One of a series
Alabama football teams have won 971 games on the field and some victories are personal favorites. Officially, owing to capricious NCAA rulings, Crimson Tide teams that won 29 times had those victories either vacated (21) or forfeited (8, and also 1 tie). So while “officially” Bama has 942 wins, tied with Ohio State for second al-time to Michigan’s 976, we prefer to believe our eyes and saw those games.
All victories are not created equal. And sometimes – quite a few, actually – a favorite win over a team can be supplanted by a later triumph.
In this series we look at some victories that we consider the greatest/most favorite against other teams. There is no particular order.
Today: Southern Cal
Alabama and Southern Cal are two of the unquestioned bluebloods of college football. Atlhough they have had relatively few meetings, Bama holding a 6-2 advantage in the eight games spread over eight decades, a handful of those games have been very important.
The first meeting in 1938 was in Los Angeles, a 19-7 Alabama win. On January 1, 1946, the teams met in the Rose Bowl, where the Crimson Tide rolled to a 34-14 victory. That game was monumental in that the Pac-8 owned the Rose Bowl and didn’t want any more of Alabama, which was building its history in great part because of its success in the Pasadena institution. So what did the Pac-8 do? They made a deal that henceforth, the Rose Bowl would match the winners of the Pac-8 and Big Ten.
The Tide and Trojans would not meet again until 1970, when the NCAA allowed teams to schedule an 11th game. Good friends Paul Bryant, coach at Alabama, and John McKay, head man at USC, negotiated a deal for the teams to meet in Birmingham in 1970 and in Los Angeles in 1971.
Alabama and Southern Cal also have played in the Aloha Bowl, a 24-3 Tide win in 1985, and in a kickoff game in Arlington in 2016, Bama winning 52-6 in the most one-sided game in the series.
Southern Cal’s two victories in the series have come in Birmingham, a 42-21 romp in 1970 and a 24-14 win over No. 1 Alabama in 1978.
It was ironic that the Trojans were ranked seventh when USC defeated top-ranked Bama in 1978. The year before the tables were turned, No. 7 Bama upsetting No. 1 Southern Cal in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The 1977 Bama team had opened the season with a 34-13 win over Ole Miss, which would be revisited at the end of the season. In addition to playing Southern Cal in Los Angeles, the Tide would also play at Nebraska, where Alabama would suffer its only loss, 31-24.
Thus, the Tide went into the Los Angeles Coliseum with a 4-1 record.
After a USC field goal that was the only score of the first half, Johnny Davis went in from two yards out in the third quarter to give the Tide a lead it would not surrender. Two Tony Nathan touchdown runs, 1 yard and 13 yards, made it 21-6 in the fourth quarter.
The Trojans made a valiant comeback try. Rob Hertel completed a 10-yard TD pass to Calvin Sweeney and then converted on a pass to Mosi Tatupu to cut the lead to 21-14. Late in the game the Trojans orchestrated a touchdown drive with Lynn Cain going over from a yard out. USC elected to go for the two-point conversion and the win, but Alabama defensive end Wayne Hamilton corralled Hertel and Bama escaped with the 21-20 win.
That 1977 team would go undefeated the rest of the season, including a 35-6 win over Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, but Notre Dame managed to poll vault Bama to be awarded the national championship.
As for that season-opening Alabama romp over Ole Miss? The next week the Rebels defeated Notre Dame, 20-13.
Following the 1970 season, starting with the three touchdown loss to Southern Cal and ending with a 6-5-1 record, many were convinced that Bryant was nearing the end of his illustrious career. As it turned out, he would begin the second half of his Alabama Era with a stunning upset.
“We don’t awe anyone now,” he said prior to the 1971 season. “We are back among the ordinary folk, and I don’t like it.”
In what seems like an impossibility, Bryant made the decision with the start of preseason practice in August that Alabama would make the switch from his pro-style offense to the wishbone. The ingredients were there. Alabama had All-America level players at offensive guards John Hannah and Buddy Brown, center in Jim Krapf, wide receiver David Bailey, and running back Johnny Musso. The true secret was quarterback Terry Davis, who had seen only limited playing time in the pro-style attack, but whom quarterbacks Coach Mal Moore would term “a magician” in running the wishbone.
Moore said later that pregame warmups didn’t go well. “I was afraid we wouldn’t make a first down,” he said.
The game was on Friday night, September 10, the day before Bryant’s birthday, and it was not televised.
“We went to Los Angeles with a real basic offense,” Moore said. “We had only been practicing it a few weeks. But the triple option is a lot of offense, three plays in one.”
The first play was as basic as it gets. Davis took the snap, as fullback Ellis Beck moved towards right tackle. When USC’s defensive end moved towards Beck, Davis pulled the ball back out and continued running around right end. When a Trojans defensive back moved up to take Davis, he pitched to a trailing Musso, who followed right halfback Joe LaBue.
Alabama scored on its first three possessions – Musso runs of 13 and 8 yards around a 37-yard Bill Davis field goal. The Trojans scored 10 first half points and the 17-10 halftime score was also the final score.
Back in Tuscaloosa, students erupted in celebration. When the team plane arrived in Birmingham the next afternoon there were thousands on hand to cheer the winners. Sports Illustrated proclaimed on its cover, “Bama Is Back!”
Alabama went on to an 11-1 record that season before losing to Nebraska in the national championship Orange Bowl game, and Bryant would coach 12 years with the wishbone with a record of 124-19-1, three national championships, and nine Southeastern Conference titles in the last half of his Tide career.
Years later, John Musso said, “I think the wishbone energized Coach Bryant. I think the two previous seasons took a lot out of him. But he said, ‘Enough is enough.’ He got energized, got a new focus, and quickly turned the program around.”
That, alone, makes it good enough to rank as my favorite Alabama win over Southern Cal.