The 1977 Sugar Bowl settled a national championship in front of the president of the United States, as Jimmy Carter attended to watch his home-state Georgia Bulldogs. President Carter didn’t get to see his home state team win, but he did watch an impressive display for the Pitt Panthers, who capped off a perfect season with a championship win.
Pitt opened the year ranked #9 in the country, after coming off a strong 1975 campaign. The Panthers were giving signs of being ready to displace Penn State as the best team out of the East. Pitt had won a big season-opening game against these same Georgia Bulldogs—in Athens no less—and later beat Notre Dame. Pitt showcase a talented running back in Tony Dorsett and were on the rise.
Georgia didn’t have quite the same expectations. Even though they were ranked #16 in the preseason poll, the Bulldogs were coming off getting blown out by Arkansas in the previous year’s Cotton Bowl and the SEC was mostly the exclusive property of Alabama and Bear Bryant.
Pitt wasted little time in showing what they could do. They traveled to South Bend to play a revenge-minded Notre Dame team, but the Panthers demonstrated their superiority. Dorsett ran for 122 yards in the first half alone, kicking off a year in which he would clear 2,100 yards and win the Heisman Trophy. Pitt won easily 31-10 and on an opening week marked by upsets within the Top 10, they quickly moved up to #3.
The Panthers had a ballhawking secondary, with defensive backs Bob Jury, Jeff Delaney and Leroy Felder combining for 23 interceptions. Al Romano was a nose tackle who got All-American mention, and Matt Cavanaugh was quietly efficient at quarterback, making plays when he needed to and otherwise letting Dorsett and the defense.
Pitt tore through its next nine games, never challenged and got set to play Penn State on Black Friday.
Georgia had, even by the standards of 1976, a run-heavy offense, led by quarterback Ray Goff. The man who one day would be the Bulldog head coach, was the SEC Player of the Year in 1976 thanks to his running ability. He ran for 724 yards, and Kevin McLee was the top back, with over 1,000 yards. Mike Wilson and Joel Parrish, a pair of All-American offensive lineman, paved the way for the powerful ground attack.
The Dawgs opened the season at home with Cal, who was ranked #15, but proved to be overrated. Georgia quickly exposed that with an easy 36-24 win. After taking care of rivals Clemson and South Carolina, the Bulldogs were up to #6 in the country. Now Alabama was coming to town.
Big games between Georgia and Alabama have been rare over the years, with the 2012 SEC Championship Game being the rare exception. 1976 was another execption and the Bulldog defense delivered. The held the Tide to 86 yards on the ground and won 21-0.
A letdown followed at Ole Miss, a 21-17 loss and it took wins over Vanderbilt, Kentucky and 20th-ranked Cincinnati to get back into the Top 10. Another big rivalry game awaited, the battle with Florida at neutral-site Jacksonville.
Florida was not the perennial football power that it became in the 1990s, but their 1976 team was one of the best the school had seen to that time. They were undefeated in league play, ranked 10th in the country and the winner of this game had the inside track to the SEC championship and the automatic bid to the Sugar Bowl.
The Georgia defense couldn’t keep up early in the game and gave up 27 points in the first half, trailing by two touchdowns. Goff quickly got his team back in the game with a touchdown pass and then the defense, aided by some questionable Florida game management, stepped up.
It was 4th-and-1 for Florida on their own 29-yard line and head coach Doug Dickey opted to go for it. “Fourth And Dumb” is how the play lives in Gator infamy. The Dawgs made the stop, scored the touchdown and the momentum irrevocably shifted. Georgia won 41-27. Then they beat Auburn 28-0 to close out their conference championship, Sugar Bowl bid and were #5 in the nation.
Pitt matched up with Penn State in a game played at old Three Rivers Stadium in the Steel City. The Panthers had moved up to #2 in the country in early October when Ohio State lost, and then took the #1 spot in the polls in early November when Michigan lost. Pitt had what its traditional rival in Penn State never had in their own undefeated/uncrowned seasons of 1968, 1969 and 1973—a chance to control their national championship destiny.
On a rainy day, Pittsburgh intercepted three Chuck Fusina passes, Dorsett ran well in the second half and the Panthers won 24-7. They had already accepted the Sugar Bowl nod in any event, but now they would go to New Orleans ranked #1.
Georgia had no realistic path to win the national championship. The Rose Bowl featured the #2 and #3 teams in USC-Michigan. If the Dawgs won the Sugar Bowl, which was played in the early afternoon time slot, it would turn the mid-afternoon Rose into a national championship game.
When the game started, the Bulldogs sold out to stop Dorsett, stacking the box with as many as nine players. Cavanaugh showed what he could do if necessary, throwing for 192 yards—a lot, by the standards of the era. And Dorsett? Well, he still rushed for over 200 yards. Pitt coasted to a 27-3 win that sealed a national championship.