Title Games

Anyone who watched the entire Rose Bowl game–and surely that was most college football fans–saw one of the most entertaining games of all time, made even more meaningful considering that the national championship was on the line. The game has been called by some the greatest national championship game ever.

Texas win over USC had great athletes making great plays, at least on offense. And it had drama, going to the final seconds before the outcome was determined.

It even had the opportunity to question coaching decisions, although media who had crowned Southern Cal Coach Pete Carroll as perhaps the greatest ever were reluctant to note the bone-headedness of the Trojans in the critical final minutes.

As to whether it was the greatest national championship game ever? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

In the summer of 1970, Alabama Coach Paul Bryant was asked a question about the Crimson Tide's 33-32 win over Archie Manning and Ole Miss in 1969. That thrilling game was considered by fans and media to be one of the all-time greatest as Manning and Bama's Scott Hunter battled back-and-forth before the Crimson Tide finally held in the final minutes.

Bryant's assessment: "One of the worst football games I've ever been associated with."

One can imagine that Bryant and Neyland and Donahue and Oliver and Kines would be among those thinking this year's Bowl Championship Series title game was missing an important aspect of football–defense.

There were also some kicking game snafus, a missed extra point kick and missed chip shot field goal. There was a startling miscue by this year's Heisman Trophy winner as Reggie Bush negated a big USC gain with an untimely lateral try that resulted in a fumble and lost scoring opportunity for the Trojans.

Most baffling, though, was Carroll's decision with about two minutes to play to put the game on a fourth-and-short. Punt and give Texas an 80-yard field or go for it and either win or lose the game on a run up the middle. Adding to the mystery decision was not having Bush in the game on the most important play of the national championship contest.

Some have questioned USC's defensive plan in those final two minutes, but that was a matter of the Trojans just having to pick their poison. They had no answer for Texas quarterback Vince Young by land or by air. Young's performance has to rank among the very best all-time.

Most of those assessing the Rose Bowl in the history of national championship games on national networks seem to have the belief that college football started in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

Prior to 1965, the wire services–Associated Press and United Press International–selected the national champion based on regular season play. Alabama won the 1964 national championship, but then lost to Texas in a controversial Orange Bowl when officials determined Tide quarterback Joe Namath did not get across the goalline in the final moments.

The next year the AP announced with great pomposity that it would now include bowl game results in its national championship determination. That proved to be a great stroke for Alabama.

When LSU upset number two Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl and UCLA defeated number one Michigan State in the Rose Bowl, that made the Orange Bowl–played in prime time–the national championship game.

Alabama was far more dominating than the final score of 39-28 would suggest, and the Tide was voted number one.

The next year, in deference to Notre Dame, which did not go to bowl games in those days, the AP reversed field and decided it would crown its national champion based on regular season play only. Notre Dame played to a 10-10 tie with Michigan State that would have brought ridicule to any team other than the Fighting Irish, but which brought the national championship to Notre Dame. Meanwhile, Alabama was sailing through an undefeated, untied season that culminated with a meaningless (insofar as the national championship was concerned) 34-7 Sugar Bowl win over Nebraska.

Alabama's next national championship bowl game was a great disappointment in an otherwise extraordinary season. In 1971, after back-to-back five-loss seasons, Bryant switched Bama from a pro-style offense to the wishbone. Everyone knows the story of Alabama opening the season against number one USC in Los Angeles and defeating the Trojans, 17-10. From there it was on to an 11-0 regular season, including a 31-7 win over undefeated Auburn at the end of regular season play. That put Alabama number two in the polls and matched against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.

This time it was Nebraska coming out on top, romping to a 38-6 win and winning the national championship.

While the AP was now firmly committed to a post-bowl poll, but UPI continued to award its hardware based on regular season results. In 1973 that meant undefeated Alabama was UPI's national champion. But to win all the other national championship awards, including the more widely-recognized AP title, Alabama would have to defeat Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.

Alabama and Bryant's first game against Notre Dame was considered the game of all time, and the contest lived up to its billing. Both teams were excellent and the Irish won the game with a gutsy and successful play. Backed up to their goalline and facing third and long, quarterback Tom Clements passed to tight end Robin Weber and Weber made his only reception of the year, a 35-yard gain that enabled Notre Dame to salt away a 24-23 decision.

For decades, that game film has been the most requested from the Sugar Bowl. It supplanted the previous most-requested, Duke's 29-26 win over Bama's valiant War Babies on January 1, 1945.

Alabama thought it had turned a highly-publicized Sugar Bowl victory into another national championship at the end of the 1977 season. The Tide was ranked third going into the bowl games and Texas was number one. Alabama and Bryant, the winningest coach in the nation at the time, was going against Ohio State and Woody Hayes, who was second to Bryant in victories.

Alabama rolled to a 35-6 win and 11-1 record. The lone loss had been by a touchdown to Nebraska in Lincoln early in the year and the Crimson Tide had defeated number one ranked Southern Cal in Los Angeles. And when fifth-ranked Notre Dame–which had lost during the year to a woeful Ole Miss–defeated number one Texas, it was thought that the Crimson Tide would be number one.

But the power of Notre Dame among national media is strong, and the Irish poll vaulted Alabama in one of the closest and most controversial votes in history.

As USC went for its third consecutive national championship this season, it was often pointed out that Alabama came close to the feat twice. Bama's 1966 team was denied by a blemished Notre Dame, and the Tide's 1977 team–which would be followed by national championship squads in 1978 and 1979–was also edged by the Fighting Irish in AP voting.

In 1978, Alabama fought back from a loss to Southern Cal to rise to number two in the nation. That put Bama and Bryant against another traditional power, Penn State, and another legendary coach, Joe Paterno, in the Sugar Bowl. Anyone who saw the game remembers it as one of the most tense imaginable, every play seemingly the play that would mean the difference between victory and defeat. And most remember the fourth down play of Penn State at the Alabama goalline as that play. Alabama held three times at the one-yard line and Bama's 14-7 win was good for the national title.

There wasn't much drama as Alabama repeated in 1979. The Tide moved into the number one spot after a 40-0 win over Florida in Gainesville early in the season and went on to an undefeated season, outscoring opponents 383-67, including an easy 24-9 win over Lou Holtz's Arkansas Razorbacks in the Sugar Bowl.

Alabama has had only one national championship bowl opportunity since, and it was a great one from a Crimson Tide standpoint. Coach Gene Stallings 1992 Bama was a heavy underdog to Miami, featuring Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Gino Toretta. But the Tide–unlike Texas and USC in this year's Rose Bowl–had a defense, and Bama used it to overwhelm the Hurricanes, 34-13, completing a 13-0 season and bringing more national championship hardware to Tuscaloosa.

It is a tribute to Alabama football that the Crimson Tide not only has won a lot of national championships, but that Bama has also been involved in a number of close calls.

Alabama's national championship games were not much like the Texas-Southern Cal game. To many, though, several of them were better football.

One good thing about the final AP vote this year (in which Alabama finsihed eighth) is that the voters had the good sense to make Texas number one and USC number two. In 1973, when Alabama and Notre Dame were clearly the nation's best two teams and separated by a thin hair, the final vote had Bama–the 24-23 loser to the Fighting Irish in the Sugar Bowl–number four.


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