Idaho State earned automatic berth in NCAA Division I-AA Football Championship. Boise State earned at-large berth in NCAA Division I-AA Football Championship.
Rankings from NCAA Division I-AA poll (released before championship playoffs)
The Broncos finished the regular season at 9–2 and 6–1 in conference to tie for first in the Big Sky, but lost the tiebreaker due to the head-to-head loss to champion Idaho State in the conference opener. The Broncos avenged their 1980 loss Cal Poly-SLO, beating the 1980 Division II national champions 17–6 in Boise, but lost at Cal State Fullerton, whom they defeated in 1980 in Boise. The Broncos narrowly defeated rivalIdaho for the fifth consecutive year, in the regular season finale in Moscow. The Vandals were winless in the Big Sky in 1981, which caused a change in head coaches. (BSU would not defeat the Vandals again until 1994, losing twelve straight).
The Broncos were again invited to the I-AA playoffs, expanded to eight teams for 1981. As Big Sky runner-up, BSU played on the road in the quarterfinals at Jackson State, and won 19–7. The semifinal game was played at home against Eastern Kentucky, whom the Broncos had narrowly defeated in the title game the year before. This time the Colonels prevailed 23–17, but would lose the title game to Idaho State the following week in Texas.
The Broncos returned to the I-AA playoffs in 1988, the semifinals in 1990, and the title game in 1994, then moved up to Division I-A in 1996.
Head coach Jim Criner stayed seven seasons at Boise State before departing for Iowa State following the 1982 season. Defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich was promoted to head coach and would stay for four seasons (1983–86). The defensive secondary coach at BSU in 1981 was future NFL head coach John Fox.