The 1981 NCAA Division I-A football season ended with the Clemson Tigers, unbeaten and untied, taking the mythical national championship after a victory over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. This was also the first year of the California Bowl, played in Fresno, California; this game fancied itself as a "junior" version of the Rose Bowl as it pitted the Big West champion vs. the MAC champion.
This was the final season in which the Ivy League competed in Division I-A.; the league was lowered to Division I-AA (FCS) for 1982. Through 2009 season, the Ivy League has yet to participate in the post-season tournament, despite an automatic bid, citing academic concerns.
Rule Changes 
- 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 mis-interpreted or mis-applied. If the referee is correct, the requesting team will be charged with a time-out (or delay-of-game if no time-outs).
- 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.
Florida State played a brutal series of games known as "Octoberfest", playing traditional powers Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and LSU all on the road and going 3-2 in that stretch.
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-ermerged in the top 5 that was: 1. Pittsburgh, 2. Clemson, 3. USC, 4. Georgia, and 5. Texas.
On November 7, #5 Texas was tied by Houston 14-14 and was replaced by Penn State at #5. The rest of the top 5 was unchanged.
On November 14, #3 USC lost to Washington, 13-3 and #5 Penn State was knocked off by Alabama, 31-16. The new poll was 1. Pittsburgh, 2. Clemson, 3. Georgia, 4. Alabama, and 5. Nebraska.
The poll would remain unchanged until games of November 28, when Penn State beat #1 Pitt 48-14. The final regular season poll was 1. Clemson, 2. Georgia, 3. Alabama, 4. Nebraska, and 5. SMU.
Important game 
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.
Conference standings 
Notable rivalry games 
- Alabama 28, Auburn 17
- Ohio State 14, Michigan 9
- #5 Nebraska 37, Oklahoma 14
- USC 14, Notre Dame 7
- USC 22, UCLA 21
Orange Bowl 
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.
Kenneth Sims of Texas was the first pick overall in the 1982 NFL Draft and was the winner of the Lombardi Award, given to the nation's best lineman.
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.
Consensus All-Americans 
#1 and #2 Progress 
||Wisconsin 21, Michigan 14
||Michigan 25, Notre Dame 7
||USC 28, Oklahoma 24
||Arizona 13, USC 10
||Arkansas 42, Texas 11
||Miami 17, Penn State 14
||Penn State 48, Pitt 14
||Clemson 22, Nebraska 15
Bowl Games 
- Rose Bowl: Washington 28, Iowa 0
- Cotton Bowl Classic: Texas 14, Alabama 12
- Fiesta Bowl: Penn State 26, Southern California 10
- Orange Bowl: Clemson 22, Nebraska 15
- Sugar Bowl: Pittsburgh 24, Georgia 20
- Peach Bowl: West Virginia 26, Florida 6
- Hall of Fame Classic: Mississippi State 10, Kansas 0
- Bluebonnet Bowl: Michigan 33, UCLA 14
- Liberty Bowl: Ohio State 31, Navy 28
- Gator Bowl: North Carolina 31, Arkansas 27
- Sun Bowl: Oklahoma 40, Houston 14
- California Bowl: Toledo 27, San Jose State 25
- Tangerine Bowl: Missouri 19, Southern Mississippi 17
- Holiday Bowl: Brigham Young 38, Washington State 36
- Garden State Bowl: Tennessee 28, Wisconsin 21
- Independence Bowl: Texas A&M 33, Oklahoma State 16
Final AP Poll 
- Penn State
- Southern Methodist
- Miami (FL)
- North Carolina
- Brigham Young
- Southern California
- Ohio State
- Arizona State
- West Virginia
Heisman Trophy 
- Marcus Allen - TB, Southern California
- Herschel Walker - TB, Georgia
- Jim McMahon - QB, Brigham Young
- Dan Marino - QB, Pittsburgh
- Art Schlichter - QB, Ohio State
Award winners