to the house. The Lions built up a 17-0 lead by the second quarter.
This was a Maryland team that had set an NCAA record the previous November when they rallied from 31-0 down to beat Miami 42-40 and the Terrapins came back again here, taking an 18-17 in the third quarter. But the Lions never let Gelbaugh get going, holding him to 12/28 for 167 yards. Penn State scraped out a field goal and then forced a turnover on their side of the field in the final minute to preserve a 20-18 win.
Penn State narrowly escaped a bad Temple team 27-25, and then had pedestrian 17-10 wins over poor opposition in East Carolina and Rutgers. It was hardly inspiring, but through attrition, they had moved up to #8 in the rankings when Alabama came to town.
The Tide was ranked #10 and ultimately finished the season 8-2-1. Penn State clung to a 12-10 lead when Shaffer was briefly knocked out, just in time for a critical 3rd-and-1 play on the Alabama 11-yard line. Matt Knizer came off the bench. Paterno called for a bootleg and Knizer took it around the end for a touchdown. It was the difference in the 19-17 win that moved the Lions to #6.
Penn State hosted decent teams in Syracuse and West Virginia and consecutive 27-0 wins were the result, pushing the Nittany Lions up to #3. They hosted Boston College, on a down season after the departure of Doug Flutie. Penn State barely escaped again, 16-12, but moved to #2. And after their 31-10 win at mediocre Cincinnati, the rise to the top of the polls was complete.
Paterno closed the year out with easy wins over Notre Dame & Pitt, 36-6 and 31-0, in each case against a team that needed the game for a winning season. The close nature of a lot of Penn State’s games didn’t give them a ton of national respect, but no one else had run the gauntlet without a loss and they were #1 in the country for the Orange Bowl.
The stakes for Penn State were simple—win and claim a title. For Oklahoma, it was more complex. Miami was nestled in between the two Orange Bowl opponents at #2. The Hurricanes had the head-to-head win over the Sooners, but the hype building up to the Orange Bowl suggested that if Oklahoma could take down the nation’s only unbeaten team, they were highly likely to vault the Hurricanes in at least one poll and possibly both.
Penn State surprised everyone when they came out, marched down the field and put it in the end zone on the first possession, grabbing a 7-0 lead. But that was it for the Lion offense. Their defense put up a noble fight, but without any support, Oklahoma just kept coming.
The Sooners got a field goal in the second quarter and then it was time for another big play from Jackson. After faking the option run, Holieway quickly dropped back and saw his tight end open down the middle. The 71-yard touchdown strike gave OU a lead it never relinquished.
They added two more field goals in the second quarter, before Penn State got a field goal back and made it 16-10 at the half. Oklahoma nudged the lead back out to 19-10 and every time the Lions seemed ready to get back in the game, the OU defense made a play. They intercepted Shaffer four times, winning the turnover battle 5-1. The coup de grace came late in the game when Carr rumbled 61 yards for one final touchdown in a 25-10 win.
As the game progressed, the news of what was going on in New Orleans furthered the excitement in the stadium. Miami was being routed by Tennessee, and it ended 35-7. NBC play-by-play man Don Criqui, calling the Orange Bowl, was saying unequivocally by the third quarter, “This game is for the national championship.”
And so it was. Switzer got his third ring. Aikman saw the writing on the wall and transferred to UCLA. It worked out well for everyone, as Aikman got better preparation for the NFL then he would have at OU. And Holieway kept running the Sooner wishbone to perfection, leading them to Orange Bowls in each of the next two years, although the inability to beat Miami in each year couldn’t be overcome.
As for Penn State, they too had a future ahead of them—they went undefeated again in 1986, went to the Fiesta Bowl and won the national championship over Miami in one of the great college football games ever played.
Washington and Oklahoma each came to the 1985 Orange Bowl with hopes of getting a national championship if they won impressively and got some help. Even though that’s not how it turned out, the Huskies and Sooners gave the country a good game on New Year’s Night. Here’s a look back on the road they each traveled through the 1984 college football season.
Don James had turned the Washington program into one of significance, earning three Rose Bowl bids (1977, 1980, 1981) in a Pac-10 long dominated by USC and UCLA. The Huskies had come up short of New Year’s Day each of the last two years, settling for Aloha Bowl trips both years. It didn’t seem like 1984 would be the year they returned to the New Year’s stage.
Hugh Millen was fairly mediocre at quarterback. The 52% completion rate and 6.1 yards-per-attempt weren’t bad by the standards of the time, but he only threw for 1,051 yards and the TD-INT ratio was 5-9. No receiver put up any notable numbers. Jacque Robinson was a good running back, and his 901 yards were fourth in the conference, but the Huskies weren’t going to win a scoring race with anybody.
Nor were they bursting at the seams with defensive talent. Vestee Jackson, who would eventually have an eight-year run with the Chicago Bears, was a talented cornerback, but other than that, Washington had to win with coaching, discipline and execution.
They opened the season ranked #18 and shutout Northwestern 26-0 to get the year started. The Huskies then paid a visit to Ann Arbor, where Michigan was ranked #3. Washington’s opportunistic style made the difference. They intercepted Wolverine quarterback Jim Harbaugh three times and got five turnovers in all. Leading 10-3 in the third quarter, Millen hit Mark Pattison on a 73-yard touchdown pass to break the game open.
Washington won 20-11 and even though this would prove to be a disappointing Michigan team, one that would go 6-5, the glow of this win had the Huskies zooming up to #9 in the polls.
A 35-7 victory over soon-to-be SWC co-champ Houston followed and Washington then beat Miami-Ohio 53-7 and got by lowly Oregon State 19-7. Washington’s perfect record, combined with chaos at the top of the polls had them suddenly sitting at #2 in the country. On October 13, the Huskies blew out mediocre Stanford 37-15 while Texas and Oklahoma—the teams directly ahead and behind them in the rankings—played to a tie. Washington was now ranked #1.
James’ team won a pedestrian 17-10 decision over an average Oregon team and they beat a pretty good Arizona club 28-12. The Huskies concluded their three-game homestand by beating up two-win Cal 44-14. The stage was set for November 10 at Southern Cal.
USC was ranked #14, thanks to an early loss to LSU, but the Trojans were undefeated in league play. No one else was close enough to catch either Washington or USC, so the winner of this game would clinch the Rose Bowl spot. Washington couldn’t get anything going offensively the entire day, fell behind and their passing game problems were exposed in a 16-7 loss. They slipped to #8.
The Huskies were still in the mix for a major bowl bid even if it wouldn’t be Pasadena. The traditional season finale with Washington State wouldn’t be easy. The Cougars had six wins, they had the Pac-10 MVP in running back Reuben Mayes and quarterback Mark Rypien would one day star at the Washington on the other side of the country—with the Redskins, where he was a Super Bowl MVP.
James had his team ready to go though and they played a good offensive game, winning 38-29 and nudging their way back to #4 for the Orange Bowl.
Oklahoma, after being one of the nation’s top three programs in the 1970s (along with USC and Alabama), had slid backward the past three years. The Sooners lost four games each year from 1981-93 and were only ranked #16 to begin 1984.
The talent base wasn’t as dazzling as previous OU editions had been. The only All-American was defensive tackle Tony Casillas. Lydell Carr’s 694 yards led the team and the passing game was as inept as one would expect from a traditional option-first offense.
Danny Bradley only completed 48 percent of his passes, though he did get a decent 7.3 yards-per-pass, thanks to a big-play threat in future NFL tight end Keith Jackson.
Oklahoma beat Stanford 19-7 to start the year and then trounced Pitt 42-10. The Panthers had been ranked #3 in the preseason polls, but an opening home loss to BYU had Pitt down to #17 by the time they hosted OU, and the Panthers would end up a 3-7-1 train wreck. For now, the OU win was seen as impressive enough to boost them to #11.
A 24-6 win over Kansas State came as top teams were starting to fall left and right, and the Sooners rose to #3. It was then the aforementioned 15-15 tie with top-ranked Texas came, but the tie worked in Oklahoma’s favor—they moved to #2.
OU played poorly in a 12-10 win over a bad Iowa State team and that presaged a 28-11 loss at Kansas, who finished the year 5-6. Oklahoma was now down to 10th in the polls and a national title seemed a longshot. But they picked themselves up, rolled over two lousy teams in Missouri and Colorado by a combined 91-24 and were ranked sixth in the nation as they headed to Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers were atop both the Big Eight and the national polls, and had a 27-game conference winning streak. Nebraska and Oklahoma traded touchdowns in the first half, with the Sooners getting an easy score off a turnover. A field goal early in the fourth quarter helped OU nudge ahead 10-7.
Oklahoma was being outplayed in the general flow of the game. The running game for both teams was basically a wash, neither good nor bad. Bradley was no passing threat at all, throwing for just 58 yards, while the Cornhuskers at least got some movement through the air.
But OU would win the turnover battle 4-3 and they made big defensive stops. Nebraska drove inside the 10-yard line, but forced to settle for a field goal, they missed. And when the Cornhuskers had 4th-and-goal on the 1-yard line with 5:32 left, Oklahoma made one more stop. They tacked on a clinching touchdown and had a 17-7 win.
There was still the matter of playing a home game with Oklahoma State and this one wasn’t exactly a game to overlook. The Cowboys had one of their best teams and they were ranked #3 in the country, while Oklahoma was now #2. The winner would have a chance at the national championship.
The rivalry game called Bedlam was tied 14-14 in the third quarter, when two big turnovers made the difference. One set up a Sooner field goal and the other, a muffed punt, produced a clinching touchdown. Oklahoma had a 24-14 win and after a three-year hiatus were back on top of the Big Eight and had its bowl tie-in reward with the trip to Miami.
Washington and Oklahoma arrived at the Orange Bowl at the center of a raging national debate. BYU was ranked #1, but played a weak schedule and then played in the Holiday Bowl (as they were contractually obligated to do) on December 21, barely escaping Michigan 24-17. Third-ranked Florida had a loss and a tie and was on probation. While BYU was expected to win the final vote, their critics were pointing to the Orange Bowl as the place where the national title should be settled.
Most of the debate centered on Oklahoma, as the second-ranked team and Switzer openly campaigned for his team as #1. Perhaps that resulted in his team not being ready at the kickoff.
The Huskies jumped down the throats of the Sooners with two first-quarter touchdowns. The Sooners answered with a pair of TDs of their own and kicked a field goal for a 17-14 lead. But Millen found Pattison on a 29-yard touchdown pass with a little less than nine minutes to play, putting Washington back on top and they tacked on one more touchdown to seal the 28-17 win.
BYU would win the vote, while some of us believe that Washington, with a tougher schedule and more impressive win over the common foe of Michigan, would have been a better choice. In any case, the debate surrounding the 1985 Orange Bowl kept things interesting in a year when the national championship debate was otherwise quiet for New Year’s.
The 1983 Orange Bowl didn’t have national implications, the way its predecessors often had or its famous immediate successor would. But they still produced an exciting, if sloppy game with Nebraska and LSU.
Nebraska had yet to win the Orange Bowl under head coach Tom Osborne. Given that Osborne had taken over from the legendary Bob Devaney in 1973 and the Orange was the contract bowl for the old Big Eight Conference, this was a significant omission from Osborne’s resume.
But Oklahoma usually stood in the way, and Osborne had only taken his talent to South Beach for New Year’s twice—once had resulted in a loss to Oklahoma and the previous year’s trip was a defeat at the hands of top-ranked Clemson.
Nebraska was still a consistent national power and renowned for their running games. Mike Rozier continued the tradition with nearly 1,700 yards on the ground during the 1982 college football season. He got some All-America mention and set the stage for his Heisman run a year later.
Roger Craig would go on to a great NFL career playing with Joe Montana’s San Francisco 49ers and he was a reliable second running back with this Nebraska team, going for 586 yards. Irving Fryar was a big-play threat at receiver and quarterback Turner Gill was a dual threat. Gill ran for nearly 500 yards himself, while also leading the Big Eight in completion percentage, yards-per-attempt and fewest interceptions.
The offensive front was anchored by All-American center Dave Rimington. National championship hopes were alive in Lincoln and the Cornhuskers opened the season ranked fourth in the nation.
Nebraska visited Iowa to start the season. The Hawkeyes had upset the Huskers a year earlier and it foreshadowed a Rose Bowl season for Iowa. Nebraska got revenge and got it decisively.
They bullied Iowa up front to the tune of a 343-97 in rush yardage, 127 for Rozier. Fryer caught six passes for 127 yards and a touchdown pass that made it 14-0 early. The final was 42-7. After a 68-0 thumping of New Mexico State, the Cornhuskers were up to #2 in the polls and making a visit to State College to play eighth-ranked Penn State.
The result is one that Nebraska fans are still bitter about today, and with valid reason. After rallying from 21-7 down to take a 24-21 lead, the Cornhuskers were trying to hold as the Nittany Lions reached the 17-yard line in the closing seconds, but faced 4th-and-10. The pass was completed to tight end Mike McCloskey for a first down, but replays clearly showed McCloskey out of bounds.
For the record, while I’m not a hard-core fan of either team, my sympathies are with Penn State and it’s still very obvious that “blown” is not a harsh enough word for this call. It was massacred. The Lions scored and won the game.
Nebraska continued on in a tough non-conference schedule, winning 41-7 at #20 Auburn, and then settled into Big Eight play. The Cornhuskers blasted lowly Colorado and blew out a respectable, bowl-bound Kansas State team and climbed to #5 in the rankings.
A 23-19 escape at mediocre Missouri resulted in a slip back to #6, but Nebraska gathered themselves to crush Kansas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State by a combined 148-20 and reach the season finale with Oklahoma ranked third in the nation.
The Cornhuskers had their nemesis at home on Black Friday afternoon. Both teams were 6-0 in league play, so it was winner-take-all for the Orange Bowl. After falling behind 10-7 in the second quarter, Nebraska got a pair of rushing touchdowns from Doug Wilkening and took an 11-point lead.
The teams traded touchdowns, before OU cut it to 28-24 and made one last drive, getting inside the Husker 40-yard line with 26 seconds left. Defensive end Scott Strasburg then came up with the interception that sealed the conference title.
Nebraska would go to the Orange Bowl ranked #3, but there was no possible scenario for the national championship. Top-ranked Georgia was tied to the Sugar Bowl and they were going to play the #2 team in the country…Penn State.
LSU is a respected national contender today, but that was not the case when the 1982 college football season began. The Tigers had not won a major bowl game since 1967 and while they had five consecutive winning seasons under Charles McClendon and Jerry Stovall from 1976-80, the program slipped back to 3-7-1 under Stovall in 1981.
The resurgence of 1982 was led by a good running game, with Dalton Hilliard leading the way and Garry James providing valuable support. Hilliard’s 910 yards were second in the SEC behind only Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker at Georgia (although it was a very distant second). James added 710 more.
Eric Martin’s 800-plus receiving yards were second in the SEC and quarterback Alan Risher operated at high efficiency. While Risher only threw for a little over 1,800 yards on the year, that was still respectable by 1982 standards. And more to the point, his 64% completion rate, 7.8 yards-per-attempt and 17-8 TD/INT ratio were all excellent.
LSU also had an offensive coordinator who would go on to some notoriety—a guy named Mack Brown. And they had an All-American defensive back in the secondary with James Britt.
The Tigers opened the season by blasting two bad teams in Oregon State and Rice, 45-7 and 52-13 respectively. On the surface it’s not impressive, but when you’ve been a bad team yourself, blowing out others suggest improvement is coming.
And the results at fourth-ranked Florida on the first Saturday of October sent an even louder message. LSU stopped Gator quarterback Wayne Peace, the top passer in the SEC and won 24-13. Now the Tigers had the attention of the pollsters and they were ranked #18.
LSU played Tennessee—a good, but not outstanding team—to a 24-24 tie, but still nudged up to #16. The Tigers blew out a Kentucky team that ended the year winless and then won a tough 14-6 game over subpar South Carolina. After another win over a bad team, a 45-8 pounding of Ole Miss, LSU was up to #11 and still undefeated as they entered November.
A trip to Alabama to face the eighth-ranked Crimson Tide in what would be the legendary Bear Bryant’s final season was next. LSU played its best game of the year, recovering four fumbles, while Risher efficiently carved up ‘Bama with short passes and completed 20/26. LSU built a 17-0 lead and won 20-10.
Now they were 4-0-1 in SEC play and trailing only undefeated Georgia, who was 5-0. The Sugar Bowl, the reward for the conference champ was in play, but LSU had a letdown at mediocre Mississippi State and lost 27-24.
There was still opportunity to play on New Year’s Day and the following week brought seventh-ranked Florida State to town. The Orange Bowl had already settled on inviting the winner of this game, while the loser would go to the Gator.
The high stakes made it attractive for national television, but two things happened that show how different the world of 1982 was. The first is that TV was only interested if LSU would agree to move the game to the afternoon. The second is that someone actually said no to TV. “We want them under the lights” said Stovall. There was no TV and that leads us to something about 1982 that’s exactly the same as it is today—no one wanted to go to Death Valley.
It was tied 14-14 in the second quarter when LSU took over. Hilliard finished with 233 all-purpose yards. The Tigers as a team gained 620 yards of offense. Two second-quarter touchdowns put them in control and then the rout was on, all the way to a 55-21 win and an Orange Bowl bid.
Bowl bids in those days were formalized early, so LSU’s surprising 31-28 loss to Tulane on the Saturday after Thanksgiving was more about hurt pride and lost national standing than anything else. They entered the Orange Bowl ranked #13.
The LSU loss was the first thing to go wrong as far as Orange Bowl organizers were concerned and by far the least serious. The game was also alongside the Georgia-Penn State Sugar Bowl in prime-time, so getting viewers outside the local fan bases would be tough. The most serious problem though, was riots in the Overtown ghetto near the stadium. It resulted in 14,000 no-shows.
Nebraska fullback Mark Schellen scored the first touchdown and then a turnover deluge began. Rozier fumbled on his own eight-yard line and LSU scored. Fryar fumbled away a punt that ultimately set up a Hilliard touchdown when he scooted around the left side on 4th-and-1. A drive of Nebraska’s was snuffed out when Schellen fumbled in the end zone.
In spite of it all, Gill hit Fryar with a 28-yard touchdown pass to put the team on the doorstep and Gill leapt over the top for the touchdown. Nebraska took a 21-17 lead. LSU got one more field goal, but in spite of turning it over six times, the Cornhuskers won the football game.
Nebraska’s frustration would only get worse as the word came in that Penn State had beaten Georgia and to this day it’s taken as a given that the Cornhuskers would have won the national title if the officials hadn’t screwed up in September.
It’s possible, but not a guarantee—SMU finished 11-0-1, won the Cotton Bowl and nudged away of Nebraska to #2 in the final polls. And we don’t know if an undefeated would have ranked ahead of Georgia at the end of the regular season or how the bowl matchups might have shaken out.
No matter, the Cornhuskers still have a valid gripe and by winning the Orange Bowl in spite of a slew of a mistakes that at least staked their claim in history as one who got robbed of more.
The 1982 Orange Bowl saw the completion of Clemson’s Cinderella journey for a national championship and Nebraska finally get some separation from Oklahoma. Here’s a look back on the journey Clemson and Nebraska took through the 1981 college football season before finally meeting on New Year’s Night in Miami.
Danny Ford had become head coach of a Clemson program that was on the rise under Charley Pell, before the latter took the job at Florida. But the first two years under Ford saw some regression, as he went 8-3 and then 6-5. The Tigers were not on anyone’s radar when the 1981 college football season began, unranked in the national polls.
Ford had a talented and versatile quarterback in Homer Jordan, who completed a decent percentage of his passes (54.6), got big plays (8.3 yards-per-attempt) and was also an effective runner (in the top 10 among ACC rushers). Jordan had a terrific target in All-American receiver Perry Tuttle, who led the conference in both catches and yards.
The running game was balanced, with Cliff Austin and Chuck McSwain leading the way and joining Jordan in carrying the load. But the real stars of this team were on defense.
Terry Kinard was an All-American defensive back and a real playmaker, and Kinard wasn’t even the best player on the D. That honor belonged to linebacker Jeff Davis, whose dominance was so thorough that he not only made All-American, but he won the ACC’s MVP award—this in a league where Jordan would have been a solid choice and Maryland had a quarterback of some note named Boomer Esiason.
The Tigers warmed up by blasting Wofford, but an unimpressive win at Tulane did nothing to get them in the polls. It was their September 19 home game against defending national champion Georgia that changed the equation.
It was a defensive battle and both teams had problems taking care of the ball, with a combined nine turnovers. But Jordan found Tuttle in the corner of the end zone for the game’s only touchdown and Clemson won 13-3. They were ranked #14 when the next polls came out.
Clemson beat poor teams in Kentucky and Virginia, 21-3 and 27-0 respectively. Then they went to Duke and blasted a respectable Blue Devils’ team 38-10. In a year where chaos was breaking out at the top of the polls, the room was there for the Tigers to be movin’ on up.
They were now #4 and two more soft opponents were ahead. Clemson beat N.C. State 17-7. To date, all the scores look typical for a team that relies on its defense. That’s what makes the home game with Wake Forest on October 31 jump out even more drastically than it otherwise would—Clemson won 82-24, matching its offensive output of the previous three weeks.
The Tigers were ranked second in the nation, but a road trip to North Carolina was next. The Tar Heels were also in the Top 10 and like Clemson, angling for a prestigious January 1 bowl slot. UNC had an excellent running back in Kelvin Bryant, who went on to the NFL where he could do everything on a football field except stay healthy. The Clemson defense delivered another big-time performance in a 10-8 win.
Another impressive shutdown of an offensive star was next, as Clemson beat Esiason’s Maryland by a 21-7 count. The Tigers closed with a 29-13 win over mediocre South Carolina. One week later, they watched as Pitt fell to Penn State. Suddenly, the team that still had a hard time getting respect was ranked #1 and playing in the Orange Bowl for a national championship.
Tom Osborne became the head coach of Nebraska in 1973 at a time when the program had two recent national championships (1970-71). Osborne continued to win at a high level, but not only were national titles not forthcoming, but he couldn’t get past Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma in the old Big Eight Conference.
The only year Osborne had beat Switzer was 1978, and even that year they still shared the conference title and were forced into a rematch at the Orange Bowl…which Oklahoma won. The Cornhuskers were ranked #6 and anxious to finally get over the hump that was the Sooners.
It was all about line play at Nebraska and that started with center Dave Rimington, who won the Outland Trophy. On defense, Jimmy Williams was an All-American at end, while Rodney Lewis was the same in the secondary.
Nebraska didn’t throw the ball match, with Turner Gill and Mark Mauer splitting duty. And when you have running backs like Roger Craig and Mike Rozier, why bother? Craig, a future NFL star with the San Francisco 49ers, rolled up over 1,000 yards and his 12 catches in this ultra-conservative offense were a foreshadowing of the versatility he would show playing with Joe Montana.
Rozier ran for 943 yards and the sophomore got rolling on the college career that would lead him to a Heisman Trophy two years later.
The Cornhuskers had a difficult non-conference schedule with Florida State—fresh off back-to-back Orange Bowl appearances—and Penn State. What Nebraska hadn’t counted on was that the season opener at Iowa would also prove to be tough. The previously dormant Hawkeye program came to life this year with a run to the Rose Bowl and they upset Nebraska 10-7.
Osborne’s team bounced back with a 34-14 blasting of Florida State at home, but they next week, the Huskers let Penn State come into their house and control the fourth quarter. Nebraska lost 30-24 and fell out of the national rankings.
A 17-3 win over Auburn and consecutive blowouts of bad Big Eight teams in Colorado and Kansas State got Nebraska back up to #15. The Big Eight was shaping up to be a balanced race, with Oklahoma also having relative struggles and it heightened the importance of Nebraska’s October 24 visit to 19th-ranked Missouri.
The game was scoreless was 2:36 left and it looked like the Cornhuskers were headed for a third blemish on their record. They got the ball on their own 36-yard line, when Gill began to showcase the arm that would be such a weapon for this team in the coming two years. He hit Irving Fryar and Todd Brown on key passes that got the ball to the 3-yard line. Phil Bates blasted it over for the winning touchdown.
Gill’s arm, combined with Nebraska’s 222-85 edge in rush yardage gave them a 6-0 win. In spite of the early losses, the Cornhuskers were still unbeaten in league play. And while OU struggled to a 6-4-1 season, Nebraska rolled past Kansas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State to wrap up the outright conference championship and automatic Orange Bowl spot.
There was still the matter of beating Oklahoma on the football field and with Nebraska now #5 in the polls, they were back in the national championship discussion when they visited Norman for the regular season finale. When the Sooners scored on the first drive, there had to be at least some “here we go again” laments going through Husker Nation.
But this time, Nebraska took over the football game. They ran for 314 yards. Mauer was in at quarterback for this one and he went 11/16 for 148 yards. Rozier and Craig both cleared the 100-yard mark. Nebraska’s power-I formation attack trumped Oklahoma’s wishbone option, and the Cornhuskers won 37-14. They concluded the regular season ranked #4.
By the time the Orange Bowl kicked off, everyone knew third-ranked Alabama had lost. Georgia was ranked #2 in playing in the Sugar Bowl at the same time. It turns out, the Bulldogs would also lose.
There’s nothing saying for sure that Nebraska would have vaulted to #1 with a win—Texas was also in the discussion—and the Cornhuskers’ two defeats would surely have come under greater scrutiny. But a championship was definitely in play for both teams, not just Clemson.
Nebraska seemed to have control of the line of the scrimmage in the early going, but two drives inside the 30-yard line ended with lost fumbles. Meanwhile, Clemson put it on the ground three times for the game, but recovered each one. The breaks were going Clemson’s way, and eventually the flow of play did too.
It was a 75-yard drive in the third quarter that was the decisive blow. Jordan found Tuttle near the pylon for the touchdown pass that finished the drive and put Clemson in control. They held on to win 22-15 and college football’s chaotic season had ended with a Cinderella national champion.
The 1981 Orange Bowl offered a rematch, as Oklahoma met Florida State in Miami for the second straight season. And this time the sequel was much better than the original—after OU won decisively the prior year, this time the Sooners had to go down to the bitter end to win a classic game. Let’s look back on how OU and FSU came to arrive in South Beach on New Year’s Day of 1981.
Oklahoma was ranked #5 to open the 1980 college football season and had won or shared the Big Eight title each of the last four years, with the only serious competition coming from Nebraska. The Sooners weren’t quite as good defensively this year though. They normally produced dominating Ds, but this season slipped to 45th in the country and lacked All-American talent.
Nor did the Sooners throw the ball effectively, or barely at all. J.C. Watts threw ten interceptions in spite of attempting only 78 passes all season. What Oklahoma could do was run the wishbone option attack like nobody’s business.
The three-back set was balanced, and Stanley Wilson, David Overstreet and Buster Rhymes all finished with over 600 yards, as did Watts. The four players were in the top ten of the Big Eight in rushing and they ran behind an offensive line anchored by a pair of All-American guards, Louise Oubre and Terry Crouch.
After a season-opening win over lowly Kentucky, OU’s defensive problems were exposed. They hosted Stanford who had this talented sophomore quarterback named John Elway. The Cards were unranked and surprised everyone with a decisive 31-14 win. Oklahoma dropped to #12. The defense looked even worse the following week at awful Colorado, but the offense absolutely exploded in an 82-42 win.
The annual rivalry battle with Texas was up next—in the college football world prior to 1996, this was a non-conference game, with the Longhorns in the old Southwest Conference. Texas was ranked third in the country and while they would eventually fade, it didn’t happen in this game. Oklahoma lost 20-13 and slid to #17. The national title hopes were gone.
Barry Switzer’s team got back on track with wins over Kansas State and Iowa State, and then welcomed sixth-ranked North Carolina to Norman. For the second time in 1980, the Sooners would face a future NFL great. This time it was outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor. But this time, the result was much different.
The Oklahoma running game got cranking, and blasted out 495 yards. Watts ran for 139. The game was close at the half, with the Sooners up 14-7, but a trio of third-quarter touchdowns blew it open. Watts didn’t complete a pass, going 0-for-2, but he didn’t need to in a 41-7 romp.
The Sooners struggled at mediocre Kansas, winning 21-19, though the victory moved them back into the Top 10. They again survived against a pretty good Missouri team, winning 17-7. In spite of the losses, Oklahoma hadn’t lost within the Big Eight and that meant their November 22 trip to #4 Nebraska was for an outright conference championship and the Orange Bowl bid that came with it.
OU surrendered a long touchdown run to Nebraska’s Jarvis Redwine early and fell behind 10-0. The Sooners rallied with two second quarter touchdowns to lead 14-10 at half, but their running game bogged down badly. The defense hung in, but the Cornhuskers scored a touchdown with 3:16 left and with a 17-14 lead, the Nebraska fans littered the field with oranges in anticipation of their prize. It proved to be premature.
Rhymes tore off the biggest play of the season, a 43-yard run that got Oklahoma to the 16-yard line. A field goal was still essentially useless—because of the non-conference losses and Nebraska’s higher ranking, the Cornhuskers would surely get chosen for the Orange Bowl if the teams played to a tie in this era prior to overtime. Rhymes made sure that wasn’t necessary, diving over the top for the winning points with less than a minute left.
After the struggles of the early season, Oklahoma was again the Big Eight champs and they were all the way to #4 in the polls by the time the Orange Bowl arrived.
Florida State’s Orange Bowl run of a year earlier had put Bobby Bowden’s up-and-coming program on the map and they were ready to demonstrate it was no fluke in the 1980 regular season. They had All-American nose tackle Ron Simmons back to anchor the defense, along with fellow All-American Bobby Butler in the secondary.
The offense didn’t have national honorees, but they could move the ball in an offense that was very wide-open for the times. Rick Stockstill threw 201 passes and completed 60 percent. Bowden made use of the running backs in the passing game, with Michael Whiting’s 25 catches being the most on the team.
Whiting also ran for 500 yards, while Sam Platt led the team in rushing with nearly 1,000 yards. Hardis Johnson was the top wideout, with 24 catches for 419 yards.
But it was special teams that Florida State excelled at, with All-American choices at kicker and punter. Bill Capece was the placekicker, while Rohn Stark, a future Pro Bowler in the NFL, was the nation’s best punter. Florida State was still searching for respect though, and was ranked #13 to start the season.
The Seminoles went to a pretty good LSU team and won 16-0 to open the campaign, moving to #10. They followed it up by crushing shaky competition in Louisville in South Carolina by a combined 115-7. But a road trip to Miami—a team on its way to nine wins—would prove to be a problem, as it would so often in Bowden’s later career. The ‘Noles lost 10-9 and slipped to #16.
Florida State’s season was now in trouble. They had a road trip to Nebraska and a home game with Pitt next, both teams ranked in the top five. The Seminoles could be out of the major bowl picture before October was halfway through.
They were beaten in the trenches in Nebraska, losing the rushing battle 201-12 and falling behind 14-3 at the half. But Florida State was opportunistic. They capitalized on three second-half turnovers and nudged their way to an 18-14 lead when the Cornhuskers launched one final drive.
The ball was on the 3-yard line with twelve seconds left. Linebacker Paul Piurowski stepped up and forced the fourth turnover of the half, with a sack and fumble. Florida State survived.
Pitt was one of the most talented teams in the country. Hugh Green was the best defensive lineman in the country. Mark May was the best offensive lineman in the country. The roster had 23 future NFL starters on it. And they had a sophomore at quarterback in Dan Marino who didn’t turn out half bad either. The Panthers were unbeaten and smelling their second national championship in four years.
The special teams heroes of Florida State came through. Capece nailed five field goals, including a 50-yarder at the end of the first half that gave the Seminoles a 20-7 lead. Stark crushed punts of 60, 67 and 53 yards, and controlled field position. In the meantime, Platt ran for 123 yards and the opportunistic defense continued—they picked off Marino three times, recovered four fumbles and won under the lights in Tallahassee 36-22.
It was to be Pitt’s only loss. Florida State was back on the national scene, ranked #7 and a player for a New Year’s Day bid.
The Seminoles rolled through the next four games without incident, beating Boston College, Memphis, Tulsa and Virginia Tech, with the former and latter teams being competitive and the middle two not so much. FSU got a tougher battle from rival Florida, an eight-win team, but the ‘Noles survived 17-13. They went to the Orange Bowl ranked third in the country.
On January 1, top-ranked Georgia won the Sugar Bowl early in the day, so by the time Florida State and Oklahoma took the field, the national championship was settled. They still made sure to give college football fans one final thrill before the season ended.
Florida State wasn’t overmatched at the point of attack, as they had been in the previous year’s 24-7 loss to Oklahoma. The Sooners ran the ball 55 times and only got 156 yards. The Seminole defense continued to get turnovers, six in in all. One of them was a botched punt that was recovered in the end zone. FSU led 17-10 late in the game.
But earlier, the Seminoles had missed a key opportunity when Capece uncharacteristically missed a short field goal. The Sooners were still in the game when they got the ball on their own 22-yard line with 2:37 left. Watt led the drive of his life, leading OU 78 yards for the touchdown and then converting the two-point play for an 18-17 lead.
Florida State made one last gasp, reached the Oklahoma 40-yard line and sent Capece out to try a desperation 57-yarder. He got good leg into it, but not quite enough. Oklahoma had another Orange Bowl victory.
Both teams would disappear from the New Year’s stage for a few years. Oklahoma would lose ground to Nebraska in the Big Eight for each of the next three seasons, before getting back to this game in 1984. Florida State’s next major bowl game would be 1987.
One traditional powerhouse program and another up-and-comer on their way to becoming a powerhouse program crossed paths at the 1980 Orange Bowl. Oklahoma and Florida State arrived in Miami each having completed the 1979 college football regular season ranked in the top five and ready for what would prove to be the first of two consecutive New Year’s Day battles on South Beach.
Oklahoma was a regular on the New Year’s Day stage and had won consecutive national titles as recently as 1974-75. They came into the 1979 season with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in Billy Sims back at running back. OU had an All-American linebacker in George Cumby.
The Sooners’ high-speed wishbone offense, built on the option, had a new starting quarterback in J.C. Watts, a future Republican congressman from the state. Watts only threw 81 passes all season, but he still ran for 455 yards and his ten rushing touchdowns were second in the old Big Eight Conference only to Sims’ 22. Stanley Wilson provided another threat at running back.
Barry Switzer’s program was ranked #3 in the country to start the season, trailing only defending national co-champs Alabama and USC. Oklahoma started off the season with four straight decisive wins over mediocre competition in Iowa, Tulsa, Rice and Colorado. The first real test came on October 13 when they met fourth-ranked Texas in Dallas.
The Sooners capitalized on an early turnover, and Watt hit Wilson with an 11-yard touchdown pass and a 7-3 lead. But Texas took the lead back in the second quarter, and then simply outmuscled Oklahoma. The proud Sooners were outrushed 223-128 and allowed the Longhorns to control the ball for nearly 39 minutes. The game ended 16-7 and Oklahoma slipped to #8 in the polls.
Switzer’s team resumed the blasting of mediocrity with blowouts over Kansas State, Iowa State and Kansas. Mixed in this timeframe was another blowout of Oklahoma State. The Cowboys had won seven games this year, coming mostly out of nowhere with a rookie head coach that Switzer would one day become indelibly linked—Jimmy Johnson.
The blowouts were setting up Oklahoma for their season-ending showdown with Nebraska, but with 1979 being a year where the chalk mostly held, it wasn’t helping OU move up the polls. They escaped Missouri 24-22 and were still sitting on #8 when it was time to host the third-ranked Cornhuskers for the conference championship and automatic Orange Bowl invite that went with it.
Sims had taken a modest step back from his Heisman standards of 1978—he rushed for 300 fewer yards and USC running back Charles White ended up winning the award in 1979. But don’t tell anyone from Nebraska that the ’79 version of Sims was watered down—he poured it on for 247 rush yards on 28 carries.
After trailing 7-3 at the half, Oklahoma scored consecutive touchdowns and though Nebraska scored with just under five minutes left, the Sooners closed out a 17-14 win. They moved up to #5 in the rankings.
Florida State’s floundering football program had been taken over in 1976 by a guy named Bobby Bowden, and he immediately got the Seminoles respectable at 5-6. The next two years saw FSU win a combined 18 regular season games. Bowden’s program was coming and ’79 was the big breakthrough year.
Ron Simmons was an All-American defensive tackle and who anchored that side of the ball. Offensively, Bowden could get physical with 1,000-yard rusher Mark Lyles, and the coach alternated two quarterbacks, Jimmy Jordan and Wally Woodham. They threw the ball a lot by the standards of the day—a combined 332 attempts for both, the most any starting quarterback that made it to a New Year’s Day bowl game threw. Jackie Flowers, with his 37 catches for 622 yards was the top target.
Florida State had enough respect to be ranked #19 when the season began. They opened with five opponents who hovered more or less around the .500 mark. The Seminoles nipped Southern Miss, crushed Arizona State and beat Miami in the three home games that started the year. Then they survived a tough game at Virginia Tech, 17-10 and shut out Louisville. Florida State was up to #9 in the country.
After beating a bad Mississippi State team 17-6, Bowden took his team to Baton Rouge. LSU wasn’t great, but they were decent, finishing the season with a winning record. And Death Valley was no more hospitable to visitors in the late 1970s then it is today.
Jordan got most of the time at quarterback, and though he was a little erratic—14-for-31—he made big plays. Those fourteen completions got a stunning 312 yards. He threw three touchdown passes, a 53-yard strike to Hardis Johnson and a 40-yard pass to Flowers. Florida State won 24-19 and moved up to #6.
The following week at lowly Cincinnati was a trap game and FSU survived it, 26-21. It set up another important test, this one at home with South Carolina and their talented running back George Rogers.
Florida State took an early 13-0 lead before Rogers, who would win the Heisman the following year and have a good NFL career, ripped off an 80-yard touchdown run. FSU never really contained the big and explosive back, but they had a running game of their own. Lyles gained 132 yards on 25 carries and the Seminoles were vastly better in the air. This time it was Woodham, efficiently moving the ball at 15/29 for 145 yards (not bad numbers in this era) and the ‘Noles pulled away to a 27-7 win.
An undefeated season and major bowl invite was now in FSU’s crosshairs and they didn’t let up, crushing mediocre Memphis, 66-17. The season finale was with Florida, who went winless this season. The Seminoles put their rival out of their misery with a 27-14 win. They went to the Orange Bowl ranked #4.
There was no viable path for the Oklahoma-Florida State winner to claim a national title. Alabama and Ohio State were both unbeaten, but even if they both lost, that would mean third-ranked and USC (undefeated at 10-0-1) needed to beat Ohio State and that would crown the Trojans. The Orange Bowl was boxed out, but the storyline of traditional power versus up-and-comer was no small consolation prize.
Florida State started quickly, but you could tell they weren’t quite ready for prime-time. An early 7-0 lead might have been bigger if not for some mistakes. Watts broke through with a 61-yard touchdown run that tied the game and it was all Oklahoma the rest of the way in a 24-7 win. Simmons would concede afterward that the Sooners simply had more talent.
Oklahoma ended the season where they began, at #3 nationally. Florida State was just get started at becoming a major bowl regular.
The Oklahoma-Nebraska rivalry was as good as it got in college football in the 1970s and 1980s, combining regional intensity and national impact. Their November game was almost always for the championship of the old Big Eight and the Orange Bowl bid that went with it. The 1978 college football season saw the rivalry go one step further, as the Sooners and Cornhuskers followed a path that led to a January 1 rematch in the 1979 Orange Bowl.
Oklahoma had won national championships in 1974 and 1975 under head coach Barry Switzer and nearly won another in 1977 before a stunning Orange Bowl defeat cost them the final #1 ranking. The Sooners opened the ’78 season at #4 in the preseason polls.
Nebraska last won it all when they went back-to-back in 1970-71 with Bob Devaney as the head coach. Since Tom Osborne, Devaney’s offensive coordinator, had taken over, the Cornhuskers kept winning, but not at that level.
Osborne came into the season 0-5 against Oklahoma and after consecutive major bowl victories following the 1973-74 regular seasons, Nebraska had been off the New Year’s stage for two years—including in 1976 when they opened as the preseason #1. This time around, they were ranked 10th to start the year.
Both offenses were built on the ground game, but OU’s went to an extreme. The wishbone attack, best compared to the read-option offenses of the 21st century, but with three backs in the backfield, churned out big plays. Billy Sims ran for over 1,700 yards, led the Big Eight in rushing by over 600 yards and won the Heisman Trophy.
Kenny King, a future NFL starter, was the #2 back. He and quarterback Thomas Lott each finished in the conference’s top 10 in rushing yardage. Lott threw only 55 passes all season, and backup J.C. Watts only threw 38.
Nebraska ran a power-I formation that relied on a great offensive line and backs who could read holes. Rick Berns and I.M. Hipp each went for over 1,000 yards and finished 3-4 among the conference rush leaders. Thus did the Sooners and Cornhuskers have half of the Big Eight’s ten most productive runners.
All-Americans dotted the lineups elsewhere, from OU linebacker George Cumby to Nebraska tight end Junior Miller to Sooner kicker Uwe von Schamann. The two programs were loaded for bear and eyeing their November 11 date in Lincoln.
Nebraska challenged itself right away when they visited preseason #1 Alabama, and it didn’t go well, in a 20-3 loss. The pollsters didn’t penalize the Huskers, although they slipped to #12 a week later after surviving mediocre Cal 36-26. Then Osborne’s team started churning, blowing out Hawaii and Indiana to set the stage for conference play.
Oklahoma played a pretty good Stanford team on the road. The Cardinal had a coach by the name of Bill Walsh who was one year away from making the jump to the NFL and becoming a legend, and a productive quarterback in Steve Dills. The Sooners had to survive 35-29.
Switzer’s team quickly found its second gear the next two weeks, smashing West Virginia and woeful Rice. In the meantime, Alabama was upset by USC, second-ranked Arkansas struggled and third-ranked Penn State also failed to impress in a win. That, combined with Oklahoma’s reputation, moved them to the top of the polls for the start of the Big Eight schedule.
Missouri was a good team that was going to make their mark on this race before it was over, and they were ranked #14 when they visited OU on September 30. But the Sooners won decisively 45-23, and prepared for the annual rivalry battle with sixth-ranked Texas.
Sims set the tone of the Red River War early, with an 18-yard touchdown run. He ran for 131 yards on the day and the Sooners overall rushed for 311 yards. They led 17-3 at half, 24-3 in the third quarter and were never threatened in a 31-10 win.
One week later, Oklahoma had to survive a letdown scare from lowly Kansas, the worst team in the Big Eight and the Sooners only won 17-16. But they got back on track and rolled over a pretty good Iowa State team, Kansas and Colorado and were still atop the polls when they prepared for Nebraska.
In the meantime, the Huskers were rolling through the Big Eight themselves. They went to Iowa State at a time when the Cyclones, who would eventually win eight games, were still ranked #15, and won 23-0. Nebraska blasted Kansas State and Colorado, looked pedestrian in a 22-14 win over a bad Oklahoma State team and then dropped 63 on Kansas. Nebraska was #4 when the rivalry day came.
Sims again looked to set the tone of a big game, bolting 44 yards for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. But a turnover, when Lott’s pitch on the option went awry, set up Nebraska for the tying touchdown. It would prove to be a pattern—the Sooners fumbled nine times on this day and the Cornhuskers recovered six of them.
The game was tied 14-14 early in the fourth quarter when Nebraska got a field goal that marked their first fourth quarter points against Oklahoma since 1971. OU still drove down to the three-yard line with less than five minutes left and looked ready to win it. In a fitting conclusion, Sims fumbled, the Huskers recovered and the Orange Bowl bid was theirs.
Nebraska was now #2 and they were in position to the new #1 team, Penn State, for the national title. But another order of business remained—a home game with Missouri one week later. The Tigers were not only an eight-win team and bowl-bound themselves, but they had two future NFL stars—running back James Wilder and eventual Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow. Osborne was worried and he had every reason to be.
The Cornhuskers got the game off to a strong start, when Berns romped 82 yards for a touchdown on the game’s first play. Berns would run for 255 yards, a single-game Nebraska record and he also became the program’s all-time rush leader. But what should have been a day of celebration—the records and an outright Big Eight title went off the rails.
After leading 21-7, the Nebraska defense couldn’t contain Wilder, who scored four touchdowns on the day. Winslow caught a TD pass and Missouri pulled a 35-31 upset. In the meantime, Oklahoma was taking out its frustrations by scoring 62 points against Oklahoma State.
The Sooners and Huskers were co-champs of the Big Eight. Nebraska still had the automatic bid to the Orange Bowl by virtue of the head-to-head win, but now the question of whom to invite loomed. Penn State was redirected to the Sugar Bowl, where Alabama had moved back up to #2. The Orange Bowl Committee, in a decision that justifiably enraged Nebraska, decided to invite Oklahoma and create a rematch.
A rematch always favors the team that lost the previous game, especially when the teams are comparably matched and the unfairness stands out even more when the second game is the only one that will be remembered (unlike a regular home-and-home among NFL divisional rivals where it’s just part of the standard schedule). That proved to be the case here.
The fairer solution would have been to invite seventh-ranked Clemson, with its 10-1 record and passionate fan base. Oklahoma could have gone to the Cotton Bowl over three-loss Notre Dame. But bowl politics then make today look like a golden age, and there was no way Clemson was getting anywhere on New Year’s Day ahead of the Sooners or Fighting Irish.
For the Orange Bowl, Oklahoma made a strategic adjustment and ran in more of a convoy, keeping people around the ballcarrier in the event of a fumble. It turned out to be unnecessary—the only fumbled once. After spotting the Huskers the first touchdown, OU scored the next 24 points and led 31-10 before a couple late Nebraska touchdowns made the final score respectable at 31-24.
Oklahoma finished #3 in the polls and Nebraska finished #8. But the 1979 Orange Bowl will always be most remembered for the rare rematch and second chance it offered the Sooners.
The 1977 Orange Bowl was a consolation prize for the Ohio State Buckeyes, who had gone as high as #2 in the polls during the 1976 college football season, but lost their shot at the national title and then lost the Rose Bowl bid to Michigan. The Buckeyes met the Colorado Buffaloes, a program for whom this prime-time date in Miami was anything but a consolation prize. Let’s look back on the road Ohio State and Colorado took to reach this game.
Woody Hayes had taken Ohio State to four straight Rose Bowls from 1972-75, although the Buckeyes lost three of them, including the most recent to UCLA, which cost Ohio State a national championship. They were still loaded for bear and ranked #4 to open the 1976 season.
The Buckeyes had All-Americans on each side of the ball in offensive tackle Chris Ward and defensive end Bob Brudzinski, and they controlled the tempo of games with a powerful ground attack. Jeff Logan ran for over 1,200 yards to lead the team and powerful fullback Pete Johnson ground out over 700 more. The two quarterbacks, Jim Pacenta and Rod Gerald only threw a combined 94 passes all season long.
Ohio State opened the season by blasting Michigan State 49-21, and some upheaval among other top teams, quickly moved the Buckeyes to #2. The next game was a trip to Penn State, the first one Ohio State would ever make to Happy Valley.
The Buckeyes played opportunistic football against the seventh-ranked Nittany Lions. They forced a pair of turnovers in the red zone, built a 12-0 lead and then hung on after Penn State rallied. Ohio State forced one more turnover with 1:41 left and secured a 12-7 win.
But a letdown did the Buckeyes in back home in Columbus. They faced a Missouri team that was decent, but on their way to a 6-5 season, the Tigers should not have been able to compete with Ohio State. Instead, Hayes’ team suffered a 22-21 loss and skidded back to #8 in the polls. The schedule didn’t get easier with a road trip to fourth-ranked UCLA, but the Buckeyes ground out a 10-10 tie in Los Angeles.
The national championship was gone, with a loss and a tie, and Ohio State took it out on their next six Big Ten opponents. The conference only had one other winning team beyond OSU and Michigan, and that team—Minnesota—was only 6-5. Ohio State had to win a 9-3 battle with the Gophers, and rolled into their traditional season-ending battle with Michigan undefeated in league play and still ranked #8 nationally.
Another bitter home loss awaited. The game was scoreless in the first half when Gerald threw an interception in the end zone just prior to halftime. That was the last time Ohio State seriously threatened to win the game, as Michigan took over the second half and won 22-0. The Buckeyes dropped to #11 and the decision of the Orange Bowl to take them over higher-ranked UCLA was controversial.
The rationale of the Orange Bowl was about business—Ohio State would bring more fans than UCLA, and the bowl committee wanted an Eastern/Rustbelt presence to balance off Colorado. But it has to be said that even on the football merits, Ohio State had played UCLA to a tie on the road and it was reasonable to argue the Buckeyes simply deserved this bid.
Colorado’s path to Miami was quite different. Bill Mallory had taken over a struggling program and gotten a Bluebonnet Bowl invitation in 1974, but there were no signs of the Buffs being ready to challenge Nebraska, and certainly not Oklahoma, who had won the last two national championships. Colorado was unranked to start the 1976 season, and a road loss to what would prove a good Texas Tech team didn’t raise anyone’s expectations.
The Buffs bounced back with a win at Washington and then beat a bad Miami team at home. A rout of Drake sent Colorado into the Big Eight schedule, which they opened with a 24-12 loss to Nebraska.
Colorado bounced back with a 20-10 win at Oklahoma State, moving them into the Top 20 and a 33-14 rout of #16 Iowa State gained the Buffs further credibility. Oklahoma was coming to Boulder on October 30, and while the Sooners weren’t a vintage Barry Switzer powerhouse, they were still ranked #13.
The Buffaloes pulled off a 42-31 upset and the Big Eight race was officially in chaos. Colorado, Nebraska and Oklahoma State were each 3-1 in league play, with Oklahoma and Iowa State both giving chase at 2-2. The Orange Bowl bid, which went automatically to the league champ, was in the grasp of more than half the conference as November opened.
Colorado gave some of their progress back with a 16-7 loss at Missouri—the Tigers, even though their season was disappointing, still managed to beat both entrants in the Orange Bowl in 1976. The Buffs quickly responded with a blowout of Kansas and the conference race was now a four-way tie at the top.
That Mallory had his team still holding a chance at the Orange Bowl bid with one game left was still amazing. He had only one All-American, defensive back Mike Davis. Quarterback Jeff Krapple only completed 44 percent of his passes. The offense relied on 1,200-yard rusher Tony Reed. Now this team needed to just beat Kansas State and get some help.
Colorado upheld their end of the bargain in Manhattan, winning a wild game. They had won a share of the league crown, as had Oklahoma State. One more team was poised to claim a piece of what would be a tri-championship, and it was going to be the winner of the Nebraska-Oklahoma game, played six days later on Black Friday.
The Buffs needed the Sooners to win—since Colorado had beaten both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, they would win the tiebreakers for the Orange Bowl nod. A Nebraska win, and the higher-ranked Cornhuskers would likely go to Miami. OU did its part to help the Cinderella story with a win, and the Buffs were going to South Beach.
Colorado looked like they might continue this magical ride a little longer when they jumped on top of Ohio State early in the Orange Bowl. The Buffs got an early field goal and they converted a big 4th-and-2 on the Buckeye 11 for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead. And they would win the turnover battle 4-2.
But in spite of falling behind, losing the turnover battle and having a completely inept passing game, the Ohio State running game was just too good. Logan bolted 36 yards up the middle for one touchdown and a field goal tied it up in the second quarter. Before halftime, Ohio State went on a 99-yard touchdown march that was capped off with a Johnson TD run. It was 17-10 at half, and the Buckeyes continued to control the second half, winning 27-10.
Mallory would go on to more success as a head coach, here, at Northern Illinois and at Indiana, but he never again reached a major bowl game. More surprising is that this game is the last big bowl Woody ever won. His team lost the Sugar Bowl the next year at Alabama, and one year later was the infamous Gator Bowl defeat where he punched an opposinag player and got fired. Had this been known at the time, the 1977 Orange Bowl win would have been more than just a light ending to a day when the national champion had already been crowned much earlier.
The 1984 Orange Bowl—following the 1983 college football season–was arguably the most seminal game in college football history, when the heavily favored Nebraska Cornhuskers met the up-and-coming Miami Hurricanes.
When Miami pulled the 31-30 upset it not only won the national championship and produced one of the most-replayed plays in college football history, it was a landmark moment in the transformation of the sport itself. Let’s look back on the road Miami and Nebraska took to reach the Orange Bowl.
The Miami program had been in the doldrums when Howard Schnellenberger took over the program in 1979 and after a 5-6 opening year, promptly went 25-9 over the next three seasons.
Schnellenberger had freshman Bernie Kosar at quarterback, who would go on to an outstanding NFL career with the Cleveland Browns. Kosar threw for over 2,300 yards, completed 61 percent of his passes and averaged 7.1 yards-per-attempt, while orchestrating one of the more sophisticated passing attacks in the country.
Kosar’s favorite target was tight end Glenn Dennison, who caught 54 passes for 594 yards. The best big-play threat was Eddie Brown, who got 640 yards out of his 30 catches. Stanley Shakespeare was good for 34 more receptions.
Albert Bentley caught 32 passes out of the backfield and ran for 722 yards. Keith Griffin rushed for 447 in a well-balanced attack that moved the football around. The defense was led by linebacker Jay Brophy, who got some votes for All-American at the end of the season.
Miami still opened the season unranked and when they were beat up by a good Florida team, 28-3, there was no reason to expect a special season in the works.
Easy games against Houston and Purdue led to easy wins of 29-7 and 35-0. On the final weekend of September, 13th-ranked Notre Dame came to Coral Gables. The Hurricanes dominated in a 20-0 win and moved into the national rankings at #13.
Another soft part of the schedule followed, with Duke, Louisville, Mississippi State and Cincinnati all finishing with losing records. Miami rolled four easy wins, outscoring the opposition 146-45 and were up to #7 in the polls when West Virginia came rolling into town on the final weekend of October.
The Mountaineers were ranked 12th and had future pro Jeff Hostetler at quarterback. It was realistically an elimination game for major bowl consideration and the Hurricane defense was ready. They held West Virginia to two yards rushing. Miami sacked Hostetler five times in spite of only rushing three men.
WVA head coach Don Nehlen gave his opponent the supreme compliment by pulling Hostetler, feeling they could no longer keep him safe. Kosar went 19/36 for 211 yards, with Dennison pulling in in seven catches. The final was 20-3 and at #5 in the country, Miami was at the forefront of possible opponents for top-ranked Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
The ‘Canes didn’t play well in a home game with East Carolina, but they won 12-7. A bigger test came at Florida State to end the season. The Seminoles were only 6-4, but this game was played with the competitiveness that would make it the hottest rivalry in sports within five years.
FSU led 16-14 in the fourth quarter, with an early safety threatening to be the difference. Miami kicker Jeff Davis had already missed field goals of 46 & 41. Instead of enduring the same kind of infamy that Seminole kickers would in the early 1990s, Davis got another chance.
Kosar drove his team to the two-yard line and Davis kicked a simple 19-yarder on the final play to win 17-16. Miami got the nod to the Orange Bowl, and with the three teams between them and Nebraska in the polls—Texas, Auburn and Illinois—all playing in different bowls, Miami had a theoretical path to the national title.
Nebraska was hungry for its first national championship run since 1971 when Bob Devaney was on the sidelines. After head coach Tom Osborne took over, he had a hard time getting past the hump that was Oklahoma in the Big Eight.
But the previous two years had seen Nebraska win the conference and its attendant Orange Bowl bid. They had come close to the national title in 1982, losing only a disputed game at Penn State.
College football’s schedule had a new wrinkle this year—the Kickoff Classic, a new concept where two high-profile opponents would play at a neutral site. Nebraska would get its grudge match against Penn State in the Meadowlands.
This Nittany Lion team wasn’t in the same class as they one that ended up with the 1982 national title, but it didn’t make the pounding the Cornhuskers administered any less sweet. They were ahead 21-0 by half and didn’t allow a point until twenty seconds remained in the 44-6 beatdown.
Nebraska outrushed Penn State 322-82 and overcame a bizarre game where they fumbled nine times, but recovered eight of them. Penn State added five more fumbles, but got four of them back.
The game sent a clear message that Nebraska intended to validate its preseason #1 ranking. Mike Rozier was the latest in the assembly line of great Cornhusker running backs. He rolled up over 2,100 yards and won the Heisman Trophy this season. Rozier ran behind an offensive line that was led by Outland Trophy winner Dean Steinkhuler.
Turner Gill was at quarterback, and while he didn’t have to throw a lot, Gill still completed 55 percent of his passes—respectable in 1983—and had a very good 8.9 yards-per-attempt and a sterling 14-4 TD/INT ratio. Gill finished fourth in the Heisman balloting and his top receiver was future NFL starter Irving Fryar, who caught 40 passes for 780 yards.
The defense was not great, but had a good ballhawk in Bret Clark who intercepted five passes. And with the way Nebraska’s offense rolled up yards and points, the defense didn’t need to be special.
Nebraska rolled up 56 points against Wyoming and a mind-boggling 84 at Minnesota. The Cornhuskers leveled UCLA, the defending and future Rose Bowl champions by a 42-10 count. A 63-7 romp over Syracuse followed before a trip to Stillwater finally brought a real test.
Oklahoma State won seven games under head coach Jimmy Johnson, who would be in Miami by the following season. Nebraska narrowly escaped with a 14-10 win.
The routs resumed with a 34-13 win over Missouri, a 69-19 bulldozing of Colorado and a 51-25 blasting of Kansas State. Nebraska’s final two home games saw wins over Iowa State and Kansas State—by scores of 72-29 and 67-13.
It was the stuff of all-time greatness and though the schedule wasn’t brutally tough, Nebraska had already beaten six teams that would finish with winning records (Penn State, Wyoming, UCLA, Syracuse, Oklahoma State and Missouri). And one more was on deck—the Cornhuskers were going to Oklahoma on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
This was not a great Sooners team. After opening the season ranked #2 they had already lost three games. But OU was 5-1 in Big Eight play and if they won this game, they’d tie Nebraska for the conference title and go to the Orange Bowl on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Predictably, Oklahoma played one of its best games of the season. Nebraska fell behind 14-7 in the second quarter, giving up a 39-yard touchdown to Spencer Tillman, the league’s second-best rusher behind Rozier. Then a 73-yard pass-and-catch between OU quarterback Danny Bradley and running back Buster Rhymes gave the Sooners the lead and put everyone on upset alert.
A Rozier touchdown run tied it by halftime, but Tillman answered with an 18-yard touchdown run that put Nebraska in a 21-14 hole. Osborne kept dialing up Rozier’s number, and the back ended up with 205 yards on 32 carries. Nebraska scored consecutive touchdowns and took a 28-21 lead.
Oklahoma came driving down the field in the closing minutes and got 2nd-and-goal on the one-yard line with less than a minute to play. What head coach Barry Switzer would do if he got the touchdown made for interesting speculation—a tie, as existed before the institution of overtime in 1996, didn’t do OU any good—Nebraska would win the conference title.
But a tie would knock Nebraska out of the #1 spot and put them at the mercy of #2 Texas, who was Cotton Bowl-bound. Would Switzer hate Nebraska enough to just kick the extra point in a decision that seemed imminent?
We never found out the answer. An illegal motion penalty set Oklahoma back. Nebraska’s Bill Weber than got a sack to push the ball back to the 9-yard line. Cornerback Neil Harris then sealed it, twice batting away passes into the end zone to preserve the 28-21 win.
It had been a struggle, but the Cornhuskers concluded their undefeated season and were fully expected to validate their standing as perhaps the greatest time of all-time in the Orange Bowl.
Nebraska was a 10 ½ point favorite in the Orange Bowl, a hefty number given that it was a literal home game for Miami. It didn’t take long for Nebraska’s weaknesses—a defense and kicking game that were really tested—to become exposed.
An early Cornhusker drive ended with a blocked field goal and then Kosar went to work. He began carving up the Nebraska defense, twice finding Dennison for touchdown passes and building up a 17-0 lead.
Nebraska finally broke through on a “fumble-rooskie” play, where Gill set the ball on the ground, Steinkhuler pulled around, picked it up and raced into the end zone for a touchdown. The Cornhuskers pulled even, 17-17.
Miami bounced back with consecutive touchdown drives of 70-plus yards and at 31-17, with Rozier having to leave the game with a bad ankle, it looked like it was all over but the shouting.
Osborne turned to his bench and found backup running back Jeff Smith. Early in the fourth quarter, he scored from a yard out. Miami then showed its own flaws in the kicking game, when Davis missed an insurance field goal from 42.
Nebraska had one more chance and Gill launched a last-ditch drive for glory. He led the Cornhuskers to the Hurricane 26-yard line. Gill dropped back to throw, had Fryar wide-open in the left corner and hit the receiver with a perfect pass…which Fryar dropped.
It would have been the play that lived in college football infamy if not for Smith. On 4th-and-8, Gill ran the option, read it correctly and pitched to Smith, who found the right sideline and took it the rest of the way. The score was 31-30 and there were 48 seconds left.
The events of earlier in the day could have impacted Osborne’s own decision now. Texas had lost and there were no other unbeaten teams. A tie meant a certain national title for Nebraska. But Osborne believed there was no honor in winning a championship by deliberately taking a tie and he never hesitated in going for two.
Gill rolled right. Smith flashed open in the end zone. Gill threw a pass right on target, but Hurricane safety Ken Calhoun got his finger in there and the ball bounced away. Miami covered the onside kick and the upset was complete.
There was still the matter of voting on the national champion. Fourth-ranked Illinois had been destroyed in the Rose Bowl, while #3 Auburn won the Sugar. It was a choice of Miami or Auburn for the crown.
Auburn had beaten eight bowl teams to Miami’s two and the Tigers had come through a particularly brutal stretch in November where they beat three Top 10 teams in three weeks, including a road win over the Georgia team that had upset Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
If it sounds like I think Auburn should have won the vote, that’s correct. But the incredible drama of Miami’s win over Nebraska, compared to Auburn’s dry 9-7 win over Michigan in the Sugar, were the last thing voters remembered and the Hurricanes took home the top spot. Auburn couldn’t even pass Nebraska, who was kept in at #2.
The ultimate historic impact of this game is in what happened afterward. Miami became a dynasty and won national titles in 1987, 1989 and 1991, along with a resurgence in 2001. They had near-misses in 1985, 1986, 1988, 1992 and 2002. It was just one part of what became a surge in college football power to the Sunshine State, as Florida State and Florida became national powers.
Miami had overturned the establishment and it started with a landmark night in South Beach on January 2, 1984.