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The Narrative Of The 1975 College Football Season

The Oklahoma Sooners came into the 1975 college football season as the defending national champion, but their ’74 title had come with a significant caveat—probation kept OU out of a bowl game that season. In 1975, Oklahoma was off probation and their repeat championship was sealed on the New Year’s stage.

OU was the preseason #1 and their defense was anchored by Lee Roy Selmon. A defensive tackle who swept the Outland and Lombardi Trophies in ’75, Selmon was joined on the front line by All-Americans in Jimbo Elrod and Dewey Selmon. Oklahoma’s wishbone offense was orchestrated by quarterback Steve Davis and shifty Joe Washington was the top running back.

The Sooners delivered a 46-10 thumping of a ranked Pitt team in September. Oklahoma’s annual Red River Rivalry game with Texas was a battle between top 5 teams and OU won it 24-17.

This good non-conference slate led the way into what was a competitive Big Eight. Missouri upset second-ranked Alabama on September 8 and got into the top five themselves before fading. Oklahoma State was in the national rankings. Colorado had a good team. And Oklahoma’s time-honored Big Eight rival in Nebraska was always there waiting.

The Cornhuskers were ranked seventh in the preseason polls. A stable of running backs ran behind All-American center Rik Boness. A future pro was at quarterback in Vince Ferragamo. Nebraska’s offense ranked eighth in the country nationally. They obliterated Colorado 63-21,  blew out Missouri 30-7 and rose to #2 in the polls in November.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma didn’t look quite as dominant. It took a narrow 21-20 escape to survive Colorado. The Sooners beat Oklahoma State comfortably, 27-7 on November 1, but a week later played an inexplicably awful game against unranked Kansas. A 23-3 loss dropped Oklahoma down to #7 in the polls. Another narrow survival, 28-27, came against Missouri.

Thus we came to the November 22 battle between the Sooners and Cornhuskers. And Oklahoma flipped the switch. A 35-10 blowout win vaulted OU back to #3 in the polls and gave them the conference’s Orange Bowl bid. Nebraska, instead of playing for a national championship in Miami, plummeted to the Fiesta Bowl, which was not yet a major bowl. Colorado joined the Cornhuskers as Top 10 teams playing in off-Broadway bowl matchups, accepting an invite to Bluebonnet.

Ohio State and Michigan were far and away the class of the Big Ten and the two rivals were both ranked in the top 5 to begin the season. The Buckeye running game had a 1,000-yard fullback in Pete Johnson and an All-American up front in Ted Smith. But the meal ticket was the great Archie Griffin. Rushing for over 1,400 yards, Griffin won a historic second straight Heisman Trophy and keyed the nation’s fourth-best offense.

The Ohio State defense also ranked #4 nationally, with Tim Fox garnering All-American honors in the secondary. The Buckeyes shut out 11th-ranked Michigan State in the first part of September. A week later, Ohio State got a 17-9 win over seventh-ranked Penn State. In early October, the Buckeyes took on #13 UCLA and won 41-20. Ohio State was #1 in the polls when it was time to face Michigan.

As for the Wolverines, they were also undefeated, although that record came with two ties. Michigan played unranked teams in Stanford and Baylor to draws in back-to-back weeks in September. In October, they took on then-#5 Missouri and started the Tigers fade with a 31-7 rout. A tough 16-6 win over in-state rival Michigan State kept the Wolverines rolling. They had a pair of terrific backs of their own, with Gordon Bell and Rob Lytle each clearing the 1,000-yard threshold. And at #4 in the country on November 22, Michigan was still very much in the national title picture.

The Michigan-Ohio State game was a classic in a rivalry that’s seen it’s share of great games. The Wolverines led 14-7 late into the fourth quarter. The Buckeyes’ veteran quarterback, Cornelius Greene, always steady, rallied his team with a touchdown drive. Head coach Woody Hayes kicked the extra point. A tie would give Ohio State the Rose Bowl bid, but would surely cost them the #1 ranking. Turns out, Woody had his cake and ate it too. A turnover set up another touchdown for Ohio State. The 21-14 win sent the Buckeyes to the Rose Bowl to play for the national championships.

USC had won the Pac-8’s bid to the Rose Bowl each of the previous three years. The Trojans won the national title in Pasadena in 1972. And in 1974, since the coaches’ poll refused to rank teams on probation, USC was the alternative to Oklahoma. Ranked #5 coming into 1974, and with one of the nation’s best running backs in Ricky Bell, the Trojans seemed poised to compete again.

John McKay’s Trojans stayed in the top five through October and beat Notre Dame 24-17 in South Bend during that stretch. But the month of November was not kind to USC. They lost Cal 28-14 and were upset by Stanford 13-10.

Meanwhile, across town, UCLA was on the rise. A young coach named Dick Vermeil had a long NFL future ahead of him. John Sciarra was the All-American quarterback in ’75. Wendell Tyler ran for nearly 1,400 yards. Even with the blowout loss to Ohio State, the Bruins still collected their share of scalps. They beat 10th-ranked Tennessee 34-28. On the same October 25 day that USC was beating Notre Dame, UCLA was knocking off Cal 28-14—it was the latter, not the former, that proved to be the biggest regular season game any Pac-8 team would play in 1975.

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, UCLA beat USC 28-22. UCLA and Cal shared the conference title and the head-to-head result sent the Bruins to the Rose Bowl. They were ranked #11 and would get a second chance at Ohio State.

Alabama’s early loss to Missouri knocked the Tide down, but they were far from out. The best defense in the nation was led by All-American end Leroy Cook. A future NFL combo of Richard Todd at quarterback and Ozzie Newsome at tight end led the country’s sixth-best offense. Alabama bounced back, won the remainder of their games and rolled into the Sugar Bowl ranked #4.

The Tide’s run through the SEC wasn’t for a lack of competitors. Even though Auburn had a bad year after beginning the season ranked #8, Georgia and Florida both stayed in the running. The Bulldogs had an All-American at guard in Randy Johnson. The Gators had a prolific running back, with Jimmy DuBose clearing the 1,400-yard threshold.

When the two teams met for their annual grudge match in Jacksonville, it was a defensive battle. Georgia won 10-7. Both teams finished 5-1 in league play and the head-to-head win sent the Bulldogs to the Cotton Bowl.

The Cotton Bowl was the province of the old Southwest Conference. Texas and Arkansas were this league’s traditional powers, but there were high expectations for Texas A&M in 1975. The Aggies opened the season ranked #9. The 10th-best defense in the nation was led by linebacker Ed Simonini and defensive back Pat Thomas. A&M won their first nine games. They rose to #2 in the country. The big tests awaited—a Black Friday battle with Texas, followed by the matchup with Arkansas.

Texas had a rising star in sophomore running back Earl Campbell. The future Heisman Trophy winner and #1 overall NFL draft pick racked up over 1,100 yards behind All-American offensive tackle Bob Simmons. Even though the Longhorns lost to Oklahoma, they were still ranked #5 coming into the battle against Texas A&M.

Arkansas had a good running back of their own in Ike Forte and a defense that was eighth nationally in points allowed. The Razorbacks met the Longhorns on October 18 and Texas got a 24-20 win. It was the first salvo in a three-team SWC race that would now come to a head after Thanksgiving.

Texas A&M won the battle of top 5 teams when they beat Texas 20-10. But a week later, it all came undone. Arkansas blew out the Aggies 31-6. It was a three-way tie for the conference championship. The Razorbacks got the bid to play in Dallas on New Year’s Day.

Polls in those days were not taken after Thanksgiving, so Texas A&M was still nominally #2 in the country when they went to the Liberty Bowl. A 20-0 loss to USC capped off a disappointing finish to an otherwise fine season in College Station. Texas, ranked #9, played in a high-profile undercard bowl game of their own, blowing out 10th-ranked Colorado 38-21 in the Bluebonnet.

It was all part of a season where several highly ranked teams were playing in the non-marquee bowl games. Another Top 10 battle took place in Tempe. Nebraska took on seventh-ranked Arizona State.

The Sun Devils, along with in-state rival Arizona, were still three years from joining the Pac-8. Neither were on the national radar. But by the time they met on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Arizona State was ranked #8 and undefeated. Arizona was ranked #12. The Sun Devils, with future NFL great Mike Haynes at corner, beat the Wildcats 24-21. Then ASU nipped Nebraska 17-14. Arizona State, along with Ohio State, were the only undefeated teams left as the major bowls arrived.  

One significant change marked the top bowl games this season. The Sugar Bowl moved from Tulane Stadium into the newly constructed New Orleans Superdome. The Sugar had a big-time matchup, with Alabama taking on Penn State.

The Nittany Lions had their usual great linebacker, All-American Greg Buttle and a solid defense. Offensive problems held them back in their loss to Ohio State. But the Lions blew out a ranked opponent in West Virginia 39-0, then nipped another ranked foe in Maryland by a 15-13 county. A tough 15-14 loss to N.C. State slowed their climb back up the polls, but a 7-6 victory over Pitt had Penn State into the top 10 when they met Alabama.

For the Tide, this game broke a two-year stretch of bowl games with Notre Dame. The 1975 season in South Bend has been immortalized by Hollywood as the one where Rudy got into a game. In reality, it was a tough first year for new head coach Dan Devine, who lost three games and stayed home for the postseason.

Alabama’s 13-6 win over Penn State on New Year’s Eve gave the fourth-ranked Tide a longshot hope at the national championship. The following day, Arkansas beat up Georgia 31-10 and moved up to #7 in the final rankings.

In the day’s biggest game, Ohio State had a 3-0 lead over UCLA at halftime. But the Bruins, playing close to home, and now having six quarters of being outplayed by the Buckeyes, got things turned around. UCLA pulled off a 23-10 upset. There would be no national title in Columbus.

The door was now open for Oklahoma to repeat. And that night in the Orange Bowl, they didn’t waste the opportunity. The Sooner defense was in complete command as they beat Michigan 14-6.

Arizona State was the last unbeaten team standing, but Oklahoma’s schedule was better, to say nothing of the Sooners’ reputation with the voters. OU was voted #1, with the Sun Devils coming in #2. Barry Switzer had just gotten the head coaching job at Oklahoma in 1973 and he was now 2-for-3 in winning national championships.