1981 NCAA Division I-A football season

Last updated
1981 NCAA Division I-A season
Number of teams137 [1]
Preseason AP No. 1 Michigan [2]
Bowl games 16
Heisman Trophy Marcus Allen (USC RB)
Champion(s) Clemson
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.


Rule changes

Conference and program changes

School1980 Conference1981 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.

Important game

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.

Conference standings

1981 Atlantic Coast Conference football standings
Conf  Overall
TeamW L T  W L T
No. 1 Clemson $600  1200
No. 9 North Carolina 510  1020
Maryland 420  461
Duke 330  650
NC State 240  470
Wake Forest 150  470
Virginia 060  1100
  • $ Conference champion
Rankings from AP Poll
1981 Big Eight Conference football standings
Conf  Overall
TeamW L T  W L T
No. 11 Nebraska $700  930
No. 20 Oklahoma 421  741
Kansas 430  750
Oklahoma State 430  750
No. 19 Missouri 340  840
Iowa State 241  551
Colorado 250  380
Kansas State 160  290
  • $ Conference champion
Rankings from AP Poll
1981 Big Ten Conference football standings
Conf  Overall
TeamW L T  W L T
No. 15 Ohio State +620  930
No. 18 Iowa +620  840
No. 12 Michigan 630  930
Illinois 630  740
Wisconsin 630  750
Minnesota 450  650
Michigan State 450  560
Purdue 360  560
Indiana 360  380
Northwestern 090  0110
  • + Conference co-champions
Rankings from AP Poll
1981 Ivy League football standings
Conf  Overall
TeamW L T  W L T
Yale +610  910
Dartmouth +610  640
Princeton 511  541
Harvard 421  541
Brown 250  370
Cornell 250  370
Columbia 160  190
Penn 160  190
  • + Conference co-champions
1981 Mid-American Conference football standings
Conf  Overall
TeamW L T  W L T
Toledo $810  930
Miami 611  821
Central Michigan 720  740
Bowling Green 531  551
Western Michigan 540  650
Ohio 540  560
Kent State 360  470
Ball State 260  470
Northern Illinois 270  380
Eastern Michigan 090  0110
  • $ Conference champion
1981 Missouri Valley Conference football standings
Conf  Overall
TeamW L T  W L T
Drake +510  1010
Tulsa +510  650
Southern Illinois 520  740
West Texas State 330  740
Wichita State 331  461
Indiana State 241  551
New Mexico State 150  380
Illinois State 050  370
  • + Conference co-champions
1981 Pacific Coast Athletic Association football standings
Conf  Overall
TeamW L T  W L T
San Jose State $500  930
Utah State 411  551
Fresno State 230  560
Pacific (CA) 230  560
Cal State Fullerton 140  380
Long Beach State 140  280
  • $ Conference champion
1981 Pacific-10 Conference football standings
Conf  Overall
TeamW L T  W L T
No. 10 Washington $620  1020
No. 16 Arizona State 520  920
No. 14 USC 520  930
Washington State 521  831
UCLA 521  741
Arizona 440  650
Stanford 440  470
California 260  290
Oregon 160  290
Oregon State 070  1100
  • $ Conference champion
Rankings from AP Poll
1981 Southeastern Conference football standings
Conf  Overall
TeamW L T  W L T
No. 6 Georgia +600  1020
No. 7 Alabama +600  921
Mississippi State 420  840
Tennessee 330  840
Florida 330  750
Auburn 240  560
Kentucky 240  380
LSU 141  371
Ole Miss 151  461
Vanderbilt 150  470
  • + Conference co-champions
Rankings from AP Poll
1981 Southern Conference football standings
Conf  Overall
TeamW L T  W L T
Furman $520  830
VMI 311  631
East Tennessee State 420  650
Chattanooga 321  731
The Citadel 321  731
Western Carolina 340  470
Appalachian State 151  371
Marshall 150  290
  • $ Conference champion
Rankings from AP Poll
1981 Southland Conference football standings
Conf  Overall
TeamW L T  W L T
Texas–Arlington $410  650
McNeese State 311  731
Arkansas State 320  650
Louisiana Tech 221  461
Lamar 131  461
Southwestern Louisiana 041  191
  • $ Conference champion
1981 Southwest Conference football standings
Conf  Overall
TeamW L T  W L T
No. 5 SMU $710  1010
No. 2 Texas 611  1011
Houston 521  741
Arkansas 530  840
Texas A&M 440  750
Rice 350  470
Baylor 350  560
TCU 161  272
Texas Tech 071  191
  • $ Conference champion
Rankings from AP Poll
1981 Western Athletic Conference football standings
Conf  Overall
TeamW L T  W L T
No. 13 BYU $710  1120
Hawaii 510  920
Utah 411  821
Wyoming 620  830
New Mexico 341  471
Air Force 230  470
San Diego State 350  650
UTEP 160  1100
Colorado State 080  0120
  • $ Conference champion
Rankings from AP Poll
1981 NCAA Division I-A independents football records
Conf  Overall
TeamW L T  W L T
No. 3 Penn State      1020
No. 4 Pittsburgh      1110
No. 8 Miami (FL)      920
Southern Miss      921
No. 17 West Virginia      930
Colgate      730
Virginia Tech      740
Navy      741
Cincinnati      650
Florida State      650
Holy Cross      650
Tulane      650
UNLV      660
South Carolina      660
Temple      550
Boston College      560
East Carolina      560
Northeast Louisiana      560
Louisville      560
Notre Dame      560
Rutgers      560
William & Mary      560
Syracuse      461
Richmond      470
Army      371
North Texas State      290
Georgia Tech      1100
Memphis State      1100
Rankings from AP Poll

Notable rivalry games

Consensus All-Americans



No. 1 and No. 2 progress

WeeksNo. 1No. 2Event
1MichiganAlabamaWisconsin 21, Michigan 14Sep 12
2Notre DameUSCMichigan 25, Notre Dame 7Sep 19
3USCOklahomaUSC 28, Oklahoma 24Sep 26
4–5USCPenn StateArizona 13, USC 10Oct 10
6TexasPenn StateArkansas 42, Texas 11Oct 17
7–8Penn StatePittsburghMiami 17, Penn State 14Oct 31
9–12PittsburghClemsonPenn State 48, Pitt 14Nov 28
13ClemsonGeorgiaClemson 22, Nebraska 15Jan 1

Bowl games

Rankings reflect final regular-season AP poll

Orange Bowl

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 ]

Final AP Poll

  1. Clemson
  2. Texas
  3. Penn State
  4. Pittsburgh
  5. Southern Methodist
  6. Georgia
  7. Alabama
  8. Miami (FL)
  9. North Carolina
  10. Washington
  11. Nebraska
  12. Michigan
  13. Brigham Young
  14. Southern California
  15. Ohio State
  16. Arizona State
  17. West Virginia
  18. Iowa
  19. Missouri
  20. Oklahoma

Heisman Trophy

  1. Marcus Allen – TB, USC, 1,797 points
  2. Herschel Walker – TB, Georgia, 1,199
  3. Jim McMahon – QB, BYU, 706
  4. Dan Marino – QB, Pittsburgh, 256
  5. Art Schlichter – QB, Ohio State, 149
  6. Darrin Nelson – RB, Stanford, 148
  7. Anthony Carter – WR, Michigan, 42
  8. Kenneth Sims – DL, Texas, 34
  9. Reggie Collier – QB, Southern Miss, 30
  10. Rich Diana – RB, Yale, 23

Source: [4] [5]

Award winners

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  1. http://www.jhowell.net/cf/cf1981.htm
  2. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-10-02. Retrieved 2009-01-01.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  3. New York Times – 2006-11-17
  4. "USC's Allen takes his place in history". Eugene Register-Guard. Associated Press. December 6, 1981. p. 1B.
  5. "Heisman: Individual voting". Eugene Register-Guard. Associated Press. December 6, 1981. p. 6B.