1977 Alabama Football: A Near-Miss Sets The Stage For A Dynasty

Bear Bryant’s Tide were looking to get back on top of the SEC when 1977 opened. Over the five seasons from 1971-75, they won the conference championship every year and finished in the national top 10 each time. In 1976, ‘Bama slipped behind Georgia, failed to make a major bowl game, and ended up #11 in the final polls. The 1977 Alabama football team got back on top of the league, got very close to winning it all and set the stage for a pair of national championships in the years immediately following.

Alabama used a balanced running attack led by All-SEC fullback Johnny Davis, who ran for over 900 yards, at better than five yards a pop. Tony Nathan cleared the 600-yard mark and averaged over six yards per carry from his halfback spot. They ran behind a line anchored by tackle Jim Bunch and guard Bob Cryder.

The passing game wasn’t used a lot, but the Tide hit big when they did go to the air. Ozzie Newsome was the reason why. Newsome’s 36 catches were more than half of Alabama’s completed passes for the entire season, and they were good for 22.3 yards-per-catch. Jeff Rutledge’s 60 percent completion rate was very good by the standards of the era.

Alabama’s defense didn’t have stars, but they had a lot of good players. Marty Lyons and Wayne Hamilton were up front, Barry Krauss was at linebacker and the secondary was anchored by Mike Kramer and Mike Tucker. The Tide wasn’t dominant on other either side of the ball, but they were balanced—17th nationally on offense and 15th on defense. They opened the season at #6 in the rankings.

Alabama opened up with a conference game at home against mediocre Ole Miss and coasted to a 34-13 win. But disaster followed on a trip to Nebraska. This wasn’t a vintage 1970s Cornhusker team. They had lost their opener, were unranked, would ultimately lose three games and fail to make a major bowl game. But on this day in Lincoln, in front of a national TV audience Rutledge threw five interceptions in a 31-24 loss. The Tide fell to #10 in the polls.

A pedestrian 24-12 win at lowly Vanderbilt started the recovery. Georgia was falling to the middle of the pack this season and the Tide beat the Dawgs at home, 18-10. That set up the biggest game to date—a road trip to face #1 USC.

The Tide trailed 3-0 at the half but got two fourth-quarter rushing touchdowns from Tony Nathan and took a 21-6 lead. USC had one more rally in them. They scored a touchdown and converted the two-point conversion. Now leading 21-14, Alabama gave up another touchdown and USC head coach John Robinson decided to go for the win. This time, the Tide defense held, and they escaped with a 21-20 win.

The Trojans were another high-profile non-conference opponent that wouldn’t play up to their usual expectations. This loss was the first of four they would suffer the rest of the way. But for the time being, the win vaulted Alabama back to #4 in the polls.

A home date with a subpar Tennessee squad resulted in a 34-10 win. Another home game, this one against a pretty good Louisville team, produced a 55-6 blowout. Events around the country had Alabama all the way to #2 in the country. They trailed only Texas in the polls. But the old Southwest Conference that the Longhorns played in was tied to the Cotton Bowl, while the SEC was contractually committed to the Sugar Bowl. Alabama would need outside help to get to the top.

That presumed the Tide would take care of their own business, and they were still jousting with Kentucky and LSU for league supremacy. Alabama’s 37-7 win at Mississippi State set up a road trip to Baton Rouge on November 5.

LSU was led by running back Charles Alexander, who rushed for nearly 1,700 yards and won SEC Player of the Year honors. But this head-to-head battle was about the Alabama defense. The Tide rolled to a 24-3 win. They followed that up with a non-conference home win over a bad Miami team, 36-zip.

There was one game left, and it was the Iron Bowl against mediocre Auburn on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The Sugar Bowl bid wasn’t in the bag yet. Kentucky finished league play at 6-0. Alabama was playing their seventh conference game, so they could take the outright championship with a win here.

The Tide handled their business decisively, 48-21. But the pollsters were even more impressed with one-loss Oklahoma, who had hammered Nebraska on this same holiday weekend. The Sooners were moved to #2 in the polls behind Texas, while Alabama would be #3. Oklahoma was contractually obligated to the Orange Bowl. Now, the Tide needed two breaks to go their way in the bowl games. To say nothing of taking care of ninth-ranked Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.

When you’re looking to win a big game, putting the ball on the ground ten times isn’t recommended. That’s what happened to Alabama. Amazingly, they only lost two of them. And they dominated Ohio State in every other facet of play. Alabama ran for 280 yards. The Tide led 13-0 at half, 21-0 after three quarters and coasted to a 35-6 blowout win.

Meanwhile, the breaks fell their way. At the same time ‘Bama was crushing Ohio State, fifth-ranked Notre Dame was doing the same thing to Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Later that afternoon in the Rose Bowl, fourth-ranked Michigan lost. And in a stunning development at night, Oklahoma—a 24-point favorite over a suspension-hampered Arkansas team—showed up flat and lost 31-6.

But it was time for Alabama to be aggravated by the polls one more time. It turns out that Texas lost by a little too much. Notre Dame’s 38-10 dismantling was so impressive that the Irish went from #5 all the way to #1. The vote was close, but the Crimson Tide had to settle for #2. It’s a subject that rankles Alabama fans to this day, who believe that only Notre Dame’s national popularity explains the outcome.

What the 1977 season did for Alabama—besides being outstanding in its own right—was set up a run of back-to-back national championships. The Tide would share the national title in 1978 and win it outright in 1979.