You may have heard during the past week and are sure to hear many times over the next month prior to the BCS National Championship Game that Notre Dame and Alabama played each other with the national title on the line once before.
The Fighting Irish’s 24-23 win in the 1973 Sugar Bowl still haunts Crimson Tide fans to this day. Tom Clements’ third down pass to Robin Weber from the shadows of his own goal posts to seal the victory is remembered amongst the greatest plays in the long, storied history of Notre Dame football.
However, 1973 isn’t the only year that baby boomers in Alabama recall as potential national title-winning seasons that were pilfered by Notre Dame. 1966 and 1977 national title banners hang in the concourses of Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, but they could very well be placed among 14 others at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
When you think of the 1966 college football season, the game that comes to mind is the 10-10 tie between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State in East Lansing, one of many contests to be given the “Game of the Century” moniker. As Notre Dame was the away team, the tie kept the Irish at No. 1. After a 51-0 win at USC to close the season, Notre Dame was awarded the national championship.
There was another team, however, who went unbeaten and untied in 1966: the Alabama Crimson Tide. Bear Bryant’s team allowed just 3.9 points per game (just slightly behind Notre Dame’s 3.8) and routed Big 8 champion Nebraska, 34-7, in the Orange Bowl.
At that time, Notre Dame was still three years away from lifting its self-imposed ban on playing bowl games. With an 11-0 record, compared to Notre Dame’s 9-0-1, Alabama felt is more deserving of the national title than Ara Parseghian’s Irish.
The controversy was so significant that noted author Keith Dunnavant wrote a book titled The Missing Ring, chronicling the 1966 Crimson Tide’s perfect season and imperfect ending. It would be 13 years before Alabama again went through an entire season without a loss.
1977 saw both Alabama and Notre Dame suffer early losses, the Tide to Nebraska and the Irish to Ole Miss. Both teams recovered from their early defeats to win their final nine games heading into one of the wackiest days in bowl history.
Texas was undefeated and ranked No. 1, led by Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell, and was set to square off with No. 5 Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. No. 2 Oklahoma, also unbeaten, was playing an undermanned Arkansas team coached by Lou Holtz in the Orange Bowl. Third-ranked Alabama faced Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, while No. 4 Michigan faced future NFL Hall of Famer Warren Moon in the Rose Bowl.
By day’s end on Jan. 2, 1978, the Longhorns, Sooners and Wolverines had all lost. Notre Dame held Campbell scoreless in a 38-10 rout. Down the road in New Orleans, the Crimson Tide handled Ohio State with ease, 35-6.
With No. 1 and No. 2 losing, the natural progression seemed that No. 3 Alabama would move up to the top spot and claim the national title. The poll voters thought otherwise, however, vaulting the Irish from No. 5 to No. 1 on the strength of their 28-point win over the top-ranked and seemingly unstoppable Longhorns.
There were no books written about the 1977 Crimson Tide, but a void still remains from some 35 years ago. Of course, two national titles in a row in 1978 and 1979 helped ease the pain of Alabama supporters.
While there is plenty of hardware in Tuscaloosa celebrating Alabama’s 14 national titles, there could be even more if it weren’t for Notre Dame taking what Tide fans feel was rightfully theirs, not only in 1973, but in 1966 and 1977 as well. There will be no such controversy after next month’s BCS National Championship Game, but no sport values its history more so than college football.
Alabama fans haven’t forgotten their three national titles gone awry, just one of many storylines leading up to one of the most anticipated games of all time between the Crimson Tide and Fighting Irish on Jan. 7.