This was the final season in which the Ivy League, Southern Conference, and Southland Conference competed in Division I-A; the leagues were lowered to Division I-AA (later known as the FCS) for 1982. Through the 2012 season, the Ivy League has yet to participate in the post-season tournament, despite an automatic bid, citing academic concerns. This season the total number of teams in Division 1-A decreased from 138 to 137 due to the loss of Villanova, who dropped their football program following the 1980 season.
Continuing the trend of liberalizing blocking rules, offensive linemen now are allowed to use extended arms with open hands.
The head coach or captain may request a conference with the referee if the coach feels the rules were misinterpreted or misapplied. If the referee is correct, the requesting team will be charged with a timeout (or delay of game if no timeouts).
Players blocked into a kicked ball inbounds will not be considered to have touched the kick.
Holding penalty is reduced to 10 yards.
During a field goal/PAT attempt, players are not allowed to stand, step, or jump on an teammate or opponent (leaping) or place a hand on or be picked up by a teammate (leverage) to block the kick.
The pre season top 5 was 1. Michigan, 2. Oklahoma, 3. Notre Dame, 4. Alabama, and 5. USC. On September 5, Alabama beat LSU 24–7 and moved up to #2 in the new poll that was 1. Michigan, 2. Alabama, 3, Oklahoma, 4. Notre Dame, and 5. USC. Clemson was not ranked.
On September 12, #1 Michigan opened its season in Madison and lost to Wisconsin, 21-14. #2 Alabama lost in Birmingham to Georgia Tech, 24–21. By beating LSU 27-9, Notre Dame leapfrogged Oklahoma, who beat Wyoming 37–20, into the #1 spot. #4 USC beat Tennessee 43–7 so they also vaulted over Oklahoma to #2. Georgia at #4 and Penn State at #5 replace Michigan and Alabama in the top 5.
On September 19, #1 Notre Dame lost at #11 Michigan 25–7. #4 Georgia lost at unranked Clemson, 13–3. Thus, USC moved up to #1, Oklahoma #2, Penn State #3, Texas joined the top five at #4, and Pittsburgh moved up to #5.
On September 26 in a 1 vs. 2 showdown in Los Angeles, USC scored in the final seconds to nip Oklahoma, 28–24. Thus, Oklahoma slipped to #5 while Penn State, Texas and Pittsburgh were number 2, 3, and 4.
On October 3, Oklahoma, still stung by its last second loss to USC, was shocked at home in a 7–7 tie with Iowa State. North Carolina moved up to replace Oklahoma at #5 in the next poll.
On October 10, #1 USC was upset by Arizona, 13–10. #3 Texas beat #10 Oklahoma 34–13 and jumped over Penn State into the #1 spot. Michigan returned to the top 5 in the new poll that was: 1. Texas, 2. Penn State, 3. Pittsburgh, 4. North Carolina, and 5. Michigan.
On October 17, #1 Texas was steamrolled by Arkansas 42–11. #5 Michigan lost at Iowa 9–7 in the game that ultimately decided the Big 10's Rose Bowl berth. Clemson and USC replaced Texas and Michigan in the new top 5 that was: 1. Penn State, 2. Pittsburgh, 3. North Carolina, 4. Clemson, and 5. USC.
The big game on October 24 was between ACC rivals #3 North Carolina and #4 Clemson in Chapel Hill. Clemson won 10–8 to move up to #3, and Georgia replaced North Carolina in the top 5.
On October 31, #1 Penn State was upset by unranked Miami (FL) 17–14 and fell to #6. Texas re-emerged in the top 5 that was: 1. Pittsburgh, 2. Clemson, 3. USC, 4. Georgia, and 5. Texas.
Clemson's match-up with North Carolina proved to be the landmark game of the season and a huge turning point for the ACC. This game which Clemson won 10–8 marked the first time two ACC teams met while ranked in the top 10. ABC broadcast this game live nationally, a huge bit of exposure for what was usually known as a basketball conference. The game ended with Jeff Bryant recovering a lateral with a minute left.
Clemson's Orange Bowl opponent Nebraska featured future NFL stars Roger Craig, Irving Fryar, Mike Rozier, and Dave Rimington while finishing second nationally in rushing with 330 yards per game. But Clemson was able to take advantage of an injury to Nebraska quarterback Turner Gill. Eight out of twelve Nebraska possessions ended in a three and out, they crossed the 50 only four times and ended up with just two scoring opportunities.
Entering the game, Clemson was ranked #1, Georgia #2, then Alabama and Nebraska in one poll and Pittsburgh in another. After Georgia and Alabama had lost in Sugar and Cotton Bowls respectively, The Orange Bowl was for the national championship, although with Pitt beating Georgia, it is likely that Nebraska would have split the title with Pitt had they beaten Clemson. The final score was 22–15.
Pittsburgh, which was the consensus number one until being beaten soundly by Penn State in their season finale, beat defending national champion Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Also in the national title hunt till the very end, Alabama lost to number six Texas in the Cotton Bowl Classic.
Southern Methodist won the Southwest Conference and was ranked fifth, but was ineligible for post-season play due to NCAA probation, but could have still qualified for the national title.