In the years when January 1 falls on a Sunday–as will be the case for 2017–the major college football bowl games are shifted to Monday, January 2.
It so happens my first memories of college football bowl games was on January 2, 1984. I was a little less than three months removed from my 7th birthday. I was in second grade.
I began to seriously follow college football–and the other major sports–throughout 1983. The salient points of 1983:
- LSU had a terrible 4-7 season and fired coach Jerry Stovall, hiring Bill Arnsparger, the architect of the Miami Dolphins’ “No-Name” and “Killer Bees” defenses, as his replacement.
- Tulane was 4-7 under first year coach Wally English, but there were storm clouds brewing around the Green Wave. Tulane was forced to forfeit two victories, one over then-No. 9 Florida State, for playing Jon English, the son of the coach, even though he was ineligible.
- Nebraska, meanwhile, was at the other end of the spectrum from LSU and Tulane. The Cornhuskers steamrolled their way to a 12-0 regular season and were primed to win their first national championship since 1971, and first for coach Tom Osborne, who succeeded Bob Devaney in 1973. Led by Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier, quarterback Turner Gill, and All-America tackle Dean Steinkuhler, Nebraska held the No. 1 ranking in the polls throughout the season, averaging over 400 yards rushing and 52 points per game.
- Nebraska’s opponent in the Orange Bowl, which was committed to the Big Eight Conference champion, would be the school which played its home games in the eponymous stadium. The Miami Hurricanes were the new kid on the block, bouncing back from a 28-3 loss to Florida at Gainesville in the season opener to win 10 in a row, ending with a 17-16 victory over Florida State in Tallahassee. In five seasons, Howard Schnellenberger, who played for Bear Bryant at Kentucky, served as an assistant to Bryant at Kentucky, and was on the same staff with Arnsparger with the Dolphins, had rescued the Hurricanes from near-extinction, building a program which was fearless, reflecting the confident attitude of its coach.
- Southwest Conference champion Texas was 11-0 and ranked No. 2. The Longhorns were slated to play Georgia in the Cotton Bowl, and with a win, could ascend to No. 1 if the Cornhuskers were upset by Miami. Ironically, Texas went into the Cotton Bowl following the 1977 season 11-0 and ranked No. 1, but lost 38-10 to Notre Dame, which vaulted from No. 5 to No. 1 in the final poll following No. 2 Oklahoma’s 31-6 loss in the Orange Bowl to Arkansas.
- No. 3 Auburn lost in September to Texas at home, but had won its other 10 games against a brutal schedule which included Florida, Georgia, ACC champion Maryland, and a strong Alabama team in its first season under Ray Perkins, who was Bryant’s chosen successor in December 1982 (Bryant died January 26, 1983). The Tigers of the Plains featured sophomore sensation Bo Jackson and Lionel “Little Train” James, who helped quarterback Randy Campbell run Pat Dye’s Wishbone to perfection. Auburn also had one of the nation’s best kickers, Al Del Greco, and a stout defense led by All-America linebacker Greg Carr. Auburn would play Michigan in the Sugar Bowl.
- Illinois went 9-0 in the Big Ten, overcoming an early loss to Missouri. The Illini headed to the Rose Bowl ranked No. 4. Their opponent was 6-4-1 UCLA, which not only had home field advantage, but an elite quarterback, Rick Neuheisel.
- Notre Dame? Who cared? The Irish were 6-5 in their third season under Gerry Faust. They defeated Doug Flutie and Boston College in the Liberty Bowl, but who really gave a darn?
The Cotton Bowl kicked off at 12:30 that Monday afternoon. In a defensive battle, Georgia took advantage of a fumbled punt to score the game’s lone touchdown, a 17-yard run by quarterback John Lastinger, with 3:22 to go. The Bulldogs, who were in line to win their fourth consecutive SEC championship before falling to Auburn in November, prevailed 10-9 to finish 11-1, a remarkable accomplishment given the loss of Herschel Walker, who surprisingly left Georgia in February 1983 to sign with the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League. Georgia coach Vince Dooley fully expected to have Walker for his senior season, to win a second Heisman Trophy, and to get the Bulldogs back to New Orleans.
Texas would not be a serious national championship contender for the next two decades. Coach Fred Akers was fired in 1986 despite winning 86 games in 10 seasons after succeeding the legendary Darrell Royal. The Longhorns struggled badly under David McWilliams (1987-91) and John Mackovic (1992-97) before Mack Brown finally returned the Longhorns to elite status.
Illinois was blasted 45-9 by UCLA in the Rose Bowl. The Illini have not been ranked in the top five since, and their only major bowl appearances resulted in losses to LSU (Sugar Bowl following 2001 season) and USC (Rose Bowl following 2007 season).
Auburn struggled vs. Michigan, but won 9-7.
Meanwhile, Miami jumped to a 17-0 lead over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The Cornhuskers got on the board int he second quarter when Steinkuhler ran the fumblerooski for a touchdown, but the Hurricanes still led 31-17 in the fourth quarter.
Jeff Smith’s touchdown run with 48 seconds to go narrowed the gap to 31-30. There was no overtime in college football in that era (and would not be any until 1996), so Osborne could kick the extra point to tie, which would have left Nebraska atop the polls, but subject him to a great deal of ridicule; or he could play for the win by opting for the 2-point conversion, which, if unsuccessful, would cost the Cornhuskers the championship.
Osborne chose to play for the win. Gill’s pass for Smith was broken up by Miami safety Ken Calhoun. The Hurricanes recovered Nebraska’s onside kick. The 31-30 victory was enough to push Miami past Auburn and Nebraska and to the top of the polls.
Nebraska wouldn’t get its national championship for Osborne until 1994, then won two more in 1995 and 1997. Schnellenberger left MIami in late April and was succeeded by Oklahoma State coach Jimmy Johnson, who led the Hurricanes to the 1987 national championship and a 52-9 record over five seasons before leaving for the Dallas Cowboys in 1989. Miami won titles in 1989 and 1991 under Dennis Erickson, and again in 2001 under Larry Coker.
Pat Dye complained vociferously that Auburn was screwed in the final polls, and he had a legitimate point then and still does now. Auburn’s schedule was far tougher than Miami’s, and let’s not forget while the Hurricanes lost to Florida, the Tigers defeated the Gators. Would Miami gone 10-0 against the likes of Texas, Georgia, Maryland and Alabama? Probably not. Then again, Miami defeating a Nebraska team considered one of the greatest in college football history–which I thought was misguided, considering this wasn’t even the best team in Nebraska history–carried a lot of weight.
For better or worse, my life changed noticeably on the second day of 1984.