The 1977 NCAA Division I football season was one in which the top five teams all finished with records of 11-1-0. Notre Dame, which beat a #1 ranked Texas team in the Cotton Bowl Classic, became the national champion. The year 1977 was the last before NCAA's Division I was divided into I-A and I-AA. On the eve of a national playoff for the smaller programs that would be I-AA, the Sugar Bowl in 1977 became the fourth bowl game to sign a contract guaranteeing an appearance by a major conference champion. The result was that meetings between the media poll choices for the top two teams were less likely, unless those teams were in the Big Ten and Pac-8 (which met in the Rose Bowl), or one of the teams was not obligated to play in a particular bowl game.
Besides the Big 10-Pac-8 matchup in the Rose Bowl, the SWC champion played in the Cotton Bowl Classic, the Big 8 titlist in the Orange Bowl, and the SEC champ in the Sugar Bowl. Top teams that had their choice of which bowl to play were either in a conference outside of the five major powers (such as the ACC or the WAC) or those that were "independent" (not affiliated with any conference), During the 20th Century, the NCAA had no playoff for the college football teams that would later be described as "Division I-A". The NCAA Football Guide, however, did note an "unofficial national champion" based on the top ranked teams in the "wire service" (AP and UPI) polls. The "writers' poll" by Associated Press (AP) was the most popular, followed by the "coaches' poll" by United Press International) (UPI). The AP poll consisted of the votes of as many as 64 writers, though not all voted in each poll, and the UPI poll was taken of a 42 member board of coaches.
September 10#1 Oklahoma opened its season against the visiting Vanderbilt Commodores, who had finished 2-9-0 the year before. Though the Sooners avoided an upset, their 25-23 win didn't impress the pollsters, and OU dropped to fifth. #2 Michigan won at Illinois, 37-9. #3 Notre Dame won at Pittsburgh, 19-9. #4 USC won at Missouri, 27-10. #5 Ohio State beat visiting Miami (of Florida) 10-0. #6 Alabama beat Ole Miss, 34-13, at Birmingham. Although the top six teams all won their openers, The next poll shuffled the rankings (2-4-3-6-1-5): 1.Michigan 2.USC 3.Notre Dame 4.Alabama 5.Oklahoma 6. Ohio State.
September 17#1 Michigan beat Duke, 21-9 and #2 USC won at Oregon State, 17-10. A week after losing to Alabama, the Ole Miss Rebels stunned the nation as they defeated #3 Notre Dame 20-13 in a humid 100 degree plus day in Jackson. Humiliated by their loss to Red and Blue, Irish dropped to 11th, and as low as 14th the week after. The #11 Maryland Terrapins fell to an unranked West Virginia team in College Park, 24-16. #4 Alabama lost at #14 Nebraska, 31-24. #5 Oklahoma crushed visiting Utah, 62-24. #6 Ohio State and #10 Penn State which beat Minnesota (38-7) and Houston (31-14), respectively, reached the top five: 1.Michigan 2.USC 3.Oklahoma 4.Ohio State 5.Penn State
September 24#1 Michigan beat Navy, 14-7. #2 USC beat visiting TCU, 51-0. #3 Oklahoma and #4 Ohio State met in Columbus, Ohio, in the season's first big matchup. In a close game, the visiting Sooners won 29-28 after a touchdown, an onside kick recovery, and a last second field goal by Uwe Von Schaman, and reclaimed first place in the next poll. #5 Penn State beat Maryland, 27-9. #6 Texas A&M, which won at #7 Texas Tech, 33-17, reached the top five: 1.Oklahoma 2.USC 3.Michigan 4.Penn State 5.Texas A&M
October 1#1 Oklahoma beat Kansas 24-9 and #2 USC was idle, but the Trojans were voted #1 anyway in a split vote (23 vs. 19 for OU and 16 for UM). #3 Michigan beat #5 Texas A&M 41-3. #4 Penn State lost at Kentucky, 24-20. #6 Ohio State won at SMU, 35-7. #8 Texas defeated the visiting Rice Owls, 72-15. With USC having a plurality of votes (23 vs. 19 for OU and 16 for UM), the poll was: 1.USC 2.Oklahoma 3.Michigan 4.Ohio State 5.Texas
October 8 In Los Angeles, #1 USC was beaten by #7 Alabama, 21-20 when Alabama intercepted the pass on the last minute 2-point conversion try by USC. The same day, in Dallas, #2 Oklahoma and #5 Texas met in their annual game, with Texas winning 13-6. The #2 Sooners' fall on the same day that #1 was beaten was a foreshadowing of something worse. In Big Ten play, #3 Michigan won at Michigan State 24-14 and #4 Ohio State beat Purdue 46-0. #6 Colorado beat visiting Oklahoma State, 29-13, to reach the Top Five, which had the Wolverines return to first place: 1.Michigan 2.Texas 3.Colorado 4.Alabama 5.Ohio State
October 15#1 Michigan beat #14 Wisconsin 56-0. #2 Texas won at #7 Arkansas, 13-9. #3 Colorado played at Kansas to a 17-17 tie. #4 Alabama beat Tennessee in BIrmingham, 24-10. #5 Ohio State beat Iowa 27-6. #6 USC beat Oregon, 33-15, to return to the top five: 1.Michigan 2.Texas 3.Alabama 4.Ohio State 5.USC
October 22 Previously unbeaten (6-0-0) #1 Michigan was shut out when it visited unranked (4-2-0) Minnesota, 16-0. #2 Texas won at SMU, 30-14. #3 Alabama beat Louisville, 55-6. #4 Ohio State won at Northwestern, 35-15. In South Bend, IN, #11 Notre Dame wore their green jerseys for the first time in decades and overwhelmed #5 USC 49-19. #7 Oklahoma, which beat #16 Iowa State 35-16, returned to the Top Five, and the Longhorns became the fourth team to lead the poll: 1.Texas 2.Alabama 3.Ohio State 4.Oklahoma 5.Notre Dame
October 29#1 Texas beat visiting #14 Texas Tech, 26-0. #2 Alabama beat Mississippi State 37-7 in Jackson. #3 Ohio State beat Wisconsin, 42-0. #4 Oklahoma won at Kansas State, 42-7, and #5 Notre Dame beat Navy, 43-10. Other than the Sooners' trade with the Buckeyes, the poll was stable: 1.Texas 2.Alabama 3.Oklahoma 4.Ohio State 5.Notre Dame
November 5#1 Texas won at Houston, 35-21. #2 Alabama embarrassed #18 LSU in Baton Rouge 24-3. #3 Oklahoma won at Oklahoma State, 61-28, #4 Ohio State won at Illinois, 35-0, and #5 Notre Dame beat Georgia Tech, 69-14. For the first time since the season began, the top five remained unchanged (in fact, the top nine were the same): 1.Texas 2.Alabama 3.Oklahoma 4.Ohio State 5.Notre Dame
November 19#1 Texas beat Baylor, 29-7, while #2 Alabama and #3 Oklahoma were idle. Once again, the Big Ten title came down to a meeting between #4 Ohio State and #5 Michigan, 7-0 and 6-1 in conference play, respectively. The game, at Ann Arbor, Michigan, saw the host Wolverines win 14-6 and gain the trip to the Rose Bowl. #6 Notre Dame beat Air Force, 49-0. The poll: 1.Texas 2.Alabama 3.Oklahoma 4.Michigan 5.Notre Dame
November 25 On this Friday night after Thanksgiving, USC defeated UCLA on a last second field goal, 29-27 to knock UCLA out of the Rose Bowl and put the Washington Huskies in.
November 26#1 Texas closed with a 57-28 win at #12 Texas A&M, with an 11-0-0 record, the SWC title, and a trip to the Cotton Bowl Classic. #2 Alabama closed its season in Birmingham, beating Auburn 48-21. The Crimson Tide was unbeaten (7-0) in SEC conference play, as was Kentucky (6-0). The Kentucky Wildcats, 10-1-0 overall, might otherwise have gone to the Sugar Bowl, but were ineligible because of NCAA probation. #3 Oklahoma had beaten #11 Nebraska, 38-7, on the day after Thanksgiving to close the regular season 10-1-0. #4 Michigan was idle, as was #5 Notre Dame, which closed its season on December 3 with a 48-10 win at Miami. The final regular season poll had been released on November 28: 1.Texas 2.Oklahoma 3.Alabama 4.Michigan 5.Notre Dame
Offensive linemen will be allowed to charge downfield ahead of a screen pass, provided the pass is caught at or behind the line of scrimmage. Previously, this resulted in a five-yard ineligible receiver downfield penalty.
Two former NFL head coaching failures became college football successes, upsetting the #1 and #2 teams. Dan Devine had been unspectacular as Green Bay's coach before succeeding Ara Parsheghian at Notre Dame, while Lou Holtz had coached the New York Jets to a 3-11 finish before taking over at Arkansas.
In the Sugar Bowl, it was a matchup of coaches in Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes; Bryant's #3 Alabama squad easily handled 8th ranked Ohio State, 35-6.
The largest crowd in Cotton Bowl Classic history (76,701) turned out in Dallas to watch the unbeaten #1 Texas Longhorns finalize a national championship. Notre Dame's defense, however, forced five turnovers, setting up five scores. Vagas Ferguson scored three touchdowns, including one on a pass from Joe Montana in a 38-10 win. For Texas, both Earl Campbell and Johnny Lam Jones were injured. Devine changed his mind about resigning his Irish coaching job.
Following the Cotton Bowl Classic and Texas' loss, #4 Michigan hoped an impressive win over the Washington might vault them to a possible national championship. However the Huskies, led by Rose Bowl MVP Warren Moon, raced to a 24-0 3rd quarter lead and held on for a 27-20 upset.
With #1 Texas out of the way, #2 Oklahoma was in a position to claim the championship with a win over #6 Arkansas. The Razorbacks had finished behind Texas in SWC play and had settled for the Orange Bowl. The week of the game, Holtz suspended the Hogs' top rusher, Ben Cowins, and the top receiver, Donny Bobo for violating team rules. The Sooners were 18 point favorites but Cowins' backup Roland Sales rushed for two touchdowns and over 200 yards as the Razorbacks shut down the Sooners' ground game en route to a 24-0 lead and a 31-6 win.
The national championship was disputed as there were 6 one loss teams - Alabama, Arkansas, Notre Dame, and Texas, plus Penn State and Kentucky (who were prohibited from playing in a bowl due to NCAA probation). Notre Dame had lost to Mississippi, who lost to Alabama, who lost to Nebraska, who lost to Oklahoma, who lost to Arkansas, who lost to Texas who lost to Notre Dame. Penn State lost to Kentucky and Kentucky lost to Baylor who had lost to Texas, Arkansas, and Nebraska. Amidst this confusion, there were several good choices for a champion; giant killers Notre Dame and Arkansas, and third-ranked Alabama, and Texas. Notre Dame, on the strength of its lopsided win over #1 Texas, vaulted over Texas, Oklahoma (who lost in the Orange Bowl), Alabama (who won in the Sugar Bowl), and Michigan (who lost in the Rose Bowl). Alabama fans cried foul as they assumed, as the #3 team before the bowls, that if #1Texas and #2 Oklahoma lost (which they did), they would rise to #1 with a win over Ohio State. Some believe Alabama was granted a share of the national title in 1978 despite its loss to the team it shared it with (USC) to make up for 1977. The electors for AP and UPI were divided, but a majority for each service picked Notre Dame. With one AP writer naming all three schools as number one, the writers poll was 37⅓ for Notre Dame, 19⅓ for Alabama and 5⅓ for Arkansas  UPI had 23 for Notre Dame, 13 for Alabama and 2 for Arkansas. Dan Devine, who had followed in the footsteps of both Vince Lombardi and Ara Parseghian, reversed his earlier plans and stayed on as coach of the defending NCAA football champion.
With NCAA Division I-AA football set to begin in 1978, some of the schools that had played in Division II (such as Montana State) moved to Division I. Soon to be I-AA schools with great records in 1977 included Grambling State (10-1-0), Colgate (10-1-0), Louisiana Tech (9-1-2), UT-Chattanooga (9-1-1), and Tennessee State (8-1-1).