1976 was a year in college football when traditional powers took a step back and new teams came forward. That’s not unusual today, but it was quite a break from the norm in the world that was 1976. The 1976 Pitt football team was the beneficiary, going undefeated behind an extraordinary season from running back Tony Dorsett.
Oklahoma had won the national championship the previous two seasons, but the Sooners played Texas to a tie in October, then lost consecutive games to Oklahoma State and Colorado, to remove them from both the Big Eight and national pictures.
Two other traditional powers were a little off, those being Notre Dame and Penn State. And it’s against these two schools that Pitt stepped forward and took over the 1976 college football season. Dorsett got his Heisman Trophy run started with a big performance in South Bend on September 11. After Pitt spotted Notre Dame an early touchdown, the Panthers quickly took over and led 21-7 at half. Dorsett had 122 rush yards in the first half alone, and his team coasted home 31-10.
The season ended on Black Friday with a grudge match against Penn State in Three Rivers Stadium, home to the Steelers and Pirates (Pitt’s home games were usually played in an old “bowl” where the top row of the stadium was at ground level). Amidst a steady rain in front of an ABC audience, the Pitt defense intercepted Penn State quarterback Chuck Fusina three times and after being contained in the first half, Dorsett was able to get loosened up after intermission and Pitt completed a perfect season with a 24-7 win.
College football in the East wasn’t highly regarded though—ask Penn State, who had seen unbeaten teams in 1968, 1969 and 1973 not get a chance to play for the national championship. Pitt needed help if the same fate wasn’t going to befall them. In November they got it.
Michigan was ranked #1 in the country and the odds were good that a potential Rose Bowl battle with USC would be for the crown. But the Wolverines suffered a shocking upset loss at Purdue on November 6. The final was 16-14, with Michigan missing a 37-yard-field goal on the game’s final play.
Pitt ascended to #1 and got a bid to the Sugar Bowl to play SEC champ Georgia. The game was in the early time slot on New Year’s Day, so fans would know if the Michigan-USC Rose Bowl game following would have title implications. Maryland was also unbeaten and playing in the Cotton Bowl against Houston, but the Terps would have lacked the political support too leapfrog the Trojans or Wolverines in the event of a Panther loss. In either case, Maryland lost to Houston.
The Pitt-Georgia game was no contest. With the Bulldogs stunting to stop Dorsett, Pitt quarterback Matt Cavanaugh had an efficient game, going 10/18 for 192 yards. And Dorsett still ended up going over 200 yards on the ground when all was said and done. Pitt led 21-0 at half and won the game 27-3. They said goodbye to their coach, Johnny Majors, who was bound for Tennessee, but they had a national title to show for it.