1981 Review: "Celebrate Good Times, Come On!"


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It was a different time in a different place, but it wasn't so long ago as it seems.

As we look back with nostalgia at our youth, we are bound always to remember it as more precious or idyllic than it really was. Some of it is inevitably our innocence or naivete, some is likely the minimal responsibility most of us had. Fond we are of recalling decades where we grew up as "it was different back then." Of course, it was ALWAYS different back then because we ourselves were different, and the march of progress goes on.

In a technical sense, "The 80s" did not "really" begin until January 20, 1981, the day former California Governor Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President, and the American hostages held 444 days in Iran were released. The hostages were greeted with a new dance tune racing up the American charts, "Celebration!" by Kool and the Gang, a single that reached #1 on February 7. It was hoped to be a new beginning for the hostages, for the administration, and for the country as a whole because all was not well by any means. 1981 saw a return of 1960s-style assassination attempts, President Reagan coming within just an inch of death on March 30 in Washington and Pope John Paul II surviving an attempt in St. Peter's Square despite being hit by four bullets on May 13. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat wasn't so fortunate, his life ending in a hail of bullets (along with 11 others) from a surprise attack during a military parade on October 6. In sports, the first-ever interruption of any professional season by a labor strike occurred as baseball took leave from the summer calendar with a 49-day strike that began on June 12. The Indy 500 wound up having one winner, then another winner, and then the first winner restored but fined. Rumors were that labor problems in the NFL would cause a football strike the following year (which did, in fact, happen). A strike by PATCO, the air traffic controllers' union, resulted in the dismissal of thousands of federal employees and put air travel at substantial risk. The economy was rapidly slipping into a recession that was exacerbated by the controllers' strike. Unemployment teetered between 7 and 8%, increasing by the month during the autumn. It was not a great time to be graduating college or buying a home. But it was a fantastic time to be living in your wonder years, especially if you liked college football.

A new college football champion reigned on the first day of 1981, as the Georgia Bulldogs completed their dream season with a stunning upset of Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. Georgia's horrendous regular season schedule - only three opponents with a winning record, five with records of 3-8 or worse - gave renewed interest in a playoff to determine the champion. (Georgia's win over Notre Dame, the result of two fortuitous turnovers and a quarterback that completed only one pass the entire game, did not impress, either). But the Bulldogs did have the most exciting player the game had seen since Johnny Rodgers of the early 1970s Nebraska teams, a Wrightsville, GA native named Herschel Walker. As a mere 18-year old freshman, Walker finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting, mostly because voters of the time would never give a freshman serious consideration for the award. Coming back for 1981, Herschel was said to be one of the primary contenders for the award. Walker's primary competitors for the award were thought to be USC tailback Marcus Allen, BYU quarterback Jim McMahon, North Carolina running back Kelvin Bryant, and Pitt quarterback Dan Marino.

There was also a new coach at Notre Dame, where Dan Devine had announced prior the 1980 season that this would be his last year as coach at the Golden Dome. On November 24, 1980 (the day before the infamous Duran-Leonard 'no mas' fight), Notre Dame announced their new head coach would be Gerry Faust, a high school coaching legend from Moeller High School in Cincinnati, where he had won five straight titles, lost only 23 games in 19 years, and had just been named "National High School College Football Coach of the Year" in March. At the dinner where Faust won the award (along with a new automobile), the high school coaching legend said that the only job he'd ever leave Moeller to take would be if he was hired as the head football coach at Notre Dame. At the time Faust made his comments, Devine had not yet announced his intentions. In 1981, the Notre Dame head coaching job was probably the most prestigious coaching position in amateur athletics, and the search itself is a wonderful example of how not to conduct a search since the university quickly settled on four candidates: George Welsh of the Naval Academy, Terry Donahue of UCLA, Joe Restic of Harvard, and Faust, the high school legend. Notre Dame bought it and just days after Notre Dame beat Alabama, 7-0, the Irish announced Faust as their next head coach.

Notre Dame was the most prominent job opening, but it wasn't the only one. Pat Dye was the new man at Auburn while Dick MacPherson began his career at Syracuse (the two would meet in the 1988 Sugar Bowl that would end in a controversial tie). And Dennis Green began his head coaching career at Northwestern University while the Wildcats were in the midst of a then-record college football losing streak, no doubt realizing his team was exactly who he thought they were.

Much of the world seemed to be falling apart in August 1981, but both college football and the NFL were about to put on banner years that would enhance their sport's profile and fan interest. The biggest story of 1981 in college football, though, concerned a hound's tooth hat wearing legend becoming the winningest coach in (then) Division I history.


1) Michigan (38)

2) Oklahoma (7)

3) Notre Dame

4) Alabama (3)

5) USC

6) Nebraska

7) Penn St (1)

8) Pitt

9) Texas

10) Georgia

The UPI (now coaches poll) was similar but had Alabama and Notre Dame switched and a final three of Georgia, Pitt, and Texas at ten.
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The season began on Saturday, September 5 with a slate of 36 games, most of which were not televised in time preceding the 1984 Supreme Court ruling regarding the legality of college football telecasts. Most of the games were the typical early season fare and warm up contests, but three games stood out as the season began. Florida, yet to win their first SEC title, traveled to Miami to take on Jim Kelly's Hurricanes in an intrastate rivalry that would only become more passionate. Florida led early, 20-11, and Kelly went out with an injury. Kelly's backup, Mark Richt, came on and hit a 56-yard TD pass to Rockey Belk and then led the Canes on a game-winning drive that ended with a 55-yard field goal by kicker Danny Miller that went off the right upright and over the crossbar with only 40 seconds left. Florida responded with a desperate drive, but Brian Clark's 59-yard field goal attempt fell short, and the unranked Hurricanes prevailed against the #17 Gators. In Athens, the Georgia Bulldogs began defense of their national title with an impressive outing, a 44-0 chest stomping of Tennessee, a game that saw the Dawgs run up nearly 600 yards of offense. And there was a night time treat in Baton Rouge that saw Paul Bryant take his first step of the season towards passing Amos Alonzo Stagg's record. ABC television made an offer that neither Alabama nor LSU could refuse: move your November 7 contest to September 5 and play a nationally televised game in prime time. The teams agreed, but it was all Alabama, roaring out with over 300 yards of offense in the first half and a 17-0 lead that wound up a 24-7 thumping that gave Bryant his 307th career win. The win moved Alabama to #2 in the AP poll as the Tide captured several votes. Georgia was up to #6 while Miami entered the poll at 16.

The season began in earnest for several teams on September 12. Fresh off their road loss to Alabama, LSU went to South Bend, Indiana as guests of the launch of the Gerry Faust era at Notre Dame. Four of Faust's former players at Moeller High School played key roles in a 27-9 dismantling of Jerry Stovall's Tigers, the Irish defense led by Bob Crable's 13 tackles. Just as in the Alabama game, LSU did not score a touchdown until the very end of the game (and again with a backup player). Nebraska took the short trip over to Iowa City and left the stunned victim of a 10-7 old school upset. This was a team Nebraska had mauled, 57-0, just one year earlier in Lincoln, but this time the Hawkeyes held the Huskers to 231 yards rushing. The final three Nebraska drives ended with a fumble, a turnover on downs, and an INT with 39 seconds left that sealed the win for Iowa. The Hawkeyes, who had not had a winning season since 1961, were about to embark on one of their most successful seasons to date, one that would include a Big Ten title and a trip to Pasadena. But the loss by #7 Nebraska wasn't the biggest upset in the top ten. In fact, it wasn't even the second biggest upset. Number one Michigan, perhaps looking ahead to Notre Dame, lost a shocker to Wisconsin, 21-14, in Camp Randall, the first win by UW over the Wolverines since 1962. In fact, Wisconsin had not scored a single point against Michigan since 1976, the victim of four consecutive shutouts. The Badgers dominated throughout and kept Michigan superstar wide receiver Anthony Carter to a single harmless reception. Driving for the win in the final minute, Michigan QB Steve Smith threw an interception at the Wisconsin 17 that sealed the game for the Badgers. But even that upset paled in comparison to what happened at Legion Field in Birmingham.

In the 1960s, the Alabama-Georgia Tech rivalry was one of the fiercest in college football. After a 15-year delay concurrent with Tech leaving the Southeastern Conference, the two teams reignited a six-year home/home series in 1979 that had seen Alabama blow out the Yellow Jackets twice, Tech scoring a total of nine points. Tech entered the game as a 24-point underdog and after a 47-yard touchdown pass from Walter Lewis to Joey Jones plus a Peter Kim field goal made it 10-0 Tide, Tech owned the rest of the game. Robert Lavette, a freshman who would cause nightmares for the Tide faithful more than once, scored from 13 yards out in the second period, and a Peter Kim field goal sent the teams in at the break with a 13-7 Tide lead. But Tech then scored a 22-yard screen pass touchdown to take the lead early in the third quarter. Alabama responded with a touchdown on fourth down and goal from the four on a beautiful run by Linnie Patrick (and made the two-point conversion as well). The Rambling Wreck then came out and owned the fourth quarter, getting an early field goal from Ron Rice and then sending Lavette through the line from the two to capture a 24-21 lead. There was enough time left for two more Tide possessions, but one ended in a turnover on downs, and the final possession ended with Kim's 50-yard desperate kick to tie the game falling short. It was Tech's first opening game win since 1970, and their first victory over Alabama since 1962. In a small house some 120 miles from Legion Field, a little 11-year old boy was watching the popular WTBS show "Football Saturday on TBS," a talk show emanating from Atlanta and featuring Falcons announcer Bob Neal (who never could hide his anti-Alabama hatred), Alek Hawkins (former Colt), and two Pro Football Hall of Famers, Paul Hornung and Norm Van Brocklin (also a former Falcons coach). Van Brocklin brought the Atlanta crowd to cheers by crumpling an Alabama pennant with a big smile on his face, proof if any were needed how hated Alabama was by other folks - but certainly new to the little guy. Alabama dropped to 12, and the rankings now had their second number one, the old and familiar Notre Dame. USC was second, Oklahoma third, Georgia fourth, and Penn State fifth. Georgia, in fact, had hosted Cal in an out of conference game they won, 27-13, to give Georgia their 15th straight victory. The following weekend, both participants in the 1981 Sugar Bowl discovered that nine months is a very long time indeed.

With a victory to his credit, the old high school legend coaching Notre Dame prepared for his first big road contest, and it was the biggest venue of them all - the Big House in Ann Arbor. He also had the misfortune of playing a Michigan team more than a tad angry at their stunning upset in Wisconsin. The Wolverines took out their anger on Notre Dame. Anthony Carter had a 71-yard TD reception to make it 7-0 Michigan at the half, and the Wolverines' defense never let Notre Dame get anything going, holding them to 12 first downs and 70 yards rushing. Carter scored a second TD from 15. The Irish scored late to avoid the shutout, but the final score of 25-7 set Notre Dame on a course that would see them enter the darkest period of their history since World War II. The other Sugar Bowl participant, Georgia, rode a 15-game winning streak into Clemson, South Carolina figuring to add the Tigers to their ever-growing list of victims. Georgia's winning streak was the source of considerable scrutiny given the fact that they'd only beaten three teams during that streak that had seven or more wins - and two of those were flukes unlikely to be repeated, the 93-yard TD to Lindsay Scott that beat Florida and the Notre Dame turnover-fest in the Sugar Bowl. One of the victims of 1980, Clemson, had been 6-5. But Clemson showed up with a new strategy for the Georgia game based on ball control offense and a stifling defense. The Tigers forced nine turnovers - five of them Buck Belue interceptions and three of them fumbles by Herschel Walker (one at the Clemson 17) - and held on for dear life in a stunning 13-3 upset. Media coverage of the time focused on the Georgia loss to the underdog, but the Vegas line on the game was only four points, an indicator that Georgia, despite a national championship, was not viewed with the awe of, say, Alabama or Oklahoma. The same day saw Nebraska thump Florida State, 34-14, behind a 94-yard Roger Craig touchdown. Three weeks of football and three number ones as USC now took their turn in the hot seat for a 1 vs 2 showdown against Oklahoma.


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The 1981 USC-Oklahoma game would figure prominently in the upcoming lawsuit by Georgia and Oklahoma against the NCAA. One of the key points of the lawsuit, which led to the proliferation of college football all over the networks, was that despite being shown nationally on 207 television stations, the huge drawing USC-Oklahoma game got the same rights fee as the Citadel vs Appalachian State game that appeared on four stations at the same time and the Jackson St vs MS Valley State game that was only shown on two stations. At the time of the game, it was only the 17th time since 1936 that number 1 played number 2, and the game did not disappoint. USC tailback Marcus Allen rushed for 209 yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries, becoming the first back in NCAA Division I history to rush for over 200 yards in three consecutive games. Despite Allen's dazzling game, the contest came down to the final play. Oklahoma scored first and led in the second period, 17-7, but ten fumbles - including five lost - doomed OU to defeat despite 444 total yards. Trailing 24-14, USC overcame two missed third quarter field goals by Frank Jordan to pull close. In the waning moments, USC put together a 78-yard drive that ended with a 7-yard touchdown toss from John Mazur to reserve tight end Fred Cornwall, probably wide open in the end zone because he had one career catch to that point. The Trojans downplayed their number one ranking, saying it was way too early for anyone to be rated so highly, and Barry Switzer said that the country had seen "two great football teams" play that afternoon. The other big matchup of the day, Penn State at Nebraska, saw a combined 12 fumbles and 7 total turnovers as the Nittany Lions edged out the Cornhuskers, 30-24, a performance good enough to put Penn State at number two when the next poll arrived on Monday morning. And the Fighting Irish likely began to have serious second thoughts about hiring a high school coach when Purdue followed their own loss to mediocre Minnesota with a stunning 15-14 home upset of mighty Notre Dame. Purdue, in fact, won the game after scoring a TD with only 19 seconds left and then converting the two-point conversion rather than settling for a tie. While losing to national power Michigan was disappointing for the Irish, at least it was understandable. But losing to an in-state "rival" regarded as second class in the Big Ten conference was a bitter pill to swallow for the Notre Dame faithful. Georgia recovered from the Clemson debacle with a rousing 24-0 shutout of South Carolina. And unranked Iowa, fresh off an upset of Nebraska, showed they were a force to be taken seriously when they shocked #6 UCLA in Iowa City, 20-7. The pollsters were somewhat generous to Oklahoma (and understandably), dropping the Sooners to fifth.

As it turned out, none of these was even the biggest sports story of the day. Astros pitcher Nolan Ryan stole the headlines, with his record fifth career no-hitter witnessed on NBC's "Game of the Week." The other big news was an offer from the city of Houston to have the Cotton Bowl move from Dallas to Houston for a three-year period and, in essence, replace the Bluebonnet Bowl. This, thankfully, never happened. Unfortunately, an old ghost from the past erupted in Tuscaloosa and was twisted by the national media far out of proportion to what it deserved.

On September 30, the Atlanta Constitution - the newspaper that still employed Bryant nemesis Furman Bisher - published a report claiming that Bryant disciplined black football players far more severely and publicly than he did white players. Three unnamed black players alleged that when Thomas Boyd was demoted to the scout team and thrown out of the athletic dorm, there were three other players who had also broke curfew but weren't punished in any way. The sources also alleged that Linnie Patrick and Charley Williams had suffered fates similar to Boyd when they failed to appear for a session with the team's athletic trainers. In short, they alleged that when a black player was punished, it was in the newspapers but if a white player was punished, it was "swept under the rug." At his weekly press conference, Bryant said that the situation was not going to be resolved by going to an Atlanta newspaper to make allegations and that he had, in fact, punished the white players by confiscating their complimentary tickets. When a reporter cited the paper and claimed there was a "morale problem" on the team, Bryant snorted, "The way we've been playing, if we don't have (one), we're going to have, and I'm going to cause them." The article, when viewed in full, shows that the player even acknowledged that maybe things were going on that Bryant didn't know about because he was "a fair man." Of course, this was not the angle that made news.

Mississippi State was becoming nationally known by the fall of 1981. After their stunning upset to end Alabama's 28-game winning streak as well as a nationally televised loss in the Sun Bowl to Nebraska (where State did not embarrass themselves by any means), MSU's thumping 28-7 defeat of Florida on September 26 moved the Bulldogs into the top ten for only the third time in school history (and first since 1965). The Dawgs were ninth, which equaled their highest ever ranking, but Coach Emory Bellard warned the starry eyed faithful that the trip down the polls is much faster than the ascent. MSU promptly took his warning and paid no heed to it, losing at home to unbeaten Missouri and only scoring three points in the process. Missouri put the game away with a clinching TD with only 91 seconds left, a defeat that dropped the Bulldogs all the way to 19 (back when only twenty teams were ranked weekly). Number seven Ohio State took a tumble with a 36-27 home loss to Florida State, a much bigger upset in 1981 than it would have been in, say, 1991. Oklahoma turned the ball over another seven times and wound up settling for a tie against annual Big Eight mediocrity Iowa State, a tie that probably ended any Sooner hopes for a national championship. BYU's stellar quarterback Jim McMahon was out for the Utah State game with a knee injury, so LaVell Edwards looked at his bench and summoned a heretofore unknown signal caller named Steve Young. Yes, THAT Steve Young, who led the Cougars to a thrilling win, their 17th in a row. And likely responding to the bad press (or perhaps an angry grizzly), Alabama obliterated Ole Miss, 38-7, to extend the Tuscaloosa home winning streak and clinch victory number 310 for the 68-year old coach. Iowa State, who had entered the poll at 20 the previous week, saw their tie vault them all the way to number 12 in the latest edition of "how stupid can pollsters actually be." It was yet another case of pollsters not admitting they had simply misjudged that Oklahoma was some sort of fantastic foe. Of course, if they overrated Oklahoma then USC's win over OU wasn't as impressive as thought to be. And that, in fact, turned out to be the case on October 10, 1981.
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Hosting Pac Ten newcomer Arizona, the Trojans fell to a combination of a swarming defense and ball control offense. Marcus Allen did extend his record streak of 200-yard rushing games to five - 74 coming on one first quarter TD gallop - but the three touchdown underdog Wildcats kept USC in check the rest of the way, controlling the ball so well that the Trojans only ran seven offensive plays in the third quarter. Number seven Alabama also saw their national title hopes fall to minuscule in a controversial 13-13 tie with perennial second level Southern Missisippi. With USM Coach Bobby Collins calling it "a big tie for our program" (???), Bryant was left to stew after Les Miles-level clock management that saw Alabama fail to run off enough time before the final punt and then - inexplicably - call timeout with eight seconds left, a strategic decision that was crucial to USM even getting a chance to try the game-tying 41-yard Steve Clark field goal. When asked about the decision, Bryant sort of mused that there was "disorganization on the sidelines." Keep in mind that in 1981, quarterbacks had to throw the ball out of bounds rather than spike it to stop the clock. It is debatable whether Reggie Collier could have gotten the snap off quickly enough and tossed it out of bounds in the rules of 1981, but the timeout ensured it simply didn't matter. Rumor has persisted for nearly forty years that the colossal screw-up was made by an Alabama player and that Bryant threw himself on the sword to protect the player, but the prominent interpretation in October of 1981 was that the 68-year old coach was starting to lose his mind. Alabama dropped in the polls, and the national championship hopes were all but dead at this point. The tie with Southern Miss would haunt Alabama in many ways through the end of the season.

In Dallas, Texas steamrolled the same Oklahoma team that USC had barely survived. The most stunning loss of week seven, though, was probably UNLV's incredible 45-41 upset over BYU in Provo that ended the Cougars' 17-game winning streak. BYU had seven starters out with an injury but this didn't prevent them from building a 41-26 lead behind backup QB Steve Young. But UNLV scored the game-winner with 20 seconds left, and the highest ranking in BYU history (at that time) fell by the wayside. With the win in the Red River Rivalry, Texas jumped #2 Penn State for the top spot in the polls. USC fell to seven while Alabama plummeted from seven all the way to #15, showing that Ara Parseghian's theory that if you tie a game but don't lose, you keep your ranking with pure, unalloyed horse puckey (it should also be noted that USM was unbeaten at the time and would actually go 8-0-1 and be ranked before finally losing. Their later success would help move Alabama back into the higher echelon of the ratings.

Texas was the fourth team to hold the top spot, and only seven days after beating Oklahoma, they became the fourth team to relinquish it when Lou Holtz's Arkansas Razorbacks absolutely demolished the Longhorns, 42-11, the worst Texas defeat by the Hawgs in 43 years. Texas didn't even score until late in the fourth quarter when already trailing, 39-3. A defensive struggle in Ann Arbor saw the Wolverines hold the Iowa Hawkeyes to three field goals and still lose, 9-7. When Wisconsin upset Michigan State the same day, Iowa became the front-runner in the Big Ten. Iowa had not played in the Rose Bowl since the end of the 1958 season, so the excitement in America's corn field was palpable. Unbeaten #8 Missouri was revealed to be a paper tiger when Iowa State - with a backup QB, no less - destroyed Mizzou, 34-13. And in a matchup of highly rated foes, #3 Pitt sandblasted #11 Florida State, 42-14, to extend the Panthers' longest-winning streak in the nation to 17. Their last loss, in fact, had been an upset to the Seminoles in 1980. Four teams in the top 11 went down to defeat - three in blowouts - and the poll shuffling saw Alabama's tie as more forgivable after their thumping of Tennessee while Mississippi State moved into the top ten at number nine. Penn State was the new number one, but nobody felt the Lions could hold it. They had upcoming games with Miami on the road and a three-week slate in November that had them facing Alabama, Notre Dame, and Pitt on three consecutive weekends.

In fact, it was far from certain that Penn State would remain on top for more than one week because their next game was against sometime rival West Virginia, and the Lions were missing their best player, running back Curt Warner. It didn't seem to matter, though, as they whitewashed the Mountaineers, 30-7, turning future NFL QB Oliver Luck (father of Andrew) into a befuddled mess. Number 3 North Carolina was the newest upset victim, Injuries more than anything wiped out the Tar Heels, who were missing both starting RBs (Heisman candidate Kelvin Bryant and Tyrone Anthony) and their best defensive player, LB Darrell Nicholson. On top of all these injuries, UNC lost their quarterback early in the first quarter and snoozed their way to a 31-13 loss against South Carolina. One week after beating Michigan with zero touchdowns, Iowa got a dose of their own medicine by not surrendering a single TD to Minnesota but giving up four FGs in a 12-10 loss that crippled the Hawkeyes' Rose Bowl hopes. And just one week after smashing Texas, Arkansas lost a 20-17 squeaker to Houston. Three other low-scoring games embodied the season and muddled the national title picture.

The best team money could buy (#8 SMU) held #10 Texas to three field goals and lost when the Longhorns held Eric Dickerson to a mere 33 yards rushing (on 18 carries) in a 9-7 triumph that made Texas the 7th school to win 600 collegiate football games. Nebraska and Missouri very nearly played the first 0-0 Big Eight tie since 1967, but the Huskers scored on their final possession to beat the Tigers, 6-0, in Columbia. And in South Bend, the Fighting Irish - experiencing growing pains under Gerry Faust - had USC in what appeared to be a 7-7 standstill until the Trojans countered the Irish focus on Marcus Allen (whom they "held" to 147 yards rushing) with a counter handoff to FB Rod Spencer, who galloped 26 yards for a fourth quarter TD that won the game for USC. It was now time for spooky Halloween stories, and college football again contributed their own horror.


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The most important was Miami's 17-14 upset of Penn State that saw the Hurricanes jump out to a 17-0 lead and then hold on for dear life, making the Lions the fifth team of 1981 to fall from the top spot. Clemson, now #3 in the polls, pulled an old Big Eight trick by hanging 82 points on Wake Forest in a game where their punter never made a single appearance on the field. The Tigers scored on 13 of 15 possessions and turned the ball over on the other two. But the horrors were out in full regale as #7 Mississippi State took on #8 Alabama in Bryant-Denny Stadium. The game matched the inventor of the wishbone, MSU's Emory Bellard, with the perfecter of the wishbone, Paul Bryant. The two teams combined for a whopping 17 fumbles - and an unreal 13 turnovers (MSU threw both INTs) - before Alabama prevailed, 13-10. MSU went right down the field at the start of the game to score a touchdown less than three minutes into the game. Alabama's touchdown, fittingly, came when Joe Carter recovered a Ken Simon fumble in the end zone. Alabama's excellent Hawaiian kicker, Peter Kim, was injured on a field goal attempt just before halftime. Second-string kicker Terry Sanders booted what turned out to be the game-winning field goal with 10:34 remaining. A last-minute desperation drive by MSU's John Bond went 69 yards before Tommy Wilcox intercepted Bond's third down pass at the one-yard line to preserve the victory. It is probable that if Wilcox had been unsuccessful that MSU would have settled for a tie. The victory extended Alabama's home stadium winning streak to 55 games and gave Coach Paul Bryant his 313th career victory, tying Pop Warner for #2 all-time. (A later NCAA research project credited Warner with 336 career wins). Penn State's loss elevated the Pitt Panthers to the top spot with Clemson second, USC third, UGA fourth, and Texas at five. Penn St dropped from one to six, one spot ahead of Alabama, and the two teams were scheduled to meet for the first time ever in Happy Valley just two weeks later.


Almost nobody outside of the South had ever even heard of the Clemson Tigers, but here they were at #2. It was assumed that their upcoming top ten clash with #8 North Carolina would likely be the end of the road for the Tigers, particularly since the Tar Heels' star RB Kelvin Bryant was returning to the lineup after missing four games with a knee injury. However, Carolina was also missing starting QB Rod Elkins as their 36 ppg offense faced a defense giving up only 7.7 ppg. The game was nationally televised and - at the time - the biggest football game with the highest ranked teams in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference. A defensive struggle ensued that saw Carolina take a 3-0 lead early in the second period followed by Clemson scoring the game's lone touchdown via a Jeff McCall run from the 7 a little later in the first half. With only 14 seconds left in the first half, Clemson was forced to punt out of their own end zone. The blocked punt rolled out of the end zone, and Clemson went into the intermission with a 7-5 lead. A Donald Igwebuike field goal midway through the third quarter put Clemson up by five, but UNC countered it with their own Brooks Barwick field goal to narrow the score to 10-8 entering the fourth quarter. Despite getting into Clemson territory twice in the fourth period, Carolina could not score against the ferocious Tiger defense, and Clemson won the biggest game in ACC history by a final score of 10-8. One might suspect that Miami would come out flat after the big win over Penn State and a #13 ranking - followed by the NCAA socking the Hurricanes with a two-year NCAA probation for recruiting violations in the middle of the week - but Miami rose to the occasion and put away Bobby Bowden's Seminoles, 27-19, in a game tied at 13 entering the fourth quarter. One of those exciting Miami-FSU fourth quarters that would soon become tradition ensued, and the Canes were substantially better than the Noles on this day. Because Miami's two-year bowl ban began in 1981, the Canes could not make another bowl game appearance until 1983. Georgia and Florida played to another 26-21 Bulldog win in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, but the game was slightly less scintillating than the 1980 version. Georgia again scored late in the fourth quarter - this time a Herschel Walker dive from the one with 2:31 left - and while not as exciting as Lindsay Scott's unforgettable catch and dash, it kept the Bulldogs' SEC and national title hopes alive. Houston and Texas played to a 14-14 tie that would have a major effect on the outcome of the SWC race, Minnesota upset #18 Ohio State by scoring the winning TD with less than 3 minutes left, and UCLA crushed #16 Washington in a 31-0 blowout that set up a potential "winner goes to the Rose Bowl" game between the Huskies and USC next week.

On November 14, 1981, Paul Bryant tied Amos Alonzo Stagg's record win total of 314 with a 31-16 shellacking of Penn State in Happy Valley. While the wishbone did its job, rushing for 279 yards, it was the surprising aerial assault (by 1981 standards) of Walter Lewis (6 for 10 and 167 yards) that fueled the offense this day. Penn State may have wondered what they had to do to score from the one-yard line against Alabama, as yet another goal line stand kept the Nittany Lions from making it a game, Mike Pitts tackling future NFL star Curt Warner on fourth down. Alabama led, 24-3, at halftime and mailed in most of the rest of the game as Penn St had nearly 300 yards of offense in the second half. Penn State Coach Joe Paterno, who would later himself become the all-time wins leader (and coincidentally, whose last loss was to Alabama in Happy Valley) expressed admiration and happiness for Bryant's accomplishment. Two top ten foes in a row, two wins for Alabama. Clemson won their eight ACC title with a 21-10 win over Maryland. In a game that saw swirling 60 mph winds torment Marcus Allen, holding him to "only" 155 yards rushing, the sole touchdown occurred when Washington hit a field goal to take a 6-3 lead and then recovered a fumble in the end zone for the game's only touchdown in their 13-3 defeat of Southern Cal. Washington was on track to make the Rose Bowl now if they just won out, but USC's defeat clouded the already murky bowl picture. And perhaps never was the bowl picture more confusing than what happened in 1981.


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The politics surrounding the bowl games was perhaps never more prominent or enraging than the selection process of 1981. A Rubik's cube of rules quickly became more confusing than understanding the federal budget. Bowl bids could not be extended prior to November 21, but the mad scramble had been going on for three weeks and was complicated in 1981 by two new factors that had never entered the discussion in prior years, the addition of the Fiesta Bowl to New Year's Day and a change in selection rules for the Sugar Bowl passed the previous spring.

The Fiesta Bowl began in 1971 as an outgrowth of the frustration of members of the Western Athletic Conference failing to receive bowl bids. In 1970, an undefeated Arizona St team went to the Peach Bowl and knocked off North Carolina. The community leaders of Tempe, Arizona created the Fiesta Bowl with an automatic selection going to the WAC champion, a particularly fortuitous circumstance given that Tempe-based Arizona St was (at the time) the WAC power. Their timing was perfect. In 1968, the AP began counting bowl games in the national champion selection process, Notre Dame joined the bowl game parade in 1970, and the Big Ten and Pac Eight began letting their teams playing in "non-Rose Bowl" competitions in 1975, shortly after they abolished the "no repeat" rule that forbid the conference champions from consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. This increased the number of available teams, and in 1975, the Fiesta Bowl brokered a deal with Big Eight commissioner Chuck Neinas to send the loser of the Oklahoma-Nebraska game to the Fiesta Bowl. Nebraska spent several days pouting in public but accepted the bid and its low payout, and the bowl game grew in recognition when Arizona State pulled off a stunning upset of the Huskers. CBS then entered the fray and persuaded the Fiesta Bowl to move their game from "late December" to Christmas Day. Although this move lowered the attendance in the stadium, it increased the national TV rating simply because at that time there were virtually no other sports on TV on Christmas Day (save for the Blue-Gray Classic). In January of 1981, Fiesta Bowl Executive Director Bruce Skinner attended the NCAA Convention in Miami Beach, and he learned that the Sugar Bowl – at the urging of ABC television - was planning to move its telecast from the early afternoon (where it was played on ABC concurrent with the Cotton Bowl on CBS) to prime time, where it would run head-to-head against the Orange Bowl. Skinner enlisted the support of NBC and went for broke: he went to the NCAA Postseason Football Committee and requested to play the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day! The Big Four bowls (Rose, Sugar, Cotton, Orange) mounted a campaign to stop this usurper from crashing their party. The NCAA, however, consulted with their own attorneys and were basically told they'd lose in court if they denied the petition. On April 26, 1981, the NCAA assented to the Fiesta Bowl's request, and the 1982 Fiesta Bowl was scheduled for New Year's Day. This was not the last time the Fiesta Bowl would shake up the system. In fact, it wasn't even the last time in 1981 as we shall soon see. The second problem enraged the most vocal and visible fan base in the Southeast into a crimson fury.

Paul Bryant never wanted a mandatory bowl tie-in. His freedom to pick his own bowl games had been instrumental in Alabama winning the 1965 national championship. What if Alabama had not gotten to play #3 Nebraska that year, and the Cornhuskers had won a different bowl game? In 1978, Alabama was again bailed out by a Nebraska loss, this time to Missouri. Had the Huskers won then they'd have met Penn State for the national title in the Orange Bowl despite the horrible truth that Alabama had thumped the Huskers, 20-3, in the opening game of the season. But Bryant had assented to the deal because it was guaranteed millions for the SEC. Even the Sugar Bowl acknowledged that "if it weren't for Bear Bryant, we'd be the Peach Bowl." Bryant had arranged a showdown with Oklahoma in 1971 only to be undercut by the Sugar Bowl committee inviting Auburn, leaving the Tide to a severe mauling at the hands of (again!) Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Bryant also was the one who persuaded the Sugar Bowl to match Alabama and Notre Dame in the 1973 game that stood for years as one of the greatest games ever played. That's why what happened to Bryant and Alabama in 1981 felt like "Et tu, Brute" to millions of Alabama fans across the nation.

As the bowls began jockeying for position, there were complicating factors. The Big Eight champion was going to the Orange Bowl, the SWC champion to the Cotton Bowl, the Rose Bowl had its annual snooze-fest between the Big Ten and Pac Ten champion, and the Sugar Bowl had an obligation to select the SEC champion. The problem, however, was that there were going to (most likely) be two SEC champions. Once Alabama got past Mississippi State and Georgia beat Auburn, not a single executive could have pretended to believe that Auburn was going to beat Alabama in what was now sure to be Bryant's first attempt at becoming the winningest coach in history. Before the spring of 1981, this would have been no contest: Alabama would have been the selection due to the "most recent selection" rule, which gave priority to the team that had not played in the bowl game most recently. Since Georgia had played in the 1981 game, Alabama would have played in the 1982 game. But the Sugar Bowl committee rescinded that rule earlier in the year for two reasons: 1) it prevented them from being obligated to select a team ranked lower in the polls simply because that team was the conference champion; and 2) because bowls were extending bids privately long before the permitted date, it was to enable the SEC to quickly snap up the more lucrative bowl monies. Consider this example: let's say that Georgia and Alabama tied for the SEC championship. The Sugar Bowl would have no way of knowing this for certain until the last team played their last conference game. In that two-week period, the other lucrative bowls that might select an SEC team - most notably the Cotton and Orange Bowls - would be tempted to reach deals with bigger names to ensure a boost to their rating. Say, for instance, the Cotton Bowl had to decide between a national power like USC and getting the loser of the Alabama-Georgia selection and then Alabama lost to Auburn, lowering the national implications of the game. The Cotton Bowl would lock down USC, and the SEC would lose out on $1.9 million from the Cotton Bowl payout. As it turned out, I just described for you exactly what occurred in 1981. The ratings also complicated everything.

On November 16, the AP released their rankings:

1) Pitt

2) Clemson

3) Georgia

4) Alabama

5) Nebraska

6) SMU

7) Michigan

8) Texas

9) Southern Miss

10) USC

It was here that the Fiesta Bowl again became a complicating factor. Bruce Skinner had a novel idea that he would later successfully accomplish in 1986: why not match up #1 Pitt and #2 Clemson in a battle of the unbeatens for the national championship? Skinner, in fact, began talking with NBC about forking over a huge amount of money to compensate for the dollars lost by pushing aside the bigger paying and more prestigious bowl games. (This is the exact plan he would follow to pull off the Miami vs Penn State ratings grabber for January 2, 1987). This plan would shut out all other bowl games from the national championship picture and relegate them to somewhat lesser status in one fell swoop. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, the Sugar Bowl made their move: they leaked that Georgia was going to be SEC selection based on their higher ranking, and they wanted Pitt to set up a 1 vs 3 showdown. Because the Sugar Bowl was providing substantially more money, they had to get a commitment. Pitt Coach Jackie Sherrill wanted to face his old coach, Bryant, in the Sugar Bowl, but he also wasn't going to quibble over that given the millions at stake. Alabama, who under the old system would have been going to New Orleans, was being left high and dry and potentially shut out of any national title picture by one corporate decision. The outrage in Alabama was palpable, almost a "how can you do this to us after all we've done for you." Mickey Holmes, the head of the Sugar Bowl committee, even expressed that sentiment, wishing somehow there was a way to accommodate Alabama. But Alabama also had a major decision to make: accept the high-paying Cotton Bowl before USC could grab it or lose millions in the process. There was only one proper decision, and so Bryant assented that Alabama would return to Dallas to face whichever team won the SWC (unless it was SMU, who was on probation even then). The Cotton Bowl had an additional rooting interest: if Auburn managed to upset Alabama in the Iron Bowl, Bryant would be attempting to break the record on New Year's Day, and the hype for such a contest would sell itself. Meanwhile, the Fiesta Bowl settled for Penn State and USC.

Of course, none of this "actually" took place since everyone involved denied it. So a full week before bowl bids could be extended, the SEC knew they were coming home with almost $4 million just from their conference champions.


Hall of Fame

When Pitt accepted the Sugar Bowl arrangement, the ball was now in Clemson's court. And the highest ranked team as the Tigers looked down the schedule was #5 Nebraska. A $1.5 million payday, a game against Nebraska, and - if things broke correctly - a national championship, which nobody outside of South Carolina thought could possibly happen. Georgia needed Clemson to lose while Alabama needed Pitt, Clemson, and Georgia to lose - and none at the hands of the Tide. SMU won their first SWC title since 1966 with a 32-18 thumping of Lou Holtz and Arkansas. They'd have to stay at home, but they could always refer to the Cotton Bowl rep as a "paper champion." Washington clinched a spot in the Rose Bowl when USC edged UCLA, 22-21, and the Huskies prevailed in the Apple Cup by a 23-10 score over Washington State. It was their second straight trip to Pasadena. Ohio State upset Michigan, 14-9, in Art Schlichster's last regular season game. He ended the scoring with a 7-yard TD run. Michigan got inside the Buckeyes 30 an incredible six times but left with three field goals and three interceptions in the defeat. Iowa routed Michigan State, 36-7, on the same day, and the Rose Bowl was set. Georgia was selected for the Sugar Bowl, and Vince Dooley conveniently forgot his place (or the old rules of the game) by saying, "We deserve it," a shot across the bow at the Alabama faithful that no longer held most of the high cards.

The final Saturday of November 1981 belonged - in all ways - to Alabama Coach Paul William Bryant.

The early game saw #1 Pitt take their 17-game winning streak into the "Battle of Pennsylvania" against previous #1 Penn State (now ranked 11th). In the first quarter, Dan Marino hit two quick TDs to WR Dwight Collins and the stifling Pitt defense held the Lions to -1 yard of total offense as the Panthers raced out to a 14-0 lead. The teams switched ends with the Panthers at the Penn State 31. Marino went for the kill, a quick third TD to bury Penn State early. Marino's bomb to Collins in the end zone was intercepted by Roger Jackson just in bounds. Penn State got the ball at the 20, and one of the most stunning reversals in the history of football occurred. Todd Blackledge marched Penn State right down the field for a bruising 80-yard drive that narrowed the gap to 14-7. With 2:42 left in the half, Blackledge took it 8 yards himself for a touchdown that sent the teams in tied at 14 at the half. Coming back onto the field, Penn State forced six more Panther turnovers and scored 34 points to wipe out Pitt's title aspirations, 17-game winning streak, and turn the smile on the faces of the Sugar Bowl committee to a frown while bringing a grin to the Fiesta Bowl director's face. In just three quarters of football, Alabama had gone from "team that didn't go to the Sugar Bowl" to "potential national champion" if things broke right. First, however, there was the formality of beating Auburn and his former assistant, Pat Dye.

To say that Auburn showed up to fight is an understatement of biblical proportions. Although 5-5 and a 12-point underdog, the Tigers made Bryant work for the record. Auburn missed three first-half field goals and threw an interception into the end zone all while keeping Alabama on their heels the first half, which ended with a 7-7 tie. Auburn gained over 200 yards to Alabama's paltry 86, and a few breaks could have had the Tigers leading, 23-7. Alabama scored early in the second half, but Auburn came back with ten points to lead by three with only 13 minutes left in the game. But Walter Lewis's 38-yard strike to Jesse Bendross put the Tide in the lead for good, and Linnie Patrick's TD run iced the game with a final score of 28-17. Bryant had won his 315th game, and with a little luck on New Year's Day he could claim his seventh national championship. The winner of Florida-Florida State was assured an invitation to the Peach Bowl, and the Gators romped to a 35-3 win behind QB Wayne Peace's four TD performance. One week later, Navy and Army played to a boring 3-3 tie that cheered the Cadets and felt like a loss to the Midshipmen, who were preparing for a Liberty Bowl date with Ohio State. Georgia crushed Georgia Tech, 44-7, on the same day Herschel Walker finished second to Marcus Allen in the Heisman Trophy voting. On the first play of the game, QB Buck Belue faked to Walker, and it fooled the entire Yellow Jackets team. He then unloaded a bomb to Lindsay Scott for an 80-yard touchdown, and the game was pretty much over at that point.


1) Clemson

2) Georgia

3) Alabama

4) Nebraska

5) SMU

6) Texas

7) Penn St

8) USC

9) Miami

10) Pitt


Hall of Fame

Fifteen bowl games dotted the landscape in 1981 and began just one week after the close of the regular season. Texas A/M crushed Oklahoma State, 33-16, in the Independence Bowl behind QB Gary Kubiak. A four-year experiment known as the Garden State Bowl featured fast Tennessee and powerful Wisconsin with speed prevailing, 28-21. When the bowl game lost its certification, the New Jersey Sports Authority regrouped and held an annual Kickoff Classic to start the college football season for the next 20 years. Washington State played in their first bowl game in fifty years when they took on BYU in an exciting Holiday Bowl. BYU jumped out to a 31-7 lead, but Wazzu hit three straight TDs in the second half to narrow the gap to 31-28. Each team scored one more TD, and the Holiday Bowl was against an offensive show to behold as BYU won by four. The Sun Bowl saw Oklahoma beat Houston with Houston's former quarterback, Darrell Shephard, who had transferred after it was revealed Houston had broken NCAA rules to recruit him. Oklahoma blew out Houston, 40-14, in a game that was 10-7, OU, at the start of the fourth quarter before things went haywire. North Carolina's exciting 31-27 win over Arkansas in the Gator Bowl ensured that for the first time ever, two ACC teams would finish in the top ten. With Navy coach George Welsh already the new hire at Virginia, the Middies gave Ohio State everything the Buckeyes could handle, leading by three in the third quarter. But the talent gap was too much as OSU held on tight for a 31-28 win, ending the game by recovering an onside kick with eight seconds remaining. The last day of 1981 brought a trio of relatively boring games.

In Atlanta, the underdog West Virginia Mountaineers held Florida to only 105 total yards with a superlative defensive effort that resulted in a 26-6 victory for Don Nehlen's charges. Mississippi State then won the most boring bowl game in the history of mankind. Kansas fumbled the opening kickoff, and the Bulldogs recovered at the KU 17. On the first play from scrimmage, QB John Bond raced 17 yards for a touchdown that sealed the game. State kicked a later field goal, but the two teams put an entire nation to sleep in a boring 10-0 Bulldog win. Tragedy struck Kansas before the game when fullback Chris Emerson died of a pulmonary embolism. Emerson was not in Birmingham but had remained back home in Lawrence, Kansas after a second surgery on his right knee less than a month earlier (Emerson missed the 1981 season due to his first knee surgery). And in "this is not the Rose Bowl," Michigan crushed UCLA, 33-14, in the Houston-based Bluebonnet Bowl as Anthony Carter caught six passes for 127 yards and a touchdown. The game is best remembered for a pregame argument between the coaching staffs concerning whether or not to use a 25 second clock that could be seen by the players in an effort to avoid delay of game penalties. The Big Ten rules of the time forbid the use of the clock, and the officials ruled in favor of Michigan. And thus began the final day of the 1981 season and the first day of 1982.

The first kickoff belonged to the new kid on the block, the Fiesta Bowl with USC as a two-point favorite. Penn State, who had faced the toughest schedule in the nation (including Nebraska, Miami, Alabama, and Pitt), gave Marcus Allen the worst day of his Heisman-winning year, holding him to a mere 85 yards on 30 carries - and forcing him to fumble twice, both lost to the Lions. By contrast, Penn State RB Curt Warner dashed for 145 yards and two TDs. The Penn State defense also forced four interceptions, five sacks, and knocked USC QB John Mazur out of the game with a concussion. The only miracle is that USC didn't get waxed worse than the final score of 26-10. In Dallas, the Crimson Tide faced a Texas school they had never beaten and their legendary coach had only beaten once, 25 years earlier while he was at Texas A/M. An Alabama win coupled with losses by Georgia and Clemson would net Alabama another national title. After an eight-year span that saw Paul Bryant go 0-7-1 in bowls, he now stood ready for yet another record: a win would make Bryant the first coach in history to win seven consecutive bowl games. To make it richer, Alabama went off as a 2 1/2 point favorite. And for 3 1/2 quarters, it appeared he would do so. A six-yard Walter Lewis TD pass to Jesse Bendross plus a Peter Kim field goal gave Alabama a 10-0 lead with ten minutes let in the game. (It is perhaps fitting that Paul Bryant's final New Year's Day bowl game was called by the legendary Lindsey Nelson with Pro Football Hall of Famer (and Navy veteran) Roger Staubach providing color commentary). On third and ten from the Alabama 30, Robert Brewer - a victim of a whopping ten sacks on the day - lined up to pass again. Warren Lyles's position tipped Brewer that a blitz was coming, so he called time out. Returning to the field with a different play, Brewer took three steps back and then darted through the middle of the line where nobody stood. Not a soul touched him as he raced 30 yards for the touchdown that got Texas, who had already missed three field goals, back into the game and trailing by the narrow margin of 10-7. With 5:59 left, Texas got the ball back at their own 20. Brewer masterfully guided Texas the length of the field in just under four minutes for a Terry Orr touchdown on an 8-yard run that gave Texas a 14-10 lead with only 2:05 left. Joey Jones took the ensuing kickoff at his own one and dashed all the way to the Texas 37 to keep Alabama's hopes alive. But when he went for it all, Walter Lewis threw only the fourth Alabama interception in the last two seasons that was caught at the one-yard line by William Graham. Texas ran three quarterback sneaks into the line, ran down the clock and then took an intentional safety to prevent a blocked punt from winning the game. With 48 seconds left, Texas punted from their own 20. With no timeouts left, Walter Lewis failed to get out of bounds with no timeouts left, and Alabama came up on the short, 14-12.


Hall of Fame
Washington then performed the ritual killing so often seen in Rose Bowls from the 70s through the 90s. It happened without fail almost every single year. A Big Ten team would roar into the game with mountains of hype and the (mostly from Big Ten schools, particularly Northwestern) media boasting about how this was the year of a Big Ten revival. The West Coast team would be completely ignored. The Big Ten team would be the favorite (as was Iowa by 2 1/2). And then on game day, Hitler would invade Poland yet again. Quite frankly, Poland put up more of a fight than a number of Big Ten schools did. This time it was Cinderella Iowa turning into a pumpkin as Washington throttled them, 28-0. Despite Iowa having the nation's number five defense against the run, Washington's Jacque Robinson - who had rushed for a whopping 177 yards during the regular season (also known as "three quarters for Marcus Allen") - ran for 142 and two TDs as the Huskies drilled the Hawkeyes despite using a backup QB. And that left two prime time games to determine the national champion.

The Sugar Bowl was billed as a contest between Pitt's Dan Marino and Georgia's Herschel Walker, the two leading Heisman contenders for 1982. The oddsmakers gave a slight edge to Georgia, who entered the game as a one-point favorite. On the stat sheet, Pitt won a massacre. They had 27 first downs to Georgia's eleven, 469 total yards to the Bulldogs's 224, and held Herschel Walker to his lowest rushing total of the year (84 yards on 25 carries). But the Panthers trailed, 20-17, with only 35 seconds remaining while facing a fourth and five at the Georgia 33. Jackie Sherrill's limited options were to either go for the first down or attempt an unlikely 50-yard field goal that would do nothing more than tie the game. Pitt opted to go for it and when Georgia sent the house, Marino showed the form that would make him a superstar just three years later when he fired a quick release bomb over the blitz that WR John Brown caught on his shoulder pad in the middle of the end zone for a sensational 33-yard game-winning TD that sent the Sugar Bowl crowd into a frenzy. Pitt held Georgia on the following series, and the Bulldogs dropped only their third game in the last 24. With the Sugar Bowl ending halfway through the fourth quarter of the Orange Bowl, it was suddenly a winner-take-all game for Clemson and Nebraska in the Miami humidity.

The biggest point spread of New Year's Day 1982 favored Nebraska by four over Clemson. The Tigers were considered little more than "well, somebody has to be number one and they ARE undefeated." After Georgia won the 1980 national championship by facing one of the softest schedules in history (opponent records: 45-75-1, with 9-1-1 of that coming from Sugar Bowl foe Notre Dame), Clemson was being ridiculed for their schedule as well. The ACC played big-time basketball, not football, and Clemson's dismantling of Wofford and Tulane impressed nobody. The one big name in the Clemson graveyard was, of course, Georgia, but the game was written off as a fluke. Almost nobody believed Clemson had a prayer at winning the Orange Bowl, and press reports at the time suggest even a win would not guarantee the Tigers a national championship depending on what happened elsewhere. The annual newspaper editorials - as predictable as "who should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame?" - kicked off again with demands for a....however many team playoff to determine the "real" national champion. As if matters weren't intriguing enough. Clemson QB Homer Jordan had played his high school ball in Athens, Georgia. Nebraska added to the story line because a number of their players had no idea where Clemson was. Defensive end Jimmy Williams said it was in North Carolina while QB Mark Mauer correctly decided it was South Carolina. Danny Ford, a Paul Bryant disciple and the nation's youngest head coach at 33, did his best imitation of Bryant poor mouthing his own team, pointing out that Nebraska averaged five points per game more than Clemson did, and the real total was even higher because of Clemson's 82 points against Wake Forest. Ford expressed concern that if Nebraska got 21 or more points, Clemson couldn't win. After all, Clemson had not even appeared in a major bowl game since 1958, and they lost that one.

Clemson's stifling defense never let the Cornhuskers get going. Two Nebraska turnovers in their own territory gave Clemson a quick 9-0 lead. They went in to halftime with a 12-7 margin and scored ten more points to own a 15-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Clemson stretched the lead to 22-7 before setting up in prevent and allowing Nebraska to move down the field and score to narrow the gap to 22-15 with 5:24 left. Clemson then methodically ran out all but the final six seconds before running off the field with the first national championship in school history and only the second team in the history of the ACC to win it (1953 Maryland was the first). When asked about his "soft schedule," Danny Ford had done his homework. He pointed out that Clemson was the only team in the country to beat three teams that would be ranked in the final top ten - Nebraska, North Carolina, and Georgia. And although the final vote tally was note quite unanimous - one first-place vote for #3 Penn State and one for probation riddled #5 SMU - it was sufficient. After years of anonymity, Clemson had reached the summit and made a name for themselves as the only team in 1981 to successfully hold onto the number one ranking after attaining it.

A look at the final top ten - yet again - reveals some nonsense:

Final AP Poll
1) Clemson
2) Texas - blowout loss to Ark, tie with Houston
3) Penn State - a 2-loss team with losses to both Alabama and Miami
4) Pitt - one loss, 48-14, to Penn St
5) SMU - one loss, 9-7, to Texas
6) Georgia - two losses, Pitt and Clemson
7) Alabama - two losses (Ga Tech and Texas) but a win over Penn St
8) Miami - losses to Texas and Miss St but a win over Penn St
9) N Carolina - losses to S Carolina and Clemson
10) Washington - blowout losses to Arizona St and UCLA

In an anecdote for history, in a span of less than 24 hours, the Orange Bowl stadium hosted both the national championship football game and the incredible Epic in Miami, the infamous divisional playoff where San Diego proved to be three points better than Miami with nearly 14 minutes of overtime played.
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Hall of Fame

Pundits never mention 1981 as one of their arguments in favor of a playoff but only because the nation's only unbeaten wound up as champion. It would have only taken two plays - Marino throwing an incompletion in the Sugar Bowl and Nebraska scoring a TD that beat Clemson - to bring about an absolute train wreck in the final discussion. If both of those had happened, which team would be number one?

Suppose that Clemson lost by one point to Nebraska while Georgia beat Pitt. How in the world can a pollster put Georgia ahead of Clemson after a 10-point loss? Presumably, some pundits would invoke 1978, but the parallel doesn't apply since Georgia did not beat the #1 team in the final game. And could you really lift two-loss Nebraska above one-loss Georgia? You could not even lift a 2-loss Nebraska over 2-loss Penn State given the head-to-head argument. What about Texas? Can you really lift a team that had a 31-point loss to an eventually unranked team above a one-loss #2 that won their bowl game? Would the AP "really" reach down to #5 and elevate SMU, a team that couldn't even play in a post-season bowl game due to their cheating, all the way to #1? Even if they did, the UPI poll did not permit teams on probation to be ranked, so we would still have the same problem.

In the end, you either wind up with a champion who lost the bowl game (making it worthless), a team on probation jumping everyone despite those teams winning (making the poll worthless), or a team that lost by double digits head-to-head (making the game itself worthless). 1981 was a fun season and a great time to be alive, but the matter in which a champion settled was precarious and bound to find trouble. It did - in 1982.
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Aug 8, 2011
Birmingham, AL
I was in attendance at Legion Field for the 13-13 tie with USM. Southern Miss was rushing down field to the LOS with time running out. It was highly questionable whether Southern Miss would have had time to line up, throw the ball out of bounds to stop the clock, then line up for the tying field goal.

Inexplicably Robbie Jones (Alabama LB) called timeout.

I do remember Bryant making the statement afterwards about “confusion and disorganization” and “I told Robbie in those situations to call time out if he needed”.

Per usual Bryant, at least to my recollection, Bryant took the blame for Robbie calling the timeout.


Hall of Fame
Jan 15, 2000
Houston, Texas USA
I lived in Mobile at the time. One of my colleagues was a UT guy, so we drove to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl (his parents lived there, too). He scored some great seats, about the 40 yard line a dozen or so rows up, with the UT cheerleaders right in front of us. I took a roll of pictures (mostly the cheerleaders) and upon getting my film back from the developer the only photo that came out was Brewer’s QB draw.

We saw the Cowboys vs Bucs the next day.
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Hall of Fame
Nov 13, 2010
Wow! Return me to2020. Where is Doc's DeLorean when you need it?:unsure:

Very interesting read, Selma! From whence did you get that or did you write that yourself? :cool: