Texas faced uncharacteristically low expectations when the 1977 season began. Legendary head coach Darrell Royal had retired, and the program was coming off a .500 season. They had not reached a major bowl game since 1973 and were clearly losing ground to archrival Oklahoma, who had won a pair of recent national titles.
Fred Akers was hired to replace Royal and changed the offense from the wishbone to a single-back I-formation. It proved to be a boon for Earl Campbell. The senior running back had struggled to fulfill his immense potential as the fullback in the option. As the single back in the I, Campbell ran for over 1,700 yards, won the Heisman Trophy, and became one of the truly great running backs of all time.
Texas had another big award-winner on defense, as defensive tackle Brad Shearer won the Outland Trophy. Russell Erxleben was an All-American punter and also one of the best kickers in the country.
It was the running game, defense and kicking game for Texas, which is a good thing, because they weren’t going to beat anyone throwing the football. Randy McEachern opened the season as the third-stringer and threw only 89 passes for the entire season.
The Longhorns began the season unranked, but it didn’t take long for that to change. They opened up at home by routing an average Boston College team 44-0. Texas blasted lowly Virginia 68-0. UT’s first conference game was against a terrible Rice team, and it produced a 72-15 annihilation. For those scoring at home, that’s 184 points in three games.
Pollsters noticed, and Texas was up to #8 by the time they played #2 Oklahoma in the annual Red River Rivalry game. Under the alignment of the time, this was a non-conference game, with the Sooners in the old Big Eight Conference and the Longhorns in the Southwest Conference.
Texas’ starting quarterback at the time was Mark McBath. Seven plays into the game he was injured and lost for the season. The backup was Jon Aune. Nine plays later he was injured and lost for the season. McEachern was up. He played well enough to win, which is to say he gave the ball to Campbell.
Earl ran for 124 yards against a great defense, and his 24-yard touchdown run broke a 3-3 tie and was the key play of the game. The second-biggest play came from Shearer. Texas held a 13-6 lead, but OU reached the five-yard line with four minutes left. On 4th-and-1, Shearer stuffed Sooner quarterback Thomas Lott. The Longhorns had won what would prove to be the regular season’s most significant game.
Texas moved to #2 in the country, behind only Michigan. The Longhorns had no time to worry about the polls because eighth-ranked Arkansas, their prime competition for the SWC championship—and its automatic bid to the Cotton Bowl—were up next.
Erxleben nailed field goals from 58 & 52 yards. His counterpart, Steve Little, who would get the nod for All-American, hit a 67-yarder for Arkansas and the Razorbacks eventually led 9-6. But Campbell was too much. He ran for 188 yards, and his running helped set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Ham Jones with four minutes left. Jones was one of three brothers on the Texas team who went by the nicknames of Ham, Lam, and Jam.
One week later, Michigan lost, and Texas moved to the top of the polls. They were in control of their own destiny.
The Longhorns took advantage of the opportunity. They handled subpar SMU on the road, 30-14. Texas came home to play a decent Texas Tech squad and hung a 26-0 shutout on the Red Raiders. Houston was the defending conference champion, but mediocre this season. The Longhorns beat the Cougars 35-21. Texas crushed lowly TCU 44-14. They hosted mediocre Baylor and won 29-7 to clinch a tie for the SWC crown and the Cotton Bowl bid.
There was still one game left, a chance to take the league title outright and—more important—hold the #1 ranking going into the Cotton Bowl. The finale was in College Station, for what was then an annual season-ending showdown with Texas A&M. The Aggies came in at 8-2 and ranked #12 in the country. The Longhorn offense exploded, won 57-28.
The Cotton Bowl needed to find an opponent. Oklahoma, with only the loss to Texas, had won the Big Eight and finished #2. But the Sooners were committed to the Orange Bowl. Alabama and Michigan were 3-4 and locked into the Sugar and Rose Bowls respectively. That left #5 Notre Dame. The Irish, with a quarterback by the name of Joe Montana, got the opportunity to play Texas.
New Year’s weekend was set to be a festive holiday time in the Lone Star State, The Dallas Cowboys had won the NFC Championship on New Year’s Day Sunday and would go on to win the Super Bowl. Now Texas had to follow suit. But no one, not even the biggest Notre Dame optimist, could have predicted what would happen next.
Texas had a nightmarish game, turning the ball over six times, with almost all the damage coming in the second quarter. Heavens and Vagas Ferguson combined for a huge day for Notre Dame, going over 200 yards rushing. The score was 28-10 by halftime and shockingly ended 38-10.
The Longhorns finished #4 in the final polls. Akers would have two more teams that finished in the national top 5—in 1981, and in 1983, when another crushing Cotton Bowl loss cost them a national title. But it’s fair to say that 1977 was his best team. The program’s search for a national title would go on until Vince Young ended the drought in 2005.