1976 Colorado Football: A Surprise Orange Bowl Trip

After finishing #3 in the country in 1971, Colorado had slipped back to mediocrity by the time head coach Bill Mallory came to Boulder in 1974. After another mediocre year, Mallory got the Buffaloes to 9-2 and a Bluebonnet Bowl invitation in 1975. The 1976 Colorado football team took advantage of a wide-open Big Eight Conference to make it all the way to the Orange Bowl.

Colorado’s best player was All-American, defensive back Mike Davis. The offense relied on 1,200-yard rusher Tony Reed, with Jim Kelleher adding 615 yards of his own. The passing game had issues—Jeff Knapple only completed 44 percent of his passes and got just 6.6 yards per attempt. But they had tight end Emery Moorhead to bail them out. A future pro and eventual starter on the great 1985 Chicago Bears team, Moorhead’s 18 catches (a normal number in this run-oriented era) produced over 20 yards a pop.

Even with the nice season in 1975, Colorado was still unranked to open this ’76 campaign. It started in Lubbock, against what would be a good Texas Tech team, and the result was a 24-7 loss. Anyone that might have had expectations, quickly had reason to temper them.

Washington, Miami, and Drake were non-conference opponents that ranged from mediocre to bad, and the Buffaloes bounced back over the next three weeks. They went to Seattle and beat the Huskies 21-7. The home opener with the Hurricanes was a 33-3 triumph. And the 45-24 victory over the Bulldogs had Colorado 3-1 going into Big Eight play.

The old Big Eight was defined by Nebraska and Oklahoma throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Even in Colorado’s terrific ’71 season, it was the Cornhuskers and Sooners who finished 1-2 in the final polls. In 1976, Oklahoma was the two-time defending national champs. Both teams had early ties on their records so far in 1976. But there was no reason to expect anything else than these two programs continuing to dominate the race for what was then an automatic Orange Bowl ticket.

Thus, when the Buffs opened league play with a 24-12 home loss to Nebraska, it wasn’t a great surprise or a huge letdown. If anything, they had played competitive football. And little did anyone know, this year’s Big Eight was about to open up.

Colorado bounced back with a 20-10 win at Oklahoma State, and then a 33-14 rout of a ranked Iowa State team gained the Buffaloes enough credibility to be placed in the national top 20. Moreover, Oklahoma lost to Oklahoma State, while Nebraska was beaten by Missouri. The race for the Orange Bowl was getting chaotic.

The state was set for October 30, with Oklahoma coming to town. The Buffaloes won a 42-31 shootout. They were up to 3-1 in league play, tied with Nebraska and Oklahoma State. OU and Iowa State were giving chase at 2-2. There were three games left to play.

Missouri was having a strange year—they upset both USC and Ohio State on the road in non-conference play. They beat a good North Carolina team. And they had won on the road at Nebraska. But the Tigers managed to lose the games they were supposed to win and would finish 6-5.

Unfortunately for Colorado, that meant Missouri would play up to their competition and a trip to Columbia ended with a 16-7 loss. The Buffs bounced back by blowing out Kansas 40-17. Coming into the final week, there was a four-way tie at the top.

Colorado, Oklahoma State, OU, and Nebraska were all 4-2 in conference games. The Buffaloes needed to win at Kansas State and get some help.

They upheld their end of the bargain in Manhattan, although it was shakier than Mallory might have liked—Colorado outlasted a terrible team 35-28. They had at least a share of the league championship. Oklahoma State grabbed their share by beating Iowa State.

Now it was time for six days of waiting. Nebraska and Oklahoma would play on Black Friday. The winner would claim their own share of the conference championship, but as far as the Orange Bowl was concerned, the Buffs needed OU to win, so the tiebreakers would fall their way.  

When the Sooners went into Lincoln and pulled out a 20-17 win on a touchdown in the final minute, the celebration could begin in Boulder. Colorado was going to the Orange Bowl.

At 8-3, they were #12 in the polls and facing Ohio State. For the early part of the game, the Buffs looked like they might continue this magical ride a little longer. They jumped out to a 10-0 lead and forced four Buckeye turnovers on the night. But Ohio State’s running game was too punishing, and the absence of Colorado middle guard Carlie Johnson, lost to a sprained ankle, was exposed. The Buckeyes took the game over and won 27-10.

The surprise Orange Bowl run of 1976 did not prove to be part of a new trend. Mallory coached here for two more seasons before Colorado launched what proved to be an ill-fated move to get Chuck Fairbanks, coach of the New England Patriots and former Oklahoma boss. It wasn’t until the latter part of the 1980s, under Bill McCartney, that the Colorado program returned to the Orange Bowl. They won the Big Eight in 1989, and then won a share of the national title in 1990.