Bowl and Poll Era: 1980-1989
The 1980s were the only true Bowl & Poll decade – when the national championships by both major ranking systems were named after the bowls were finished. The problem? A true national championship matchup in the bowl games was never a certainty. Even when there was one, the biggest game of the regular season usually had an outcome on at least one of the titles.
The AP stayed the same, but the Coaches Poll went from UPI to USA Today in 1982.
1980 Georgia 26, Florida 21
In one of the most thrilling games of all-time, 8-0 Georgia – despite a huge 238-yard, three-touchdown rushing day from freshman sensation Herschel Walker – was in deep, deep trouble, down 21-20 in the final moments before getting bailed out by Buck Belue, who connected with Lindsay Scott for a 93-yard touchdown on the way to the win. The Bulldogs went on to beat Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl for a 12-0 season and the national championship in both polls.
The week before the Florida game, Georgia survived a 13-10 battle against South Carolina. Pitt finished off its 11-1 season with a 37-9 blowout over Heisman-winner George Rogers and the Gamecocks in the Gator Bowl to end the year 11-1. The Panthers’ lone loss came on the road early in the season to a great Florida State team – they would’ve won at least a share of the national title, and possibly both, had Georgia not pulled off “Run, Lindsay, run!”
1981 Clemson 13, Georgia 3
In a stunning turn, Clemson went from a mediocre 6-5 to 12-0 in one year. However, even when it struggled in that six-win 1980 campaign, it still provided a big push in a 20-16 loss to eventual national champion Georgia. In the third game of the 1981 season, the Tiger D slowed down Herschel Walker – sort of, he ran for 111 yards – just enough in the 13-3 win.
Georgia got through the rest of the regular season unbeaten, but lost to Pitt in the Sugar Bowl on 33-yard fourth down touchdown pass from some Dan Marino guy in the final seconds. Had the defending national champion Bulldogs beaten Clemson earlier in the year, that historic scoring throw would’ve given the Panthers the national title.
1982 Penn State 27, Nebraska 24
A rising force of a Nebraska team came into Happy Valley and pushed the Nittany Lions to the brink in a thrilling game with several wild twists and turns. Penn State survived 27-24, and took that momentum to Birmingham … and clunked to an okay Alabama team in a 42-21 blowout loss.
Georgia got through the regular season 12-0 with a shot at a second national title in three seasons if it could beat Penn State in the Sugar Bowl. The Nittany Lions were able to stop Herschel Walker and the Bulldogs in a 27-24 win.
Meanwhile, Nebraska was busy finishing up a 12-1 season with an Orange Bowl win over LSU. Had the Huskers pulled out the win at Penn State, as things turned out, they would’ve given Tom Osborne his first national title and history might have been a whole lot different the following season.
Key Game To Know
1983 Miami 31, Nebraska 30 Orange Bowl
Good luck finding a better day in the history of college football than January 2nd, 1984.
Nebraska was being talked about as the greatest team of all-time, ripping through everything in its path on the way to a 12-0 regular season. The No. 1 team in both polls faced Miami – fifth in the AP and fourth in the USA Today/Coaches – in the Orange Bowl.
Miami was 11-1 after starting out the season with a blowout loss to Florida. Auburn beat the Gators and went 11-1, with the only loss coming early in the season to Texas.
11-0 No. 2 Texas was in the hunt for the national title, but it needed to beat Georgia in the Cotton Bowl and hope for a miraculous Miami win over Nebraska.
On January 2nd, all the puzzle pieces came together. Texas was shocked by Georgia 10-9. As things turned out, the Longhorns would’ve won the national title had they won. Illinois was hovering in the top five, but it was destroyed by UCLA 45-9 in the Rose Bowl. And then came the Sugar and the Orange at the same time. Auburn beat Michigan 9-7, but …
Miami pulled off the stunner in one of the greatest games ever, as Nebraska and Tom Osborne chose to go for two and the win in the final moments – and missed – when an extra point and the tie would’ve meant the national championship in both polls.
1984 USC 16, Washington 7
BYU went 13-0, but it beat absolutely no one with a pulse in its national championship season. Its best victory came over a ho-hum Air Force team that went 8-4, and the bowl win was over a Michigan squad that finished 6-6.
Washington didn’t beat anyone who was all that great, either … until it faced Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. The Huskies won 28-17 to finish 11-1, with the lone blemish at USC keeping them from winning the national championship in both polls.
1985 Oklahoma 25, Penn State 10 Orange Bowl
Oklahoma’s season appeared to be lost early on when QB Troy Aikman went down with a broken leg in a 27-14 loss to Miami. The Sooners – thanks to the option quarterback play of freshman Jamelle Holieway, to go along with a stifling defense – went on to win eight in a row after the defeat including a 25-10 domination over 11-0 and No. 1 Penn State. With that happening, the national championship was there for Miami to take – at least on the AP side.
The Canes were No. 2 in the AP rankings, but fourth in the UPI/Coaches version after starting out the season with a loss to Florida. UPI No. 3 Iowa fumbled away the Rose Bowl, but even worse was Miami’s performance in the Sugar, giving up 35 unanswered points in the blowout 35-7 loss. Had the Canes won, they would’ve taken the AP national title. Even with the loss to Miami early on, OU likely was still in line to win the UPI/Coaches national championship.
1986 Penn State 14, Miami 10 Fiesta Bowl
For the second straight season, Miami and head coach Jimmy Johnson biffed a shot at a national championship with a miserable bowl performance.
The Hurricanes were brilliant all season long, coming up massive in the game of the regular season, beating defending national champion Oklahoma – who finished 11-1 on the year – 28-16. But in the Fiesta Bowl against an unbeaten Penn State team, Miami’s Heisman-winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde threw five interceptions, including one in the end zone with the Canes right on the doorstep of possibly winning in the final seconds.
1987 Miami 20, Oklahoma 14 Orange Bowl
Miami wasn’t going to make it three lousy bowl performances in a row. After missing out on two national titles with a puzzling 35-7 Sugar Bowl loss to Tennessee at the end of 1984, and with horrible game in the 14-10 loss to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl the season before, the Canes took care of business in the Orange Bowl against the unbeaten Sooners.
Instead of Miami vs. Oklahoma, though, it was almost Florida State playing the Sooners. In one of the greatest regular season games ever, Miami grabbed the lead on a 73-yard touchdown catch from Michael Irvin with just over two minutes to play, but FSU marched back for a touchdown in the final seconds to pull within one. Instead of going for the extra point and the tie, Bobby Bowden chose to go for two, but the pass was knocked down. The Canes went on to win the national title, and FSU finished 11-1.
1988 Notre Dame 31, Miami 30
Notre Dame went 12-0 under head coach Lou Holtz, finishing off the national championship season with a dominant 34-21 win over QB Major Harris and the unbeaten West Virginia Mountaineers in the Fiesta Bowl. But the real national title game came in what will forever be known as Catholics vs. Convicts.
Miami was on a 16-game winning streak and hadn’t lost a regular season game since the beginning of the 1985 season. It started out 4-0 – including a massive comeback to stun Michigan 31-30 in Ann Arbor, and a blowout of No. 1 Florida State 31-0 to kick things off – building up the hype for the showdown with the Irish.
In a see-saw game with a few major controversies, Miami had a chance for the win after a late touchdown, but Steve Walsh’s two point conversion attempt was batted away by Pat Terrell, and the Irish had their historic win.
1989 Miami 27, Notre Dame10
Miami lost to Florida State 24-10 in Tallahassee in the middle of the season, but the Noles were out of the national title picture after starting out 0-2, thanks to a loss to Brett Favre’s Southern Miss team and a thriller against a great Clemson squad. FSU ripped through its final ten games.
Defending national champion Notre Dame was on a 23-game winning streak, but it all came to a crashing thud in a 17-point loss, highlighted by a 3rd-and-43 conversion on a 44-yard catch by Randall Hill.
The Canes took care of business with a 33-25 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to finish 12-1, but to win the national title, they needed help … from Notre Dame. Colorado was 11-0 going into the Orange Bowl, but the Irish had few problems in a 21-6 win.