College Football: The Bowls As They Used to Be

We’re going to take you back to before the CFP and the BCS. A time when the New Year Day Bowls really meant something.  When that day was the best day of the season for college football. We’ll take you back to the conclusion of the 1977 season and the major bowls of 1978.

Since January 1st, 1978 was on a Sunday, the four major bowls were all played on Monday, January 2nd. That didn’t change the impact of that spectacular day.  

Cotton Bowl: #1 Texas (11-0) vs #5 Notre Dame (10-1)

Led by Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell, and a ground game that averaged over 300 rushing yards a game, Texas was a solid 7-point favorite.

Irish coach Dan Devine was not optimistic, warning his young lads after an uninspired practice:

“If you play like you’re practicing, Texas will blow your butts out of the Cotton Bowl. The day is gone when people lay down for Notre Dame. Play like this, and you’ll wake up in the second quarter and it’ll be 21-zip.”   

Fortunately for Devine, the team heeded his warning and by game time on January 2nd they were ready to play.

Despite Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell rushing for 119 yards on 29 carries, Notre Dame’s defense was dominant.  Bob Golic was all over Campbell, so Earl could only muster four yards a carry. The rest of Campbell’s teammates only managed 15 yards rushing.

Texas quarterback Randy McEachern was under constant pressure. Led by Ross Browner the Irish were all over McEachern. The result was McEachern only completed 11 of 24 passes and threw three interceptions. Two of those picks resulted in Notre Dame touchdowns. Texas runners also fumbled three times, losing all of them. That’s six turnovers to the Irish’s one (a Joe Montana interception that led to no points, yes, that Joe Montana). Notre Dame never had to drive more than 35 yards for any of their 24 first half points.

Montana was not spectacular, but by the third quarter the offensive line was having their way with the Texas defense. The Irish ran 28 plays to Texas’ 12 in that quarter while stretching their lead to 31-10.  

Notre Dame attempted to run up the score in the 4th quarter, continuing to throw the ball while ahead by three touchdowns. Devine tried to assert that he was helping the Longhorn cornerbacks. He explained that they needed “some needed game experience.” But really he was trying to convince the voters in the AP and UPI polls that his team was deserving of the #1 spot. The final score was an impressive 38-10.

“We had a bad day” said Longhorn coach Fred Akers. “Didn’t you ever have a bad day?”

Sugar Bowl: #3 Alabama (10-1) vs #9 Ohio State (9-2)

#3 Alabama crushed #9 Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, 35-6 in the first ever meeting of these two college football powerhouses. After a scoreless first quarter Alabama scored two touchdowns in the second quarter to lead 13-0. Ohio State drove to the Alabama three late in the first half, only to be stopped on a 4th and goal. The Tide stretched their lead to 21-0 on their first possession in the 2nd half and the rout was on. Afterwards Alabama Head Coach Bear Bryant proclaimed, “If Alabama isn’t #1 then nobody ever has been.”

Rose Bowl: #4 Michigan (10-1) vs #13 Washington (7-4)

In the Rose Bowl #4 Michigan was a more than two touchdown favorite over the 8-4 Washington Huskies. But the Big 10 had lost 7 of their previous eight match-ups against the PAC 8 in Pasadena. To the astonishment of most, the Huskies dominated the Wolverines for three quarters, racing out to a 24-0 lead late in the third period. Michigan made a game comeback, but Washington intercepted two balls deep in their own territory late in the fourth quarter, preserving a 27-20 victory for the Warren Moon led Huskies. Washington coach Don James summed his Huskies up best, “I really thought before the game that Michigan was a better team than we were, but I have a lot more respect for my team right now.” 

Orange Bowl: #2 Oklahoma (10-1) vs #6 Arkansas (10-1)

The last game of the day pitted #2 ranked Oklahoma against #6 Arkansas in the Orange Bowl. Both squads entered the game 10-1, but nobody gave the Razorbacks much of a chance.  After all they were a 24 point underdog. To further complicate things Arkansas head coach Lou Holtz had suspended three of his players, including his two top running backs, prior to the game.  With Texas falling in the Cotton Bowl earlier in the day, Oklahoma only needed to win to finish #1. As expected the game wasn’t close. Just not the way the experts predicted. Oklahoma’s future Heisman trophy winner Billy Sims fumbled on the Sooners first possession and Arkansas recovered on the Oklahoma nine. Two plays later it was 7-0. Later in the first quarter the Sooners agained coughed up the football. The Razorbacks again immediately responded with a touchdown, and another route was on. Arkansas’ back-up running back Roland Sales ran for a then record 205 yards in Arkansas’ 31-6 thrashing of the Sooners. 

Now what? Three of the top four teams went down. The team ranked #3 won convincingly against the weakest opponent. #5 and #6 clobbered teams ranked #1 and #2. Every one of the four games had “National Championship” implications.

How did the pollsters sort it all out. The bowl season ended with six one loss teams. Penn State and Kentucky were not in Major Bowls, so they weren’t in serious contention for the #1 spot. Same with Texas, even though they had wins over both Arkansas and Oklahoma during the regular season, they lost their bowl game to Notre Dame. That left Alabama (11-1), Notre Dame (11-1), and Arkansas (11-1) as the candidates. 

Alabama’s only loss was at Nebraska (8-3) in their second game of the season and their best win was against the then #1 ranked USC Trojans, 21-20 (USC would finish 8-4). They had the weakest opponent in their bowl game.

Notre Dame also beat USC, but they smoked them, 49-19, two weeks after Alabama bounced the Trojans from the top spot. Notre Dame’s sole loss was also the second week of the season to Ole Miss (5-6) in Jackson, Mississippi, a team Alabama handled easily the week before.  

Arkansas only loss was a 13-9 setback at home to Texas (11-1). Their best win before the Orange Bowl was a 26-20 triumph over Texas A & M (8-4) in College Station. They were also hampered by not being a Conference Champion.

Looking at it objectively, it’s really hard to decide. Notre Dame and the Crimson Tide had two common opponents, USC and Ole Miss. The results were a mixed bag. A narrow victory for the Tide over the Trojans vs an Irish blowout and an Alabama blowout of the Ole Miss Rebels vs a Notre Dame loss. Arkansas had one common opponent with Notre Dame, Texas. Arkansas lost to the Longhorns while Notre Dame crushed them.  All three contenders blew out their January 2nd opponents, but Alabama only beat the second best team in the Big 10 while the other two beat conference champions who were ranked first and second in the nation going in. 

The choice between the three should have been difficult. Notre Dame’s loss was much more suspect than Arkansas’ or Alabama’s, but they also had a marginally better win in their bowl game, and played a somewhat tougher schedule. To the voters in the AP poll it was not close. The final rankings were:

  1. Notre Dame
  2. Alabama
  3. Arkansas
  4. Texas
  5. Penn State
  6. Kentucky
  7. Oklahoma
  8. Pitt
  9. Michigan
  10. Washington

Sound familiar. Since 3 of the four teams ahead of them lost, Notre Dame only had to jump one team. That they did (Alabama). Arkansas never had a chance. Despite the fact that they’re only blemish was a 4-point loss to Texas, they started the bowl season behind the other two, and their name was Arkansas, not Notre Dame or Alabama. In the old system that mattered, just like it still matters today. Another thing to remember is that in today’s playoff format, Notre Dame and Arkansas would have been excluded. According to the polls the top four top teams going into the bowl season were Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama and Michigan. At #5 the Irish would be the first team out. At #6 Arkansas would have been the second team out.

A final note; just look at the people involved on that day. Between the eight coaches they would eventually lead their schools to 13 “National Championships” ( Lou Holtz 1, Bear Bryant 5, Woody Hayes 2, Don James 1, Barry Switzer 3 and Dan Devine 1). 

And then look at the players; Notre Dame’s Quarterback was Joe Montana. Their defense was led by Ross Browner and Bob Golic. Texas had the Heisman Trophy winner, The great Earl Campbell. Alabama’s offensive line was anchored by Dwight Stephenson, and their tight end was Ozzie Newsome. Oklahoma had Billy Sims, and Washington was led by Warren Moon. So many future Hall of Famers. 

The New Year Bowls are not like that anymore. This year none of the championship contenders will play on New Year’s day. Another reason to consider changing the format of college football’s post-season.  

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