Jerry Tagge’s winning TD versus LSU in the January 1, 1971 Orange Bowl.

A Drama Never Surpassed — The Story Of Nebraska’s Improbable First National Championship

The 1970 Nebraska Cornhuskers were a powerful team. They finished the regular season with a 10–0–1 record, an undisputed Big 8 title, and an Orange Bowl berth against the fifth ranked LSU Tigers. The Huskers had won 9 out of their 11 games by 14 points or more. The only close games were an early season 21–21 tie at powerful USC and a 28–21 victory over a resurgent Oklahoma Sooner squad.

After the last regular season win against Oklahoma, the Huskers were ranked number four in the country behind undefeated Texas, Ohio State and Notre Dame. The top three teams all had perfect records. The Longhorns and the Irish were expected to play for the national title in the Cotton Bowl. Nebraska’s chances for a national title were virtually non-existent at the time.

The first domino fell one week after the Oklahoma win. Previously undefeated Notre Dame lost to USC 38–28 in Los Angeles. That created the possibility that the Cotton Bowl game would not necessarily determine the national title. If top ranked Texas were to get knocked off, that would open the door to Ohio State or maybe even Nebraska to win what was then considered to be the mythical national title.

In 1970, the final coaches poll was conducted before the bowl games. Texas was chosen by the coaches to be the national champions at the close of the regular season. The then prestigious McArthur Bowl championship trophy was awarded to both the Longhorns and the Buckeyes. However, the writers would pick their national champion after the bowl games.

January 1, 1971 was one of the most remarkable days in the history of college football. It was a drama never surpassed.

The first game of the day matched up Texas and Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Texas went into that game with a 30 game winning streak and a vaunted wishbone offense that been unstoppable. The Irish were well prepared since they had an entire month to practice against the wishbone. Notre Dame stopped the Texas offense cold and prevailed 24 to 11.

Shortly after the conclusion of the Cotton Bowl, an 8–3 Stanford team took on Woody Hayes’ undefeated Buckeyes. Just prior to the Rose Bowl, Ohio State had won 27 out of their last 28 games and were the heavy favorites. Stanford — led by Heisman trophy winner Jim Plunkett — pulled off the second upset of the day and defeated Ohio State 27–17.

Those two New Years Day upsets left the door open to third ranked Nebraska. The Big Red were fired up and took an early 10–0 lead over. The Tigers didn’t give up and took a 12–10 lead by the end of the third quarter. Jerry Tagge then marched the Huskers 67 yards and scored the winning touchdown on a quarterback sneak play with about seven minutes to play. Nebraska took a 17–12 lead. The Blackshirts closed out the game and the Huskers ended the season with an 11–0–1 record. Nebraska was the only major undefeated team in college football.

Intensive lobbying for the number one spot in the writers poll followed the New Years Day bowl games. Ara Parseghian claimed the top spot for the 10–1 Irish because they had defeated top ranked Texas.

Bob Devaney made a passionate case for Nebraska. He pointed out that Nebraska had tied USC on the road and that the Irish lost to the Trojans by 10 points in Los Angeles. The Nebraska coached created a bit of controversy when he contended that: “Even the Pope would have to vote us number one.”

The writers paid heed to Devaney and Nebraska won the national title in a landslide. The Huskers tallied 39 first place votes to Notre Dame’s 8. Nebraska was the champion of college football for the first time. The state went crazy. The national title was topped off by a visit to Lincoln by President Richard Nixon on January 14, 1971 to honor the national champion Cornhuskers. It was a season to remember.

I’m a trial lawyer, a Democratic activist and a sports fan.

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