The 10 Most Significant Orange Bowls

The Orange Bowl’s reputation and stature took at hit in the Bowl Championship Series era. Think of Louisville-Wake Forest in 2007 and Cincinnati-Virginia Tech in 2009 in terms of buzz. Consider 2010 Iowa-Georgia Tech and 2012 West Virginia-Clemson in terms of attendance. This was not the same kind of event it was in the early 1990s and previous decades, when the Orange Bowl carried a lot more juice.

This is one of the five oldest bowl games, one of four created in the 1930s after the Rose Bowl was born in 1902. (The others: Sun, Sugar and Cotton.) These aren’t the most memorable Orange Bowls; they’re the games which either defined the sport or represented important transitional moments in college football.


10 – 1976: OKLAHOMA 14, MICHIGAN 6

The Sooners and Barry Switzer repeated as national champions, which marks a notable occurrence in college football history. Yet, this game is just as historically significant — if not more so — because of Michigan’s place in this contest. The 1973 season produced a 10-10 tie between Michigan and Ohio State. The Big Ten picked Ohio State to go to the Rose Bowl at a time when other prestigious games such as the Orange were not open to Big Ten teams. That 1973 controversy is precisely what led the Big Ten to allow its non-champion to be able to go to another premier bowl. A few years later, Ohio State would play Alabama in the 1978 Sugar Bowl. Hey, that sounds like a familiar matchup…

9 – 1975: NOTRE DAME 13, ALABAMA 11

Notre Dame and Alabama met in the 1973 Sugar Bowl, played on New Year’s Eve of that year, not Jan. 1 of 1974. Therefore, this represented the second straight bowl meeting between the two teams, members of college football royalty.

This game marked Ara Parseghian’s last as Notre Dame’s head coach. It helped the program to hand over the reins to Dan Devine the following season and maintain momentum through the end of Devine’s tenure. Parseghian can point to many accomplishments in South Bend; beating Bear Bryant in consecutive bowl games rates near the top of the list.

8 – 1978: ARKANSAS 31, OKLAHOMA 6

Oklahoma had a chance to win a third national title in four years — the Sooners entered this game No. 2 and knew that No. 1 Texas had lost earlier in the day to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. OU was an 18-point favorite, but a coach named Lou Holtz scored his biggest single win at Arkansas, engineering an ambush in Miami. A notable fact about the 1977 Arkansas coaching staff: Holtz brought on a graduate assistant to help coach the Hogs’ secondary. The name? Pete Carroll.

7 – 2005: USC 55, OKLAHOMA 19

This is one of a number of Orange Bowls in which two powerful programs met at the height of their powers — one school was going to make history at the expense of the other. This game doesn’t rate as highly because this was a humiliation instead of a close contest in which both teams covered themselves in glory. USC’s high point in the Pete Carroll era came in this contest against the Sooners, whose collapse magnified the limitations of the BCS era. In a system with a plus-one after the bowls or a four-team playoff, Auburn and/or Utah would have been able to play for a national title. Not in the 2004 season.


6 – 1972: NEBRASKA 38, ALABAMA 6

The best Nebraska team of all time was the 1995 squad. The 1971 team has a strong claim to second place, and it’s almost certainly the best of Bob Devaney’s teams before Tom Osborne took over the proram. This was the Huskers’ masterpiece, a thrashing of a reborn Alabama team that had given new life to Bear Bryant’s career by adopting the wishbone from Darrell Royal at Texas.

Nebraska allowed an average of eight points per game in 1971. This defensive performance against Bama’s wishbone was therefore relatively “average,” so to speak. There was clearly nothing average about Nebraska in its supremely successful ’71 season.

5 – 1965: TEXAS 21, ALABAMA 17

We just mentioned that Bear Bryant learned the wishbone from Darrell Royal, a good friend at Texas. Several years before that tutorial in the 1971 offseason, Bryant’s Crimson Tide met Royal’s Longhorns in a classic Orange Bowl, one of the very best installments of this Miami fixture.

Four years after this game, a man named Joe Namath created what was arguably the most significant individual moment in the history of American professional football when the New York Jets beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. That game occurred in the Orange Bowl Stadium.

Before Namath could bathe himself in sweet victory, though, he tasted the bitter herbs of defeat against Texas. Legendary Longhorn linebacker Tommy Nobis stopped Namath cold with a letter-perfect tackle near the goal line in the fourth quarter, preserving the win for Texas in a battle of the previous two national champions in college football.

4 – 1988: MIAMI 20, OKLAHOMA 14

The Hurricanes had suffered crushing defeats — one in terms of scoreboard margin, one in terms of large-scale importance — in their previous two bowls, the 1986 Sugar Bowl (Tennessee) and the 1987 Fiesta Bowl (Penn State). Jimmy Johnson badly wanted a national title as Howard Schnellenberger’s successor at The U, and he’d have to beat the team that had won the previous two Orange Bowl games, the Oklahoma Sooners.

Miami’s victory served as a powerful hinge point in college football history. It catapulted the Hurricanes to more titles (under Dennis Erickson, with Johnson moving to the Dallas Cowboys) as the 1980s moved into the 1990s. The U’s triumph in this game also marked a last hurrah for Barry Switzer at Oklahoma. The Sooners ceased to be the same force they had been in the Big 8 Conference. Nebraska and Colorado would carry the banner for the league over the next several years before it gave way to the Big 12 in 1996.

Full game here:


It wasn’t pretty, but it was hugely dramatic and appropriately theatrical: After so many near misses, Bobby Bowden — one of the greatest coaches this sport has ever known — finally won his first national championship at Florida State.

2 – 1995: NEBRASKA 24, MIAMI 17

After so many bitter defeats suffered at the hands of both Miami and Florida State in huge bowl games, Tom Osborne — also one of college football’s greatest sideline sultans — finally won his first national title with a cathartic win over The U in the Hurricanes’ home ballpark. This championship meant more than words could express for Osborne, but the fact that it came against Miami — not any other program — elevated its significance and value.


1 – 1984: MIAMI 31, NEBRASKA 30

The 1983 Nebraska Cornhuskers were one of the most formidable and talented teams in college football’s 145-year history. The Huskers were resolute and resourceful in this game against a Miami team that was trying to put its name on the map, to establish itself as a full-fledged power under Howard Schnellenberger. Two programs from different sides of the tracks intersected in a stadium filled with memories — the Orange Bowl had, after all, hosted five of the first 13 Super Bowls in addition to hosting this bowl pageant since 1935.

In addition to being a classic — always in the top three of the very best college football games ever played — the 1984 Orange Bowl launched the Miami dynasty; denied Osborne the title he wouldn’t find for another 11 years; and offered an enduring reminder of why college football games deserve overtime, a reform which eventually made its way into the sport’s rulebook… but much too late for Doctor Tom.

Full game here:

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |