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Game of the Year of the Day, 1970: Alabama 24, Oklahoma 24

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Bear Bryant’s 1970 Alabama Crimson Tide: one of the 50 best* of all time.

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1970 Alabama Newspapers.com

The date: December 31, 1970

The matchup: No. 20 Oklahoma (7-4) vs. Alabama (6-5)

The stakes: The stakes really weren’t very high here. Not gonna lie. Two programs used to lofty heights were finishing up transition years in the Astrodome. But

The back story: From 50 Best*:

Despite a mediocre 6-5 record, Alabama was still a marquee draw for bowl organizers. There were just 11 bowls in 1969, but the Crimson Tide accepted an invitation to play No. 20 Oklahoma in Houston’s Bluebonnet Bowl.

Unbeknownst to anyone outside of his inner circle, Bear Bryant was considering a significant offensive change. When Alabama took the field at the L.A. Coliseum to begin the 1971 season, Bryant unveiled a wishbone attack that he had installed under cloak and dagger after spring practice. That same fall, OU offensive coordinator Barry Switzer would introduce his version of the increasingly popular offense. From 1971-80, Oklahoma would go 105-11-2 under first Chuck Fairbanks, then Switzer, finishing in the AP top five nine times; Alabama would go 107-13 with seven such finishes. In a decade dominated by bluebloods, these two schools stood out.

In 1970, however, they were disappointing young teams battling program stagnation. In front of 53,822 in the Astrodome, they fought to a draw.

1970 was a massive transition year for Bryant and Bama. After losing just six games in seven years from 1960-66, the Tide had lost 12 in three. And in ‘70, his young team only sometimes resembled a Bryant squad. It was lacking in prime talent (as was made crystal clear during a 42-21 loss to USC to start the year) and consistency. Turnovers and mistakes plagued losses to Ole Miss (48-23), Tennessee (24-0), and LSU (14-9). Still, when the Tide looked good, they looked great. And beginning in 1971, as he embarked on recruiting talented African-American prospects and made the switch to the wishbone, Bama looked like Bama again.

(I’m only glossing over the race issue in this post. It is indeed covered in the ‘70 Bama chapter of 50 Best*, but only so much — the myth is that USC crushed Bama with black players and everybody magically realized what had to be done in terms of integrated rosters. That’s a little bit true, but Bryant had already been working toward integrating the roster. The USC was the culmination, not the start.)

Oklahoma, meanwhile, was also in transition. After finishing third in the country in 1967, Chuck Fairbanks’ Sooners went just 20-12-1 from 1968-70. Like Bama, they were about to switch to the wishbone (under the guidance of offensive coordinator Barry Switzer) and catch fire. They would go 22-2 in 1971-72, and Switzer would take over as head coach when Fairbanks took an NFL job.

But in the final game of 1970, both were talented, inconsistent, and unstable. And they played an inconsistent, unstable bowl game.

The game: Via Newspapers.com:

HOUSTON (AP) -- Alabama's Johnny Musso closed out his junior year Thursday night with a 75 per cent pass completion record. On top of that his only completed pass went for a touchdown.

Musso, a tailback, tossed a 25-yard pass for his quarterback, Scott Hunter, as Alabama came from behind in the final period to surge ahead 24-21, then settle for a 24-24 tie with Oklahoma in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl Classic in the Astrodome. [...]

Oklahoma Coach Chuck Fairbanks saw his team lose a 21-14 halftime lead, then manage to tie with a 42-yard field goal by Bruce Derr with 59 seconds to play.

Asked if he would be in favor of a sudden-death playoff, Fairbanks answered, "right now I would be." [...]

Alabama drove to the 17-yard line with 28 seconds to go but did not call a timeout until only five seconds remained on the clock.

"Coach wanted us to wait, so the other team couldn't possibly score again," Hunter said. As it was, the field goal attempt failed.

The box score:

1970 Bluebonnet Bowl box score Newspapers.com

OU’s Greg Pruitt dominated the early portion of the game, scoring on runs of 58 and 25 to give the Sooners the first-half lead. Musso, meanwhile, capped a nice season with a different kind of touchdown than he was accustomed to.

This, like so many other aspects of this game, was a harbinger. In 1971, in friendly offensive systems, Pruitt would rush for 1,760 yards and 18 touchdowns while Musso rushed for 1,088 and 16. OU and Alabama went a combined 13-9-2 in 1970, then went a combined 22-2 the next season — 0-2 against Nebraska and 22-0 against everybody else.