Bowl and Poll Era: 1974-1979
Here’s when the national championship puzzle finally made the shift needed – both major poll/ranking outlets ranked their respective title winners after the bowl games. The AP was already there, but the UPI/Coaches took a while to get on board. But …
1974 Notre Dame 13, Alabama 11
Just when the UPI/Coaches Poll figured out that it was smarter to name its national champion after the bowl season and not before, it ran into another issue. Oklahoma went 11-0 and ended up winning the AP national title – even though its schedule was as tough as a bowl of oatmeal – but the program was on NCAA probation and wasn’t eligible to win the UPI/Coaches championship.
USC started out the season with a 22-7 loss to to Arkansas, and it tied Cal 15-15, but it was still an okay 8-1-1 when Notre Dame came to town. The Irish were up 24-0, and then Anthony Davis took over with a historic day, scoring six touchdowns on the way to a run of 55 unanswered Trojan points. USC went on to hand Ohio State just its second loss of the season in a phenomenal Rose Bowl – winning 18-17 – and then got the help it needed from the Irish.
The USC-Notre Dame game was the signature game of the season, but 11-0 Alabama had both national titles right there for the taking. Instead, it lost to Notre Dame 13-11 in the Orange Bowl, and Oklahoma got the AP and USC took the UPI/Coaches national championship.
1975 Oklahoma 35, Nebraska 10
Sometimes the scoreboard matters. Nebraska started the season 10-0 before dealing with a 9-1 Oklahoma team that lost to Kansas 23-3 a few weeks earlier. The Sooner loss ended a 27-game winning streak and a 36-game unbeaten streak, but it took care of the Huskers in an easy blowout.
Meanwhile, Arizona State was rolling through an unbeaten season without too much of a problem. The Sun Devils didn’t beat anyone who was all that great, but they got their big test against the Huskers in the Fiesta Bowl. They won, but it was a 17-14 battle, while Oklahoma beat Michigan in the Orange Bowl 14-6. Despite the one loss, Oklahoma won the national championship in both polls, and an unbeaten ASU team finished No. 2.
1976 Pitt 27, Georgia 3 Sugar Bowl
Nebraska started the season No. 1, but it tied LSU to start things off and lost three games in a relative clunker of a campaign. Georgia lost to Ole Miss 21-17, but it won everything else for a 10-1 record with an SEC championship on the way to the Sugar Bowl. Even with the loss on the resumé, a win over Heisman winner Tony Dorsett and his unbeaten Pitt team would’ve given the Bulldogs the national title in both major polls. The Panthers rolled 27-3 to take the program’s first national championship since 1937.
1977 Notre Dame 38, Texas 10
Oklahoma started out the season as the preseason No. 1 team, but it lost 13-6 to Texas on the way to a 10-1 regular season. The Sooners were shocked by Lou Holtz’s Arkansas team 31-6 in the Orange Bowl, while the rival Longhorns turned into a powerhouse with an 11-0 record and the national title in both polls there for the taking.
Notre Dame started out the year by handing defending national champion Pitt a 19-9 defeat, but followed that up with a clunker of a 20-13 loss to Ole Miss. The Irish rolled right after it with nine straight wins on the way to a showdown in the Cotton Bowl against Heisman-winner Earl Campbell and his Longhorns. It was Joe Montana’s day in a blowout win for Notre Dame’s first national championship in both major polls since 1966.
Game To Know
1978 USC 24, Alabama 14
It’s one of the most interesting philosophical debates in college football national championship history. USC went to Birmingham and beat Alabama 24-14. A few weeks later, the Trojans were shocked on the road by a fantastic Arizona State team in a 20-7 loss, and then went on to roll through the rest of the schedule to finish 12-1 with a Rose Bowl victory over an outstanding Michigan squad.
Alabama overcame the loss to the Trojans and won its last nine games, including over 11-0 No. 1 Penn State in the Sugar Bowl. That might have gone down as one of the greatest games of all-time, but … USC beat Alabama.
The AP ended up naming the Crimson Tide the national champion, but the UPI/Coaches gave the national title to USC. According to the CFN Historical Season-Ranking Formula, USC had the much, much better season and was the far more deserving national champ, even though that Bama team has been given far more love historically.
1979 USC 21, Stanford 21
USC came into the season as the No. 1 team, and it got through the season unbeaten with a classic – and somewhat controversial – 17-16 Rose Bowl win over Ohio State. Had the Buckeyes won, they would’ve had at least a share of the national title, if not take it outright.
For USC, there was one big problem – it tied a totally mediocre Stanford team. Had the 11-0-1 Trojans won, they would’ve ended up as the national champion in both polls.
The Trojan tie opened the door for defending AP national champion Alabama, who rolled through a 12-0 season with a dominant Sugar Bowl win over an Arkansas team that finished 10-2. On a 21-game winning streak – that would eventually turn into 27 – Bama took both national titles.