|1981 NCAA Division I-A season|
|Number of teams||137|
|Preseason AP No. 1||Michigan|
|Heisman Trophy||Marcus Allen (USC RB)|
|Division I-A football seasons|
The 1981 NCAA Division I-A football season ended with the Clemson Tigers, unbeaten and untied, claiming the national championship after a victory over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. This was also the first year of the California Bowl, played in Fresno, California; this game fancied itself as a "junior" version of the Rose Bowl [ citation needed ] as it pitted the Big West Conference champion vs. the Mid-American Conference champion.
|School||1980 Conference||1981 Conference|
|Illinois State Redbirds||D-I Independent||Missouri Valley|
|Villanova Wildcats||I-A Independent||Dropped Program -- Reinstated in 1985|
The pre season top 5 was 1. Michigan, 2. Oklahoma, 3. Notre Dame, 4. Alabama, and 5. USC. On September 5, Alabama beat LSU 24–7 and moved up to No. 2 in the new poll that was 1. Michigan, 2. Alabama, 3, Oklahoma, 4. Notre Dame, and 5. USC. Clemson was not ranked.
On September 12, No. 1 Michigan opened its season in Madison and lost to Wisconsin, 21–14. No. 2 Alabama lost in Birmingham to Georgia Tech, 24–21. By beating LSU 27–9, Notre Dame leapfrogged Oklahoma, who beat Wyoming 37–20, into the No. 1 spot. No. 4 USC beat Tennessee 43–7 so they also vaulted over Oklahoma to No. 2. Georgia at No. 4 and Penn State at No. 5 replace Michigan and Alabama in the top 5.
On September 19, No. 1 Notre Dame lost at No. 11 Michigan 25–7. No. 4 Georgia lost at unranked Clemson, 13–3. Thus, USC moved up to No. 1, Oklahoma No. 2, Penn State No. 3, Texas joined the top five at No. 4, and Pittsburgh moved up to No. 5.
On September 26 in a 1 vs. 2 showdown in Los Angeles, USC scored in the final seconds to nip Oklahoma, 28–24. Thus, Oklahoma slipped to No. 5 while Penn State, Texas and Pittsburgh were number 2, 3, and 4.
On October 3, Oklahoma, still stung by its last second loss to USC, was shocked at home in a 7–7 tie with Iowa State. North Carolina moved up to replace Oklahoma at No. 5 in the next poll.
On October 10, No. 1 USC was upset by Arizona, 13–10. No. 3 Texas beat No. 10 Oklahoma 34–14 and jumped over Penn State into the No. 1 spot. Michigan returned to the top 5 in the new poll that was: 1. Texas, 2. Penn State, 3. Pittsburgh, 4. North Carolina, and 5. Michigan.
On October 17, No. 1 Texas was steamrolled by Arkansas 42–11. No. 5 Michigan lost at Iowa 9–7 in the game that ultimately decided the Big 10's Rose Bowl berth.[ citation needed ] Clemson and USC replaced Texas and Michigan in the new top 5 that was: 1. Penn State, 2. Pittsburgh, 3. North Carolina, 4. Clemson, and 5. USC.
The big game on October 24 was between ACC rivals No. 3 North Carolina and No. 4 Clemson in Chapel Hill. Clemson won 10–8 to move up to No. 3, and Georgia replaced North Carolina in the top 5.
On October 31, No. 1 Penn State was upset by unranked Miami (FL) 17–14 and fell to No. 6. Texas re-emerged in the top 5 that was: 1. Pittsburgh, 2. Clemson, 3. USC, 4. Georgia, and 5. Texas.
On November 7, No. 5 Texas was tied by Houston 14–14 and was replaced by Penn State at No. 5. The rest of the top 5 was unchanged.
On November 14, No. 3 USC lost to Washington, 13–3 and No. 5 Penn State was knocked off by Alabama, 31–16. The new poll was 1. Pittsburgh, 2. Clemson, 3. Georgia, 4. Alabama, and 5. Nebraska.
On November 21, USC blocked a last second field goal attempt to beat UCLA 22–21 and knock the Bruins out of the Rose Bowl and put Washington in.
The poll would remain unchanged until games of November 28, when Penn State beat No. 1 Pitt 48–14. Also on that day, Alabama coach Bear Bryant won his 315th game when the Crimson Tide defeated archrival Auburn 28–17 at Legion Field in Birmingham, setting a new NCAA Division I record for coaching victories. The record was previously held by Amos Alonzo Stagg.
The final regular season poll was 1. Clemson, 2. Georgia, 3. Alabama, 4. Nebraska, and 5. SMU.
Clemson's match-up with North Carolina proved to be the landmark game of the season and a huge turning point for the ACC. This game which Clemson won 10–8 marked the first time two ACC teams met while ranked in the top 10. ABC broadcast this game live nationally, a huge bit of exposure for what was usually known as a basketball conference. The game ended with Jeff Bryant recovering a lateral with a minute left.
|Weeks||No. 1||No. 2||Event|
|1||Michigan||Alabama||Wisconsin 21, Michigan 14||Sep 12|
|2||Notre Dame||USC||Michigan 25, Notre Dame 7||Sep 19|
|3||USC||Oklahoma||USC 28, Oklahoma 24||Sep 26|
|4–5||USC||Penn State||Arizona 13, USC 10||Oct 10|
|6||Texas||Penn State||Arkansas 42, Texas 11||Oct 17|
|7–8||Penn State||Pittsburgh||Miami 17, Penn State 14||Oct 31|
|9–12||Pittsburgh||Clemson||Penn State 48, Pitt 14||Nov 28|
|13||Clemson||Georgia||Clemson 22, Nebraska 15||Jan 1|
Clemson's Orange Bowl opponent Nebraska featured future NFL stars Roger Craig, Irving Fryar, Mike Rozier, and Dave Rimington while finishing second nationally in rushing with 330 yards per game. But Clemson was able to take advantage of an injury to Husker quarterback Turner Gill. Eight out of twelve Nebraska possessions ended in a three and out, they crossed the fifty only four times and ended up with just two scoring opportunities.
Entering the game, the top four teams in order were Clemson, Georgia, Alabama, and Nebraska. After Georgia and Alabama had lost in Sugar and Cotton Bowls respectively, the Orange Bowl was for the national championship. The final score was 22–15, in favor of Clemson.
Pittsburgh, which was the consensus number one until being beaten soundly by Penn State in their season finale, beat defending national champion Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Also in the national title hunt till the very end, Alabama lost to number six Texas in the Cotton Bowl Classic.
Kenneth Sims of Texas was the first pick overall in the 1982 NFL Draft and was the winner of the Lombardi Award, given to the nation's best lineman.
Southern Methodist won the Southwest Conference and was ranked fifth, but was ineligible for post-season play due to NCAA probation, but could have still qualified for the national title.[ citation needed ]
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