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The Narrative Of The 1972 College Football Season

After two seasons out of the top spot in their own Pac-8 Conference, the USC Trojans were ready to reclaim their status as the league’s frontrunner. The Trojans did more than that. They not only became the best of the west again in 1972, but went the distance and won a national championship.

USC had terrific skill position talent. Anthony Davis rushed for 1,200 yards. Lynn Swann was an all-time great at the wide receiver spot. Charles Young was the nation’s best tight end. Even with a quarterback tandem of Mike Rae and Pat Haden, USC still had the third-best offense in the country. All-American linebacker Rich Wood keyed a defense that wasn’t far behind.

The Trojans were ranked eighth to start in the season. Pac-8 rival Washington was right behind at #9 in the early polls. Stanford, the two-time defending conference champs was rebuilding, but still deserving of respect. And USC’s perennial crosstown rival in UCLA was hopeful of getting back to the Rose Bowl themselves.

The second Saturday of September saw the city of Los Angeles send the entire nation a message. USC beat up on fourth-ranked Arkansas 31-10. UCLA upset #1 Nebraska, the two-time defending national champs, 20-17. Three weeks later, Stanford outgunned a ranked opponent in West Virginia, 41-35. The race was on.

By early October, USC was at the top of the national polls. They validated that standing with a 30-21 win over Stanford and then knocked off Washington 18-7. The stage was set for the Trojans’ two big November home games—UCLA and Notre Dame.

The UCLA game was winner-take-all for the Rose Bowl, and USC got that one, 24-14. Notre Dame came in with a 9-1 record, but questions about the quality of their schedule. The Trojans exposed just how valid those questions were with a 45-23 thumping of the Irish. USC would be playing for a national championship in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.

Ohio State opened the season as the early favorite to get the Big Ten spot in the Rose Bowl. The Buckeyes were ranked third in the preseason polls. A balanced running game, with sophomore Archie Griffin joining Champ Henson, was led by All-American offensive tackle John Hicks. Ohio State’s defense was led by an eventual Pro Bowl linebacker in Randy Gradishar.

The Buckeye schedule was not imposing and they rolled into November undefeated. But an upset loss to Michigan State on November 11 sent Ohio State down to #9 in the polls. Michigan was now the rising team from the Midwest.

It was balance that drove the Wolverines. Despite not having anyone make 1st-team All-American, Michigan’s defense gave up just 5.2 points per game, the best in the country. A 26-9 win over sixth-ranked UCLA on September 23, followed by a 41-7 blowout over a ranked Tulane team, sent the Wolverines soaring towards the top five. They were ranked #3 on the Saturday after Thanksgiving when it was time to play Ohio State.

Michigan’s defense had spun three shutouts and not given up so many as 10 points in a game all season long. So when Ohio State “erupted” for a pair of touchdowns it was a veritable offensive explosion. It was enough for the Buckeyes to pull out a 14-11 win. The victory put Ohio State back to where they had begun—ranked third in the nation, and with the opportunity to play #1 Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl, Woody Hayes had a terrific shot at a national championship.

The Big Eight had dominated college football in 1971, with Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado finishing 1-2-3 in the final polls. All three were in the national top 6 to open this 1972 season.

Ranked #1 to start the year and primed to push for a third straight national title, Nebraska had college football’s major award winners. Their electric wide receiver/kick return man, Johnny Rodgers, would go on to win the Heisman Trophy. Rich Glover swept both the Outland and Lombardi Trophies from his defensive tackle position.

The talent didn’t stop there. Wille Harper was an All-American defensive end. Dave Humm threw for over 2,200 yards and 18 touchdown passes, both solid numbers in the football world of 1972. Even with the disappointment of that early loss to UCLA, Nebraska was still in the hunt for another national championship.

Colorado was ranked #2 to start the year, attacking opponents with a running tandem of Charlie Davis and Bo Matthews. The Buffaloes were ranked #2 to start the season, but the strength of the Big Eight would be Colorado’s undoing. A 31-6 beatdown at the hands of Oklahoma State took the Buffs out of the national championship picture at the end of September.

It was Oklahoma, ranked #6 to start the year, that rose through the ranks. The Sooners’ ground game was led by shifty Greg Pruitt running behind a terrific center in Tom Brahaney. Derland Moore was one of the nation’s top defensive tackles. OU’s offense ranked 7th nationally in points scored. Their defense was even better, ranking second.

By mid-October the Sooners were up to #2 in the nation. Then they hammered Texas 27-0 in the annual Red River Rivalry. A week later, Oklahoma’s momentum slowed when they were knocked off by Colorado. But feisty Missouri, who only went 6-6 on the year, but played giant-killer, turned around and beat the Buffs.

Oklahoma asserted themselves in November. On the first weekend of the month, the Sooners shut down a good Iowa State passing game in a 20-6 victory. A week later, they avoided problems with Missouri in a 17-6 win. Meanwhile, Nebraska played to a 23-23 tie against Iowa State.

Oklahoma rose to #4 in the polls for their Thanksgiving Day showdown with Nebraska. A year earlier, the Cornhuskers won this rivalry battle in a game widely considered one of college football’s greatest. In 1972, the Sooners returned the favor. A hard-fought 17-14 win, followed by a rout of Oklahoma State in the Bedlam game a week later, vaulted the Sooners to #2 in the polls.

Nebraska still picked up an Orange Bowl bid. Meanwhile, Oklahoma was headed for the Sugar Bowl. The Sooners would face Penn State down in New Orleans.

The Nittany Lions were  ranked #5 to start the year. Joe Paterno had the nation’s All-American quarterback in John Hufnagel. Penn State had an 1,100 yard rusher in John Cappelletti. The Lions, as was often the case under Paterno, had an elite linebacker in John Skorupan.

Penn State suffered a 28-21 loss to Tennessee in mid-September that cooled national championship hopes, but the Lions still rolled through everyone in the east, a 28-19 win over West Virginia being the most notable win. Penn State was ranked #5 as they prepared to face Oklahoma.

Alabama set the tone in the SEC. The Crimson Tide had played for the national championship in 1971 before getting thumped by Nebraska. Alabama had one of the greatest offensive lineman of all-time, John Hannah, in their lineup. With Bear Bryant on the sidelines, the Tide were ranked seventh in the preseason polls.

But as you might expect, there were plenty of challengers. Tennessee would produce the nation’s fourth-best defense, had an All-American kicker in Ricky Townsend and their September victory over Penn State put the Vols on the national map. Auburn had stayed in national contention a year earlier all the way to the Iron Bowl game with Alabama. LSU, with quarterback Bert Jones on his way to being the second overall pick in the NFL draft, was another contender.

The SEC teams essentially ate each other up. Tennessee lost to Auburn and Alabama. Auburn fell to LSU. The Tigers lost to Alabama. And the Crimson Tide? The big wins got them all the way to the Iron Bowl, ranked #2 and a shot at the national title. But Auburn took their revenge with a 17-16 win.

Auburn went on to the Gator Bowl and knocked off Colorado, earning a top 5 national finish. Tennessee and LSU, having not played in the regular season, were paired up with each other in the Bluebonnet Bowl. With a spot in the final Top 10 on the line, the Vols delivered a 24-17 win.

As for Alabama, they still got a major bowl ticket, going to the Cotton Bowl to play Texas. The Longhorns had a potent running game, with Roosevelt Leaks running behind offensive tackle Jerry Sismore. While the old Southwest Conference had not enjoyed a vintage regular season, Texas still pounded Arkansas 35-17 to win the league and get a chance at redemption on New Year’s Day.

It was a chance the ‘Horns took advantage of, beating the Crimson Tide 17-13. Texas would end up #3 in the final polls. Alabama settled for #6, having closed the season with two losses.

The bowls that might impact the #1 ranking began on New Year’s Eve in New Orleans. Oklahoma and Penn State met in the Sugar Bowl and the Sooner defense did it again—a 14-0 shutout that staked their claim to the top spot.

Any doubt about who the #1 team was though, was decisively eliminated in Pasadena the following afternoon. USC hammered Ohio State 42-17 and secured the national championship.

The bowl festivities ended that night in Miami. Notre Dame had an All-American defensive tackle in Greg Marx, but this was not one of Ara Parseghian’s best teams. The Orange Bowl bid the Irish got might have gone more appropriately to one of the SEC runner-ups. As it was, Nebraska simply overwhelmed Notre Dame in a 40-6 romp. The Cornhuskers closed the year ranked #4.

The 1972 college football season was in the books. And it belonged to USC.